Happy 70th Birthday, Israel!

My husband turned 70 this week.  I thought it would be appropriate to share the story of his birth, since it’s also the week of Israel’s birthday.   Here is his story, in his own words:

I was born in Germany after the War.  My mother and my grandmother had assumed false identities and were able to live in Berlin throughout the war.  They were considered “aliens” since my grandmother came from Russia to Germany after WWI to marry my grandfather, but my mother and grandmother were not known as Jews.  Every moment they lived in fear that they would be caught, and their true Jewish identities revealed. Even though they did not suffer in concentration and death camps like other Jews,  they experienced much physical and emotional abuse when they were taken as “foreign laborers” to work within Germany.  My mother was sent as slave labor to a farm where she was with other “alien” teenagers.  Unfortunately the other teenaged forced laborers were Polish boys who, even though they shared similar circumstances with my mother for not being German, nevertheless were cruel to her in ways I will not share here.

My grandmother was forced to plant trees in the dead of winter, a senseless task and impossible digging in the frozen ground, and she suffered from pain in her chest her entire life due to the frostbite she suffered then.

My grandfather had been murdered in 1934 just as the Nazis were coming to power.  He was a painter, and he painted a neighbor’s house who had recently joined the then-new Nazi party.  When my grandfather asked for payment, the Nazi laughed and went straight to the police, telling them that my grandfather had stolen from him which was a complete lie.  When he realized he was a wanted man, my grandfather fled illegally across the border, thinking it was temporary until things cooled down.

One day my grandmother got a knock on the door.  It was the police, and they held my grandfather’s picture in their hands.  They asked her if she knew this man.  What should she do?  If my grandmother  said she knew him, they might arrest her as well, or take away my mother, who was a young girl.  If she said no, she might not find out what happened to him. It was a terrible choice.  She decided to say she didn’t know him, and in fact she was an agunah for most of the rest of her life until decades later when she found out he had been shot while trying to cross back illegally into Germany at the border to return home.

My father was the only survivor of his very large family (it seems they were Belz chassidim – – ironically my father was also the only one who was not religiously observant).  He ran to the forest to become a partisan, and fought during the entire war, escaping death through many miracles, many times.  He had begged his family to escape to the forest from the ghetto, but they refused.  He lived with survivor’s guilt, however, and many nightmares. My childhood in America, where we came when I was six, was not easy.  There was tension in the house due to my parents’ experiences during the War and how it affected them and their relationship to their three sons, of which I’m the eldest.

My parents met after the war in Germany and started a new life there.  I don’t know if it’s accurate, but my mother told me I was the first Jewish baby to be born in the newly rededicated and restored Jewish hospital in post-war Berlin.  There were terrible shortages and hunger after the war, and the only way to survive was to be active in the black market. Since there was so little food, there was no expectation of a festive meal for the bris.  At that time, usually the only thing that was given to guests at a bris was shnapps and cigarettes, both highly prized and very expensive on the black market.  I was born on Shabbat, and my father was very excited about this because it meant he would only have to give out schnapps and not have to supply cigarettes for the brit mila (circumcision ceremony), since smoking is forbidden on Shabbat.

Amazingly, a week after I was born, my brit mila was on medinat Israel’s first birthday – when Israel became a State and the very first Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day) was celebrated.  It really was an incredible miracle – – a new life after so much destruction and loss, and now a new homeland for the Jews.    I feel very privileged to be able to celebrate my 70th birthday and Yom Haatzmaut in our Holy Land, and very blessed that as I celebrate the remaining 50 years of my life, G-d willing I will do so in my home in the Galil in Israel, since I made aliyah with my wife a year ago.  I feel it closes a very large and complicated circle.

The thought of turning 70 is something I did not want to think about: it means I’m old!  But truthfully I am so very grateful for the blessings which HaShem has bestowed upon me, for my children and grandchildren, my friends, my marriage, my life in Israel, and my work.  For both my wife and myself, we never grew up with a grandfather, and our fathers died when we were  teenagers.  The fact that my children are adults and we are expecting our 17th grandchild this week IY”H, is truly a miracle.   I can only say ‘hodu lashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo” and Baruch Atah Adon–, Elokaynu Melech HaOlam, Shehechiyanu, Vkiyamanu, vhigiyanu lazman hazeh ( We are thankful for God’s goodness, His kindness is ever-present.  Bless You G-d for giving us life, and bringing us to this day).

L’chaim! 

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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!