April 25, 2012

Baruch Dayan Emet

Baruch Dayan Emet.

Just yesterday, we lost my Auntie Diane. She died of cancer and at 76, she was a young and vibrant woman. She was a dear mother, a loving sister, and a wonderful aunt.

Just yesterday, we stood in silence as the siren wailed in memory of our fallen soldiers and victims of terror.  It was 8 pm and the blue and white flag was lowered. The entire country stood still, heads fallen, shoulders stooped, hands humbly joined behind backs. In Israel, even young children with long pigtails and knee socks know how to stand in this position. They know how to giggle, to bounce on a teeter totter, to ride a bike hands free-- and they know how to mourn.

The sadness here is profound.

Since 1948, some 23,000 people have died in service. Many of them were 18 years old. At every Yad Lebanim, the memorial hall dedicated to fallen soldiers that is found in the center of every Israeli town, people gather and remember. Parents, siblings and children of lost ones silently walk across the stage and lay a wreath. Candles flicker. Photos flutter onto a wall, eerily moving across the makeshift screen until it is filled with faces that smile innocently at us, yet no longer laugh.

We hear their stories and share their families’ tears. One father said after losing a son in the tragic 1997 helicopter crash when 73 soldiers were killed, he still has three sons. Because he does. His son stays in his thoughts at every birthday party, the lighting of each Chanukah candle and in the stillness of the night.  One mother confessed deep regret in not telling her son how much she loved him. She was busy rushing off to work and returning home tired, with cooking, with cleaning, with life. Like all of us. And then her son was gone.  Too soon. Too few hugs.

The radio plays songs of remembering, of loss and of what could have been, should have been –and is not. How can such a small, young culture have so many songs that lament? The TV airs shows on the strength, the valor, and the bravery of the soldiers who fell. We mourn at night and we mourn all day.
As soon as I returned home from this ceremony, the phone rang. It was my brother Barry and the news was bad. My Auntie Diane had passed away. My heart sank lower.

Although we lived on different continents, she in London and me in Toronto, I was able to spend quality time with her over the years and feel privileged to have known her.

As a child, I watched her closely, listening and observing; and she taught me so much. I observed her unbound energy, always seeing the positive side, never uttering a word of complaint. I saw eyes bright with knowledge and a thirst to learn more. I felt her warm smile, one that never dimmed. She was always helping, quickly moving about, alert to see that everyone was happy, well fed, comfortable. Yet when it came time to listen and share, she would sit down and make me feel as if she had all the time in the world.

I admired her extensive knowledge of languages, classical music, politics, history and creative talent for art and gardening. She had a love for the outdoors, adventure, exercise, yoga and healthy eating. I saw and I learned and I hope I internalized a small part of this.

I am so grateful that my Auntie Diane was with us at the bar mitzvah of my son Shaya. It was only six weeks ago and now she is gone. She was in great pain, and yet she came. She walked through the steep cobblestoned alleys in the Old City of Tsfat, across rocky archeological sites and the entire length of the beach boardwalk in Herzeliya. She stayed up late at the many festive meals. She did not miss a beat. She smiled throughout.  She did not complain of discomfort once; instead, she apologized. She was a model of strength, endurance and optimism. Over those days, she also connected with my children. And when my younger daughter Talya heard the sorry news, she ran up to her room in tears.

Her day of passing coincides with this very sad day in Israel, Yom Hazikaron L’chayalim.

On this day, I will mourn with all of Israel and I will also remember the intensity, the fullness and the beauty of my Auntie Diane’s life. And  on this day, when I hear the siren wail, I will also remember my personal fallen hero.  

April 19, 2012

A Moment of Silence

10 am. Thursday, April 19, 2012. 

A siren wails. We stop and stand in silence.  Children close their math books, their small chairs scraping the floor as they stand. Doctors put down their stethoscopes and pause. Cab drivers stop on the highways. Busses screech to a halt, passengers put down their Sudoku,  fold their newspapers, close their cell phones.  TV commercials hawking the driest diapers flicker off.

Sirens wail from Eilat to Kiryat Shemona and from Tel Aviv’s bustling bursa stock exchange to the dusty cow sheds in the Jezriel Valley. We stop. We think. We remember. We cry. 

In Poland just one month ago, I stood in fields that are filled with the bones, the ashes, the screams and the fears of millions of innocent souls. Of mothers whose hands were torn from their children, of small babies whose light bodies were tossed in the air, fair game for target practice, of bright young men who were entitled to many years to accomplish, to contribute, to love and to laugh; and whose futures were snuffed before their lives even began.

We do not even know many of their names. Entire families were wiped out. Villages erased. Communities that had flourished for 500 years  disappeared.  17,000 of them.  All that remains are 17,000 jagged rocks in the killing fields of Treblinka, the town’s names etched in stone.

Forest outside Tykocyn where 1,700 Jews were shot one August morning.
And these fields and death camps are now silent, mute;  thick branches of trees in the dense Polish forests that once camouflaged death and brutality as ‘cargo’ was ‘liquidated’ still echo with screams and horror. They are eerily silent as not a bird sits on their branches nor nests in their boughs.  

I stood beside these mass graves atop soil that still bleeds and I listened, my breath shallow, my throat full, my eyes wide. I heard nothing.  I felt fear. And in Auschwitz I saw that doll. I saw the human hair that had been shaved off the cargo before it was liquidated, carefully collected and stored. I saw the blue and red pots and pans, the graters, the peelers, the shavers, the brushes, the duplicity.

And I saw that doll. Its leg broken off, rosy cheeks dirtied, eyes frozen, yet still wearing a fancy lace petticoat and an embroidered, starched skirt. As I  stared at it, I thought  of the little girl whose eyes lit up when she was given the doll and who caressed  it and dressed it with care and took it everywhere, even to Auschwitz.

I saw a little girl with a doll. She had two long ponytails just like her doll. She wore shiny patent shoes, white tights and a pretty pink dress. She loved her doll and skipped along with it, then ran back to her mother for a hug. Her mother loved her and this lovely girl felt so secure, so happy. She kissed her doll, and sat it down next to her. Tears ran down my cheeks. I know how deep this love is and I cannot imagine how painful it is to lose it.  I will never forget that broken doll sitting in a glass showcase.

As the siren stops, I hear other sirens from distant towns echoing across the fields. Busses start up and soap operas fill TV screens. Cranes swing concrete blocks, building homes and apartments and orffice towers. Children run out for recess and the stock exchange continues to trade.

I look up. Palms sway in an azure sky, birds sing in the jacarandas and a breeze flutters the petals of orange blossoms.  It is April and this country is a blooming palette of vivid colors.

And this is why I am living in Israel.


April 3, 2012

And then we dance

The chuppa’s soft, white sides shimmer in the night breeze, creamy
gladioli and sweet roses a fragrant lintel. The bride is a stranger
to me, glowing and beautiful. The groom? I have met him once at his
parents’ home and tonight I see happiness beaming from his eyes.
Everyone is overjoyed. As so they should be at a beautiful wedding.

Yet I cry. At first a small tear forms in my eye, and gathering
strength as it drops, more tears cascade, dripping onto my shawl.
My sobs look like grief to all those who stand watching the ceremony 
and smiling. Innocent joy.

Why am I so overcome at a wedding of strange faces?
I have just returned from a week in Poland. Not a vacation. No
recreation. We visited death camps and pits which are mass graves. 
We saw towns that were once densely Jewish and now had no signs of a
flourishing, seven-century old Jewish presence: only the graveyard.
We saw a city once established by Jewish merchants which today is
emptied of Jews. A few chic restaurants in a trendy Jewish quarter
overflow with customers on Shabbat. Non-Jews eating the plat du jour,
“Jewish caviar.” No true connection to the devasting past, but a
Disney-like recreation, an empty salute.

And here I am, back in Israel, filled with a joy, an awe and a
gratitude that is so full, it bursts forth in tears. It is just sixty years later. 
We have a land. We have wealth. We have soldiers to
protect us. We have children who are marrying and rebuilding our
nation. We have reasons to celebrate.

The millions who were forced from their homes and stuffed into cattle
cars, whose babies and children were torn from their arms; and who
marched to their deaths screaming “Shema Israel”  would never believe
that we are back and we are living here in the Promised Land.

Yes, we are flourishing and yes, it is a miracle. I see it so clearly.
We are a nation that has been rebuilt from ashes. And we have joy. 
Our children who stand under a chuppah are beginning to build new
Jewish homes.

We have our enemies and we always will. Yet now, for the first time in
2,000 years, we have an army. I am now armed with a deep knowledge of
our bitter past, and know we cannot forget. It is why we are here.

These ashes are now blooms.

The chattan smashes the glass under the chuppah so that we all
remember our shared tragedy.  And then we dance.