I met her two months ago, but still can’t get her out of my heart.
It was in Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world, in a International Fellowship of Christians and Jews-sponsored soup kitchen packed to the limits with people of all ages and backgrounds. The truth is, I loved each of the people standing in that room. I hugged the adorable child with black curly hair and offered her a baguette, smiled at the homeless man as I placed a large spoonful of roasted vegetables on his plate, and helped the old woman with a walker carry her plate to the table.
But then Chana walked in, and immediately my heart connected to hers. It was like going to one of my daughter’s gymnastics shows – although there are dozens of cute children performing, the only one I really see is my beloved child.
When Chana walked in, to me she looked like an angel. I immediately loved her and felt a deep connection; it was like I was seeing a long-lost family member for the first time. She was holding on to the wall, limping, and had lines on her face which showed the hardships she has endured, but just by looking at her I could tell her mind was as sharp as can be. She had black hair covered with a scarf, green eyes, shaky legs, and was beautiful.
I asked another volunteer to take over serving the food to the long line of people waiting, and like a magnet, gravitated straight to Chana.
“Shalom,” I said to her, placing my hand on her shoulder.
“Shalom,” she said, with a warm yet exhausted smile, as she took my hand in hers.
Chana used my arm for balance as we went to sit at the closest table.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“Talpiot,” she said, as she took a napkin and wiped the sweat from her forehead with a shaking hand.
That answer shocked me – Talpiot is an hour-long bus ride from the center of Jerusalem where we were sitting.
“Why did you come all the way here?” I asked.
And after a moment of silence, Chana looked at the line of people waiting for a warm meal, and said, “Because I have to eat.”
I wanted to talk to Chana and hear her story – yet it was clear that until she had a plate of food in front of her, she would be unable to relax. Upon realizing this, I immediately stood up and got her a big plate of vegetables, rice, meat, a bowl of soup and a challah roll.
“Wow, so much food,” she said.
When she thought I wasn’t looking, she put half of the food in a Tupperware container which was hidden in her purse. “So that I’ll have food for tomorrow,” I have heard so many people say. And although Chana obviously didn’t want to speak about it, I know that’s what she was thinking too.
I sat with Chana for an hour, listening captivated to her amazing life story, hugging her when the tears began to fall, and giving her words of encouragement at every opportunity I had.
Chana is an 89-year-old widow who made aliya from Turkey 10 years ago.
“I have dreamed about returning to the Holy Land my entire life,’ she said.
“Is it really better here than in Turkey?” I asked, looking at the strangers in the soup kitchen with whom Chana eats her lunch every day.
“It’s hard here. But its home,” she said, and kissed the table in front of her.
Chana came to Israel with the clothes on her back.
She had no savings, bank account, or pension fund.
She has lived for the past 10 years on around $500 a month in government aid, and will live on that tiny stipend until she dies.
But Chana has a grateful heart, free of animosity, anger, or hate.
Every day, Chana takes the hour-long bus ride from Talpiot to the center of Jerusalem to have her only warm meal of the day at the IFCJ-sponsored soup kitchen.
“This enables me to pay my electric bill and buy the medication I need,” Chana told me with a smile, while tightening her grip on my hand, which she lovingly held for the entire hour we spoke.
Instinctively, I hugged her.
I walked her outside, and it was so hard not to cry as we said goodbye, knowing that she was going back to an empty house, with no one to love or listen to her.
But my comfort was in the knowledge that she indeed has a safety net and place to turn in her time of need. The soup kitchen is open six days a week, with warm, healthy, delicious food, and caring volunteers who will never turn a blind eye to Chana’s, or anyone else’s, pleas.
Chana thanked me profusely for sitting with her during lunch and giving her so much joy. But in reality, it was her who touched me, more than she can ever know. Two months later, I still pray for and think of Chana, who reminded me that the greatest gift we can give a person is