Zaida’s presence follows me on my early morning walks to the park. Sometimes I imagine indulging in conversation, asking him what happened to those wondrous days following the Six-Day War, when the entire country belonged to us and our biggest problem was how to fill the vast areas that had fallen into our hands with Jews.
Those were days when we anticipated Jewish immigration from the United States and Europe, and prayed for an end to the Iron Curtain and a large scale aliyah of Russian Jews.
Soon after the war, the building industry boomed. North, East, South, and West Jerusalem were impregnated with building blocks. Up went Ramat Eshkol, Ramot, Gilo, Pisgat Zeev, Har Nof, all new quarters. Young Jews filled empty hilltops in Judea and Samaria, the nation was reacquainted with biblical names like Eilon Moreh, Bet El, Shiloh and Eli, and settlements were established that would soon turn into cities like Ariel and Maaleh Adumim.
“U’vneh Yerushalayim ir hakodesh” – “Rebuild Jerusalem the holy city, speedily in our days.” Words from tefillot and zemirot that my Zaida recited and sang, eyes turned heavenward, with genuine tears that rolled onto his beard and into his Kiddush cup. He wanted to live long enough to see those prophetic words implemented.
Some years back, at a U.S. Consulate reception, I met former Knesset member Rabbi Menachem Porush, who told me, “I have fond memories of your Zaida. Over fifty years ago, after the state was declared, I was a young man sent to America to raise funds for the old yishuv that was in dire financial straights. Your esteemed uncle, Sender Gross z”l, was my good friend, and when the ship docked in New York, your uncle invited me to spend my first Friday night in America at your grandparents’ home.”
Greeted warmly by Zaida, Rabbi Porush sensed the special Shabbos atmosphere emanating from every corner of the Williamsburgh basement apartment. “Your Zaida sang ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and then he stood to make Kiddush,” he said. “You know, I spent five decades as a member of Knesset and have traveled and enjoyed Shabbatot and heard Kiddush in almost every corner of the world, yet a Kiddush such as your Zaida’s I cannot ever forget.”
Rabbi Porush also remembered Zaida’s emotional yearning and love for Eretz Yisrael, expressed in his constantly stated wish to live there. Family and circumstances, however, did not permit the move. Zaida told Rabbi Porush that before World War II, he was one of a small group of local Jews who’d taken out the last pennies of their savings and invested in orchards that they bought in Eretz Yisrael. He dreamed that one day the orchards would bear fruit, and that he would get to taste of them. That investment failed, but he continued to dream.
Zaida woke at dawn every morning hoping that on that particular day he would be able to leave for Eretz Yisrael; it was what kept him going through forty years of American exile.
My grandmother passed away in 1961 on Hoshana Rabbah, and thirty days later Zaida put up a matzeva. His eight married children were mortified that he didn’t wait a year, as is customary in America, before unveiling a tombstone. The day after the unveiling, he left his entire family behind, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and boarded a flight to Israel. Zaida, who’d waited so many years for the opportunity to live in Eretz Yisrael, wasn’t prepared to wait even one extra day.
Ver veist vifil tzeit bleibt – One never knows how much time he’s allotted on earth – and my grandfather wanted to be sure to spend his last days and years fulfilling the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael.
Having preceded him to Israel by a year, my husband, Sholom, and I were already living in Jerusalem when Zaida arrived in November 1961. He moved into an adjoining building in the same apartment complex, and we looked after him. We had our Shabbat and Yom Tov meals together; of his 26 grandchildren, we were the privileged ones.
The first Chanukah in Jerusalem, I tried to fry latkes the way my Bobba did, but the flame was too high and the burned latkes left a bitter taste in our mouths. I longed for blueberries and pineapple, unavailable in the Holy Land. We were part of an immigrant generation with its own nostalgic cravings. How long would we yearn for old favorites of the American golus?