The most inspiring Thanksgiving story you’ll read. From a Tel Aviv opera singer

Photo by and of Natalya Digore

It took an opera singer from Kishinev, now based in Tel Aviv, to get this American Israeli in touch with the cheery themes of Thanksgiving. 

After some of the hardest months many of us have known, it can be difficult to celebrate the “blessings” of the last year. 

For me, mustering up the joy was particularly hard this year because it’s far from natural to celebrate plenty, as we tend to do on this harvest-themed festival: my work is to feed Israel’s hungry, a group that is, depressingly, growing. 

But if I considered giving the holiday a miss, 20 years after moving from America to Israel, the pandemic philosophy of various non-Americans I’ve met through Leket Israel pushed me to realize there’s still lots to celebrate. 

One of the most inspiring is a 48-year-old singer called Natalya Digore. She has rehearsed and performed for years, sometimes internationally, with the Israel Opera. Thud. It took just days after the start of the pandemic for her life to switch from the high society institution of opera to utter despair. 

Mid-rehearsals on March 12, days before taking Tchaikovsky to stage, management put her, and the other singers, on unpaid leave. She says, “I was in shock. I never thought we’d get to such a situation.” 

Photo courtesy of Natalya Digore

And then, moments before Natalya says some of the most uplifting words I have heard during the coronavirus crisis, she reveals just how bad things got. “My stock of food, like pasta came to an end. It got to a situation where I hadn’t eaten for about four days. I went to the bank, talked to them, said I’m on furlough and said I have difficulty and would like a small loan. They said they wouldn’t help.” 

In desperation, she sold her piano, and some of her clothes. She immigrated to Israel from Kishinev in 1997 and has no parents or support structures in Israel. “I’m alone in Israel, and my parents are abroad. I relied only on my own abilities, and when I got to this situation and needed help, I was shy to ask.”

But she sought help, first on a Facebook group for struggling artists, whose members left food outside her apartment, and then from my organization Leket Israel, the National Food Bank.

Natalya was featured on television, when the topic of pandemic poverty was raised, and Leket shared a video of her. People started getting in contact with offers of assistance. “They brought everything they thought could help, including food, money, clothes and even furniture.” 

She has always seen her artistic role as bringing joy to others, and as society helped her, she has kept sharing her music, via the internet. Seeing her singing lyrics, in a rendition of Sleeping Sun by Nightwish, has such poignancy:  “For my dreams I hold my life / For wishes I behold my night/ The truth at the end of time / Losing faith makes a crime.”

As I was wondering whether the “blessings” of the last year can be celebrated amid the pandemic, Natalya suggested that recent months have shown many people that there is more caring in society than was widely realized. 

“When I first saw food outside my door I cried, not just for the food, but also because it showed that while I had thought of myself as alone I wasn’t, and that people cared,” said Natalya, who added that the sense that people have her back is increased by the fact some of the food was bought with donations from faraway Diaspora Jewish communities. 

Natalya reflects: “The way I see it, in these hard times we’re closer to each other, more prepared to encourage, support and praise each other. In this time we’re learning how to feel the pain of others. 

“Everyone who was in contact with me to offer help felt my pain, and said ‘don’t stop singing, don’t lose your happiness.’ They gave me new determination to carry on singing. This sense of support a very great gift.”

She prompted me to think about the surprising manifestations of caring I have seen during the pandemic, such as Diaspora Jews who have so many causes to support close to home and still ensure they donate to Israel’s needy, and Israelis who are inundating Leket with offers to volunteer. She made me think about the international trend of good people who are posting on Facebook saying they will drop food discreetly outside the home of anyone who is facing hardship.

It can ring empty when those of us who have both health and well-stocked food supplies philosophize on lessons we can learn during the pandemic, but to hear such a perspective from somebody who has felt its awful economic effects is utterly inspiring. 

And so, I am celebrating today — not the “plenty,” as so many are struggling, but the goodness of normal people, highlighted by Natalya, who are working to minimize the impact of these hard times. She isn’t back singing on stage yet, but her cheery chorus of positivity is the soundtrack to my Thanksgiving.

About the Author
Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket Israel -- The National Food Bank, the leading food rescue non-profit organization that rescues fresh, perishable food, working with 195 non-profits throughout the country to distribute nutritious food to over 175,000 Israelis weekly.
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