September 24, 2021

Sukkah reading: Focusing on guests you'd invite this Sukkot - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

This isn’t a book review column. Nonetheless, at this time of our lives when staycations are more convenient than vacations because of the pandemic and the increase of traffic, reading in the sukkah is a simple pleasure. 

If “summer reading” brings to mind thrillers, historical novels and chic lit in a beach chair, I want to suggest that “sukkah reading” can focus on the stories of men and women you’d like to invite as honored and interesting guests to the sukkah. Please meet two Israelis I’ve recently become acquainted with, both on the page and in person.

The mature voice at the end of an unidentified cellphone number reveals himself as Zvi Eyal. Dr. Eyal, actually. His birthday is coming up. On November 1, he’ll be 96. Someone has told him I might be interested in his book. He’s recently re-edited and re-published his biography Open Doors & Open Hearts. Because of his seniority, I promise to pick up a copy even though he lives in Jerusalem’s Old City. But the next day, a spry and charming man whose appearance belies his chronology is knocking on my office door. He’s come all the way to Hadassah Ein Kerem to deliver my gift.

His biography was written by Petra van der Zand, part of a Christian group he overheard speaking in his native-language of Dutch in a café near the Hurva synagogue. He introduced himself and invited them all to his home. The Diary of Anne Frank has dominated our knowledge of the Dutch Jewry during the Holocaust, and Utrecht-born Eyal’s biography takes the reader to the Westerbork Camp, where Frank was imprisoned after her capture. A so-called transfer camp less than half a square kilometer long, Westerbork was the terminal from which 97,776 Jews were deported – most to immediate death – to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen.

Eyal, then called Harry Klafter, describes the mix of horrific and service tasks required of him on the work detail. He survived there from February 1942 until September, 1944, when he cut a hole in the fence and escaped with his brother Freddy. Benevolent strangers and acquaintances hid them until the war ended in 1945. Amazingly, his paper trail of letters to non-Jewish friends and incarcerated family members has been preserved. He sailed to Israel on the rickety overcrowded so-called illegal immigration ship Biria, incarcerated by the British at the Atlit Detention Camp.

Telling his story, Eyal barely complains or allows himself to mourn. A constant thread is his concern of interrupting his education. After the ship’s capture, the bare-chested Eyal (having lost his shirt at sea in an attempt to cool off) is visited by representatives of the Association of Dutch Immigrants in Haifa. He requests Holleman’s Book of Organic Chemistry. There’s a hint of emotion when he’s finally released from Atlit: “I had no family and no acquaintances in Palestine, but I boarded the camp bus, which took us to the central bus station in Haifa.” He’s arrived in time to fight in the War of Independence. He’s shot in the battle for Gush Etzion, cared for in Hadassah’s Mount Scopus campus where he will eventually learn surgery himself. In the Six Day War he serves as a field physician. By the Yom Kippur War he is operating on injured soldiers when he learns that his pilot son-in-law was shot down over Syria. Says he: “Looking back I realize that (his late wife the scientist) Hefzibah and I never attempted to write a plan for our lives or map our goals. Instead, our lives flowed naturally, according to a script that expressed the desire for continuity of our family and our people, based on its roots and identity.”

Which brings me to the other book: 222 The Days of Kfar Darom 1948. The author is military historian Aryeh Itzhaki, and it focuses on the heroic stand in Kfar Darom to stop the invading Egyptian army in 1948, and its reestablishment after the Six Day War. It also contains the story of the author’s wife, the indomitable Datya Hershkowitz Itzhaki.

I met her recently, too. Although the impetus for our meeting was her remarkable medical story connected to Hadassah Medical Organization, how could I not ask about her experience as one of the central figures in Gush Katif, the so-called Harvest Bloc of 22 towns and villages that once existed in Gaza? A scholar and tour guide, Datya first went to Gush Katif for her professional work, became an activist and the spokesperson for opposition to the evacuation. Aryeh Itzhaki, a widower, saw a photo of her driving a mini-tractor in a newspaper and decided she should be his wife. It took him a year to convince her.

Datya and I meet in Naveh Yam, close to Atlit where Zvi Eyal was held prisoner. Datya, Aryeh and their three children still live in what is called a “Caravilla” from the name combining caravan and villa for those expelled from Gush Katif. The domicile holds little resemblance to the country house for the wealthy, the word villa evokes, except for the dramatic Mediterranean Sea view, like that of their former home in Kfar Yam, the smallest of the settlements. They were the last family to leave in a famous rooftop standoff on their home. The soldiers who evacuated them whispered how much they admired her and no matter your politics who cannot? She’d already been diagnosed with cancer when the final destruction of Gush Katif took place on September 22, 2005, an unsweet 16 years ago this week.

She was 44. Her eyes turn sad, her face at once both weary and melancholy as she describes what she believes was a disastrous error, that Gaza could have been modernized and made prosperous with a continued Israeli presence, that the rocket attacks would not have happened. The Israelis there were an asset not an obstacle for peace, she says. Her family has moved seven times since their home was destroyed. They are still waiting for permanent housing in Naveh Yam, but she’s not moping. She’s become sun-sensitive so she swims before sunrise. On Friday, she packs and delivers tens of food baskets to the needy, recruiting volunteers. She raises her arms heavenward and says, “I’m alive!” The secret of her optimism? “You have to have faith,” she says. “It’s all about faith.”

At our home, we’ve already added the matriarchs to the patriarchs traditionally invited into the sukkah as ushpizin. This year, I’m adding Zvi Eyal and Datya Itzhaki. Maybe they’ll actually come. 

My column “73+1” was the basis of a class discussion – and I hope – a few new learned vocabulary words, in line with Gross’s practice of using contemporary material in her classroom.

Along with a letter of appreciation, these 10th graders, mostly sweet 16, were challenged by their teacher to write their own reasons, which would certainly differ from those of someone several generations older than them. They started writing their thoughts on the blackboard (maybe the white board), and more and more ideas came forward, says Gross.

The large high school, where Aliza Bloch served as principal before her election as Beit Shemesh’s first woman mayor, is a mixture of girls and boys, teens from veteran Israeli and immigrant families. Not a so-called “religious school.”

So here are the reasons that Israel is lovable from a teen’s point of view, lightly edited and some combined. Like my own list, there’s no particular order. I saved them for Rosh Hashanah because they’re such an optimistic view of the coming year.

  1. In Israel, we have beautiful forests and amazing views from the mountains. When you go on a field rip, you will enjoy the view. (This in a corona-dominated year when most trips were canceled.)
  2. There are a variety of holidays in Israel, some biblical and others rabbinic, but there are also days that are set aside to honor the memory of a tragic event or a person.
  3. Our national food, falafel, is delicious . It’s made from chickpeas, which also makes humus, another winner.
  4. Shwarma, the best meat meal, is available everywhere.
  5. Kanafeh, the yummy Arabic dessert, has been adopted by all.
  6. We have fabulous big, clean beaches, and many are free.
  7. The city of Ashdod has beautiful modern architecture and a stunning seaside.
  8. No other country has a city like Jerusalem, so old, precious to so many religions.
  9. Mahaneh Yehuda, the colorful Jerusalem fruit and vegetable market, turns into a fun party place after sundown.
  10. Going to Tel Aviv’s Shuk Hacarmel for clothing is also great.
  11. The Kotel is a place to pray and feel spiritual. It’s also our holiest place on earth.
  12. Those of us who keep the Sabbath live together with those who don’t even believe in God.
  13. Eilat is so much fun despite the heat.
  14. It can be hot in Eilat and at the same time snow is falling on the Hermon Mountains. All in our amazing country!
  15. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, but still beautiful.
  16. The Kinneret is both a place to swim and the source of our drinking water.
  17. We’re the Vaccination Nation, and by showing that the vaccination works we also help the world.
  18. We care about each other. Our grandmothers and grandfathers got the vaccination first.
  19. The IDF isn’t one of the biggest armies in the world, but it’s one of the strongest.
  20. We all have to serve our country, and that’s the right thing to do.
  21. We’re famous for our hi-tech.
  22. Israeli Mobileye helps us drive and saves lives.
  23. Our history is 5,000 years old. We have a lot to cover in history class!
  24. Hollywood stars Natalie Portman and Gal Gadot are ours.
  25. Our best singer is named Omer Adam.
  26. WAZE gets you everywhere and also alerts you when the police are ahead.
  27. The light rail comes on time and it’s quiet. You can always find a place to sit.
  28. Every Friday there are lovely, colorful flowers on every street corner.
  29. We have so many tall trees, and they’ve all been planted by pioneers.
  30. The malls are great for shopping and getting together with friends. The food is kosher.
  31. Ilan Ramon was our first astronaut and gave us so much to be proud of.
  32. The Iron Dome helps us feel safe.
  33. We speak Hebrew, such an old and beautiful language.
  34. Kubbeh, the Iraqi-Kurdish meatballs served all over, are such a yummy food.
  35. Going to the doctor is free because we all have health insurance. Hospitals, too.
  36. We’ve had so many wars, but we come back strong.
  37. Going to university is affordable – not so for some of our relatives abroad.
  38. We get to volunteer in the amazing Magen David Adom ambulances.
  39. ZAKA helps the police and rescue efforts at the scene of disasters. Hatzalah, too!
  40. After Passover, we wait for the Mimouna mafletot, a kind of pancake. You don’t have to be Moroccan to love Mimouna.
  41. Yad Vashem helps me understand the Shoah and honor the Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
  42. People on kibbutzim still wear sandals all the time.
  43. Our national anthem is “Hatikva,” the hope.
  44. Our new peace treaties, the Abraham Accords, are so exciting!
  45. We’ll all get to vote when we’re 18!
  46. Teens argue about politics because we know we’ll soon be voters.
  47. Ben-Gurion Airport is super – attractive and exciting.
  48. We have so much in our small country to show off to tourists.
  49. We stand up to all those who hate us.
  50. We have the most beautiful women like supermodel Yael Shelbia.
  51. We have a great educational system.

WHICH BRINGS me back to teacher Rivka Gross. Her own English is from New Jersey. Her parents made aliyah with the family when she was 14, younger than her students. She has a bachelors from the Michlalah in Jerusalem and a masters in English literature from Ben-Gurion University. 

“I bring everything I can to class to motivate my students, be it a post on TikTok or something I’ve read myself,” said Gross. “I want to convey to them that their voices are heard. I like to brainstorm as a group. I was surprised and delighted with how quickly these young people – particularly going through a tough year with corona – were contributing ideas for how great Israel is.

“You might have guessed that they’d think America was cool or Europe was cool, but they were overflowing with appreciation for our country. They’re terrific kids with many ambitions for the future. Some want to be career army officers, others to be lawyers, artists and musicians. They all have different dreams, but they all see themselves as part of building this country that they love.”

G’mar hatima tova.