When I received the news that my mother’s matzeiva had been vandalized, I was distraught. There I was, in Jerusalem, far away from Urmston Cemetery in Manchester, where my parents are buried. What could I do to put things right to restore a fitting, dignified memorial worthy of my mother’s life? I felt totally alone at that moment.
However, thanks to two loyal friends, I was able to fulfil the mitzvot of Kibud HaMet and Kibud Av v’Em.
One of those friends, Rachel*, and I have had a long, unbroken friendship since the very first day at Broughton High School, Manchester, aged eleven. Rachel had two much older sisters, I was an only child, so we often helped each other with homework and reviewing for exams. The friendship spread into other areas, too, we were both avid readers and exchanged our current favorite books, and also played tennis (badly, but it was fun) together in the local park.
We had very different personalities: Rachel was a calming presence, on an even keel, whereas I was more erratic, up and down, changing like the wind. She could see what would be in her interests to do, stayed straight on her path, while I would get distracted by the dazzle of a new interest whether it was ice-skating or a new acquaintance I’d met at the Youth Club who rapidly became a friend, at least for a time.
But Rachel was always there, and there was reciprocity in our friendship. We were there for each other. If help was needed, there was a shoulder to lean on, both for small, transient upsets such as a difference of opinion with our mothers, and for persistent worries, too. We each had a sick father, and from time to time a chronic condition veered into an acute episode, such as a heart attack. Within our larger group of friends, we were the only ones not to have two healthy parents; fear – although not openly expressed – was a member of our emotional orchestra, rather like the cymbals player who rarely clashes his instruments but which are always next to him, waiting to be struck.
Our friendship continued after we left school and through the years of our marriages and the blessings of children born to each family. My husband and I moved away from the hub of Jewish life in North Manchester to a small Jewish community on the other side of town, but Rachel and I kept in touch by phone, and saw each other occasionally.
Then came my game-changing news: our sudden decision to go on aliyah, within the next six months.
Rachel and Ian* invited us to a farewell dinner, we promised to keep in touch: in those days (1978) that meant letter-writing, phones – even landlines – were still in short supply in the Israel of those days, cell phones could not even be imagined.
So, writing it was, long letters, frequently. We kept up with each other’s lives, writing of a degree course and advancement in her career in admin at Manchester University (Rachel), while I described our struggles to learn Ivrit and generally acclimatize, and learning children’s songs in Hebrew from our own children.
I told Rachel of our various moves in our first years, until we finally came to roost in Jerusalem where we both found work.
We had the delight of occasional visits from them, and later having their teenage children come to see us while on Bnei Akiva trips to Israel.
A few years ago, out of the blue, Rachel asked me – by then, we were speaking to each other on the phone from time to time – if I remembered someone by the name of Frances Green*.
“Of course,”: I said, “Frances and I came to Israel together as part of a youth group trip in 1963. How is she? How do you know her?”
“We’re in the same book club,” Rachel answered. “Your name came up, and Frances said she’d love to be in touch with you.”
“Please tell her I’d also love to be in touch,” I said.”I have lovely memories of Frances, and our trip. We lost touch some time ago, I’m afraid.”
“Right, I’ll certainly tell her, and send you her email address,” Rachel volunteered.
Rachel sent it, I wrote – but no reply. I wrote again some months later, but still nothing from Frances. I asked Rachel to find out what happened. She phoned me and, somewhat embarrassed, said that Frances had thought that because we lead such different lives – she in England, not religious, different political views, and so on – I wouldn’t be interested in being in contact with her.
“I told Frances that was just nonsense,” Rachel said, “Aviva’s not like that. You’ll see.”
I wrote to Frances that evening, anticipating with pleasure the renewal of our friendship from the distant past, and this time a reply came from her. Since then, several times a year, we’ve exchanged news, and even occasionally called each other.
It was just after Succot a year ago when the email arrived from Frances which made me feel so distraught. She hadn’t known whether to tell me but had conferred with Rachel. Rachel, she wrote, had no hesitation. “Aviva will want to know” were her exact words.
Frances and her husband had visited Urmston Cemetery, Manchester, in their customary pre-Yom Kippur visit to her parents’ graves. Unknown to me, her parents were buried close to mine, so she went to my parents’ graves, too, every year. Such a mitzvah, modestly done, without fuss or fanfare, just like her personality. This time, she was shocked to find that my mother’s grave had been vandalised, almost totally wrecked.
Her husband photographed the devastation, but she couldn’t bring herself to send the photo to me.
She and Rachel discussed what they could do, practically, to help me deal with this from afar. Frances had done some renovation of her parents’ graves a year or two ago, and sent me the name of the firm who had carried out the work if I wanted to repair Mum’s matzeiva. There was no ‘if’ about it. It was a question of Kibud haMet. And also Kibud Av v’Em. I had to do it. There was no way I would leave my mother’s earthly remains in that appalling setting.
My husband concurred with me, and I immediately made contact with that wonderful firm, Kennedy’s. They sent one of their partners to Urmston, photographed the damage, and we set about the process of restoration. Many phone calls and emails were exchanged, ideas were tossed about, discarded or accepted, spacing of the letters, size of the letters discussed, an incorrect spelling corrected. The end result was beautiful, if one can say that of a matzeiva. Esthetic, dignified, and respectful. I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from me, as if my mother was resting in peace again.
Helen Keller said: true friends are never apart. Maybe in distance, but never in heart.
My heart is full of gratitude to these true friends, and to Hashem for the blessing of the true friendship which enabled me to fulfill two such important mitzvot.