The year 2016 is over, and good riddance to it. It was a year in which an excruciating election campaign sank to a new low in name calling and personal attacks and ended, for many of us, in the shocking election of a man who opposes so much of what we have long taken for granted: immigration, women’s reproductive rights, and climate change, among other things.
It was a year in which anti-Semitism came out full blast, on Facebook and Twitter, and in which civility and empathy disappeared from college campuses, even among Jews themselves, as arguments about Israeli policies became more polarized than ever. And it was a year that ended in a shameful U.N. vote against Israel, a one-sided resolution that will only damage hopes for peace in the region (and I write this as a firm supporter of the two-state solution and critic of Israel’s settlement expansions).
Now we begin again. I don’t have solutions to the big issues or the oppressive legacy of 2016. But the other day I heard a moving story, a true story, about integrity and open heartedness that symbolizes the kind of respect and values we need to think about as we begin to make our way through the new year. The story centers on my friend, the scholar Abraham Ascher, author of several books on Russian history, most recently a short biography of Joseph Stalin. Like so many contemporary sagas, this one begins in that darkest period of Jewish life, the Nazi era.
Abe Ascher was born in Breslau, Germany, to parents who had emigrated from Poland, but never received German citizenship. By1938, a vicious Nazi campaign against the town’s Jews led his father to seek a visa to the United States in the hope of bringing over his family after he settled there. Before his scheduled departure, however, the family received word that the police were rounding up Polish Jews and shipping them off to Poland. Abe, his parents and siblings dashed out of their apartment and began walking the streets, until they found a hiding place in the home of a German Jewish family, the Meisels. This family was among the few German friends the Aschers had — generally German Jews had little to do with the Polish Jews in town. At the close of the weekend, after the crisis had ended and the Aschers returned home, they learned that the police had been to their apartment to arrest them. The Meisels had saved them from being deported to Poland and the horrors that would have awaited them there.
Skip ahead. Abe’s father settled in New York City, and struggled to get his family out of Germany. While waiting, Abe’s sister and one brother joined kibbutzim in Palestine. Another brother moved to London, and from there helped bring 10-year-old Abe and his mother to England. For four years, Abe lived in one gentile home after another and attended several schools, seeing his mother only sporadically. Finally, in 1943, the two were reunited with his father in New York. Sadly, Abe’s mother would die five years later, at the age of 57.
Meanwhile, Mr. Meisels had died and Mrs. Meisels and her three children also left Breslau and settled in New York, where Abe’s father stayed in touch with them. Three years after Abe’s mother died, his father married Mrs. Meisels. When he died in 1970, he left the little money he had to his children, while his few belongings remained with the Meisels in the family apartment in Washington Heights.
About a month ago Abe got a phone call from a Menachem Meisels, a rabbi, son of Mrs. Meisel’s elder son, Yosef. Looking through the family possessions, Menachem had come across a silver spice box, the kind used in the Havdalah service that ends the Sabbath. He was sure it had belonged to Abe’s father, and felt that Abe should have it. Abe remembered his father’s Havdalah services, but had no recollection of the spice box. Nevertheless, Menachem persisted.
So, 46 years after his father’s death, Abe received in the mail a beautiful, carved sterling silver spice box that, looking at it now, evoked memories in him of his childhood years in Germany and early ones in America. Out of kindness and generosity, with nothing to gain for himself, Menachem Meisels had returned a precious object to him that he did not even know he had lost — and with it a piece of his life.
It’s a small story that doesn’t deal, of course, with the large complexities of the world. But, just as the sweet fragrance of spices are meant to recapture the Sabbath spirit, let us hope that in the year ahead we as a society can recapture some of the sweetness, the honesty and the basic goodness the story embodies.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” Her new biography of Golda Meir will be published in the fall.