What the Death of My Mother Taught Me About Charedi Jews and Arab Israelis

The plane was rapidly approaching Tel Aviv airport. Leafing through the newspapers distributed earlier by the flight attendant, I couldn’t escape the headlines. They were filled with reports about the latest violence erupting between the charedim and “secular” Jews, the tensions with the Arab-Israeli population, the dissatisfied immigrants from the former USSR and Ethiopia, the young Israelis protesting against social inequality – in short, a country torn and divided among its hastily assorted inhabitants. Reality, however, did not reflect the news. During the weeks spent in Israel caring for and subsequently burying my mom, I witnessed humanity and kindness equally shared by charedi neighbors, my mom’s Arab-Israeli doctor and her Russian immigrant nurse. This very mixture and the challenges it presents are the backbone of this miracle of a state, the fire behind its vibrant engines. And that is precisely what the headlines are sorely overlooking.

I grew up in Israel as the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. I then left the country thirty years ago full of grievances often carried by twenty-something year olds and never looked back. I travelled, living in Tokyo, New York and Paris, leading what one could label as an “interesting life.” Throughout those years, my almost exclusive contacts with Israel were the occasional visits to see my mom, such stays becoming longer and more frequent as her health started failing. When she suggested I come back on a more permanent basis, I dismissed the thought without giving it the slightest consideration. I was, after all, a citizen of the world. Returning to the provincial place I fought so hard to get out of was out of the question. Nor were the disapproving news reports and media coverage encouraging any pangs of nostalgia.

My mother, an atheist to her last breath, happened to be living in the bastion of charedi Israel – Bnei Brak. That, of course, did not prevent the stubborn lady that she was from wearing low-cut dresses, practically transparent blouses, decorating her place with posters of Marilyn Monroe in suggestive postures and adorning the living room with half-naked figurines. In fact, her kitschy apartment – think wine-red rugs and gold colored wallpaper – reminded one more of a brothel than a nice Jewish home. Yet, during the last years of my mom’s life, that was the setting that our charedi neighbors walked into when taking care of her. With her daughter (that’s me) abroad, these strangers were the ones “on the ground,” fixing the boiler, repairing the flooded toilet, their children carrying the shopping bags up the stairs. They averted their eyes from the offensive pictures and pretended not to notice the smell of pork chops frying in the kitchen. Instead of ostracizing the thorn living in their midst, these people exhibited exemplary tolerance and open-mindedness, adopting the old woman to be “the building’s grandmother” and always treating her with the utmost respect. A far cry from the image one associates with long bearded, black coated, devout Jews.

On that Friday morning when she stopped breathing, still dazed by death brushing past just minutes beforehand, my daughter and I were stunned as the medical staff was handling my mom as just another “body.” The whole scene felt rushed and sordid. Having heard the commotion of the ambulance arriving, two men, one sporting a long gray beard, the other somewhat younger, were immediately present. In the confusion of the moment, I didn’t even recognize them. Don’t all Hassidic Jews look alike…? One, perhaps the younger of the two, quietly asked my permission to say a prayer for the acceptance of my mom’s soul in heaven.
“No” I mechanically replied – “my mom was an Atheist. She lived and died as an Atheist!”

They did not insist. Only later did I come to my senses, recognizing them as the neighbors who so thoughtfully cared for my mother during her later years. I reconsidered and grudgingly consented. Just to please them. And then a miracle occurred. The black clad figures swaying back and forth in prayer over my mom’s bed, addressing her as a dignified human being rather than as a “corpse”, transformed the moment from a series of physical procedures into a comforting and spiritual experience. My daughter and I felt as if finally woken from our paralysis and able to say our farewell.

Ignorant about funeral procedures we were relieved to be guided by our new friends. “All will be done according to your wishes” they promised and kept their word. They turned a blind eye when, instead of sitting “Shiva,” we respected my late mother’s memory by sitting in one restaurant or another ordering her favorite dishes. They did gently offer to gather a “minyan” and pray for my mom. On the one evening we accepted to open our doors to the religious rituals, the rules were liberally, and somewhat comically, bent. An invisible hand discreetly turned the Marilyn Monroe frame over so that her charms were seducing the wall only. The half-naked figurine was casually covered with some leggings that were found discarded on the floor. Thirty or so devout Jewish men were rhythmically rocking in prayer and worship, facing east at the direction of the holy city of Jerusalem with a very unholy statue of a clumsily clad bare-breasted Greek goddess between them and the target. The scene was right out of a Woody Allen movie. But I couldn’t help thinking that as “pagan” as she was, my mom would not have objected to this little bit of “tradition” sending her off to wherever she was heading. Perhaps she even had a good laugh on her way…

On the other end of the spectrum – my mother’s doctor. Imperious lady that she was, my mom, naturally, refused to wait on line in front of his clinic like all other patients. She expected nothing less than an immediate and “royal” welcome – or else! Tantrums, drama, the works. He put up with it for almost three decades. He put up with it when even I, her own flesh and blood, lost it and screamed at her, at times vowing to cut off all relationship only to later drown in guilt (Jewish mothers spent two-thousand years perfecting guilt to a form of art). He made house calls when she was too ill to get to his office. And, during those final weeks, he was managing her care as if she were his own mother – with delicacy, attentiveness, doing whatever could possibly be done to minimize any suffering. An Arab-Israeli, he could have given lessons in compassion to many Jewish doctors attending to the Holocaust-survivors under their care with far less patience and understanding. Day in and day out, listening to their lengthy descriptions of ailments, real and imaginary, prescribing medications for nightmares, he often is the only true “relative” they have in this world, the sole witness to their lonely existence. These “leftovers” of the Holocaust are a burden even their own biological sons and daughters who are preoccupied with their own energetic race to the top, too busy to listen to the monotonous complaints. But they always have their doctor’s clinic to go to…

These are faces of Israel you won’t find in the international media. Extremists preventing women from sitting in the front of the bus, people being stabbed, bombs exploding, make far better headlines. Yet, these faces – the surprisingly liberal orthodox Jew, the dedicated Arab-Israeli doctor, the underpaid Russian immigrant nurse who washed my mom’s thin, decaying body as if handling precious crystal – are Israel. For substance, one must look beyond external outfits. This randomly put together bunch of Holocaust survivors, immigrants and minorities is the glue holding together the intricate fabric of this astonishing community thriving on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.

Born in a small village in Transylvania when an airplane flying by was a rare sight, surviving Auschwitz, returning “home” to find there was none left, finding refuge among the “savages” in Israel and having the courage to allow her daughter to leave all the pain behind in search of a new life – my mom was as “Israeli” as one can be. She embraced her half Japanese granddaughters with radiating warmth. She pitied suffering whatever color, religion or nationality it came in. And, towards the end of her life, the love this domineering woman commanded brought together religious Jew and Arab and all the wonderful mix that is in between, sharing this unique land. Mom, may your faithless soul rest in peace wherever it is or isn’t. May the legacy of a devout Atheist in the heart of Bnei-Brak survive in this country of miraculous contradictions.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

What the Death of My Mother Taught Me About Charedi Jews and Arab Israelis

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