Saturday, July 24, 2010

Do you ever wonder if you have any impact?

Yom rishon, 14 Av 5770, Erev Tu B'Av.

In 1991, my husband brought me for my first visit to Israel.

We had few "survival skills" for a nine-day stay in this very foreign country: We had zero Hebrew; we weren't traveling on a package tour; we hadn't much money.  We did have a couple of nice rabbis we had met at a Discovery seminar in Germany, who said they would give us lodging.  But we had already developed a small amount of chutzpah, and absolute faith that Hashem would take care of us.

The first place we were to spend the night was in a chareidi neighborhood in Jerusalem called Arzei HaBira.  We arrived on a hot June morning, dragging our suitcases behind us.  I had been calling our hosts for a while, but had only connected with their answering machine.  The plan was for us to call, and for them to meet us in the community square, and take us to their apartment...

We stood outside, perplexed about what should be our next move.  From a nearby porch, a  young boy addressed us.  As we were wearing our invisible signs that said, "Hi.  We're clueless American tourists," the boy spoke to us in his meager English.  "What are you looking for?"

We explained, giving the name of the family.  He came over to my husband and took his hand, as an adult would a child.  "Come," he said.  He walked us to the door of the apartment, and waited.  Knocking didn't help.

I remembered that Rabbi Hanoch Teller and his family lived in this community.  (This is where the chutzpah comes in.)

I asked the boy to take us to Rabbi Teller's apartment.

Here I need to digress -- but the story reminds me of how interconnected Jews are, and how networking is one of our keys to survival.

When we were newly-minted Jews in Germany, needless to say there was not much available in English to satisfy our craving to learn more and more and more.  We discovered the writing of Rabbi Hanoch Teller.  At the time, he had a fledgling inspirational newsletter.  We signed up.  We were accustomed to mail from abroad taking time to arrive; so waited patiently for our subscription.  Certainly, mail from Israel to Germany might take ages!  After a while, we forgot about it.  A year after our order, Rabbi Teller sent us a very cheerful renewal notice.

I sent back an equally cheerful letter, explaining to him that our first year's subscription had never arrived.  It was back in the ancient days of hand-written letters; and to soften my "complaint" letter, I drew my usual doodles in the margins -- little cartoon characters with kipot and curly peyot, rainbows and other silly things.

After a short time, Rabbi Teller sent us back a very nice letter, apologizing and asking us a little about ourselves.  Included in the package were all of the back issues, and an autographed book.  There was also a query about whether I might be interested in illustrating an upcoming children's book.

That was too much pressure for this little artist!  I sent him some drawings -- but they were nothing like my doodles.  I wanted so much to please that I overworked them, and they lost the original charm of the simpler drawings.  I also wrote back about our desire to find a Jewish community in the States, until we would be ready to make aliyah.  I listed some of our choices:  Seattle, Kansas City, Baltimore.

In the end, he went with an artist who was simple in line, and exactly what his story needed.  But he also wrote back a nice letter introducing us to his former dorm counselor from years ago, who now lived in Baltimore.  He secured our permission to pass our mailing address on to his former counselor.

Months later, as we were still trying to make our decision, a handwritten several-page letter arrived from Baltimore, from this very counselor.  In it were hand-drawn maps of the eruvim of both the main body of the Jewish community, as well as of the Ner Israel Yeshiva neighborhood.  The letter was warm and encouraging.  It became very clear to us which community we would choose.

At the end of our military tour in Germany, and before we made the move to our new community in Baltimore, we took our first opportunity for a honeymoon since we had married in 1985.

So there we were, standing outside Rabbi Teller's door.  Apprehensively -- who likes to disturb any relative stranger, much less a famous rabbi, as he is spending a little private time with his family? -- we knocked on the door.  A child answered, and we asked for her father.

After we explained to Rabbi Teller with much embarrassment why we were standing in his apartment doorway, he dispelled all awkwardness, and eagerly invited us in for something to eat and drink.  He went to tell his wife that they had guests.

In a few minutes, out came the very-pregnant Mrs. Teller, bringing to the table fruit and drink and several choices of leben, a yogurt-like treat we had never tasted.  She joined her husband in chatting with us for a few minutes, and then apologized for the need to continue working in the kitchen with some of her daughters.  The rabbi spoke with us interestedly for several minutes, even though he was preparing for a trip abroad.

We marveled at the simplicity of their home.  While the kitchen was well-appointed, the living room was very austere.  We were delighted.  This seemed to be a way we could live.

At a certain point, our original hosts called, apologizing profusely for having been held up at a simcha; and we took our leave of the Tellers' warm hospitality.  We were suffused with happiness.  (We ate that brand of leben for some time afterward, to "stay connected" to the wonder of that experience.)

The story came to a happy conclusion last Thursday night.

I was at the wedding of the youngest child of a very special family, the "dorm counselor" and his wife, who had become our very dear friends over the years in Baltimore, and had made aliyah a few years before we did.  Just before we left, someone pointed out Rebbetzin Teller to me.  I approached her.  "Mrs. Teller?"

She greeted me warmly, with an open smile.  "I know you!" she said, excitedly.

I was taken aback.  "Well, you don't exactly know me," I said, "but you hosted my husband and me in 1991..."  I gave her a brief version of the story.

Her face lit up even more brightly.  "I remember!  And in the zechus of that visit, my 19-year-old son was born that very night.  It was the easiest delivery I ever had."

I am convinced that the surreal quality of that day -- surrounded by what Blanche Dubois would have called "the kindness of strangers" -- was what first ignited my love of Israel.  To live day-to-day with a people who paid attention to each other, who felt an obligation to help each other, was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

This post dedicated to the special ladies of the "musical chairs" table, among them: Esther, Esther, Hinda, Aidel, Bryna, Avigayil, Chaya, Ettie and Chemla (raba emunatecha!).

Erev Tu B'Av: the day before the minor but joyous holiday of Tu B'Av, which is MUCH cooler than "Sadie Hawkins Day"
Chutzpah: the quality of audacity, for good or bad
Chareidi: though I don't like the designation, it is most often translated as "ultra-Orthodox"
Kipot: skull caps, yarmulkes
Peyot: long side-curls
Aliyah: Jewish immigration to Israel
Eruvim: plural of "eruv" -- an enclosure around a home or community, enables the carrying of objects out of doors for Jews on the Jewish Sabbath that would otherwise be forbidden by Torah law (Halacha)
Simcha: joyous event, such as a wedding or bar mitzvah
Zechus: also "zechut" -- merit
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