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Jewish World Review
Where We Live
By Andrea Simantov
An open home physical and spiritual is a hallmark of the world in which we live
Lately, my children have rephrased the question "Are we having any guests?" to "Who's coming for Shabbos?" And inwardly I'm smiling because I know that despite all the trappings of "coolness," my kids can't get enough of new faces, stories, and plenty of table singing while they also relish the opportunity for a bit of showing off as each one serves the dish that he or she has prepared. I stopped cooking approximately four months ago, because one daughter graduated from chef school and is in charge of entrees and side dishes, the youngest daughter does the baking breads, cakes, cookies and the boys create all the salads.
Each summer, prior to the upcoming academic year, we make a general calculation of who the regulars will be. Children of family members and good friends are often in Israel for a year after high school, studying in different yeshivas and women's seminaries. We try to rotate the invitations and make certain that these young people know that, for at least a year, we can be relied upon for a hot bean-and-barley cholent or unsolicited advice on myriad life-in-Israel topics. This year we are enjoying Rachel in much the same way we felt attached to her sister, Meira, only a decade earlier; Adam is a frequent guest, following in the footsteps of his brother, Jonathan, who was a familiar face two years ago. And sometimes our guests bring guests, making the meals even more memorable.
On Friday night, Rachel mentioned something that really got me thinking. She told me that before moving to Jerusalem, she casually mentioned to a Manhattan co-worker that she had knocked on her neighbor's door the previous Thursday morning, explained that she was going to be alone for Shabbos, and asked if she could join the family for dinner. Her neighbor seemed very happy and apologized for not having personally invited Rachel earlier.
The co-worker was stunned. "What?" she asked. "You know your neighbor? Do you know other people in the building? Where did you find the guts to do that?"
She shared this story with us because she knew that we'd understand how confusing she found the question, because we all come from this same, inter-connected world. And in turn I shared with her that before I moved into my current home, I made certain that the people in the adjoining apartments were People-Like-Us sorts, i.e., Grandchildren-running- in-the-hallway-may-I-borrow-a-cup-of-sugar- or-your-entire-apartment-while-you're-away types. The sounds of plastic chairs being dragged and bounced in the stairwells means that someone is having guests, and dropping in unexpectedly for coffee and dessert on a wintry Friday night is not bad manners. It is expected.
In the early days of Operation Cast Lead, the entire country awakened to learn about a nearly unfathomable horror that had taken place on the outskirts of the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Three soldiers stealthily entered a house in which they believed murdering terrorists were hiding.
The very sensitive heat and movement detectors of an Israeli tank sensed the presence of people in the enemy building and, talking aim, fired a shell with lethal precision.
One of the three dead soldiers was Staff Sergeant Nitai Stern, and he was 21 years old. An adorable boy with an almost-corny grin, he had a large cadre of buddies who were high-spirited, charming, irreverent, intelligent, and good to their mothers. I not only know this from the local press coverage; I know this because counted among Nitai's closest friends was my own son, Nate.
The military cemetery at Har Herzl was a carpet of mankind as people from around the country gathered to bury two exemplary young men on a chilly but sunny Tuesday afternoon. (The third, Yousef Moadi, was from a well-respected family in the Druze community; his uncle, Sheik Jaber Muadi, is a former Knesset member and minister. Yousef was buried in the village of Yarka.)
I try never to imagine myself in the position of Nitai's parents, having to remember a zesty, joy-filled child whose death did not result in making our country even one-teaspoon safer. I am too superstitious to even "go there" and am not the only Israeli parent who has developed an uncanny ability to transcend unbearable reality at the drop of a hat when things feel too scary around these parts.
No one gave me a checklist for comforting a generally-closed child when his good friend dies; every boy in this country who stands next to the fresh grave of a soldier knows that only fate stands between him and a headstone. I needn't have worried about the aforementioned checklist, however, because it was Nitai's father, Reuven, who offered succor to my son, Nate, and the other buddies with bear hugs and loving pats on the cheeks every day in the shiva (mourning) home.
In an early interview, Reuven Stern answered an interviewer's inquiry about whether there was anger at the "unnecessary" death of his boy. He responded that, "He was my boy. This is a very difficult time; all of Israel is grieving." His cousin added, "Nitai was a warrior for the people of Israel, a hero, and a martyr. We are so proud of him. We know he was fighting the war of his people."
Who are these heroic parents that appear so ordinary when I pass them on the streets or jostling on a city bus? Rabbi Amos Netanel said at the funeral of his son, Jonathan, "He died for Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of G-d's name). He did what he had to do, proceeding with courage and might. Wherever he went, he had integrity and morality." And the family of Sergeant Dagan Vertman listened attentively to the officer who informed them of their son's death but expressed no anger. They inquired on the details of the incident but stated over and over for the press that they understood the fighting conditions in the area and that during massive combat, sometimes tragedies occur.
The last night of the mourning period, the boy who had shot the shell that killed Nitai arrived at the shiva (mourning) house, accompanied by his parents. Reuben Stern embraced him and asked him to please sit with his own family. "You must forgive yourself," he told the shaken young man. "From this day forward, you are also my son."
An open home physical and spiritual is a hallmark of the world in which we live. One step, one day, one person at a time, the intrinsic concern we feel for one another is, I believe, a testing ground for whether or not we merit being beloved unto others.
A family from Ashdod is scheduled to move in with us for a while, at least until the family members feel safe enough to return home. We aren't the only Jerusalemites who are tossing out a few extra mattresses at the time of this writing. Pot-luck suppers, blanket collections, sending dry socks to the front lines, home schooling, and amateur magic shows in bomb shelters: no one will ever be able to honestly say that he or she could not find a way to be part of the glorious fabric called 'Israel.'
This is where we live. Pull up a chair. There is always room at the table.
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JewishWorldReview.com contributor Andrea Simantov is a Jerusalem-based columnist and single
mother of six. Comments by clicking here.
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© 2009, Andrea Simantov. This column first appeared in Orange County Jewish Life