How it really was!

Parting is such sweet sorrow... The “bitter sorrow” of parents bidding farewell to children who are leaving for a young, struggling and distant Israel.

American singer and actor Eddie Fisher dances the hora at Shavei Zion’s Dophin House in 1957 (photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN/ISRAEL NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION)
American singer and actor Eddie Fisher dances the hora at Shavei Zion’s Dophin House in 1957
“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I’ll say good night until tonight becomes tomorrow,” Juliet says to Romeo. “Sweet sorrow” is a contradiction of terms, an oxymoron. Juliet could say that to Romeo because she believes she will see him again the next day.
November 1952, Union Station, Toronto Hora and Farewell
In the grand hall of the railway station, a few dozen teenagers danced the hora. We joined them, an affirmation of Jewish belonging seldom seen in the staid Anglo-Scottish-Irish city of that time. There was a chant, an affirmation of peoplehood:
The leader: Who are we?
The dancers: YISRA-EL!
We danced with our fellow members of Hashomer Hadati, with the Hebrew words echoing through the high-arched hall.
We danced. We danced and danced. Then we turned to our parents. Tears coursed down their face. I embraced my mother, her beautiful gray-blue eyes wet. I whispered into her ear in Yiddish: Zay shtolts, mameh…. Be proud, mama, that is how you brought me up!
(Only now do I see how cruel it was to make her responsible for her pain of parting.)
My father wept as well. Round-shouldered from his work, too deep lines etched into his 52-year-old face. In my single-mindedness, I did not think deeply into all the reasons for their tears – single-mindedly looking forward to coming to Israel.
We were a young couple, Hannah and I, 21 years old, leaving parents who would not be able to afford the trip to Israel by ship or plane for many years ahead. Only now do I begin to understand their fears, the déjà vu of past partings, of leaving their shtetl home, never again to see dozens of relatives and friends; of seeing the two brothers who did survive in France somehow, after a separation of over two decades.
And having basked in their total love, their pride in our achievements, their joy in having an only son who chose to continue the religious observance of their parents, their pleasure in having our comrades sit in their living room and sing Hebrew songs, Yiddish folk ballads or the sad strains written in the Holocaust.
Were they afraid they would never see us again? Israel was a few years old, struggling, vulnerable. Could their hearts bear a parting without an end date?
Yes, only now do I begin to understand the pain they bore. I became a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, happy in the knowledge that this way they would hear my voice from time to time. We did come for visits as often as we could (or could not really) afford. I accepted many speaking engagements in North America so I could visit Toronto. And always my mother would stand at the window, way before my arrival time, waiting to see me arrive from the airport.
My father was more reticent in expressing his feelings verbally. I am sure my mother spoke for him when she said to me, on one of those visits, “Oy Avrum, may you never know the taste of being parted from your children.”
The truth is I was too centered on my work and perhaps on myself (mea culpa! – but isn’t that a flaw almost all of us share) to feel their pain. I also balanced off any awareness by telling myself how proud they were of my role as a radio correspondent, and later of working with prime ministers. Probably they had an inflated view of my importance. When I called my mother from Blair House, the official guest house of the US Government, where the prime minister and Mrs. Levi Eshkol and the escorting 10 senior official were housed in June 1964, she sounded disappointed.
The conversation went as follows (in Yiddish of course): “Mom, I am calling you from Blair House in Washington. That’s where guests of the American government stay.”
Mother: “Vus? Nisht in Vaysen Hoiz?!” (What? Not in the White House?!)
Some might think this response was a put-down. But I heard indignation mixed with pride. Where else does her son deserve to be!”
Who will build the Galilee?
In the youth movement we would dance the hora to the infectious beat of “El yivneh Hagalil” (God will build the Galilee), a song which may have been born as early as in the 1880s (over 130 years ago). The impious halutzim, in their pioneering zeal added a verse:
“Who will build the Galilee? We will build the Galilee!”
Came the day when I was put to the test. Decades ago, after her recent marriage to Daniel Kremer, my daughter came to see me. “Abba, how would you feel if we moved to the Galilee?”
I saw how much store and even some trepidation she (they??) set on my reply. I was touched that she wanted my approval.
I paused for a moment, and then laughed. “I left my parents in Canada to come to Israel. How can I stop you from going to the Galilee, which is only three hours away?”
Well, finding a day to take off and drive six hours back and forth was not that easy in those days of two lane roads, and we did not do it often enough. In the end, other family responsibilities eventually lead to the Galilee being exchanged for a temporary stay in New Jersey. But times had changed. Frequent trips to the US kept us in close touch till their return to Israel. International phone calls were within our reach then. (I was happy the State Department had paid for my call from Washington’s Blair House – not the White House! – to Toronto 20 years earlier.)
And now sweet sorrow indeed has invaded our close-knit extended family. A gifted grandson, recently being anointed with a PhD from the Weizmann Institute, has taken up a three-year post-doctoral position in Australia. (OK, I am allowed to boast: preferring that to offers from the top East and West Coast universities and institutes in the United States.) With him go his talented wife and two magnificent great-granddaughters under the age of five.
“Sweet” – I do not need to explain. But even with Internet, Skype, WhatsApp, and reasonably affordable but such long-haul flights – even with all of them, still we cannot hug them every few weeks, and receive their return hugs and kisses. That is our sorrow. Not bitter, but both proud and longing.
“Longing” is the title of a book of poems by my compatriot from Toronto, Shoshana Morag, which will soon be in print. Here are a few lines she has agreed to share with me:
Can one acknowledge ever/or understand in depth/The price one pays/In pain to
others/In fulfilling dreams?
She sees her father, Tateh in Yiddish, “At the New York pier,/ waving….”
However it takes place, parting is forever sorrow. Would we could see them on the morrow.
The writer salutes Dr. Jonathan and Rachel Reiner, and daughters Ahinoam and Michal, who are now Australia-bound