My friend Rivka is dying. She has been fighting breast cancer for over five years since she was 39. After going through three surgeries, the breast cancer metastasized to her bones, liver, lungs and ultimately her brain. She has been an incredible fighter, as she has always been, since I first met her in college about twenty-five years ago. Today, mother of three, she is 44 years old and confined to a hospital bed where I have visited her every other day.
Rivka is someone who I have known my entire adult life. As student Israel activists on Columbia’s campus in New York, we organized and educated. We both came to Israel at the same time and continued our Zionism as we became young adults living through the first Gulf War. Each of us married, had children, bought homes and began businesses. We have been to each other’s weddings and I have celebrated all three of her children’s bar mitzvahs with her. She has taught my kids to swim…and so much more.
My friend Rivka is dying and it struck me that everybody is going to die. All those people who make up my world, who give my life context will eventually no longer be here – my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors. That’s just the way it is. My world will disappear.
The generation of yesteryear is almost gone. There are only a few thousand people still alive who survived the Holocaust or who participated in the creation of the State of Israel. Soon they will all be gone. Most of those who lead Israel to victory in 1948 have passed the baton of leadership to their children and grandchildren.
As Jews, we are taught to remember. At every opportunity possible, throughout our liturgy, we stick in the Exodus, lest we forget. Our holidays mostly focus on our historical past and our prayer service is centered around the reading of our scripture which largely tells our ancient history. But we do not have to go back so far.
I just returned from what is called in Hebrew a “tiyul shorashim,” a “roots trip.” My two oldest children, Shemer (11 years old) and Maytav (almost 9) joined me on a trip to the Czech Republic and Austria where we met my mother who was born there and lived there until she saw the Nazis march into Prague from the Dutch embassy at the age of 10. We visited the house where my mother was born and grew up, her school and town. We visited several cemeteries so that my children were able to see the graves of their great-great-great grandparents and other ancestors.
Throughout the trip, my mother, now 82 years old, repeated that this was the last time she would be making such a journey (she and I had been on similar trips twice before in the 1990s and she had first gone back in 1967 with my father). In fact, this trip was an early Bar Mitzvah present for my children since we wanted to make sure to do it with my mother while she still can.
As we travelled, we videoed her memories. She spoke of the people she had known, the places she had been and the experiences she had had. She told us of her girlhood mischief and of her fantasies. She gave another dimension to yesteryear describing how it was a big deal to see a car come to town, or President Masaryk on a train or even indoor plumbing. She also shed tears as she recounted wartime Prague and the desperate times of being a refugee.
More professional attempts than mine have been made to record the generation of World War II. Steven Speilberg’s Shoah Foundation has extensively cataloged footage of my mother and many other survivors. A much more modest race against time is taking place by Toldot Yisrael http://www.toldotyisrael.org; lead by one historian who is desperately trying to record as many testimonials of those involved in the founding of the State of Israel as possible before time runs out, despite his lack of funds. (Watch “Echoes of a Shofar” the amazing story of the young men who risked imprisonment under the British Mandate for blowing a shofar at the Kotel on Yom Kippur http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIfLbkx4ZIM)
We are all a part of history. Tonight I saw Rivka in her hospital bed surrounded by her family. Her husband, her three children, her brother, her sister, her mother and her father. Her husband was reading letters from friends from around the world which had been solicited as a project to tell Rivka the impact she has had on so many of our lives. She has said her goodbyes and when it is time to go, we will all be ready.
I look at her and I think, we are all going to die. Who will remember us and what will we have taught them? How much of our history do they know and what has our role been in creating the greater good?
Ask your parents and grandparents to tell you their stories today.
Share your memories with your children and your grandchildren.
We are all going to die and then there will be nobody left to ask. Don’t put it off any longer. It is what ties us together and what binds us as a family, as a people and as humankind.
To read more about Rivka, please visit http://coffeeandchemo.blogspot.com