| On My Shelf: Pesach Theme 5783 |

On My Shelf      

  Writers share the backstory of the prized possession they’ll keep forever 

Project Coordinator Rachel Bachrach

Holy Tablet

By Yosef Zoimen
A few minutes in the morning changed his life

Winter is just over, and for months the campgrounds have been eerily quiet. No booming “Yehei Shemei Rabbas,” no cheers from the hockey court, just teams of hard-working Amish families braving the cold to construct bunkhouses, expand the amphitheater, and frame the brand-new shul for the upcoming summer.

But while the boys may be gone, their stories remain. The humble plywood walls bear witness to summers of immeasurable growth only camp can foster.

And in one camp owner’s bungalow, sitting safely on the bookshelf is a memento that showcases that triumph and inspires his vision, pushing him once again to spend the winter pumping money into the camp for necessary upgrades and his head counselor to work hard recruiting the most dedicated counselors. Because you never know what merits await.

Last July, when Dovid stepped off the van from the airport to camp, he handed his electronic tablet in upon arrival, as per camp policy. Dovid lives out of town, and he brought a tablet with him so he could keep himself occupied on the long flight and van ride.

After a few days, Dovid’s counselor Matis, a third-year beis medrash bochur who’d come with a chevreh of yeshivah friends, asked his camper if he’d like to learn an extra seder outside of the regular camp learning programs.

“Sure,” Dovid agreed, and morning after morning, the two of them had a 15-minute post-Shacharis mussar seder. The timeless words of the Ramchal enveloped Dovid, and he found that he was more content, as well as more passionate in his davening and learning.

The camp environment — great sports, newfound friends, incredible ruach — worked wonders, and Dovid knew he was progressing. He’d come to camp after yet another schoolyear of ups and downs, but now he was hopeful that the following year, with his new outlook and a new rebbi, would be one of more ups, the year that he could break thorough and shine.

ON the second to last day of camp, Dovid confided in Matis.

“I know tomorrow night after the closing banquet, they’ll give me back my tablet,” he said. “I’ll start watching the same schmutz, and I’ll be right back where I was before the summer.”

“So leave the tablet here — don’t pick it up from the office,” Matis suggested.

“I can’t do that,” Dovid replied. “I worked so hard — at different jobs the entire year — so I could save $250 to buy it. There’s no way I’m leaving it here.”

Without missing a beat, Matis reached into his wallet and counted out $250.

“Here, Dovid, I’m buying the tablet off you.”

Dovid’s face was raw emotion: a mix of utter shock and profound joy. Not only had his beloved counselor and chavrusa taken the time to learn with him every day that summer, but he’d instantly given up what could have easily been his entire month’s earnings to help Dovid maintain his incredible progress.

When the camp’s owner — my close friend — got wind of the interaction, he bought the tablet from Matis for $250, placing it on the bookshelf his bungalow. His hard work had been worth it! That tablet is no longer in use, but it sits there still, a reminder that the support of a caring counselor can go a long way, and that every boy is capable of greatness.

Yosef Zoimen is an attorney in private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is involved in the explosive growth of the city’s Torah community.

The Grandparents I Never Knew

By Sandy Eller
Those figurines and the matzeivah were the closest thing he had to graves for his murdered family

They have always been a presence in my life — a set of intricately carved wooden figurines who look like they just stepped out of the shtetl.

His flowing black coat nearly reaches his ankles, ostensibly to keep him warm from the bone-chilling European weather, because once the snow fell it didn’t melt until spring in Poland, where temperatures never rose above freezing all winter long. His white beard extends to his collarbone, while the small black hat on his head must be the Yiddishe hittel my father said was de rigueur back in the day in Poland. In his hands is what looks like a tallis bag with trailing strands of tzitzis, but I can’t be sure because the years have taken a toll on this wooden zeide, and there is no one left who can give me a definitive answer.

She is similarly attired, the kerchief on her head tied neatly under her chin, its tails cascading over her brown peplum jacket. The duty-length apron covering her long brown skirt matches perfectly with my father’s recollections that, back in his hometown of Bendzin, a Jewish housewife never went out in the street without her shertzel, her apron, and a kupka on her head.

Between them in the little carve-out in the wall stood a black stone slab, with gold letters on two sides bearing the names of the grandparents and three aunts I never knew, and a German inscription reading “Murdered by the Nazi regime.” Standing firmly between those two shtetl figurines, it is the only matzeivah my father’s parents and sisters will ever have.

Perched as they were in a niche at the bottom of the staircase, those shtetl figurines became part of my identity, much like I know that my eyes are blue and that I am the youngest of three children. The wooden bubby and zeide watched us grow up. They saw nine-year-old me standing on the stairs in my pink gown before my brother’s bar mitzvah, reminding my mother that she promised I could wear lipstick to the simchah. They saw Friday night family games of Blind Man’s Bluff, when inevitably one of my mother’s crystal dishes would break, and they saw my father giving us piggy-back rides up the stairs at bedtime. Years later, when I came home with children of my own, those figurines bore witness to a jumble of black-and-white houndstooth as my oldest tumbled down the entire flight of stairs in her first big-girl Shabbos dress.

MY father would often regale us with stories of his childhood in the alte heim, telling us how he would stick chestnut burrs in the hair of unsuspecting little girls and how, even with three married daughters, his own father was still wearing the long tweed coat with velvet lapels he had gotten as part of his trousseau. But he rarely discussed the wartime years with us when we were younger, and he never told us, or even my mother, what those figurines and the matzeivah represented or where they came from. They were just there, woven into the fabric of our lives but not discussed. To this day, my sister is confident that the memorial display was sacred to him, and had there ever been a fire in our house, my father would have grabbed those figurines and the matzeivah on the way out, because they were the closest thing he had to graves for his murdered family.

When my parents sold their house in Queens some 20 years ago and decided to split their time between the Catskills and Florida, the figurines and matzeivah were carefully packed and moved. They were accorded a place of honor in the house upstate, atop a dining room cabinet overlooking the Shabbos table. This placement was truly fitting, given how my father often told us his mother would say she couldn’t imagine her mischievous youngest with a family of his own, and how she would love to peek in from outside and watch him feering a Shabbos tish.

Time continued its inevitable march, and those figurines saw my father holding court with the next generation. They watched him tell the visiting grandchildren to pass him their chicken bones when they were done eating, because he knew there would still be meat on them and throwing food out was intolerable given his experiences during the war. They watched tears stream down my father’s face as he saw echoes of his own idyllic childhood when my son sang al hamichyah with a chassidishe havarah the way his second grade rebbi had taught him. They witnessed my father plying his grandchildren — and years later, his great-grandchildren — with potato chips, licorice, and Mike and Ikes from his endless stash of goodies, and crawling around on the floor giving the little ones rides even well into his eighties, because, really, isn’t that what a zeide’s nachas is all about? They heard my father proudly exclaim that he was the richest man alive because all of his descendants are shomrei Shabbos.

As those figurines bore witness to our lives, I can only imagine how in the Olam Ha’emes, my father’s parents watched the years unfold. I have no doubt they are shepping tremendous nachas seeing — against all odds and over dozens of years and thousands of miles — how their ben zekunim kept their legacy alive, generation after generation continuing to follow in his footsteps.

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer whose works have appeared broadly in the Jewish media world. She lives in Spring Valley, New York.

Dad’s Purple Yarmulke

By Helen Shere

Steam rises as I pull the foil off a pan  of my father’s favorite meatloaf and set it on the counter. It’s 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and he’ll pull into our driveway any minute after his five-hour drive from Cleveland to our home in Indianapolis. I want dinner to be ready when he arrives.

My phone pings, and I look at the screen to find messages from two local friends: “Is your dad staying through Shabbos? You should bring him for lunch,” and “Can your dad come with you to Levi’s bar mitzvah? We’d love to see him!”

When I first became observant in high school, I never thought that one day, my staunchly Reform father would be joining me at seudos, simchahs, and community events, a beloved fixture in our kehillah. The son of a Holocaust survivor from Poland, my father shied away from anything that looked “too Jewish” that could put him and his family in danger. When I traded my jeans and T-shirts for tzniyus outfits, he worried for my safety while I walked around the neighborhood looking identifiably Jewish.

He was also worried that I would try to change his beliefs and influence how he practiced his Judaism. Luckily, early in my journey to frumkeit I had chanced upon a book about navigating relationships as a baalas teshuvah and had listened to my dad’s concerns open-mindedly, assuring him I would never pressure him to do anything he didn’t want to do.

Once the air was cleared, my dad and I found creative ways to stay close while respecting each other. When I went to college out-of-state, we would prepare for my visits home by planning delicious menus together. He would clean his non-kosher kitchen before I arrived and leave it for 24 hours, and I would kasher it and prepare the dishes we’d selected. We made great memories and found some real “keeper” recipes along the way (like the meatloaf).

Over time, my father warmed up to my observance and started accompanying me to occasional Shabbos seudos, but there were things he wasn’t comfortable with. He still preferred it when my then-chassan-now-husband wore a baseball hat instead of a yarmulke in public, and he preferred discussing my academic achievements in college to my Judaic studies courses.

After my husband and I married and settled in the Midwest, we started hosting my father for visits several times a year. We kept the tradition of menu-planning — only now, we have a kosher kitchen of our own, and my dad has fun hunting through the kosher grocery stores in his city to find interesting foods for us to try.

Our warm community has embraced him with open arms, and over the years my dad has been a panim chadashos at sheva brachos, munched on kreplach at Purim seudos, and bonded with our shul rav over their shared love of coconut bars, a Cleveland bakery specialty. He even has an established Shabbos kibbud in our shul — he always does pesichah at the end of Mussaf for Anim Zemiros, which often generates a flood of Motzaei Shabbos texts from people who saw him in shul and want to invite him.

After our son’s birth in 2019, my father surprised us by mentioning that he was attending shiurim at a shul near his house. Three years later, he loves sharing his Torah learning with us, and he even gifted our son his first pair of tzitzis.

But after a few visits where we scrambled to find a yarmulke my dad could borrow, he brought a purple one he found at his house for us to keep handy. We don’t know where he got it — presumably from a local simchah or institution dinner — but it has become his official headgear of choice when he visits. Before he arrives, my husband removes it from the guestroom dresser and places it next to the kiddush cup in the breakfront.

My dad is the only one who wears the purple yarmulke (except for my son, who begs to wear the “Grandpa kippah” for a few days after each visit so he can keep his grandfather close). When I see my son wearing it, I’m grateful that he associates his grandfather with positive Jewish memories.

On Shabbos morning, Day Three of my father’s visit, I find myself back in the kitchen, chopping lettuce for London broil salad and putting up food to warm for lunch. I hear coats zipping in the living room as my father, husband, and son get ready for shul, followed by the inevitable negotiation to get our son into his stroller for the walk. Soon they’re out the door and making their way past my father’s car, which is parked in the driveway.

I pause to look out the front window, and I see three yarmulkes — my husband’s black velvet, my son’s gray cotton, and my father’s bright, proudly Jewish purple satin — as three generations walk down the block to shul together.

Helen Shere is a wife, mother, baker, gardener, and medical school project manager in Indianapolis, Indiana.

A Prayer on Her Lips 

By Yocheved Goldberg

While the corners have yellowed from use and its letters are starting to fade, the words still jump out and fill my heart. Because Babi’s Sefer Tehillim is more than just a worn book; it’s a time machine.

My Babi, Chaya Esther Bruckstein, was born on August 15, 1913. She grew up in a majestic home in Bustina, Hungary (now Ukraine). “Vee vere so very vealthy,” she would wistfully recall. Her close-knit family — six siblings and more than 60 first cousins — was prestigious and prosperous, and Babi’s childhood was filled with plenty: opulent décor, servants who took care of everything, even a separate guest house on their large estate. It was a warm, hospitable home, rich with Torah values and gemilus chasadim, and attracting all sorts of guests, from visiting rabbis from around Europe to people recuperating from illness.

It was during those early days, and then later in 1938 after the birth of her daughter, when Babi would open her Tehillim and recite the timeless words of praise and thanks for all the blessings in her life: Hodu l’Hashem ki tov ki l’olam chasdo.

Yet as for so many others, in one day, her warm, graced life was shattered. Babi, her husband, and their five-year-old daughter were rounded up along with her extended family and community and taken to Auschwitz. As she was standing on the platform waiting to be told in which line she should stand, an unfamiliar man in prison garb came up to her.

“Give your child to the old lady next to you right now,” he instructed.

My Babi, disoriented from the long and arduous train ride, followed his orders and handed her daughter to her mother-in-law. She never saw either one of them again.

As the days passed, Babi — starved and exhausted — would find inner reservoirs of strength she never knew she possessed. It was there, in Auschwitz, that she would see her father across a fence in the men’s camp for the very last time. She did not know who he was until he called out to her in a weak voice, “Don’t you recognize me, Hajnal? It’s me, your Opu.” And a little while later, in Ravensbruck, her sister and cousin would task Babi each day with dividing up their measly rations, because she was the oldest and wisest and had deep compassion and integrity. It was there that her younger sister shared her plan to throw herself against the electric fence to end her agony, and it was there Babi pleaded with her sister not to do so, encouraging her with hope, faith, and the will to survive. It was there Babi cried out to Hashem, from the depths of her suffering, quoting the same Tehillim from parched lips that she once sang from a full heart: Mima’amakim kerasicha Hashem.

After liberation, Babi was reunited with the few scattered members of her family, and her realization of how many were lost was overwhelming. Among the living was her first cousin, a man she’d wanted to marry as a young girl, although her parents did not allow it at the time. They both found themselves at a mutual cousin’s home in Romania, and they decided to marry. Before the wedding, though, Babi had to perform the ritual of chalitzah, following testimony that her child was killed before her first husband. They were able to locate her brother-in-law, find a rabbi, and make it a priority to complete this obscure and complicated mitzvah so they could rebuild their lives together.

Together, Babi and Zeidy grieved the lives they’d had, he too having lost a wife and son in Auschwitz. But they committed to putting one foot in front of the other and looking toward the future. Soon they were blessed with a baby — my father. They secured visas and came to America to start a new life.

But the hardships continued. Babi and Zeidy arrived at Ellis Island with battle scars, empty pockets, and no familiarity with the language. They got jobs in a garment factory, but my grandfather — a brilliant man — had no idea how to sew clothing. Painstakingly, he tried to do his work, but he struggled to finish his pile. My grandmother would not let him get fired; she worked quickly and tirelessly to complete his workload in addition to hers. It was here, replanted in a new world, with nothing but hope for the future, that Babi cried out with those same tefillos that had accompanied her this far: Ezri mei’im Hashem.

AS the years went on, Babi slowly rebuilt her life. She raised her son and supported her husband with care and selflessness. She was machshiv Torah at a time when it wasn’t so common to care about daily Torah learning. In the cold winter months, she would wake up early to warm their clothes on the heater so “her men’’ could learn together each morning in comfort before going off to work and yeshivah.

It was in their Washington Heights apartment that Babi told my father, her precious 13-year-old son, he need not fast as a bechor before Pesach, because another child came before him. It was there that she reunited with the man who took that child from her arms in Auschwitz and, realizing now that he had saved her life, stayed in touch with him and invited him to partake in family simchahs.

Despite trying to move forward, Babi never fully let go of her past. Where else to turn but her Tehillim to find the right words to express her desire to transition to a life of no more sadness: Hafachta mispedi l’machol li.

In later years, Babi imparted lessons to us, the grandchildren she never imagined she’d have, in her everyday attitude and actions. We knew that every crumb was precious, never to be wasted. Every grandchild and great-grandchild was a miracle, never to be taken for granted. And every milestone was a momentous occasion, never to be missed. Babi attended every graduation, visiting day, and Chumash party, heart filled with nachas and joy at the rebirth of her family.

Babi reveled in her husband’s Torah learning and scholarship, in her son’s success in medicine and the fine home he built with his eishes chayil. She felt her life — in her tiny apartment in Rego Park, Queens, without the servants and fancy furnishings — was complete. She would thank Hashem for the brachah and riches, and with her beloved Tehillim in hand she would sing: Kos yeshuos esa uv’sheim Hashem ekra.

In 1993 I went off to seminary, and before I returned for Pesach, I brought Babi a gift, a new Tehillim to replace her battered one. I had her name engraved on the cover, and I’ll never forget the smile on Babi’s face and the joy in her eyes when I presented it to her, the acknowledgment that I understood what was most important to her. This was Babi’s legacy, my vivid memories of her reading from that Tehillim, day and night, well into her 90s. Her connection with Hashem was unflinching, her love for Him palpable: Lehagid baboker chasdecha, ve’emunasecha baleilos.

Babi passed away 18 years ago. Since her petirah, I have her precious Tehillim, the one I gifted to her 30 years ago, on my shelf, a symbol of Babi’s tenacious courage, profound perseverance, and deep faith. Babi’s Tehillim reminds me that while my highs and lows can’t compare to what she endured, no matter what is going on in our lives — from the better days to the more challenging ones — I, too, can find expression, as she did, in the Book of Tehillim.

Now that I am blessed with grandchildren who call me Babi, I feel responsible to transmit the tefillos and tears those pages absorbed. I try my best to share the values I gained from previous generations, to be the next link in the unbreakable chain: Dor l’dor yishabach ma’asecha.

Dedicated l’ilui nishmas Chaya Esther bas Eliezer Lipa 

Yocheved Goldberg is the rebbetzin of the Boca Raton Synagogue, a shul in South Florida with more than 1,000 families.

Food for Thought 

By Sima Schon

You do stuff for your kids that you would never do for yourself.

You spend money and energy and heart and kishkes whether you have them or not.

When my son Shloimy was 15 months old, I noticed he was going through a case of diapers every week; I joked that I needed a nanny just to keep up with his diaper changes. Otherwise, he was an angel, napping four hours daily and sleeping 13 hours every night.

Shloimy was also always ready to eat. Four slices of bread for breakfast. Two bananas for lunch, and whatever I fed him for supper. He barely chewed, just swallowed the food whole. It was a Yiddishe mama’s dream: spoonful after spoonful of mashed potatoes slid down his throat, and he was always hungry for more. His grandparents loved when he came, mouth wide open — but I begged them not to feed him because his diapers leaked all over the place.

I had a rag in one hand, a can of air freshener in the other, and bleach on the counter. Shloimy would barely swallow and already he needed a change of clothes. I practically supported Carter’s because I threw out undershirts on a weekly basis (Shout and a washing machine go only so far).

The pediatrician didn’t laugh when I told her about the quantity of diapers, and she wasn’t impressed with Shloimy’s angelic behavior and sleeping patterns. She also pointed out that Shloimy hadn’t gained an ounce in eight months.

“Celiac,” she pronounced gravely. “At best.”

Off we went to the lab, and that Shabbos, while we waited for the results, I let my baby gorge on challah and cake and cookies.

This will be the last time in his life he can enjoy it, I thought.

But the lab got back to us: his inflammatory markers were elevated, but not dangerously so. It wasn’t celiac.

On to the gastroenterologist my pediatrician recommended.

“We have to rule out cystic fibrosis,” the GI said gravely. He diagnosed Shloimy with failure to thrive.

More labs. Definitely not cystic fibrosis. Again, his inflammatory markers were high but not crazy out of whack.

The GI was at a loss. He gave us two options: wait it out or do extensive and invasive testing. I didn’t feel either one was a great choice.

Only a couple of months before, I had bragged about my baby’s angelic behavior, but now I was a nervous wreck. The long naps agitated me, and I no longer enjoyed feeding Shloimy, knowing there was that elusive something ailing him.

His condition only got worse. The diapers, the eating, the scrawniness — and he was constantly under the weather with low-grade fevers and upper respiratory viruses, yet it was all so vague. Not sick enough to be sick, but sick enough to cast a pall of worry over the entire family.

Fall gave way to winter, and his symptoms worsened with the weather. I was also plodding through a difficult pregnancy, and not with grace. There were alternative therapies to consider, but we’re a family of normal eating and health habits. Yes, we do whole wheat, salads, the occasional vitamin C for a cold, maybe a probiotic if we’re very virtuous. Being normal, we also do chocolate and coffee and ice cream, so going alternative wouldn’t be easy.

But when Shloimy turned 19 months old, we were at the peak of desperation; if alternative medicine offered hope, we would try it.

Every neighbor and their cousin knew of a different miracle worker. After researching the options, I booked a consultation with a health kinesiology practitioner.

The kinesiologist spoke about body balance and explained that we had to wear batteries on our bodies to balance us out, as well as colored stones to connect to our bodies. Shloimy sat on my lap, batteries taped on our sweaters under the rib cage and stones glittering from our necks. Then the practitioner tested all food groups by saying the food name and seeing if our collective balance accepted or rejected it.

For a mere 300 bucks, my son was pronounced sensitive to gluten, nuts, sugar, cocoa, dairy, potatoes, and nightshades. He was put on five different supplements.

Gluten-free, nut-free sugar-free bread looks and smells awful. I can’t tell you about the taste, because I didn’t try it, but it has the odor of a vinegar-glue mixture. Of all spreads available in the grocery, Shloimy was allowed only lox spread and tuna. My house took on the faint odor of vinegar and fish.

The supplements ate any supplementary income. Ten drops three times an hour without food before or after. Twenty-eight drops with food only during bedtime routine. One capful on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and two capfuls the rest of the week.

We emptied a large shelf in the kitchen for Shloimy’s vitamins, drops, and homeopathic miracle remedies. We organized it in sections: morning, afternoon, and night routines.

And it worked! Two weeks in, we saw a major difference. Shloimy was fever-free for the first week that winter, and his dirty diapers were down by half. We were elated, sharing the news with everyone.

I breathed his diet — the smell and the rules — and watched him like a hawk. Not a morsel of forbidden food was allowed within reach, and I didn’t send him out to a babysitter. We did this all the way.

Then came the emergency birth five weeks earlier than expected. I recovered in the hospital while the baby was in the NICU. But I wasn’t lonely — my husband and Shloimy were at my side. No one else was capable of keeping up his diet, so he sat with us.

Two weeks later, I had sufficiently recovered to notice that Shloimy’s diet was no longer working. The fevers, diapers, and lethargy were back. I was told he needed more supplements at different hours. Which I bought, because I’d already invested so much time and energy in this. His symptoms actually worsened with the new supplements, but the practitioner assured me that Shloimy’s body was detoxing. Who was I to argue with a detox? We added cranial therapy to his regimen as well.

And then Covid set in. While the world was fighting a raging pandemic, I was home with a newborn, the rest of the family, and a sick boy on a diet. My entire extended family shipped us their leftover gluten-free Pesach stuff, but we had to toss it all because the practitioner tested it and said the potato starch wasn’t good for him.

I was still exploring other medical options. Chaim Medical Resources was invaluable: they suspected childhood Crohn’s and even during Covid, managed to secure an appointment with Columbia Medical Center’s head of the pediatric GI department.

We needed an endoscopy and colonoscopy to determine Crohn’s, but the doctor didn’t think it was so important to torture Shloimy like that. He set me up with a nutritionist instead. I baked carob tahini biscotti (It’s been three years, and I’m still tempted to throw each and every biscotti in the nutritionist’s face). Shloimy’s kitchen shelf grew fuller, and I bought another Sterilite box to contain it all.

Onto the next health practitioner, who did laser technology healing. The word “laser” made it more palatable to Western medicine lovers like me, but he combined it with kinesiology, reflexology, and nutrition. He described each supplement in awe, with terms like potency, regeneration, opening up to healing, resetting the body. I watched as he spoke to Shloimy’s intestines and murmured to his palm. I came home believing him, but I can’t say the same for Shloimy’s intestines.

AT the next visit to Columbia, the doctor decided it was time for something more invasive. I’ll spare you the details of the endoscopy and colonoscopy, but it was Covid times, so only one parent could accompany Shloimy, and not even all the way to the operating room.

I was shaking and davening as the doctor came into the room.

“Nothing,” he said. “We didn’t find anything abnormal.”

I wanted to yell and scream. What now? Was I making all of this up?

When Shloimy woke up from the anesthesia, I gave him a honey gluten-free, taste-free cookie.

We went home in a taxi so I could sit next to him in the backseat. Suddenly, I felt very warm and wet. Shloimy had dirtied himself up to his neck barely five minutes into the long drive. I didn’t make a sound because I was afraid the driver would realize and drop us off on the bridge.

At home, I continued the supplements. My son was as frail and skinny as ever, always looked sick, and walked around half-dressed to make the changing easier.

One day, I called Chaim Medical and  told them I was afraid Shloimy would pass out in my hands. They told me to get into the car, drive to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and not to leave until I got a diagnosis.

“It could take a week, or two weeks, but do not leave until they find out what’s wrong,” she said.

So we went — two babies in tow, along with a case of masks, a suitcase, and an address for the Bikur Cholim house — ready for battle.

In the emergency room, they did a full workup. The results were all fine. But Chaim Medical had told me not to leave without a diagnosis, so I summoned my dramatic capabilities (I had starred in all the school plays) and started crying.

“Either my son stays or I do,” I told the nurse. “We need a diagnosis and treatment.”

Shloimy was admitted. They instructed me to keep all his dirty diapers, and by the morning, the ledge was full. They did every imaginable test and drew a full metabolic panel, but everything came back normal.

After 24 hours, the doctors met with us. They said they could see all the symptoms, but the tests were coming back fine. The diagnosis: Nonspecific diarrhea of childhood.

Are you kidding? I’m in a world-renowned hospital for a diagnosis of diarrhea.

We packed up and drove home. I was truly grateful there was nothing scary going on, but I felt helpless.

When we entered the kitchen, I was greeted by Shloimy’s trusty shelf. The still-closed bottles I had stocked up on — hundreds of dollars’ worth — because I didn’t want to miss a day. The half-opened bottles with vitamins ranging from A to Z. The little pellet bottles we had to dilute in an alcohol base.

That night, I told Hashem I had done all I could.

“I’ve gone places I never would have considered going, followed through with the most unconventional plans — I’m done. This is no longer in my hands,” I said.

From that day on — literally — things improved. Ever so slowly, Shloimy gained one pound and then another one. I weaned him off the supplements. He started attending playgroup and ate whatever the other children ate. I even potty-trained him. In short, I davened for a complete refuah, and I gave up the control.

It’s weird to write that this is the ending, because it sounds too good to be true — but it’s the truth.

In retrospect, I can’t fathom how I got through that challenging year. Shloimy has no recollection of eating vinegar-flavored bread. He doesn’t know how my heart palpated when he was pricked for lab work, and he doesn’t remember my tears during the colonoscopy. He’s a kid on fire who knows how to utilize the soft spot I have for him to the maximum.

And me? I’ve left the shelf, with all those unopened bottles, intact. I’m giving up sacred kitchen space to remind myself every day Who the true Healer is.

Sima Schon is a writer in New York City.

Pen Pal

By Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman

IT was a humid August evening in Brooklyn, New York, in 1982. In less than a month, I would get married, leaving my childhood home in Canarsie and moving with my new wife to Washington Heights. My mother had one request: that I go through my old school notebooks and decide what to keep and what we could toss.

It had been years since the central air had functioned properly, so we sat on the old couch in the basement, where it was comfortably cool. Out of the storage section came box after cardboard box, and we went through each one, lifting binders and notebooks with reverence: sheets with my first attempt at writing alef-beis, notebooks with basic Gemara terms, so many pages chronicling my journey from kindergarten to adulthood, meticulously filed by my super-organized mother.

All that sorting inspired me to ask her about her own school experiences, and she got up and went to the storage room to retrieve another box: folders and notebooks with yellowed pages, dated 1949.

I immediately recognized my mother’s beautiful cursive handwriting. I was always awed by her splendid signature — the way she formed the “E” in our last name was a masterpiece of calligraphic writing — and while I was admiring her penmanship, a cigar-shaped item with a silver patina covering its top half dropped into my lap.

An ancient writing instrument, I thought, examining what I realized was the silver cap. I gently pulled it off to reveal a strange small point.

“It’s called a nib,” my mother informed me. The nib protruded minimally from the bottom half of the pen, which, my mother again informed me, was called the barrel. I then noticed her wiping her eyes as she reached for it.

My curiosity got the better of me.

“Ma, why are you crying? What’s with the pen?”

She focused on a distant point for a few seconds before she looked straight at me.

“This pen was my constant companion for over a decade,” my mother explained. “I purchased it at Macy’s, where I worked part-time in 1949 – $14.95 with a ten percent discount. I was beginning college, and I dreamed of a career in teaching, finding a husband, and raising a family, so I decided to buy a good pen that would last and perhaps be the vehicle, with Hashem’s help, to fulfill my dreams.”

I studied the pen and realized I had no idea how to use it. My mother explained that it was a fountain pen, a Parker 51, which I later learned was marketed as “The world’s most wanted pen.” Parker would sell more than 20 million pens in the 30 years this model was in production.

My mother told me she specifically purchased a Parker 51 because it had special significance to Jews at the time: This was the pen used to sign the German Instrument of Surrender, the legal document effecting the unconditional surrender of the Nazi armed forces to the Allies, ending World War II and the Holocaust.

But there was even more to it than that.

“This pen was my companion from my years in the South Bronx to Crown Heights, through college and post-college degrees at Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges,” my mother explained. “With this pen, I signed my first contract to teach in the New York City public schools. I used this pen to sign my marriage license when I married your father. And with this pen, I would write the few Hebrew words I’d mastered to wish your grandmother in Eretz Yisrael a shanah tovah every year.

“But what’s most meaningful is that this was the pen I used to sign tuition checks for your yeshivah education. None of my older sister’s children went to yeshivah, and when your father and I announced in 1963 that we were sending you and your brother to yeshivah, they protested, ‘You’ll stunt their education, we’re no longer in the shtetl!’ But I proudly and gratefully picked up this pen and defied my family and many friends. As I signed my tuition commitment, I thanked Hashem that my sons were going to yeshivah.”

A few weeks later, before I left my house in Brooklyn for the last time as a bochur, my mother handed me a small box. When I opened it, I found the Parker 51 she so cherished.

My mother had polished it, and its sterling silver cap glowed almost as much as our faces. I knew how precious it was to her, and she realized how precious it would now be to me.

“This pen served me well for many years,” she said. “I want you to have it as you build your new home.”

The pen remained in its box for the seven years we lived in our Washington Heights apartment, and when we moved to Passaic, once again I tucked it away in a special drawer in my study.

On the ninth of Nissan 2015, my mother left This World. When we cleaned out her apartment, we arranged a system for her children and grandchildren to choose items to remember her. I chose not to take anything; my memories were my remembrances, and they would last forever.

Plus, I had the pen.

I opened the box, but the cap had once again developed a patina, and the pen was no longer operable.

It’s time, I thought. This pen should continue the task it began almost 60 years ago.

I found a craftsman who restores fountain pens, and soon after, my Parker 51 was back in my hands, gleaming and in working order.

That very day, I was scheduled to be mesader kiddushin. What better way to preserve my mother’s legacy than to use the very pen that was so instrumental in building her own home to write the kesubah for a new Jewish home?

Since that day, this cherished Parker 51 remains nestled on my desk, to be used when I have the privilege to be mesader kiddushin. At one such wedding in 2017, I met Rav Dovid Feinstein ztz”l. I immediately told him I could not be mesader kiddushin in his presence, but in his humility, he insisted I continue, telling me, “I’m off work. I came as a guest, and I’m not staying long — I’m probably leaving before the chuppah.”

Rav Dovid then noticed my pen.

“I see you’re writing with a Parker 51. My father would use one as well,” he said conversationally, to put me at ease.

I told him it was from my mother, who had bought it almost 70 years earlier. “Hold onto it, it might be worth a lot of money,” he said.

I just smiled. “I wouldn’t sell it for all the money in the world.”

“You’re fulfilling the mitzvah of kibbud eim by using your mother’s pen,” Rav Dovid replied. “You should use it at your own child’s chasunah very soon!”

Less than a year later, in Teves 2018, I sat at the wedding of my youngest child — my mother’s youngest grandchild. As I lifted her pen to fill out the kesubah for my daughter Aviva when she married her bashert Ezzy, I could feel my mother’s presence. Later, I reverently placed the Parker 51 back in its place of honor on my desk, a constant reminder that with the help of the Master Writer, dreams do come true.

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman is the rav of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic, New Jersey, and a writer of the biweekly column “Shul with a View” for this magazine.

Got Any Gum, Chum? 

By Avraham Beard

ON a bookshelf next to my computer is a model World War II American Jeep, army green with a white star emblazoned on the hood. Years ago, I noticed an ad for World War II collectibles, and when I saw the jeep, I knew I had to order one. I wanted to be able to look at it from time to time, to revisit the significance this vehicle had on the life-changing journey it inspired.

During World War II, I was a five-year-old gentile boy living in England. Dover, my hometown, is located next to the English Channel. It was prone to bombing attacks, and I’ll never forget the morning I woke up to a house that was severely damaged.

Every window had been blown out. Splintered glass lay embedded in the walls and furniture, and doors were wrenched from their hinges. Cracks zigzagged up the walls from floor to ceiling.

Amidst the debris, we sat around the kitchen table for breakfast.

“I thought we’d all be killed!” my mother said, her hands shaking uncontrollably as she tried filling the large cup in front of me with steaming tea.

She then carefully placed a cracked plate in front of me. On it sat a mush of yellow powdered egg.

“I wish we could have a real egg, like before the war,” my eight-year-old brother said with a sigh, breaking the silence (he constantly spoke of things he remembered from before the war). “And candy.”

I desperately tried to envision candy — what it looked like, how it tasted — but I was too young to grasp the memory.

“But where is it now?” I blurted out in frustration.

“The Germans,” my brother said in dismay. “They won’t let us have it anymore.”

After I finished eating, I left the table and tiptoed carefully across the glass-strewn floor. I ran out the front door to the street to play as I did every morning — and I couldn’t believe the sight that met my eyes. The entire street was in ruins.

Soon, one by one, my friends emerged from their own damaged houses. We all ran together excitedly to explore our surroundings.

Suddenly, we heard a strange noise coming up the road in our direction. From a distance we could see a small, green vehicle, open on the sides and top, driving fast and bouncing over the rubble. It had a big white star on the hood, and seated in it were two men who looked different from anybody I had ever seen. They seemed so relaxed it was as though they were made of rubber, nothing like the stooped, stiff figures that shuffled in and out of my life. As they approached, I could see their faces, fresh and clean with big broad smiles and pearly white teeth. Even though they were so much older than I was, I saw a vibrant youthfulness that spilled from their happy, sparkling eyes. Their clothes were different, too: neat, crisp deep green jackets adorned with shiny brass buttons and bright colorful badges.

The older kids started chasing after the vehicle yelling, “Got any gum, chum?”

I didn’t understand what they meant, but even so, I joined them yelling, “Got any gum, chum?”

The vehicle stopped, and then the gray sky above me suddenly filled with bright, glistening objects. They were emanating from the men, soaring high into the lifeless sky — hanging there, it seemed — circles of bright green, red, yellow, and orange. Then they showered down, bouncing around me on the dark gray of the sidewalk. I stood fascinated, not knowing what they were. The older boys started shoving each other out of the way, pouncing on these colorful circles until they were all gone.

I looked up at the nearest boy. He had managed to grab two of the objects and had put one in his mouth. He stood transfixed as his face took on a look of ecstasy. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I wanted one.

“Give it to me!” I yelled, pulling frantically at his sleeve.

He broke the other one in two and handed me a half. I placed it on my tongue, but could taste nothing at first, aware only of the object’s smooth surface and sharp broken edges.

Then I felt it! A surge of intense sweet flavor tickled my senses, then awoke them to a vast unexplored plateau that lifted me up, up beyond the dull, gray shattered streets of my home. I wanted to pluck it from my mouth, to look at it closely and discover its magic. But it was all but gone, a tiny dissolving fragment.

I stood in shock. The tottering, shattered buildings that crowded about me took on a different meaning; before, they were sites of adventure and fun, now they were yawning caverns of hopelessness and despair.

Suddenly, a roar, and the vehicle sped off.

One day, I told myself, One day I’ll go where those men in the green jeep came from. One day I’ll go to America.

AS I grew into my teen years, I became obsessed with the United States. I dressed like an American and longed to live in the country’s grand, wide-open spaces.

It took me 20 years before I immigrated to America, choosing the jugular vein of that land, New York City. Everywhere I looked, the flag of this great land coursed in the winds atop the buildings, full of color, pride, vigor, and purpose. Everywhere I walked, there was a vast space about me without boundaries or restrictions, even as I was hemmed in by bustling crowds. My muscles loosened and my gait eased into a roll. Now, I knew what I’d seen in the strange, flexible men of my childhood. I felt it in every breath I took. It was in the very air: It was freedom.

But the great adventure that began with the Jeep and the Lifesavers now took a completely unexpected turn.

The sense of freedom I had felt so profoundly when I first arrived in America proved to be much more, a vast spiritual space. My journey was a long one: I married a Jewish woman who wasn’t religious; we had a daughter who we raised as we explored Reform and Conservative Judaism together, and I experienced a serious health scare that landed me in the hospital for ten days. Through it all, I searched until I finally found the commitment and loyalty I was looking for in the everyday observance and ideals of Orthodox Judaism. Fourteen years after I arrived in the United States, my long journey culminated in my Orthodox conversion.

On a sunny Shabbos morning following my conversion, I sat nervously in my seat at Congregation Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Avraham Dovid Ben Avraham Avinu,” the gabbai called, and when I heard my new name, I rose and made my way to the bimah. I pulled my tallis over my head and recited the blessing over the Torah reading in Hebrew.

The reading was finished, and suddenly, the air around me was filled with colorful objects. Bright green, red, yellow, and orange showered about me. My hair stood on my neck as a 50-year circle completed itself.

The neighborhood children were at my feet, pushing and shoving, as they tried to collect as many of the candies as they could. I scooped up a handful and  looked around… and then I saw him. A sad-looking boy of five or six dressed in worn trousers, his shirt half out of his pants. He had no candy.

I poured my candy into his empty hands and said softly, “Got any gum, chum?”

His eyes grew wide, and he ran joyously down the aisle.

Siman tov u’mazel tov!

The air was filled with song, candescent waves of joy all around me, sweeping over my mind, body, and spirit. I wrapped myself in my tallis.

The cycle was complete: I had come home, to my G-d, to my Book, and to my people.

The miniature Jeep on my shelf reminds me of the five-year-old English boy at the start of this journey. When I see it, I whisper, “Got any gum, chum?” And my Jewish soul rejoices.

Avraham Beard is an inspirational speaker and writer in Boynton Beach, Florida. He has shared his story in schools and synagogues in the United States and Israel.

The Cabbage Patch Kid

By Rachel Zelmanowitz in conjunction with Rivka Streicher

She sits high on the shelf, green eyes open wide, her smile as enchanting as it was all those years ago when I bought her for my daughter. Her chubby arms are outstretched; she’s been waiting almost two decades for a little girl to take her down and caress her.

She’s a Cabbage Patch Kid, that popular doll that set record sales in the ‘80s. She belonged to my youngest daughter, Zahava, when she was a little girl. I have memories of Zahava playing with this doll, styling her hair, dressing and undressing her. She came, as all Cabbage Patch dolls do, with a “birth certificate,” and to Zahava she was real.

This remnant of my daughter’s childhood reminds me of a simpler, happier Zahava. And although I’m certainly no hoarder nor even much of a sentimental saver, I’ve kept it as a sign of my heartfelt wishes and prayer.

Perhaps one day Zahava, who is on a long, circuitous journey of her own, will have her own daughter who will play with this doll. Please G-d, please.

Zahava’s early childhood was sweet and happy. As the youngest, she was adored, even doted on. I’d even kept her at my side until kindergarten; her first real experience leaving home was at age five. Zahava was good-natured, loving, and easygoing, and she seemed to remain that way even when her father and I got divorced when she was six years old. She took it in childlike stride, mostly unquestioningly and happy to have Mom to herself, as the others were mostly out of the house.

Life continued relatively smoothly as Zahava entered her teen years and began high school, although I do have memories of her displaying some anxiety at that new stage in life. And then, when Zahava was 14, I remarried, and we moved to Israel, where my second husband had been living.

Relocating to a foreign country is wrought with innumerable difficulties for anyone. For a young teenage girl entering a blended family, it means leaving her friends and all that is familiar, adjusting not only to a new country and new school but to a new family, numerous new siblings and all.

Zahava managed pretty well, especially with the help of the many English-speaking girls in our neighborhood who became her friends. Or so it seemed…

But perhaps my own adjustment to becoming a wife again as well as stepmother to many young children in a new home had me so overwhelmed that I didn’t pay enough attention to what she was going through, or perhaps it was just the fact that the uncomplicated connection between a young child and a parent rarely endures, but over time, our relationship changed. It wasn’t long before the dynamics of our new home made her feel like she didn’t belong.

At 17, Zahava convinced me to allow her to go back to her old school in America for her senior year. She told me her heart was still very much in America. I had no choice but to let her go. Zahava flew off, staking out her independence. She no longer seemed to need me, and I missed her terribly.

Occasionally I’d catch a glimpse of her Cabbage Patch Kid on the shelf in the closet, and I’d remember the happy, youthful years. The doll was here with me in Israel while Zahava roamed far and free, always busy with one job or another, on a path that looked so different from the one we’d set out on. When I’d look at the doll on the shelf, she’d look back at me, green eyes staring intently as though she understood. As though she too missed Zahava. In a strange way, we found comfort in one another.

And then, finally, good news. Zahava met a young man from a very different background from ours. No matter — he’s wonderful in his own way, and they care deeply for each other. They got married, and my spirit returned. Zahava was in a better place now, on the cusp of building her own home. Maybe someday soon there would be a little child, someone for whom to take down the doll.

But several months after her marriage, we got the dreaded word: cancer. Zahava was admitted to the hospital as doctors worked quickly and aggressively to cure the terrible disease ravaging her body. The treatments were difficult, but she is a brave fighter.

Four-and-a-half years later, the disease is not quite gone, and Zahava is still fighting.

Dreams of Zahava with a baby of her own? Who knows? Some days there are glimmers of hope, but most are awash with despair, and I still occasionally find comfort in my old friend on the shelf. I look at her with tear-stained eyes, and she holds my gaze, serene as ever.

“Where do we go from here — who knows?” she seems to be saying. “Hashem has a plan, and it’s all good.”

Perhaps this is her new role: to teach me acceptance, bitachon, emunah.

I will not throw out Zahava’s Cabbage Patch doll, I will not give her away. She is still reserved for a miracle.

Shortly before this issue went to print, Zahava’s soul returned to her Maker. Her doll still sits on the shelf and waits until Mashiach’s arrival. Yehi zichrah baruch.

Rachel Zelmanowitz lives in the Yerushalayim area and contributes to various periodicals.

The Little Black Bag

As told to Ariella Schiller by Rabbi Chaim Heinemann

It’s a black medical bag, like you see in cartoons in the hands of old-fashioned doctors: rounded edges, hard handles, cracked leather. It sits at the top of my milah cabinet, just above the shelf where I keep rubbing alcohol and gauze. Next to it is its partner, a brown briefcase, and sandwiched between the two is a photo collage my wife made of me with Rabbi Yaakov Lustig a”h.

Rabbi Yaakov (Yankel) Lustig was born in Hungary in 1926. His family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1939, right before his bar mitzvah. The Lustigs grew close to Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the rabbi of the local shul Kneseth Israel and the President of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US and Canada, and after Rabbi Silver passed away, Kneseth Israel elected Rabbi Lustig in his place. He was the rabbi there for nearly 40 years, from 1968 to 2006.

Rabbi Lustig was also a qualified mohel who had trained under the famous New York mohel, Rabbi Harry Bronstein. He even used original Bronstein keilim, high quality milah instruments Rabbi Bronstein had designed.

But in Cincinnati, it was a time of tradition, although not necessarily mesorah, and many brissim were being performed in hospitals or at least with a doctor alongside the mohel. The “minhag” part of the circumcision was fast disappearing.

Rabbi Lustig, however, would always perform a bris milah draped in his tallis, essentially elevating the medical procedure to a practice transcending time and years. He would explain the bris process to the baalei simchah as he was performing it, share the meaning behind the intricate practices along with inspiring divrei Torah, and pass out talleisim to all the ceremony honorees — whether they were interested or not.

He was threatened for his tenacity to hold onto mesorah and told that if he kept up with these old practices he wouldn’t do another bris in Cincinnati.

“We’ll see to it that nobody uses you as a mohel again,” they said — but he paid them no attention, and this threat was never carried out.

Rabbi Lustig didn’t accept a penny for his mohel services, and by the time he retired from the field, he had performed around 2,500 brissim. One memorable Rosh Hashanah, he performed five brissim all around town; he spent the entire day walking from shul to shul, black medicine bag swinging at his side, while trying to get a little davening in in between.  

Rabbi Lustig was extremely careful not to alter the hanhagos related to the bris; he was famous for telling the doctors, “You stick to your field, and I’ll stick to mine.” He was also careful not to “cut and run,” as he called it, making sure to stay around after the procedure to schmooze with the family, reassure anxious mothers, and inspire them to strengthen themselves in shemiras hamitzvos.

IN 2015, several years before he was niftar, Rabbi Lustig called me into his home. I’d already learned milah from some of the top mohalim in Israel and had received training and certification in London. I thought we were meeting to schmooze about bris milah and his experiences, something we’d been doing informally on and off in shul after davening. I came prepared to take notes for this longer, more detailed talk.

Instead, Rabbi Lustig asked me to carry his decades-old torch. Or in this case, his bris bags.

“Chaim, I want you to have these,” Rabbi Lustig said.

There was the black medicine bag filled with his ointments, paraphernalia, and most importantly, his original Bronstein keilim, as well as the brown briefcase with his records, hundreds of slips of paper, index cards, lists, and even a notebook, all registering the Hebrew names and birth dates of every single one of the babies he’d circumcised (this came in handy in his days, when people would call to ask what their Jewish name was), as well as various halachah pamphlets he would give non-observant families.

I was taken aback — and honored.

Rabbi Lustig encouraged me to go downstairs and take any milah-related seforim from his large collection, as well as boxes of cleansing agents, bandages, and other supplies from his basement.

“See what you can use,” he said. “I would love for you to keep milah going in Cincinnati.”

I remember being overcome with a sense of responsibility, of being charged with the mission to see to it that Rabbi Lustig’s intense devotion to this mitzvah and the broader Jewish community continues.

Now, those two briefcases sit silent sentry atop my cabinet, representing a lifetime of selfless avodah. I strive to emulate this special man, to put that “Rav Yankel” touch in all brissim I perform: not to compromise the halachos or minhagim of the bris while at the same time keeping the experience as meaningful as possible for those involved, to maintain bris milah as a symbol of every Jew’s partnership with Hashem and not relegated to the status of medical procedure. He’s the reason they call me the “smiling rabbi” today. I learned from him to take the time to make a joke, clap a shoulder, and offer words of comfort.

Rabbi Lustig would travel several hours — to Columbus, Lexington, Louisville, even as far as Toledo — doing his best to inspire the babies’ families to hold onto some form of Yiddishkeit. I, too, travel around Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana — our tristate — to ensure that every Jewish baby in the area gets a kosher bris on the eighth day, and despite being a full-time rosh kollel, I find the time to follow up.

For some families, I’m the first Orthodox person — let alone rabbi — they’re meeting, and I want it to be a positive encounter. I give every non-Orthodox baby boy an ArtScroll siddur inscribed from “his mohel” as a gift at the bris, and I mail a “Happy first birthday” postcard a year later.

Dozens of young parents I met as their sons’ mohel have attended one of my classes, and we even have a biweekly senior retiree class for the grandparents of these children. (Often, it’s the grandparent insisting their new grandson has a bris, especially if the daughter married out; I’ve performed more than a few brissim with a downright furious father looking over my shoulder while the mother sobs and the Bubby stands triumphant in the background.)

Five years ago, I was called to perform a bris milah for a baby whose father isn’t Jewish. After developing a relationship with the family, I invited the mother to attend my Sunday Morning Brunch, which was designed for non-religious parents whose sons I’ve circumcised. At one point, she brought along her brother, who was also married to a non-Jew. To make a very long story short, after coming to learn in the kollel, putting on tefillin daily, and moving into the Jewish neighborhood to be shomer Shabbos, he recently married a fine frum woman. I was thrilled to dance at his chasunah.

Recently I was in a different city when a familiar-looking man walked into shul. I couldn’t place him, but he recognized me right away. He introduced himself as the father of a baby whose bris I’d performed seven years earlier, and he told me that was the beginning of his family’s journey to Torah and mitzvos. “We’re now members of the Orthodox shul,” he reported proudly.

All of this is to Rabbi Lustig’s credit. That is why even though his black medical bag is full of outdated ointments and gauzes, I gently remove it from the shelf before I go to perform a bris milah. I leave the bag at home; the cracked leather won’t allow for more use, but at every single bris I perform today, I make sure to put at least one of Rabbi Lustig’s tools to service, even though there are newer, more sophisticated ones out there.

Rabbi Lustig’s instruments of mesorah are never really out of date, and our bris milah connection is still going strong.

Rabbi Chaim Heinemann is the rosh kollel at Cincinnati Community Kollel in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Take Off the Mask

By Rabbi Aharon Friedler

ON a top cabinet shelf in our laundry room sits a gas mask. It gathers dust, making the occasional appearance when we reminisce about our experiences in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. Distributed in the days prior to the war, it’s actually the property of the Israeli government, yet when we tried to return the kits before we left for the States a few years later, we were rebuffed (and almost mocked). No one wanted expired gas masks, and rumor had it that the kits may have been defective from the beginning, distributed mainly to ease the anxiety of the populace.

We had received the gas mask in the early 1990s, back when Maalot Dafna — where we lived — and its environs were not the bastion of chareidi life they are today. When we moved there in 1988, it was a diverse neighborhood — a TV news anchorman lived next door, two doors away was the Foreign Minister’s secretary, and a few more doors down, a Knesset member from the farthest left political party. My wife Miriam and I were fortunate to live right above the apartment of Rabbi Mordechai and Henny a”h Machlis, giving us a close view of the onset of their massive chesed operations (in those early days, they were hosting “only” ten to 15 people per Shabbos seudah). There were also several Anglo kollel families, including some from Yeshivas Ohr Somayach, which was situated below our porch. We greeted our neighbors with a hearty “Shabbat Shalom” and they responded in kind, sharing the commonality of our heritage even as we differed on so many other levels.

With one child already born in Eretz Yisrael and another on the way, we were learning and breathing an idyllic life in Yerushalayim. Why pay attention to a minor news report in the summer of 1990 about Iraq invading Kuwait — what did that have to do with us? Nothing, unless you have the twisted logic of Iraq’s tyrannical despot. When given an ultimatum by the United States to vacate their occupation or face an attack by a multi-national force, Saddam Hussein’s reply was, “If you attack me, I will attack Israel!” He’d already used chemical warheads against Iran, and who knew what his warped mind could unleash.

The subsequent months brought reports of military buildup in the Persian Gulf, and a January deadline to comply with demands of retreat. The birth of our son in November was a welcome personal break in the growing worldwide tension, but the coming weeks were filled with serious talk about a looming attack against Israel. When the Israeli government announced plans to distribute gas masks to the population, more than a few foreigners decided to wait out the crisis in their native countries.

It was at this point we had to make our decision — stay or go. We had committed to living in the Holy Land, yet we had our toddler and infant as part of our responsibility. Children that small could not even be fitted with gas masks, and in the event of a chemical attack, would have to be placed in a PIC, a Protective Infant Carrier similar to a NICU incubator. A demonstration of how to put on the gas mask and place a child in the PIC was enough to send us running to my rebbi, Rav Avrohom Kanarek ztz”l, the mashgiach of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Yerushalayim. He himself was no stranger to the uncertainties of war; prior to World War II he had been a bochur in Kaminetz, escaping Europe with the Mirrer yeshivah.

“Reb Aharon,” he said, “Who says you’re safer in America?” and with that, our fate was cast with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

Preparing for war was not in our original plan, but we found ourselves complying with the protocols set forth by the Civil Defense. All residents were told to prepare a cheder atum, a sealed room into which chemicals released from a missile warhead could not penetrate. Windows had to be taped to prevent glass from shattering. Gas mask kits, complete with the mask itself, filters, a canister of decontamination powder, and an atropine injection syringe, were distributed along with PICs.

The government was in talks with the United States, who in their attempt to piece together a broad coalition including many Arab nations, desperately wanted to keep Israel from retaliating if attacked. As the deadline drew closer, there was only one thing we could do: daven.

On Wednesday, Erev Rosh Chodesh Shevat, January 16, 1991, I joined with more than 100,000 thousand Yidden at a special tefillah assembly at the Kosel. The raw emotion as we poured out our hearts to be spared from the evil plans of those who seek to destroy us felt like an intense Ne’ilah.

The next morning at two a.m., our ringing phone roused us. A neighbor who had been awake following developments heard that the US and their coalition forces had launched Operation Desert Shield: Air strikes against Iraqi forces had commenced.

“HAGA [Israel’s Civil Defense Central Command] gave the signal to open our gas mask kits!” he said.

At that time, radio was our only means of receiving news, and we quickly become familiar with the voice of IDF spokesman Nachman Shai. His soothing monotone belied the reality of an impending attack.

“Stay close to your sealed room, and keep your gas mask with you,” he advised. We didn’t go back to sleep.

Throughout the day, reports from the US (later revealed to be purposely misleading) announced that Iraqi Scud missile launchers had been destroyed and Israel need not be afraid of attack. The hope that perhaps Israel wouldn’t be a target brought sighs of relief as we started Shabbos preparations and looked forward to a quiet night of sleep.

But at two a.m. Erev Shabbos, an eerie high-low howl filtered into my dreams.

Maybe it’s not a dream? I thought, still half asleep. Wait, are they shouting outside? What are they yelling?

“Go to the bomb shelters!”

“No, to the sealed rooms!”

Confusion. The siren! It’s happening. Is this real?

We quickly grabbed the children, headed for the cheder atum, and opened the PICs.

Are we really going to place our children in these?

But there was no room for hesitation now — it could mean the difference between life and the unthinkable.

Avraham, only two months old, slid in without a problem. Adina, at 18 months, was thrilled with the excitement, but she needed to be coaxed into the PIC with cookies. My wife removed the training plug from her gas mask to prevent suffocation, as instructed, put the filter on, and donned her mask.

Now it was my turn, and I had to deal with the big question: to shave my beard or not? The instructions in the “Chemical Warfare: A Family Defense Manual” stated that to be fully effective, the gas mask had to make a tight seal around the face, which, according to the manual, would require shaving one’s beard.

Safeik pikuach nefesh.

“Five minutes from detection of a missile launch to the moment of impact,” the radio reported.

Out came the shaver. It’s not easy to shave with shaky hands and the clock ticking down. I left my mustache on — it wouldn’t interfere with the mask’s seal — and put the gas mask on my face.

We said Tehillim while listening to the radio for further reports and instructions, but there was minimal news in a multitude of languages, and cheery music filled the gaps between reports. One song that aired repeatedly had simple lyrics: “Ani oheiv shokolad.I can still sing it today. Then, all it did was make us crave chocolate, in a sealed room wearing a gas mask at three a.m.

We quickly realized that the inner transparent plastic eyepiece fogged up, and we wondered if we could even take it off to wipe the condensation away, but we didn’t want to risk it.

When I was just about at my breaking point, about an hour or two later, the signal came: “All clear!”

Initial reports revealed that the Tel Aviv and Haifa area had been struck, but there were no casualties — and no chemical warheads. I was perplexed by the lack of real information being released, quite different from frontline up-to-the-minute American reports, but later we were told the Israeli government purposely doesn’t give much information so as not to inform Iraqi intelligence listening into their broadcasts if their missile trajectories are on target.

Our nerves were frayed, and once again there was no chance of going back to sleep. I davened at home, but we soon realized we needed basic Shabbos staples.

I ventured out to Yossi’s makolet in search of challah — and was struck by all the passersby with beards. Didn’t everyone shave them off to seal their gas masks? It seemed only three people in the entire country followed the instructions: me, my chavrusa, and another member of our kollel (all naïve Americans).

When I entered the makolet, I saw cartons of water challah being grabbed by customers.

“Are there any sweet challahs?” I asked Yossi.

Why is he staring at me like that?

His response was yet another indication that we aren’t on the same playing field as Sabras.

“Sweet challah? You want challah metukah? There’s a war going on!”

Right, you can’t bake different types of challah while locked in a sealed room, I thought. Everyone was looking at me — the crazy guy who actually shaved his beard off — and he wants sweet challah.

Later that day, local rabbanim posted notices regarding hilchos Shabbos in a time of war. The main heter was to leave a radio on so we could hear broadcasts in case of an air raid, which happened pretty quickly; the sirens went off in the middle of Kiddush Friday night. Later, four Scuds landed in Tel Aviv while we were once again confined to our sealed rooms.

At some point over those initial few days, our neighbor the TV anchorman came to check on us.

“We’re used to this,” he said. “I want to make sure you’re okay with it.”

No, no we’re not. How can you get used to war?

For the record, he too was fully-bearded — and on camera, for the entire Israeli viewing public. What nuance in the protocols of chemical warfare preparation bypassed us that the rest of the country was able to comprehend? I started asking people why they didn’t shave.

“I didn’t believe the reports that there would be a chemical attack,” they responded. It seemed everyone had a brother/cousin/best friend in the Defense Ministry with top-secret information that in fact there were no chemical warheads.

After a few tense days, it seemed okay to go out to yeshivah because the Iraqis were aiming mainly for coastal cities, and as of yet, hadn’t resorted to chemical warheads. We Yerushalmis began to relax, and while we kept our gas masks at hand, we didn’t bother putting them on in our sealed rooms.

It was good to go back to yeshivah and learn with my chavrusa — we were studying for semichah. A daytime attack didn’t seem likely because the Iraqis were timing their attacks to correspond with prime-time news reports in America — seven p.m. EST, which is two a.m. in Israel.

All was quiet and learning fervor was at a peak when Whiiiiirrrrrrrrr! — off went the sirens. The bochurim grabbed their masks and started running up to the cheder atum they’d prepared in the big shiur room. I stood to go, but I noticed my rebbi, Rav Kanarek, at the next table. He didn’t budge, he just continued learning. He glanced up for a moment, just long enough to watch the bochurim dash toward the door.

“Why isn’t Rebbi going to the sealed room?” I asked.

“Reb Aharon,” he said, “when you’ve been through what I’ve been through in my lifetime, this is nothing.”

Over the next few weeks, we felt our mental state wearing thin — even a truck revving its engine sounded like a siren. But the news reports were encouraging: The ground war was underway, and it was only a matter of time before we achieved victory. Until the final days, Iraq continued to unleash its Scud missiles on Israel. Over 4,000 buildings were damaged in the six-week-long barrage. One Israeli civilian died from a missile attack, they reported. Dozens more succumbed to heart attacks, suffocation by gas mask misuse, and unwarranted use of atropine injections.

No one could doubt the Divine intervention when the all-clear was given.

“Dismantle the sealed rooms and put the gas masks away,” we were told on February 28, 1991 — the 14th of Adar, Purim. On that day, Hashem removed His mask, and we put away our gas masks and put on celebratory ones.

The government didn’t want our gas mask back, and we brought it with us when we returned to America. From time to time, I glance at it on the top shelf in our laundry room. The memories come flooding back, and a soft song about loving chocolate starts playing in my head. We never did get to the bottom of whether the gas masks would have helped had there been chemical warfare, and attempts to use it to soften the fumes while grating horseradish for Pesach have achieved only mediocre results. Masks in the meantime have taken on a new significance.

I never did quite figure out the shaving secret. Lately I’ve been thinking that perhaps it has something to do with the air in Eretz Yisrael — avira d’Eretz Yisrael machkim — and that I wasn’t there long enough to absorb the message. Which makes me think it’s time to go back.

Rabbi Aharon Friedler has been a rebbi at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in Uniondale, New York, for three decades. He lives in Far Rockaway, New York.

Bottled Blessings

By Aliza Seidman

The small wine bottle is on a shelf in the fridge, glass frosty from cold condensed air. It’s sealed with a cork, it’s never been opened, and I’m not sure why it’s in the fridge at all. But that’s where it was put, and that’s where it’s remained for the past seven years.

I remember the night we acquired it.

My husband and I had a long journey to parenthood. Eventually we became members of the A TIME organization, receiving advice and referrals and help as we tried to navigate the maze of fertility interventions. Through it all there was an angel at our side, the local head of the organization, a man who heard and helped us, who called us to his home when there was disappointing news so we could hear it from him — gently, slowly, sensitively — rather than from the medical team. He was our champion, our support, someone who was deeply familiar with our case, and he put himself out to help us wholeheartedly. All this, when he and his wife didn’t have any children of their own….

The A TIME Shas-a-Thon was coming up, and this angel asked my husband to take part, in the learning and in the fundraising. It was difficult to solicit funds for the very organization we were beneficiaries of when it was so patently obvious why he’d joined the effort, but there was no way my husband could refuse the man who’d been holding our hand through it all.

My husband started learning and campaigning. This was before the days of Charidy and online fundraising. A TIME’s campaign was one of the first of its kind — and it was major. My husband got in on it, the excitement, the goal. I did, too, in a way, but when I was invited to the upcoming siyum — it hadn’t really registered that the wives of the learners would be invited as well — I decided to bow out. It was one thing for my husband to get out there and take an online donation page because he had to, but another thing entirely for me to attend the event. I didn’t know how I’d survive an evening where people who were coming to support the cause were literally coming to support me. I imagined furtive looks, cloying pity, deep sympathy in eyes burnished with unshed tears. I couldn’t do it.

The invitation arrived: embossed gold letters on black sheeny paper, along with the menu, the singers’ names. You can’t miss it, people said. It’s a huge event. When they do the siyum and the music starts up, and everyone gets up to dance, you’re part of something bigger — that’s not a moment you can miss….

I swallowed my pride and my misgivings and RSVPed. It was Elul, the tail end of summer vacation, and we were in the middle of a fertility treatment. It had been a year of appointments and disappointments, but now I was holding my breath. This was the biggie, the major treatment we’d never tried. It had been hanging there for a while like a safety net: If X doesn’t work, we’ll think of Y, if Y doesn’t work, we’ll do Z…. And now, X, Y, and Z hadn’t worked, and we were on our knees, begging for mercy.

As it so happened, the final stage of the procedure fell out the morning after the grand siyum. I didn’t know how I’d go to the siyum, but I’d already made arrangements, and anyway, how could I stay home, just me and my nerves? Inside I was a mess, but I got into my nicest formal wear, applied some makeup, and goofy-smiled at the mirror. Who said I couldn’t do this?

I came and found my nametag and sat at a table to a veritable feast. I saw people I recognized from A TIME, women like me, although I was sure no others in the room would be submitting themselves to the clinic to undergo final treatment the very next day. We A TIMErs were outnumbered by the rest of the community, the “supporters,” those safely on the other side. I sat in the crowd, while from the men’s side voices roared over the sound system, speeches about waiting and longing and zechus, and I shredded my dinner napkin in my palm and thought Hashem, Hashem, tomorrow, please.

And then it was time for the siyum. A celebration of hundreds of people who had learned all summer and today, all day. A celebration of the head of the organization in our city — our angel. He and his wife had no children, their ship had sailed, and this siyum was their baby. The Torah that was learned, the money raised tonight to help others, this was their celebration. And the celebration of those who held this cause dear.

One rav started the hadran and then someone was feted above the crowd, someone who would finish off the hadran and make the siyum. It was a member of A TIME, someone waiting a staggeringly long time for children, far longer than we were, far longer than I could imagine. He took the mic, his voice shook then steadied, and he made the siyum — carefully, joyfully — for us all.

The hall exploded. Crashing of drums, applause like a river. He smiled out at the crowd, this gentle person whose patience and faith were being tested beyond endurance, and he poured some wine.

On both sides of the mechitzah, people got to their feet, joined hands, and started to dance, and in my fists clenched in two other women’s there was hope. Prayer. Pleading. Words drifted into the music, Zarah zarah chaya, chaya v’kayama, zarah chaya v’kayama…. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, I couldn’t look anywhere. I bit my lip and continued to dance, begging G-d that this be the celebration of our yeshuah.

At the evening’s end, souvenirs were handed out: a fancily-printed tefillah, and a small bottle of wine. They’d poured from the wine of the hadran into hundreds of small bottles, bottling the brachah of this joyous siyum, the fortitude of a man in the trenches, the promise and hope of the night.

We came home, and for some reason that small wine bottle went into the fridge. Early the next morning was the long-awaited, dreaded procedure. Less than two weeks later, we found out that we were going to be parents for the very first time.

Seven years later the wine is still there. Sure, I’ve cleaned out the fridge numerous times, and each time considered the small bottle only to put it back. We never opened it; it’s too precious to drink, to special not to. It’s brachos bottled up, it’s flagging, sagging hope, but still hope, and the joy of a crowd, and the shaking hand of someone who’s still yearning.

Our lives have changed irrevocably since that night, and so it sits there in its unassuming place while little children pull the fridge open and pour themselves orange juice and sneak out some chocolate, a bottle of long-ago blessing, as deep red and potent as on that dark, bright night.


Aliza Seidman is a writer and writing coach who has joyfully attended many A TIME siyumei haShas since.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)

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