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Lifelines: No Such Thing as Hopeless

C. Saphir

For her and my father, who had grown up in an anti-Semitic communist environment, my leanings toward frumkeit were a dangerous return to the shtetl

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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M y father was only 12 years old in 1944 when the letter his mother had sent from Bucharest to his grandmother in Transylvania was returned to them with the words, “Addressee Unknown.” When my father’s mother saw the envelope, she immediately knew what had happened. At that point, she declared that they were done with Yiddishkeit. There was no more kosher food, no more Shabbos candles, no more Pesach Sedorim.

My mother, who was born in 1939, does not remember life before the war, nor does she remember the family’s deportation by the Nazis. She does, however, remember the retreat of the Nazis from Stalingrad, during which they went “Jew hunting.” She was four years old at the time, and suffering from whooping cough, and she still remembers hiding with her parents and grandparents in a basement and hearing the sounds of the Nazis’ boots above her head while her mother held her mouth shut.

After the war, my parents worked tirelessly to become successful professionals, a doctor and a lawyer respectively. As Jews living under a communist regime, they had to work twice as hard as their non-Jewish neighbors, all the while hoping that their applications to leave Romania for Israel would be approved. After an almost 20-year wait, they made their way to Israel in 1970. In search of better professional opportunities, they moved to the US in 1974, where they raised me in the liberal environment of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Although my parents were not observant, their Jewish identity was very important to them, so they sent me to a Jewish day school.

For some inexplicable reason, I found myself drawn to Yiddishkeit from a young age. I remember seeing a group of chassidish kids in a science museum once and trying to infiltrate their group, because I felt a magnetic pull toward them. When I was ten, I tried to kasher my mother’s kitchen when she wasn’t home. The experiment was a disaster, and my mother returned home to a huge mess.

During my first year in Wellesley College, I got involved in the Harvard Hillel and the Boston Chabad, and I started wearing long skirts and keeping Shabbos. I also chose a major in Jewish studies.

“Rebecca, we’re not sending you to college so that you can become religious!” my mother lamented. For her and my father, who had grown up in an anti-Semitic communist environment, my leanings toward frumkeit were a dangerous return to the shtetl. Much as they valued their Jewish identity, they were terrified that I, their only child, was embracing a primitive lifestyle and setting myself up for misery and deprivation.

After much tense discussion, I decided to give up on my dream of a religious future rather than disappoint my parents. “What if I spend my junior year of college in Tel Aviv University?” I suggested to them as a compromise. My parents had a different suggestion, though. “You can always go to Israel later,” they said. “Why don’t you spend your junior year in Europe?”

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