The Human Spirit: Zionism in late bloom

My mother was an inspiration for my friends and their parents, some of whom made aliya after meeting her.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
My mother Adelaide (Lubchansky) Slopak Kahn, who died on August 11, was born with a veil. A caul. Her Yiddish-speaking mother insisted it was a sign of royalty. And indeed my mother always had something dignified and distinguished about her, atzilut we say in Hebrew. When she moved here 31 years ago, her ulpan teacher suggested she take on a Hebrew name. But she was never comfortable with Adina, which is closer to "delicate." Adele, the Yiddish form, said it so much better. She grew up in New London, Connecticut, the fourth of five children of immigrants Esther and Moshe Lubchansky. New London was a navy town with tattooed sailors on the dock. There was a popular public beach and the United States Coast Guard Academy. Theirs was an ethnic, class-conscious America, where children teased the Chinese laundry owner on the street (he chased them waving a hot iron), and where the city librarian refused to give the new books to the poor Jewish kids, voracious readers. My mother wore a camphor amulet through the Connecticut winter the way children in Eastern Europe did. Her parents ran a corner store, what we'd call a makolet. How many times, full of laughter, I begged her to tell me again about the callers supposedly looking for tobacco. "You got Prince Albert in the can?" "Yeah." "Better let him out." Israelis often see and sometimes take advantage of the good-heartedness and relative prosperity of American immigrants. Accustomed to meeting Americans as tourists, we are often surprised by the diligence and thrift of Americans at work. Energy and ingenuity, sacrifice and hard work were needed for every step of the way toward upward mobility. EDUCATION WAS the way up in America, and it wasn't easy to get. My mother was justifiably proud that she'd graduated from Connecticut College for Women in New London, helped by her brother Izzy, with whom she sold morning newspapers from a wagon. Other students arrived at the dormitories driven by chauffeurs, bringing trunks of tennis clothes and navy blazers. She was always stunned that her classmates ordered custom-made curtains for their dorm rooms. My mother went home and helped her mother scrub the floors. She won the prestigious scholarship for study in Nuremberg, Germany in 1938. The timing wasn't good for a Jewish girl from Connecticut, so she passed it up. She wasn't sorry. After the war she pretended that she didn't speak German. Her elite degree didn't get her a job, so my mother studied bookkeeping and became an assistant to an accountant. My late father, Abe Slopak, on his own trajectory up from an even less moneyed background, came to the accountant's office to file his taxes. They were married for 33 years, living in the small New England town of Colchester, Connecticut, where the Baron de Hirsch had helped settle Jews at the beginning of the 20th century. My father was a successful traveling salesman, developing arts and crafts for the blind, which meant his wife was alone for long stretches of time, bringing up my sister, Charlotte Goller, and me. Nonetheless, she went back to school at night to get a teaching degree and became a popular third-grade teacher in the town public school. In the 1960s, president Lyndon Johnson's poverty program was encouraging communities to provide remedial reading help to impoverished students. Many students, boys in particular, were dropping out of high school because they couldn't read their textbooks. Reading help was essential, but communities needed specialists to get these government funds. My mother earned her graduate degrees in reading instruction at night while she worked days. WHEN YOU lose a parent, the images flood your mind and heart like an electronic picture frame, one image replaced by the next flashing scene. I most like to think of my mother in her reading laboratory, beautifully dressed and coiffed, surrounded by adoring high school hoods in their black leather jackets. They were troublemakers everywhere else, but they were lambs in her presence, sounding out words, decoding sentences. Their goal was always to pass the written part of the driving exam. She got them all through. I was already living here in Israel on that terrible night, just months after my father died, that armed, masked thieves entered the house in Colchester, tied her up and forced her to open the family safe. "You're a good-looking woman," one of them told her. "You're just like the boys I teach," she had the good sense to tell them. They didn't hurt her. She installed an alarm system and trained with a guard dog until she closed down the house and carried through her plan to retire and move here. At 61, widowed, she went about her own aliya with determination and energy. I like to think of my mother first arriving and practicing the walk from her apartment on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road through Mahaneh Yehuda to ulpan in Beit Ha'am so she wouldn't be late for the first day of class. Despite the odds against older immigrants learning Hebrew, she succeeded. "I didn't know anything before I came to Israel," she liked to say of the rich texture of life here. She made friends quickly, mostly through volunteering. She felt at home with those who relished giving. She joined all the local branches of women's organizations - Hadassah, Chug Yovel of Ezrat Nashim, Na'amat - they're all good causes, she liked to say. Not that she saw only the bright side. She began each day by reading The Jerusalem Post and vituperating on the faults still to correct in our homeland. After being widowed for 10 years, she fell in love with Seymour Kahn, a fellow New Englander, who became part of our family. I like to think of her teaching my sabra children, now all married, to read English. She and Seymour prepared their treats and were ready by early morning. Unlike my generation, they were never late. Indeed, my mother proved that it is never too late. She realized the blessings of aliya later in life. She was an inspiration for my friends and their parents, some of whom made aliya after meeting her and understanding the possibilities of Zionism in late bloom. My mother came into this world wearing a caul. She left wearing the holy shroud, with atzilut, dignity, in her beloved Jerusalem, surrounded by adoring family. In this time of my mourning, I take comfort in knowing that hers was a life to celebrate.