My Torahs “Are we on for this morning?” asked Jimmy. He called to find out whether we were still going to tear down and haul away our sturdy succot. Since we were using Jimmy’s truck, I knew I had to wait until he was ready. “I’m just getting up,” he told me. Despite his assurance the day before that we’d start at eight, I knew Jimmy well enough to know that was wishful thinking.
“See you in an hour,” I said, as I returned to my computer to read more about Israel attacking Hamas provocateurs in Gaza. More than 100 missiles had been sent into southwestern Israel with a criminal disregard for civilian populations. I wondered whether editorialists like Nicholas Kristoff and the New York Times staff of Palestinian cheerleaders might finally get it right. Peace with or recognition of Israel has never been on Hamas’ agenda.
What they want is to imitate their warlord prophet Mohammad; Hamas wants a hudna, a truce that will allow them to stand back until they’re strong enough to attack more forcefully. I knew to expect their claims that Israel was to blame. Sadly, I also knew too many Americans would believe that lie.
That’s what I was thinking when I met Jimmy. Dismantling began in earnest; I wanted to return to the Net to ensure that Israel and my daughters in Jerusalem were safe. Forty minutes later, I did. Gone was all signs of the structure my brother and my son-in-law and I had built.
I sighed as I raced back to my store, its business downstairs and my home on the second floor. After I grabbed the mail, I returned to my Israeli sources for news. When I read that the head of the military branch of Hamas had been targeted and killed by Israel, I winced. As important as that hit was, I knew retaliations would follow. For a moment, I had to turn away.
That’s when I looked at an envelope addressed to me from Phyllis W; “personal” was scribbled on the lower left corner. A post-it note stuck to the letter inside began, “Dear Barry.” Below that was this question, “Do you know anyone who might know what’s happened to the Torah?”
“What Torah?” I wondered as I removed the sticky note from what appeared to be a very old letter composed on a very old typewriter. Shocked by what I saw, I couldn’t have imagined receiving a more auspicious document. The letter, written on a piece of bonded stationery imprinted with Aetz Chayim Synagogue by my grandfather almost sixty years ago, was addressed to Phyllis W.’s grandfather, President of the “Orthodox Jewish Congregation, South Boton [sic], Virginia.”
With an orange marker, Phyllis had highlighted my grandfather Abe’s name on the letterhead. She’d used the same marker to make an arrow that pointed at his signature on the dotted line that ended with “President.” With a pen, she had written “my grandfather” atop her grandfather’s name on the recipient’s address.
In one-sentence paragraphs, my grandfather explained the purpose of the letter.
“We, the Aetz Chayim Congregation of Danville, Va accept in our custody the Torah belonging to the Orthodox Jewish Congregation of South Boston, Va.
“We will keep this Torah in our custody until such time as it will be needed again by the Orthodox Jewish Congregation of South Boston, Va.”
Setting down the amazing letter, I examined the envelope. Phyllis’ address was in a Virginia town I didn’t recognize. Even so, I had to wonder whether that explained anything. Was she unaware of the complete demise of the South Boston congregation? It had happened long before the Danville orthodox congregation had perished and moved away. In fact, I wonder whether Phyllis knew that the historical synagogue that had been Aetz Chayim’s had been razed?
Staring at the letter again, I thought about the many small southern Jewish congregations that had disappeared. Who had noticed? Had Phyllis known her grandfather? I decided to write to a friend in D.C. whose father had been a member of Aetz Chayim.
That’s when the phone rang. I answered the call.
I managed to say “Hello, sweetheart” to my younger daughter.
“Just want to let you know I’m O.K.” She’d been hiking and camping in the Negev, halfway between Jerusalem and Eilat. “We saw the Israeli war planes flying toward Gaza.”
She spoke in a voice that was calm and certain. “We’re safe,” she said. She was using her boyfriend’s cell phone. It was a good one; she sounded as if she were next door. We talked for more than twenty minutes. I tried not to let her hear in my voice that I did not want to say goodbye.
But I had to. I had to let her go the same way that the South Boston congregation had to hand over their Torah so that it could be cared for when their congregation dissolved. Perhaps like an overly concerned father, I hoped her boyfriend would care for my precious daughter the same way my grandfather had promised to care for South Boston’s Torah.
That’s what I wished for as we discussed the possibility of her staying in Israel for another year of study. “God bless and protect her,” I said to myself, “and my older children too.”
I hadn’t heard from them, my daughter and her husband in northwest Jerusalem. Word from them wouldn’t come until this morning, after I had heard from my friend in D.C.
He’d checked with others who were related to former Aetz Chayim families. There was some memory of the South Boston Torah. It had been properly cared for until the Aetz Chayim congregation disbanded. Then it was given to another “Torah True Congregation,” as promised in my grandfather’s letter. That phrase was new to my friend in D.C.
And to me. But the good news was that the Torah, wherever it is, is in good hands.
“I’ll write to Phyllis about that,” I said to my friend.
“I think I know her,” he said, recalling a chance meeting not so long ago. He’d noticed a car with a Jewish-themed bumper sticker and had started a conversation. “Is this her phone number?” he asked, as he read it to me.
“Yes,” I said, staring at her note, as if a cold case had been solved. “I’ll write about that too,” I told my friend.
This morning, I returned to my computer and the Net to do just that. Waiting for me was a note from my older daughter.
1. We are okay. Attacks are going on in the south, many miles away from us.
2. We have our gas masks and a stockpile of emergency food (maybe about a month's worth and still adding to it).
3. You know this, but I'll reiterate anyway. Neither of us was ever in the army, so we will never be called up from reserves…
They're calling this an actual war. It's the first war since I've lived here, but so far my life goes on as normal (though I can't say the same for people in the south)...
Immediately, I responded although I knew she was no longer at her computer. She would be back at her school studying to be an R.N. For now, I knew she was safe.
It was me who was shaking. My sweet children, my dear Israel, were in harm’s way. I could do little to protect them. Nor could I stop the world from being told that screams from the Muslim world were more like anti-Semitic curses than real news:
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