Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem

One circumcision and a funeral

When the brit of our first grandson was followed by the funeral of a Holocaust survivor, we learned an important lesson about life in Israel today

Our firstborn son’s firstborn son was born in pre-election Israel last week. His arrival miraculously transformed us into grandparents, filled us with love of a new kind, and distracted us from the mudslinging and campaign messages that surrounded us.

My heart swelled as I held the newest member of our family for the first time. At one point, he grimaced and gave a soft whimper. “Yes, I know. It’s election day on Tuesday,” I commiserated, in the soothing, singsong voice reserved for the youngest of children. His parents assured me he was concerned about something else.

Three days later, Israel rubbed its eyes in astonishment as it woke to the election results. My world was divided almost equally between people dismayed that Benny Ganz had not trumped Benjamin Netanyahu, and people distraught that Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party had not passed the electoral threshold. The future seemed fragmented and polarized, and promised to bring more of the same.

At the start of this week, the new addition to our family, tiny and pink, with his mother’s eyes and his father’s long fingers, entered the covenant of Abraham. His parents named him Guy, bundling the Hebrew initials of three beloved relatives — Opa Gedalia, Great Grandpa Issy, and Great Uncle Ed — into an acronym that means “ravine,” and that mercifully works well in both Hebrew and English. In giving him this name, his parents brought his past into his future, loaded him with characteristics they hope he will emulate, and rooted him deeply in his land, his culture, and his people.

They added a middle name as well — Sarel — after Great Granny Sarah, who passed away a short time before Guy’s birth. Pronounced Sar-El, it’s a mighty name for a newborn. It is made up of the letters of the name “Yisrael” minus the first, and has the same origin. It stems from the Biblical story of Jacob’s name-change after his fight with the angel, in which he “struggled with beings divine and human and prevailed.” It also destines Guy to be an officer or minister of God, putting great expectations on his tiny shoulders.

When the ceremony and celebration were over and the guests were well fed, we forced ourselves to change gears. For while we were getting ready for our grandson’s circumcision in Modiin, our middle son’s girlfriend was getting ready for her grandmother’s burial in Tel Aviv. We piled the leftover bagels and spreads onto trays for him to take back to his army unit, and hurried to the funeral. It was to be a day of contrasts.

Malka Grinwald was a Holocaust survivor. The burial society workers knew it from the number tattooed on her arm; they said they don’t see many of those anymore. While some survivors don’t speak of their experiences, Malka shared hers with her family in detail. She told them about the high stiletto heels that her mother gave her so she could look taller and seem older; she was only 12 when she was first taken to Auschwitz, and spent three years in the camps. Eventually separated from her mother and grandmother, she survived with the help of a cousin. After the war, she made her way to Israel, where she was a member of the pioneering generation.

As we sat in the hall listening to one of her granddaughters deliver a eulogy, I noticed two large inscriptions on the wall behind the podium. On the right, dancing black letters invoked the memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, while on the left, a similar inscription remembered Israel’s fallen soldiers. The two signs placed us in time, on a continuum from darkness to redemption, rebirth, and renewal.

How moving it was to be at the funeral of a woman who had emerged from the ashes and tasked her children and grandchildren to bear witness, while my son the IDF officer consoled her granddaughter, whom he had met when they were both soldiers on guard duty. How striking it was that this was just hours after my own grandson had been ushered into the covenant and given a name linking him to his land and forebearers, and tasking him to be a future officer of God. The Jewish past, present, and future came together at once.

Standing at the graveside, I looked at the small crowd of people who had assembled — young and old, secular and religious. We all come from different backgrounds and places. We each struggle with beings divine and human in our own ways, and we all find different kinds of meaning. But while we may argue passionately about politics and have wildly different worldviews, we are part of a collective with a common history, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

After the mourners laid flowers and symbolic stones on the freshly covered grave, my husband and I headed back home to Jerusalem. A circle of life, crossing between families, had been completed. My son took the bagels, which had been packed up for his soldiers, to the shiva house, where they could symbolize the cyclic nature of life and be put to better use. My grandson’s circumcision celebration thus ended with an act of kindness — hopefully a harbinger of many to come.

May the future be bright for little Guy Sarel. We pray that by the time he’s 18, there will be no need for compulsory military service in Israel. And if nothing else, there is one thing that we can all probably agree on: by then, Israel is likely to have a different prime minister.

About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three boys, two of whom are soldiers in the IDF. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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