Thursday, December 29, 2005


Dear friends,


What a kaleidoscopic eighteen days. We left Atlanta on December 8th after a long and difficult process of setting the house so it would run while we are not there, of finishing the semester, and of packing for nine countries and three seasons. Of course, we had too much baggage but what can one do? We set off for England for a wedding of the daughter of old family friends. I had been puzzling and worrying over the problem of how to get our baggage to the hotel and still have some time in London itself but Ursula’s luck saved us: one piece did not come through on our plane and they agreed to deliver that piece. When I failed to persuade them to deliver all of the luggage, Ursula of course succeeded. So, we had a morning free in London that we used to see two very fine exhibits at the Royal Academy (their exhibits are always very worthwhile): the one was on the last three Chinese emperors and the other a retrospective of Munch. The former was astounding in its scope and, while I rarely take video-guides, I took this one and it was well worth it. The latter was interesting because Munch believed that to express emotions most clearly one should paint oneself.


Shabbat with the bride’s family was very pleasant. The Chief Rabbi of England happened to be in the synagogue for that weekend and he gave several masterful performances. He is especially good on questions and answers. The wedding itself brought us together with family friends we had not seen in many years.


From London, we headed to Brussels where Benjamin, Alexia, and Raphael are installed. Benjamin is now working full time for in their marketing division, the Paris- and London-based firm for which he has been working for a few years. The company has been approved and is now ready to go. Benjamin and Alexia have rented a real house in Waterloo (yes, that is where Napoleon suffered his great defeat) and the house is just wonderful. They now have almost all their furniture and goods from their previous travels and sojourns (I think they’ve lived in fourteen places since they married) and they have done a wonderful job of setting up the house. Raphael is very happy with all the space, as are his parents. He has developed amazingly, being quite competent in French and English as well as being very musical. He attends a Montessori school (at 16 months!).


We also joined Benjamin and Alexia in the community of Lubavitch hasidim who run a Jewish center directly in the center of the part of Brussels that houses the European Union. These attractive young men and women are trying very hard and very systematically to develop a pro-Israel presence in the EU, which is really a hotbed of antisemitism and anti-Israel feeling. They have done a terrific job so far and have audacious plans. The community also runs religious services and Benjamin, who never went willingly to synagogue, is now going with his family (once he even went alone) on a regular basis. All his Jewish studies teachers must be chuckling.


From Brussels we drove to Switzerland, planning to spend a week or so there but, in the very early hours of December 22nd, Philippe called to say that he and Nili were on the way to the hospital. The El Al representative was very gracious at 3:00 a.m. and got us on the 11:00 a.m. plane to Tel Aviv. We arrived and went straight to the hospital, even making it through security with a trunk-load of baggage. Just as we got there, the hospital that had been watching Nili for 14 hours decided to induce labor. In our day, the woman went off to the labor room and everyone waited; now, at least in Israel, everyone drifted into the labor room until the last half hour. So I went in with her mother and brothers to see Nili who was very comfortable with an epidural and a reflexologist. Even Ursula dared to go in once to say hello and good luck. At about 9:45 p.m. everyone but Philippe and the reflexologist left and Nili had an almost painless labor. The baby was born at around 10:15 p.m., weighing 6.1 pounds We all came to see. Nili washed her hands ritually and recited the Shehecheyanu prayer. Philippe blessed his daughter. Nili blessed her. And so did I. All this was very moving, as you all can imagine. The next two days were spent visiting the hospital and preparing the apartment in Jerusalem to receive mother and child.


Philippe has been very close to an Iraqi kabbalist rabbi here who has guided him through the years and had even approved the name for the child. He had also been a grandfather to Philippe. Unfortunately, Rabbi Darzy passed away Shabbat afternoon. The news came as we were sitting and planning the naming ceremony in which Rabbi Darzy would have blessed the child. This was a serious blow. In Jerusalem one does not permit a corpse to remain unburied overnight. So the funeral was Saturday night and, in the pouring rain, we found the funeral home and went out to the cemetery for the burial. Since then, Philippe has paid daily visits to the family, has helped with the arrangements, and we have twice prayed with his prayer-group at the Wall.


Monday morning we named the baby: Keren Amalia Amtelai Sharabi Noether Blumenthal, a long name for such a little girl. “Keren” means “horn” (as in “horn of salvation”) and “ray” (as in “ray of light”). “Amalia” means “the work of God” and it was a well-known name among German Jews (I have counted seven Amalias in Philippe’s family before this one). “Amtelai” is the name of the mother of the biblical Abraham and a good luck charm in popular custom. “Sharabi” is Nili’s family name. And “Noether” is Ursula’s family name that Philippe also bears.


Sunday night, Nili and Keren came home and, together with Benjamin, Alexia, and Raphael, we lit the Hanuka candles. Raphael was curious but indifferent, until Alexia took the baby in her arms. At that point, he ran to Alexia to claim his territory. Alexia very wisely took Raphael on her lap and asked, “Where is Keren’s mama?” He pointed to Nili and, after a moment’s confusion, he made peace with the problem. Very clever. When, on the following day, he saw Keren nursing from Nili, the matter was totally resolved.


The whole experience has been very moving: having an Israeli grandchild and in Jerusalem! Philippe’s great grandfather, Louis Aschkenasy, was one of the founders of Shaarei Zedek Hospital where the baby was born. He, as Ursula has pointed out, never settled in Israel and now he has a great great granddaughter who is a sabra (native Israeli).


I know some of you are waiting for pictures, though no one is obliged to look or to comment. So here they are.


We are here in Jerusalem now and will move Nili and the baby to Petach Tikva to be near her parents next week. It is custom for the new mother and child to remain with the maternal grandmother for a short period of time and then they will move into their new apartment near her parents. Benjamin and family return to Brussels Sunday night. On 1/11, there is a symposium to honor the 50th anniversary of the ruling written by my father that allows women to be called to the Torah during services. After that occasion, we will return to Switzerland for a few days and then go on to establish ourselves in Prague, probably on 1/17. We will, of course, return to Jerusalem when Jonathan and Rachel’s baby is born toward the end of January.


December 28th was my 68th birthday. One could not have asked for more. Love from both of us, U&D