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Yosef and Chana, my most unexpected friends

Can young, secular American Jews befriend elderly Borough Park Haredim? Impossible!

In the beginning Yosef died. Not in the very beginning of course but too soon after our most unlikely friendship began.

We were living on Rehov Etzel in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, known as Givat Hatzarfatit. On the slopes of Mt. Scopus, in 1973, it was a new neighborhood occupied by many foreigners. Immigrants mainly who had arrived in the powerful aftermath of the Six Day War. Blown in by the euphoria, people poured into the nation and many newcomers settled on French Hill. There may have been hints of another war to come but none of us could sense it.

We were assigned our housing by the government as my husband worked on a special assignment. We were about as secular as Jews could be, eating tref, ignoring all the holidays, not even welcoming the Shabbat with candles. Jerusalem would have a profound impact on us. But, not so fast. I jump ahead.

Yosef and Chana were our neighbors, a half flight up. Our friendship could not have happened. And yet it did. They had just arrived. Empty nesters in their 50s, Yosef had retired as a rosh yeshiva in Borough Park. Definitely not our kinds of people at all. They wouldn’t even borrow a cup of sugar from us. Who knew how I could have made it tref?

Their kids were grown and out. We had four little ones, between 2 and 10, and an ancient dog. When Yosef went to shul on Shabbat, we headed for our car for a tiyul to visit friends or family in Tel Aviv.

But Yosef was a smoker. And so was I. My older kids were always begging me to stop. So, I stopped buying cigarettes, and every night, after dinner, I walked the half dozen steps to Yosef and Chana’s and sat down and smoked with Yosef. This was inevitably the most relaxing part of my day. And Yosef was a lovely lovely man. A mensch. Kind and nonjudgmental. We talked and smoked. Every day except Shabbat.

Chana was a bit of a kvetch. She complained about all the little annoyances. One day she was frantic because she wanted her new oven to have a meat section and a dairy section. In fact it had an oven and a separate broiler. So, when she tried cooking the dairy food in the broiler, it was an instant, but funny, disaster. She didn’t seem to be able to cope very well. Little did I know.

Yom Kippur brought us to war. Yosef, with his faith,dealt with the situation with equanimity. Chana became hysterical. The government imposed darkening of the windows was more than she could live with. She complained nonstop. I wondered how he put up with her and her fragility. Little did I know.

One day in November, Yosef became very ill. He was rushed by ambulance to Shaare Tzedek Hospital on Jaffa Road, moaning in agony. It was sudden but deadly. Pancreatitis. It soon became evident that he would not survive.

Chana was a stalwart. Every day she went by bus to the hospital and the news was grim. On a fiercely cold and windy November Friday we thought that Yosef would not last through Shabbat.

Saturday morning, we called the hospital, hoping that if the worst had happened we could spare Chana the long long hilly trek to Shaarei Tzedek. Rain soaked the streets of Jerusalem and the wind continued to howl throughout the city. We inquired as to Yosef’s condition and we were told that the policy was not to give patient information on the Shabbat.

My husband rushed by car to the hospital, hoping to arrive before Chana set out. When he got there Yosef had already died and Chana was already there grieving.

My husband begged Chana to come home with him. She had just lost her life’s love. The weather was frightful. Surely accepting a ride from a friend would be forgivable this one time.

She seemed to weaken momentarily and then her true strength became apparent. Her resilience straightened her backbone and she said, “I have been a shomeret Shabbat my entire life. Today, on the day my husband dies, I should desecrate Shabbat? No. Never.” And with somber dignity she walked the ancient streets back to our new neighborhood, to begin her life alone.

For us it was a profound lesson. Her restraint was remarkable. And while, as life went on, the little things continued to grip and overwhelm her, she was a giant with the big things. Formidable. Who knew?

And slowly, our family, became more invested in the Jewish traditions which we shared with our neighbors. We had so much to learn. We learn until this day. Jerusalem, we hear you. Yosef and Chana, we hear you. We thank you.

About the Author
Rosanne Skopp is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of fourteen, and great-grandmother of two. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and travels back and forth between homes in New Jersey and Israel. She is currently writing a family history.
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