“Where were your grandparents from?” Chaya asked within minutes of meeting me at the Tzemach Tzedek shul in Jerusalem’s Old City on Simchas Torah.
These kinds of questions are part of the unique game of Jewish geography that can only be played in Israel, especially Jerusalem. Because so many people want to share their stories there, you can become BFFs with someone in minutes.
“I only know that my father’s father came from a shtetl near Minsk. “ I answered her, unembarrassed that I didn’t know more. “I’m not averse to finding out where my family came from, but there’s only so much time and I care more about where they’re going.”
We shared some details of our Jewish journeys as we slithered through the Old City’s ancient stones to visit her small but charming home tucked in one of its corners. Chaya said it was tiny compared to her home in Boston, but it was a a price worth paying.
Of course, all conversations with Israelis include some version of the real question: why is it that the Jewish people have a homeland after two thousand years and you’re not part of it?
I explained to Chaya why I lived in Pittsburgh—family, business, community—the standard reasons why people don’t leave.
As we walked back to shul together for Yizkor, the prayer for the departed, she shared with me a chilling fact, spoken with the sweet yet soulful certainty that only a child of survivors knows: there has never been a host country that has not expelled its Jews.
Yet, there we were in Israel, our “safe haven,” just days after four Jews living within its borders were murdered by intransigent Jew-haters who are preoccupied with death, especially when they can make it happen to us.
As I murmured the prayer’s words…my father, my teacher…tears filled my eyes. I envisioned my father sitting at a table next to me, holding pencil to paper as he introduced me to the “at” family, its most illustrious members being “cat” and “rat.” How indebted was I to him for teaching me to read? How fortunate was I to be alive as a Jew, able to pray for his soul at at that moment in that shul?
But it gets even better. Yizkor gives a sneak preview of what G-d plans to do to anyone and everyone who has ever killed a Jew for being a Jew. G-d apparently wants to comfort those of us who are intimate with death with the assurance that He doesn’t pain us indiscriminately. If you ever worry that G-d has abandoned the Jewish people, the Yizkor prayer offers His clear promise to the contrary. It refers to Jewish martyrs and to members of the nations of the world who spill Jewish blood, asking, “where is their G-d?” But the prayer then continues to graphically elucidate how God will avenge these deaths, assuring us that “Israel will hold its head high.”
Yizkor’s reference to the world’s Jew-hatred reminded me to save my energy; there’s no way to understand it or even eliminate it through natural means. Only G-d can do this–and He assures us that He will. For my part, I can strengthen my connection to Him despite darkness and death, trusting Him to fulfill that promise.