When I came to NYC last week, I knew that this would be my last trip. I came for a family simcha and to spend time with my sister. All I did was family related, except for a visit to see the newly refurbished building of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of my alma maters — I graduated in 1966. There I met many friends and also almost all of the women in leadership positions there, which was quite thrilling. On my many previous visits in the past, I went shopping; went to museums; used the libraries; went to conferences. I even sang in Lincoln Center with the Zamir choir’s celebration of its 20th anniversary, of which I was a founding member in 1961. But this time, I had no desire to do any of this. I did watch the US Open, something I always do in Israel, but here it was live, not taped. I got to share vicariously in the Serena evolution. I touched base with my living first cousins on my mother’s side.
I wanted to write something erudite this week because Ki Tetzei is one of my favorite portions (parashot) — full of material about which I have written and lectured. For instance, I have written extensively about the trafficked woman in Jewish sources and use the story of the beautiful captive woman which starts the parasha: “When you go out (ki tetzei) to war against your enemies… and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house… and she shall be your wife. Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her” (Deut 21:10-14).
There are many sources that link the verses that follow, about the loved and the less loved wife, whose son is the first born, the bechor who inherits even though his wife is not the loved one. And the root word bechor is repeated five times in case you don’t get the point. “If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, but the first-born is the son of the unloved one– when he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is first-born. Instead, he must accept the first-born, the son of the unloved one, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses; since he is the first fruit of his vigor, the birthright (bechora) is his due (Deut 21:15-17).
Further on is the punishment of stoning for the disobedient son, whose parents have no control over him, and when I read this from the Torah last Shabbat during the mincha service, I said to all the teens sitting there, you better behave yourselves or else!!!! The midrashic tradition would have it that this son is the hated (seniyah) son and/or possibly the offspring of the captive woman—who was screwed up by the maltreatment of his mother. Has he overcompensated by acting out, and overeating and drinking? Instead of treating obesity and alcoholism he is stoned, literally! “If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid (Deut 21:18-21).
I have also written a lot about Jewish divorce in connection with wife-beating, so this passage is also very important to me: “A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house… “ (Deut 24:1).
Then there is the woman who pulls off the shoe of her brother-in-law who refuses to marry his dead brother’s wife and in the presence of the elders, she spits in his face, and makes this declaration: Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother ‘s house! And he shall go in Israel by the name of “the family of the unsandaled one” (Deut 25:5-10).
Not only do I have a lot to say about this parasha and many more passages (not to worry, I won’t), but I wrote my one and only midrash in Hebrew about the haftarah, connecting the akara, the barren one, with Miriam. You can read all about this in one of my books.
This week, I will not bore you with my erudition, I will let you reflect on the selected sources I inserted above without further commenting on them. However, I will share with you my mother’s thoughts on her leaving New York to live in a retirement community in my home town. She was just a bit older than I am today when she wrote this. Unlike me, she loved NYC and never stopped taking advantage of all that the City had to offer. Going to Israel was a real sacrifice for her. So I will share with you what she wrote in 1993. It has never been published before, although my beloved sister tried for many years to get it published. So as I bid farewell to NY and my sister (who I will continue to see on Zoom), I will share our mother’s poem with you. Enjoy!
ODE TO NEW YORK
Charlotte Jaray Lebovics (1909-1999)
Ganei Omer, 1993
Who could ask for more?
It is 6 a.m. The birds wake me.
I open my door to take my usual stroll.
Not a soul is stirring — only the leaves and the birds as I step out.
The beautiful fragrance of my roses in all profusion of colors —
As I stroll a few more steps.
The fragrance of lavender is intoxicating.
Every few steps, I stop to take in all the beauty that confronts me.
I’m up to jasmine.
The sky is blue and I’m walking undisturbed
On the main road full of acacia and hibiscus.
After my half hour stroll, I return, prepare my breakfast,
Taking it out to my patio.
My garden looks lovely — the gardener was here yesterday.
Soon my helper will come to do my apartment.
My friends and neighbors will soon be up and ask me if I need anything.
“How do you feel?”
Living here is really ideal.
My pedicurist wants to know what time do I want her to come.
My grocery order is on the way–
I don’t have to wait for it — the doors are never locked here.
Who could ask for less? Less?
Take me back to the filth of New York City,
The roach infested apartments,
Triple locked doors.
No strolling — every step you take, you have to look behind you
To make sure no muggers at your back.
No friendly neighbors.
Yet I long for all this.
In New York, I’m surrounded by museums, libraries,
Concert halls, the Met.
I’ll trade the beauty for the muggers, the roaches,
The triple locked doors, pollution and noise.
Though now I have beautiful gardens,
Make my own center pieces.
I don’t have to long for the unattainable.
The grass is greener on the other side.
If my health permitted me,
I would be back to shake hands with all you muggers —
At least, you speak English.
You can’t have it all.
For sixty-five years I lived on Madison and 96th.
I walked down the dark avenue
Rain or shine, snow or ice.
My first stop was the flower shop on the corner.
I stopped near the window and stared at the
Beautiful colors and flower arrangements.
How I would have loved to buy some.
One rose cost two dollars.
I kept on longing for them.
I stopped at antique shops, book shops.
I never stopped at boutiques that inundated the avenue.
When I was eighty, my daughter persuaded me to move
To Omer, Israel — near her.
She told me New York was not safe for an older person.
Pollution and noise are detrimental to my health, she said.
So now I live surrounded by beauty in a botanical garden,
Yearning for what I no longer have.