We Want to Live!

This Saturday night following Shabbat we reconnected with the world.  We turned on our phones, our computers; we looked at the news and at Facebook and Twitter.  And then we wished we hadn’t:  3 innocent Israelis dead, 1 fighting for her life, massacred by a terrorist beast while waiting for guests to arrive to celebrate the birth of a new grandson earlier that day in the Israeli yishuv of Chalamish.

We are all tired of terror, violence, hatred, murder.  Instead of “Never Again” it seems to be “Again and Again.” And Again.

Which is why, only 2 hours before I heard the horrible news, I am so glad I attended a lecture in our Galilee village by Hadassah Chalamish, an Israeli psychologist and 2nd generation member of that terrible club:  Holocaust survivor. (The unsettling coincidence and significance of her last name, Chalamish, as being identical to the location of the terrorist attack,  would be apparent only 2 hours later.)

Hadassah told about growing up in a home where her mother, Esther, simply refused to talk about her personal survival story during the Holocaust.  It was the elephant in the room, whose presence was always felt but never identified.  As a little girl, she knew only that she had to be Good.  She couldn’t be anything else, lest it upset her mother, and then the guilt – – guilt that she didn’t understand but strongly felt – – would overwhelm her.  Hadassah always felt guilty, even if she didn’t know why.  Even though she wanted to, she never cried, not after her mother admonished her, “You’re crying for that?  That’s nothing!”  There was simply a no-tolerance policy for crying, no matter what the reason, even if she fell down and hurt herself or someone said something unkind.  It seemed to Hadassah that her feelings were never validated; she was made to feel guilty for feeling anything at all. Hadassa loved her mother, but she wasn’t sure she liked her.  Esther was determined to rebuild her life, move forward, and lock away the past; she held too many secrets.  And she would protect her daughter Hadassah no matter what.  There was no point in discussing the War.  Esther knew only that she would never allow what happened to herself, happen to her daughter.  There was a lot of anxiety every time Hadassah was out of sight.

Mealtime was always a source of tension.  Hadassah had to finish everything on her plate.  No. Matter. What.  Food – – portions were large – –  became a battleground, yet ironically Hadassah realized she had a tremendous, irrational fear of being hungry – – a sentiment she lives with to this very day.

One day a few years ago, Hadassah got a call.  It was Yad VaShem, Israel’s largest, most famous Holocaust museum.  They had located a diary that might have belonged to her mother’s cousin, who had perished shortly after liberation.  The cousin, named Rywka Lipszyc (Polish spelling of Rivka Lipshitz),  had been with Esther in the Lodz Ghetto.

This was the first Hadassah had heard about Rivka’s existence.  She was upset that her mother had never told her about Rivka, who was only two years younger than her mother.  It turned out that they had been holed up in the Lodz Ghetto together; were then deported to Auschwitz together where they shared a bunk; worked in a satellite camp laying heavy sewer pipe, digging in the frozen dirt with their bare hands under whips and worse; had miraculously survived a death march together; and were liberated together from Bergen-Belsen.  And yet Esther was so traumatized by her past that she could barely remember Rivka’s name, and had absolutely zero recollection of what Rivka looked like.

When she began writing the diary, Rivka was only 14 years old.  Two years before, her parents had been murdered by the Nazis.  She and her surviving younger brother Ahron and sister Tzipora had been taken in by her grandparents, as had her now-orphaned cousins – sisters Mina, Esther, Chana.  The grandparents soon died of starvation in the ghetto. Rivka’s little brother was rounded up with hundreds of other children and exterminated.  When the five girls arrived in Aushwitz, Rivka’s youngest sister, Tzipora, 12, was sent to the left and marched straight to the gas chambers.  The four surviving girls managed to make it through the war, although Chana, the eldest, died on the day of liberation.   But I am getting ahead of myself.

Throughout their time in the ghetto, the diary was Rivka’s only refuge.  The diary,  in which she wrote nightly, was the sounding board for her pain, her starvation, her observations, her questions, her faith and never-wavering belief in God, her hopes, her dreams, and her disappointments.  She was devastated when her teacher, a woman she idolized, cheated the girls of a potato when doling out rations, keeping it for herself.  Look what hunger does to a person, she cried.  When her cousin Esther sneakily took a scant teaspoon of jam for herself, she felt completely demoralized and betrayed by Esther’s moral failure. And yet, this young girl found the good in people, and found that when she was starving – – she was tortured by constant thoughts of food – – she could be grateful for living for yet another day, and thanking God for everything good that he bestowed upon her.

Before the Nazis herded the girls from the ghetto into cattle cars for Aushwitz, they were told they could take one item with them.  What to choose?  What was most precious?  Some of the girls chose a memento, a photo, an article of clothing.  Hadassah held on tightly to her diary.

Still clasping the diary when she disembarked from the cattle car, she made it past Mengele’s selection and was told to strip, leave clothing and anything else behind. Her head was shaved, her arm tattooed and she was disinfected with her cousins in a large shower room.  Her diary stayed behind in her bundle of hastily discarded clothing.  From there it was carted off to “Canada,” the place where the Sonderkommando hauled all the belongings of Jewish arrivals to Auschwitz.  There it was sorted, and anything of value was either secretly pocketed by camp Nazis (or sometimes by Jewish slave labor sorting everything in Canada, to be exchanged later for a morsel of bread) or sent back to Germany.

But this was only 5 months before the end of the war, and by then it was clear Germany was losing the war.  In a frenzy, they stepped up the pace of their killing machine; the sheer output of goods and bodies overwhelmed even the Nazis’ well-oiled system.  The bundle of Rivka’s clothing, with her diary, sat untouched and unsorted in a huge pile of flotsam in an Auschwitz warehouse.

Rivka and her cousins Esther and Mina were long gone from Auschwitz, walking the tortuous miles on a death march until they ended up in Bergen-Belsen.  Aushwitz, meanwhile, had already been liberated by the Russians.  A non-Jewish Russian woman doctor by the name of Zinaida Berezovskaya was traveling with the liberating troops.  She stayed on at Auschwitz for 9 months following liberation, treating the sick and trying to save lives under brutal conditions with a bare minimum of supplies,  teaching survivors to sit up, eat, and walk again until they were strong enough to be moved to sanatoriums for more extensive rehabilitation.  One day she went into Canada – – the storeroom – – in search of warm clothing and supplies for her patients, and she stumbled across Rivka’s diary.  It was written in Polish – – a language the Russian doctor didn’t know – – but she recognized that it might be something important, so she took it for safekeeping.

During the post-war chaos, the good doctor forgot about the diary, although she stored it in her suitcase.  It returned with her to Russia, and every few years she would remember it but never knew quite what to do with it, so she did nothing.  Sixty years went by, and then, the doctor passed away.

Meanwhile, the three remaining girls – Rivka, Esther, and Mina – were near death; the hard work, utter starvation, beatings, disease and deprivation having taken their toll.  Slowly, Esther and Mina began to recover enough to warrant being sent by the Red Cross to a sanitorium in Sweden.  Rivka had been sent to another hospital after liberation, and they had no idea where Rivka was located.  Before they agreed to be sent to Sweden and still terribly weak, Esther and Mina were determined to find Rivka.

And then one day they heard that she was located in a different hospital in a different location.  With her last remaining strength, Esther went to the hospital to visit Rivka.  The doctor showed her to Rivka’s room, where she lay unconscious and dying in the hospital bed.  The doctor told Esther there was no hope; that Rivka would be dead in another day or two.  So Esther made the difficult decision to leave Rivka, and returned to her sister Mina where she reported back.  The train was leaving for Sweden and if they weren’t on it, they would possibly have to wait weeks for the next one.  So Esther told Mina that they were getting on that train, and that there was no chance that Rivka would survive.

The doctor’s granddaughter, Anastasia Berezovskaya, by then living in San Francisco, went to Russia to clean out her grandmother’s apartment after she died.  It was there she found the diary, and like her mother, took it for safekeeping.  It stayed in her closet in San Francisco for many years, but it always nagged at her.  Finally, she thought she would write to museums dealing with the Holocaust in the United States.  They recommended she send them the diary for evaluation.  “I didn’t want that.  I realized that it must have been very important if my grandmother kept it all those years, and I was afraid I’d never see the diary again if I would send it away.”  But then the Holocaust museum in San Francisco contacted her, asking to meet with her.  “That’s what I wanted:  I wanted to speak with someone face to face, to be sure that they would revere and care for the diary as my grandmother had.”

In fact, the researchers at the museum were floored.  Here was a complete account of a young girl’s experience in Lodz Ghetto, written with such eloquence and brilliance that it seemed impossible to have been written by someone only 14 years old.  Could Rivka be alive?  Or the 3 girl cousins?

Rivka had not signed her name in the diary, and identified the others only  by their first names.  How the museum identified Rivka Lifshitz as the author is a story fantastic and miraculous in itself which I won’t share here.  But following some clues worthy of a best-selling detective story, when they looked at Pages of Testimony online at Yad VaShem, they were able to find Rivka’s two girl cousins, Esther and Mina, and there was a phone number and address in Israel.

And so Hadassah, visiting her mother, picked up the phone that day when Yad VaShem called, and was told of the existence of the diary.  Hadassah was so excited!  She had so many questions!  Her aunt Mina was talking non-stop.  But Esther, Hadassah’s mother, withdrew.  She uttered not a sound and didn’t want to talk.  Could it be that Rivka was alive?

After much research over the following months, they found that Rivka did indeed survive the war.  As she applied for a visa to Palestine, not knowing that her sisters were in Sweden and would eventually end up living in Israel.  Ever the writer, she wrote down some thoughts on her visa application.  Now 15 years old, she expressed her gratitude for surviving so she could bear witness, but more than anything she remarked on what a blessing it was to be a Jew.  Can you imagine any other people, so beaten down?  Yet she witnessed miracles!  She felt life was a tremendous gift, and she said the thing that made her experience unique was that – –  unlike any other people who may have gone through this – –  the thing she learned most from her terrible experience was the importance of love.  She felt that her Jewish soul gave her the ability to love, and to experience hope, and to appreciate and make something of life on behalf of those who succumbed, and to know that unlike her captors, her humanity was never lost.

And then, a dead end.  All trails leading to Rivka ceased.  It is believed she was unable to recover her strength and died alone before making her way to Israel – – no one knows how or where.

When the sisters found out this bitter news, Hadassah witnessed a horrible scene.  Mina screamed at Esther.  “It’s your fault!  You should have never left her!  We shouldn’t have gone to Sweden!”  Mina seethed with resentment and blame.  And Esther shrank further into herself, silent.  Guilt?  Remorse?  Self defense?

Only silence.

Months later, Hadassah planned a giant celebration for her mother Esther’s 90th birthday party.  There would be a new generation of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and nieces and nephews attending.  All the relatives were asked to write a page of greetings and blessings for Esther, which they would assemble into a book of mementos.

But much to her surprise, Hadassah found she could not write a thing about her mother.  She hit a wall.  She could not think, or even feel.  She wished her mother well, but she had nothing to say.  Hadassah, who is a psychologist by profession, realized she was angry.  Angry that she had to bear so much responsibility as a child and as an adult to be the perfect daughter.  Angry that her mother never talked about her past.  Angry that Hadassah wasn’t even allowed to cry.  Angry that she was angry,  She felt so much guilt for having such negative feelings about her mother, after all her mother had been through.

One afternoon she was sitting with her mother, children and nieces and nephews discussing the plans for the party, when the nieces and nephews asked Esther to tell about her experiences during the War.  Hadassah was shocked when suddenly, for the very first time, her mother began to talk.  She didn’t look at Hadassah; she didn’t acknowledge Hadassah; but she talked and talked and talked.  Even though the trauma remained and she said she still couldn’t remember what Rivka looked like, she was able to talk about her experiences in the ghetto, in Aushwitz, on the death march, and at liberation.  Hadassah couldn’t believe it, but she was too intimidated by years of guarding her behavior to ask her mother what precipitated this incredible change.

She took her mother back home; there was silence in the car.  Finally, her mother said to Hadassah, “I want to ask your forgiveness.”  Hadassah looked at her mother, who looked deeply at Hadassah as though really seeing her daughter for the first time.

“I want to tell you how sorry I am that I never let you cry,” Esther said.  “After I spoke today, I understood for the first time what this must have done to you.”

Hadassah stopped the car, shocked.  And then Hadassah cried and cried.  She took her mother home, and then came to her own home and sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote, bestowing countless blessings in honor of her mother’s 90th birthday, celebrating her life.

Note:  “The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc” — published by S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services in partnership with Lehrhaus Judaica is available in English from Amazon.com.  The Hebrew translation from the original Polish will be published in Spring 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Things in Life are Free

We knew it was going to be 18 months to 2 years before we’d be moving into the house we are building, due to permits bureaucracy and construction process in Israel being so slow.  With that in mind, and the realization that most of our American furniture was either too large for the smaller room sizes in Israel; that the furniture we had was worn out after 40 years of heavy family use; and that much of our furniture was collected over the years from yard sales and dumpster diving and the shipping costs were too high to justify moving what was essentially junk:  we knew we’d be buying our furniture in Israel.  We also didn’t know what type of apartment we’d be renting while waiting for the house to be built.  So the only furniture we ended up bringing was an antique armoire I wasn’t successful in selling beforehand;  a well-worn futon couch for last-minute guests; a circa 1955 dresser that we had been given many years ago for free; and the one piece of furniture I really wanted to bring all along:  a hand-made pine dining room table we had gotten at a farmer’s yard sale in Maine for $75.  The table was beautifully made but the farmer’s Labrador retriever puppy had chewed the corners, leaving lots of teeth marks; plus their kids hadn’t been careful about putting hot things or cups of liquid on the wood, so it was pretty scratched, stained and banged up.  I figured that only added to its charm and the price was right.  Unfortunately, however, when we stacked hundreds of pounds of boxes on the sturdy table top when we shipped our stuff to Israel, the soft pine wood could only take so much weight, and the cartons of books left deep gouges from the impressions of the boxes on the tabletop.  Our table no longer looked so charming by the time it was delivered to us in Israel.

Meanwhile I hadn’t brought my bedroom set or mattress from America.  We bought a $40 blow-up air mattress on sale from Target a week before our flight, and slipped it easily into our suitcase.  We figured we’d buy a real mattress the first week after we arrived, and the air mattress would tide us over until then. It has:  it’s so comfortable my husband is in no rush to replace it, 3 1/2 months later. We are still sleeping on it.

But one day while browsing on a Facebook group that is dedicated to the sale of second-hand furniture in the Karmiel region, I noticed a picture of a bed being given away that looked to be in good condition.  I contacted the owner who explained the bed was 17 years old but in great shape.  They were moving that week to a new house and wanted to get a new bed.  So without telling my husband, I hopped into the car and drove to Karmiel to take a look.

It was a very sturdy platform bed, and with its built-in lift mechanism, there was a huge amount of storage that one could easily access under the mattress.  It looked like the frame’s side and head rails would come apart easily enough with a screwdriver, so I told the owner we’d take it.  My one worry was the mattress support, which was a single piece of mason board.  There was no way it would fit in our car.

When I got home I told my husband that we needed to go into Karmiel the next day, because – surprise! –  we were now the owners of a real bed and that we needed to take it apart before we could bring it home (thankfully my long-suffering husband is an awfully good sport).  But I knew I’d need to get a mover for that mason board, so I posted on one of the gazillion WhatsApp groups in our village to see if anyone could recommend a mover.

I instantly got a reply:  someone knew someone who was a carpenter in Karmiel; surely he’d have a truck.  I contacted the fellow and he was a bit reluctant, since he’s a carpenter by trade and not a mover, but yes, he had a large van and for a pretty sum he was willing to deliver the mason board.  The carpenter was an oleh chadash (new immigrant to Israel) who made aliyah with his wife and kids eighteen months ago.  He was a third-generation carpenter and woodworker from North Carolina. and his specialty was custom kitchen cabinets.   Hmm, I thought.  It would certainly pay to get an estimate for a kitchen for my new house while he’s around.

That’s when I remembered my beat-up table.  I asked him if he had a belt sander, and if so, would be interested in sanding down the table top when he delivers the bed?  So for another pretty sum we arranged that he’d do just that.

When my husband and I got to the owner’s house the next day, we tried to take apart the bed, but it wasn’t as simple as I originally thought.  It turned out the base was one big piece that you couldn’t unscrew, so we took the headboard and side rails and left the rest, telling the owner that the carpenter would be there the next day, assisted by my husband, to move the rest of the bed out of her house.

The next day my husband met the carpenter in Karmiel.  No one was home, but the landlady let us in to the apartment with her extra key and so they loaded the truck.  The bed was delivered and the carpenter spent two full hours outside our apartment on a very hot day sanding down the table top.  It looked like a new table when he was done and I was thrilled.  I wanted to put oil on it to make the wood more resistant to stains, but wasn’t sure where to buy it, so I asked the carpenter.  He suggested a store in Kiryat Bialik, a suburb of Haifa.  He wasn’t sure of the name, but he knew the name of another store that was nearby.

Re-assembling the bed would have to wait.

The next day I plugged the name of the store into Waze, but Waze didn’t recognize it.  I found an alternate spelling and it took me to a mall.  There was no such store in the mall, so I called the carpenter.  He told me the store was near a supermarket, so I found the supermarket, but not the store I needed for the oil.  I called the carpenter back and he tried to explain how to get to the store.  I finally found the store it was supposedly near, and that store owner directed me to another store and then the second store directed me to a third store.  Eureka!  It was a wholesale factory that produced finishes for wood products.

The secretary couldn’t believe I wanted shemen pishtan (linseed oil).  So she called a young man from the warehouse to the reception area.  He was sure I wanted a water-based polyurethane.  But when I repeated that I wanted linseed oil, he called his father, who came from the back of the warehouse.  The father thought I wanted an oil-based polyurethane.  When I repeated that I wanted linseed oil, he called his father from the warehouse.  The grandfather proudly explained that he was the founder of their varnish “empire,”  and it now supported and was staffed by 3 generations of his family.  He felt it curious that I wanted such an “old-fashioned” finish for my table, and wanted to know where I was from.  America!!!  He couldn’t believe it!  He was so proud that someone would come all the way from America to his varnish factory in the decrepit industrial zone of Kiryat Bialik just to buy his products!  He was beaming; he was kvelling.  His grandchildren were amazed.  Now, he insisted, I had to sit and tell him why I wanted linseed oil for my table, and tell him why I wanted to make aliyah; am I married? Do I have children? Why did I want to live in Moreshet? But no, he repeated, I didn’t want linseed oil, I wanted something called “dek” which is a blend of linseed oil and pine resin which would create a hard finish on  the surface of my table. He insisted on calling the carpenter because surely I was mistaken and the carpenter would convince me to get dek , if not the polyurethane.  The carpenter told him to give me linseed oil.  He glanced my way.

No, I insisted, I didn’t want dek, I wanted linseed oil.  The factory owner thought we Americans were a strange and confused lot.

“Fine!” he sighed dramatically, and told his secretary to ring it up.  “How much?” I asked.  He told me a price but his secretary quickly interrupted.  “Give her a 20 shekel discount,” she insisted.  “How often do you get customers from America?!?!

Light-headed from the combination of my newfound celebrity status and the fumes from the varnish factory, I made my way home. I got a call from the original owner of the bed.

“You forgot the mason board!” she said.  “It’s sitting here in my living room waiting for you to take it away!”  The well-meaning lady had moved the mason board from the bedroom, away from the bed, into the living room; and my husband hadn’t thought to look for it when they moved the bed out of the owner’s bedroom.

The carpenter and his truck were long gone, his pocket newly cushioned by a check written by my husband for services rendered.  I sighed.  I needed that mason board, but I had no interest in paying twice to get it moved.  With a friend, I  made my way to Karmiel and put the mason board on the roof of the car, tying it down with some rope I happened to have in the car.  I felt like a Girl Scout, prepared and capable! And of course I said a little prayer, so it wouldn’t fly off the roof of the car while driving on the twisty mountain highway that would take me home.

How ironic, I thought.  The very reason we originally hired the carpenter was to move only the mason board to our house.  In the process, we got a bed, our table was refinished, I had an adventure in an industrial zone in the middle of nowhere.  The mover-who-is-really-a-carpenter  is now giving me estimates for kitchen cabinets for our new house, and ironically, in the end, I moved the mason board on my own, anyway!

A Mystery (Finally) Solved in the Galilee

A generous donor funded the construction by the Jewish National Fund and the regional council of Misgav, of a beautiful bike and walking path which connects the communities of Manof and Shechaniya, two lovely yishuvim in the Galil.  The mostly level path is not long, but it affords panoramic views of the thorn-, carob- and pine-covered Western Galilee and on a clear day you can see Rosh HaNikra in the far north and Haifa Bay in the distance.  Just off the path is a somewhat challenging trail to a cave inhabited by bats.  It was in this cave that human skeletal remains were discovered, fifty-two years after the original murder was committed.

The sad and fascinating story is etched on some stone boulders, a memorial to the 33-year old husband, father, and seventh-generation Israeli Jewish pioneer who met an untimely end while in the service of the Jewish National Fund.  His name was Yisrael ben Ze’ev Loifer Hy”d.  He disappeared mysteriously in August 1938 and nothing was heard from him nor from the people who kidnapped him.  It was as though he’d fallen off the face of the earth.

What follows is my translation of the Hebrew inscription at the memorial site:

Yisrael was born in 1905 in a Jewish settlement in the Galil.  His parents, Ze’ev and Sara, were the sixth generation of his family to live in the Land of Israel.  They left their home in Tzfat to help settle the Galilee in a place called Yisod HaMaaleh.

Because of the difficult economic conditions, as well as severe malarial outbreaks in the area that sickened and killed many, Yisrael was forced to abandon the family settlement and left the Galil to work in the orchards of Petach Tikva.   There, he met the woman who would become his wife, Rivka Bergman, a sixth-generation Jew living in the Land of Israel.  They became parents to a boy, Ze’ev, and a girl, Shulamit.

In 1930 the Jewish National Fund appointed Yisrael as a property guard in the Zevulun Valley and his family moved to Akko.  In the 1920s and then again from 1936 – 1939, Israel experienced an ongoing Arab intifada which included strikes, riots, pograms, thefts and attacks against Jewish settlers throughout the Land.  Hundreds of Jews died.  (ed. note:  It was during this time that many German Jewish emigres living in Israel, traumatized by these attacks, actually returned to Germany where ironically and tragically they would perish in the Holocaust only a few years later.)  Because they were living in what was then considered a remote area subject to extreme danger, Yisrael moved his family to an area just outside of Haifa, in what is today known as Kiryat Bialik.

Meanwhile Yisrael continued his work guarding undeveloped Jewish land in the Galil.  He got to know his Arab neighbors and their way of life; he learned to speak Arabic fluently.  Many Arabs considered him a friend.  Yisrael wore a kaffiye (Arab cloth headdress) and dressed in an abbayya (long flowing white cotton robe); on his feet he wore leather boots and he rode upon a fine Arabian horse.  Only his pale skin identified him as a Jew.  According to Arab custom, Yisrael was called “Abu Ziv” – father of Ze’ev, his firstborn son.

Within the framework of his position as a guard, he prevented the theft and takeover of Jewish-owned land by the area’s Bedouin tribes. (ed. note:  it seems Yisrael Loifer was part Lawrence of Arabia and part Texas Ranger.)  He helped the Jewish National Fund  redeem parcels from the hands of Bedouins that lived in the Zevulun Valley.  Additionally, he secretly trained Jewish youth living in the area of Haifa Bay to handle and  fire weapons for their defense.  With great sensitivity he took tremendous responsibility for his very dangerous work, a task he fulfilled with tremendous passion and dedication.  Yisrael was known far and wide for his audaciousness and courage and his reputation extended all the way to Damascus.

In the beginning of August 1938, Yisrael loaned his beloved horse to a trusted friend, a Bedouin guard, who promised to return the horse to him the following day.  When he was late,  Yisrael took his wooden staff and hiked to the Bedouin guard’s village, Kfar Damon.

And then no trace remained of Yisrael Loifer.

After a long and exhaustive investigation by his son, Ze’ev,  and with the help of Giora Zaid (the son of the legendary guard, Alexander Zaid) and according to eyewitness accounts by Najiv Zaidan and Abu-Daouf, the mystery was finally solved.

It appears that Yisrael was tortured and murdered by three barbaric Bedouin men who chose to commit these horrific acts as part of an initiation rite to join a gang.

On the first of Nisan (March 27, 1990),  bones were found buried under a pile of stones in Shechaniya cave, a place in the area of Bir El Yahudi.

Forensic evidence confirmed that the bones were those of Yisrael Loifer, killed 52 years earlier.

On the 20 of Iyar, 5750 (May 15, 1990), Yisrael Loifer’s remains were brought to Jewish burial next to the grave of his faithful wife, in the Segula cemetery in Petach Tikva.

Rivka Bergman Loifer died without knowing whatever happened to him.

Hy”d.

Abu Musa

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Yesterday my husband had the day off, so we decided to take a short drive to Rosh HaNikra.  This is a well-known tourist destination on Israel’s northernmost point on the Mediterranean, right on the Lebanese border.

At the  Israeli-Lebanese border checkpost, currently passable only by UN personnel, is a sign in Hebrew, Arabic and English: “Go in peace.”  Considering it leads to an enemy frontier controlled by Hizbollah, it’s a lot to hope for, but significant in that the sign is found on the Israeli side of the fence.

The towering limestone cliffs lead to a  grotto at sea line, accessible only by cable car.  We skipped this in favor of a walk that  goes along the coastline from Rosh HaNikra to Achziv Beach, arguably the most beautiful beach in Israel.  There are many areas of shoals and tidal pools; the  warm seawater is a clear and vivid turquoise; and the beach has a variety of areas for camping, sunning and swimming (though the latter is only in designated areas manned by lifeguards) as well as some crumbling antiquities to explore.  On a clear day you can see down the entire northern coast all the way to Haifa Bay. The area is surrounded by kibbutzim and their banana groves.

We were greeted at the entrance by an Israeli soldier who was guarding the area, and Abu Musa, a chatty Arab gentleman who helps control access of the many cars and tourist buses into the parking lot.

“I love the Israeli soldiers and they love me. They even erected a little shelter for me where they know they can come for coffee, tea or cold water whenever they want. I want their mothers to know I take care of their boys and they are in good hands. I have a good life. I don’t earn much, but look!  The sun, the sky, the sea, the view, the tourists and the soldiers I love to help — that’s what life is really all about. What more could I possibly ask for?”

I asked if I could take his picture.
“Of course,” he replied, “but only if you include the soldier.”

What’s App, Doc?

Six years ago, when I visited Israel, I wrote several blogposts on the sea changes that Israel had undergone in the many years since my previous visit.   One such post, “Young and Not Restless,” which you can read here, lamented the silencing of Israeli youth on buses and trains with the advent of social media:  everyone is plugged in and no one talks to anyone anymore.

But I was partly wrong:  Israelis are as chatty as ever – – they just communicate differently.

It’s called WhatsApp.

In case you are, like, a dinosaur or Rip van Winkle or something, WhatsApp is an application that sends instant messages via your computer or cellphone.  You can also send photos, and if your typing is slow, you can transmit voice messages.

WhatsApp is an invaluable tool for anyone living in Israel who has family abroad.  It means you can connect without charge.  It’s also great for someone on the cusp of aliyah.

We are building a home in Israel, and I needed to interview and choose an architect in Israel from my then-home base in the US.  When one architect suggested I contacted his references in Israel, I did – –  all twenty-five of them!!! – – using WhatsApp.  From rural Maine I spoke to twenty-five Israelis in Israel over a course of one week, asking them if they were happy with the architect, as well as detailed questions about construction, materials, etc.  Leave it to Israelis.  Not only did they answer my questions, they proudly gave me extensive and instant video tours of their homes via WhatsApp and some invited me to their homes for coffee when I’d get to Israel. In the process I made some valuable contacts  (yes, we hired that architect).  And it was all free (albeit time-consuming, but that’s not the fault of WhatsApp).

In the yishuv (village) where we live, there are 290 families.   When I innocently asked – – via a WhatsApp group, of course – –  how many WhatsApp groups there are in Moreshet, I found the staggeringly-high number of WhatsApp groups may exceed the number of people within the local population.  They include people who formed specific neighborhood groups; people who formed groups based on residents of a single street (especially useful for borrowing sugar); each and every grade in the local school has their own WhatsApp group to keep parents informed of school activities and conferences; there’s a Women of Moreshet group; Men of Moreshet group; the Teens of Moreshet group;  a Senior Citizens of Moreshet group; a Weekly Torah Portion women’s class group; the 8 a.m minyan group; the 1:30 Mincha  group; the Social Workers group; the Armed Fighters group; the Emergency Response Team Leaders group; the Ambulance Drivers group; the Soccer group; the Baseball players group; the Basketball players groups (separate groups for men and women); the Fifth Phase Construction group (that’s for the 45 families building new homes, of which I am a part); a group for changing the building restrictions codes within the Fifth Phase (that one has only 4 members); an English Speakers of Moreshet group; a babysitters group; a Mommy Camp group;  Friday and holiday trips groups; Torah classes groups; Bnei Akiva youth movement groups according to grade/age; a Piano Lessons group; a Bikur Cholim group which organizes meals and visits for people who are unwell; the Health Nuts group; the Looking for a Ride group; the Yemenite Jews of Moreshet group; and the Office of Moreshet group.  This is only a partial list.

Even if you are a member of a fraction of the available groups, it means your phone or computer is pinging all day with announcements of upcoming meetings and events as well as requests to borrow something missng from a recipe-in-the-making; offers for used items for free; requests for orders for fish, juice, whole wheat flour, yeast cakes, flowers and felafel, by people who sell these things as home-based side businesses in Moreshet; and requests for answers to sometimes-bizarre and random questions (my own included).

People who I’ve never seen in my life greet me as if I were a long-lost best friend back from the battlefield, because they “know” me from WhatsApp (apparently I’m easily identifiable thanks to my Standard Poodle, whom I walk several times daily).  This can lead to some embarrassing moments on my part since I’m new here, and  if someone speaks to me face-to-face out of context, I can only fake my way through a live conversation while trying to figure out who the heck they are.

What I want to know is, what happens if you are invited to a group and decide not to join?  Are you considered a frum freak or a snob?  Are there twelve-step Whats App Anonymous groups for those who want to delete themselves from their dependence on various WhatsApp social circles?  Is it possible to Just Say No to WhatsApp and still be part of the gang?

Meanwhile I’m trying to get a T’ai Chi class started in Moreshet.  I’m forming a group for anyone interested . . . via WhatsApp.

 

 

 

 

Remembering Shaul

When I was a teenager in high school and living in Israel, I dated an Israeli guy.  Back in those days, “dated” was a rather innocuous term, because we were rarely alone together.  When you went out on a “date” it meant that you were with a gang of friends, coupled and single, or with one’s own family.  So many of my “dates” were with my boyfriend’s parents, and just as often with his big brother Shaul and his girlfriend.  So that’s how I got to know Shaul.

Shaul was a Captain in the IDF, and for any kid in high school at that time, that in itself was a reason to look up to him.  Shaul was in Intelligence, and mostly he couldn’t tell us specifically what he did, which added to the mystique and awe.  But what I did know was this:  Shaul was extremely kind, super bright, always with a smile; he showed extreme consideration to all those who crossed his path, honored his parents, and loved his girlfriend.  He was tall and strong and handsome, and he had dreamy blue eyes.  He had another few months to serve in the IDF, and then he planned on making his engagement to Tami official.  He was the ben b’chor, the firstborn son, the big brother that everyone looked up to.  He was the long-awaited gift of redemption for his mother, a Holocaust survivor who had suffered so much loss.

But then came the Yom Kippur War, and days later Shaul was dead along with several other fellow soldiers, shot down from the sky in a plane crash over Sinai.  Miraculously two young men survived the crash, but Shaul, 23, was not one of them.

In the chaos of war and mass casualties, and in accordance with Jewish Law where burial is immediate,  there was no time to bring his body to Haifa where his parents lived, so he was buried in a temporary military cemetery in the Negev.  His family attended that funeral, and then, a year later, his remains were moved to their permanent resting place in the military cemetery in Haifa.

The family would have to experience the trauma of burying their son, twice.  This time his almost-fiancee did not attend his second funeral.  She was so devastated that she left Israel entirely, and settled in Canada.  She would not marry for many years.  She was too afraid to let herself love again, and she was determined it would not be to an Israeli who would need to go to war.

Shaul’s mom was completely embittered.  She railed against God.  “After what I went through?  It wasn’t enough that I had to see my family murdered?  Why did God give me a child, only to take him away so cruelly?  How can there even be a God? Is this why I came to Israel after the War?”

Shaul’s father, utterly broken, retreated into silence.  His response was the opposite of his wife’s:  he started attending a daily minyan so that he would not miss the opportunity of saying kaddish for his son.

“I don’t understand how he can go to shul,” Shaul’s mom would rage.  “There sits the rabbi’s son, who didn’t even go into the army!  How can he look my husband in the eye?  It’s easy for the rabbi to say “amen” to the kaddish – – he will never have to worry about the possibility of losing a son in battle.”

My boyfriend’s life would also take a very different turn.  He hated the tension in his home, he missed the love and laughter of his brother.  So he mostly wasn’t home at all. He kept his grief inside.  He shut everyone out.  (We broke up shortly thereafter.)  And when he got notice that he had been accepted for the most prestigious division in the entire military – – the pilot’s training course – –  he was torn between resentment and understanding when his mother refused to sign her permission to allow him to do combat duty, thereby crushing his long-held dream of being a pilot in the IDF.  He developed debilitating ulcers at the age of 19.

Shaul’s father continued to go to work, but he moved like an automaton, retreating to silence and rarely expressing any emotion other than sadness.

Perhaps the deprivation from the war years finally caught up with his mother, but the impact of her son’s death was profound.  Despite the fact that her two remaining sons would eventually marry and give her grandchildren, she could no longer relax and just enjoy them.  No one could measure up to her Shaul.  She died a few years later of a broken heart.

Last night I attended a Memorial Day service commemorating the service and lives lost of Israeli soldiers fallen in battle and terrorist attacks.  The scroll of the dead is long, and fittingly at the service they spoke movingly about the lives of only a few specific soldiers, so that this huge list of heroes wouldn’t be simply numbers, which is incomprehensible, but real people who were sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends and classmates.  While every fallen soldier is unique, their story is not:  we keep burying our best, generation after generation.  That is the price we pay for living in Israel, and the price we pay as Jews.  Mostly, the stories are positive.  Israelis, despite their countless tragedies, always are moving forward, looking to a brighter future, building and growing and celebrating life.  We continue having children and naming those children in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives, so that the dead live on and that the living choose a life with senses of purpose and responsibility to those who preceded them.

And we continue to hope for a peaceful future!

Most Israelis are able to hide their pain, and go on to live lives filled with love and strength of spirit and even joy. Israelis so appreciate life and their families; they cherish Jewish holidays, whether they observe them religiously or not.  They recognize miracles, and grasp every opportunity for adventure, humor, innovation, devotion, and meaning with incredible intensity.

Perhaps my former boyfriend’s family was less successful at reconstructing their lives than most.  But there is a toll, a very deep toll, and knowing that it continues is truly unfathomable.

May Shaul ben Yitzchak’s sacrifice not be in vain.

May God watch over our soldiers and all of klal Yisrael.

May our children be safe.

And may the Final Redemption come speedily, in our day.

Yom HaZikaron l’Shoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

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My friend is a classic Israeli.  Sabra; patriotic; a Jewish mother par excellence.  Fluctuating between agnostic and atheist and proudly secular; religion is irrelevant to her daily life.  Close to her extended family.  Raised in the Scouts youth movement, did her mandatory military duty with enthusiasm. Until recently a chain smoker.  Widely traveled, happy to get away from the craziness that is part of daily life in Israel, but always happier to come back to the only place that feels truly like home. Worked for a government agency and now gracefully retired with a cushy pension. A good person.  Loves to volunteer and will be the first to help anyone in need.

She invited me to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot.

This is a big deal.  The kibbutz was founded by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Located in the Western Galilee between Akko and Nahariya, it houses two museums dedicated to the Holocaust, one of which is expressly for children.  The kibbutz conducts educational programs about the Holocaust to schoolchildren, youth groups, young soldiers in the Israeli army and tourists throughout the year.  It also houses archives – – the kibbutz was the first in the entire world to start an archival collection of Holocaust information shortly after the War.

Every year Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot hosts a huge ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is held in a massive amphitheatre whose backdrop is along an ancient Roman aqueduct, lit dramatically against the night.  Many thousands of people from all over Israel attend the annual ceremony, and it was no different last night.  The overwhelming number of attendees were very much like my friend:  completely secular and deeply connected to the State of Israel.

First Israeli President Reuvi Rivlin addressed the crowd.  While it was beautifully stated, the speech was pretty much what you’d expect:  Never Forget. Always Remember. Bear Witness.  Share your stories. Pass them on from generation to generation.  Educate the world, so we can actualize Never Again.

Next was former German President Joachim Gauck.  He appeared sincerely touched and affected to have been invited to the ceremony.  Can you imagine?, he said.  A boy (himself) who had Nazi parents, or at the very least parents who were complicit Nazi sympathizers, who is the same age of the Jewish boy (Rivlin) whose parents fled Germany.   Is it not ironic, the President of Germany wondered aloud, that the current President of Israel,  who once undoubtedly hated all Germans for what they did to his family,  invited the object of his disdain to participate in the commemoration of victims of German hatred, cruelty and oppression?

Then came the most moving segment of the evening.  They chose six Holocaust survivors to light memorial beacons representing the six million Jews murdered.  First they gave a short bio about each survivor, and then the survivor was shown in a taped interview, telling their stories of survival and loss.  And the best part:  they were called up to light the beacon, accompanies by those whom they aptly called their Living Revenge:  each survivor was supported (literally; they are so old and frail that many can no longer walk on their own) by a child or grandchild  who stood alongside them to light the beacon with them, representing the past, the present, and the future.

Thirty-five Holocaust survivors die of old age every day.  Soon there will be no one left.   It is up to the survivors to transmit those stories while they still can, because they are too important to be lost forever.   It is up to us, the children and grandchildren, to tell their stories.  How many of these survivors will be at the ceremony next year, or the year after?

And then the head of the Jewish National Fund got up to speak.  Like Rivlin, he spoke the words that we hear again and again:  Always remember.  Never forget.  Never again.  He spoke of the miracle of the State of Israel.  How that in Israel, a land re-birthed and built from the ashes only 69 years ago, we are at the forefront of medical, scientific, educational and agricultural innovation and revolution.  We have built village, towns and cities that thrive.  Israelis not only produce for themselves, they share the products of their toil with other nations.  They are at the forefront of helping other countries during national disasters, and training Third World countries to improve the lives of their citizens.  Israel’s youth groups train future leaders, as does its army.  Its army is one of the best in the world.  Israel’s military strength will ensure that what happened to helpless Jews in WWII will Never. Happen. Again.

Oh, really?

Today, Israel is at its greatest height.

I love and respect the Israeli army.  Those boy and girl soldiers are like my sons and daughters.  They are risking everything every day to ensure that I am protected.  Many have fallen so that I could live here.  We are incredibly grateful for Israel’s military finesse, and recognize that a strong military is both critical and essential.

Nations come and go.  They ascend, and they fall;  they cease to exist.  Who would have believed in the decay of the superpowers of ancient Greece?  Rome?  Mid-20th-century Germany?  Who cannot deny that currently America is in a state of decline?  Do we really believe that we Israelis are invincible and invulnerable?

Why is the Jewish religion so completely irrelevant to Israeli culture that it was not mentioned the entire evening in a ceremony dedicated to Holocaust remembrance?

One of the things I love about Israel is the diversity in its people.  And although I am a person of faith, the truth is that none of us can be sure that our faith would remain intact after going through the horrible things that our families went through in Europe. But if we excise what makes us unique – – the Jewish, religious part that has also defined us and our history – – then we are like any other nation.  If we are like every other nation, then we must accept that like the others, we will rise – – and eventually, G-d forbid, fall.

Our revenge is a Living Revenge:  that despite our broken-ness and destitution, the survivors (and indeed  Jewish people throughout history) have always moved forward.  We are builders.  We are lovers of life.  We have faith – yes, Jewish faith that there is something supernatural happening that we continue to beat the odds, even if we don’t understand it.  We have children who beget more children and give us grandchildren.  And we teach these children who they are, why they are here, what is their legacy, and what their purpose is in a life we regard with holiness.  And we teach them what it means to be Jewish, their importance and responsibility and the myriad challenges in being the continual link in the chain; how to live Jewish-ly, and how this will positively affect and impact their life and the lives of those around them.

If we ignore the Jewish part of the equation, then we become like every other nation. Our Israeli army is strong, but it is not invincible.   We need to know who we are, not just as Israelis, but also as Jews.