Over the past several years, especially since my Mom’s passing, I have had much time to reflect. During those moments, my thoughts often wend their way back to two life-changing journeys taken in 1967 and 1968. My fond memories of our travels, now well over half a century ago, remain with me to this day. Although I was only 5 on the first, and 6 on the second, both of those family trips have a had a profound impact and they have shaped—and continue to shape—the trajectory of my life. They were different in many ways, but there was a defining common element.
In 1967, while my father Gustav, was still in the Air Force, years before our brother Jeremy was born, the four of us took a family camping trip (like many families). We loaded up the big green 1963 Buick Electra (affectionally named “Greenie”) and set off from San Antonio for two weeks or so, exploring some of the National Parks—the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest and Bryce Canyon, the Four Corners, Zion National Park and others. My younger sister Julia and I played (and occasionally fought) in the massive back seat while our parents took turns driving and navigating, as we travelled across the western states.
One particularly memorable stop was at the Grand Canyon and I remember looking down to the bottom—stunned and a little scared that anything could be so immense and deep. My Mom admitted the same thing when we would discuss this trip years later. I also remember being somewhat disappointed that the Petrified Forest did not really look like one. I recall meals at the campsite, often prepared on our Coleman stove, eating cereal from the little boxes you could turn into a bowl by tearing them the right way, time spent sitting around a campfire in the evenings, and nights where we all bundled up in our big blue tent. In those days, you had to avoid touching the canvas when it rained—so it wouldn’t lose what little water resistance that was inherent in the fabric. We had no internet or movies—just some books and a few games, our imaginations, the beauty around us and one another. And, it was more than enough.
Mom remained a lifelong donor to charities that strove to protect these beautiful places (as well as historic ones) but for whatever reason, we never went on another big family camping trip. I have no explanation as to why we did not. We did take other family trips to other National and State Parks (as well as hikes in parks closer to home) but it was that camping trip that has always stayed with me. It started a love and appreciation for the outdoors—and a desire to see it preserved. For that, I will always be grateful. As a consequence, I have always enjoyed camping and hiking and later canoeing, rafting and kayaking. Over the decades, I have been fortunate to see many of the magnificent natural places we are blessed with in the United States (and in a few other countries too). The cool clear air and the scent of the forest, the humility inspired by snow-capped mountains and glaciers, the solace of a campfire on a quiet evening—and the chance to lean back to see the majesty of the night sky, have provided many moments of wonder, joy and serenity. Some my favorite times have been in these beautiful places, whether on my own, with friends or later with my own family. And it all started with the one camping trip way back when.
The following year, in the spring of 1968, after completion of his service as a physician in the USAF, the four of us travelled to Israel for my first trip (of what would be many trips) to Israel—the place where my mother Miriam was born in 1935, before the establishment of the State of Israel. Her parents Abraham and Sophie Steinberg were ardent Zionists and had made Aliyah years before and were among the early families in the town of Ra’anana (not far from Tel Aviv).
We spent several months living in my grandparents’ modest but wonderful home in Ra’anana with lovely orange and apricot trees and beautiful and fragrant carnations (that I have written of in a previous post). Unfortunately, my grandmother, Sophie, had passed in late 1967, several months before our arrival. I remember standing at her gravesite, at the unveiling of her headstone, as my grandfather, Abraham, spoke and he and my mother and father shed bitter tears.
We were also there for Israel’s 20th Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) celebrations. It was a joyous moment! We toured parts of the country—especially areas near Ra’anana, the Galilee and Jerusalem, also spending a few great days on the Herzliya beaches. We even flew down to Eilat for a brief visit.
We also met up with my Schonfeld grandparents, who were staying in Jerusalem and had coordinated their trip with ours. There were dinners with family friends and reunions with relatives who had moved to Israel after surviving the concentration camps (as well as the fortunate few who had managed to make their way to Pre-State Mandatory Palestine before or even after the despicable 1939 British White Paper, that prevented Jewish immigration to Palestine to escape the Nazis).
One such visit was with our cousins Rudy and Esther who lived in a Moshav near Netanya (Bitan Aharon). Our cousin Esther was one of a group of female cousins who had gone through the concentration camps with my grandmother, Helena. They had a small chicken farm, raising chicks and harvesting eggs. It was wonderful to watch the tiny, cute and fluffy chicks that ran around the yard searching for food. I will also never forget walking carefully with our cousins Rudy and Esther through the chicken coop as they showed us how to pick up the eggs laid each morning. Down the street, we met a neighbor who showed us his beehives and we tasted honey fresh from the hive. It was exciting stuff for a six-year-old boy.
Although we did not camp on this trip, we did take a wonderful trip to the Northern Galilee and stayed at the guest house of one of the oldest Kibbutzim, Ayelet Hashachar. It was a simple and lovely place where we ate in the communal dining hall, and, at least at that time, one could also see the night sky.
During our time in Israel, while in Ra’anana and while we visited various places around the country, I distinctly remember my father telling me stories about our family’s history as well of stories of the Jewish people. Some of my first memories of the Biblical Stories set forth in the Torah—relate back to evenings where my father shared his memories and our history (for some reason, stories were always told at night). He was a wonderful narrator and his voice had a wonderful rich timbre that conveyed his feelings and the essence of those stories. Although he has been gone for over twelve years, I can still hear his voice echoing across and through time.
It was also my father’s first visit to Israel (of many to follow). Only 23 years earlier, he had survived the Holocaust as a 10-year-old boy thanks to the heroism of his father, Sandor (Alexander), who shielded him during the year in hell that they spent in a number of concentration camps and slave labor camps. Thus, it was on this trip that I first learned of the Shoah (the Holocaust)—and some of what had been done to our family by the Nazis and their collaborators. We went to Yad VaShem—Israel’s memorial to victims of the Shoah. It was intimidating and moving. I don’t remember asking many questions but I took in as much as I could bear. The Hall of Remembrance with the names of the concentration camps and the memorial flame were affixed to my memory.
Over the decades, we have been back to Yad VaShem a number of times. It has a special significance to us (as I am certain it does for other survivors and their children and grandchildren). Because, there are no graves for my father’s younger brother Solomon, and so many of our other relatives, Yad VaShem has become that place where we remember and honor them.
Years later, from conversations with my parents, I found out that it was on this trip that they decided that they would send us to Jewish Day School, so we would understand, appreciate and be proud of our Jewish heritage and be knowledgeable in our religion. It was also on this and subsequent trips that they also determined that we should learn to speak Hebrew. Although my father spoke Yiddish and Hungarian and my mother spoke Yiddish—they did not spend any time teaching us those languages, the languages of the painful past. Many years later, in 2006, echoing 1968, our parents took all our little family of five on our sons’ first trip to Israel, passing the legacy forward.
I distinctly remember that my father and mother were particularly happy. It was a magical time with many other sweet moments. It was on that first trip—55 years ago—that my parents and grandparents instilled in me a love of Israel and its people (Ahavat Yisrael).
During the course of the last 55 years, I have been back to Israel many times (at least once in each decade). Through the years, the bond has grown deeper and richer. Over that time, I have been blessed with many opportunities to develop a passionate, unconditional love of Israel and a deep connection with our Israeli brothers and sisters. This is so, even when, like all families, we may disagree. I also have a clear understanding that, Israel, like all countries, is not perfect and is a work in progress (and I acknowledge the fact that I feel the need to include this type of qualification is part of a completely different conversation, outside the scope of this post).
Like my grandparents and parents, I am a proud Zionist and I firmly believe that Jews, like other peoples, are deserving of a homeland. I also believe that, wherever we live, because there is a Jewish homeland, the Jewish people can stand taller than we were able to during the two millennia that we were stateless and powerless. Given that we are blessed to live in a time our ancestors only dreamed about, where there is a Jewish State, over the decades, I have sought ways to connect to the land and our people (in our family life and through various communal endeavors).
As we prepare to visit Israel again this year, just after Israel’s 75th Yom Ha’atzmaut, it is hard to adequately explain the depth of my emotions, and the pull, that the land and people have on me. Our history, religion, language and peoplehood all swirl around one at every turn. Celebrating Shabbat or the Jewish holidays, wandering through the streets and markets, visiting historic sites and attending services are all joyful and inspiring. There is something uniquely special about the calm that extends across the country on the eve of Shabbat or one of the Jewish holidays. Listening to Hebrew spoken everywhere and understanding some of it (even when it is just idle chatter) is somehow comforting. Speaking in Hebrew, even if I am often a bit rusty, is uniquely satisfying. When all is said and done, some of my happiest and most meaningful moments have been while I have been in Israel.
With the passing of our mother almost two years ago, the only ones left to who can recall the story of those foundational journeys are my sister and me. Miriam Steinberg Schonfeld was a kind and generous spirit, beautiful inside and out—with an inner strength (and a great sense of humor). Our last conversations, just weeks before she passed unexpectedly, were about the importance of preserving this legacy of Ahavat Yisrael and passing it forward.
So, how are these different stories connected?
To me, it is fairly simple. Both of these overarching themes relate to an intentional and loving introduction by Gus and Miriam, Sandor and Helena and Abe and Sophie–warm encounters repeated and nurtured over a lifetime (even when discussing points of disagreement). That said, not for a moment did we take our good fortune for granted. My parents and grandparents were all charitable people, contributing to numerous charities in the US and in Israel. That too, was what they modeled for us. And, by the power of example, their passion has been transmitted forward. My wife Suzanne and I have taken up this legacy and we have done our best to convey to and instill these feelings of love of (and responsibility for) nature, an appreciation and understanding of Judaism and Ahavat Ysrael in our sons (who we hope will, in turn, instill them in future generations).
At this point in life, the desire to find worthwhile pursuits and meaningful moments with family and friends exceeds the need to acquire additional material items. Life moves along quickly—so we will seize as many moments as possible, planning journeys to more of these magnificent places and for more time in Eretz Yisrael (Israel)—all the while carrying and treasuring the golden memories of 1967 and 1968.