When Ritasue Charlestein sang “Hatikva” in Majdanek, the former concentration camp, before 250 Israeli career army officers on an IDF mission to Poland in 2010, it was just one of several life-changing moments that she looks back on as if in a dream.For more than 30 years, this American storyteller and folksinger has put Israeli soldiers at the top of her playlist. And since 2005, when she moved to Jerusalem from Toronto, she has spent virtually every day in a different city, entertaining hospitalized soldiers in cooperation with the IDF.Charlestein is an honorary member of the IDF Medical Corps and proudly wears her uniform when traversing the country to thank, salute, comfort, hug and sing for soldiers.
During the First Lebanon War (1982), she was living in Philadelphia and teaching music at several Hebrew day schools.“I had lots of friends in Israel and I felt it was a good time to come to show my support during a tough time,” she explains.“One friend suggested I contact the army and offer to sing. I thought this was ridiculous; every Israeli artist comes out in force during times of war, and who needed Ritasue Charlestein? But my friend insisted, so somehow or other I got the address of the Association for the Well-being of Israel’s Soldiers and sent them a letter, then forgot about it.”Yet a week later a message from the association was waiting for her at the reception desk at what was then the Laromme Hotel in Jerusalem.“They were picking me up at 8 the next morning, and they expected me to be at their disposal for the next two or three weeks so they could bring me to all the bases and hospitals. It was the event that changed my life,” she says.She recalls singing for reservists and cows in the wee hours of the morning, troops dancing on the tables.Though she declined to go into Lebanon, she spent many days and nights entertaining at bases near the border.“And then they brought me to Rambam [Medical Center] in Haifa, the major hospital for casualties from that war. I was really young and had no concept of what a war-wounded soldier was,” she says.Batya Pollack, a young soldier assigned to the hospital’s IDF Medical Corps office, took Charlestein from bed to bed, about 50 of them.“Some she didn’t want me to see. One soldier with his leg blown off was deeply depressed. To my surprise, he let me sing for him, and the next morning asked me to come back,” Charlestein says. “And I did, before going to entertain 1,500 soldiers coming back from the front. I stayed in touch with him until he passed.”She also stayed in touch with Pollack.“It’s because of her and those moments in Rambam that my life was changed forever.”Simcha Holtzberg, a Holocaust survivor known as the “Father of the Wounded Soldiers,” took Charlestein over the next decade to visit wounded soldiers as well as victims of terrorism. When he died in 1994, Charlestein sang at his memorial service in Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, before an audience of 3,500 people including then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.Even while raising four children, Charlestein returned to Israel periodically to visit and entertain. Following her relocation to Israel on her own, she walked into Rambam Medical Center one day and reported to commanding officer Yael Chatan to get her list of wounded soldiers.“Yael asked me to close the door and said, ‘It’s about time you were in uniform,’ and she opened a cabinet and took out a uniform she’d chosen for me and asked me to try it on. It fit like it was made for me. And she said, ‘This is what I can give to you for what you give to us.’ I will never forget that moment. After that, things started to snowball.”In 2010, Charlestein was honored by then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi for her contributions to the welfare of Israel’s wounded soldiers, and was invited to sing “Hatikva” and Yiddish songs during the mission to Poland. The next year, she was named the Lions Club of Jerusalem’s Woman of the Year.Performing for refuseniks Born and educated in Queens, New York, Charlestein spent a college year abroad at the Hebrew University in 1970. The Foreign Ministry contacted her and asked her to visit and perform for Jews and refuseniks in the former Soviet Union. She and her then-husband arrived for Simhat Torah, when Jews openly gathered at the synagogue in Moscow.“To this day I do not know how the Foreign Ministry found us,” she says. “It was really cloak-and-dagger.We took a lot of contraband – books on the history of Zionism written in Russian, hidden in my underwear.My contribution was mostly through my music. We were debriefed when we were back in Israel. The way Israeli soldiers are my passion now, that was my passion then. I was profoundly moved by their sense of courage and power, and I wanted to be their voice in any way I could.”In 1981, the Soviet Jewry Council of Philadelphia sent her to Russia once again. One of the items she successfully smuggled in was a Hebrew typewriter for Yuli Kosharovsky, a leading refusenik who died in Israel last year.“When I returned, I lectured across the United States, urging people to become involved with Jews in the Soviet Union to make sure they were not forgotten, and I didn’t stop until the wall fell and the ones I was involved with were all out. It took 30 years.”Charlestein also taught Israeli music at Jewish summer camps in Greece and Hungary. When many non- Jews from Sarajevo fled temporarily to Israel during the 1990s civil war, Charlestein entertained them in absorption centers in northern Israel. She continued this tradition with new immigrants from Ethiopia. In addition, she has performed throughout France on behalf of Israel Bonds.These days, Charlestein visits soldiers in hospitals from Safed to Eilat, five days a week.“I introduce myself and tell the soldier he or she is my hero, and I let them know that if the Jews of the world can walk with their heads held high, it is because there are IDF soldiers protecting this country. I am here to salute them and show them gratitude. Usually, before I even take out my guitar, I see tears in their eyes.”In the last few years she has been instrumental in waking seven soldiers from a coma or semi-coma, she reports.“The feeling that I am touching lives every day is extraordinary – that my contribution to this country is to be able to heal one by one by one. To help a soldier forget his pain for a few moments and remind him how precious he is to us is my reward. My salary is hugs and smiles, and that makes me the richest woman in the country, not to mention the happiest.”