Empty out to bring something new for this Chag Shavuot

Every so often, through the miracles of the internet, I chance upon “old” photos, from 3-6-12-24.. months ago and even more… photos with people hugging, leaning, sitting shoulder to shoulder… everything is back to normal. Almost. I am walking down the street with my mask on, while as of today, people are sitting in restaurants, talking, sharing, smiling… I’m reminded of the story about someone who put nails in the wall, then pulled them out. Now there were no nails, but there were holes… yes, it’s “back to normal”, but the “holes” are still there.

This week’s daf allocates much space to “bathroom laws”, where, what, how… somehow, this all relates to Shabbat activities which we should be mindful off; not easy section to “stomach”; our sages talk about e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g…

Here are a couple of great pieces, emphasizing how learning about the world is critical and likened to “real” Torah:

אמר ליה [לו] רב הונא לרבה בריה [בנו]: מאי טעמא לא שכיחת קמיה [מה טעם אינך מצוי] לפני רב חסדא דמחדדן שמעתיה [שמחודדתות שמועותיו, הלכותיו]? אמר ליה [לו] רבה: מאי איזיל לגביה [מה אלך אליו]? דכי אזילנא לגביה מותיב לי במילי דעלמא [שכאשר אני הולך אליו מושיב הוא אותי ומעסיקני בענייני עולם שאינם דברי תורה]. ולמשל אמר לי: מאן דעייל [מי שנכנס] לבית הכסא לא ליתיב בהדיא [יישב מיד], ולא ליטרח טפי [יטרח, יתאמץ מידי], משום דהאי כרכשתא אתלת שיני יתיב [שכרכשתא זו, סופו של המעי התחתון יושב, תלוי, על שלוש שיניים], שהם השרירים האוחזים אותו, ויש לחשוש דילמא [שמא] מתוך המאמץ משתמטא [יישמטו] שיני הכרכשתא ואתי [ויבוא] בתוך כך לידי סכנה. אמר ליה [לו] רב הונא לרבה בנו: הוא עסיק [מתעסק] בחיי דברייתא [הבריות] ואת [ואתה] אמרת שעוסק הוא במילי דעלמא [בסתם דברים]?! עכשיו מששמעתי במה דברים אמורים אומר אני כי כל שכן זיל לגביה [לך אצלו].

Rav Huna said to his son Rabba: What is the reason that you are not to be found among those who study before Rav Ḥisda, whose halakhot are incisive? Rabba said to him: For what purpose should I go to him? When I go to him, he sits me down and occupies me in mundane matters not related to Torah. For example, he said to me: One who enters a bathroom should not sit down immediately and should not exert himself excessively because the rectum rests upon three teeth, the muscles that hold it in place, and there is concern lest the teeth of the rectum dislocate through exertion and he come to danger. Rav Huna said to his son Rabba: He is dealing with matters crucial to human life, and you say that he is dealing with mundane matters? Now that I know what you meant, all the more so go before him.

And one more. Towards the end of the chapter we find this important advice:

תנו רבנן [שנו חכמים] בברייתא: הנכנס לסעודת קבע ורוצה להתכונן שלא יוכרח להפנות בשעת הסעודה, יהלך לפני הסעודה עשר פעמים מהלך של ארבע ארבע אמות, ואמרי לה [ויש אומרים]: ארבע פעמים של עשר עשר אמות ויעזור הדבר להחיש את פעולת המעיים, ונפנה, ואחר נכנס וישב במקומו.

The Sages taught in a baraita: One who wishes to enter and partake of a regular meal that will last for some time, should pace a distance of four cubits ten times, and some say, ten cubits four times, in order to expedite the movement of the bowels, and defecate, and enter, and sit in his place.

This one actually ties into Shavuot… how so, you wonder? The idea of having to “empty” before “filling up”. This is parallel to the Children of Israel venturing to the desert, to an empty place, to receive the Torah; also parallel to Ruth, who, like Abraham, goes out into nowhere, not knowing but hoping – to learn, discover, chance upon new opportunities, none of which could have happened in Egypt to the nation, or to Ruth (and Abraham) in their birthplaces.

In Leviticus 23:15-16. We’re told about how this period of Counting the Omer will reach its end:

וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete:

עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃

you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring a new offering (of new grain) to the LORD.

We are to bring a “new offering”. True, the text likely refers to the grain offering, but we can see in it the newness. How? The yogis tell about the pupil who comes with his dish, full of leftover and dirt to the master begging for food. “Empty this out first, then I’ll give you”. The master of course, speaks not only of the dish but of the heart and mind as well, not unlike our Shavuot message. Maybe there is no need to get back to “normal”, if normal means we learned nothing and gained nothing. Maybe we do need to bring with us something new.

Chag Sameach & Shabbat Shalom.


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Kindness + Kingdom = Yom Yerushalayim

We’re in the last week of “The Omer”, or the period of the counting of the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuot. The Kabbalists consider it a special time of inner growth and describe how every week is associated with one of the seven lower sefirot (“Jewish chakras” 😊):

  1. Chesed(loving-kindness),
  2. Gevurah(might),
  3. Tipheret(beauty),
  4. Netzach(victory),
  5. Hod(acknowledgment),
  6. Yesod(foundation),
  7. Malchut(kingdom).

Each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine combinations. The first day of the Omer is therefore associated with “chesed that is in chesed” (loving-kindness within loving-kindness, i.e. extra loving kindness), the second day with “gevurah that is in chesed” (might within loving-kindness) etc… Today, the first day of the seventh week is therefore associated with “chesed that is in malchut” (loving-kindness within kingdom), and it “happens” to be Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day.

This day, commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem after June 1967 Six-Day War. The day is officially marked by state ceremonies, parades, dancing and memorial services. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared Jerusalem Day a minor religious holiday to mark the regaining of access to the Western Wall.

I am intrigued by the fact that Jerusalem as such is not mentioned in the Torah. We would think that the site of the Temple is of incredibly great important and that we will get very specific instructions how to not miss the exact spot. But we didn’t. So either, everyone knew, and therefore there was no need to say, or, maybe, it was purposefully not stated. This means that there is a time and a place for not mentioning something, and that contrary to our times, where we somehow believe that everything should be “open”, there’s maybe, a time for a “secret”, for things that are closed for now and will be open once we work at it. It also means the search in and off itself has meaning in this process, and that it is not only about the final result of arrival at the spot, but of inquiring, demanding to discover, being actively interested in it. More on this at this morning’s Shabbat drash at Beth Jacob Oakland, CA:     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMvoafaQZ8Q

Best wishes and Shabbat Shalom.





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Counting as a Sign of Love: Emor, Behar & the 39 melcahot

Counting is an act of love. Initially this statement might not sound so good. It stands in contradiction with what we have been taught and therefore think of love: Love should be free, flowing, feely, not measured… Brrr… I think the Torah gets the heebie-jeebies when hearing this… After all, while we might be vague with some things, (“there were lots of people”, “some change in my purse”, “tons of trees in the forest”), we usually don’t say, we have “lots of parents”, “some spouses”, “few children”, “countless best friend”, an unknown about of “millions in the bank”… We also might tell a friend, “that movie is a couple of hours long”, but to our spouse we say, “you said 9:00pm and now it’s 9:07”!!! We don’t count things that don’t matter to us, but we are very precise with those that do.

The Torah speaks of counting several times and those shed a light on the topic. Rashi on the opening verse in the Book of Numbers says:

וידבר. במדבר סיני באחד לחדש וגו‘. מִתּוֹךְ חִבָּתָן לְפָנָיו מוֹנֶה אוֹתָם כָּל שָׁעָה — כְּשֶׁיָּצְאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם מְנָאָן, וּכְשֶׁנָּפְלוּ בָּעֵגֶל מְנָאָן לֵידַע מִנְיַן הַנּוֹתָרִים, כְּשֶׁבָּא לְהַשְׁרוֹת שְׁכִינָתוֹ עֲלֵיהֶם מְנָאָם, בְּאֶחָד בְּנִיסָן הוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן וּבְאֶחָד בְּאִיָּר מְנָאָם

… G-d counted them because he loved them. When they left Egypt, he counted them and after the Golden Calf to know who’s left, and at the completion of the Tabernacle…

Rabbi Hirsch of the 19th century, teaches that S.P.R. or S.F.R., the Hebrew root for counting, is about “combining separate items, tally sums”. Thus, sofer is someone who counts, but also a scribe and author (someone who “recounts”-). Sefer is a book, sapir, sapphire is a precious stone composed of many crystals and mispar is a number.

Between these Torah portions, and during this season, we are busy counting. Sefirat Ha’Omer is about counting each day of 7 weeks (i.e. 7 times 7) between Passover and Shavu’ot. We also have to count 6 years to the 7th, the shmita, sabbatical, and 7 Sabbatical years till one Jubilee year, which depends on everybody being in the Land. Elsewhere, we’re told to count 7 “clean” days after various bodily discharges. All the counts count towards an end that is dependent on that count, like Shavuot which is the only holiday in the Torah that has no date because it will arrive the day after we’re done counting.

A count focuses all our attention on the immediate; on the individual. By counting we say, this one, this day, it matters most in the world! And yet, the count also connects the one and makes it part of a bigger picture, for without the others there is no reason to count. For example, each day of the Omer has its unique meaning and energy, and still, they are like beads on a necklace; they need each other and – the whole. Counting is about living in the moment, and at the very same time, being on a journey that has direction and takes us from point A to B. It allows us a way to be very much present, focused here and now, while remembering the journey, and our need to pay careful attention to the scenery along the way, all images of love.

And the Talmud in its daf yomi (daily page of learning) of this upcoming week, will count the melachot of Shabbat, 39 categories of creative doings that we should refrain from on Shabbat. The sages will wonder: is each one of these, an act unto itself? If a person transgresses one, does it mean the others no longer matter? Is there a way by which they can be combined? And what about that strange number, 39… nothing obvious to do with 7… but something else, perhaps coincidental: 39 is 3 times the numerical value of… love (אהבה = 13); 3 forefathers; 3 prayers a day; 3 foundations on which the world stands. 39 = לט is also טל, literally – dew, which is what we pray for at this summertime, every day, three times a day. Maybe giving us dew and rain in their precise times, is also a sign of love.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Masks & Music: Pesach Sheni, Parshat Emor, Taste of Daf

Erev Pesach Sheni. Near Tzefat, people are celebrating at the gravesite of Rav Yehuda bar Ila’ee, a sage of the Mishna era, around the second century. Chairs are 2 meters (6’) apart, masks on face, and yet, they manage inspiring Torah words, lively Chassidic music.

Pesach Sheni (“Second Passover”), mentioned in Numbers 9:1-10, is the only holiday in the Torah created by people, when they demand a day, another chance at Pesach, for the one they missed, as opposed to all the other holy-days G-d commands us and tells us what to do. It’s also the only Torah holiday in this Hebrew month of Iyar, giving us a taste of what this month is about; a time when we don’t wait passively for “freedom” to rain of us from “above”, but set out, with a little bit of chutzpa (how else would anyone imply Moses doesn’t know everything and that we need an extra day here??) to create our own redemption from “below”.


Once upon a time, long ago and far away, a town’s rich man was dozing off during Shabbat Torah service (clearly before shul was on plastic chairs in the streets…). When he wakes up, one verse from this week’s Torah portion remains with him:

וְלָקַחְתָּ֣ סֹ֔לֶת וְאָפִיתָ֣ אֹתָ֔הּ שְׁתֵּ֥ים עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה חַלּ֑וֹת שְׁנֵי֙ עֶשְׂרֹנִ֔ים יִהְיֶ֖ה הַֽחַלָּ֥ה הָאֶחָֽת׃

You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves, two-tenths of a measure for each loaf.

וְשַׂמְתָּ֥ אוֹתָ֛ם שְׁתַּ֥יִם מַֽעֲרָכ֖וֹת שֵׁ֣שׁ הַֽמַּעֲרָ֑כֶת עַ֛ל הַשֻּׁלְחָ֥ן הַטָּהֹ֖ר לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

Place them on the pure table before the LORD in two rows, six to a row.

He is sure G-d almighty spoke to him, and this is what he needs to do: bring twelve loafs of bread to the Temple. That Sunday, he places the freshly baked halla in the ark,, praying, hoping G-d will, please, accept his gift.

Soon after he goes out, the janitor walks in. Teary, humbly, he stands humbly before the ark: ‘please dear G-d, I desperately need your help. You know my job has been cut and I can’t make ends meet… please send me something I can bring home to my wife and hungry kids’…

He finishes cleaning the shul, dusting and shining the bimmah, then opens the ark, shocked at the sight: a bag with, not one or two, but 12 freshly baked, fantastically smelling loafs of hallah…

Later that evening the rich man comes back to see what happened with his offering. Imagine how surprised it is when he sees the ark empty. Excited he rushes home to tell his wife their gift was accepted and can they please make another batch… again they place it in the ark, the poor janitor comes, hopeful, takes the gift and so it goes.

But one day, their schedules collide, and they run into each other. Amazed, dismayed, and angry they realize what’s been going on. “It wasn’t G-d who took the loafs but a good for nothing poor janitor”! “It wasn’t G-d who gave the gift, but a rich man hearing voices while napping in shul”!! ,

The rabbi hears the commotion and steps out to hear both yelling… waiting for them to take a breath, then calmly turns to both, “Of course it was G-d. Your hands are the hands of G-d giving and receiving your gifts”.

I’ve heard this story many years ago from Rav Zalman Schachter Shalomi. I think of it often and especially when this Torah portion comes around. Our hands are the hands of G-d giving and receiving our gifts. What shall we do today?


A taste of daf yomi: what a beautiful chapter about women’s jewelry! The halacha here is mixed with psychological, social and economical insights. And the description of what women – and men – wore centuries ago. Among them, the famous, exquisite “Jerusalem of Gold” Rabbi Akiva gave his wife Rachel as he promised many years before, when they didn’t even have a bed to sleep on; so heavy some rabbis considered it like freight and not like jewelry… like this, maybe?


Still Pesach Sheni. A bright sunny day after some rain during the week. Feels like almost summer; most spring flowers are gone with the weeds at the curb starting to yellow. I walk past the entry sign to the old cemetery in Haifa, with its warning for the kohanim not to enter. I’ve been told, time will heal, but those who say it, must not know “time” (who does), or loss or real healing. It’s more like a tree that sprouts leaves to cover up its broken branch, or learning to live without a limb: doable at best; itchy and aggravating in certain weathers; noticeable even in long sleeves, and still always painful, always there. And it’s Pesach Sheni: the day some people call a model for ‘always having second chances’; the day I learned how some things never have it, barely once. Rest in peace, dear abba, and may all mourners find comfort.Shabbat Shalom.

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Shabbat Achrei-Mot-Kedoshim and some

Friday morning: broom and dust-pin in one hand, mop and soapy bucket in the other, heading up the apartment building’s stairs for the weekly cleanup, when a neighbor stops me: ‘are you maybe interested in another building? I know up the street, they are looking’… it’s so good to know that if all else fails, cleaning is still useful…


This week was Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. It sure was “different”, but it was also good in its own way. People were together in a unique kind of way; not hugging and “high-fiving” and banging on each other’s heads with plastic hammers, but with the deep sense of care and hope.

I was reminded of one of our rabbis in CA, long ago, and far away, who sent his kids to yeshiva in another state, actually a few states away. I was in awe and amazement, and asked him, how he can send them so far away. In his thoughtful manner, he answered with half a smile, ‘so they can be close’. He knew that while he and his wife (and siblings no doubt) had to put up with the physical distance and longing, this was ok, as long as their spiritual and religious connection were kept tight.

This is what it feels like now, not to minimize any pain, but compare with my aunt who hid for six years in a Berlin cellar, we’re doing fine. The streets were decorated with blue and white flags; floats came through with music; bbq’s were lit in so many yards and balconies where families sat together in white shirts for the holiday’s meal. In some places, the day’s special prayers were blasted in the loudspeakers. I’m not saying it was “normal” (a word I don’t know it’s meaning anyway…). But, hopefully, many years from now, when little eyes will look at us and ask with wonderment, ‘you lived then’??? we’ll remember these days with their unique strength, rather than darkness.

Between my writing, I happen to catch the tail end of an interview with Rabbi Dr. Zachi Hershkovitz. In an effort to paraphrase, he says: when the Reform movement began, they said, ‘be a Jewish in your home and a human, outside’. We, in the Land of Israel, have created a life where we can be Jews outside the home, and “people” inside. Maybe this time is calling on us to bring Judaism back home, to refocus. And also, maybe a little soul-searching: maybe we took for granted how ‘everyone’ should come to shul; we were upset at people not showing up for certain events, minyan, holidays, meetings… maybe we have overlooked how difficult it can actually be for many people to show up, for all sorts of reasons. Now we stand in their shoes and we can learn to empathize and learn new tools, so we’re not just sitting here, thinking when will this be over and we’ll all be back to “normal” (that word again), but what have we taken with us.

I don’t know anymore if he said all of this, or I heard it into his words, but the message of contemplation, trust, faith and hope, did come through.


And something ny from this week’s daf:

אֶלָּא יָתֵיב רַב פָּפָּא בַּר שְׁמוּאֵל קַמֵּיהּ דְּרַב חִסְדָּא וְיָתֵיב וְקָאָמַר: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁכּוֹרַעַת לֵילֵד טוֹמְנִין לָהּ שְׁנֵי עֲזָקִין שֶׁל שֶׁמֶן, וּמַנִּיחִין לָהּ אֶחָד עַל פַּדַּחְתָּהּ וְאֶחָד עַל הָרֶחֶם כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּתְחַמֵּם. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן: אִם כֵּן, עֲשִׂיתָהּ יַלְתָּא.

Rather, Rav Pappa bar Shmuel sat before Rav Ḥisda, and he sat and he said: At the time that the animal crouches to give birth, those tending to the animal soak two swatches of wool in oil, and place one on the animal’s forehead and the other on its womb so that it will be warmed. Ḥanunot refers to animals with those swatches. Rav Naḥman said to him: If so, you turned the animal into Yalta, my wife, who descended from the house of the Exilarch. That is treatment fit for her, not for an animal.

This chapter in tractate Shabbat talks about how we treat animals, especially on Shabbat and any day, with attention, tlc, care and kindness, but, nevertheless, animals are not people. You can pamper your pet or livestock, but don’t overdo it too.

Shabbat Shalom

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The New Month of Iyar, then and now

It’s a new month in the Hebrew calendar; the month of Iyar. There’s a famous midrash on its name, marking it as an acronym for the words – Ani Hashem (G-d’s name is marked by the letter Yod) Rof’echa, meaning, I am Hashem your healer. But maybe also – Amen (ken) Yehi Ratzon (amen, may it be Your will)? Or is it actually, “Amen, may it be your will”, namely ours?

The first way to read it is obviously much preferred, especially now. We want to have, hold, believe in and spread a “comforting” message that “G-d is our healer” and “everything will be ok”. But is G-d only our healer?

It reminds me of the story, I think told by Esh HaTorah, to be fair to the origin, about a young man who came to believe in G-d because “a miracle happened to him”. He nearly died in a crazy accident, when a truck came down a dangerous curve, forcing him with his car off the road to a nearby canyon. The car toppled to the bottom, landed on its wheels, and he emerged unharmed. Such a miracle means there’s a G-d, right? He tried to confirm with the rabbi. The rabbi looked at him curiously and asked, “well, then, who do you think sent the truck”??

Indeed, if G-d is our healer, who sent the virus?

Another repeated commentary relates to these two Torah portions we read this Shabbat. Over a cycle of 19 years, this is the one most often read with the beginning of this month of Iyar (13/19), which means there is something about it which helps set the tone for this month. But what? Tazria – Metzora deal with issues of purity and impurity, a world that was totally foreign to us until recently and therefore, again, now seemingly popular, especially since some of the discussion includes “harchakot”, having distances, which is now so familiar. But is that all there is to it?

I’d like to suggest a different direction, based on a favorite teaching, that of “Pesach Sheni”. Pesach Sheni, to be commemorated on the 14th of Iyar, is the only Torah mentioned day during this month. All the other “Israel Days” we celebrate nowadays, came upon us, officially, much later (although some Kabbalists will beg to differ)! What is special about Pesach Sheni is that, unlike all the other Torah holidays, it’s the only “holiday” (sort of), that is made through people. People ask Moses to have another opportunity to have the original Pascal offering, and Moses gets information from G-d that this can be done on the following month, that one we are in now (Numbers 9:1-10).

What this came to stand for is that the “first” redemption, like the first Passover, is totally made by G-d: G-d is the One who took us out of Egypt. And all we had to do was sit back, at home, and wait for the plague to pass and be gone. The “second” redemption, symbolic through the Second Pesach, is made with great human intervention. This is what we celebrate during this month. And therefore, no wonder the “Israel Days’ are davka here and now. This is also what – maybe – these two Torah portions stand for: not randomly “distancing”, but being responsible to our actions, regarding ourselves, each other and G-d.

Of course, G-d is our healer. And S/He is also many other things as well. I believe our task is to focus more on who we are, what we can do, and how we can help bring about better days ahead., starting here and now.

Shabbat Shalom.

Taste of Daf Yomi from this week:

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Corona Journal – Yom HaSho’a in silence

My great grandmother, Flora Grünberger of blessed memory, loved to ice-skate. In the winter months, when the Oder river would freeze over, she’d take her granddaughter, my mom, both bundle up, and go out into the cold. Gliding on their special shoes, they’d hold hands and have fun. Somewhere there’s still a greying photo with both of them hugging and German scribbles on the back. When my Zionist grandfather, fearing the new regime, told her he’s going to schlep her beautiful daughter and beloved granddaughter to Palestina, she wasn’t about to join. For one, there were not enough “certifikatim” (immigration certificates); and besides, what nonsense! What does he think this is, the Middle-Ages? She was not about to leave her lifelong homeland, where her husband, my great-grandfather, was a decorated WWI sniper; nothing can possibly happen in modern, cultural Germany! let alone to her!! If all else fails, she can always join later…
“Later” all that came was a telegram, explaining she’s going “East”, traveling “with the neighbors”. But the neighbors were long dead!! What did this message mean? Was she losing her mind? Was she maybe trying to say something? What in the world was going on?? Surely, a misunderstanding… Today, Yom HaSho’a 2020 I lit a candle in her memory. I thought of their good-bye, of the journey, of my grandma, her daughter, trying to make a life in the sandy red soil of central coastal Israel, learning to care for chicks and oranges, live under the hot sun, grinding her teeth over the strange, rocky language, all the while, the gnawing fear inside, pieces of the horrifying news slowly trickling in…

Only decades later, did my mom find her name in the long lists of those murdered in Theresienstadt. Only decades later, did I begin the understand pieces of our story; of my story. We grew up in silence. No one spoke. I now think that it’s not that they purposefully didn’t share; it’s that they thought “there was nothing to say”. Maybe there was guilt, shame, so many mixed feelings that had no words… We were lucky. We were alive. Our immediate family was nearby, and about those absent, we didn’t know even to ask. Our gaze was forward. And that past? Those awful photos and heart-wrenching stories? Those belonged to some other people, not “us”. To “us”, this would not have happened. A wall of silence rose between “us” and “them”; between the here and now, and the stories and people of then and there. They did not speak; we did not listen. In some strange way, everyone was content. And silent.

Silence was also what accompanied the surviving relatives. My nuclear family all arrived in Israel in the 1930’s with the “5th Aliya” – coming from Germany, so I made that assumption that this was so for “everybody”. I knew that my aunt (by marriage) left Berlin in 1935. Clearly, where would one go? I assumed that she too, and her family, came to Israel then.
It was when I was back in Israel for my uncle’s shiv’a, when my aunt was asked by one of the guests, when did she come to Israel, that I heard the rest of the story; happened to hear; snippets of…

When the question was tossed into the full room, me, knowing “everything” about the family’s history, jumped and said, 1935! My aunt looked at me puzzled and said: “no, that’s when we left Germany”. “Yes, so? 1936”? She hesitated, and I was further confused: that was everybody else’s story; how long did it take her to get here? Even in the “ancient” 1930’s? What’s so hard to calculate?
She thought for a long moment, already realizing what her answer will do, then slowly said, “1949”.
What??? She shook her head yes. “But wait”, I tried to save the story; my version of the story, still hoping to change what’s about to be revealed.
“Didn’t you leave Berlin in 1935”? “Yes”, she said, her fists tight around the armchair.
“We went to Holland”.
“Holland”?? I was alarmed, “In 1935?? That’s not good! What happened”??
“Well…. yes, things were not so good… nu, maspik, enough with the boring stories. Tea? I have an excellent cake. Anyone?”…

When the guests finally left, she suggested I talk to her sister, who had the “interesting story” and can tell me “everything”. No “Yekke” in their right mind ever tells anyone “everything” but she told me some: how she, her newly-wed husband (married after dangerously sneaking into the community mikveh) and six others, aided by the Underground, dressed up, with false papers (except for their ktuba…), crossed the border from Holland to Belgium, hidden by Righteous Gentiles, then continued to Switzerland, where they were caught and sent back to be held in Detention Camps and DP (Displaced Persons) camps. She also told me some of my aunt’s “boring story”, how she refused to leave Amsterdam, opting to stay with her mother who, they feared, will not be able to make the escape journey. In Amsterdam they first went hiding, and then, like Anna Frank, were caught and sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp,  which they both, miraculously survived, then sent to DP (Displaced Persons) camps in North Africa, before indeed, arriving in Israel, in 1949. My aunt got married but was never able to have children. That time was lost, and who knows what else happened. Forever, she had to walk that line between endless pain for all that was gone and joy and thankfulness for being alive at all. How can one hold all of this? How is anyone expected to just get up and go afterwards? Yes.

It’s 1978. My mom and I travel to the US before my army service for some sightseeing and meeting relatives. One night we stay with a cousin of some degree who survived the war. My mom tells me how beautiful she was as a child, and that in spite of the emaciation, was still beautiful when an American soldier fell in love with her and took her home, to live “happily ever after”. But the Holocaust never left. When we sit down for dinner, 30 some years later, I put two potatoes on my big, white, empty plate. Just as I am about to put my fork into one, she looks at me, then the potatoes, then again, eyes me, eyes the plate, and says, “one potato is more than enough for a girl your age and size”. “But”…  I try to protest. “Sh”… hushed my mom, pulling my hand away, “let it go; it’s because of what happened ‘there’”. Silence. I now realize I was then about the same age she was when the war ended. One potato was definitely enough. Maybe for a whole day. Maybe a week.

The stories seem so much part of my childhood that I don’t ever remember being without them, and yet, it takes so much time to really hear them. Another vignette: Standing on the platform in the busy Berlin train station, with a ticket to safety and freedom in Scandinavia (Denmark, I believe), my mom’s cousin, all ready to depart; her mom waving good-bye. They both know they might never meet again, but ‘what must be done, must be done, and this is what’s best’. The horn sounds, once and twice, whistles blow, conductors rush, doors almost closing. My mom’s cousin, already on the train, looks at her mom, steps off that train in order to join her mom and remain in Berlin. It’s 1939. They hide in Berlin for the next 6 years. Six. Whole. Years. In a Berlin cellar. Surviving the war and later making a home in New York.

I start writing this morning; it’s Yom HaShoa and I should. And I want to. I plan on something short. “To the point”. But the stories spill on. Especially these days, these ladies are with me. We have dinner together and they tell me what it was like to bake matza behind a bookshelf in Brussels so there would be no smoke in the chimney; and what it was like when you really could not go out; and what it was like when you finally could. When people compare the current situation and the Holocaust, I shudder. There is no comparison, but maybe, the only thing is that the distance between “us” and “them”, “here” and “there”, has just shrunk a tiny, tiny bit. We are still so far…

May their memory be a blessing.

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