Saturday, October 17, 2009

Baseless Hatred & Why a Polish Town is so Central to Israel/Asia Ties: Tales from a Jerusalem Shabbat

With the season of holidays over and my father and sister back in the States, the Shabbat of October 17, Parshat Bereishet, promised to be a ho-hum weekend with my mom in Jerusalem. Except that a promise is never more than a novice attempt at prophecy. And Jerusalem is no stranger to false prophecy. Especially when a handful of remarkable women are involved.

My mother proved to be only the first of several ladies I spent significant time with over the weekend. All shared fascinating stories with me, revealing chapters from their pasts that left me with a score of lessons.

The storytelling began by the Kotel on Friday night. Neither my mother nor I were in a rush to leave and so after leaving a few mental notes by the thousand year old stones, I rejoined her for a leisurely stroll through the Old City. On our walk, and the next day over lunch, my mother told me about the difficult choices she had faced in the weeks before getting engaged to my father.

After lunch I joined a friend, Vicky, a Jerusalem resident and Chinese convert to Judaism whom I first met (and wrote about) back in late July. In our previous meeting, Vicky had lightheartedly described her conversion process as the natural consequence of settling in New York City in the late nineties. Today she gave me the more expansive story, describing how the 9/11 attack launched her on a process of self-discovery that culminated with her conversion and aliyah. While the tragedy of 9/11 made her rethink her life, the spark that sent Vicky off in a new directoin were the words "baseless hatred" that Mayor Giuliani used in a speech to describe the rationale for the devastating tragedy. Those words led Vicky to reflect on the baseless hatred and miseducation that motivate antisemitism. After visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Vicky concluded that as a Jew she could serve as a bridge between communities and cultures that so often fail to understand each other.

My walk with Vicky was perhaps a very prosaic example of how she continues to realize the dream that first spurred her conversion. We were off to visit an elderly scholar of Chinese philosophy, a semi-retired Hebrew University professor named Irene Eber. Professor Eber is both friend and mentor to Vicky and the two have been collaborating over the last year as Vicky seeks to produce a Chinese translation of The Choice, Professor Eber's memoir of her grueling survival during the Holocaust.

From the moment we entered the professor's beautiful flat in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bet HaKerem, I was struck by her old world grace and no holds barred humor. When I told Professor Eber how impressed I was with the beauty of the brand new assisted living facility where she resides, she replied "you know what the best part is? Because it is so new, no residents have died yet!" Her smile was contagious and quickly was reflected on my own face as I fended off repeated trays of cookies and eyed the eclectic mix of Asian and Austrian literature and art. Perhaps the best way to convey the professor's charm is through sharing one of the numerous stories she shared, all of which were prefaced with a genteel apology that I would not be bored if she told another tale.

Several years ago Professor Eber was asked to attend a breakfast for trustees of Hebrew University at the King David Hotel. As chair of the East Asian Studies Department, the professor could not refuse the summons despite her aversion to such early morning funding events. So she trundled off to the hotel, catnapped through a few boring lectures and only awoke with a start when she noticed that one of the visiting trustees had a familiar tattoo from the Holocaust on his arm. After the speeches, Professor Eber asked the trustee where he was from. When she heard him say "Mielec, Poland" her surprise was so palpable that, as Professor Eber told me, if King David had suddenly appeared she would not have been more startled. The trustee shared her amazement a second later when he asked the same question and got the same response. Practically every Jew in Mielec was killed during the Holocaust and so both survivors were shocked to hear they shared the same hometown. Professor Eber was perhaps less shocked several weeks later when it was announced that the trustee,
Lou Frieberg, had donated millions of dollars to her department and asked that she receive an endowed chair in his name.

Shortly thereafter, Professor Eber found out from her sister, the only other member of her family to survive the Holocaust, that before the war their cousin had been engaged to one of the Frieberg boys from Mielec. The professor wrote to Mr. Frieberg with this information but never received a response. A few months later, Lou Frieberg returned to Israel to donate millions more towards the establishment of a Center for East Asian Studies at Hebrew University.. When Professor Eber arrived at the ceremony to announce the generous donation, Lou Frieberg was waiting by the door with an elderly man by his side. Pointing to his brother, Frieberg said to the professor in yiddish "this is the chattan (groom)." And so it was that a chance meeting between two Holocaust survivors, two natives of Mielec, led to the establishment of the premiere center of East Asian studies in Israel!

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