Family Day: Relecting a Jewish Value in A Jewish State

In Israel the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar is “Family Day” (Yom HaMishpacha). When my wife and I first arrived in Israel, we knew it was Mother’s Day because people were selling flowers in the middle of the week on all the major street corners where we were used to seeing them only on Fridays in anticipation of Shabbat. We later learned that the date of Mother’s Day was the first of Adar, the anniversary of the death of Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, who is seen as the mother of the modern State of Israel. More recently, the day was transformed from Mother’s Day to Family Day.

This year, for Family Day we were asked to send pictures of our family with our children to school so that they could make a family tree. I remember when in a pre-Bar Mitzvah Hebrew school class at Temple Beth Shalom, our teacher, Woody Pollack, had us make a family tree. I still have it. When my son Shemer was born, six years ago, I started researching my family more, drawing the connections of stories and reconnecting with family members I had never known existed.

When I was growing up my family would pile into the car for trips to New York to visit my mother’s parents. My grandmother was born in Vienna and my grandfather in a small town in Czechoslovakia on the Austrian border. Both came from a strict Germanic culture and visits to their home were not the most fun. My sister and I had to sit on the sofa. We weren’t allowed to move. My grandmother always had small presents for us and then we would go out to eat at a diner. I knew that these visits were important and now I see that they helped forge my first self-impressions of my identity and of my family.

When I knew him, my grandfather was old, bent over with thick glasses and walking with a cane, a remnant of the large strong man he once was. Nonetheless, as the only grandparent I really knew he left his impression upon me. He had wanted to move to Palestine as a youth and as part of the Jewish underground he had smuggled families out of Nazi Poland, over the Alps to Switzerland. On the eve of the Nazi invasion, he fled with his wife and children in 1939, being held by the Gestapo but emigrating on the last train out of Prague, making it to America.

I have not had much contact with my father’s family over the years although I recently met my third cousins on my father’s side for the first time. One of them lives in Israel, having made aliyah from Atlanta, Georgia, the other, her brother, was visiting his son who is studying here – also from Atlanta. Our great-grandfathers were two of three brothers who came to America from the Ukraine, escaping the Czar’s army in the late 1800s. They had settled in Hartford, Connecticut and then two of them, Nuchum (Nathan) and Heschel (Harry), moved to Atlanta to set up grocery stores.

While I was growing up, every Friday night my father would recite Kiddush from an old siddur with an ivory and velvet cover. On the front page there is a stamp. It reads “Harry Kalechman, Grocer, Hartford, Connecticut.” I still have that siddur, its pages too brittle to use. Harry was my father’s great-uncle, Nathan my father’s grandfather. After all these years and all these miles I finally met Harry’s great-grandchildren at a restaurant in Jerusalem. It was great seeing them. One of my cousins commented that it was amazing meeting other cousins who were Jewish, that most if not all the other cousins of our generation had intermarried and no one else was observant.

As my cousin acknowledged about our family, American Jewish families have disintegrated. I know of no American Jewish family that has not been affected by assimilation and intermarriage.

I recently met a couple who are new immigrants to Israel. Three years ago, in their late forties, they made aliyah from St. Paul. Now with two teenage sons, all of them are having a very difficult time in Israel. The children’s transition has not been easy and neither of the parents have had a steady job in three years. Nonetheless they refuse to consider returning to the United States. When asked why they are in Israel and why they will not entertain the notion of returning to the life they had in America, they answer simply, “We want Jewish grandchildren.”

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