From Shanghai to Israel: Remembering my grandmother - opinion

Sometimes we learn most from those with the greatest Jewish education; other times, we learn most from those whose Judaism shines from the core of who they are.

 Almond cookies (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
Almond cookies
(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)

Holding onto my grandmother in her last moments in her apartment in Jerusalem, I could not help but think of two circles closing at the moment. I was thinking of the pictures and stories of her carrying me on her back throughout Jerusalem when I was just a toddler. I was also thinking of her birth in Shanghai, her journey as a refugee to Vancouver, and how now that circle was being closed right here in Jerusalem. 

I could not help but think of her grandmother, Chana Rivka Lishansky, who helped build some of the first moshavim and communities in modern Israel; her uncle Yosef of the Nili underground; how she somehow ended up moving to the Far East, and how she would feel about her granddaughter coming full circle moving to Jerusalem. 

After living through World War II in Shanghai, my grandmother and her family had to flee China’s Communist revolution in 1949. They were now stateless. Finally, they found a home in Canada, a country she would be forever grateful to. As her European name, Henrietta Diestel, was hard for some, somehow she became known by her nickname: Cookie. 

Sometimes we learn most from those with the greatest Jewish education; other times, we learn most from those whose Judaism shines from the core of who they are. Despite having no formal Jewish education and often living and traveling in areas without a very large Jewish community, being Jewish radiated from the bottom of her soul wherever she was.

IDF SOLDIERS stand at the Western Wall in June 1967 after it was captured during the Six Day War. (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY/REUTERS)IDF SOLDIERS stand at the Western Wall in June 1967 after it was captured during the Six Day War. (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY/REUTERS)

In the days leading up to the Six Day War, when the threat of Israel being wiped out by its neighbors was real, her kids watched her as she chain-smoked, glued to the radio, nerve-wracked with concern for the people of Israel. Even though she was living then on Vancouver Island in a home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, charting the course of the beautiful whales, grandma’s heart was with the people of Israel. 

FOR DECADES, living on Vancouver Island, Grandma Cookie was a school teacher and principal.  

After she retired, she heard of the IDF’s SAREL program, which allowed older volunteers to come to Israel for a few weeks and volunteer on an army base. She went, and went again, and again, for as long as she could, building close friendships and her love for Israel and its people. 

These visits led to her aliyah, where she could shine her love on Israel most. Random people in the streets of Jerusalem and in the Mahaneh Yehuda market knew her as Grandma Cookie, or Savta Cookie, for the Israeli ones. She would always be happy to help a stranger or a shopkeeper with business, be there for lone soldiers, tutor new olim from Ethiopia in English, or strike up a conversation in Mandarin with Chinese tourists who came to Israel. 

Yet most meaningful as a grandchild was how proud she was. Grandma was proud of good, honest work. Grandma was exceedingly proud of her grandchildren and what they were doing. It didn’t matter what they were doing; as long as it was honest, required hard work, and contributed to society, she was proud. No accomplishment was too small, no milestone insignificant, for her to cheer on her grandchildren. I remember publishing an article in The Jerusalem Post not long ago, and when I called her, she said with pride mixed with good Jewish humor and folklore: “I need to read The Jerusalem Post to hear what you are up to?!”

“At the end of the day, it’s not about what you have or even what you’ve accomplished. It’s about what you’ve done with those accomplishments. It’s about who you’ve lifted up, who you’ve made better. It’s about what you’ve given back.”

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington said, “At the end of the day, it’s not about what you have or even what you’ve accomplished. It’s about what you’ve done with those accomplishments. It’s about who you’ve lifted up, who you’ve made better. It’s about what you’ve given back.”

From hungry kids on Vancouver Island who knew they could always pull up a chair at her dinner table, to volunteering at every venue she could in Israel, Grandma Cookie’s life was all about lifting up and giving back. As I think of her daily, I can only hope to carry that inspiration on and be there for others. I miss you, grandma, and love you forever. 

The writer is an 11th-generation rabbi, teacher and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is a proud grandson of Cookie Diestel.