The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
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?
“Silly child, why are you crying?” Zaida asked me. He reminded us how fortunate we were to be together in a Jewish medina.
My grandfather was a chasiddishe yid, an ardent lover of Tzion and Yerushalayim, a true ohev Eretz Yisrael in every sense. And as Chazal promised, “He who mourns the destruction of Jerusalem will rejoice in her redemption.”
After undergoing surgery in Hadassah Hospital during the Six-Day War, Zaida returned home weak and weary, in need of healing. My husband promised him that if he ate, and gained strength, he would take him to the newly liberated Kotel. It was a real incentive, and after two months, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, Sholom brought the car to the apartment my grandfather was now sharing with my parents in Rechavia, on the edge of Shaarei Chesed, and drove Zaida straight up to the Wall.
The sound of the shofar, unheard at the holy site for so many years, filled the air at the Kotel that morning. Zaida’s tears of joy – tears for having been deemed worthy to daven, to seek forgiveness, and to praise Hashem at the Kotel – have yet to dry up. They linger on, with much vividness, in my memory.
His soul departed four months later, the 12th of Tevet, on Shabbat morning Parshat Vayechi.
Zaida was likened to Yaakov Avinu whose life and death, and the blessings given to his sons, are recorded in Vayechi. He lived his life as a thoroughly devout Jew, having fulfilled each mitzvah, the simple as well as the most difficult, to the minutest detail. Despite turbulent years in Hungarian and American exiles, my grandfather – Reb Menashe Gross z”l – never lost his love of performing mitzvos or his desire to live in Eretz Yisrael.
Passed on through the wine in his Kiddush cup are his performance and his desires. Those who sipped his wine inherited his uncompromising devotion and faith. Others, carrying his name, inherited qualities of his soul.
A few hours after Zaida was laid to rest on Har Hamenuchot, a steady, peaceful snow began to fall at midnight, blanketing Jerusalem. That quiet snowfall in January 1968 was the calm that followed a wild, windy rainstorm that had thrashed Jerusalem for two days and nights. Electricity was suspended for a week, and Jerusalem was painted white. Old giant trees, uprooted, lay dead across major thoroughfares and side streets, forcing closure. (The huge logs, a pedestrian menace, were finally hauled away to make room for new saplings.)
Damage to the city was far greater than anything inflicted by man-made artillery shells during the lightning war half a year earlier. My mother, my aunt, and one visiting uncle sat down to shiva in a cold, dark apartment. Snowed in, we were unable to get to the shiva house until two days later, and then only by foot.
“Hashem natan, Hashem lakach, yehi shem Hashem mevorach” were the only words of consolation offered on that wintry day 40 years ago when a small part of Zaida’s family was comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
About the Author: Faigie Heiman is an accomplished short-story and essay writer and the author of a popular memoir titled “Girl For Sale.” Born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she has lived in Israel for more than fifty years.
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