Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements

The Human Spirit: Without Words

September 23, 2011

Yuri Grossman works as a chef’s assistant in the food services of Shapell’s – Darche Noam Yeshiva in Jerusalem for more than a decade, and even though he seaks no English, he can nonetheless teach us all some lessons.

Yuri Grossman shares no common language with the American yeshiva students he meets daily in the kitchen. He’s been working as a chef’s assistant in the food services of Shapell’s – Darche Noam Yeshiva in Jerusalem for more than a decade, but hasn’t ipcked up more than a handful of English words from the American-born chef or from the yeshiva students. He helps preare 130 meals for each sitting, chopping buckets of Israeli salad, receiving the truckloads of potatoes and zucchini from suppliers, and most important, making sure the food is served on time so that the rigorous day of Torah study can proceed on schedule.

He didn’t know much about Torah study until he got the job, but Grossman understood about schedules and productivity.

He’d worked most of his life in a Soviet factory in Kharkov, Ukraine, a city that specializes in production of machinery.

He was the only Jew of 300 factory workers, but work ethic, not ethnicity was what counted there, and he didn’t experience anti-Semitism on the job.

What exactly was his job? Grossman only knows the term in Russian, pulls out his old Russian-English dictionary, with its yellowing ages, and points to a word to the right of the Cyrillic. “Turner,” it says.

I have to look it up when I go home.

That’s a lathe operator in tool and die production.

He admits a certain culture gap with the youngsters. Despite the yeshiva’s excellent regimented meal schedule, Grossman wonders at the behavior of the students, who insist on entering the kitchen at all hours. Some have special diets, something he’s learned a lot about. Others are just hungry or like being around the kitchen. A few students come from Russian-seaking homes in the US or have attended Hebrew school and know a little Hebrew. The majority of students are newcomers to Jewish studies. They don’t know more than a word or two of Hebrew. “Just toda raba, Yuri,” says Grossman, smiling.

BACK IN Kharkov, he hadn’t considered leaving his home and job for Israel until the Jewish school opened there, and his only son Yigor – now Yisrael – started pressing him and his wife to join the wave of aliya. So in 1991, when Yigor finished high school, they moved to Israel.

The marriage fell apart. Grossman moved into a no-frills bedsitter in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Menahem neighborhood and worked at various manual jobs. During a gap of several weeks between jobs, the clerk in the government emloyment agency directed him to the yeshiva.

LAST WINTER, the usually energetic Yuri Grossman didn’t feel right. He uncharacteristically missed work because of stomachaches.

A virus, he thought. He’d always been slim, but to his horror one morning he couldn’t button u his ants.

“I had a belly like a regnant woman,” he said, showing his former shape with his hands. “I called my son. He told me to go straight to the hospital.”

Good news was not waiting. His spleen was enormous. After several days of testing he learned that he had cancer: mantle cell lymphoma, a lethal form of non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma that most commonly strikes men in their early 60s. Yuri Grossman was 61. Dr. Alex Gural, a hematologist born in Moscow, explained to Grossman that his best chance of survival would be to take Velcade, a medication that would target the protein regulators that had gone awry in his lymph system.

There was one problem. The medication was so expensive that it was only covered by the Health Ministry basket of medications as a second line of defense, after less exensive methods failed.

Said Gural, “There have been excellent results with this drug. He was already stage 4 cancer. Why wait for the disease to come back to start using it?” One reason might be the cost. Without health coverage, enough Velcade for an initial course of chemotheray would be cost $15,000.

Grossman didn’t have $15,000 and he didn’t know where he could get it.

ELLIOT CAHAN, executive director of the yeshiva, thought he knew. Cahan sent an e-mail to the alumni of Shapell’s – Darche Noam and its sister school Midreshet Rachel to ask if anyone would help. The young men and women who had studied in Israel had seen Grossman in the kitchen every day, but hardly anyone had ever had a conversation with him.

Donations poured in from all over the US and other countries. Within 24 hours, there was more than enough money for the medicine. Explains Karen Americus, an alumna of Midreshet Rachel who was among those who immediately wrote back with a pledge, “Because of the language barrier, Yuri was not able to communicate with the students and staff on a deep level. Even so, we all appreciated his diligence and commitment to helping the yeshiva run. His was a thankless job but one that was so important. When we found out he was sick and in need, we didn’t hesitate to try and help in any way we could.”

Grossman has finished the chemotheray and is feeling well, although he tires easily. “Just ask my doctor. I’m a star patient,” Grossman says.

Dr. Gural is indeed cautiously optimistic.

“Yuri has had what we call very good results,” he says.

HOW DOES Grossman explain the generosity of the students? At first he doesn’t understand the question, the answer seems so simple. “They came to study Torah. They learned about mitzvot. They became better people. They want to do mitzvot. I’m sick. They know it’s a mitzva to help.” He’s embarrassed when I suggest that the students felt very close to him.

Then he thinks more of it. “You know, I never would have had that help in Kharkov. The people worked with me for years, but no one would have thought to help me. I had to come to Israel to get the help of an American-Israeli hospital, with a Russian-Israeli doctor and Jews from the Diaspora who all came forward to save my life. It’s a blessing.”

True, Yuri Grossman shares no common language with the students at the yeshiva.

But sometimes you don’t need words to communicate. I’ve been thinking of the power of the shofar, wordless, waking us from slumber, piercing our defenses, eliciting a self that is hard to reach. It reminds us that repentance, prayer and tzedaka can avert even a stern heavenly decree, as it did for Yuri Grossman.



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