A Very Special Brit Milah

When I was a child growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, our next door neighbors were also our best friends.  This was in an era before genetic testing, and our neighbors, who had 3 daughters and a son, had two children diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.  When their eldest daughter passed away in the early 1970s, she was 21.  At that time she was the oldest living cystic fibrosis patient on record.  Our neighbor’s only son passed away two years later at age nine, about the same age as me at the time – – and his young age was unfortunately a far more typical scenario for this disease back then.  It was the first time as a child that I had experienced the death of a peer.  It was all very strange and very sad.

In the 1990’s, one of our friends and former neighbors from Israel (we first lived in Israel from 1983 – 1989) gave birth to a baby girl that seemed perfectly healthy at birth.  They didn’t have a car so I had the lucky job of picking them up from the hospital in our car and taking them home.  The baby was adorable!  But within 2 weeks, the infant was admitted to the hospital with suspected pneumonia.  It turned out not to be pneumonia at all – she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

It’s a horrible disease, but it’s not the early death sentence it once was when we mourned our next-door neighbor’s children in the 1970s.

But back to my American friend living in Israel.

Fast forward twenty years.

A few years ago I visited Israel and met up with my friend.  She told me her daughter wanted to get married  – – did I know anyone for her and could I please keep her in mind?  Her daughter occasionally had setbacks but she was managing her illness well, and it rarely prevented her from doing the things she wanted to do.

That daughter not only found her bashert – –  a young man from Bnai Brak whom she married almost 2 years ago;  last week she gave birth to her first child, a baby boy.  She had an uneventful pregnancy and a wonderful birth.  Today was the baby’s brit milah (circumcision) ceremony.

What do you say when you see a young woman that you’ve known from birth beat the odds, and despite her challenges, have the incredible focus, drive, strength, emuna (belief) and bitachon (faith) to actualize her hopes and dreams?

So welcome to the world, little Yonah Binyamin, a second-generation sabra on his mother’s side.  You are an open miracle.

You are made of greatness.

Mazal tov!

 

 

An Evening of Remembrance

2017-04-23 01.20.01

 

On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I attended “Remembrance in the Living Room” (Zicaron B’Salon), an event planned in a few different homes throughout my village.  Each of these homes had a survivor of the Holocaust tell about their experiences during the War in an intimate and comfortable setting.

In the home that we chose to visit,  along with about 20 residents of all ages, there were 3 Holocaust survivors who told their stories of survival, as well as children and grandchildren who gave their perspective.

survivor2

The first person who spoke told of his life in a rural village, where family always came first.  He was but a young child of 9 when the German soldiers overtook the shtetl where his family had lived for hundreds of years, and spoke of the feelings of  powerlessness and vulnerability.  After the War, despite his many personal losses, he married and had children of his own and made a new life in New York.  His son eventually made Aliyah and married a sabra.  When his sixth grandson, following the example of his five brothers before him, was inducted into the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), he flew in specially from the US to attend the swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall).

“That was the most emotional moment of my entire life,” he told us.  “I was a little boy in Poland, treated like a subhuman, utterly helpless and at the mercy of Nazi soldiers.  And now here I was so many years later, watching my grandson in his Israeli army uniform at the Kotel!”

Another man was a child survivor.  “I was only four years old.  I had a younger brother, one year old, and a 14 year old sister.  My father was taken away by the Germans for forced labor when my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother.  We never saw my father again.  Even though I was only four, certain images remained burned in my memory.  We were rounded up from our small shtetl and forced to march to a larger town.  People didn’t have suitcases; they wrapped everything in cloth bundles.  The walk was long, and people tired quickly, dropping the bundles, which were the only remainder of all their earthly possessions, along the side of the road so they’d have the strength to continue.  I remember the road, lined with those bundles. . .”

When they reached the point of deportation, they were herded onto overcrowded cattle cars.  Destination:  Auschwitz.

“Shortly before arriving at Auschwitz – – we were very close and could see the lights from the camp in the distance through a small opening in the cattle car  – the trained suddenly stopped.  The tracks had just been bombed by the Allied Forces, and it wasn’t possible for the train to reach the camp.  The Germans debated what to do with us, but they decided that we could be used as slave laborers in other parts of the Reich.  We sat on that train for a few days, and then suddenly it moved in reverse.  We ended up going to Vienna, and although my mother and sister worked very hard under terrible conditions, it wasn’t a death camp.  That’s what ultimately saved us from being gassed in Auschwitz.  My mother was able to continue nursing my baby brother, and a kind gentile named Maria surreptitiously passed my sister an occasional sandwich which my sister shared with all of us.”

The son of a survivor also spoke about his father’s experiences.  “My father always said, his children are the Living Revenge.”  But for another woman, the daughter of a survivor, there was a difficult childhood.  “My mother remained a broken person the rest of her life.  She never discussed her experiences but we knew that something terrible had happened to her.  We children spent our lives tiptoeing around the house, always walking on eggs so as not to do anything to upset her.”

As the evening came to a close, a young woman who is the granddaughter of a survivor addressed the gathering.   “My grandmother told us never to refer to ourselves as 2nd or 3rd generation survivors… rather, we should say we are the First Generation of the Geula!” (Final redemption)

Reunion

When I was 14, my father got sick and died.  It was a sad time and my dad really suffered for the entire year that he was ill.  My family walked on eggs that year trying to avoid unpleasantries and side-stepping the terrible reality of illness and death.  Of course pretending that things are fine when they’re not rarely works.  I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t wait to get out of my house.

A month after his death, when I was in 10th grade, there was a school assembly.  The speaker was a 12th grader who had spent the previous year as a foreign exchange student.  He was sent to Iceland and managed to learn Icelandic fluently, and he spoke about seeing and doing lots of interesting things and eating lots of fish.  Always filled with a sense of adventure, I was all ears (except for the fish part).  When I came home that afternoon, I told my mom, “I know what I want to do next year!  I want to become a foreign exchange student!”

Looking back, it was an incredibly insensitive thing to say to my mom, because it meant she’d be left all alone in her grief.  But my mom felt it would be good for me to get out of our very sad house, and she was receptive to the idea.  There was one condition, though:  I couldn’t go through the foreign exchange program the student in my school had participated in, because the students didn’t have any say as to what country they’d be sent to, and my mother didn’t want me going just anywhere.  “You can do this on one condition,” she said.  “You can go if it’s Israel.”  (I’m in awe of her sacrifice and selflessness. Unfortunately I could not appreciate it then.)

I think that we were both surprised by this utterance.  Other than collecting sheets of dimes every week at Sunday School for the Jewish National Fund, which used these donations for buying trees for planting in Israel, neither my mother nor I had any connection to Israel. The only Hebrew we spoke was the blessing over wine and challah.  We had never been to Israel and had no plans to go.  “At least I know you’ll be well taken care of in Israel,” my mother reasoned.  “It’s the Land of Jewish Mothers.”

Truthfully, Israel meant nothing to me.  For me it was about the adventure.  It could have been Tasmania, Japan or Timbuktu and I would have been equally excited.

And so we parted tearfully a few months later at LAX, and I flew by myself to Israel, where I’d attend a public high school in Haifa, and live with an adoptive Israeli family.

Practically from the first moment, despite my lack of language skills, I was enamored of Israel.  It was like my soul knew it was home.  The kids in my class accepted me as part of the gang.  Our class of 11th graders was very close and we spent every spare moment together as a group, both in school and out.  After several months of sitting like a catatonic dummy in school, I woke up one morning speaking fluent Hebrew.   The family I lived with was great.  I was outspoken and highly opinionated (some things never change!) and not afraid to disagree with their love of Nixon (“the best friend Israel ever had,” according to the head of that household – – and this was during Watergate!), and be frustrated by their anal-retentive obsession with order (they were of good German Jewish stock, and it was a cultural thing; my inherent go-with-the-flow spontaneity and inherent messiness aggravated them to no end).  But somehow we made it work and I became very close with my younger “sister” who was only a year younger than me.

It was the best year of my teenaged life.  I knew that someday, somehow, I would be back in Israel – – permanently.

But life happens.  Although I always dreamed of Israel, I managed to lose touch with my adoptive family.  About five or six years later before correspondence ceased entirely I heard that my younger “sister” was engaged.  I remember her writing that she was upset with her future husband’s last name, that it sounded like “giraffe.”  After that we lost touch completely.

Over the years I tried doing searches on the Internet to locate her, but was not successful.  But now that we’ve been in Israel for a month, I suddenly had an urge to try to reach her.  It’s been 45 years, and her parents were not young even back then, so I assumed they were no longer living.  How to remember my “younger sister’s” married name?

Suddenly, deep from my subconscious, I remembered that snippet about her not liking her married name because it sounded like the Hebrew word for giraffe.  So I wrote out the word in Hebrew, and then started changing some of the letters.  When I came up with names that sounded like they could be Hebrew last names, I started doing searches on Facebook.  And suddenly, there she was!  I recognized her immediately.

But here’s the amazing part.  She no longer lived in Haifa – – she lives in a small village in the Galilee that is only 3 miles from me!  I mean, what are the chances?

She didn’t respond to my Facebook message and the phone number I got online was disconnected.  There was only one way to resolve it:  I would knock on her door.

I drove the 5 minutes to her village, and stopped the first person I saw to ask for directions to her house.  I figured that because it was a small place, everyone knows everyone else, and I was right.  I walked to her house and knocked on the door with a great sense of anticipation.  When she answered the door she looked at me haltingly and inquisitively for a long time.  I did not say anything.  But ultimately she did not recognize me.

When I identified myself, she threw me into a long, hard embrace and wouldn’t let me go.  She introduced me to her husband and showed me pictures of her family.  Her older sister lives a few streets away and so we started walking to her sister’s house, too.
“This is so weird,” she said between hugs.  “After so many years . . . just two days ago I mentioned your name to my sister and we wondered what became of you!”

It was clearly Divine Providence.  We were meant to find one another at this particular time.

“There is something you should know,” she said.  “My sister’s son was killed in combat in the Second Lebanon War 11 years ago.  He was 24.”  I was devastated to hear this.  The family had worked hard to ensure their son, brother, nephew and cousin would never be forgotten. They built a magnificent amphitheatre in his name, where community events, concerts, and even weddings take place.  They have lined a pathway with sculptures and mementos that personify aspects of his short but incredible life.  And the village boys’ basketball team is named for him – –  his father never misses attending a game.

As we sat in the older sister’s home, reliving the past, I was overcome with emotion.  Forty-five years!  We laughed and cried together, and hugged many times.  Although as adults we remain very different people in terms of our lifestyles, religious observance, political affiliations, etc – – the things that unite us override the things that divide us.

As it says in Psalm 133, “Hineh ma tov umana’im – shevet achim gam yachad.”  How good and how pleasant it is for brothers (and sisters) to sit together!

The Second Night of Pesach

Well here is my Pesach tale for 5777 (2017), the first year of our permanent (IY”H) return to Israel.

Oh, I was cocky!

This was the first year in so many years that we would be keeping ONE DAY of Yom Tov!  No second seder for us!

When an olah chadasha (new immigrant) friend, also due to experience her first ONE DAY Yom Tov as an Israeli living in Eretz Yisrael, found out that she’d be getting visitors from the US for Pesach, and therefore wouldn’t be able to have ONE seder as she had sorely yearned, I felt genuine pity.  Because I was going to have ONE DAY of Yom Tov this year, and NO ONE and NOTHING was going to stop me.

You see, we olim chadashim from America tend to have a chip on our shoulder.  Because WE MADE ALIYAH, usually from more comfortable circumstances than where we find ourselves once in Israel, and secretly perhaps some of us feel we deserve some sort of prize for our “sacrifice.” Oh, we are strong! Because we are idealists living in the Holy Land.

And that’s perhaps the mistake many of us make.  Because even though it’s wonderful and admirable to make aliyah, and even though Israel is a great country, we are still in spiritual galut (exile) because for whatever reason, Mashiach hasn’t yet come.  But it’s easy to forget this when things are calm, especially when one is able to live in Israel and experience the holiness, the beauty, the spirituality, the uniqueness, and yes, even the craziness up close and personal; when every day one feels like one is fulfilling one’s destiny as a Jew in the Holy Land.

Nearly every Israeli can personalize the Seder, that evening of the recounting of the escape from slavery in Egypt into the complex privilege of freedom and redemption.  In Israel it’s not just an ancient story, it’s a modern one, full of elderly Holocaust survivors, Ethiopians, Sephardim expelled from Islamic lands, war widows, survivors of terror attacks, etc, all with their own stories of struggle and loss and redemption and now living in the Promised Land.

Now that I was living in Israel, I was going to have only ONE day of yom tov and ONE seder.  But I wouldn’t be hosting it this year.

Because our personal belongings arrived by ship only a week before Pesach and our temporary rental accommodations are in complete disarray, our friends kindly invited us to spend Pesach with them in Efrat.

This was a great decision because we got to spend time with our friends; we could take our dog with us (they had just gotten a new puppy and it was great to socialize them); Efrat is close to Jerusalem which meant that we could visit the Kotel the day before, as well as do a quick tour of meaningful historical sites in Gush Etzion (like a 2000+ year old roadside mikva that was used by pilgrims a few days before Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, as they made their way on foot to Jerusalem to the Temple, only 18 km away); as well as consume a REAL Hillel sandwich (matzo, maror, charoset, and GOAT meat!); and experience some very different types of prayer services in a myriad of synagogues within different neighborhoods of Efrat.

Indeed, it couldn’t have worked out better.   We had a wonderful seder, with lots of discussion and people of all ages making thoughtful contributions and commentary.  The next day we visited a different set of friends in another neighborhood of Efrat (it’s always inspiring to hear success stories from new immigrants about acclimating to and loving life in Israel).  We returned home for a short nap, and as darkness approached . . . that was IT.  Yom Tov was OVER.  There was no second seder, no desperate need to hit the shower.  If I was tired I could go to bed – – because there was no second seder, no second day yom tov, no overeating and indigestion.  Hooray!

So what did we do?  Over matzo lasagna and kosher-for-Passover Ben & Jerrys ice cream, we learned to play mah jongg!  Our friends and their teenaged sons are mah jongg whizzes, and they kindly and patiently explained the two million rules so that we could get in on the action.

And then, around 1:30 a.m., I decided to go to sleep.  Because the next day we could DRIVE since there was no SECOND DAY YOM TOV.  And we had planned to visit friends in a chareidi suburb of Jerusalem.

Exhausted, I fell asleep.  But around 2 a.m, my husband woke me.  “The dog has been coming up to me and poking me with his nose,” my husband said groggily.  “He needs to go out.”  This translates into, “YOU NEED TO TAKE YOUR DAMN DOG OUT.  NOW!”  At which my husband promptly rolled over and fell back asleep.  While I, on the other hand, having been awoken from a blissful sleep, was throwing on whatever article of clothing I could find so I could take my dog out at 2 a.m.

Efrat is a city of 10,000 people.  I understand that 2 a.m. is not exactly a busy time, but wouldn’t you think there would be SOMEONE outside at that hour?  But no.  My dog and I seemingly had the entire city of Efrat to ourselves, and I walked the dog (he really DID have to go!) and happily returned to our friends’ apartment, anxious to get back to sleep.

I trudged up the 2 flights of stairs, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.  When I got to the door, I turned the handle, but nothing happened.  I pushed it.  Jiggled the door.  Nothing.  It was locked!

Until now, my friends had always left the door unlocked, even at night.  So they hadn’t given us a key, nor had they given us the door’s security code.

I truly felt bad about doing so, but I rang the buzzer.  Once. Twice.  Five times.  I knocked at the front door, softly at first, but then more persistently and then quite loudly.  NOTHING.  Everyone was sound asleep and I was locked outside.

So I walked back down the two flights of stairs and waited.  Surely a family would be returning late at night from elsewhere in Israel.  Surely someone else would need to walk their dog.  Surely a security patrol would eventually come by.  Surely someone, anyone, would have a cell phone that I could borrow to call my husband and rouse him from his sleep, so he could unlock the front door.

But no.  No one was returning home late.  No one was walking their dog.  There wasn’t even a security patrol.  And the buses had stopped running at midnight.

I hadn’t thought to take my phone, because I knew I was coming right back upstairs after the dog did his business and after all, who would I call at 2 a.m.?  I was dressed in a thin shirt and skirt.  Now the wind was picking up, and I was getting cold.  I was getting tired of walking, and even my dog was tired of walking around outside.

I tried laying down on a bus bench, and then a park bench a few hundred feet away, but both were made of metal and the cold surface invaded my bones.  So I did more walking, just to stave off the cold.

Finally I made my way back to the apartment.  Maybe someone would need to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, realize my dog and I weren’t there, and be concerned.  But no, my husband slept on, completely oblivious to my lack of physical presence in the bedroom.

I went back outside. And then back up the stairs, waiting by the front door, testily ringing the buzzer and knocking and then returning back outside.  Up and down I went, between the apartment and the street, trying to devise new strategies.  A few hours passed, but morning was still a long way off, and I was really tired.  I returned to the apartment, dragged a few doormats from different apartments together in a line, and lay down on the filthy, scratchy doormats.  It was clear I wouldn’t be getting to sleep this night, but at least I had a ½” barrier of doormats against the cold marble floors underneath me.

I wasn’t scared (it felt like really uncomfortable urban camping), I was Just. So. Tired.  But so was the rest of Efrat, apparently, because they slept on through the night.

I won’t even describe the panic I felt when I had to go to the bathroom (I figured there must be hidden outdoor security cameras everywhere, so peeing behind a bush wasn’t a possibility).  Mercifully, finally, it was daylight and my husband soon would be going to minyan.

At last the front door was unlocked and I peeled off my very dirty clothes and unable to utter a sound, I collapsed into the bed under a pile of warm blankets.  My dog, who hadn’t slept a wink, let out a large, tragic sigh, gave me a reproachful look, and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

So no, I didn’t have a second seder or a second day yom tov.  But I might as well have.  I spent the night utterly homeless and outdoors, truly experiencing an ancestral déjà vu of yetziat Mitzrayim.  I had no one to rely on but HaShem.  It was layl shimurim in the deepest sense of the word.  I was surrounded by 10,000 people yet I was alone in the world.

Yet I was not.

The purpose of the Seder is a retelling, to ensure that from generation to generation we Jews understand we are a link in the chain, and will go from slavery and repression to ultimate redemption.  It might be a long way off, but we believe this with every fiber of our being – – that redemption WILL come.  Yet somehow, sometimes, when we are living with plenty, and are surrounded  by loving family, and despite the gratitude we feel, it’s kind of hard to feel the intensity of the Exodus.

When I was held captive by the night, I was initially upset.  When I calmed down, I realized it was about more than just being locked out; that HaShem was sending me a message.  Even though it was only for a few hours, I needed to feel my own personal yetziat Mitzrayim; to experience doubt, dependence, fear, exhaustion, deprivation.  And to know that it would eventually be over, and all would be well.

At dawn, slowly at first, Efrat began to stir.

And when daybreak came, I was redeemed.