This isn’t a book review column. Nonetheless, at this time of our lives when staycations are more convenient than vacations because of the pandemic and the increase of traffic, reading in the sukkah is a simple pleasure.
If “summer reading” brings to mind thrillers, historical novels and chic lit in a beach chair, I want to suggest that “sukkah reading” can focus on the stories of men and women you’d like to invite as honored and interesting guests to the sukkah. Please meet two Israelis I’ve recently become acquainted with, both on the page and in person.
The mature voice at the end of an unidentified cellphone number reveals himself as Zvi Eyal. Dr. Eyal, actually. His birthday is coming up. On November 1, he’ll be 96. Someone has told him I might be interested in his book. He’s recently re-edited and re-published his biography Open Doors & Open Hearts. Because of his seniority, I promise to pick up a copy even though he lives in Jerusalem’s Old City. But the next day, a spry and charming man whose appearance belies his chronology is knocking on my office door. He’s come all the way to Hadassah Ein Kerem to deliver my gift.
His biography was written by Petra van der Zand, part of a Christian group he overheard speaking in his native-language of Dutch in a café near the Hurva synagogue. He introduced himself and invited them all to his home. The Diary of Anne Frank has dominated our knowledge of the Dutch Jewry during the Holocaust, and Utrecht-born Eyal’s biography takes the reader to the Westerbork Camp, where Frank was imprisoned after her capture. A so-called transfer camp less than half a square kilometer long, Westerbork was the terminal from which 97,776 Jews were deported – most to immediate death – to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen.
Eyal, then called Harry Klafter, describes the mix of horrific and service tasks required of him on the work detail. He survived there from February 1942 until September, 1944, when he cut a hole in the fence and escaped with his brother Freddy. Benevolent strangers and acquaintances hid them until the war ended in 1945. Amazingly, his paper trail of letters to non-Jewish friends and incarcerated family members has been preserved. He sailed to Israel on the rickety overcrowded so-called illegal immigration ship Biria, incarcerated by the British at the Atlit Detention Camp.
Telling his story, Eyal barely complains or allows himself to mourn. A constant thread is his concern of interrupting his education. After the ship’s capture, the bare-chested Eyal (having lost his shirt at sea in an attempt to cool off) is visited by representatives of the Association of Dutch Immigrants in Haifa. He requests Holleman’s Book of Organic Chemistry. There’s a hint of emotion when he’s finally released from Atlit: “I had no family and no acquaintances in Palestine, but I boarded the camp bus, which took us to the central bus station in Haifa.” He’s arrived in time to fight in the War of Independence. He’s shot in the battle for Gush Etzion, cared for in Hadassah’s Mount Scopus campus where he will eventually learn surgery himself. In the Six Day War he serves as a field physician. By the Yom Kippur War he is operating on injured soldiers when he learns that his pilot son-in-law was shot down over Syria. Says he: “Looking back I realize that (his late wife the scientist) Hefzibah and I never attempted to write a plan for our lives or map our goals. Instead, our lives flowed naturally, according to a script that expressed the desire for continuity of our family and our people, based on its roots and identity.”
Which brings me to the other book: 222 The Days of Kfar Darom 1948. The author is military historian Aryeh Itzhaki, and it focuses on the heroic stand in Kfar Darom to stop the invading Egyptian army in 1948, and its reestablishment after the Six Day War. It also contains the story of the author’s wife, the indomitable Datya Hershkowitz Itzhaki.
I met her recently, too. Although the impetus for our meeting was her remarkable medical story connected to Hadassah Medical Organization, how could I not ask about her experience as one of the central figures in Gush Katif, the so-called Harvest Bloc of 22 towns and villages that once existed in Gaza? A scholar and tour guide, Datya first went to Gush Katif for her professional work, became an activist and the spokesperson for opposition to the evacuation. Aryeh Itzhaki, a widower, saw a photo of her driving a mini-tractor in a newspaper and decided she should be his wife. It took him a year to convince her.
Datya and I meet in Naveh Yam, close to Atlit where Zvi Eyal was held prisoner. Datya, Aryeh and their three children still live in what is called a “Caravilla” from the name combining caravan and villa for those expelled from Gush Katif. The domicile holds little resemblance to the country house for the wealthy, the word villa evokes, except for the dramatic Mediterranean Sea view, like that of their former home in Kfar Yam, the smallest of the settlements. They were the last family to leave in a famous rooftop standoff on their home. The soldiers who evacuated them whispered how much they admired her and no matter your politics who cannot? She’d already been diagnosed with cancer when the final destruction of Gush Katif took place on September 22, 2005, an unsweet 16 years ago this week.
She was 44. Her eyes turn sad, her face at once both weary and melancholy as she describes what she believes was a disastrous error, that Gaza could have been modernized and made prosperous with a continued Israeli presence, that the rocket attacks would not have happened. The Israelis there were an asset not an obstacle for peace, she says. Her family has moved seven times since their home was destroyed. They are still waiting for permanent housing in Naveh Yam, but she’s not moping. She’s become sun-sensitive so she swims before sunrise. On Friday, she packs and delivers tens of food baskets to the needy, recruiting volunteers. She raises her arms heavenward and says, “I’m alive!” The secret of her optimism? “You have to have faith,” she says. “It’s all about faith.”
At our home, we’ve already added the matriarchs to the patriarchs traditionally invited into the sukkah as ushpizin. This year, I’m adding Zvi Eyal and Datya Itzhaki. Maybe they’ll actually come.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.