What could be more wonderful this past Shabbat in Jerusalem than walking to San Simon Park with my daughter, son-in-law and their 3 young children? It’s an amazing sight to see hundreds of families, religious and secular, all enjoying the beautiful weather in a serene Shabbat setting. While our young family sat on a blanket or followed their toddlers, offering delicious watermelon (many share food here even with strangers) my husband and I planted ourselves on a nearby shaded park bench, taking in this incredible scene of families, dogs and lots of food.
Within a minute, next to us were two older men speaking to each other in Hebrew. I quickly said to my husband, “the one wearing the hat has to be from Chicago.” The joke in our family is that I’m teased for often meeting a complete stranger that I somehow have a connection to. This was another example.
When the hat-wearing man sat next to me, I asked if he was from Chicago and he looked surprised. I told him that I could hear his accent even though he was speaking Hebrew. As I started playing Jewish Geography with him, my husband moved over to speak to other more elderly man. Both of them had incredible stories for us.
As it turns out, this was not merely a coincidence of birth place, but as my fellow former Chicagoan and I compared notes, within minutes he told me that he remembered my Father, z’l, as he recollected, “a man who liked to daven from the amud (lectern or bima), an athlete and very involved in shul life.” This description fit my Father z’l perfectly. He continued to tell me more about his early Chicago life on the West Side and then West Rogers Park, and it became clear that he knew my cousin Rabbi Leonard C. Mishkin z’l, having been taught and mentored by him. He also knew my husband’s uncle and aunt, former Chicagoans who also reside now in Jerusalem. He shared details about his 36 years living in Israel, how the country has changed for the better despite the constant challenges. It was a shock to hear that he recalled my Father z’l with vivid details and I told him that he had given me a precious gift.
Meanwhile my husband was engaged in a lively conversation with his bench mate, a 98 year old (young?) Holocaust Survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, orphaned at the age of 17 when his entire immediate family perished in Treblinka. Somehow he evaded the Transport from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka Death Camp. With his walking sticks, he boasted how every day he walks two complete circuits of San Simon Park – I’m not sure I can do that without sitting down! He pointed to the young families enjoying the park and said, “Hitler didn’t win.” Then he walked home.
The magic and mystery of Jerusalem continue to give gifts that are unexpected. I plan to look for these two men this Shabbat afternoon and continue hearing their stories.