Thursday, March 27, 2008

Avraham, where art thou?

(Considering that I used to make my living “managing data,” this past week was not a good one in that department. First I dropped my Nikon. Loss: one roll of film. Cost to repair: about $100. Then my computer stopped working. Diagnosis by company: defective sectors on the hard drive [in simple English: dead as a doornail] Cost to repair: probably nothing, as it was seven months old and under warranty. Loss: a lot of work in progress, including the last 47 pages of Rav Aviner’s commentary to the haggada which I was editing from a rough translation. Also gone is the second part of my entry about Purim, entitled ‘And You Forgot to Remember.’ I will try, bli neder (no promises), to reconstruct it from memory. This third part was composed on Natania’s laptop, which has worked flawlessly for several years. All of the previous entries are available at

It goes without saying that we were eagerly anticipating our first Purim in The Land, even though I hate it (hate, hate, hate!) when Purim is Thursday night and Friday. I definitely think the Rabbis dropped the ball on this one. Normally, you hear Megillat Ester in the evening and then again the next morning. After that, those wonderful people who lovingly prepare shalach manot for their friends have plenty of time to run around in the morning and give their packages away. (Also, in communities like our beloved Maale Adumim, there is always a Purim parade in the morning.) And there is still plenty of time to pray, to drink, and to have a leisurely seudah (festive meal) sometime in the afternoon. (And for those unfortunate people in The Exile who have to work on Purim, they can take at least take off a little early and get home in time for the meal.) But when Purim comes out on Friday, the overriding concern that these activities would impinge on preparations for Shabbat. So the seudah is pushed up to the morning, which presents certain obvious difficulties. First, you can talk until you are blue in the face, you will never convince me that scrambled eggs is a festive meal, nor that I am going to want pot roast at 9:30 in the morning. Second, my approach to my A.D.D. is to do only one thing at a time. So if you tell me that I should hand out shalach manot, go to a parade, and have my festive meal at exactly the same time, my response is to smile and tell you politely “No.” We simply do not multi-task. In my mind, there is no logical reason why the seudah is not put off to Sunday so that people can enjoy it.

Anyway, we were invited to our friends Ian and Thelma Reed for the seudah; they were going to have a bunch of people over for a buffet and to sample some of Ian’s single malts. We were definitely looking forward to that; until Wednesday morning, when we got a phone call from one of their friends that Ian’s mother just died, and they were on their way back to Manchester for the funeral. I guess we would be on our own for the Purim seudah. When you have a lemon, always, always make lemonade. I got on the phone and called some other friends, the Aarons, who are also here without extended family, and invited them to join us, which they happily agreed to do. Natania would be back from doing shmirah (guard duty) on Wednesday; she would make some of her delicious eggplant parmesan, and I – because summer seems to have arrived here in one day – would make some gazpacho and some cold pasta dishes. That and a salad, coffee and dessert, and you actually have something like a festive meal.

Then the phone rang – again. (Maybe we should stop answering it.) Our friend Avraham just died and his body was being flown in from Columbus, Ohio in time to be buried on Friday in Jerusalem. (I first met Avraham in Jerusalem in 1980. His wife, Varda, is one of eight siblings in the very large and ever growing Habshush family. He was then a successful lawyer who got into trouble with the Israeli tax officials because they refused to believe that he had not charged some of his clients. The family moved to America where, brilliant has he was, he was never able to pass the bar examination. His health ultimately failed him, partly because he was too stubborn to take care of himself. His son, then Udi, a boy of about five, now Rabbi Ohad Yishai, was accompanying the body)

Back in touch with the Aarons. Can they come over earlier, and do you mind if Barbara leaves in the middle so she can go to a funeral? So the Aarons came a little earlier and we sat down to a very delicious meal. There are a considerable number of gentlemen here in Maale Adumim with larger libraries of single malt whisky than I have, but I do have a few bottles, and it was Purim. In the middle of our tasting, I remembered that Ron had brought over the remains of a bottle of Arak. I told him we could put it on the table; just not too close to me. Otherwise I would need to get a cushion for my chair. Why would that be? Because without a cushion, I would be between Arak and a hard place. (It was Purim, after all.) At this point, our neighbor, Tzippi – one of Maale Adumim’s finer cooks – came over with some home baked pastries, just in time for dessert. Barbara left to go to the funeral; later, the Aarons left. It was time to clean up and get ready for Shabbat. So I began washing dishes; Natania began working on some chicken soup; then I began making some meat loaf. (In theory, some of the cooking could have been done earlier, but for many reasons it wasn’t.) I remembered reading some advice from someone that on Purim Friday, it would be good to take a nap before Shabbat. I was considering some choice remarks for this time management expert; maybe I could find fifteen seconds to rest when I wouldn’t be busy. I was also considering a more realistic seudah the next time Purim was right before Shabbat: how about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

At this point, the phone rang. Should I even consider answering it? What new catastrophe might there be? It was Barbara on the line. “I’m on my way home. The funeral was canceled. They couldn’t find the body.” (Do you know the classic distinction between comedy and tragedy? Comedy is when somebody else slips and falls on a banana peel; tragedy is when it’s you.)

After Shabbat was over, Barbara got the word: they think that Avraham’s body had been located, and the funeral would be that night. (Only in Jerusalem are Jewish bodies buried at night.) So Barbara went, and, yes, the body had arrived on a subsequent El Al flight, and the funeral was held.

The next day was Shushan Purim, the day the holiday is celebrated in Jerusalem, and we went into the city to the home of Arleen and Yehuda, Avraham’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law, where Ohad would be sitting shiva for the one day before he returned to his wife and children in Toronto. I should add the following: Arleen Osband and Barbara were neighbors back in Rochester, New York. When Arleen married Yehuda Habshush, Barbara got to meet his family; and when she spent a year in Israel in 1968, she became the unofficial ninth child in the family. The eight official Habshush children have so far spawned more than thirty grandchildren and now a growing number of great-grandchildren. The only one who can keep track of who’s who is the matriarch of the family, Bracha Habshush, still going strong in her eighties.

Now it would be virtually impossible for all the Habshush clan to fit into one apartment (maybe the White House), but there must have been at least forty people – from Mrs. Habshush herself to the newest grandchildren– coming and going in Arleen and Yehudah’s small digs in Arzei Habirah. And they were all there to comfort Ohad and to celebrate Shushan Purim with the rest of the family – at the same time. We arrived after the family more or less had completed its seudah; and as there were almost ten men present, they decided to get a minyon for minchah. As we were waiting for reinforcements, I stood by a large open window, looking out at the neighborhood. I watched as throngs of people passed by on the street below, all coming and going to their Purim destinations. Even if I were not anywhere near the window, I would have heard the soundtrucks blaring away with festive music. One thing about the Hareidim in Jerusalem: they sure know how to party on a festive day! Nothing I can write could remotely capture the holiday freilichkeit that I have experienced over the years in these overcrowded neighborhoods, with huge families going this way or that, coming or going, Sukkot or Purim. It’s Yuntif! Ohad later related to us the surreal feeling he had the previous evening, watching his father’s body placed in the ground, and then seeing the celebration all around him. There are moments when the expression about not knowing whether to laugh or to cry becomes very real. I had been “bummed out” because I felt that my Purim had been diminished by its being squished together with Shabbat. Ohad had no Purim whatsoever. While everyone around him was experiencing simcha, he couldn’t even pray – let alone hear the Megillah – from the time his father died until the corpse was buried Saturday night. Maybe I should reconsider the idea of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich seudah.

A little while later, a few more men arrived, enough for a minyon for minchah. Afterwards, one of the new arrivals who seemed vaguely familiar began talking to me. (I’m beginning to notice an increase in the number of times when my Hebrew is better than an Israeli’s English.) He seemed to know who I was and began talking about our being with him for Pesach two years ago. I finally realized that he was talking about Tina and Natania being with him in Maale Levana. So I told him that Tina was living and working in Tel Aviv and that Natania was now in Tzahal (I.D.F.) – although Israelis just say tzavah (army). Now it was his turn to be confused. I figured out that he didn’t know that our family was now living in Israel, so I said proudly that my family had made aliyah. Whereupon he welcomed us to The Land.

Finally, it was time for us to leave. We declined the offer of more food and said goodbye to everyone there, cheerfully to the many people we knew, more somberly to Ohad, both because he was in avelut (mourning) and because it might be years before we will see him again. Barbara wanted to walk over to the midrechov (the promenade?) at Ben Yehuda because there were supposed to be activities there all day. And so we walked up the long, steep hill on Yehezkal Street until Meah Shearim where it becomes Nathan Strauss Street, past Bichor Holim Hospital and down to where the street becomes King George and the neighborhood changes immediately and markedly. We passed more families, more soundtrucks, increasingly intoxicated yeshiva boys, tourists staring in wonderment at this totally strange world. We finally did get to Ben Yehuda, but after the spiritual high of the Hareidim, this “more normal” area seemed a decided letdown.

I started to tell Barbara about my conversation with the vaguely familiar man with whom I had been speaking. He looked something like Moshe, but much, much older (we had met Miriam [a Habshush daughter] and [son-in-law] Moshe in Jerusalem in 1980 when she had just given birth to quadruplets [three of whom survived] and then in Maale Levana in 1988 when their sukkah was bigger than their caravan). I wondered if that could have been Moshe’s father? – although I don’t remember meeting any of his family. Barbara set me straight. “That was Moshe,” she said.


Anonymous said...

Hi Fred: I continue to follow & enjoy your blog. Would like to hear more about Barbara's thoughts. Best regards. Annette

Anonymous said...

Hi Fred: I continue to follow & enjoy your blog. Would like to hear more about Barbara's thoughts. Best regards. Annette