My father had a cousin in Israel, his name was Itzik, who was curiously mismatched with his children.
Itzik was “Orthodox-lite,” yet all his children are fully chareidi kollel families. And he was very proud of them.
Itzik grew up a Yerushalmi like my father.
I wondered why his observance waned over the years, but I never dared ask him. “He went through some tough times,” my father once said. “We can’t judge him.” That was all I knew.
Before the pandemic, I visited Itzik and asked him if he was proud of his ultra-chareidi family.
“Bevadai, of course,” he said, beaming.
I then had the chutzpah to ask him, “You gave your children a completely chareidi chinuch, yet you don’t live that lifestyle. What happened?”
He then took off a very worn knitted yarmulke.
“This was my grandfather’s yarmulke,” he said. “He wore it when he came here after the Holocaust.”
This Yarmulke saved my life.
Itzik then told me that the Egyptians captured him and his tank crew when he was a soldier during the Yom Kippur War.
They tortured the Israeli boys terribly.
The men decided that they would kill themselves rather than endure more torture.
As they prepared for their last night on Earth, they decided to destroy their clothing to not leave the Egyptians anything of value. Then they’d all ingest poison.
As Itzik removed his clothing, something fell on the floor.
“It was my grandfather’s yarmulke,” he said.
He somehow kept it with him all during the Holocaust.
Before he died, he gave me the Yarmulke.”
I once asked him, “Zeide,” “Why do you always wear that yarmulke?”
“To always remember I’m a Yid,” my Zeide answered.
“I may not go to shul every day; I may not keep everything. But this Yarmulke reminds me who I am. Maybe not a perfect Yid, but still a Yid, and a Yid has hope. This Yarmulke gave me hope during the Holocaust.”
This same Yarmulke fell from Itzik the night he and his fellow soldiers planned to take their own lives.
“Guys, see this kipah?” he asked the other soldiers. “Do you know what it stands for? It stands for being a Jew — and a Jew always knows there’s a better tomorrow. We’re not going to die tonight. We’re going to live. And I promise Hashem in front of each of you that if we survive, all of my children will be raised to serve Hashem.”
The men looked at Itzik as if he had lost my mind. But something must have stirred within them because no one took any poison that night.
The next day, the Red Crescent informed the Egyptians that they knew about the prisoners and they could no longer torture them.
“Six months later, we were liberated in a prisoner exchange,” Itzik continued. “Hashem kept His end of the bargain, and I kept mine.”
Itzik took off the Yarmulke and turned it toward me.
Crocheted on the inside of the kipah were the names and dates of birth of all his children.
They all serve Hashem fully, just as Itzik had promised in the Egyptian prison.
“I’d love to add my grandchildren too,” he said, “but there’s no way 47 names could fit on one kipah.”