Sunday, May 8, 2011

Eliezer's Handshake

We're not close friends, Eliezer and I. He's almost a decade older than my father would have been, were he still alive. Born in a small town in Eastern Europe, he was a teenager when his father sent him off to Budapest in the hope things would be better there, which in a way they probably were, since Eliezer survived and the rest of his family didn't. I think about that sometimes: The teenager sent off by his father; the survivor now twice as old as his father ever was.

After the war he came to Israel, and in the 1950s started a family, but it wasn't a happy ending. His second son has disabilites, and today, in his early 50s, you can still see this pains Eliezer. His wife, the mother of his three children, died of cancer in about 1970; I remember how her slow death was whispered at school, and can only imagine how horrible it was for her, and for him. Their oldest son, Avi, about whom I've written here and elsewhere, was scarred by his mother's death, to an extent that even we, teenager boys, could recognize. Then in 1982 he was killed in battle, landing Eliezer yet another body blow.

He's not a cheerful man, Eliezer, but he's very much alive. At our synagogue he's one of the stalwarts of the conservative branch of the congregation, the ones who are wary of some of the more liberal innovations which sometimes are mooted, yet he's always respectful of the liberalizers who could be his grandchildren, and they treat him with courtesy and accept that some changes can't be done so long as he and his group are still with us. A few years ago he was seriously ill, and it would have been reasonable to suppose he'd reached the tipping point beyond which old men fade away, but no. He lay at home for a few weeks, then determinedly made his way to synagogue with a walker, then a cane, and now he's back to normal; I often see him at the pool.

We're not close friends, Eliezer and I, but he knows I preserve Avi's memory, and this has created a bond between us. "Your husband knew my son Avi", he once said to my wife, who responded "I know". "You do? How?" "They were friends, Avi and Yaacov, and Yaacov remembers, and talks about him".

It's memorial day, and last week was Yom Hashoah, and tomorrow evening we'll begin celebrating Israel's 63rd Independence Day, and Eliezer is part of all these days. I usually make a point of going over to him after services to shake his hand. His grip is the steeliest handshake I've ever experienced.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this. These are the type of tellings that keep everything real, alive and personal.


Markus said...

Just agreeing with Nycerbarb. It's good to see things being put in perspective every now an again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Yaakov for this and have a good and successful trip to Germany

Victor said...

In another comment thread, YBD asked about Amos Oz, whose body of work I've been reading. For what it's worth, Amos' vision of Jerusalem - the rusty, groaning window shutters, freshly washed bedspreads fluttering over balconies, the scorching desert wind melting the golden city into a uniform haze of heat and stone, and the mountains, each evening battling the fires of the setting sun, making each glimmering rooftop and windowpane a battlefield, always victorious, swallowing the city in their eternal darkness - is now how I see Jerusalem, frozen in the author's prose.

And what Yaacov just wrote... this, too, is how I now see Jerusalem, through the characters that Oz has built - Eastern European immigrants in Kerem Avraham and Tel Arza (I can almost invent my own by now) with modest, respectable professions and displaced souls seeped in barely suppressed anguish and tragedy, in longing, and faith, rising each day as if beside themselves, but always rising.

For what it's worth, to reduce a city and it's people to a weathered cliche - as I'm sure his portrayal of Jerusalem has long since been in the minds of its residents - like a beloved, worn glove, this is what Amos Oz has done.

I'm beginning to think it was not such a good idea to read all his books straight through, as I'm beginning to anticipate his twists and turns more and more.

Next time I'm in Jerusalem I'll definitely need to do some off the beaten path site-seeing, though I'm afraid to be disappointed. Something tells me Tel Arza no longer hugs the desert, and those rusted window shutters...

Rob in Madison said...

Taking the substance of another into oneself is the height of mentschlikhkeyt.

A dank.

Rob in Madison