In a Chinese airport, in a post-op ward, in a delivery room; 3 stories of simchahs shared from afar
How Do You Say Bris in Chinese?
Shira Assoulin’s story
We were a young Israeli couple on shlichus in China. It was clear to us from the outset that we’d be there no longer than a year. What we didn’t know was that at the end of that year, we’d be awaiting the birth of our first child.
On a clear, hot morning, I went to a Chinese hospital to give birth to my eldest child. I wasn’t accompanied by my mother or a doula, but a Jewish mother’s tefillos have impact no matter where she is in the world. I was surrounded by local midwives and hospital staff, and I didn’t really understand the language, but we managed to somehow communicate in English.
About twenty-four hours after I was admitted, I cradled my son in my arms. There were excited phone calls to the entire family and jokes about the little Chinese Jew who was just born. I was euphoric, but my husband looked pensive.
“Yaakov! What about the bris?!” I suddenly cried. “How did we not think about the bris? What will we do? Is there even a mohel in China? How do we know if he’s good? And there’s no way that my parents or yours can come….”
I started to cry.
After several intense hours and countless phone calls, my husband informed me, “We’re flying to Europe! We’ll do the bris there, and our parents will come from Israel and meet us there.”
Despite my exhaustion and weakness, I happily agreed to the arrangement.
Yaakov hurried to organize a passport for the baby. Six days after our baby’s birth, we packed a small suitcase and wrapped up our sweet bundle for his first trip out into the world.
When we entered the terminal, we were greeted by mayhem. “Strange,” my husband said to me. “It’s usually very calm and quiet here. I wonder what happened.” He left me with the baby and baggage and went to find out what was going on. When he returned, his face was grim.
“There’s a strike!” he informed me. “Let’s daven that it will be over soon. I have no idea how strikes work in China,” he added with a smile.
If he only knew what our next few days would look like, he might not have been so quick to smile.
The hours passed. Conditions weren’t great for any traveler, much less so for an exhausted new mother and a tiny, screaming baby who didn’t like having his diaper changed between two chairs in the waiting area.
An entire day passed. My husband left the terminal to buy food and drinks, hand soap, and diapers. I washed the baby in the sink in the terminal. I wanted to go back home, but the strike could end at any moment, and we couldn’t risk missing our flight.
In the middle of the seventh day after his birth, we received a call from our parents, who’d already landed in Europe. “You have no idea what will happen, so maybe you should check into the possibility of doing the bris in China?” they suggested.
“What do you mean?” I protested. “The strike will end, and everything will be fine.”
Or maybe not.
My husband, who by nature is more realistic than I, started making calls. Eventually, he sat down on the bench next to me, drained, and said, “Shira, I found a mohel who’s a tzaddik and is willing to head toward us. It will take him hours to get here. If there’s a flight during the course of the night, we’ll get on it, and the mohel will go back home. If not, we’ll do the bris here.”
Toward midnight, my husband woke up from his nap on the airport bench in alarm and said to me, “Hey, we forgot! We have to say Shema with the baby!”
I started to cry, but he found the strength to start walking around the giant terminal. “Is there anyone here who’s Jewish?” he asked again and again, and after half an hour, he returned with ten Jews. Some were businessmen, one was a doctor, and several others were the eccentric type.
“My son is having a bris tomorrow,” my husband said cheerfully. “Will you all say Shema with him?”
The group agreed to join the simchah and said Shema with my husband — some fluently, others mumbling hesitantly.
None of them joined him in singing Adon Olam, but my husband danced about. I felt incredible anger, not toward Hashem, chas v’shalom, but at the airlines.
“Shira! Be happy!” my husband said to me. “A Jewish child was born! The Adon HaOlam — the Master of the World — is surely joining my singing. Tomorrow, Eliyahu Hanavi will come in all his glory, and he knows how to come to China just as well as he does to Bnei Brak. Do you hear, Shira? Tomorrow, our son will have the zechus of entering the bris of Avraham Avinu, and there’s no greater simchah than that!”
On the morning of the eighth day, my husband spent a long time walking around and rounding up Jewish men to attend the bris. He ended up finding 30 people. When the mohel arrived, we found a quiet corner, the mohel prepared his instruments, and my baby had his bris — without a white outfit and satin hat, without gourmet food or a photographer, without grandparents and loving family standing nearby. Just a young father and mother, 30 random Jews, and One Creator in attendance.
One of the “guests” filmed the bris on his phone and promised to send us a copy, another broadcast it in real time to our parents waiting in vain in Europe. My husband made the brachos, and those assembled, as well as those on the other end of the phone, answered “Amen” in loud voices. The Chinese who passed by didn’t understand what the whole commotion was about.
“V’yikarei shemo b’Yisrael,” the mohel said, and my husband filled in, “Yehuda.” I couldn’t help but think about this little Yehuda, who had the zechus of getting ten Jews to say Shema and 30 to participate in the mitzvah of a bris when he was only a week old.
It was far from my dream bris. I was very emotional and cried a lot. I was surrounded by strangers who were brothers…. It was strange, it was different, but it was uplifting and exciting. It made me realize that a bris isn’t a family event, but rather a Jewish event. I was able to appreciate the uplifting stories of holy mothers and fathers during the Holocaust and at other points in the tragic history of our nation who made sure to give their sons a bris on the eighth day with complete mesirus nefesh, no matter what the circumstances. There was no celebratory event — it was only them and HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
In our case, it wasn’t mesirus nefesh, but it also wasn’t a standard bris. Who knows what happened to those 30 Jews who took part in our bris? Maybe one of them became a baal teshuvah? Even if not, unaffiliated Jews merited saying Shema and participating in a bris. That’s significant.
Many years have passed since that bris. We’ve had the zechus of making another three brissim in Eretz Yisrael, but — believe it or not — no bris compared to that one.
Wedding Guest in a Hospital Bed
Rav Brezak’s story
When my youngest daughter Leah’le got engaged, we couldn’t have imagined that I wouldn’t attend her wedding. But two months after her engagement party, I was diagnosed with a serious disease, and a week later, was on my way from Israel to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York for treatment.
Leah’le was sure her wedding would be postponed. “I’m not getting married without my father,” she cried. Even the mechutanim made it clear that, as far as they were concerned, the wedding could be pushed off.
My wife and I understood the kallah’s wish, but as chassidim, we explained to her we’d need to ask the Rebbe for his psak. It’s only when you seek the counsel of gedolim and rabbanim that you merit siyata d’Shmaya, and it’s easier to deal with everything that comes your way. The Rebbe ruled that the wedding shouldn’t be postponed.
It wasn’t easy for Leah’le. When we parted at the airport, she bowed her head and asked me to bentsh her. I was sitting in my wheelchair, and Leah’le sat down on my lap. I lay my trembling hands on her head and gave her all the brachos that a father gives his daughter before she walks down the aisle.
“Even though I don’t have my shtreimel on, and I’m not dressed for a wedding, I’m giving you a father’s brachah, as if you’re about to walk down the aisle now,” I whispered to her.
I’m not one given to tears, but nevertheless, I broke down crying.
On the day of the wedding, I watched as a husky African-American technician set up a screen so I could watch the wedding from my hospital bed where I was recovering post-surgery. Through wet eyes, I looked at the wonders of technology that would allow me to participate in the wedding. The screen flickered a bit and suddenly I could make out the hall we’d chosen.
“Abba!” My oldest son who had accompanied me to America, pointed at the screen. “Mazel tov, Abba. We’re just in time. Look, there’s Ima, getting out of the car with Leah’le.” The photographer shifted the camera, and I saw my dear daughter in her beautiful white gown. I had difficulty seeing the other scenes through my tears. Chuppah music filled the room, and my son danced beside me. The nurses walked in and out, moved by the scene.
About an hour after the chuppah, I heard activity in the hallway, and a group of bochurim entered my room and danced and sang to the sounds of the music coming from Yerushalayim.
I felt a complex mix of emotions — sadness, pain, and incredible longing — but I was also full of gratitude to my son who stayed with me and missed his sister’s wedding, and to the wonderful bochurim who came to be mesamei’ach a Jew who was stuck in a hospital the night of his child’s chasunah. I was also greatly indebted to the hospital that understood the circumstances and agreed to overlook their rigid protocol and allow the screen to be set up, and the bochurim to visit me.
It was the most moving wedding I’d ever experienced. I davened the entire time; I cried the entire time. I wasn’t with Leah’le physically, but I was as close to her as possible.
Baruch Hashem, I’ve merited to marry off all my children. I’ve attended hundreds, if not thousands of weddings of family and friends. Until Leah’le’s simchah, a wedding meant a band, bochurim, dancing, and a whole crowd celebrating. A wedding was the moving moments of a chuppah and the mitzvah tantz. It was envelopes of money for the band, the hall, the photographer, and the waiters. It was also a lot of excitement and thanksgiving to Hashem.
But Leah’le’s wedding reminded me what a true Jewish wedding is: first and foremost, a wedding is a great and lofty day, a day of davening, a day of closeness to Hashem and pure love. Above all, it’s a day of happiness and thanksgiving to Him.
Bar Mitzvah Baby
Etty Weiss’s story
I sat down on the chair with a gentle sigh to watch the hairdresser work on the last hairdo. I was at the beginning of my ninth month of pregnancy just as we were celebrating our bechor’s bar mitzvah.
“Are you okay? Is everything alright?” my husband asked, and I nodded, indicating that everything was fine. “I think I didn’t drink enough,” I said and got up to get a cup of water.
The next hour was very busy and tense. One after the other, I dressed my children for the bar mitzvah. “Four lovely princesses,” I complimented my girls, “and one extra-special prince!” I smiled happily at the excited bar mitzvah boy in his new suit.
“I’m going to get dressed,” I told my family before going to my room. It was only there, when I had a quiet moment alone, that I realized that I wasn’t just dehydrated, I was in labor.
“Are you sure? It’s a little early. Are you sure you can’t wait until later tonight?” my husband asked hopefully, but in the face of my pained expression, he realized his question was irrelevant.
My husband was silent for a long moment and then said to me, “Etty, you and I don’t choose what will happen.” While speaking, he started dialing my sister’s number.
“We’re already getting dressed, and we’re very excited,” I heard my sister say.
My husband responded, “Get everyone ready quickly and come. You don’t need Shabbos clothing. You’re going with Etty to the hospital. Okay?”
My sister needed a few seconds to digest what he’d told her, but then she said quickly, “I’ll be over in five minutes. I promise you everything will be fine, and it will be the happiest bar mitzvah ever! I’ll let Ima know.”
My husband hung up and called over our bechor. “Listen, Shloimy,” he said, after informing him what was happening, “we also didn’t dream that this would happen, but I promise you that your bar mitzvah will still be happy and exciting.”
“But Ima won’t hear my derashah,” Shloimy stammered in a choked voice.
“I’ll hear it! I promise you I’ll hear it! Abba will hold the phone and I’ll hear everything,” I hurried to reassure him.
Ten minutes later, we walked out of the building — five children in magnificent outfits, excited and a bit confused, and one mother in a tichel, holding a small suitcase.
“Are you okay?” my husband asked me.
“I’ll be okay,” I replied.
I got into a taxi with my devoted sister when I heard a car next to us honking. “Hey! It’s Abba!” I said to my sister.
My dear father had heard about the change in plans and hurried over. “Listen,” he said to my husband. “I know you’re going to the hall, and you’re going to be thinking about your wife the entire time.” He turned to me, “And you’re going to the hospital and will be thinking about the bar mitzvah you won’t be at.
“Baruch Hashem, it’s all for happy reasons, and therefore, you mustn’t think about what you’re missing — only about what you’re gaining. I’m asking you to focus on the simchah! And me? I’m the grandfather of the bar mitzvah boy, and I’m going to enjoy the simchah, and I’m waiting for a phone call with good news!”
We agreed with him, and we each set off.
An hour and a half later, I listened attentively to my bechor’s bar mitzvah derashah. I cried and cried. At 11:22 p.m., my sister called my husband and let him hear the most moving sound in the world: the wail of a newborn baby.
“Mazel tov!” my husband said, and burst into tears. “Mazel tov to us all.”
At midnight, after the last of the guests left, my husband and oldest son arrived at the hospital. We looked at the brand-new baby boy and smiled with joy.
“Wow, what an evening! A bar mitzvah we’ll never forget!” my husband said.
“You’ll see. One day our story will make it into the newspaper,” I said, and look… I was right.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 755)
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