Wednesday, July 27, 2016

No Regrets


courtesy of 

The Bar Mitzvah boy finished the Torah reading and accepted a mazel tov from his teacher. Full of satisfaction, he barely noticed the children at his feet. They were scrambling on the ground for the candies that his wife, daughters, granddaughters, and their friends showered down upon him. At age eighty-three Les Brem, after a long journey, had finally had his Bar Mitzvah.

Seventy years earlier Les was a young boy in Glasgow, Scotland. Several months before his thirteenth birthday the winds of World War Two hovered over the island. Once the war broke out he, along with hundreds of other children, was evacuated to the South of Scotland. There they stayed for nine, long months and during that time not one bomb fell on Glasgow. Most parents, including Les’s had had enough of their children being far away for no good reason and brought the youngsters home.

Once home, life did not return to normal for Les. The threatened bombs began in earnest. The time for his Bar Mitzvah was long past, but Les didn’t think much about that. He joined the JLB, a sort of Jewish Scout program attached to the army, learned to handle a gun and fully expected to join the armed services when he was of age. By a fluke of the lottery, though, instead being sent to fight he was shipped to the coal mines. From age eighteen to twenty-one he worked underground for the war effort.

A year later, when Israel became an independent state, it made little impression on him. When, in 1952 he was ready for a change and wanted to see the world, he never considered going to Israel. New Zealand was part of the Commonwealth and full of great opportunities. So that was where Les headed.

He had not been in Auckland long before he met Anita at a singles event at the synagogue. That synagogue, founded in 1860, had a membership of about 500 families. The Auckland Jewish community was traditional and very Zionistic. In 1950 the largest percentage of aliyah per capita in the world came from New Zealand. Anita had seen many of her cousins and close friends move to Israel and make important contributions to the fledging country. How she wanted to join them! Her father refused to let her go.

Apparently, it was all for the best. She was still in New Zealand when Les came to the country and they did meet at that singles event. They were married in 1954 and Les joined with his wife in making the synagogue the center of their life. They served on most of its committees, escorted their two daughters to services and religious school, and attended almost all the social functions. In fact, looking back they remember that even though Auckland had a very small Jewish population, they socialized only with Jews.

Throughout the years Anita never forgot her dream and Les began to share her vision. In 1963 they looked into the idea of making aliyah and quickly discarded the thought. Both Les’ mother, who had followed him to New Zealand, and Anita’s mother were widows who needed their children nearby. Still, they managed to instill that dream in their children and both of their daughters came to Israel following their graduation from university. Each of them, for her own reason, did not stay. Instead of returning to New Zealand they moved to America.

Although America might be closer it did not make it any easier for Les and Anita to see their children. In fact, due to financial considerations, they did not meet their son-in-law until after their first grandchild was born when they made a visit to The United States.
Les’s mother died first and Anita’s mother passed away six years later. It was just shortly after the funeral that their younger daughter called to announce that she and her husband were moving to Israel with their three children. No longer bound by their aging mothers the Brems felt the time for aliyah had come.

Leaving New Zealand in 1993 was not as easy as they had imagined. The flight to Israel was long and expensive and they did not envision being able to make it again in the opposite direction. There were many people they cared about in New Zealand that they knew they would never see again. Still, the pull of living in Israel and being close to their daughter and her family gave them the strength to say goodbye and board the plane.

The Brems had left the decision of where to make their home in Israel to their daughter and son-in-law. They picked Shilo, once the ancient capital of Biblical Israel, and now a modern, religious village. Les and Anita joined them in a two-family house. The differences between Auckland and Shilo were vast. In Shilo there weren’t any non-Jews to be friendly with. The language was Hebrew and everyone drove on the right side of the road. The Brems came with open minds, no baggage, and the determination to make it work.

Their daughter was there to help with the Hebrew. Although somewhat nervous about dealing with a foreign medical system, the Brems had nothing but praise for it. They came with hobbies to keep them busy until they made friends, began a social life, and started contributing to the community.

Two more grandchildren were born in Shilo and in 2005 their older daughter also moved to Israel with her little girl. Anita’s dream had come true! And there were still more visions.

Another difference between Auckland and Shilo is the variety of the backgrounds of the residents. The Brems have neighbors from as interesting origins as Portugal, Malaysia, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, and Russia to name just a few places. Some eight years ago their Russian neighbor turned eighty-three. This man still remembered his religious upbringing in his small village. Before he was thirteen, though, the Communists made their way to his town and destroyed all remnants of Torah Judaism. Unlike Les, he always regretted that he had never had a Bar Mitzvah.

There is a tradition that the life span of a normal person is seventy years. So age eighty-three is thirteen years in a new life span. It was decided that this Russian neighbor would have his Bar Mitzvah, a celebration for the whole community. During that celebration Les first thought of his vision. It would be kind of nice to do the same thing. At age seventy-five, though, his eighty-third birthday seemed like a long time away.

Six years passed and he began to think about the idea again but he didn’t get really serious until his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. Young Dovie decided that he would teach his grandfather to read from the Torah, but got discouraged after only a couple of weeks since Les was totally tone-deaf. Dovie turned him over to his father who is a talented and patient teacher.

Three weeks before his Bar Mitzvah Les felt everything jelled. He was told that the words were what is important, not the tune. It was without any nervousness that he made his way to the bimah to read from the Torah scroll on his big day. His son-in-law stood at his side.  Friends held a prayer shawl over his head as he made the blessing. And then he began reading. When he finished Les felt he could do it all over again.

His older grandson was called up to raise the Torah scroll. His younger grandson read the Haftorah. All four men of the family stood together on the bimah with their womenfolk looking down, eyes filled with love, and with tears. It was a true celebration of family.

No one was more excited about the day than Anita. She and her daughters had planned the Shabbat carefully. All the immediate family would be there. Two special couples were invited who did not live in Shilo. The first had been a shiliach, an emissary for Israel, in New Zealand years ago. After returning to Israel they kept contact with the Brems and were at the airport to greet them when Les and Anita made aliyah. 

The second couple had been among their circle of friends in Auckland. As far as Anita and Les were concerned they were the representatives of all their dear ones still in New Zealand.  

There had been a Kiddush following morning services and the rabbi spoke. Les’s Torah portion was Masei, which recounts the journeys the Jewish people made in the desert after they left Egypt. The Rabbi likened it to Les’ journey, all the way from Scotland, via New Zealand.

As the guests ate the prepared spread the expected jokes were made. No one had ever been at a Kiddush where the Bar Mitzvah boy’s wife had made most of the cake. And whoever heard of letting the Bar Mitzvah boy drink as much as he wanted?

Les accepted the kidding with good nature and wry humor of his own. He knew he was surrounded by caring and he appreciated it. The whole experience, he says, was extraordinary. “I never thought I’d open up a Sefer Torah and read from it.”

Of course, seventy years ago he never dreamed that Israel would be an independent country. He did not know there was a lovely woman named Anita waiting for him across the oceans. And he never imagined that he would be living his golden years in Israel surrounded by his family.

(I wrote this seven years ago and am posting it now in honor of Les’s ninetieth birthday.)  


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