A GRANDMOTHER'S SIDDUR AND A BURIED MEMORY
"Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles, and speedily gather us together from the four corners of the earth to our land."
- from the daily prayers.
Naomi is a 23 year-old major in languages at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is a new immigrant to Israel, arriving from Hungary, and she is a total newcomer to her identity as a Jew.
A bare two years ago, Naomi would never have dreamed of coming to Israel. She was a university student living with her parents in Szeged, near the Romanian border.
"This word "Jewish," was not even part of my vocabulary. I didn't know anything. I didn't even know what Yom Kippur was," relates Naomi.
Her mother and grandmother had been inmates in a concentration camp during World War II, but they never spoke about their experiences. Before the War, her grandmother lived as an Orthodox Jew and her grandfather had even worn a shtreimel, the special fur hat worn on Sabbath and festivals by Hasidim.
Her grandfather was killed by the Nazis when Naomi's mother was five years old. After the war, returning to their native land and living under a Communist regime, Naomi's mother and grandmother chose to hide their Jewish identity.
Of the once flourishing Jewish community in Szeged, only about two hundred elderly Jews remain in the city's population of 100,000. Like Naomi's grandfather, many of the Jews were killed in the war, and the remainder have largely disappeared through assimilation and intermarriage.
Naomi's own father is not Jewish. He used to work for the secret police under the Communists and now he repairs old furniture. Her mother is a seamstress. Their combined income is $100 a month.
Buried deep in Naomi's consciousness is a memory of being quietly taken by her grandmother to the big, old synagogue near her house. It looked to her like a museum. Nobody was praying there, and she did not know what function the synagogue had. Only she knew that she must keep her visit a secret. But she wasn't successful, and when her mother found out, she forbade her to go there ever again.
When her grandmother passed away, Naomi made an incredible discovery which changed her life. Among her grandmother's possessions, she found a siddur (Jewish prayer book), with some old photographs stuck inside the pages. Naomi resolved to learn Hebrew so that she could read the words of prayer in the siddur, and she was determined to live among other Jews. Her grandmother had left her a precious inheritance: The fact of her Jewish identity.
Naomi came to Israel just before Rosh Hoshana a year and a half ago. She had limited funds, and the best option seemed to be volunteering to work on a kibbutz. But after a few months, she felt that the kibbutz life was not satisfying her desire to understand her Jewish roots.
A flyer at the central bus station in Jerusalem led her to enroll in a yeshiva for women who, like Naomi, are unfamiliar with the vast treasury of Jewish teachings. Presently, she continues her intensive Jewish studies while pursing a degree in languages at the Hebrew University. Naomi is fluent in five languages and hopes to find work as a translator.
Last Pesach, she ate matzos and attended a Seder for the first time. On the festival of Succot, she stood in a Succa and shook a lulav and esrog. For Naomi, each Jewish holiday is a first-time experience and an exciting discovery, and she feels a deep sense of gratitude that she is celebrating in Israel with other Jews.
Naomi's mother in Hungary still lives with the fears of the past that are slow in leaving. When Naomi sent a Jewish calendar, she refused to hang it up on the kitchen wall where others might see. But last Yom Kippur, her mother quietly observed the fast for the first time. Naomi is hoping that sometime soon she will have enough money to bring her mother to Israel for a visit.
"I don't think my story is so incredible," says Naomi, "I just want to be a Jew and I will never forget it."
Copyright © 1996 Varda Branfman. The author is a freelance writer in Jerusalem
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