Sunday, January 15, 2006


Dear friends,


As you know from the last letter, the first days in Jerusalem were a kaleidoscope of feelings: great joy at the birth of Keren and deep grief at the death of Rabbi Darzy, lightness at having Raphael and Keren together for Hanuka and mourning for Rabbi Darzy. The following days were even more of a roller coaster.


My father’s family from Montreal and Toronto turned up in Jerusalem for the bar mitsva of twin cousins. I took up contact with them intending to be sure to be wherever they would be. However, one member of the family, an aunt of the bar mitsva boys, fell into a sudden coma and we spent ten days in the Bikkur Holim hospital watching over her. The staff there was very cooperative. They permitted the boys to be bar mitsva in the hospital chapel with their Conservative rabbi (though the orthodox rabbi read the Torah a second time for his own clientele). They permitted all of us to enter the ICU so the boys could recite their portions again, together with their speeches, in the presence of their aunt. They allowed us to have all sorts of prayers said, including a ceremony in which one of the women from the Wall whom we know brought in an egg and took money and waived it over cousin Leslie. Alas, nothing worked and Leslie died quietly one night. Arrangements were made to have her returned to Montreal where 1200 people attended her funeral. Leslie Blumenthal was 47 years old.


Meanwhile, Ursula and I were looking around Jerusalem at apartments when we got a call from New York from Rabbi Stern of the Bayith Lepleitot. This organization is an orthodox orphanage for girls and I have been connected with it for decades, helping them raise funds. Bayit Lepleitot is very unusual in that they take in girls whose families just cannot care for them and they keep the girls until they are married, teaching them a trade as they go. There are no uniforms and the girls attend community schools. Bayit Lepleitot also set up a convalescent home for women who have given birth and need a few days of extra rest. Rabbi Stern had good news: friends of Ursula’s family had left a large bequest to Bayit Lepleitot. We were dumbfounded. I had expected a series of smaller donations but, when the will was resolved, this large gift was received. What a moment of joy.


In the midst of all this, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister who has led the nation through the withdrawal from Gaza, had a massive stroke and all eyes turned to Jerusalem where he is in the hospital.


Being with Keren, Nili, and Philippe in the apartment in Jerusalem for a few days was wonderful. We went about our business and Nili remained totally devoted to the baby. Like all new mothers, she soon learned that Keren had her own schedule and was not really a part of our time world yet. When Philippe said, “The baby slept too long today,” I replied “Who said so?” Finally, the moment came to move to Petach Tikva where Nili’s parents and family live. The young folks stopped at Mrs. Darzy’s to pay their respects and she blessed the baby. Ursula and I drove ahead with a good part of the luggage. They are now installed at Nili’s parents and will remain there a little longer.


Philippe and Nili rented an apartment near her parents and we slept there. It is a modern apartment and very spacious. Soon, the shipments of Philippe’s furniture and good from New York and Atlanta will arrive. Meanwhile, it was high time he had a new computer and printer, so we took care of that. I think they will move in after the furniture has arrived. We spent Shabbat in Petach Tikva, staying in Philippe’s apartment but going to synagogue and eating with Nili’s family. The synagogue observes a completely Yemenite rite. The pronunciation of Hebrew is different: they have a “g” sound as in “Ginger”; they preserve the gutteral ayin and het sounds; and they read the Torah with a verse-by-verse rendition of the Aramaic Targum. I had seen this before but not with so many people. The music is also completely different from ours with verses chanted in a very rhythmic way, in fifths (I think). Of course, they honored the family and we said prayers for the baby. Nili, too, arrived and said her prayer of thanks out loud from the women’s section. And we sponsored the collation. This is a strong working-class community with strong cultural roots, though no one seems to speak Yemenite Jewish Arabic any more.


Ursula and I returned to Jerusalem where the cold finally caught up with us and we became sick. C’est la vie. I went to dawn services on Asara be-Tevet which is a fast day. It happened to coincide with Id al-Fitr, the great feast of Islamic tradition. It was touching to see so many Muslim families, including school age children, walking to pray just as we were doing the same. How I wished that this peaceful and prayerful scene could be the model for all days.


Fifty years ago, my father, may he rest in peace, wrote a formal responsum for the Conservative movement allowing women to be called to the ritual reading of the Torah. My colleague at Emory, Michael Broyde, noted that we should really do something to celebrate that anniversary, it being almost universal practice in the movement now to call women to the Torah. So, I wrote the Schechter Institute, the Israeli branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and suggested some kind of symposium. Its president, Rabbi David Golinkin, seized the opportunity immediately and, last Wednesday, the symposium was held, all in Hebrew. I spoke about my father as a person and a rabbi, particularly about his passion for education, halakha, and leadership. Rabbi Golinkin spoke about the history of women’s ritual participation in the modern world. Professor Sperber spoke about the key concepts of “the honor of the community” and “the honor of God’s creatures.” And Dr. Tovah Hartman spoke about orthodox reactions to “feminism” in contemporary Israel. I also announced that we are having the teshuva translated into Hebrew and published. At the end, I recited the special Kaddish of the Rabbis in memory of my father. The audience moved quickly into the Afternoon service, led by a woman rabbinical student who was formerly a student of mine at Emory; no one even thought twice about it. I was very proud and honored, and my father would have been very pleased by everything.


Now we are waiting for the baby of Rachel and Jonathan. Rachel looks just radiant, so happy to be an expectant mother. Jonathan, too, seems very happy. We have no idea when the baby will come so we are proceeding with life and waiting for a call. At the moment, we are in Switzerland where we have rented a car that we will load up with our clothes, computers, probably some meat dishes, etc. and we will set off for Prague later this week. By next Shabbat, we should be installed in our apartment there. I will begin the first week of orientation with the students but, when the call comes, we will fly to Jerusalem for the next grandchild. Meanwhile, Switzerland is a winter wonderland with the snow so fine that you cannot see it fall unless you face into the sun, in which case the tiny flakes glitter. The trees are all white. Maybe we will try some cross-country skiing later in the day.


Best from both of us, U&D