By Darlene Leiser
No one cried at Uncle Yossele’s funeral except for Rav Altschuler, whose voice trembled as he eulogized the senior member of what was left of his congregation. The mourners, many with canes and walkers, moved slowly past Eva Radinsky and her sister, solemnly paying their respects. German Jews were notorious for their stoicism; they did not advocate great displays of emotion—especially not at funerals like this one where the atmosphere was solemn and crisp, like the fall air around them.
Leeba, Eva’s daughter, stood to the side with her twin teenagers. She had no expectation that her mother and aunt would cry out in pain as the rabbi remembered the charitable acts of their brother Yossele. She had adored her uncle, a man who still treated his younger sisters as if they had pigtails and he was teaching them the ways of life. The men and women stood together around the grave. There was no mechitza—the partition used for modesty purposes at religious events to divide the sexes; such would be a rare sight at funerals. The only separation here was etched out by the earth—those that still stood above, and their departed below.
Leeba’s mother leaned against her, staring straight ahead, finally shedding a few tears as her brother was lowered into the ground. The crowd inched closer, and Leeba sensed by the slow and difficult way they moved, that they were fading—the last of the survivors, sixty years later. Here was Edith their neighbor, husband long gone, refusing help as her walker got stuck in the mud around the grave. The ink of her tattooed number, though hidden from plain sight, was, under the darkness of her sleeve, still engraved solidly into her very wrinkled arm. There was Max, the caretaker of the shul—such a thin sliver of a man—wobbling as if the wind were about to carry him away, and, looking as heartbroken as he did, Leeba figured that such an occurrence wouldn’t bother him in the least. She gave thanks in her heart to Rabbi Altschuler and the rebbetzin, who, though now old and gray themselves, still attended to the needs of their congregation—one that had been together longer than she’d been alive, in the same way Jews had sustained communal life over the centuries.
The mourners here today were remnants of the Ohav Torah shul, the synagogue she’d grown up in. It had once been a lavish building, pillars on the outside with an ornate door, the words “Beit Knesset” embossed in gold, attesting to the lack of fear the building members had in proclaiming that this was a Jewish place of worship; inside there were the imitation Chagall windows and the chandeliers adorned with six oval shaped lights reminiscent of Shabbat candles. The women of the congregation sat apart from the men on the other side of the mechitza, a partition made of wood. They searched for their husbands and sons through the gauzy curtains covering the windows on the panels. They watched as a father covered his sons with his tallis in preparation for the prayers of the kohanim, and attentively listened to the nervous bar mitzvah boy read his parsha. Then the men shielded their heads with their hands as a torrent of candies rained down on them from over the mechitza in celebration of the child who had just become a man in Jewish tradition. His most important role would be taking part in the minyan, the quorum of ten needed for prayer. The mechitza still stood as an imposing structure, sturdy, like the character of those who had built it, but if one were to look past the decor of the inner chamber, and scrutinize the mahogany wall inset at the entrance, it would be obvious that the plaques honoring the deceased were becoming more numerous than the worshippers left in the congregation. Rabbi Altschuler could barely summon up a minyan these days—even for the bris of a grandchild, or a holiday—if not for the luck of having a yeshiva located down the block where they could still pull in a bochur, a young student, or two for daily prayers.
“I know more people here than outside,” her mother whispered, and Leeba was only saved from despair by her fourteen-year-old son, Meir, standing between her parents, holding each of their hands. He had recently been doing five-minute interviews with Holocaust survivors and had somberly related to her father that Meir’s generation would be the last to meet those who lived through the Shoah.
Rabbi Altschuler was in the midst of the eulogy, recounting the tale of how her uncle Yossele had saved his sisters from doom. “The Nazi soldiers were randomly stopping Jews in Vienna, especially the women, mostly because they scared easier, and some were good-looking despite being dirty Jews, and the Nazis could say the vilest things, because most were teenagers, cruel and stupid. They made them clean the streets in front of non-Jewish shops. Eva and Rose were also teenagers, out trying to purchase a few staples for the smaller apartment that the new Nazi laws had forced their family into, when they were stopped and handed scrubbing brushes. Their uncle was walking a bit behind, watching over his sisters—-less fearful because he was blond and blue-eyed. Sometimes he was saluted at and a smiling SS soldier would say, “Heil Hitler.” He had learned to salute back, mumbling “Shema Yisrael,” under his breath. Now, seeing the commotion, he pretended he was a soldier on leave and began kidding around with the Nazi soldiers. After a while he pointed to his sisters and joked, “These two, they have strength, perhaps I should take them to the Commander’s office to clean.” “Okay,” laughed the guards, and with a stern look, Eli pulled his two sisters up roughly by the arms and walked them away from what they later learned was a roundup. The women had been forced to board buses and were never heard from again.”
Leeba sighed and cringed, hearing her mother suck in her breath, as she did when she was awash in anxiety and remembrance. She recalled every Passover and Shabbat that her parents celebrated with them, when they had endlessly repeated the tales of escape to anyone who asked, mostly Sephardic relatives of her ex-husband, Avigdor, who had no connection to the Shoah. While she cooked the food and served the meals, she willed them to talk faster and reach the conclusion, the part where they arrived at the shores of America, so that she could breathe again. It took many Jewish holidays for her to understand that her parents could not control their hushed recitations of horror. She also understood that the underlying melancholy and anxiety she periodically fought came from identifying so totally with their past. Perhaps her kids and the strangers who had not grown up with her mother’s obsessive worrying could listen better. Her childhood, however, had been shrouded by an underlying cloud of wretched memories that overshadowed the lives of every adult in her world, which was comprised of Ohav Shalom for praying and an Orthodox girls yeshiva for studying. This atmosphere was only exacerbated by her father’s belief that when something went right, one must still be wary.
“Hitler is always around the corner,” he had warned one too many times.
And, perhaps, given the aura of melancholy, it was not surprising that she had married Avigdor, an Israeli soldier who did not know this pain. Neither had any of his relatives—the revolving door of siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts—whose parents had never experienced the horrors, and had, for the most part, lived peacefully side-by-side with their Muslim neighbors. Neither had any of his relatives – the revolving door of siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts – whose parents had never experienced the horrors, although they had survived violence, political upheavals and status as second class citizens in the Arab countries of North Africa, up until they made aliyah in the 1950’s. An uplifting story, yes, a path perhaps to healing pain, but the man inside that story became a part of her life, her husband, and their life together was no fairy tale. It had ended badly, in a bitter divorce.
The sun which had warmed the mourners was now setting. Leeba had been a perceptive child and sensed the undertones of relationships her family had with everyone. The concentric circles of closeness began with a very suspicious and tenuous connection to the outside world, which could turn against the Jews at any moment—then a bit closer, the community, part of their daily lives, yet kept at a certain distance, and, finally, family, which came before all; Uncle Yossele, who should rest in peace, her mother and aunt, her father and his sister. But the most intense loyalty was saved for coupledom. Most of the German parents of her friends walked arm-in-arm like her parents, the mothers in fur coats, the fathers taking their arms as they left shul. Welded together, a fierce devotion. Theirs was an elegant façade of cool and airy manners towards anyone outside their carefully constructed world. A force of two against the world. It looked so complete, but how these manners belied the agitation in their souls!
“A gutn shabbos, Herr and Frau Radinsky,” a shul member, sometimes Rav Altschuler himself, would call out at the kiddush after davening, offering schnapps in tiny cups to them as Leeba’s parents marched by, her father letting go of Eva’s hand long enough to accept the drink and kibitz for a few moments. Then home for Shabbat lunch with their daughter trailing behind. Leeba suddenly had a vision of the rebbetzin knocking on the door to collect tzedakah, and speaking with her mother, but never crossing the threshold to come in. Only relatives and a few friends were ever allowed into the sanctuary for the Radinsky family—the three bedrooms in Upper Manhattan.
It was not hard to understand her attraction to Avigdor and his family—a tribe really, who, though impoverished, had such an immense amount of pride and resourcefulness that they strove for a better life in the desert towns and tin huts they had been assigned. After the planes landed when they made aliyah in the 1950s, not fully understanding why the Messiah had not been waiting for them in Jerusalem, these North African Jews were greeted by the broiling desert sun. Instead of re-building the Jewish temple, the age-old yearning of every religious Jew, the men were sent to build roads—all while feeling the prejudice of the ruling Ashkenazi class. Every day was a struggle. His parents each had vision in only one eye from an outbreak of glaucoma in their childhoods in Morocco and Tunisia. Leeba had been captivated by their anger, a different one than her parents’, which was rooted in the past, while theirs was based on the present desire for change. And she was mesmerized by their vitriolic political discussions, and by their fascination with her, the blond American from another planet who loved their Avigdor. Later they disparaged everything about her, but back then they embraced her, this alien blond from another planet. Leeba’s fascination grew as she dated Avigdor on and off for two years while tending turkeys on a nearby kibbutz, happy and unencumbered. They used to buy supplies in this town, and that’s where she had met Avigdor who was working for his father behind the counter in a mini-market. She’d felt empathy for these Jews with dark skin and big brown eyes, their generosity, the way they wore their emotions on their sleeves, gesticulating, their voices volleying back and forth. Much of their admiration was reserved for Prime Minister Begin, the Ashkenazi they had put in power when they finally organized in 1977, the leader who loved them, who saw in them what perhaps Leeba did. Fire and brimstone, and a passion for life. The Shoah was not part of their conversation, except here and there when they shook their heads and said, “Look what they did to them,” and cursed the Germans, or gave Leeba their explanation as to why Hitler never got his claws into most North African Jews: because they remained religious, the Reform movement and secular Judaism never gaining a foothold there. Leeba would nod but the explanation made her nauseous. Who had the shtetl Jews been if not total believers? But she held her tongue. Avigdor’s parents stood in silence with the rest of the country when the sirens went off in honor of the dead on Yom HaShoah each year. One Shabbat afternoon, about a half year after they’d met, Leeba put down the book she was reading, another memoir of a survivor, and stopped trembling, the sounds of guttural Hebrew and laughter outside calling to her. For a short while then, she and Avigdor, as other young couples, enjoyed the sunshine together. But only for a short while.
Now, with the graveside ceremony over, Eva pressed the hands of the mourners, hugged her fur coat closer, and led the way back to the cars. Leeba’s mother had been a loving sister, but she kept emotions well hidden behind the fine lines around her eyes, and was thus able to thank each mourner individually with her usual sophisticated grace. Leeba was ever watchful of her mother’s moods, alternately wanting to lash out at Eva or protect her, but now there was no doubt that it would be she, of the younger generation, who would fill the shoes of her Uncle Yossele in guarding her aging mother and aunt from harm. Her mind wandered suddenly and she half-hoped for a burst of emotion like the one she had witnessed at Avigdor’s grandmother’s funeral many years before. But of course, there were only quiet murmurs. As they rode away, Leeba looked back, knowing that one day she would become the “shomeret” of the family’s plot in the cemetery—keeper of the traditions of her parents, who visited with precision and exactitude on the yahrzeits each year. She was confident that her mother would forge on in public as always, keeping her fears at bay, while privately revealing, in an often-shaky voice, a constant underpinning of worry about daily life. This manifested itself in constantly obsessing about everything that could go wrong if her daughter stepped out of the house. Eva and her father traveled the world. For themselves, they had seen the worst… but the child! The teenager! The married daughter—anything that could go wrong, would. Anxiety was the background tune of Leeba’s life, always humming in the background. She had fought hard to separate herself, to focus, to be the thermostat in her children’s lives…
Rav Altschuler finished the service and asked the guests to form two lines which the bereaved passed through. The mourners held on to each other for support, their bodies frail and oscillating in the wind. The imaginary mechitza, between those above the earth and those below, was weakening by the day. Eva and her sister held hands like the youngsters in their pictures from before the war.
At the airport, a week later, after her mother got up from shiva and resumed her life, Leeba boarded the Newark-Tel Aviv late flight with Nava and Meir. Tomorrow, her son Moshe and his kallah, Dafna, would pick them up at Ben Gurion airport—the first time she would meet her son’s betrothed. Only he, her first born, had the ability to summon her back to that life, in the place she had left so long ago, a desert town in another world. “Yes, of course I will come,” she had told him, albeit reluctantly, her sweet son who had disappeared into an Israeli yeshiva for two years, refusing to talk to her for this past one—a lifetime for a Jewish mother, until he called to tell her he was engaged. He was the real victim of the divorce of his parents three years ago.
A few hours into the flight, the twins, excited but with little memory of their other grandmother and their family in Israel, having visited only once, and still emotional about the funeral—their first brush with death—wanted to know if Leeba had ever attended a funeral on their father’s side. “Yes,” she told them, as the plane flew towards the Mediterranean.
Yes, she had. In her second year of marriage to Avigdor, his grandmother had died and they had flown to Israel. As buttoned-down as the Ashkenazic Jews were, the Sephardic ones were the opposite, the contrast so enticing to the young Leeba. Funerals took their heated souls to new heights. For every Ashkenazic sniffle, there was a Sephardic roar of pain. She remembered the scene well. The women kept away from the men: here, the mechitza dividing them was composed of the male mourners themselves, led by the rabbi and a few others, keeping the women at a distance from the grave. He would have preferred the women to stay outside of the cemetery completely, so piercing were their screams. Though Leeba had always wished that her fellow Ashkenazim could be more upfront with their slew of repressed emotions, she was shocked at the contrast. The self-flagellation at Sephardic funerals bordered on the psychotic, and was painful to watch. Young soldiers and the elderly all merited the same literal beating of the breast by relatives and friends of her parents’ generation. The shrill screams could compete with the volume of the air raid sirens in nearby Sederot in the south of Israel. She had been at that funeral, of Avigdor’s nana, who had blue eyes like her, the only one, and had been married off to an older man in the old country. He died when she was only thirty-two, and she remained loyal, as was the custom, never marrying again. In this cemetery, the graves’ markers were carved from beautiful Jerusalem stone, much more elegant than the lackluster marble of the ones back home. But their stylishness was belied by the behavior of the mourners. No limousines carrying the mourners were lined up quietly at the entrance like in New Jersey. Here they walked to the other side of town, shrieking, unembarrassed before their neighbors, their throats dry from thirst, pavement splitting from the heat of the sun. Her mother-in-law, with the kerchief wrapped around her head and the layers of cotton robes Leeba had purchased for her in New York, was keeling over in the sun, emitting animalistic cries over the death of her mother. The hysteria rose with each sound of the shovel. It was only Avigdor and his brothers holding her back that kept their mother, Yakuta (her Arabic name; in Israel, they called her Yonina), who was small and plump but agile on her feet, from racing past them all and jumping into the grave. The cries, the ululating: it was one big cacophony of grief.
Leeba tried to remain solemn as she told the story to the twins, but then excused herself to spend some time in the tiny bathroom of the plane, remembering, juxtaposing the polar worlds: Her mother and cohorts, on one hand, with their teased hair so full of spray that not a lock dared move out of place during the windy ceremony; then came the sudden comical mix-up, as she thought of the rebbetzin with her solid walking shoes—collecting prayer books after shul, as she always did—suddenly capsizing and shrieking, as Avigdor’s mother had….
The plane descended, the divide about to be crossed.
Moshe and Dafna picked them up as promised—and the twins were delighted to see their older brother, the mystical one, whom they remembered playing football with and wearing Abercrombie sweatshirts before he left for Israel two summers ago. Leeba was pleased to see that he had shaved his long beard; it was a compromise with his wife, who had told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was no longer living in the holy city of Safed. It was she who had dragged him down from the metaphorical mountain, where he had practiced “hisboddidut,” a kind of meditative silence in the forest for hours, taken from the teachings of the sainted Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. The long black coat and fur shtreimel atop his head were gone, replaced by a big black yarmulke. He now dressed in white shirt and black pants, the style of many religious men, but still kept short peyos as a tribute to the Hasidic lifestyle that had shown him the way. For this retrieval of her son, from somewhere beyond the clouds, Leeba liked her daughter-in-law right away.
She folded them both into a happy embrace.
On the way, down south to the home of Dafna’s parents, who had graciously invited them to stay for the ten days they would be in Israel, Leeba began to relax slightly, as the twins tried out their halting Hebrew on their brother and his bride. Leeba gazed at the farmlands around them, pointing out banana and date trees, the various kibbutzim, and fields of strawberries. She cast a sidelong glance at Moshe—he looked content, and having not seen him for a year, he seemed to her more solid, though the air was still tense between them. He had hurt her deeply with his accusations of causing the divorce, but Leeba had rallied herself at the surprise news of his engagement, his request to come with the kids. What convinced her was his admitted regret for many of his actions toward her, and that he knew it would take courage for her to return here, to the small town where she had met his father. Leeba felt hope, but the lingering sadness as well. And then, suddenly, Dafna, who had known her for five minutes, leaned her head on Leeba’s shoulder. Her heart filled and she bathed her face in the sun shining through the window.
“Mom, do you think you can stop over at Savta’s house before the wedding?” Moshe asked her suddenly. “She always asks about you, and would like to see the kids.”
Leeba had learned to measure her words before speaking to him. “I have a week to think about it,” she answered, remembering the tiny house where it all began. Still, the twins had only met Avigdor’s mother once many years ago, so she thought it right that they see her again. She would, she knew, take them to see Yonina, a kindly woman who had never hurt Leeba in any way. Who once told her, “My son fell on his head when he was little. Maybe that is why he is a bit crazy.”
“Shalom, Leeba,” said Dafna’s mother, who, with palms still imprinted with henna, reached out to hug her warmly at the doorway of their two-story home (which was really two apartments merged together). On the way, they’d passed Avigdor’s house, sending a chill through Leeba’s spine. She had looked closely at the renovation, and recalled how small the original had been: two bedrooms and one bathroom for eleven people. In honor of her wedding to Avigdor, they had built a second bathroom.
Pulling into Dafna’s street, Leeba saw that this was a better neighborhood than where Avigdor had been raised, though only a few streets over. Already she and the twins had missed the henna party customary among Sephardic Jews, an extravaganza sometimes lauded as being nicer than the wedding. It included family dressing up in costumes dug up from the bride’s Moroccan heritage, and relatives carrying the couple around in an imitation chariot—as if they were Jasmine and Aladdin. The guests lined up to have a paste created from powdered dry leaves of the henna plant applied to the palm of their hands for good luck.
“I’m sorry you missed the henna, Mom.”
“Don’t worry about it, Moshe. The twins had school,” Leeba replied, half-wishing her kids had seen this ceremony, a real Middle Eastern event. But because she knew it was an intimate event and Avigdor’s family would have made up half of the guests, she was not sorry at all.
Various relatives had gathered to greet her, as they all lived within a stone’s distance of each other, and Leeba remembered entering this same neighborhood, thirty years before, an exotic extra-terrestrial to Avigdor’s sisters, all six staring at her with wide eyes. They had generously offered her all the delicacies they had prepared in the meager home: handmade cookies, endless sugary mint tea, couscous with fish, couscous with chicken. They looked on her with a mixture of curiosity and whatever it is young girls feel when their handsome brother in an army uniform has found a girl to marry, one so unlike them they could not stop staring, listening to her accent, asking her every question about life in America, a place they envisioned only from movies.
Dafna’s mother Nurit and father Avram guided her and the twins around the house; many bedrooms, a large renovated kitchen, and the second kitchen that Israelis prided themselves on and Americans puzzled over. It was a large renovated kitchen for cooking meat dishes and a smaller one next to it for dairy, which made the religious observance of keeping kosher easier. The smell of cumin, so pungent, spicing up a pot of fava beans, was mixing with the smell of lamb; a veritable feast was being prepared in their honor. The twins looked on in awe, and were entertained by Dafna’s younger sisters, who knew enough English to entertain them.
“Tanuchi ktzat b’vakasha” (rest a bit, please), smiled Nurit, her bracelets jangling as she adjusted the pillow in one of the bedrooms. “Habayit sheli hu habayit shelach” (my house is your house), and Leeba knew she meant it. She fell into a restless sleep, dreading the encounter with Avigdor under the chupa. At the wedding of her son, she knew there could be no peace. She dreamed she was once again on the nearby kibbutz, tending turkeys, her husband appearing on a tractor to bring her to meet his family. All that had really happened. Leeba was now caught between her past life and the present irony of her son marrying a girl who lived three blocks away (on Rabbi Shimon Street), from the house of Avigdor’s parents. (on Rabbi Yair Street). She had to rub her eyes to adjust to the idea that she had, in fact, returned.
Moshe was sitting with Leeba outside, later, after the barbecue. The mosquitoes were out in full force. Her son was fluent in Hebrew; he clearly was besotted with his bride and her family. They were kind and loving people, and Leeba could only wonder at the life she might have had, perhaps even in Israel, with a different sort of man from this town than the one she had chosen.
She was mellow from the wine, and thought perhaps that Moshe and she would get through the wedding without further discussions about the past. She thought she was doing well, mingling among his relatives, presenting Dafna with a silver bracelet and necklace, and her mother with a pendant from her own mother.
“How are Grandma and Grandpa, Mom?” Moshe asked. “I’m sorry they are too old to travel.”
“They’re happy for you,” Leeba answered with a smile, holding herself back from ruffling his hair as she’d done when he was a small boy. “I want to know how you are.”
How you are, really, she thought. Are you still angry at me?
Moshe looked at his fingers, the clean, long, oval-shaped nails—just like his father’s. He resembled her ex-husband very much, the half-Ashkenazic side dormant. No one would ever believe they were mother and son.
“Remember when you came to visit me in Safed, Mom?” he suddenly asked, looking up.
“Yes, I do. It wasn’t easy seeing you like that.”
Apoplectic was more like it. It was more than a year ago, when she visited him in his unheated walk-up, in a crumbling building in the Old City. Jews, young and old alike—the secular ones in need of a blessing, the Hasidim visiting the graves of their rabbis, souls searching for redemption—all wandered through this area of northern Israel. And many stayed, Americans among them, building families, eking out a living…
“I’m not angry, Mom, but I was for a long time. I felt like you didn’t understand my pain. I was searching for some other road to happiness,” he finished quietly.
“Actually,” Leeba answered, “I did, more than you understood, Moshe. I had done something like you, as you know, years before, when I left New York to live on a kibbutz…I know what it means to search. But I was concerned that you would never be able to earn a living, that you took this too far. That not returning for college would be a mistake.”
After a moment, Moshe cracked a smile. “When you saw me, you almost fainted, Mom. Maybe it was cause I was washing my laundry in a bucket?”
Leeba remembered how, after seeing his apartment, she had forced him to come stay with her overnight in a warm hotel room. The next morning he’d gone straight to the yeshiva, without breakfast, to daven before he had his meal—his long Hasidic coat trailing after him in the February chill. She’d tried to comfort herself by thinking that at least he wasn’t burning up as he would in a few months under all the layers—the tzizit, the holy fringed undergarment, the white shirt, the long coat: it was the same attire her great grandfather had worn in Poland! And that beard! Unkempt and long. He’d been utterly disheveled.
Now Dafna came and offered them some baklava and more sweet tea. She moved gracefully; Leeba enjoyed watching her. Moshe thanked her and told her to get some sleep. He would be staying at his grandmother’s. After tonight they wouldn’t see each other for a week, until the chupa.
“I thought you and Abba should work things out, Mom.” Moshe said suddenly. His look was plaintive. He’d still been hoping, after everything. Hoping he’d come back from afar to a magical reunion.
“What was it really, Mom? What pulled you apart?” He stood up, restless, asking her finally, straight out, the pivotal question of his youth. “Was it… I don’t know… cultural differences? I feel perfectly comfortable here…”
“You grew up with their influence, Moshe—your father is from here. You visited here often. I came from Ohav Shalom and your grandparents.”
Leeba was familiar with the road they were going down. Too often it had become the gist of the conversation, him pitting her and her parents as the prejudiced ones. “It was not his background that was the problem, or mine for that matter. Yes, we were different. But it ran much deeper. Perhaps he never should have left this place where he’d been all his life. I took him to New York. He could never commit to me, to family. He filled our home with guests, gathered people around him constantly. Neglected me and you and the twins. He wasn’t….”
“Wasn’t what, Mom? Good enough?”
The words sat between them. Again, the inference. Leeba did not want to get into it any further, didn’t think she could cut through what his father had instilled in him as an excuse for not being able to be a consistent partner. But she had to try—finally.
“The marriage was wrong from the beginning, Moshe. My parents trusted him. They financed the business, but he never stuck with it. He seemed happy-go-lucky to you, and why not? He did exactly what he wanted! I spent my years with you in my arms at the window searching for his car. He’d run away, to friends, back to this town, hiding from responsibility!” Despite her efforts, her voice rose. “Hiding from you!” Sure… sure… he’d appear on Shabbat and holidays—but the problems were with his character, Moshe. It was his character… It had nothing to do with…with…this! She motioned around herself, referring to their physical location, trying one more time to reach her son. “He himself said it! ‘I’m a weekend father.’ That’s all I ever heard! ‘I’m a weekend father.’ For twenty-five years.”
Moshe would not give in. “But he loved me, Mom! He took me to shul, he taught me to daven. I stood under his tallis and felt happy. He was positive when you weren’t, and he joked, and we laughed, and he taught me how to love God. He cooked — how many men cook? And you… you kicked him out!” Moshe stood up, now, fuming. “And why? What for? What was so warm in your home growing up? Who was as joyous as him? You always wanted to know, didn’t you, why I stayed in Safed? Well that’s why… to find joy. Because my father had it, and your side of the family didn’t. Not in any deeper way. And never for long.”
Leeba could not contain herself.
“Was it his joy that brought you to a rotten basement apartment? Lost in Safed? Was it? And all this instead of getting an education, something many men here would jump at the chance for… Do you know what I found the night after I took you to the hotel?”
Moshe waited; the silence was deafening.
“When you didn’t come back to the hotel after yeshiva that day, I went to your apartment. Do you remember? The door was open. Your apartment was near the woods and I sensed you were there, meditating.
“Hitbodidus, Mom. Rabbi Nachman—”
“I know all that,” Leeba interrupted, impatient. “I learned about Rabbi Nachman and the followers of the Baal Shem Tov long before you were born. You wrote me that. About your prayers, alone in the woods. I would have been satisfied if it was bringing you peace. But it was February, Moshe, and you spent long hours outside… in the freezing cold! And you were too skinny. There was barely any food in your apartment. I saw mice! Mice.” Leeba took a few breaths. “You had one thin sheet and blanket, a heater that barely worked on the highest setting. I began to shake just seeing the state of your life. I was worried about you physically. Your beard looked like a bird’s nest. You talked in monosyllables about seeking the truth. Where was all this leading? For God’s sake! What mother would not be worried?”
Most of the family had gone to sleep, and Leeba noticed her daughter-in-law cleaning up, stealing furtive glances at them. She barely knew English, but she could ascertain the tone.
It’s okay, Leeba thought. She’s watching out for my son. That’s a good thing.
“You didn’t want me to become a Hasid,” Moshe said, in a childish tone.
“Get over yourself, Moshe! Grandpa’s grandparents were Hasidim, you’re not the first in the family. I had no problem with that particular choice, but what really disturbed me was the austerity, the lack of spirit in you. Where was the joy that is at the center of their thinking—the joy you were searching for?” Leeba was getting tearful despite her best efforts. “I want you to know something. The next day I went to see the head of your yeshiva, Rav Menachem. I was angry. If you were his disciple, how was it that he allowed you to live like that?”
“You did?” Moshe asked, shocked. Rav Menachem was going to be the m’sader kedushin, the rabbi who would marry him and Dafna one week from now. He would be traveling six hours from Safed for her son. He wasn’t an easy man to reach.
On that afternoon, when Leeba rang the doorbell an hour after she had phoned him, (perhaps he heard the desperation in her voice; yes, he could see her right away), it was the rabbi himself who, surprisingly, let her in. His face was not unkind. Leeba had reservations about many of the rabbinical leaders of her children’s generation. She found them lacking, not in their knowledge of the Torah, but in relatability.
Rabbi Menachem’s wife, Chaya, offered her tea and sat at the table with her husband—a fact that pleased Leeba. To include the rebbetzin, who hosted Moshe for Shabbat meals and knew him somewhat, was a good idea. She had a softness about her, and had placed her hand in greeting over Leeba’s.
“What did he tell you?” Moshe brought her back to the present, demanding to know.
“The first thing he said zeroed in on the truth: He understood that I must be troubled by your decision to continue learning in yeshiva instead of returning to college in the States. I liked that he got right to the point. That he didn’t talk around the issue.” She remembered sitting there, crumpling a tissue, waiting for some enlightenment about her son whom she hadn’t heard from in months, until she got on a plane to see him, because he no longer used a telephone or the internet. Leeba remembered trying to control her panic and disillusionment. Who had her parents been if not tortured Jews, and now it seemed that her son, in his supposed quest for spiritual bliss was choosing to torture himself?
But she said none of this, instead electing to beseech the rabbi in a calm voice. “Yes, I am quite concerned. Moshe seems to be lost in his head somewhere. He looks malnourished. Totally different than last year. I remember, when I visited him at the first yeshiva in Jerusalem last year, he greeted me with a smile, I took him and his friends out for dinner, and we talked of how he’d return for college. Suddenly he was living here, and everything changed. A boy needs parnasa, Rabbi. How will he make a living?” Leeba stopped speaking, for fear of alienating the only connection she still had to her son’s welfare.
“Does he at least write to you?” the rabbi wanted to know.
“Yes, but only two letters this year, both of which mention my anger at him for staying here in the yeshiva. When I dared write back one question, ‘But how will you make a living?’ he only replied, ‘God will provide.’ He was rude and insulting of my own Judaism.’
Moshe looked down, clearly remembering. But he didn’t apologize.
Rav Menachem had looked at her, his gaze like Moses chastising the nation of Israel. A rabbi with blazing eyes. But they had a purity. She understood he was trying to help her find clarity at least, as he drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, then said, “It was the divorce. That’s what he kept telling me. He was trying to make sense of the divorce. But how, Chaya”—he suddenly turned to his wife, and said, surprisingly—“how will he settle down and find a wife if this is how he talks to his own mother?”
The rebbetzin nodded her head in agreement.
Leeba had looked up, pleased.
“Moshe, I told them that I understood you better than you thought; that although my background was a stoic European one, I had great empathy and understanding of the Hasidic movement, how it had softened the stark world of pogroms. How the Baal Shem Tov helped the Jews find God in nature, in dance, and in meditation. And how it had lifted the spirits of the Jews. And I told him, Moshe, that the Hasidim smiled more than other Jews, and that I wish I could find that kind of solace. That I had married your father believing I had found a man unencumbered by my past and who, like them, knew joy. Perhaps he did, on the outside. Perhaps he davened with great devotion and stood all day on Yom Kippur, but—
“But what, Mom?”
“But he didn’t know how to be a husband!” Leeba’s voice rose once more. “And it was that simple. He couldn’t internalize any of the religion in a meaningful way, in the most basic way. Peace in the home is the essence of Judaism. And I was scared, worried about you. That in your quest to be uplifted, to find a greater light, I feared you were getting lost. Just like your father, albeit in a different fashion. You had all the outer markings in place, the clothing, the praying. But I feared, that, just like him, you would find no peace. No peace…”
The house had long since gone dark, Dafna’s family asleep. Leeba forgot where they were, that her son was getting married in a week. She forgot everything but her anger, dark and penetrating.
“Please, Mom, calm down. Please.” Leeba recognized the softening in his voice; even after their long separation. She still knew her son. “What was the end of your conversation?” he asked, quietly.
“I told the rabbi that, yes, the divorce affected you the most—the shouting, the sad mother, the father who was barely home. The twins were too young to remember much. I said I was sorry for your pain, though not sorry I divorced your father. My life held no possibility of any form of… ” Leeba struggled for her next words. “Of happiness.”
Moshe nodded his head, but Leeba knew he didn’t quite get it yet. “I saw a lifetime of compatibility between your grandparents. Out of the ashes they came together, stayed together, until this day. But let me tell you that…” She nearly choked on her upcoming words, for these were things she never thought she’d say to her kids. But he was about to be married now. He deserved to know. “I tried to stay, Moshe, I really did. I even blamed myself. Perhaps marital bliss had been given as a gift to the likes of Grandma and Grandpa as a gift from God to make up for a childhood full of tsuris, but I, who had grown up in plenty, would not be so deserving. This is what I really thought. That in the future I would content myself with being a mother, with sacrificing for my children. I would be grateful. And I told this to the rabbi, but I was crying so hard, I don’t know if he understood me at all. I told him, and am telling you, on the eve of your wedding, and with my blessing to you for a better life, that I was tired of banging my head against a wall. I was done. I had to get out.”
“And how did Rav Menachem react to what you told him?”
“The rabbi said, ‘Leeba, the Baal Shem Tov believed that in order to find God, a man or woman must dwell in a happy state. For this, we work our whole life, to find ecstasy in God’s kingdom. And stable marriages are the very foundation.’
“I replied that I understood, but my marriage had been anything but, and I was tired of my son blaming me, and in doing so had become lost to me—and further, he now looked as if he was lost to the world. I didn’t want to pit him against his father, but he needed to see that, if I’d stayed, I would have burned out quickly. I had to save myself to be able to mother my kids, even at the cost of doing it totally alone. I had been doing it alone anyway. Once I made that decision, it was my spiritual rebirth. I have healed. And I love my son very much.”
Moshe’s lip trembled and he turned to slowly look at her.
“Two months later, the rabbi called me to say that he had taken you in to live with him. You were now eating proper meals, strengthening your heart, and looking for a shidduch. He felt that soon you would be ready to be a husband. And I should remember that, in the words of Reb Nachman, ‘Joy is not incidental to spiritual quest. It is vital.’
“I asked him, ‘How is it possible to find it each day?’ And he answered that his favorite quote from the Reb was this: “If you never want to see the face of hell, when you come home from work every night, dance with your kitchen towel and if you’re worried about waking your family, take off your shoes.’
“Later, he added that he sees you as his son, because, as the Reb once said: ‘To revive a man is no small thing.’ And watching you blossom has become as important to him as anything else, and he is regretful he didn’t realize your plight sooner. “
Moshe’s eyes were teary. “A great man, Rav Menachem.”
“Yes,” said Leeba. “And a man who knows the meaning of joy.”
A week later, Rav Menachem stood between Leeba and Avigdor under the chupa. A mechitza more formidable than any other. Unlike in the cemetery, where there was a clear divide between the living and dead, and in the shul she’d grown up in, where the separation between men and women was clearly proscribed, this time the rabbi made a choice. The family of the bride usually stood on one side, the parents together, and the groom and his family on the other. Now Rav Menachem directed otherwise; Leeba and the twins, who were holding up an edge of the tallis, the canopy under which stood the bride and groom, stood with Dafna’s mother and sisters, next to the bride. On the other side were the men—Avigdor with Dafna’s father and brothers—right next to Moshe.
Leeba focused on her son, prayed for shalom bayit, peace in his home, and thanked the Holy One Above for the mending of their relationship.
Leeba had never felt more at peace with the divide, and she thanked the rabbi silently.