Monday, May 12, 2008

A Story for Yom HaZikaron/Yom Ha'atzmaut - By Katie Green


I would like to share with you a “coincidence” that happened in our family just before Pesach, as I believe the story has relevance to Yom Ha’atzmaut and the miracle of our living here. The hours of Yom HaZikaron will are dark ones, so I am hoping this story will offer some comfort.

A few weeks ago, I got a phonecall from my parents’ friend Becky. Becky is now in her seventies, but my family first came to know her in 1939 when she and her parents and sister fled Germany and came to live in rented rooms on the upper floor of my grandmother’s house. My grandparents lived in Stamford Hill, London, which even then was a very Jewish area, but my grandparents were not observant Jews, not even traditional Jews. My grandpa had a grocery store and I am not even going to tell you what kinds of foods were for sale in that shop!

My grandparents loved the refugee family living upstairs, and a warm friendship sprung up between them. Similarly, my father who was then seven years old and had no sisters, welcomed little Becky, also seven, and included her in his circle of friends. But although my father bestowed upon Becky the gift of friendship, Becky had an even greater gift to bestow upon him, the gift of Yahadut.

Becky’s family were devoutly religious and staunch Zionists. Every Shabbat, Becky dragged my father to the local shul for Bnei Akiva meetings. (In those days, Bnei Akiva was called “Torah Ve’Avodah”). What did my father learn at these weekly meetings? It was not much, but it was everything. A little of the weekly Torah portion, some geography and history of Palestine, a few songs, a few dances.To this day my father loves to sing those Zionist songs of the 1940's, songs about clearing away the rocks in the Galilee, songs of the muscled young pioneers working in the fields. My father became a dentist and never did get to Israel himself, but you can see when he sings those songs today, how he would love to have drained a swamp or two.

My father's introduction to a Bnei Akiva altered his life forever. He developed a longing to become religiously observant. After the war was over in 1945, and when Berlin was divided into four parts, my father would listen on the radio to the Jewish army chaplain of the American forces stationed in Berlin. This Rabbi, whoever he was, sang the entire Seder service on radio about a week before Pesach. My father memorized the tunes to "Ma Nishtana" and "Dayeinu", and held the first family Seder in his home when he was about fourteen.

Becky and her family emigrated to the newly formed Jewish State in 1948. Although they could not attend each other's weddings, Becky and my father stayed in touch over the years. To this day, Becky and her husband Walter run a Judaica store in Haifa. My parents visited Becky on their first trips to Israel in 1968 and 1969, and the two families have visited each other on many occasions since. Becky and Walter's children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren are all living in Israel.

Becky's son Abie was one of the earliest settlers of Karnei Shomron, where he and his wife bought their home about twenty years ago.A few weeks ago, Abie's son looked around him at Friday night minyan to see if there were any soldiers who would like to be invited for Shabbat dinner. Soldiers from the nearby base are always welcome at the table of Karnei Shomron families. Abie's son approached a young soldier and asked him if he would like to come back with him for Friday night dinner. This soldier was my son, Yonatan.

That evening at Shabbat dinner, my father's grandson and Becky's grandchildren sat around the table together,laughing and talking and singing zmirot. Never at any point did they make the connnection. It was only after Shabbat, when Abie was on the phone to his mother, that Becky said: "This boy has an American father and an English mother? His name's Yonatan and he lives in Bet Shemesh? I think I know who this must be!"I didn't want to tell Becky, when she phoned me with such excitement in her voice on Motzei Shabbat, that her "clues" fit the description of about a hundred boys living in the Bet Shemesh area! It was irrelevant, anyway. Bckey's sixth sense had told her that this was Peter's grandson, and indeed it was.

Yonatan was invited again to Abie's homefor Shvi''i of Pesach, and this time was Becky was there. You can imagine what a very festive meal that was.

On that same shvi'i of Pesach, my daughter Moriyah spent the afternoon taking her group of twelve year old Ethiopian girls. Moriyah is a madricha in the special snif set up by Bnei Akiva for Ethiopian children. What does Moriyah teach her chanichot on Shabbat and Chag afternoons? A little of the weekly Torah portion, some geography and history of the Land of Israel, a few songs and dances.

It is not much, but it is everything.

Chag Ha'atzmaut sameach to all the family of Israel, and may we blessed with peace and besurot tovot.


Friday, May 02, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Day - A Personal Perspective

My wife Katie wrote this for Holocaust Remembrance Day (May 1 ’08) and I thought it worth sharing. I stood on our balcony with my daughter Michal that morning as the air-raid siren brought us to a stand-still. We listened to it as the birds, apparently unaware of the tradition to stand silently, sang and flew all around the garden – and as I looked out over the hills and valleys and houses around us, I thought “this is the best way to memorialize the millions – making Israel a vibrant, passionate testimony of ‘never again’….”




It is Yom HaShoah today - Holocaust Day.

Last night I lit a memorial candle and placed it in my kitchen window. My tiny street was completely dark. The light from the candle flickered and bounced over all the doors and windows of the houses opposite. Such a little light, for such a big thing.

I grew up in a community almost entirely comprised of German Jews. They were refugees who came over to England either before the war, or after it. The surnames of my little friends at shul were all German names: Frei, Beigel, Faber, Nussbaum, Hirsch, Schwarz, Felsenstein.

I knew, internalized long before the story of the Holocaust had been verbalized to me, that the people I davvened with in shul had undergone unimaginable suffering. Some of then had been orphaned as children, and had arrived in England on the Kindertransport. Some had been in the worst of the concentration camps as teenagers. Most of my friends at shul had no grandparents. Most of them were named after their grandparents.

But the person who attracted my attention in shul was Mrs. H. Mrs. H., a very attractive woman with an impressive black sheitl, had two adopted children. This was unusual in those days. There were a good number of childless couples in the community then - it was before the days of fertility treatment. But not many religious couples adopted. It was difficult to find Jewish children available for adoption, and the adoption of non-Jewish children was a halachically complicated process.

Infertility is an agonizingly private issue, but everybody knew why Mrs. H. couldn't have children of her own. She had been experimented on in the camps. She was a teenager at the time, fifteen or sixteen years old.

Every week in shul I looked and looked at Mrs. H., who sat at some distance away from me and my mother. Mrs. H. had a grave, quiet face. She was a devout woman who prayed with composure and focus. For 51 weeks of the year Mrs. H. was always there, in my peripheral vision, taking three steps back, three steps forward into G-d's presence at the beginning of the Amida prayer.

On one day of the year, Yom Kippur, Mrs. H. moved into central view. On that day Mrs. H. was no longer quiet. Her suffering was terrible to behold. She wept and wept, was bent double with weeping. As a small child I watched her. To this day I remember the feeling of my mother's hand on my head, tilting it downwards towards my siddur, teaching me that people's tears on Yom Kippur are their own affair. But I did not feel that Mrs. H.'s tears belonged only to her. Even then, at ten years old, I understood that her tears belonged to all of us.

The English are restrained and polite about grief. Don't shout, don't scream, don't sob. And if you are an observer of grief, don't look, don't touch and don't give away that you have noticed, as this would be an invasion of privacy.

In all the years that Mrs. H.'s body crumpled agianst the mechitza with weeping, I don't recall that anyone ever reached out to her. No one hugged her and no one held her. "I want to give her a cuddle", I used to say to my mother. "Can I go across and cuddle her?"

"No, darling, you can't", my mother would reply. "I'm not sure how she would feel about it." And indeed. It would not have been the done thing.

I think that Mrs. H., stored somewhere deep in my hard disc, is one of the reasons I'm living in Israel today. Israel is that one big hug I could never give to Holocaust survivors. It's also the hug I give to myself, as I walk across Safra Square on a beautiful Jerusalem day - Holocaust Day - in May. I look up at the huge flagpoles of the Jerusalem municipality and I see that they are flying at half-mast.

Half-mast for you, Mrs. H.. And all the other women of the Shoah.

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