SUKKOT: EMBRACING UNCERTAINTY
By Barbara Sofer
October 10, 2019
Like 85% of the public school children in the United States at the time, my first grade experience in Colchester, Connecticut, began with our teacher holding up a huge black book. Mrs. Brown (Mrs. Green held forth in the first grade across the hall) introduced publisher Scott Foresman's famous protagonists: Dick, Jane and Sally, dog Spot, cat Puff and Teddy Bear Tim.
Except for Spot who reputedly changed identity from a cat to dog, and later from a terrier to a cocker spaniel these characters lived in a safe and static universe bordered by a picket fence. Nonetheless, in my childhood imagination, that big black book was conflated with the supersized celestial Book of Life that figures so prominently in Jewish New Year imagery. "On Rosh Hashanah it your fate in the Book of Life will be written, and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed."
A literary-minded people are we, who imagine our non-corporal deity writing out our fate in a volume to be sealed and delivered. Would that we could pray our world and loved ones into a safe space. Despite the hasidic approach to be confident of a good grade and the reminders that good deeds count, too, who of us adults does not tremble before this Divine report card and its consequences?
We sweeten the process with tzimmes and honey cakes, but we all know that our lives can turn in a minutes. We're all vulnerable to a dire diagnosis, to a car accident, job loss. And in our little hard-won country, there's another layer of chaos: the threat of attacks from tunnels and drones, the possibility of waking up to war. The chronic terrorism doesn't even make the international news. In recent months, a brother and sister crossing a street are rammed by a terrorist. A father, son and daughter are exploring a pastoral stream when they become a terrorist's target.
My office, though non-medical, is in Hadassah-University Medical Center, so I hear many first-person accounts of those threats becoming real. I've learned not to ask people why they are on the campus. Likewise, I try not to reprimand errant drivers in the hospital parking lot. Who knows what prognosis they have just heard? When they do want to talk, I bear witness to the grief and to the miracles, to the sorrow and to the amazing courage.
And so, I would like to dedicate this column to Judi Abramson Felber, a woman who inspires me with her mettle. Felber grew up in Pittsburgh and 13 years ago made aliyah with her husband Joe and three children Adina, Netanel and Daniel. Netanel graduated from high school in Ra'anana, where the family lives. He entered a mehina a pre-military academy and when he decided to continue there a second year, his parent suggested he pay for it himself. Good-natured and athletic, he earned money from working as a children's counselor in a summer camp and the winter studied Torah.
Although the Felbers aren't haredi, Netanel joined the haredi Netzah Yehudah Battalion because it was willing to induct him together with a group of his best buddies, fellow students from the mehina. On December 13, Netanel was stationed at Givat Assaf in the Binyamin region when, in a drive-by shooting, alleged terrorist Assem Barghouti killed Sgt. Yosef Cohen and St.-Sgt. Yovel Mor Yosef, and shot Netanel in the head. Barghouti also shot Shira Ish-Ran, who lost her unborn baby. I met her, too, this year in rehab at Hadassah.
"The knock on the door was different from every knock before it," says Felber. "I'll never forget it." At first, it was unclear if Netanel would survive. His sister Adina, an El Al stewardess, was on the Hong Kong route when the in-air Wi-Fi suddenly stopped so she wouldn't hear the news. Coached by the IDF, a crew member told her that Netanel had been shot and was in matzav anoush Hebrew for critical condition, but sometimes translated as "hopeless." She thought he was dead.
JUDI, A medical journal editor who is not naïve about medical issues, camped out on the benches near the intensive care unit at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem. She greeted every staff member with gratefulness and contagious optimism. Three long months later, Netanel was stable enough to be transferred for rehabilitation to Sheba Medical Center, closer to the Felbers' home.
Through it all and I've seen Judi tens of times she never loses her positivity. In a TV interview, when Joe says this has been the toughest time in their lives, Judi reminds him that they've had a chance to spend more time with Netanel than they have had for years. She celebrates each small step in her son's progress: brushing his teeth, leafing through books, playing tic-tac-toe. At last, nine months after the injury, his mom sees her son smile. "We're doing great," she says.
Dick and Jane's safe world disintegrated in the 1960s. They became the target of harsh criticism, for the publisher's stereotyping gender roles; for presenting just one version of family life; and for lack of diversity. In 1965, the first black character was introduced, but the series was abandoned that same year. No more big book. Anyway, today, so much data would probably be stored in a celestial computer file.
Who could have guessed back in Mrs. Brown's class sitting in front of that big book, that I would move far from Colchester, that my own children and grandchildren would be learning the alef-bet in Jerusalem, in Rehovot, in Binyamina and in Modi'in?
I take a moment in my Jerusalem synagogue to point out a beloved passage from Jeremiah to my granddaughter. "'Behold I will bring them, from the northern land and gather them from the ends of the earth, among them will be the blind and the lame, and birthing mothers together. A congregation will return here.' We've experienced this," I whisper to her.
But it's not easy. I'm thinking of Judi. She's in synagogue, too. The family has gathered at the hospital hotel so they can eat with Netanel. The Ra'anana community food chain has brought them the holiday special dishes: brisket and tzimmes and honey cake. When I call her after the holiday she tells me it was lovely. I wonder how she could bear the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: "Who shall live and who shall die… Who by fire and who by water." Judi lets out an expression of pain, but then mentions all the people who are kind to her who make going on possible. I remind her that Sephardim don't have this prayer. "Good idea," she says.
So I ask her for her message to all of us as the Big Book closes and we enter our sukkot, those temporary dwellings that remind us once again of the vicissitudes of life.
Cherish every moment, she says. Be present every moment. You can't predict the future.
Embrace the uncertainty.