THE HUMAN SPIRIT: She’s a blessings counter

She says her sons are bright and intelligent but “delayed,” but even more important, nice religious boys with good senses of humor. They laugh. They pray.

'Job,' Leon Bonnar, 1880 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'Job,' Leon Bonnar, 1880
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Her name is Yona, but she reminds me of Job.She suffers from an ex- cruciating joint disease, rarely sleeping more than two consecutive hours.
She was repeatedly sexually molested by a relative.
At 19, she nearly died.
She followed her beloved brother to Israel. He and his young son were murdered in a terrorist ramming attack.
For six years of marriage she couldn’t have a child.
Her long-awaited baby was born with Stickler syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that impacts heart, lungs, eyesight and hearing. Later, septic shock exacerbated his difficulties.
Her marriage was crushed by constant health crises. In a futile attempt at reconciliation she became pregnant.
Her second son was born with club feet, a cleft palate, a hole in his heart, and undersized airways. Also Down syndrome.
She’s a single mom, 57. The boys are 23 and 15. Each needs a full-time aide.
Expenses exceed her earnings and government subsidies.
HERE’S THE other side.
Yona Saslow Yacobowicz is cheerful and outgoing.
She lives music. She’s the founder and lead-drummer of the all-women’s rock band Tofa’ah, performing since 1981, the year she made aliyah from Saratoga Springs, New York. First called Yona and the Whalers, the band has inspired countless audiences at women-for-women performances.
She works as a music therapist for children and adults.
Her sons’ aides are so devoted that they have stayed for decades.
Her friends are constant, always volunteering to help.
Adoring neighbors come by to hug the boys.
Donations of food and money help make up the shortfall of funds.
On a Friday afternoon before Rosh Hashanah I visit Yona. I need to ask her something.
The Jerusalem apartment in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood is neat and bright.
I feel as if I’m joining a group of friends sitting around and visiting. Comely, smiling Yona, still wearing a headscarf despite her divorce, opens the door.
The aides are middle-aged women Lois Weinstein and Florence Tuazon. And there are the two multiply-challenged young men. Yisroel Meir (“Yissy”) the older son, is sitting with his back to the piano. According to Yona, even though he’s now blind, he can hit a note to pick the song he’d like her to play. Eliyahu is making music on the drums. For his first seven years he couldn’t walk, but now he can, moving around awkwardly but with alacrity. Both Issy and Eliyahu have limited spoken language – mostly answering yes and no or single-word responses.
They also point to pictures of foods, objects and emotions on communications boards. Yissy knows the boards by heart from when he could see. Her boys have a loving relationship, Yona says. When Issy, then eight, was allowed into the hospital room to see Eliyahu, she understood that the boys were meant to be together. When she’s out at night performing with the band, it’s Yissy who makes sure his brother says the bedtime Shema. Yissy is good at math, too. In the sheltered workshop he’s packed exactly 175 holiday candy bags.
She says her sons are bright and intelligent but “delayed,” but even more important, nice religious boys with good senses of humor. They laugh. They pray.
They thank doctors. They attract friends in their special educational programs.
Neighbors shower them with hugs.
Nonetheless, the daily routine in this household is grueling, even on days without health emergencies. In addition to being “profoundly challenged” (Yacobowicz’s term), both are chronically ill, needing frequent appointments with hospital-based medical specialists and therapists. Going to the emergency room is complicated. Having anesthesia is problematical. Going to the dentist is formidable. Dressing is strenuous.
One day would be enough to knock the Pollyanna out of anyone, Nonetheless, Yona’s buoyant attitude pervades the household.
The aides also tell upbeat stories about their charges. Every triumph is celebrated.
They relate with pleasure and pride how today Eliyahu discovered his first whiskers and hurried to show Yissy, delighted that he’s like his older brother.
“I try to tell my friends about our successes and miracles that happen here, but it’s hard for them to understand how we rejoice with every step forward,” says Tuazon, who trained as a midwife in the Philippines.
“Coming here every day is all about Yona,” whispers Weinstein when Yacobowicz leaves the room for a minute.
“She’s the most remarkable person I’ve ever met.”
Yacobowicz grew up and studied music and education in upstate New York.
When she was 18, her knee swelled up.
She was diagnosed with teen rheumatoid arthritis. The swelling spread. Soon she needed a wheelchair. She eventually regained nearly full motion, but never banished the pain. Only after Issy’s diagnosis did she learn that she, too, has Stickler syndrome. “I had arthritis and I wore glasses. No one thought it was a syndrome,” she said.
Nor did they connect a sudden internal medical problem from which she nearly bled to death at 19. She recalls, “As in the stories, I could feel myself leaving my body, see a bright light that was the Source, and ‘heard’ a voice saying it was too early. Instead, I took the light inside me and from then knew I had to shed light.”
Sounds good, but how many of us could keep our faith and count our blessings in the face of such daunting daily trials? At this time of introspection in the Jewish year, I’ve come to ask Yacobowicz how she really copes emotionally and spiritually.
“God gave me these challenges because He believes I can handle them,” she says. “We can’t choose our challenges, but we can choose how we can get through them. Being cheerful is a choice, but it’s also very hard work. I do cry and scream. I can yell like a maniac.
But ultimately I aspire to be close to God. I serve with gladness. I serve with music. You can’t do this alone.
You need to have good people around you. The key to life is hessed, lovingkindness.
Sometimes you are on the receiving end and sometimes you are on the giving end.”
And when she gets up each morning? “I see these two boys and know that I have been given a great gift.”
Shana tova and gmar hatima tova!
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.