From my travel journal, August 7, 2007, Tel Aviv, Israel
“Will get together with Zev and Zohara again on Thursday…will be nice to meet more of the family then, such good people…“
On our third night in Israel, we found Zev and Zohara, standing among the grave stones in the old section of the Segula Cemetery in Petah Tikva. Tall, white, and weathered, the tombs that seemed to stretch for miles were etched with black Hebrew letters, bearing the names of those who had passed on. When Zev acknowledged us with a nod, we moved in closer. Prayer books, like the missalettes I had read from when growing up in St. Mark’s Catholic parish, were handed out. Low chanting and soft sounds of birdsong carried on the hot breeze. A small group including Shoshana enveloped us, and the prayers and hymns began. Unclear of what was happening, we tried to follow along. At times, I recognized words from decades attending Seders at Robert’s family’s home. Barach Ata Adonai Elohaymnu Melech Haolam – Blessed are You Lord, God, Eternal One. Although, most of what was said was foreign, there was something so reverent about these voices chanting words of praise together.
Thirty minutes later we found ourselves at the apartment of Zev’s brother, Schlomo. Still in the dark about this evening, we stood in the cramped dining room bathed in candlelight. There a long rectangular table was set with everyday dishes, glasses, and utensils. A fan whirred in the propped-up window.
Shoshana, who was the most fluent in English, introduced us to three women busy in the kitchen. They nodded while taking pans out of the oven and pots off the stove. With mitted hands they stirred, sniffed, and sampled the contents, adding just a little pinch of seasoning here and there. The food must’ve cooked for a good part of a day as the air was thick with heat, humidity, and the smell of brisket.
Waving good-bye, Zev and Schlomo left quickly. We had no idea why they left, where they were going, or when they would be back. When preparations in the kitchen were done for the time being, Zohara and the women gathered on a couch, wiping their damp brows with tissues. Robert, Shoshana, and I sat across from them. Eager to get to know each other, words tumbled out of our mouths. Shoshana tried to translate as our voices got louder, and louder. Finally, we just faced each other smiling, nodding, and sweating.
An hour later when the men returned, plus two, the women plated the food and we all sat down to dinner. Zev’s sons, Elie and Avi introduced themselves saying they met Zev and Schlomo at shul. It seemed so surreal to be in a strange country, in this apartment with people we had just met, passing around platters of varnishkes and kasha and fish and beet salad. Zev raised his glass and toasted, “L’Chayiem” – To Life!
Then the stories began. Zev was the first to speak and soon after, Robert understood. He whispered that this was an anniversary of someone’s death. What we were taking part in was a yahrzeit. In turn, each person shared a remembrance and although we couldn’t understand the words, we could feel what was being said. Laughter erupted, then eyes became misty, then knowing smiles made their way around the table. Later we learned that it was Zev’s mother who was being honored. While we never knew her, we knew she was loved.
When this evening came to a close, Shoshana handed us a book on the history of Israel. In it, she had written a dedication to us in English and Hebrew. A gift, she said, “To connect us.” Instead of saying the customary Shalom, we found ourselves saying, “Thank you.” Thank you for taking the time to meet us. Thank you for inviting us to share in this celebration of family. And thank you for giving us memories of this trip to Israel. Ones we will never forget.