twin feat 88 224.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My grandfather had to keep notes about clandestine meetings hidden inside his ties, as the KGB followed him and my grandmother throughout the Soviet Union. I am still not sure how my grandparents managed to return to the US safely. In 1976, Rose and Seymour Katz traveled to the USSR to meet with refusenik families, to exchange information. Jews were being persecuted there and my grandparents made it their mission to help. They lived their lives by the precept kol yisrael arevim zeh la zeh.
They met many people during their trip, but connected personally with one particular family, Vladimir and Carmela Raiz; Carmela was pregnant with her first son Moshe at the same time my mother was pregnant with me.
My grandparents maintained a connection to the Raizes as their family grew; Shaul was born five years later, which happened to be one month before the birth of my younger sister, Aviva. My sister and I vividly remember being very young and trying on winter coats in August to send to this mysterious Raiz family in a far away place. I had no idea who these people were, but I knew they needed my help, and I learned from my grandparents' example that I was to help them.
At the time of my bat mitzva, it was common for my peers to "twin" with Soviet Jews who could not hold such celebrations. Most of my friends shared the honor of their aliyot with people whose names they had never heard, but I shared mine with Moshe Raiz, the boy whose coats I tried on every summer.
I finally met the Raizes in 1989, when Carmela and Moshe were granted a visa to travel to the US. I found the meeting disappointing, because I could not speak to my "twin." We had no common language: I didn't speak Russian, and he didn't speak English or Hebrew.
Carmela was meant to travel with my grandparents, meeting public officials to advocate for her family's freedom. However, my grandfather had just suffered a major stroke and could no longer speak. The right side of his body was paralyzed. He could not join Carmela, nor could my grandmother, who was busy caring for him. Carmela went on the speaking tour alone, and worked tirelessly for her family's release.
Her efforts seemed to be for naught, and the situation in the USSR was only worsening for Vladimir and Shaul. Carmela and Vladimir decided that if she were not to succeed, Carmela would leave Moshe behind, knowing that she and her husband would be arrested upon her return, leaving Shaul, who was seven years old at the time, essentially without parents. At least one member of their family could find his way to freedom in Israel.
No matter how challenging her personal situation became, Carmela visited my grandfather in the hospital whenever she could. Because my grandfather could not speak, my parents had posted a sign-in sheet on the wall of his hospital room, so they could know who visited. Carmela's name appeared more often than almost any other.
With the help of some Jewish friends in the US, Carmela was invited to the White House and the president promised to work for the freedom of her family. Shortly thereafter, someone in the Soviet government had become exasperated with all the resultant political pressure of Carmela's advocacy. The Raizes were granted an exit visa, and a famous Jewish philanthropist from Canada flew his private plane immediately to pick Vladimir and Shaul up and personally bring them to Israel.
Vladimir called Carmela from Israel. "I'm in Jerusalem," he said. Upon hanging up the phone, she went to visit my grandfather and signed the sheet on the wall: "CARMELA RAIZ - I AM FREE."
We visited with the Raizes briefly in 1992, less than a year after they first arrived in Israel. The visit was moving in that this family whose struggles we had known for so long was finally in Israel. However, despite my fluent Hebrew, I still could not communicate with Moshe. He had yet to learn enough Hebrew to converse. We exchanged a few words, but we were both 14 and awkward. Carmela spoke fairly good English, so it was relatively easy to talk to her, but my sister and I still could not connect with these children whose lives were inextricably intertwined with ours.
As time passed, my grandparents became ill and both passed away. My family lost touch with the Raizes.
Last summer, I traveled to Israel again. A few weeks before my trip, my father was reading a magazine and found an article about a man named Ze'ev Raiz. The article said Ze'ev was living in Jerusalem with his wife, Carmela. At my father's encouragement, I looked them up in the phone book. Sure enough, Carmela was listed.
When I called, Carmela answered the phone and my heart jumped. I began, in Hebrew.
"This is Naomi Katz, the granddaughter of Seymour and Rose Katz."
I thought she was going to dive through the phone.
"Where are you?"
I made a plan to visit them the next afternoon.
When I arrived at their building, I couldn't find the correct door, had no reception on my cellphone and walked in circles asking people where entrance No. 12 was. One young man asked me who I was looking for.
"The Raiz family."
He turned as if to lead me somewhere. "Do you know them?" I asked.
"I am their son."
It was Moshe. I couldn't believe it. He showed me to his parents' place, and they treated me like a guest of honor. I felt honored to be in their presence. It was amazing to hear about all of the incredible things my grandparents had done for them. They told me that my grandparents were tzadikim. I tried to explain to them how much their family had influenced me. I told them about the twinning at my bat mitzva, and about trying on their winter coats. Moshe found a photograph of himself and Shaul wearing the coats as young boys. I was overwhelmed. I was reconnecting our families after more than 15 years, and finally was able to speak freely with Moshe, my "twin."
And, it was all happening in Hebrew.