I was about to step on the boat that would bring me to the airport.
Of course, there is nowhere else in the world one would need to catch a boat to the airport, so the setting of this story is in Venice, Italy. In my opinion, it must be one of the most fantasy-like, dreamiest, romantic, artistic, magical cities in the world! I feel confident in that opinion, although I have not traveled too much.
I knew I didn’t want to leave Venice yet. I had another 12 hours to my flight. What would I do at the airport for 12 hours? On the other hand, I had nowhere to sleep that night, couldn’t afford another hotel, wouldn’t have a cheap way to get to the airport in middle of the night to make my flight, and my sister that was traveling with me had to catch her flight back to Israel nine hours before my own flight to London. I wanted to spend more time in Venice, but should I stay alone?
The man that was listening to my struggle inside my head, who happened to be a Jew who owns an art shop in the ghetto (whom I had bought artwork from earlier that morning), was escorting us to show my sister and I which boat to take. I was about to get on the boat when he said, “Why don’t you at least take the last boat out of here, which is 11:35 at night?” Being that it was 6:30 in the evening, I could get five more hours in.
So I looked at him and said, “I’ll stay if you tell me your story”.
He looked at me and said, “What makes you think I have a story?”
I looked at him and said, “Sir, I know you have a story. Will you tell it to me please?”
I waved goodbye to my sister and she floated off to the airport on a boat shuttle and I walked back to the ghetto with this sweet man, who I knew had a story to tell me. I saw he had secrets, but I didn’t know what they were. He was mysterious, unbelievably kind, funny and was carrying a lot of pain. I speak the language of pain all too well, so I thought because we spoke the same language, why not make use of the next few hours by talking to him? I had seen everything there was to see in the city, I wasn’t keen on walking around at night myself, so I sat my new friend down and we talked.
There were a lot of facts at the beginning. Born in 1947 in Croydon, London to an Italian/Croatian mother and British protestant father, he was already a mosaic of cultures and origins at one day old. When his parents got divorced, he was two years old and his mother remarried and moved to Trieste, Italy. He was brought up by his mother and stepfather who he considered to be his father. He was only 17 years younger than his mother and when he was 20, and his mother was 37, and his “father” was 39, they were all too young to experience a nightmare. His parents suddenly died in terrible car crash. He was only 20 and already an orphan.
Trying to deal with this unfathomable challenge, he decided he wanted to travel the world. He met this Australian guy and he decided that he wanted to go with him to Papua New Guinea, an island north of Australia. But for some reason, on the way to this adventure, he wanted to stop in Israel “to see a kibbutz”. He ended up at some not religious kibbutz near Kiriat Shmona and as sometimes man proposes and G-d disposes, or all the time really, G-d did not intend for him to get to Australia.
Instead, he fell in love, as men sometimes do, in a foreign country with a foreign language to a woman who was, consequently, Jewish. As he was not Jewish born, he decided to look into this “Jewish thing” and having felt culturally and ethnically lost after reuniting with his biological father in England and feeling no connection, he felt an immediate closeness with Judaisms and Israel. He ended up studying the Torah and after comparing it with the New Testament, he decided that the Torah “deal” was the “real deal”. Torah spoke to him loudly and he fell in love three times in row — with the land of Israel, a Jewish Israeli woman and Judaism. At some point, he returned to Italy to “think things through” only to return again to his three true loves. He couldn’t stay away from the truth, as he saw it.
At this point, he became close friends with a man named Milo, a co-Kibbutznik who also happened to be a survivor of Treblinka. They became very good friends and they would often talk about the deepest concepts of life together, both having experienced intolerable pain.
A marriage to his love Yisca, a few different homes up north, 2 children named Gil and Mila, and seven years later, our friend became a convert with an Orthodox conversion. He taught himself Torah, Halacha, Hebrew and the Chief Rabbi of the IDF at the time, Rabbi Goren, converted him. He studied with Rabbi Kirshenboum from Tel Aviv, who was Orthodox and soon enough our friend, Todd Edward Banker became Asher Ben Avraham on one monumental day.
Fast forward. It’s now 1975. Asher is living in the Golan Heights living a Jewish lifestyle without practicing strict Orthodox traditions and sadly, he is now divorced. He believes in the Jewish principles including that Hashem chose the Jewish people as His chosen nation, he keeps Shabbat to some point and he is living on an organic, not religious kibbutz. He then meets Mimi, an Israeli, with a son Elon and a daughter Dena, from a previous marriage. They are in love, but the abiding rules and laws of Judaism seems constricting, so Asher and Mimi move in together and have 2 more children…Karen and Netanel, but they never marry.
Mimi is an artist; an exquisite, talented artist, whom G-d has given tremendous gifts to. Her hands create the most magnificent art pieces and many are based on Jewish and traditional concepts. She has created hundreds of works based on Torah text (the 5 books), Megilat Esther illustrations and dozens and dozens of painting of different famous Jewish places such as synagogues around the world. They set up a business together and for 35 years they live in Israel. She paints, he does the publishing and marketing. Their combined six children begin to get married and life is good.
One day, nine years ago, they decided they could make more money, so they can help their children financially make it in Israel, if they opened a gallery in Venice. They moved to Venice and although they visit Israel quite frequently, they love their peaceful life in the beautiful city. Mimi is a fast learner and after a while spoke Italian and Asher had grown up in Italy and naturally knew the language.
Fast forward a few years later to New York, where Mimi is visiting her uncle Frank; she’s meeting him for the first time in her life. He is a painter and strangely enough paints the same subjects Mimi paints only in a more subdued way. He is a survivor of three camps and soon after Mimi meets her uncle, Asher and Frank are sitting in Frank’s kitchen and they start talking about the past. Frank brings up the Holocaust and his experience and tells Asher that he had a friend in Treblinka who went to Israel to live in a kibbutz but they lost touch. Asher asked if the name of the friend was named Milo and Frank answered, totally shocked, an affirmative yes. Asher takes the phone, calls his friend in Israel and asks her to find Milo’s number; which she did. Asher calls Milo and gets Frank on the phone and Milo and Frank have a reuniting phone conversation after years and years of separation. Asher looked at this story and asked himself: “What are the chances in life that somebody like me would be able to know these two special people and reunite them…? Almost zero.” It’s these life’s “coincidences” that continues to give him faith.
After 44 years of being together, and nine years of being members in the very small Jewish community of Venice, three months ago exactly, (Asher suddenly tells me), he and Mimi got married. A traditional Jewish wedding in the Jewish ghetto court-yard with the Chief Rabbi of Venice.
In this ghetto, there are about 150 Jews that show up for the high holidays with only 20 Jews who actually live in the ghetto. There are 450 Jews in total in Venice, but at this wedding, it seemed from the pictures he showed me, many many attended.
As I’m getting all emotional, telling him Mazal Tov and how special it is that they are a “newly married couple”, he then starts to tell me that these three months have been the hardest three months of his life.
His two children from his first marriage, Gil and Mila live in Israel, he reminds me. He then starts to tell me that his daughter’s husband died of cancer 10 years ago and since then she has remarried and has many children. She lives in Beitar and Asher is very close with his grandchildren and new son-in-law who is a scribe. Then he shockingly states that only just a week before, from the day we are sitting together talking about his life, he got up from shiva for his son Gil. Gil was a software developer in the Ministry of Tourism, 42, and has two kids and a wife. For 14 years he struggled with cancer and one week before I met Asher in Venice, he had been in Israel sitting shiva for his son. Gil’s wife, also named Mimi, lives in Jerusalem with their two children, ages 8 and 11, who are named Eitan and Yona.
I look at this man. He closes his eyes and the tears are visible. His words are choked up. His pain is tangible. “May G-d give me the strength to bear the sadness He has given me”, he tells me. Asher continues, “If there is no darkness, there is no light. G-d could have behaved in a different way.
Asher, who told me that “G-d loves spiritual fruits but not religious nuts”, might have what a religious Jew might call a “complicated” script. But as I waved good bye to him and his wife, I sat in the ghetto court yard and cried. What a man. What a huge soul. In between the lines he spoke, I saw him give charity to two men playing instruments in the streets. I commented how nice that act of kindness was when he answered me nonchalantly, “I give them money every day; they have to eat! Don’t they?”
I saw a story unfold of another convert in the city, born and bred in Venice, who is now Chassidic, whom Asher has virtually adopted, taken care of and provided work for. He added without a trace of honor, “I send him to Israel a few times a year so he can be with his Rebbe.”
I saw a man who closed his shop up for 15 minutes to make sure my sister and I would get on the right boat safely to the airport.
I saw a man who supports his family in Israel and will only do his printing in Israel in order to support Israel, even though it is more expensive.
We all have stories. And we all make decisions based on our stories. There isn’t right or wrong paths when people have experienced pain in their lives. Pain is many times too great to handle, too much to bear. This man, this story, showed me that even when I can’t do everything right, or the way things “are supposed to be”, or what G-d or people in my life expect from me, that doesn’t mean I need to forsake my beliefs or my relationship with G-d. Hashem loves realness, communication, connection, intimacy, that we should be good to His people and that we should do the best we can with the tools we have…today.
Asher, thanks for teaching me this life lesson. G-d might not behaving right now, but you sure are withstanding it.
**All names have been changed for privacy.