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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

We're Waiting For You Hamodia 2010



LEAD I know it's a cliché, but it's also true. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction...

I hate airplanes. Well, to be more specific, I hate sitting on an airplane for the five, ten, and sometimes even fifteen hours that it takes for me to get where I'm going. Yes, of course I realize that compared to the alternative – spending days, if not weeks or even months, traveling – flying is a breeze. But still, if, like me, you've ever sat squashed into half of a tiny airplane seat trying valiantly not to slide into the heavy set person sitting next to you, or spent fifteen hours sitting next to a missionary who was positive that through converting me he would find his key to heaven (I faked sleep almost  entire way), you'll understand my trepidation.

The last time I flew to the States, I was half expecting some excitement, yet dreading it. I left Israel on motzaei Simchas Torah, which meant that the moment Yom Tov was over, I rushed to throw my first load into the washing machine and then spent the rest of the night alternately loading the washer and dryer, washing dishes, doing sponja, ironing clothes, and packing my bags.

Which balabusta in her right mind would actually plan a major trip for motzaei Sukkos? So let me explain; in Israel we keep just one day of Yom Tov, which means that since the Yidden from chutz l'aretz who had come to Israel for the Holidays could only travel the following evening, tickets were relatively inexpensive. Had I waited until the following day, the cost of the ticket would have doubled. On the other hand, since  I'd have to wait for Yom Tov to be over in my final destination - Los Angeles – before it was permissible for me to exit the airport, I took a long, roundabout route with layovers in both Amsterdam and Memphis. 

When the airport shuttle arrived at one o'clock in the morning I assumed that I'd be the only frum person on board, but I was wrong. Sitting on the double seat across from me were an obviously religious couple. "Well," I thought, "if I can take such a roundabout route, others can do it too." I wondered where they were going; it had to be someplace far if they were planning to arrive after Yom Tov.

To make a long story short, and a short story even shorter, KLM placed us in adjacent seats. Of course I was curious – where in the world, literally, could they be headed. But I was so exhausted from spending the day watching the men dance with the Torah and the night dancing with the laundry that I just wanted to sleep. After asking the stewardess not to bother serving me my meal, I curled up with my pillow and blanket and was soon snoring away.

About an hour before landing, I woke up with a start to find the stewardess serving breakfast. As I tried to open the hermetically sealed plastic knife, fork and spoon so that I could somehow punch a hole in the triple-wrapped square box containing my main course (I love mysteries!) the woman next to me smiled cheerfully and in a heavily accented Hebrew said, “Boker Tov!”

“I must've been really exhausted,” I responded, smiling sheepishly. "Looks like we're almost there."

"Where you heading?" the woman asked.

"Los Angeles. And you?"

The woman's husband broke into a huge smile. "Amsterdam. Home." From the way he said HOME, I understood that that was where his heart lay.

"Oh, so you're Dutch?" I continued (so much for profundities). "Several of my friends are Dutch. As a matter of fact, years ago when I wrote an article about Jewish children who were hidden during the War, I interviewed a couple of them.”

The husband glanced at his wife and threw her a lame smile. The he leaned across the seat to listen. "One of my friends told me that she owes all her yiras Shemayim to the Dutch family that hid her from the Nazis. Every night, before she went to bed, the father, a religious Protestant, would sit her down at the breakfast table and tell her stories from the Torah. Before she went to sleep, he would remind her that she is a Jewish girl, that she must believe in Hashem and keep the Jewish Bible, and that someday, when the War will be over, she will return her to her people and to her God."

The man studiously examined the back of his hands, his wife was staring intensely at a grease stain on the upholstery of the seat ahead of her. When I finished, the man swallowed hard, cracked his knuckles and waited expectantly for me to continue.

"I also interviewed a neighbor of mine – I'm very friendly with his wife -- a respected talmid chacham and rosh kollel who, as a toddler, was hidden by the Dutch underground. His obvious Jewish features made his situation more precarious than most. More than one Dutch family ended up sacrificing their own lives to save his, and on several occasions, he was plucked from a certain death by a young Dutch girl who worked for the underground who would risk her own life to move him to another hiding place before an expected a Nazi raid. 

"Years later, as an adult, my neighbor realized that he owed a tremendous debt of gratitude to this woman. He searched for her until he finally found her. But when he thanked her, she gruffly responded, 'Anyone with a heart would've done the same.'

"That was the beginning of a relationship that lasted for over thirty years. The woman never married, so our neighbor, a frum, erlicher Yid and a tremendous talmid chacham, became her surrogate family. On every special occasion – be it a birthday or a holiday – he and his wife would send her presents and family pictures of her 'children in Israel'. Every year, my neighbor would travel to Holland to spend time with the woman who saved his life. 'After all,' he explained, 'hakaras hatov is one of the foundations of Yiddishkeit.'

"When this woman passed away -- penniless, without a family -- she was slated for cremation. Our neighbor used almost all of his savings – hard earned money that he and his wife had put away for their old age – to make sure that this gentile woman had a grave. When I expressed my surprise at what he had done, my neighbor shrugged and said, 'This woman saved me from being made into ash, this is the least I could do.'"

I looked up and noticed that the man's eyes were moist. "Stories don't always have such happy endings," he stated, his voice flat.

I remained silent, waiting for him to continue.

"My mother was also hidden during the war, but I never knew. No one ever told me."

His wife stared straight ahead. The man seemed to look into the distance as though carefully choosing his words before continuing. "When the War ended and my mother was reunited with her parents, they were so traumatized by the horrors they had gone through that they decided to live as Christians. They didn’t want anyone to know that they were Jewish. My mother married a Catholic, and I was raised in the Church."

I nodded, waiting for him to answer my unstated question.

"It never even dawned on me that I wasn't like everyone else, at least until I was an adult and visited Israel on business. I felt drawn to the country; somehow I sensed that the country – the land - was speaking to my soul. I knew I was somehow connected, but logically it didn't make any sense. After all, what did I have with the Jews?

"This question kept gnawing at my soul. I knew there was something there, my neshama sensed it. I started learning Jewish history and reading anything I could about the Jewish people. Then, when I visited Westerbork, I saw people with my mother's maiden name listed among those who were deported to Auschwitz. When I asked my mother about it, she denied that there was any connection. But when I persisted, she admitted that she and her parents were Jewish, and that they had spent the War years in hiding – she, on a farm, her parents, in a cellar.

"That was five years ago. Since then, I've been studying Hebrew, reading books, learning with a rabbi…"

"That's wonderful!" I couldn't contain my enthusiasm.

"Baruch Hashem, we keep all the mitzvos." His pride was obvious. "This is my third Sukkos in Israel. We stayed in a hotel outside of Jerusalem, together with other members of our Messianic group."

Our Messianic group...” I felt like an overstretched balloon that had suddenly been pricked. At just that moment the pilot's voice came over the PA system, announcing that we were beginning our descent into Amsterdam. 

Choosing my words carefully, I began, "I'd like to tell you a story about a friend of mine who I recently interviewed for an upcoming book. Today, she's the matriarch of a large religious family, her grandchildren number in the dozens. But as a child,she knew almost nothing about her glorious heritage. Her parent lit the Chanukah menorah and Pesach was marked with a traditional feast replete with matzah balls and cheroses, but that was about it; a celebration of culture, not religion.

When my friend was five years old, her grandfather presented her a small siddur that had a picture of Jerusalem etched into its wooden cover. 'Always be proud that you are a Jew,' he told her, 'and remember that G-d gave the Jewish people a holy land.' My friend loved that siddur. It reminded of her grandfather and how she would sit curled up on his lap listening to him quietly sing in a language that she didn't understand. Every night, while lying in bed before going to sleep, my friend would look at the siddur and try to decipher the strange Hebrew letters inside. When she'd finally fall asleep, she'd dream of the city that was etched into the siddur's cover. In her dream, she'd find herself walking on a long path that led to what she described as a 'golden city,' but although she kept on running toward that beautiful, mystical city, it remained in the distance. In her dream, a voice would call out to her, saying, 'If you keep on yearning and never give up, someday you'll reach that city.'

"As the year passed, my friend forgot about her dream. Eventually she left home to attend college where she met the nice Jewish boy who would become her husband. The night before her wedding, she once again dreamed of that city. But this time the city was on fire. It was horrible – terrifying flames, ghastly screams. She woke up shaking and although it was the middle of the night, she immediately phoned her fiancé. 'I don't know why, but we can't get married today,' she told him. 'It has something to do with our being Jewish.' The next morning the young couple informed their parents that they were postponing their wedding. The parents were furious, after all, who pushes off a wedding because of silly dream?

"So instead of getting married, she and her fiancé drove to the nearest Orthodox synagogue to find out why they couldn't. That was the first time they heard of Tisha B'Av.

"Several years later, the couple, now married with three children, were living in very small town in one of the southern states. They were what we'd call 'Hippies,' living off the land, into their art, and not at all connected to their Jewish roots. Then the Yom Kippur War broke out. The situation was grim. The Jews living in Israel were in danger of annihilation. My friend's husband heard the news and announced, 'They're trying to murder MY people. We're moving to Israel.'

"The following morning the family piled into their old VW van and drove several hundred miles to the nearest city with a Jewish Agency.  They found the shaliach and told him about their momentous decision to move to Israel. But the shaliach took one look at them, with their long hair, love beads and raggedy clothes, and shook his head. Israel was not interested in hippies!

"The shaliach, a die-hard Socialist, tried his best to dissuade them. He told them about the hardships of moving to a new country and of learning a strange language. 'Israel needs people who are willing to work, and to work hard,' he explained. But my friend and her husband were insistent. They argued that they would do whatever is necessary to live in a Jewish land, to be among Jews; but the shaliach would not budge.

"Finally, my friend looked the shaliach straight in the eyes and told him about her dream; she described the golden city, how she yearned for it and intuitively understood that that was where she belonged. 'Now I realize that that the city of my dreams is Yerushalayim. I want to go to Eretz Yisrael, my homeland,' she told him, 'and I have no doubt that someday I will get there.'

"The shaliach was visibly moved. Opening his arms wide, as if to embrace them, he looked at the young Jewish family, struggling to define themselves, and said, 'My children, come home. We're waiting for you.'"

By now, we were beginning our final descent into Amsterdam. I could see the runway in the distance. Keeping my head down to hide my tears, I whispered, “That's all I can tell you. We're waiting for you.”

We parted ways at passport control. I wish I could tell you the end of the story. Who knows, perhaps I'll find out the next time I fly, or maybe I'll bump into them in Yerushalayim. But one thing I know for sure, whenever they decide to return, we'll be there waiting for them with open arms. My children, come home.

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