This is a story that combines the Holocaust with the founding of the State of Israel, and has many interlocking circles and the building of bridges.
Our daughter and son-in-law, Ephrat and Tzachi (Yitzhak) Cohen, gave birth last year to a little boy, on the night of “Yom Hazikaron,” Israel’s Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the Wars of Israel and Victims of Actions of Terrorism.
In Israel, the Holocaust is commemorated one week earlier, not on January 27, but on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan (which falls in April or May), corresponding to the time in 1943 that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was still in progress. As Israel’s Memorial Day is immediately followed by the joyous celebrations of Independence Day, it is a time period fraught with many mixed emotions.
Ephrat and Tzachi’s son is descended from Aaron HaCohen (the High Priest) on Tzachi’s side, and also has a connection to the ancient priesthood from two other lines, as I am a “bat Cohen” (daughter of a Cohen) and so is my mother-in-law.
Ephrat gave birth in the maternity ward of St. Joseph's hospital, located near to what used to be the border between East and West Jerusalem, next to the Israeli Police Headquarters, on the way to Mt. Scopus.
The hospital was founded in 1948 but the maternity ward was opened in 2015 by Sister Valentina Sala, who also administers it. She had been a nurse at San Gerardo Hospital in Monza, Italy, and a midwife in Milan’s Mangiagalli Hospital.
Israeli hospitals treat patients of every religion and nationality and it was assumed that St. Joseph’s maternity department would serve mostly Christian and Moslem Palestinian mothers. But its name spread as a warm, inviting hospital with a low rate of C-sections and an intimate, holistic atmosphere, and many Jewish women also give birth there now. The bridges built by medicine now go in two directions.
When Ephrat called me at 11:30 p.m. on the eve of Memorial Day to notify us of the birth, I told her that Savta Leah (my husband’s mother) was smiling down on her from heaven.
My mother-in-law had been a teacher in a Catholic school in Slovakia in the 1940s and it was the nuns at that school who found a hiding place for her and for my father-in-law during the Holocaust; that's what saved their lives. For months they lived in the underground room in the home of a non-Jewish woman in a small village.
To add another link to the circle, the name of the private midwife I hired who attended Ephrat's birth in Toronto in 1982, while we were emissary teachers was “Chris,” a lovely Christian lady. Ephrat was born the evening before Hanukkah, on the eve of the holiday celebrating the Jews recapturing the Holy Temple from the Greeks.
Ephrat and Tzachi named their son Yanai. This was the name of an important king in Israel, and also of a scholar. Rabbi Yanai HaCohen is mentioned, among other places, in Midrash Tanhuma Masei 5:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “The land of Israel is more dear to Me than everything. I am the one who sought it out, as stated (in Ezek. 20:6), ‘On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt unto a land which I had sought out for them.’”…Rav Yanai the Priest said, “There were sixty-two kings, thirty-one at Jericho and thirty-one with Sisera. When he went to fight with Israel they also were slain along with him. Why? Because they yearned to drink water from the waters of Israel. They made a request of Sisera and said to him, ‘If you please, let us come with you to war…We do not request anything from you, but rather we will come for free, because we yearn to fill our stomachs with water from that land.’ Thus it is stated (in Judges 5:19), ‘The kings came, they fought; to inform you that nothing was more beloved than the land of Israel.” …The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “I will bring My sons, who are beloved to Me, into a land that is beloved to Me.” (Translation from Sefaria.org.il)
During the time period leading up to the birth of little Yanai, I was concluding the writing of our Raise Your Spirits Theatre biblical show, “REBECCA! Mother of Two Dynasties,” and had been researching, along with Tamar Kamins, my co-author, the subject of the descendants of Eisav and of Yaakov (Jacob). Our burning question was: Is there a chance for reconciliation in the future?
Eisav was the father of the nation Edom, who are considered by the Jewish sages to be the forerunners of the Romans, many of whom converted to Christianity (as did many Jews) and therefore became the forefathers of the many Christians who persecuted the Jews, but also the forefathers of those who, like my mother-in-law’s Catholic colleagues, saved them.
Tamar found the answer to our quest in two quotes, one by the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893), and one by Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), and we put them in the mouth of our Wandering troubadour before the finale:
“The Netziv said that when the descendants of Eisav awaken in a pure spirit to recognize the descendants of Israel and their nobility, then we too will awaken to know Eisav, for he is our brother. Rav Kook writes that at the end of days the love between the two brothers – Yaakov and Eisav – will return.”
We followed this by the narrator of the biblical verses singing a line from the prophet Tzefaniah (3:9): “For then I will convert the peoples to a pure language that all of them call in the name of the Lord, to worship Him of one accord.”The couple, my in-laws, who were saved by nuns, moved to Israel in 1949. Of their five children, the two sons served in the IDF. My brother-in-law was a paratrooper who was wounded at Ammunition Hill. My husband was in the Jerusalem Brigade and among the defenders and liberators of Jerusalem. Thanks to the nuns, they were able to defend the Jewish people in the State of Israel, are here on this blessed upcoming Independence Day, and Ephrat (and our other children) and Yanai could come into the world.
I sent a short version of this story to Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, director of The Elijah Interfaith Institute, with the comment, “I wonder what lies ahead for this little Cohen.”
He replied, “Obviously an internship at Elijah's eventual house of prayer for all people. He will give the priestly blessing to one and all.”
May it be so in our day.The author is an award-winning theater director, a recipient of American Jewish Press Association Simon Rockower awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism, and editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com