My oldest child requested and was granted a leave of absence from her college in order to spend the 1990-91 semester in Israel studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s seminary in Jerusalem.
But on August 2, 1990, approximately 100,000 Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, and so began what we all know as the Persian Gulf War.
As the war progressed, Saddam Hussein threatened chemical and biological agents on Israel via the Scud missiles that he was firing, and so gas masks and sealed rooms became a part of everyone’s vocabulary in Israel and the Jewish world.
In our house, life suddenly turned upside down. Afraid to send our daughter off into possible danger, my late husband Bruno and I did not allow her to fly on the originally planned day. Our daughter became restless and unhappy. And as each young woman who was also on that original flight dropped out of the program and chose to remain in the United States, our child was even more determined that nothing, not even Saddam Hussein, was going to interfere with her plans. Even then, her personality was strong, focused, determined.
We held her back for a number of weeks, during which time we talked to friends, to professionals, to our rabbi, to each other, over and over again. I remember being frightened for my child; Bruno was far more confident that she would be fine.
In the end, she flew to Israel. “Thank you for sending me,” I clearly remember her saying to me a day or two before the flight. “I’m not sending you,” I responded. “I’m letting you go.”
Bruno arranged for a business friend of his to pick our daughter up at the airport, carrying her very own personal gas mask with him. My recollection is that before he even dropped her off at the school, there was at least one time that she had to put the mask on. It did not dissuade her. And we, 6,000 miles away from her, prayed to Hashem and held our breath.
The Almighty thankfully was watching over Israel. On February 28, 1991, the war was over, and Iraq agreed to the United Nations’ demands. The auspicious date was Purim on the Jewish calendar.
One modern-day Haman had been stopped once again.
My daughter remained in Israel until the end of the semester, savoring the land, which included time in Gush Katif, volunteering to pick avocados. Gush Katif, which literally means “Harvest Bloc,” was a bloc of 17 Israeli settlements in the southern Gaza Strip, bordered by the west and northwest by the Mediterranean Sea. Gush Katif — Gaza — a place we have less than “savored” since handing it over to the Palestinians in 2005. She ultimately returned home after the semester with a belief that she had accomplished some serious learning, coupled with some amazing experiences, along with an even deeper love of the land and a commitment to return.
Fourteen years later, in 2005, she and her husband made the choice to take their four children and move to Israel for at least one year, with the possibility of ultimately making aliyah. (Their other three children were born in Israel.) In my heart I knew it was unlikely it would be one year, and I admit I was not that mother and grandmother who joyfully hugged them and said “Kol hakavod!!” I handled their departure sadly and badly. In hindsight, I know that leaving their families behind was a difficult task, an emotional challenge, a decision they thought through very carefully. But their dream was calling, and opportunity was waiting.
Their oldest son was a little more than 8 years old when they left for Israel. When the school year was ending, he enthusiastically shared with me a booklet his classmates had prepared, in which they each wrote and drew a message to him before his departure. I cried reading it. He asked me why I was crying. I, the grandmother who was supposed to have all the gathered wisdom, turned to him, and like an unhappy child I asked him: “Why do you have to go?”
And the 8-year-old, far wiser than I, responded: “I don’t know, Boubie, but I know we have to go.”
I have played that long-ago conversation with my grandson over and over in my head since October 7. Now that sweet, smart, golden-haired little boy is a 26-year-old soldier who is part of a Special Forces unit fighting in Gaza. Pride, love, and worry fill my days. And my daughter and I have switched places. Now she is the mother who has sent her child off not into possible danger, as I thought I was doing with her, but rather into frightening and intense danger, to fight a less-than-human enemy whose goal is to destroy us.
I am in awe of my daughter’s ability to navigate through these difficult and turbulent times. And she continues, as she always has, to be that tower of strength that everyone needs in their life as she supports all her children in the struggles they face since this war began.
Of course it is difficult for me to be 6,000 miles away during such trying times. But I have never faced the challenges my daughter is facing, and I cannot be presumptuous enough to ever think I know how she and her husband feel. “Do not judge your fellow man,” said Hillel in the second chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), “until you have reached his place.” As a parent, I will never reach that place. And so it would be wrong to ever say, “I know how you feel.”
What I do know is how I feel: deep pride in who they are.
When I learned about the rally being planned in Washington, DC, on November 14, I felt in my heart that it could be an epic kind of gathering, a show of strength and togetherness in the American Jewish community that we desperately needed. I definitely needed it. And I knew that it could be a way of showing my children and grandchildren in Israel that America’s Jews could demonstrate strength. It mattered to me; I wanted it to matter to them.
And it was indeed a special day. It would have been enough to see signs from all over the country. It would have been enough to hear the roar of the crowd in singing or shouting BRING THEM HOME. It would have been enough to hear amazing and heart-wrenching speeches. But a transformative moment for me was when Natan Sharansky got up to speak.
The young Anatoly Shcharansky was a human rights activist who spent nine years, from 1977 through 1986, in Soviet prisons as a refusenik. When he was released, he joined his wife Avital in Israel. It was he who initiated the idea of a rally in Washington on December 6, 1987, and he worked tirelessly to encourage the American Jewish community to unite its efforts for Soviet Jewish refusniks a day before a summit at the White House between President Ronald Reagan and the USSR’s president, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Seeing Natan Sharansky brought me back to when I stood on that very same National Mall on a cold, sunny Sunday afternoon on December 6, 1987. That was another epic day, a day when people came from all over the country (The woman standing by my side flew in from California.) And on that day, 36 years ago, I experienced the very same emotions of togetherness, of positivity, of belief that our cause could be won. “We are leaving Mother Russia,” we sang. “We have lingered far too long. We are leaving Mother Russia. When they come for us, we’ll be gone.”
That rally was a turning point in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, and eventually more than a million Jews were released. We battled the Kremlin and we won. But Gorbachev was a kinder enemy than the one Israel faces today. So in 2023, Natan Sharansky’s words had to be that much more forceful, for this latest Haman has no equal in its hatred and barbarism.
Sharansky’s very presence at this rally, coupled with his strong words, represented for me the power of faith, of determination, of God’s love of His people, of how a dire situation can ultimately turn to victory.
And now irony in my life arrives once again: my daughter and I have come full circle. Now I am the one about to get on a plane and fly to Israel in a less than perfect time. But I need to put my arms around my Israeli family and tell them how amazing all of them are.
My daughter was not afraid all those years ago; I follow her lead.
The Jewish American singer and rapper Matisyahu performed at the rally in DC. His song, “One Day,” says it all.
All my life, I’ve been waitin’ for
I’ve been prayin’ for, for the people to say
That we don’t wanna fight no more
There’ll be no more wars
And our children will play.
One day, this all will change, treat people the same
Stop with the violence, down with the hate
One day, we’ll all be free and proud to be
Under the same sun, singin’ songs of freedom like,