Yesterday I attended a Bar-Mitzvah in Santa Rosa at my parents’ former synagogue, the one they belonged to for ten years when they lived in Cali. There are quite a few old-timers there who were good friends of my parents and with whom I have spent time before. My father has told me a little bit about them, their lives.
When I arrived at the synagogue, I was greeted with surprised delight by Bob, who is the gabbai at the synagogue. That means he acts as a sort of sexton who assists in the running of the service. Bob is a warm and welcoming presence, greeting people when they arrive, ushering them to seats, and alerting participants in the service when they must go up to the bimah (altar) to do their part. The story of how Bob met his wife Susy is astonishing. Susy was in a concentration camp and Bob was an American soldier who liberated the camp. Susy was a teenager at the time. She took one look at Bob and turned to her girlfriend and said, “Don’t you go after that one. He’s mine. I’m going to marry him.” I can’t imagine what condition Susy was in after surviving life in a concentration camp. She certainly could not have looked particularly appealing. But she managed to get Bob to dance with her at a party not long after the camp was liberated and the rest is history. She landed her man (clearly on the strength of her personality) and moved to America with him. They are in their 80s. I had a schmooze with Bob as we stood in the doorway during the service.
Another couple in their 80s who are friends of my parents are Alfred and Suzanne. During the service, the rabbi invited Suzanne to read a poem she had written about this week’s Torah portion. Suzanne has written poems for every Torah portion in the book of Genesis and they are published in a book. She read from her book her poem about the story of Jacob returning to reunite with his brother Esau. Her husband Alfred survived the Holocaust as one of the children ferried to safety on the Kindertransport. His parents sent him and his brother to England together to save their lives. As the elders who lived through the Holocaust die out, only those survivors who were children or teenagers remain and soon they too will be gone.
After the service, I chose to sit with Evelyn and Sylvia for lunch. At 101, Sylvia uses a wheelchair. Although she can’t get around very well anymore, her mind is all there and she is lively and witty. Evelyn, at 91, is still spry and active and she helps Sylvia out (brought her to the services and tended to her while there). The last time I saw Evelyn, about a year ago, she cooked a three-course dinner that included homemade cheese blintzes for me and my dad and a small group of friends. She has a few acres of property loaded with blackberries, which she preserves every year by the tons. She, Sylvia, Ron, and I laughed together and swapped stories over lunch, even though Evelyn kept jumping up to help make tea for people or clear plates. That woman is a dynamo.
As we were eating, my friend Carol came over to visit with me and Ron. Carol sat down and I introduced her to Evelyn and Sylvia. Carol, who is nearly 80, is the president of our congregation. Evelyn and Sylvia wanted to know more about our congregation so Carol and I tried to fill them in. Carol described our membership as including “everyone from delicatessen Jews to orthodox.” It’s true. We are the only game in town and Jews of all persuasions join together at our synagogue. Evelyn asked Carol where she grew up and Carol said, “Brooklyn.” Sylvia was delighted because she grew up there too so they discussed old haunts. “How did you come to California?” Sylvia asked. “In a covered wagon,” I quipped, which elicited some chuckles from our aging lunch companions, including Carol.
When Evelyn boasted to Carol that Sylvia is 101, the oldest member of their congregation, Carol replied, “We have a member in our congregation who is 103 and she’s sitting right over there.” Carol pointed to Lil, who had traveled to the Bar-Mitzvah the one hour from up North with her caretaker to attend. It struck me as hilarious that we were vaguely competing for which congregation had the oldest member! But we are Jews – we know where our wealth lies. These old-timers are so precious to me, to my peeps. Their stories provide the most satisfying nourishment of all. What a terrific lunch.