At the end of Kislev, the Hebrew month which begins today, we celebrate Hanukah, the festival of lights, by lighting candles. However, on this first day of the month, I light a candle too. It’s a candle to commemorate my father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his passing. I could spend this day mourning his loss, and loss it is, but instead I will commemorate his life and the lesson he taught me and those who knew him.
My father, Avraham, was born in Trochenbrod/Lozisht in the Volhyn region of Poland (now Ukraine) early in the second decade of the 20th century. His birth was registered in the family humash according to the parashah of the week, so we only could guess on the year and date. His father, a melamed or religious schoolteacher, taught him until he was old enough to go off and study in a yeshiva. Eventually he went to learn in Radin, the yeshiva of the Chafetz Chaim, and received his semicha or ordination. He soon found a job as a teacher and met the woman who would ultimately be my mother.
To say they turbulent times followed would be a radical understatement. Two weeks after they were married, Hitler invaded Poland. My mother was in Kiev, cut off from my father and her family. As my father would later tell it, it was a miracle that they were separated, because it gave him a legitimate excuse to avoid being shipped to the front with the other recruits and enabled him to get permission to look for her instead. Eventually, his search took him to Fergana in Uzbekistan, where he was able to live in relative safety, working in a textile mill while the war was sowing death and destruction across Europe and devastation to its Jewish communities. Despite all that, my father did not lose faith.
Two years later, his faith was rewarded. A friend who worked with him told him that a group of Jewish refugees was passing through Fergana, and among them were some people from Volhyn who might have news about his wife or family. He quickly left work and ran to where they were staying, only to discover that one of the refugees was his wife. It was truly a miracle. They remained in Uzbekistan until the end of the war.
With the war over, my father returned to Volhyn, and found the town had been literally razed, and its people murdered by the Germans and their collaborators. There was hardly a trace of the buildings that had been there let alone the vibrant Jewish community that existed before the war except for a sister who had moved to Brazil in the 1920s he was the last surviving member of his family. Even worse, he was an educated Polish expat and a teacher, so he was shipped to Siberia to be ‘reeducated’ in one of Stalin’s gulags. But a Jewish Communist official took pity on him and arranged for his release. He was reunited with his wife and daughter less than a year after his arrest.
From the gulag, my father traveled for close to four years through DP camps, Brazil, Central America and Florida finally settling in Philadelphia where I was born. He became a congregational rabbi and much-respected shochet (ritual slaughterer). It was the latter role that left its physical mark on him – a vivid 8-inch scar on his right arm which was the result of an encounter with a chain saw at work. Despite the damage and the pain I had caused, he believed his recovery to be another miracle.
In short, my father had his share of traumas and triumphs, of encounters with unimaginable evil and unparalleled good. He weathered the evil by holding onto an unshakable belief that in the end, good will prevail. I think of my father’s belief in miracles on his yahrzeit which usually coincides with this week’s Torah portion, Toledot. As the father of twins, the story of Yitzchak’s twin sons resonates with me. Although they may not appreciate it, our twins are fulfilling my father’s unrealized dream: they were born in Israel and now serve in its army. Like Yaakov and Esav in the parasha, our twins are very much unalike, but unlike Yitzchak’s sons, our twins remain the best friends. One of them, named for my father, even bears a noticeable scar on his right arm, the result of surgeries to repair a bone damaged in a childhood fall. The scar will remain for life, but it has given him a greater level of physical strength and emotional resilience that I hope will last equally long. I pray he comes to appreciate the miracle role it plays in his life.