This is a personal story, which I want to convey as a tribute to the people at the New York Central Synagogue.
Image from Wikipedia.
Recently I have taken up the habit of live streaming the Friday Shabbat service from the New York Central Synagogue. For those who have never experienced a Shabbat service, or perhaps who have not participated in a religious celebration to speak of, let me tell you the Shabbat gathering is full of poetry, song, wisdom, joy and a culture that is both ancient and modern and the experience is very uplifting.
A traditional part of the Jewish service is to honour those who have passed, especially people who have been victims of wars and crimes. On Friday night when this moment of remembrance arrived in the order of service the Rabbi read a letter a mother had written to her deceased daughter aimed at conveying just how much the child was missed and how much she was loved and remembered.
It is hard to imagine the pain of losing a child and the letter was so poignant that the Rabbi, while reading the words, was moved to tears and struggled to get to the end of the reading. It brought tears to my eyes and I suspect to many in the congregation.
The reading reminded me of a time when I was young, about seventeen in fact. I had left home and I was working and living in the Mayfair district of London, every young girl’s dream was to be among the rich and famous and I had made it into the echelons of the elite. Life was good and a little crazy as well.
Every morning I would leave my flat and stroll across the green square to work. Every morning I would see a small, somewhat frail, middle aged women walking in the same direction. I would always greet the woman and she would always greet me with a sweet smile and discrete “good morning”.
One day, quite by chance, the woman and I both stopped in the square and struck up a conversation. The woman asked me where I worked and I told her with great enthusiasm how lucky I was to be working for a famous film producer and how much fun it was, not like work at all really. I think I giggled my way through every sentence. I went on and on spilling out words and extolling my good fortune.
I learned that the woman I was talking to worked as a translator at a nearby embassy. She was highly skilled, very serious and much more resigned to moderation than I was. Over a short period of time we became friends. With great kindness and a hint of maternalism the woman took me under her wing. I was young, impetuous, estranged from family and friends and not always thinking straight, which made me prone to many misadventures. My new friend was very wise, stabilizing and she had a calming effect. I think we both shared a need for honest and sincere companionship. It seemed, in reality, we were both very alone.
It was a great and perhaps unusual friendship. We would have lunch together and sometimes see a concert after work or go to an art gallery. We both loved art. My friend was unmarried and made no mention of family ties or marriage prospects. We talked only of our passions, music, art, literature and life in general.
After about six months, my friend and I were having lunch at a restaurant in Bond Street when I suddenly felt the urge to ask her if she had children. There was a pause before my friend answered the question. “No”, she said. There was a longer pause and then she told me she was unable to have children. After several shaky sips from a coffee cup, my friend explained that she was a Holocaust survivor and she was unable to have children because she was one of the many women the Nazis had used for their medical experiments. I was speechless and unable to ask what the Nazis had actually done to her and I imagine she would have been unable to find the words to tell me.
In truth, I did not know what to say to my friend. How does a young person respond to such a statement of pain and suffering? What struck me was the glow of strength and composure this woman had after having borne the burden of such heinous crimes. I do recall asking how a person might deal with such a terrible experience? How does one overcome such a trauma and its ongoing memory? Her answer was simple, “faith“.
My friend attended a Shabbat service every Friday evening and gained support from a community who were not afraid to remember the Holocaust, a community who would not be blamed or shamed, but who would rise up bravely and honourably in order to tell their story.
As a society we like to forget bad experiences, but my friend insisted that remembering was the only way to prevent such a thing happening again, so however much it hurts we have to remember the bad experiences.
I went back to my workplace that afternoon and instead of heading to my office I locked myself in the toilets and cried, I could not tell at the time why I cried, but I truly sobbed as if the whole world had suddenly come crashing down on me. There were some aspects of my friend’s story that truly resonated, like the feeling of solitude that comes in the aftermath of a war, a feeling that I had gleaned from growing up in East London. My own family had been devastated by the Second World War. Most of my relatives had survived, but on my father’s side there was no one and my father’s sole survival left him riddled with physical and mental illness, which made him suicidal.
Watching with a deep sense of empathy as the Rabbi at Central Synagogue became reduced to tears reminded me of how we feel each other’s pain and how important it is to have faith and to remember even if it hurts because in remembering we gain our strength and the fortitude we need to help others through difficult times.
My friend had given me the most wonderful gift a young person could ever receive, the wisdom that comes from the other’s shared experience. We are all on this planet to help each other to rise up from the pain and feel the joy and for me this is what the Shabbat celebration has provided. Further, it has shown how vulnerable we all are and that vulnerability is not a weakness, but a strength.
I want to thank everyone at New York Central Synagogue for the wonderful gift they are giving to me and to others like me. Shalom.