Remembering my mother in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is perhaps my key remembrance of my mother in Israel.

SILVIA WEINTHAL during a visit near Jerusalem’s Old City (photo credit: Courtesy)
SILVIA WEINTHAL during a visit near Jerusalem’s Old City
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My mother Silvia’s life was intertwined with Jerusalem for over five decades.
She passed away in July in Rochester, New York, at the age of 85.
The cognitive dissonance that death is both part of the natural order of things and a massive scandal plagues my (and I strongly suspect most people’s) sense of loss.
During her illness in June, she constantly asked about the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers: “Did they find the boys?” While immersed in great suffering, she focused on the suffering of Israel and Israelis.
When Operation Protective Edge unfolded in July, she wanted updates about the war and expressed her horror at Hamas’ fundamentally irrational, violent system.
We were slated to make our annual joint trip to Israel in the fall.
Two of our destinations were to have been Jerusalem and Kibbutz Ein Gedi. I constantly reminded my mother about a number of her favorite Israeli meals and locales, with a view toward motivating her to “hang in there” so we could take our next trip. On July 17, nine days after the start of Operation Protective Edge, my mother passed away.
My mother lived in two worlds.
She was the nerve center of our family – a proud, vocal Jewish Zionist who adored former New York Mayor Ed Koch because he was a proud, vocal Jewish Zionist – and a lifelong resident of Rochester in upstate New York. She was a people-intensive person and had a bottomless curiosity about the world and people. She sought answers to the “Whys?” Her senior complex apartment door in Rochester, a city that turned into a bitter tundra-like environment in winter, had an Israeli flag on a small ledge. She loved deep laughter and humor.
A few months before her death, a Palestinian-American fixed her bathtub. When he noticed the Israeli flag, he turned to her and said, “We are neighbors.” My mom drowned in laughter.
Her second world was in Israel.
She made scores of visits to this country; its name was the password for her (scarcely used) mobile phone. She was enamored of the Middle Eastern heat. I can’t recall her ever experiencing jet lag during her visits to Israel.
Jerusalem is perhaps my key remembrance of my mother in Israel. As I walk through the bustling downtown Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall and Zion Square, I go to her favorite hotel – the Harmony, located on Yoel Salomon Street. Seated on a couch in the boutique establishment, Ayala Dekel, the hotel’s general manager, tells me my mother “was so special.” She shows me the thankyou card my mom sent her after one of her stays.
“I cried. It was so special and warm,” says Dekel. “She was old but so independent.”
Her Jerusalem hairstylist, Hadas, told me that “she called me from the US to make an appointment. She was always happy. She was a very special woman.”
Hadas’ Hair & Beauty salon is situated across from the Harmony on Herbert Samuel Street. She volunteers as a hairstylist for disabled people at Yad Sarah. My mother “is in heaven,” said Hadas, “because she was such a good person. Not everyone gets a mother like that.”
At an age when most seniors avoid travel, she had plans to visit Istanbul, and continued to bounce around the US to see my sisters (Lois and Erika) and her grandchildren in Toronto and Durham, North Carolina.
My mother seems inseparable from a number of Jerusalem shops.
Her eyeglass store, Optic Doron, on Ben Yehuda. Her favorite juice store on Havatzelet Street across from the Alba pharmacy. She shuttled between Coffee Bean and Café Hillel on Helena Hamalka Street to see which coffee house had sufficient cinnamon for her decaffeinated lattes. She drowned her coffee in cinnamon. She viewed the pastry assortment at SamBooki on Jaffa as a kind of Matisse painting. Holy Bagels covered with lox, Big Apple pizza, and falafel provided some of her meals in Jerusalem.
While I was working at The Jerusalem Post building in 2011, my mother was planning our next theater outing. She picked the prince of mime, Hanoch Rosen, and his tour de force show at the Jerusalem Center for the Performing Arts. She was constantly on the search for Israeli dance shows and movies. She devoured cultural and social life in Israel.
Her visits to Israel spanning the 1980s, 1990s and starting in 2000 followed a similar pattern, said my sister Erika, who lived in Jerusalem during many of my mother’s visits.
Erika, who now teaches global environmental policies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, wrote me on Tuesday: “Mom’s best times in the 1980s were with [cousin] Malka, because she loved her cooking and the chocolate cake and then escaping to Eilat where she would sit on the beach, drink fruit drinks and eat falafel.”
My mother had an oversize presence.
I have been told that mourners maintain a sort of ongoing dialogue with the departed. There is a ubiquity to my inner dialogue with my mother. She is Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is my mother. She meant the world to me.
The author reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.