Thursday, March 22, 2012

Guest Post: Saying Goodbye to a True Gever

Yom chamishi, 28 Adar 5772.

Avrahum Shefer with some of his precious legacy
Michael Berezin is a fitness trainer, living with his family in Jerusalem. This piece written by Michael touched me, not only because it was a beautiful tribute to someone dear to his wife, her grandfather Avrahum Shefer, but because it speaks of a piece of our Jewish history, and the history of precious and holy Israel.

We have lost too many holy Jews this week: Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his young sons Gabriel and Arieh, and little Miriam Monsonego, murdered in Toulouse, France by a hate-filled adherent of Al-Qaeda; and Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, one of the great Torah luminaries of at least two generations.

May it be that reading this memorial to a true gever* of the Jewish people in some way be a tribute to all of those precious souls.

Yesterday was the funeral of my wife's grandfather Avrahum Shefer. He was 84 years old when he finally succombed to the pain and suffering, he had been dealing with for the better part of the last year. I don’t know how many of you have been to a funeral here in Israel but suffice it to say, like so much that happens here in Israel, it is an extremely intense experience. First you gather together outside the parking lot of the cemetery and wait for your party to be called, kind of like a bizarre crowded dining situation. Once your party is called everyone gathers together in this makeshift covered area where there are seats and a lectern for speeches and prayers. There you are greated by the covered body lying there on a simple gurney. It’s an amazing concept to me how we can talk about and grieve for someone, who was just alive and is now simply lying there, almost waiting for you and everyone else to just get on with it so he can get on to where he is going. I was thinking that if he had somehow been able to he would have yelled at all us cryers to do just that.

Throughout this time as everyone was talking and crying I found myself staring at his body and my mind began to wander. I found myself taking stock of this man and I began to reflect on what I knew about him. He like many others of his generation had an incredible life story filled with pain, struggle, victory, more adversity and pain, then finally what I and many others around me perceived as final victory.

When he was just 16 years old he and countless others were brought into the ghetto, which for many was just a stop to their final destination known as Auschwitz. Somehow he managed to survive the ghetto and Auschwitz and from what I understand was even able to save some members of his family. (I never got the details of how he did this). Once he was able to escape Europe he made his way to Israel. It wasn’t long after that he was given a gun and thrown into war. He was subsequently captured by the Syrians while defending the Jordan valley and spent a year and change in a cell in Damascus as a prisoner of war.

Like the consummate survivor that he was he got out (somehow mentally intact) and built an amazingly loving and dedicated family. He never wavered, his faith was always strong, and every time I saw him, it wasn’t long before he was off to shul with a kippa on his head. He was many things throughout his life. He was a cop, a motorcycle enthusiast, an ice cream store owner and more recently a currency trader. Most of all though he was the patriarch and the guiding force of this huge family, now with a growing number of great grandkids.

Avrahum had finally won. He had outlasted Hitler, he had survived the Jordanians, he had built this huge family and now finally he was done fighting. He was done surviving. As this was all running through my mind the tears arrived as well. I started to feel the loss as well as the immense thanks that all of us owe to Avrahum and his generation. How many of us today can even begin to imagine what life was like for so many back then, as we grapple with expensive cottage cheese? How many of us will have what it takes to fight and survive what G-d forbid might be in store for us just around the corner?

As the speeches ended we accompanied the body to the grave. One of the men who worked at the cemetery actually got into the grave and started to prepare the area, as Avrahum was eased into the ground. In the final moments I noticed pinned to his shroud was a pink slip with the words “Gever” (man) written on it. I knew that this was just a simple way that the staff there kept track of the bodies but it stuck with me nonetheless. I thought to myself what a true Gever he really was. Only a true Gever would have been able to achieve what he did. I had the passing thought of how I wished that someone might think the same about me one day (I have a long way to go to earn it).

Finally, we all took turns shoveling dirt on top of him. Everyone was eager to be a part of this and I patiently waited for my turn at the back of the line. As I took the shovel I thought to myself how many times should I shovel before passing it on to the next man? I decided on three. One for the painful horrific world he started in, two for the amazing world he built, and three for the final world he earned and was off to.

Baruch Dayan Emet, Gever Avrahum.

May we merit your strength, your heart, and the country you left us (the one we are still fighting for). ~ Amen

Gever means "man" in the most generic sense.  But it also means "a real man, a hero."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What can I do? Am I my brother's keeper?

Yom chamishi, 21 Adar 5772.

There's this couple I know.  I don't like to talk about them.

He beats the kids.  She knows about it.  But she wants to keep up appearances, because it really, really matters to her what the neighbors think of her and the kids.

I feel that it's my civic responsibility to get the word out, so that maybe somebody will stop him.

She's been my friend for years.  But quite frankly, she is beginning to disgust me a little.  I mean, it's her kids, for crying out loud!

She tells me that he's trying, that he doesn't mean to hurt them, that he really wants everything to be normal for everyone.  He says he never hits them without provocation.  I guess that is what makes it hard for me to believe anything he says.  Because on the one hand, he says he wants to be a normal family -- at least, that's what he tries to convince the neighbors he wants -- but then he says that it's all the kids' fault.

I overheard a conversation he had with some of his cronies.  He really thinks the children need to be taught a lesson.  He really doesn't have any remorse.

But she is the one who breaks my heart.  I don't honestly expect anything from him.  He's a jerk.  (He was abused as a kid for years; and he takes it out on his kids, and makes excuses.)  But she says she loves her children; and yet she has watched this thing happening to them, year after year, for almost a decade.  And she keeps putting on nice dresses, and going out in public, pretending that life is good... while her kids are at home, hiding under the bed.


Now I must apologize, dear reader.  I am assuming you are as angry as me, and think this woman should get some sense, and that she should divorce this guy, and protect her kids.  Right?

The husband is Gaza.  The wife is the Israeli government.  And the beaten children really are mostly children.  They are the citizens of southern Israel, who have been bombed routinely for the last eight-plus years, with more than 200 bombs being fired at them in less than a week, purely for the "crime" of being Jews, in the so-called wrong place.
Citizens of Ashdod running to shelters when siren sounds ~ Photo credit: Jim Hollander

Many of these children will reach bar and bat mitzvah without a memory of a time that didn't include terror, running to bomb shelters with only 15 seconds to spare, school closed randomly because bombs are falling nearby, the stress on their families, the shame of wetting their beds long after the acceptable age...

I feel like that child beater's enabling wife's friend.  I love my country.  I have a long-standing respect for Israel.  She's been my friend for years...

But I must not be deaf to the booms and the bombs and the sirens just a few kilometers to the south of me.  I have to look at myself in the mirror every day; and I can't allow those children to continue being beaten with my complicit silence.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Freedom Isn't Free

Yom rishon, 16 Adar 5772.

All the old war movies used to say that.  "Freedom isn't free."  It sounded tough; but I didn't really get it as a teenager.  I was a little more in tune with "Freedom ain't worth nothin' when there's nothin' left to lose."  Bobby McGee resonates so much better to a young Liberal than does John Wayne.  But then, life did what it does, in it's twisty-turny way.  I ended up in the army.  And I understood John a little better, and couldn't quite remember what it was I'd seen in Bobby.

Below you will see pictures of my delightful Purim celebration, interspersed with the words of the Purim of one of my soldier sons.  Just to remind myself that all this delicious freedom I get to celebrate isn't free.

Purim 5772. Where was I?

I was not at a table with my family eating and drinking. I was not out delivering Mishloach Manot. I was not dressed in some goofy costume dancing in the streets of Jerusalem. For I am a soldier; and I have a job to do.

As the Fast of Esther came to a close, before I even put a morsel of food in my mouth, we were loaded onto Blackhawk helicopters and taken to the northern part of Israel to continue our week-long training exercise. We had been training the whole week in many different parts of the country. The week is meant to prepare us for the most extreme warfare conditions. We eat very little, sleep even less, march through the night, and execute combat exercises with fervor.

When the helicopters landed we marched a few kilometers to the meeting point. There, in a pitch black field far from our celebrating nation, a group of soldiers in battle gear, with one flashlight, read the Megilla.

Immediately afterward, we ate whatever food we had and drank as much water as possible to prepare our tired bodies for the 13 kilometer march to the next combat exercise location.

We arrived as the first rays of morning shone over the horizon. We stopped and curled ourselves up, fighting the freezing winds to try and catch some sleep.

We woke to the joyous shouts of some young Chabadniks chanting Purim songs and handing out Mishloach Manot. The religious soldiers again gathered together and read the Megilla. There was dancing and singing. The Purim spirit was felt by every person there, by every soldier.

From there we began a very long combat exercise and we became focused again on the mission, on our job.

Like that, Purim came and Purim went.

Why was I there? I was there because, as every Jew knows, although we celebrate the hanging of Haman, evil has yet to be vanquished. I was there because we live with the sobering reality that as we try to drink enough to confuse "blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman," our enemies know very well who Mordechai is and how badly they want him destroyed. Their hatred and Amalek's determination for our downfall allow us no days off. We must always remain vigilant and ready.  In the days of the first Purim, Esther received permission to annihilate the enemies of Israel.  We pray for the day that, just as then, we in our days will be given permission by the One True King to smash our enemies into dust and lay waste to evil for eternity. Amen.

For now, however, we will be out there training. Putting aside our individual lives for that of the Nation. Reading the Megilla under the stars, with camouflage paint and a smile on our faces. And as the officer remarked before he began to recite the blessing on the Megilla: "It may not be ideal; but one thing is for sure -- you won't forget Purim 5772.” 

~ Yeshiva Bochur, aka Sage Zion, aka Exiled Warrior
 Thanks, guys.  Thank you for letting us celebrate, while you watched our backs.  May you celebrate many happy, joyful Purims, with your wives and children and grandchildren, safe and free and all around you.