Today we attended a bris, then made a condolence call, then went to an engagement party.
Man plans, G-d laughs. Although we planned to be in Maine for Chanuka, we got a call Thursday afternoon from our home town that our next-door neighbor’s father died. Immediately we began making plans to return so that we could be menachem avel, to offer our condolences. My husband, who is good friends with our neighbor, wanted to be part of the shiva minyan as much as possible.
Our relationship with our neighbors began exactly eight years ago, when we moved to a secular Jewish neighborhood about a mile from our old, heavily Orthodox one. “My name is Liba*!” our pretty Russian neighbor announced at our doorstep, the day that we moved in. “Actually, my name is Luba, but my husband and I just went to our first-ever Shabbaton, and the rabbi there told me my Hebrew name is Liba!” she said, clearly delighted. “And this is my husband, Misha.* The rabbi told us his name is Moshe in Hebrew, but my husband isn’t yet ready for any name-changing.” She nudged her husband, who appeared somewhat shy, as he flashed an embarrassed smile and rolled his eyes.
“Just call me Misha,” he said, his hand outstretched in welcome.
“For now!” said his wife, smiling.
Misha was a talented craftsman, and had remodeled his house by himself. “It is like a dream for us,” he often said of his new life in America. “But after awhile, I see that we are all running around, chasing things, and I think there must be something more than just acquiring the things that we could never hope to have in Russia.”
As we got to know our Russian neighbors in our new neighborhood, we were constantly amazed by their desire to learn more about their Jewish heritage.
Their teenaged son also had questions. Fortunately at his heavily-Jewish public high school, there was an extracurricular Jewish students’ union where he could ask a rabbi some of the questions that weighed on his mind.
A few months later, Misha was remodeling his kitchen. “For our son,” he said proudly. “He says he wants to keep kosher. Personally I don’t care much about it, but I don’t mind.” Liba is glowing. “I am so happy he wants to be more Jewish.”
As the months went by, Liba and Misha not only attended classes about Judaism, they began holding monthly get-togethers for other Russian Jews in their home. From ages 5 to 85, religious and secular, about 80 (!) Russians flocked to our next-door neighbors’ home each month, anxious to hear a wide variety of speakers who stimulated them intellectually and spiritually (while enjoying the delicacies produced by Liba in her new kosher kitchen).
It was a gradual process: Liba passionate and spiritual, Misha thorough and rational; but eventually the couple and their son became shomrei mitzvot.
Soon Misha was remodeling again, this time converting his basement into a small shul complete with mechitza, hosting a Sabbath minyan in their home that brings in more Jews from around the neighborhood, both Russian and American-born.
And then, at age 50, Misha had a bris. His brother, a secular Jew, followed a couple of months later.
“I am so grateful,” he said at a celebration of the event a few days following the procedure.
“Wow, you are truly my hero, Misha,” my husband remarked.
“You think I am a hero for having a bris?” he asked.
“Well, yes! I mean . . . it’s not like I had a say in the matter when I had mine,” my husband quipped. “But you – – even though it’s a mitzvah, you chose this! That is greatness!”
“You think I am a hero for doing a bris? With a rabbi at a hospital under general anesthetic?” Misha asked again, incredulous. “I’ll tell you who are the real heroes,” he continued, pointing to an young man in his late twenties at the other end of the room. “That guy – he had a bris at the age of 17! In Russia! Secretly, without anaesthetic! . . . And that fell0w – – ” he points to an elderly man – – “he had his bris at age 70!”
Living next to these remarkable neighbors has been a gift. We have learned so much from them, and we treasure their friendship so dearly. So how could we not return to our home town when we heard the news of Misha’s father’s passing, to be there for them during this difficult time?
Although Liba and Misha tried very hard over the years to bring their father to the USA, it never worked out, and so the father emigrated with his other married son from Russia to Israel. There he was given a depressing, cinder block apartment in a poor immigrants’ neighborhood of similarly depressing and bare-bones apartments, all overcrowded, poorly built, and completely lacking in any aesthetic appeal. Misha’s father never really mastered the Hebrew language nor did he successfully integrate into Israeli society. But despite having been a heavily-decorated Russian war hero during WWII, he was always grateful to have left Russia to live amongst Jews.
As the years went by and health problems ensued, Liba and Misha felt especially frustrated that they could not bring him to the US to live out his final years. “We couldn’t get him medical insurance here! Should anything go wrong medically, we simply don’t have the money to pay for his care.”
Once a year Misha’s father would visit from Israel, but the last time he came he was terribly frail. Then the terrible news came that his kidneys were failing, and it was just a matter of time.
Misha left for Israel to say his goodbyes, to ask forgiveness of his father, and to hire a private caregiver. A few weeks after Misha returned to the US, his father entered the hospital. When there was nothing more to be done medically, he was sent to a nursing home, where he died a few days later.
Speaking with Misha at the shiva, he told me about his final visit with his father.
“You know, the rabbi came this morning to pay me a shiva call, and he asked me, ‘how did your father support himself’?’ And I told him, my father was from the previous generation. He didn’t need money to live. He had no need for things. Whenever I would come to Israel to visit, I would give him money. And the next time he’d come to America for a visit, he’d be giving my kids the money I gave him. He so enjoyed passing out those dollars like some sort of rich person!
“When I went to visit him the last time, I stayed in his apartment while he was in the hospital. And I looked around and thought, ‘how did he manage it? To stay in this depressing tenement for so many years, with the crude plumbing and ugly surroundings?
“And then I thought to myself, ‘Misha! This is the Land of Israel! I must find something positive, to try to see it through his eyes, and then maybe I would get some understanding.
“So I looked around the apartment, and saw all the pictures on the walls – photographs of me and my wife, my brothers, our children and grandchildren – – and I realized that this was really what his life was about, his family; and the ugliness of the apartment and its surroundings just didn’t matter to him because it was his family that was important.
“And then I stepped outside. I was determined to see past the mangy cats, the trash, the dirtty buildings, the dog excrement on the sidewalks. Because that was all I could see before. And I saw that it was a cold, but very clear day. The sky was blue, the air was clean; the sun was shining and there was a wonderful breeze. And everyone around me was Jewish. There were all kinds of people on the street – but they were all Jewish. And they were free, and living in the Land of Israel. This, too, I saw through my father’s eyes. And it gave me great comfort.
“You know, the hospital was an amazing place, also all Jewish, and the care was very good. But then when it became clear that there was nothing more to do, they couldn’t keep him there. And they sent him to a nursing home.
“But it’s funny; the name of the nursing home really made an impression on me. In America, old people go to ‘nursing homes.’ They are just bodies in an impersonal environment, mostly ignored and usually not treated very well. But in Israel it was so different. There is no ‘nursing home!’ It is called a ‘Beit Avot!’ Can you imagine? A Beit Avot – a’ home of our fathers.’ Because in Israel, every Jew is family, so when they have to go to a place like this, they are caring for them like it’s their own father. I saw this for myself. It was so special! It gave me such comfort …”
(*note: I have changed Misha’s and Liba’s names to protect their privacy.)