Veterans: A Zionist-religious bard

Leah Epstein, 54 Chicago to Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, 1981

leah epstein 311 (photo credit: Jamie Lan)
leah epstein 311
(photo credit: Jamie Lan)
Crossing the bridge to the windswept park dedicated to the memory of her son, Leah Epstein pauses to point out every lovingly handmade element, from the deer sculpture to the macramé hammock. This clearing in the emerald Golan Heights provides a perfectly appropriate spot to memorialize Baruch Epstein, killed 10 years ago at 17 in a car crash. The quiet majesty surrounding the Epstein family in Keshet was part of Baruch’s fiber and has been a source of inspiration to his poet-composer mother for 27 years.
Brought up in a Reform family in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Leah (Laury) Kohlenbrener earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature at Brown University and a master’s degree in adult and continuing education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She and a college friend booked a trip to Israel and Europe the following winter. Arriving a week ahead of her travel companion, she found free room and board at the Jerusalem religious outreach institution Ohr Somayach. Its classes affected her profoundly. “It was a whole new world for me,” she says.
During the European leg of the trip, all she could think about was returning to Israel. For a while she worked as a facilitator for literature and film discussion groups in the Chicago public libraries, but then spent more time here delving deeper into Judaic studies and learning Hebrew at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak near Petah Tikva.
As her observance of Jewish practice grew, she moved to Monsey, New York, and took a job at Yeshiva University. She then relocated to the servant’s room of a posh Fifth Avenue residence to be an au pair for a few months before taking off for Israel permanently.
The move was initially devastating for her parents, a pediatrician and a teacher. Epstein, who recently accompanied her widowed mother on a holiday in Eilat, says, “They didn’t understand what had happened to their daughter. But as the years went by, they saw I wasn’t fanatical and they saw how beautifully my children were growing up, and that brought them nahat [prideful joy].”
She was seen off at New York’s Kennedy Airport by a couple of friends. “I was the only one on the flight making aliya. I had no relatives in Israel to greet me; I took my bags and found a cab for my free ride to Be’erot Yitzhak.”
She continued learning in ulpan each afternoon, sometimes waking up at 4 a.m. to pack corn, other days picking oranges or gathering chickens – three in each hand – to be caged and trucked away for slaughter. She soon befriended Shraga Epstein, an immigrant from Montreal. “He worked in the orange groves, and they’d often put us working together there when they saw we might be a match,” says Epstein.
During their engagement, she attended Machon Ora, a Jerusalem seminary with a more Zionistic orientation.
Her parents, sister and brother came for the traditional kibbutz wedding in March 1982, where the newlyweds handed out oranges from their “Just Married” farm vehicle. The following year, along with four-month-old Baruch, they moved to Keshet in the Golan Heights. Epstein describes this small religious moshav as “a sort of Israeli Wyoming. Our sons all worked as cowboys during their vacations.”
The Epsteins’ married children Yonah, 26, and Malka, 24, each welcomed baby girls this year. Yisrael, 23, just finished his military service; 21-year-old Danna completed two years of National Service; Raphael, 18, will enter the army this summer; and Avraham is in ninth grade. Shraga Epstein is a kashrut supervisor and assistant cook in the moshav guest house, having served the moshav also as an irrigation specialist, refrigeration technician and chicken farmer.
Keshet’s 100 families live just three kilometers from Syria, on land won in the Six Day War and developed after the Yom Kippur War. Two other communities were also founded in this area the Syrians had first attacked.
“There have been uncertainties on and off the whole time we’ve lived here, although the government encouraged the settlement of the Golan,” says Epstein, whose arrival at the time of the withdrawal from Sinai inspired her earliest poems.
“About 10 years later, when my home on the Golan was on the negotiating table, I rediscovered the poem ‘Yamit,’ which I had written back then,” says Epstein.
A buried white sand city of our tomorrow pushed away. A reminder of our confusion about building Jewish destiny.
“Somehow as a brand-new immigrant, I was able to understand. I think I was writing to myself in the future.”
Around that time, she had started putting melodies to her compositions, so she set “Yamit” to music. After the uprooting of the communities in Gush Katif, she added another verse and renamed the song “Yamit-Katif.”
“Our souls are programmed to connect to the land and take messages from it,” says Epstein, a member of the Poets’ Forum of the Golan.
Keshet’s pristine beauty and lack of internal roads allow its children extraordinary independence and bonds with nature, “but sometimes you want to see lights or go get an ice cream,” says Epstein, admitting to occasional cravings for the “brown cow” root-beer floats she enjoyed as a child.
“Here you have quality of life – not all the material things, but values, and a complete integration of Judaism with lifestyle,” says Epstein. “I feel our society is so caught up in technology and things that make the pace of our life fast. I’m happy to write with a pen, to close my phone. People have to hear the voice that connects past and future, hopes and inspirations, that attunes us to the spiritual.”
The year after Baruch died, the Epsteins and their neighbors planted 54 olive trees at the nearby memorial park completed two years later with the help of a landscape architect. Children from Keshet pick the fruit and make “the best olive oil you can imagine” on a local press.
A sometime English teacher and translator, Epstein describes herself primarily as a Zionist-religious bard. “I have this idea that song can inspire change. I grew up during such an era in the US.”
Epstein accompanies herself on guitar at performances for women’sgroups and seminaries. This year, she published a compilation of poemsand lyrics in English and Hebrew, Planted Stars( She also recorded a CD with singer TaliaWeidmann and musician Shachar Nadav. Recently, she read excerpts fromPlanted Stars for visitors from Nefesh B’Nefesh, theorganization that assists immigrants and is encouraging newcomers topopulate the North.
The title song, subtitled “Life on the Golan Heights,” paints a pictureof “Galilee clusters of lights like planted trees” and depicts whatit’s like when “Apple pickers and hikers visit and leave; Then the fogcloses in, we’re like bears in a den; Dwellers on rugged foothills ofthe bold, white Hermon.”
“I feel I have a lot to say, to strengthen Jews here and also giveperspective to Jews outside Israel,” says Epstein. “I have a strongconviction that this is our land, and that sometimes immediately getspeople’s backs up, but I truly believe the center of the Jewish worldis now Israel – and we are returning.”