Skip to comments.Three Girls, Three Graves, One Torah
Posted on 05/17/2004 6:14:33 PM PDT by Salem
Three Girls, Three Graves, One Torah
By: Daniel Gordis
Last Sunday night, which now seems like a hundred years ago, was about as good as it gets here. Along with the other twelfth grade parents at Tali's school, we'd been invited to a "Hachnasat Sefer Torah," the "bringing of a Torah Scroll to a synagogue." There's nothing particularly unusual about a "Hachnasat Sefer Torah" in Jerusalem, or in Israel, for that matter. They happen pretty frequently. But this one was unique.
Fourteen years ago, in about 1990, a group of pre-twelfth grade girls from Pelech, Tali's high school, went on what is now the school's annual trip to Poland. One day, while in Krakow, they noticed a young man selling dolls. They were "Jew dolls," made to look like traditional Jews. A bit weird, in Poland, perhaps, but not particularly noteworthy, until some of the girls noticed that the "books" that these dolls were holding looked remarkably authentic. They looked closely, and became convinced that these "books" had been cut from a real Torah scroll.
They asked the doll-maker where he'd gotten the calligraphed parchment, and he told them that his uncle had a big scroll of it in the nearby town, Luminova. Asked where the uncle had gotten the scroll, he told them that during the war, it had been in the house of a Jew, and his uncle had taken it after the Jew disappeared. "Could they see it?", they wanted to know. He agreed to bring it back the next day.
True to his word, he showed up the next day and showed them what he had left. He had, basically, Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus. The two other books, apparently, had been carved up for the dolls. The girls instinctively knew what they had to do. They pooled their relatively limited pocket money, and bought the Torah from the man for whatever they could scrounge together.
They carried the now destroyed and unusable Torah with them for the remainder of their trip. As the time to depart Poland grew closer, however, they were faced with a dilemma. All Jewish property from before the war now belonged to the State. The doll-maker had had no right to sell it, they had no right to buy it, and they certainly had no right to take it out of the country. If Israeli kids were caught smuggling Polish government property, matters would be most unpleasant, to put things mildly.
They talked it over, and after a while, as their teacher from that summer reported to us this week, "ha-lev gavar al ha-sechel" -- "the heart trumped reason." They decided to smuggle the Torah out of Poland and to bring it home to Jerusalem.
At the airport, however, each of them was required to put all their bags onto the x-ray machine. The first girl in the line, when she was told to put her bags on the belt, passed the Torah to the next girl in line. When that girl was told to do the same thing, she surreptitiously passed it to the girl behind her. And so forth. For the next few minutes, the Torah silently made its way back the line, until it seemed that they were not going to get it out.
And then, the belt broke. The machine just quit. The Polish authorities, too concerned with fixing the belt to inspect all the bags being brought through, just ushered the remaining girls by, and the Torah made it out. They brought the Torah to a place in Jerusalem where such scrolls are repaired, but the work is exceedingly expensive, and with time, the girls moved on. To the army or National Service, to university. To marriage, to kids and to careers. The Torah remained un-repaired.
Fourteen years later, yet another senior class went to Poland. Talia was part of this group. The girls had an extraordinarily powerful experience, and during their trip, heard the story of the Torah that their predecessors, now in their thirties, had smuggled out of Europe. This class resolved to raise the money to get the Torah repaired, and upon their return, a few of them took the lead and got to work. A considerable amount of money was raised, the Torah was repaired over many months, and this past Sunday evening, it was danced into its new home in the auditorium / synagogue, where, instead of being carved up for dolls, it will be used regularly, read by young women who actually understand it, and who live by what it says.
The ceremony itself was a religious ceremony, so it was women only. Elisheva and Talia went at the beginning, and I joined during the "speeches" segment, which was open to men, too. It was, despite the heat and the overly cramped space where people were sitting in the aisles and on the floor, standing on the sides and outside the door, incredibly moving. And as I listened to the teachers, the students, the rabbi, some graduates and others all tell the story of this Torah and of the two classes that had rescued it, a few mentioned that these girls are "dor shelishi la-shoah," the third generation since the Holocaust. True enough.
And as I thought about that, I asked myself what it was that got these girls to do this. How did the sense of urgency, the sense that this Torah couldn't be allowed to languish in Leminova and be cut up until there was nothing left, piece by piece and scattered to the winds, come to be so powerful for these girls? How did they know that this Torah simply had to come home? Why, in a world in which last year's news is ancient history, did they know that the story of the Jews of Leminova, whoever they were, is their story, too?
I watched Tali watching the speakers. I couldn't get a seat anywhere near her, but I could see her. Listening intently, her eyes, at certain moments, brimming with tears. Later, in the hallway of the school, just outside the auditorium, Elisheva and I talked about what the past six years have done to our kids. How grounded they are. How they know what they stand for. How, despite everything they've been through, there's very little (on the surface, at least) that seems to frighten them. And a night like that, we said to each other, the opportunity for her to be part of something like this, reminded us why we came, why we stayed, why there's nowhere else we'd rather raise our kids.
Musing on that, I was reminded of a conversation I'd had with Talia just a couple of weeks earlier, at the end of Yom HaZikaron, the memorial day for fallen IDF soldiers. Yom HaZikaron is a quiet day in Israel. A very quiet day. Stores are closed, restaurants are shuttered. The music on the radio communicates the sense that this is not a day like all others, and on Channel Three television, the names of all 21,781 soldiers who've fallen defending the country were shown on the screen over 24 hours, in the order in which they were killed.
At the end of the afternoon, just hours before Yom HaAtzma'ut (Independence Day) celebrations were about to begin, Tali and I were sitting outside on the terrace, chatting. I asked her about her class's ceremony at Mount Herzl that morning.
"It was nice, actually. Shira [her principal] told us to spread out across the cemetery, and to find a grave at which we wanted to recite Psalms. I decided to go to the section from 1948."
"Well, I figured those were among the oldest graves, and they were the least likely to have family come and visit them later in the day."
"I went with two other friends. I went to a grave from the War of Independence, and read some Tehillim [Psalms]. Then, one of my friends who'd been at a grave not far away, told me that the grave-stone shed stood by noted that it was someone who was killed in a battle for Jenin. And you know, Abba, she said, 'it's pretty amazing, isn't it, that here we are, all these years later, still fighting in the same places, and we haven't given up.'"
"And then, my other friend came back, sobbing. She'd found a grave of someone who'd been killed in a battle for one of the places slated to go back [in Sharon's plan, subsequently defeated in the Likkud referendum], and she was crying and saying, 'It's such a waste. These people died to get us those places, and now we're just going to give it back, with nothing in return? It's too much to bear.'"
Tali was quiet for a minute, and I didn't say anything. Then, after a pause, she said, "I hope I don't have to go back there next year."
"Because, Abba, I'm a senior. There won't be a school trip next year. All my friends are going into the army now. If I go back there next year, it'll be for a funeral. For someone I know."
She's right, of course. She's at that age where all her friends are getting drafted, just as she is. And she's right that she could end up back there, as we were reminded eleven times this week. And she's right that if she did end up going there, the pain would be unbearable, more than any eighteen year old should have to know.
So what keeps these girls on track? Why do they know that Torah simply must come home? Why do they still weep at graves for people they never knew? Why are the stories on that mountain as real to them as the stories of the people in their own families?
That, when you boil it all down, is the magic of this place. It's the magic of living in a home where the kids, and their parents, breathe in history and belonging with every breath that they take. The implicit debate between those three girls, about what's a price worth paying, what should make us proud, what should devastate us, how we should understand the events playing out all around us, are what this whole country is about.
Those competing narratives "slug it out" even in our calendar. We're now in the midst of the Omer, the nightly counting of the forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavu'ot. A kind of movement from slavery and physical freedom (Pesach) to counting (Omer) as we make our way to spiritual freedom (Shavu'ot).
And onto that traditional frame, the Knesset added three days in the middle. Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocuast Memorial Day), a kind of modern day enslavement (or much worse). And then, a week later, Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, in which the counting (like the Omer), is very real. Only this year, we counted not to 49, as in the Omer, but to 21,781 (a number that has grown by almost 15 since then).
The very calendar itself seems to promote a dialogue, even a debate, between the underlying narratives at the heart of this country. Which should be the "progression" that defines us? The Biblical story, the move from Pesach to the Omer to Shavu'ot? Or modern day Israel's narrative, the movement from the devastation in Europe to the enormous price paid to get the place we now call home, to the celebration of having that home?
Much of the mythology of early Zionism was a rejection of that Biblical tradition. Poems like Alterman's "The Silver Platter," among many, many others, were an almost explicit claim that the Biblical tradition had failed us. Bialik said the same thing. The Jews of Europe, he insisted, had ended up emaciated, defenseless, pathetic (his view, not mine). We didn't need just a new State -- we needed a new kind of Jew. Israel would be a place not only of Jewish sovereignty, but a place where the sick and defenseless European Jew would be brought home, and then repaired, fixed and reborn.
Maybe those girls in Poland understood that fourteen years ago. Maybe they understood that the story of that Torah is the story not of a scroll, but of their people. And who would leave a Jew in a place like Poland, to be carved up, scattered to the wind? It would be unthinkable.
That's why the highly divisive society called Israel doesn't depress me. And it's why the histrionic headlines emblazoned across each morning's newspaper do not exasperate me. Because the divisiveness and the infighting, as exhausting as they can be, are often, it seems to me, about a wounded but recovering people still trying to figure out what it wants to be when, one day, it recovers from its wounds. It would be hard to imagine that the healing could come any faster than it is. And it would be hard for me to imagine something more important to argue about.
When seventeen year old girls know that a Torah can't be left in Poland, or that it can't be left in a warehouse un-repaired, because homecoming and repair is what this place is all about, I know that despite it all, this place works. When my daughter comes home from the military cemetery on Mount Herzl and tells me about the implicit argument between her two friends after their visits to those graves, I sense that this country is working, and working well, despite its myriad problems. And when I listen to the radio during a horrendous week like the one we've just had, despite all the agony, I hear a debate not really about politics, but about history, about identity, about staying alive. Exactly what this home was supposed to be about.
How else can we understand the fact that suddenly, this week, experts in halakhah (Jewish law) were sought for one radio talk show after another? The issue -- "is it permissible to send soldiers into Zeitoun, and then Philadelphi, in house to house and roof to roof searches, in order for them to look for fragments of the bodies of their comrades who'd been blown to smithereens the day before?" How does one balance the command not to risk life for anything except to save life, with the command to do whatever we possibly can to make sure that every Jew gets a Jewish burial? Can we put soldiers at a modicum of risk, so that the parents of their friends will have something, at least something, to put in the ground and have a funeral? Can we put soldiers in harm's way so that these very soldiers, and all their friends, will know that if, Heaven forbid, something like this happens to them, we'll get them home?
The rabbinate allowed the searches, but the country agonized. Many of us knew that the answer that had been given wasn't the only defensible one. The rabbinate basically said that depending on the likelihood of finding parts of the body, and the assessment of the risk, that, yes, "some" risk could be acceptable in order to bring those kids, or whatever we could find of them, home.
But what is "some" risk? What if more kids had been killed, by snipers or by a roadside bomb, in that operation? What would we have said then? Why, one could have asked, accept any risk whatsoever? Why, in the end, did the rabbinate rule this way? And why would any soldier risk his life to go look for a tiny piece of flesh on a Gaza rooftop? For what possible purpose?
Because, I think, there's something inexpressible about the commitment to "ingathering" at the core of this society. The Torah had to be brought home. The three dead soldiers we traded for a few months ago had to come home. And these eleven kids, or whatever we can find of them, have to come home. And dozens upon dozens upon dozens of kids risked life and limb to go find whatever they could.
People argued about it. My taxi driver told me, "no way." It's just not worth it. Elisheva thought it was. I wasn't entirely certain. "If, God forbid, it had been our kid who had died there," I asked her, "would you want one of his friends [and I mentioned the names of a couple of kids who now hang around in our house, doing homework and playing their music way too loud, but who in relatively short order will also be drafted] to risk his life to go find what was left?" She looked at me, said nothing, and turned around and walked away. Rightly, of course, because the choice is unbearable. There's nothing to say.
The decisions are too impossible. Theres no right, theres no wrong. Theres no way out, it sometimes seems.
The front page of HaAretz today has a headline that reads "Edron's Sister Hopes His Death will Lead to Withdrawal; Aviad's Father -- Gaza is Ours." Pretty much sums it up. Even the bereaved families can't agree on what should emerge from all this. And the rest of the country? Even those who want to get out, and get out now, have no idea how to answer the question everyone's thinking about -- "If we leave, and they turn all of Gaza into a Hamas Disneyland, and they start firing Kassam rockets at Ashkelon and Ashdod, aren't we just going to have to go back in and take it over? And won't that be more dangerous?"
It's enough to make you dizzy, or worse, to make you just give it all up. But that doesnt happen here. Few people give up here, because it's home. When you watch people listening to the radio this week with an intensity that I've seen nowhere else, you know you're home. When you see the vacant faces of people as they listen, and ask the person next to them with horror, what do you mean there are no bodies, as if it had been their own child, you know you're home.
You're home because you know that this is the only place where an entire country could be consumed with the question of how Jews should be buried. Because this is the only place where the national holidays actually teach girls, subtlely but powerfully, that you have to bring even a Torah home.
At the end of the ceremony at Tali's school, a few of us, who hadn't been present at the religious service, wanted to see the inside of the ark. It was beautiful, and on the Parochet (the cloth covering at the front), there were some verses embroidered. The crowd was so thick that for a minute or two, I couldn't get a glimpse of what was written. But as people looked and moved away, I finally got to see. In beautiful lettering, embroidered with a love that was palpable, were the famous verses from Jeremiah 31:15-16 that had been chosen to welcome the Torah home:
Ki yesh sachar li-feulateikh,
Ve-yesh tikvah la-acharitekh
Ve-shavu vanim li-gvulam
"There is reward for your labor And there is hope for your future Your children shall return to their country."
Well, read this one and tell me the Lord isn't working corporately in the heart and soul of the children of Israel. With all that any would criticize in contemporary Israel, those with "eyes to see," see there is still a lot of very profound and good things happening as well.
Thanks again, Daniel.
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Thank you for sharing this, I am glad that I could read it and meet the young ladies who took the chance to bring it out.
It is wonderful that so many worked to make the dream come true and it is now repaired.
I feel for Israelis. Judea is theirs by birthright and blood spilled, not just now but from time out of mind. Jews should remember this, that we as Americans face something similar here in the American homeland.
Thanks for the post. BTTT.