As I am approaching the age of 90, I wanted to share with my youngest daughter memories which are forever in my mind and heart. She is one of my three children, all in the fields of medicine and law. While my mind is still clear it is good to relive long-ago years, most happy ones and several sad ones.
I was a disobedient young child causing my mother much agony, so I was told. When she was angry with me for something I did or did not do or something unpleasant I had said, she would yell at me “just wait until your father comes home”.
And when he did come home she did not give him supper until he had punished me. And punish me he did, sorely lashing me with his wide leather strap on my delicate buttocks, leaving me crying bitterly and shouting at him “I hate you. I hate you”.
The greatest of my love in my early childhood years was my grandfather, my father’s very orthodox father whom I called my zaideh. He was only Yiddish speaking.
In Russia he had been a select boot-maker to military officers in the czar’s army. In the new world he was appointed shamash in an orthodox shtiebel synagogue called Linas HaTzedek and he would often take me with him to show his fellow worshipers his “favorite einakel”.
My father frequently repeated family stories such as his experience as a five year old child in the infamous Bialystok pogrom of 1906. He had accompanied his mother from their village in the province of Grodno to consult with a renowned ophthalmologist in Bialystok, a Dr. Pines. While there, the Cossacks began a pogrom hunting down Jews where they could find them, riding on wild horses and brandishing long swords.
My grandmother and my father were hiding in a small hotel and she covered my father in heavy blankets and hid him in the wardrobe with very strict orders that he was to remain completely silent no matter what he heard. He was told it was forbidden for him to cry or make any sounds that would give away his hiding place.
The Cossacks broke into the room and demanded money. They beat my grandmother severely and left one of her arms paralyzed for the rest of her life. But my father was saved. My father, a child of 5, never forgot the frightening experience and repeated the tragic story many times..
Once, many many years later my father took me to visit his father, my beloved zaideh. It was on a shabbat and my father who was a heavy smoker went to use the bathroom and while there he lit and smoked a cigarette. Shortly afterwards, his father had to use the toilet and he smelled the cigarette smoke.
When he came out, he turned to my father in love and gently said to him, “Meine kind. From me you don’t have to hide. And from God you can never hide”.
Always soft-spoken and never in anger. This story was part of my heritage.
I remember a day when I was about seven years old I walked with my zaideh in a large green park. I saw a boy who did not look Jewish to me. I opened my big mouth and shouted unkind words and blaming him for not being a Jew.
My zaideh apologized to the boy and said to me, “tataleh, darfst zein a mentch”… sweetheart, you must be a gentleman and speak only nice things”.
Zaideh died a year later when I was 8 years old. I remember him to this very day. He was the first greatest love in my life. Each morning when reciting my daily prayers I think of him. Would he be proud of me? I look at his photo in a frame and I kiss it and tell him “zaideh, I remember everything that you taught me”.
As the years passed, I learned to be a better person, thanks to the memories of my early childhood.
When I was 25 years old, I was invited to a major American university to form a Hebrew-language program in the Department of Foreign Languages. In the ten years I served in that position, more than three thousand students attended my classes.
While there, the university press published my first book “Poems and Poets of Israel: Selected Masterpieces”. It came out in two editions.
My memory of one day in my life lives deeply in my heart, soul and mind. It is a memory of the greatest gift that God has ever given to me.
I can never forget the date of August 27, 1959, the day when God blessed me with His greatest gift. I was a passenger on the Zim lines ship Teodor Herzl sailing from Haifa to Naples, Italy and Marseilles, France.
On board the ship I met a beautiful and charming fellow passenger, an Israeli-born young woman who was employed by HaAretz newspaper in Tel-Aviv. We chatted and talked about our lives in Israel and our intentions for the future. I invited her to join me at the dining room table over foods which we ate (and happily, foods which we did not eat and which made many passengers ill) we got to know much about our lives, our work and our dreams for the future. After dinner we spent almost 18 hours sitting on deck chairs continuing our conversation. By the end of our long conversation we knew almost everything about one another.
The following day our ship sailed from Naples and arrived in Marseilles. I was going to Paris and she was going to Roanne near the Swiss border to visit family relatives. Since I had done my doctoral work in Poitiers, France I offered to take her sight-seeing in Paris. I rented a car and we drove through main streets and boulevards in the world-famous city of light.. We walked along the boulevards onto the streets of Malmaison and window shopped where I bought several etchings of tourist Paris . The Malmaison district was far less expensive than the glorious shops Aux Printemps and Galleries Lafayette. The time came to eat a meal and we luckily found Paris’ largest kosher restaurant, Eden, on the Blvd. Montparnasse.
She was leaving the next morning on a train to Lyon and from there to Roanne where her relatives were eager to receive her. I bought for her a very large box of chocolates tied with a gigantic blue ribbon. The next morning I met her at the train station. In those difficult days, Israelis could take no more than ten American dollars in foreign currency. She limited her “meals” to 2 tomatoes and 2 apples each day. I offered to give her some of the American dollars I had but she graciously thanked me and refused the generous offer. Before the train pulled out of the terminal we exchanged addresses and promised to write. We said goodbye and wished one another safe journeys.
When the long train had left the terminal, I walked over to a cafe and ordered an espresso French coffee but it was hard to swallow and my throat was tightening and tears were running down my cheeks. It was at that very moment that I began to miss her and knew that I had fallen in love with her.
Back at my hotel room I threw myself on the bed and cried. Then I began to write postcards to her addressed to her name and the ship and date on which she said she would be sailing back to her home in Israel. When she arrived on board on the sailing date she found 14 of my postcards attached to a mirror in her cabin.
And like a faithful pen-pal, she replied to most of them from her home in Tel-Aviv.
After having known her for only six days I wrote a proposal of marriage and two weeks later I received her reply: “I love you too and I will be very happy to marry you”.
I caught an El Al flight to Tel-Aviv and after only six days of knowing one another we were joyfully married and honeymooned in Eilat.
Sharing these memories with one of my daughters, she never complained about how many times I had told the story. My wife Rahel and I had three children, all professionals in medicine and in law, three grandchildren in medicine, engineering and agriculture. And now I have a 10-month-old baby great-grandson who sadly Rahel did not live to see and enjoy. She died of pancreatic cancer in 2016 after 56 very happy and loving years together. Knowing one another for only six days before our wedding in Tel-Aviv was God’s greatest gift to both of us. Our marriage was legendary and covered by the Israeli press.
One day 9 years ago, I happened upon a wonderful new daily newspaper called the Times of Israel. It was under the brilliant leadership of its Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz. I contacted the editorial office in Jerusalem and informed them of my literary background and publishing experience and expressed my wish to be a member of the TOI team. To my ever-lasting happiness, they accepted me and have to date published 1,250 of my articles. If published, this one will be 1,251.
A month before Rahel’s death she made me promise her that I would continue writing my column in TOI. She felt that it would be a good therapy for me after the period of mourning. Six years later, my mourning for Rahel still continues but I do keep writing.
As my children and grandchildren have heard these memories for many times, I believe that it is good to remember. It helps me never to forget the past!
Approaching 90, I still remember and I therefore like to share. Because I care! Remembering and Sharing keeps me alive (for the time being).
P.S. The large blue ribbon from the box of chocolates is still here. It ties up the 87 love letters from before our marriage which I have kept.