Age of Miracles

My grandfather and his stories are the best consolation any day, but especially at times when fear raises its head.


Something happened during the week that made me apathetic about the impending nuclear holocaust. Perhaps it is the weather, because how will they aim the rockets through all the clouds, and how can planes be sent through all the raindrops to bomb nuclear reactors? Apart from Operation Cast Lead, Israel's wars all began in the summer, and Cast Lead is considered an "operation," not a war.

Apparently, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was knocked aside because of grandpa. My grandfather had an operation. Not a complicated procedure, but when a person is pushing 90, nothing really is simple. He is a rabbi, a pious believer and a Torah prodigy. For years, he taught Gemara, and never took any money for it. For him, Torah study was a way of life. And now, he has returned home, with his books. This isn't the first time grandpa has been saved. He has survival stories he loves to tell repeatedly. It's not that he doesn't remember that he's already told the tales more than once. His legs might betray him, but his mind remains agile. It seems to me that he simply loves his stories, and enjoys hearing himself telling them. The recurring motif is that grandpa almost became mired in a very dangerous situation, but he was saved from a cruel fate at the last moment; and then, usually, he reads in the newspaper about the tragedy that occurred in the place where he was supposed to be. The key word is "almost." He has had a lot of "almosts" in his life. Others died, but he was saved, miraculously.

There is the story about how, when Grandpa was a boy, he was set to travel with his family to a health spa, a place where people rub on black stuff in order to strengthen the body. They were supposed to go there by bus, but Grandpa insisted on traveling by boat. Everyone was angry, but he planted his foot on the floor and refused to move. So, in the end, they journeyed by boat, and when they returned home they read in the newspaper that the bus they were supposed to have been on had crashed, and 15 passengers perished. And during World War II, Grandpa's town in Transylvania was divided into two. Grandpa's Aunt Louisa had a candy store; Grandpa would visit it each week, and she would give him a sweet. He really loved her. It is hard to imagine Grandpa when he was a boy, not only because he is a grandfather. I also find it hard to imagine big Louisa, even though Grandpa once showed me a photograph. It's also tough to imagine Transylvanian candy in the 1920s. In any event, Louisa was from the wrong side of the city, and she was sent to a concentration camp and died there. Grandpa hailed from the luckier half, was sent to a work camp and survived.

He was also supposed to travel on the ill-fated Struma. He knew many people who traveled on this ship - a newly married couple, and a wonderful family, including Hirsch and Nevya. Nevya was a friend of Grandpa's. For four years they worked together, for the Nazis. Once they were compelled to carry extremely heavy things up to the fourth floor; when they got to the third floor, Nevya broke down and said "I can't go on, it doesn't matter what they do to me." So grandpa lugged everything for the two of them. "We were good friends," Grandpa says. "After the war, he [Nevya] came into some money, and booked two places on the Struma. I asked him whether he could take me with him. I thought he would take me, but at the last minute he invited a young woman to go with him. He took her instead of me. That's what hurt me." Grandpa was very insulted. In the end, Nevya was among the 700 people who perished in the Black Sea; Grandpa wasn't with them. The Almighty did me a favor, he would say.

Grandpa's journey to Israel was far from pleasant; but after a refugee camp in Cyprus and other travails, my grandfather and grandmother reached the country in 1948. Grandpa was sent immediately to fight on the Syrian border, even though he didn't know what he was doing with a gun. And then Grandma was about to give birth to my mother, and Grandpa asked to visit her. An officer made life miserable for him, but in the end Grandpa was allowed to extricate himself from his bunker, and after a long journey by foot, he reached Kibbutz Manara. When he got there, people said he looked as though he were a dead man; but he was alive, and pressed on to Haifa. The next morning, he passed by the Armon cinema, bought a newspaper, and learned that the previous evening his bunker had been shelled, and almost all his comrades there were killed. Today there is an unknown soldiers' tomb at the site; Grandpa was not buried in it.

Grandpa lost brothers, friends, parents. It would be interesting to figure out whether he knows more dead or living people. He recuperated heroically from his surgery. He didn't smoke cigarettes or eat bread during his hospital convalescence; but it wasn't bad for him there. And now he's back at home, with his books. His life is truly rife with proof of miracles.

But this recent hospitalization won't enter his repertoire. It is neither heroic nor tragic. The heroic era is gone; what's left is the banal, exasperating decline of the body. We could talk about the preparation for surgery, and the convalescence, and the operation that was postponed at the last moment because the surgeon's father died, but that's all garden variety stuff. Nobody really cares about how a carburetor broke down and was fixed. As Philip Roth wrote, getting old isn't a struggle; getting old is a massacre. Evading death becomes the main preoccupation. I ask Grandpa whether he is in pain, and he says he is, a little bit. And I keep thinking about how fine it would be to find a time machine to return him to Aunt Louisa's candy store, so that she might give him a sweet, to ease the pain.