Yuri Grossman 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Yuri Grossman shares no common language with the American yeshiva students he
meets daily in the kitchen. He’s been working as a chef’s assistant in the food
services of Shapell’s – Darche Noam Yeshiva in Jerusalem for more than a decade,
but hasn’t picked up more than a handful of English words from the American-born
chef or from the yeshiva students. He helps prepare 130 meals for each sitting,
chopping buckets of Israeli salad, receiving the truckloads of potatoes and
zucchini from suppliers, and most important, making sure the food is served on
time so that the rigorous day of Torah study can proceed on schedule.
didn’t know much about Torah study until he got the job, but Grossman understood
about schedules and productivity.
He’d worked most of his life in a
Soviet factory in Kharkov, Ukraine, a city that specializes in production of
He was the only Jew of 300 factory workers, but work ethic,
not ethnicity was what counted there, and he didn’t experience anti-Semitism on
What exactly was his job? Grossman only knows the term in
Russian, pulls out his old Russian-English dictionary, with its yellowing pages,
and points to a word to the right of the Cyrillic. “Turner,” it says.
have to look it up when I go home.
That’s a lathe operator in tool and
He admits a certain culture gap with the youngsters.
Despite the yeshiva’s excellent regimented meal schedule, Grossman wonders at
the behavior of the students, who insist on entering the kitchen at all hours.
Some have special diets, something he’s learned a lot about. Others are just
hungry or like being around the kitchen. A few students come from
Russian-speaking homes in the US or have attended Hebrew school and know a
little Hebrew. The majority of students are newcomers to Jewish studies. They
don’t know more than a word or two of Hebrew. “Just toda raba, Yuri,” says
BACK IN Kharkov, he hadn’t considered leaving his home
and job for Israel until the Jewish school opened there, and his only son Yigor
– now Yisrael – started pressing him and his wife to join the wave of aliya. So
in 1991, when Yigor finished high school, they moved to Israel.
marriage fell apart. Grossman moved into a no-frills bedsitter in Jerusalem’s
Kiryat Menahem neighborhood and worked at various manual jobs. During a gap of
several weeks between jobs, the clerk in the government employment agency
directed him to the yeshiva.
LAST WINTER, the usually energetic Yuri
Grossman didn’t feel right. He uncharacteristically missed work because of
A virus, he thought. He’d always been slim, but to his
horror one morning he couldn’t button up his pants.
“I had a belly like a
pregnant woman,” he said, showing his former shape with his hands. “I called my
son. He told me to go straight to the hospital.”
Good news was not
waiting. His spleen was enormous. After several days of testing he learned that
he had cancer: mantle cell lymphoma, a lethal form of non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma
that most commonly strikes men in their early 60s. Yuri Grossman was 61. Dr.
Alex Gural, a hematologist born in Moscow, explained to Grossman that his best
chance of survival would be to take Velcade, a medication that would target the
protein regulators that had gone awry in his lymph system.
There was one
problem. The medication was so expensive that it was only covered by the Health
Ministry basket of medications as a second line of defense, after less expensive
Said Gural, “There have been excellent results with this
drug. He was already stage 4 cancer. Why wait for the disease to come back to
start using it?” One reason might be the cost. Without health coverage, enough
Velcade for an initial course of chemotherapy would be cost
Grossman didn’t have $15,000 and he didn’t know where he could
ELLIOT CAHAN, executive director of the yeshiva, thought he knew.
Cahan sent an e-mail to the alumni of Shapell’s – Darche Noam and its sister
school Midreshet Rachel to ask if anyone would help. The young men and women who
had studied in Israel had seen Grossman in the kitchen every day, but hardly
anyone had ever had a conversation with him.
Donations poured in from all
over the US and other countries. Within 24 hours, there was more than enough
money for the medicine. Explains Karen Americus, an alumna of Midreshet Rachel
who was among those who immediately wrote back with a pledge, “Because of the
language barrier, Yuri was not able to communicate with the students and staff
on a deep level. Even so, we all appreciated his diligence and commitment to
helping the yeshiva run. His was a thankless job but one that was so important.
When we found out he was sick and in need, we didn’t hesitate to try and help in
any way we could.”
Grossman has finished the chemotherapy and is feeling
well, although he tires easily. “Just ask my doctor. I’m a star patient,”
Dr. Gural is indeed cautiously optimistic.
has had what we call very good results,” he says.
HOW DOES Grossman
explain the generosity of the students? At first he doesn’t understand the
question, the answer seems so simple. “They came to study Torah. They learned
about mitzvot. They became better people. They want to do mitzvot. I’m sick.
They know it’s a mitzva to help.” He’s embarrassed when I suggest that the
students felt very close to him.
Then he thinks more of it. “You know, I
never would have had that help in Kharkov. The people worked with me for years,
but no one would have thought to help me. I had to come to Israel to get the
help of an American-Israeli hospital, with a Russian-Israeli doctor and Jews
from the Diaspora who all came forward to save my life. It’s a
True, Yuri Grossman shares no common language with the
students at the yeshiva.
But sometimes you don’t need words to
communicate. I’ve been thinking of the power of the shofar, wordless, waking us
from slumber, piercing our defenses, eliciting a self that is hard to reach. It
reminds us that repentance, prayer and tzedaka can avert even a stern heavenly
decree, as it did for Yuri Grossman.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who
focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the
Israel Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist
Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.