November 20, 2022

Memoirs: Sometimes it's important to look back and not just forward

By Barbara Sofer

I have two new books on my desk, both by Jerusalem women. They were given to me by their authors because they have a connection to Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Both were completed during the time of the corona pandemic, making good use of the change in our daily lives to finish a worthwhile project. An inspiration.

Linking Hands, by Judy Dvorak Gray, an educator, and Cheryl Meirovich, a social worker, is a combination of memoir and how-to. The subtitle is “How to Create a Community Volunteer Project,” and it documents the efforts of 27 volunteers to contribute to our country’s medical system while at the same time bonding together and empowering one another.

Linking Hands is dedicated to the memory of Aynat Levi, a physiotherapy student born at Hadassah-University Medical Center, on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, where the women and men volunteered. Aynat tragically died in a traffic accident when she was 26. Her mother, Judi Levi, is the volunteer project’s co-coordinator.

The foreword is written by family therapist Rachel Ettun, whose daughter Ruth also died, she from cystic fibrosis. Through her own hospital-based volunteer project, Haverut, Ettun works together with Project Aynat.

Ettun quotes from the Israeli poet Yifat Gadot, who described a life goal as “to live whole with great brokenness.” To me, this is a beautiful nuance to our standard Hebrew get-well wish, refua shleima, literally “a complete recovery.”

The original Project Aynat volunteers are members of Congregation Ramot Zion in the French Hill neighborhood, so that volunteering at nearby Hadassah’s Mount Scopus campus was an organic choice.

They decided to focus their efforts on the rehabilitation department, where patients may spend weeks and months regaining their ability to walk and talk. The unscheduled time between therapy sessions is grueling, so the volunteers donated games and puzzles – simple enough. And then, for 12 years until the pandemic, they personally showed up to play the games and do the puzzles with the patients.

They brought in professional help to improve their interpersonal skills and become better listeners and more supportive. They learned to overcome their nervousness when working with seriously injured patients, some of whom would have to learn, as the poet says, with great brokenness. They built in ongoing psychological and spiritual counseling for the volunteers so they wouldn’t go home depressed.

Stories in the book document their confrontation with the unknown: How should a volunteer respond if a patient is feeling useless, or if another confides a story of childhood sexual abuse? What if the daughter of a convalescing mother is being critical and cruel to her mother?

Linking Hands
contains a wealth of practical advice for those who would want to follow this successful volunteer model. What shines through is the camaraderie that resulted, an immeasurable perk that has contributed to the longevity of the project and – according to research on volunteering – their own longevity.

The title reaches into her family history, beginning with her great-grandmother Basha’s fleeing Rzsca, Poland, in 1898 at age 17, hoping to escape the arranged marriage and to marry her boyfriend who would follow. Basha makes it to Leeds, England, where she learns that her 23-year-old sister there is very sick and about to die. Still longing for the boyfriend left behind, Basha dutifully marries the widowed brother-in-law to bring up her sister’s four small children. Her boyfriend arrives too late. Basha inherits her sister’s three brass candlesticks. The family eventually moved to Philadelphia. Today they are in Jerusalem.

The early chapters are a treasure for Spitzer’s family members. From 1966 the memoir is based mostly in Israel and brought back my memories of daily life and challenges for a new immigrant in the years of major American aliyah after the 1967 Six Day War. It reminded me how cold I was in the first Jerusalem apartment I rented with friends, carrying jerricans of kerosene up the steps, or waiting, sometimes an hour or more, to make an international phone call at the Central Post Office – stories I haven’t shared with my grandchildren growing up in a tech age.

Spitzer’s story reveals the vicissitudes of her life, particularly her struggle with keratoconus, a disease of the clear, dome-shaped surface of the eye, which causes loss of vision. She wonders whether this, like her candlesticks, is inherited from ancestors who had notoriously bad eyesight. Treating keratoconus often requires corneal transplants. Spitzer’s first corneal transplants took place when she was living in Montreal in 1991. The often-needed secondary or tertiary transplants have been until recently far more difficult and less likely to succeed. But in the midst of the 2012 snowstorm (who remembers?), Hadassah ophthalmologist David Landau succeeded in replacing her old graft. Her gratefulness to the doctor and to the corneal donors inspired a series of her paintings called “Life Through My New Eyes” and pushed her to write this book.

My sister Charlotte Goller also has keratoconus, so I’m familiar with its tribulations. A decade after Spitzer’s surgery, a new and more successful method of transplanting only a thin layer of the cornea to replace the old grafts is standard procedure at Hadassah. It’s easy to forget just how difficult it was to repair corneas after failed grafts a decade ago.

OFTEN WE are so future-centered that we don’t pay tribute to the steadfast efforts of the past – whether it’s to make a life in a new and unfamiliar country or to pioneer new medical care. Neither is a revolutionary process but an evolutionary one – the result of resilience and diligence, getting beyond the failures and being willing to try again. Our life stories are like that, too. They shouldn’t be hagiographies.

Let this serve as a reminder that we need to write or record them for our children and grandchildren.

Great-grandmother Basha lived to see her great-great-grandchildren, among them Spitzer’s children. When Basha went to a nursing home, she gifted the candlesticks to Spitzer, who promised that she would think of her when she lights.

In Spitzer’s home in Talpiot, Jerusalem, the cherished heirloom illuminates each Shabbat. Spitzer likes to wait and watch the candles flicker out before she goes to bed.

But she hasn’t waited until the flame goes out to share her stories with her children and grandchildren – five generations after Bubba Basha. Neither should we.