The Art of Listening and A Pesach Tale

It’s been a tough couple of weeks. My wife, Jen, has been at a five-day medical conference in Tucson that somehow morphed into 10 days away from home. When she pitched the plan, let’s just say I heard “five days” and said “Great!” zoning out on the details: Conference ends Friday afternoon, necessitating spending Shabbat in Arizona; several connecting flights adding an extra 1 1/2 days; and, of course, how could Jen NOT spend a day in N.Y.C. visiting her Mom? Sometimes it pays to pay attention — especially to one’s wife. As the gemara (Bava Metzia 59a) says, “No matter how short your wife is, lean down and take her advice.” Jen advised me to pay close attention to the itinerary; I didn’t. Now “single-parenting” for 1 1/2 weeks, I’ve learned the gemara’s wisdom and two additional points: Single-parenting has gotta be the toughest job on the planet. To all the women and men out there facing this daily challenge, kol hakavod! You are made of much stronger stuff than I. The second is, I’m lucky to have Jen: she made the house virtually Pesach-ready before leaving and I had no idea how many details constitute her daily contribution to our family.

My intended column for today was yet another piece on post-election politics here in Israel. One of my editors felt that Hamodia readers have ingested more of that topic than chametz in the waning hours before Pesach. So, I realized listening to him has its benefits as well and shifted gears to this, my pre-Pesach offering…

Countless times I’ve mentioned my Brooklyn Conservative Jewish background. Our shul and Hebrew School were led by Rabbi Weitzman, z”l, who was absolutely shomer Shabbat. Back then, every self-respecting Conservative shul in Brooklyn had a shomer Shabbat Rabbi. The congregants may not have been prepared to carry the full 613, but they’d have thought it a shanda if their Rabbi didn’t. Our shul used the old pebbly-covered, robin’s egg-blue Birnbaum siddur and the old Hertz Chumash, both ubiquitous in Orthodox shuls of that generation. Hebrew School was rigorous, preparing my brother Justin and me to lead our family’s Seder from a young age. Seder was the pinnacle of my year; I never missed one.

Junior year of college, I studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, traveling to Istanbul, Turkey, during spring break, which coincided with Pesach. Unaware of Chabad or its universal presence (Fun fact: Did you know that Chabad runs the largest Seder in the world? You did? OK, but do you know WHERE? [Answer below.]), I had a problem: “Where to go for Seder?” In my exploring this metropolis, I remembered passing “Adler’s Jewelry Store” in the European half of this bi-continental city. Figuring between the name and merchandise it was a good bet that the shop was Jewish owned (it was), I told the woman behind the counter I was a Jewish student from New York, studying in Israel, who was in need of a place for the upcoming Seder. She offered to help me, asking me to call the next day. When we spoke, she told me she regretted not hosting me (her husband was ill), but she had made my arrangements with families for each Seder.

Erev Pesach arrived with a sense of adventure and some trepidation. Address in hand, I made my way across the gargantuan city, crossing the Bosporus straits to the European side and found the address, in a beautiful apartment building that would not have been out of place on Park Avenue in NYC. Arriving at the right floor, I noted there were mezuzot but neither names nor numbers on the landing’s two doors. Randomly choosing a door (turns out either would have let me into their home; that floor was theirs), I knocked and was ushered into the most beautiful apartment I had ever entered. The Haliyo family, my hosts for the first Seder, welcomed me like family returning from school, and in a sense I was; their son was studying at the Technion and stayed in Israel. That Seder, and the next (held at the Rousseas family; the wives were sisters), were familiar yet foreign; I recognized Pesach, Matzah and Maror but not the language — it was Ladino, a language I had only heard of but never heard — my hosts’ Yiddish. All my senses were enraptured by this feast of liberation. That Pesach, I learned the true meaning of the line from the Haggadah, “All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover.” I was that hungry Jew, a traveling student in Istanbul in need, who was welcomed home.

May Hashem bless and keep the Haliyo and Rousseas families. If anyone reads this who knows them, send them my gratitude and wishes for a ziessen Pesach — but in Ladino.


 

Answer is Nepal

Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst, and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his amazing wife and two wonderful children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com.