Even before the tragedy of last week, we had started talking about the Lag BaOmer that took place 110 years ago. On Wednesday, we met with my uncle and aunt. It had been more than a year, the last time we saw them was at my daughter’s bat mitzvah, mere weeks before the first lockdown, but here we were drinking coffee in a hotel lobby of a Dead Sea hotel, mask-less, talking about family. Simultaneously surreal and absolutely normal.
My uncle showed me a picture of my great-grandfather’s gravestone. “You know what tomorrow night is? 110 years since my grandfather was killed on Lag BaOmer.”
I knew the story, of course. My father had related it on different occasions. He told the story from his vantage point, as someone running away from the same events and people that I had spent years running towards. His story told the anguish from his mother’s perspective. Her father had been a great rabbi, an esteemed scholar. He had gone to Meron for the Lag BaOmer celebrations when the balcony where he had been dancing collapsed, killing him and 10 others. I would only find out later what my father had not related. HaRav Yosef Dov Halevi Rosenstein was known for delving into the mysteries of the Zohar, he had been the favored student of the Boyaner Rebbe, and his grave had become somewhat of a shrine at Meron.
But my father related the story as his mother probably had related it to him. That his grandfather’s tragic death led to a life of heartbreak. Left destitute and fatherless, my grandmother was forced into a difficult marriage, whose dissolution led her to flee from the poverty she faced in Yesud Ha’Ma’ala, and to my grandfather suddenly finding himself caring for young children on his own.
While it is true that causes and events that lead to the breakup of any marriage are always murky and never truly known, that is especially true of a Haredi-Hasidic marriage in mandate-era Palestine. My tough, street-smart, fighting father was a mama’s boy. He felt her grievances and was pained by her suffering. I on the other hand was completely frightened by her. By the time I met her when I was 7, she did not resemble the beautiful, Arabic-Hebrew-Yiddish speaking mother of my father’s memories. She was a screamer, a shrieker, wrinkled and paranoid, with overlong toenails, who tried to get me to drink spoiled milk. In all my subsequent trips to Tsfat, I am filled with nostalgia and trepidation, as I am convinced that the city smells like my grandmother’s apartment.
Years and years later, when my father and I sat shiva for my mother and we had many hours and many cups of coffee together, he shared more snippets of emotions and stories, some beautiful and some tragic and awful. And yet, looking again at the image of my great-grandfather’s grave, I feel the pieces continue to fall into place. I see that my great-great-grandfather’s name was simply Zvi and finally know the origin of my own father’s name.
Having the vantage point of more than a century is a blessing. I can feel the pain for a family left fatherless, while still musing that without that particular tragedy and turn of events, my father, my family, and I would not exist.
As I see the faces of the 45 whose lives have been so suddenly erased and feel the pain for friends who continue to have friends and relatives battling for their lives, I can’t help but feel the enormity of how their life trajectories have been fractured and shifted. I pray comfort and healing come quickly.
Catriella Freedman is the director of PJ Our Way, a book-based tween engagement program from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. She and her husband are raising four kids in Zichron Ya’akov, Israel.