In My Own Write: Yekke par excellence

Dress was only part of it, decorum and politeness were paramount, and never being as much as a minute late for an appointment.

August 3, 2010 22:42
Devorah Jerichower on holiday in Cornwall in the 1960s.

311_Gertrude Jerichower. (photo credit: Courtesy)

I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I ever saw my father attired in anything but a suit and tie. Visiting me in Israel one summer, he went out on the first day wearing some fine leather sandals bought specially for the trip – and later returned having agreed to sell them to a man who had admired them in a Tel Aviv cafe. Though he laughed at this “deal,” his relief at redonning his formal black lace-ups was evident.

Dress was only part of it, of course. Decorum and politeness were paramount to him. He was orderly and punctilious, and never as much as a minute late for an appointment.

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He shared, in short, many of the traits exhibited by the “yekkes” – which might help explain why I have always felt a great warmth and respect for these Jews of German origin who arrived in Israel in 1929-39. Educated, cultured and courteous, they have left their mark in many spheres of Israeli life.

Those yekkes who observed their religion did so largely in the way of Torah im derech eretz – literally, “Torah with the way of the land” – maintaining an Orthodox way of life while embracing Western culture and secular knowledge.

Shutting themselves up in a self-created ghetto was not for them.

A common explanation of these new immigrants’ nickname, mockingly bestowed by the mostly Eastern European settlers of the Yishuv, was the suit jackets (German: Jacke) they adhered to – figuratively and literally – under the sweltering Mideastern sun.

I’VE always thought of Devorah (Gertrude) Jerichower as a true yekke, even though her arrival in Israel was far more recent than the Fifth Aliya, and she spent only the first 14 years of her life in Germany.

You didn’t have to converse with her for long to appreciate her intellectual curiosity, informed opinions, quiet self-confidence, integrity and solid good sense; also her humor (an attribute that does much to leaven the more sober yekke qualities).

Born in Hamburg, she was sent to England in 1938 with her elder brother on the second Kindertransport, and was thus saved from Hitler; her parents perished in Auschwitz.

In London she qualified as a nurse, married her physician husband, Freddy, and raised four children: David, Allan, Philip and Katia.

After “commuting” between England and Israel for years, she and Freddy finally made aliya in 2006.

The children had arrived here long before, and there were 14 grandchildren.

Devorah’s passing in Jerusalem on July 24, aged 85, turned the page on a chapter of my own history.

I GREW up in North-West London in a street very near to the Jerichowers’.

With few observant Jews in the neighborhood, their family formed part of the backdrop of my own life.

They attended the Hampstead Synagogue, where my father was cantor, and I was friendly with David, who was around my age.

Though Devorah and I became close much later in Jerusalem and had an easy, companionable relationship, in those days, back in the ‘60s, I kept my distance. She cut a formidable figure, raising her brood, the three boys especially, with an iron hand.

Her word was law, and there was no argument.

“You might argue,” Philip corrected me, “but you never won.”

“I had no choice,” she would explain to me disarmingly, decades on, “with three boys to bring up.”

I MADE aliya in 1972, and moved to Jerusalem in 1983.

One day in 1984, I was walking along my street in Talpiot when I saw Devorah and Freddy strolling arm-in-arm, with the proprietorial air one assumes close to home.

“What are you doing here?” I asked them, astonished. “We live here,” they replied, indicating the building adjacent to mine. I had had no idea that they owned an apartment in Israel, and it was one of those strange coincidences that never cease to amaze.

Devorah and Freddy enjoyed what sounds like an idyllic bond for almost 60 years.

“I found a picture,” Philip told me. “They must have been 55 years into their marriage – and there they were, cuddling away. It was a loving relationship.”

FREDDY died in 2007, and Devorah was diagnosed with a serious illness that necessitated enervating treatment sessions that she knew would have to be repeated every three weeks, indefinitely. “They keep me alive,” she told me.

But her active interest in everything around her remained undiminished. She would phone to ask if I was free to attend some event with her. When a plan to go to a performance of My Fair Lady fell through, she urged: “Let’s not waste the evening. Is there a film we could see?” I ended up taking her to Avatar – which I found too long and far too noisy.

What had she thought of it? I enquired, diffidently. She might have been the oldest person in the audience, and I wondered about her powers of endurance. “Marvelous,” she declared. “My Freddy would have loved it.”

Two falls – breaking first one leg, then the other (“I had to even them up!”) – ended her cultural sorties, though she would continue to attend one family simha after another. By this time, she had 10 great-grandchildren.

IT occurs to me that in many respects, Devorah could serve as a role model for Israeli, and Jewish, conduct.

She knew exactly who she was, where she had come from, and what her rights and obligations were, as a human being and as a Jew returned to the ancient Jewish homeland. She knew Jewish and general history – some of it from personal experience – and couldn’t be swayed by glib judgments and trendy assertions, however lofty the source. She understood context.

She snorted at political correctness, and the culture of moral relativism – according to which all behaviors are equally understandable and, consequently, allowable – was utterly foreign to her.

She was an observant Jew who engaged enthusiastically with the wider world. She experienced, and imparted to her children, the beauty of Jewish religious life.

“How she presented the hagim” – the Jewish festivals – “was so important in our formative years,” Katia told me. “She was vivid in her descriptions of how they celebrated at home: the fun and beauty, and light and life.”

It occurs to me also that Devorah has something to teach modern parents, many of whom seem more focused on being their children’s friends rather than acting like their parents. Some give the impression that they are scared of their children, afraid perhaps of losing their love if they set boundaries.

Devorah wasn’t afraid to set limits; and the care and love her children – and their children – returned to her, especially during her final years, was something to warm the heart.

DEVORAH was tireless in her efforts to remain independent, often fending off attempts to help her, even when she was quite ill. She didn’t waste time on self-pity.

Until her second fall, she had been a regular shulgoer.

One Shabbat a few weeks ago, I came out of synagogue to find her outside in her wheelchair, at the bottom of the steps, accompanied by her Filipina carer.

“I came this far,” she said, meaning: Next time, I’ll make it inside.

The heavy ointment she needed for her skin had attracted several flies, and they buzzed around her annoyingly. She was unperturbed.

“She never complained,” Philip told me.

“Whatever was wrong with her, she always carried on. We have a lot to live up to.”

THERE are others like Devorah, indomitable, motivated, proud Jews and human beings. Their lives have lessons to teach about purpose, courage and endurance in an era when too many are confused, rudderless and weak. We can, if we choose, learn them.

Rest in peace, yekke par excellence.

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