The Human Spirit: The state-builders next door

The Human Spirit The st

Succot, those temporary huts where we eat and discourse for a week, are the ultimate symbol of our fragile existence. Succa conversations about nuclear threats and the tough neighborhood of the Middle East were as relevant as ever this year. Immediately after the holiday, as the huts along our Jerusalem street are being dismantled, the long palm fronds dragged for collection, and rams' horns from the High Holy Days placed back on their display shelves, I take the opportunity to chat with my next-door neighbors about holidays past. They look like ordinary folk, these Jerusalem neighbors of mine, Yona and Avraham Shalom, but their extraordinary life experiences shed light on what makes Israel the unique country it is. THE SHALOM family left Spain during the Inquisition in 1492, and after a brief stay in Gaza, lived in Hebron for 450 years. Avraham was born in the Old City of Jerusalem. His earliest childhood memory is of being dispatched to his Hebron family at age seven to inform them that his maternal great-grandmother had died and that a grave needed to be prepared for her in Hebron. By the time he was a lad, he and his friends defied the British restrictions on entering the area near the Kotel. Each Yom Kippur they snuck in, smuggling a shofar with them to announce the end of the holiday. "We were always caught and beaten over the head," Shalom tells me. "But of course, it was worth the beating. We wanted to show the British what it meant to be a Jew." Yona Shalom, eight years her husband's junior, remembers waiting to hear those shofar blasts. She, too, grew up in the Old City. Her father, a farmer and kabbalist, had moved there from his home in Silwan after his first wife and all their 13 children perished in a cholera epidemic. When his second wife, the respected seamstress Esther Habshush, was unable to give birth, a 16-year-old girl named Esther was hired at great expense to serve as a surrogate. She gave birth to Yona at the Hadassah Hospital in downtown Jerusalem (this was before the Mount Scopus building was built) and left to resume her own life eight days later. An Old City neighbor - Avraham Shalom's aunt, as it turns out - was hired as a wet nurse. "Everyone was extremely pious in our community, and that's the way things were done," says Yona Shalom, who has a warm relationship with Esther and her family until today. Best friends with Avraham Shalom's younger sister, Yona eventually married the gutsy young man. Avraham completed an apprenticeship with a master welder. He was one of the three Jews and 177 Arabs who worked for the British Public Works. At night, he worked for the Jewish underground. Shalom was apprehended by the British and sentenced to eight months in the Central Prison in the Russian Compound of Jerusalem. Eager to shave, relatives embedded razor blades in his thick bar of soap. A jailer who stole the soap suffered some unpleasant consequences. Another time, Shalom rebelled against a jailer who beat him with a cat-o'-nine-tails, and was condemned to solitary confinement. But by good fortune, the physician who examined prisoners before they could be isolated turned out to be his uncle. "Ulcers, ulcers" the uncle hollered. "This prisoner must have a daily diet of pita, milk and eggs." The very jailer who had beaten him was given the task of supplying his therapeutic food. He worked on the famous noisy mortar called the "Davidka," accompanied convoys up the hills to Jerusalem, and helped weld one of the few projects that Israel managed to keep a secret. During the War of Independence, supplies needed to be sent to the soldiers on Mount Zion, and wounded needed to be evacuated. Mount Zion was the sole part of the Old City that remained in our hands. Uriel Jefetz designed a cable car to span the 200 meters from St. John's Hospital to Mount Zion. But would it hold? My neighbor Avraham crawled into the shaky cable car, and took the first trip back and forth, hanging 50 meters above the Ben-Hinnom Valley. The cable car was henceforth used under the cover of darkness, then hidden in the bushes in the morning, for the course of the war. Until 1972, its existence was kept secret, lest it be needed again. By the Yom Kippur War he was 51 and too old to be drafted, so he volunteered and used his well-proven welding skills to help build the bridge that moved Israeli forces across the Suez Canal, earning a medal. In the meantime, Yona had become one of founding care-givers at Akim, working for decades with challenged youngsters. Avraham joined her there as a volunteer, welding individualized braces. The youngest of the Shaloms' six sabra grandchildren, a university student in Tel Aviv, has dropped by and joins our afternoon chat. "We love to hear the stories," he says. "Our grandparents have always been an inspiration for us all, both in our military service and as citizens." ISRAEL'S STRENGTH, we like to say, is in its human resources. The courage and inventiveness of the personal histories like those of my neighbors has been the fertile ground from which the daring and innovativeness of our modern state has grown. These amazing men and women are your neighbors and mine. You just have to take the time to listen. "To build and to be built" is the motto of Zionism. Today, wheelchair- bound because of a back injury, Avraham Shalom says he's proud of the good country he's helped build. Ahmadinejad? "Not to worry," he says, shaking his head. "He won't attack us." Just neighbors. But when you live in the tough neighborhood of the Middle East, it's a comfort to have neighbors like these.