Two Jewish Mothers
By Mark Perry Nash
The second Jewish mother to enter my story could hardly have been more different, yet she also shared most of the quintessentially Jewish mother qualities that I had come to love. Her name was Hortense Green and must have been about 60. She was one of the loveliest women I have ever met in every sense of the word. Kind, gracious, intelligent - almost aristocratic in her manner, but to her friends she was just plain 'Hortie'.
She had come to America from Austria just prior to the German take-over in 1938; met and married an American and lived in a tree-lined street in Winnetka, just up the North Shore from the Goldman's, with whom she was close friends. Hortie had left Austria at the time of the famous 'Kindertransport' through which many Jewish children had been helped to leave Austria for England. But as Hortie had relatives already living in New York, she opted for America.
She loved art and music and poetry and gardens. She was a particular admirer of English gardens, and armed with a recommendation from Mrs G, I started work in her garden. The work wasn't very demanding: just basic weeding and keeping the lawn mowed and plants watered and I spent almost as much time talking with Hortie and drinking tea with her as I did working. She loved to tell me all about her ancestors, one of whom had been a famous soprano at the Vienna State Opera, and another who had been an orchestra violinist. I didn't know much about classical music, but I enjoyed listening to her paint beautiful pictures in words. I could almost see the swirling ball-gowns as the elegant ladies and uniformed gallants swayed to the strains of The Blue Danube.
Her husband Jim was quite different. An all-American with absolutely no interest whatever in things European, but he was seldom around as he was another golf-aholic. Sadly, when I had been working for Hortie for about six months he suffered a fatal heart attack on the golf course. Hortie was saddened by his departure as they had been happily married for 30 years, but his health had not been good for some time, and being the pragmatist she was, simply said that he died the way he had wanted to, 'on the 18th green'.
Sometimes we would potter about her garden, where she would help my horticultural education by telling me the names of various plants - in Latin, or if it was an especially pleasant afternoon we would have our tea outside on the lawn. She told me that in her opinion afternoon tea was Britain's greatest cultural gift to the world. Never mind Shakespeare, Dickens, the Queen or Marmite - it was Afternoon Tea that marked the Brits as truly civilized in her view.
I didn't dare remind her that another great admirer of that British tradition had been Adolf Hitler, so that it might have been questionable whether enjoying English afternoon tea made you civilized, but with Hortie it was always delightful. She had a little dog - a dachshund called Morrie - who would come and sit quietly under her chair as we chatted, or rather as I listened to her tell me about the old days before the war, during whichJewish Austrians like her had lost everything they possessed, including, all too frequently, their lives.
The Holocaust - as a living memory rather than just a historical event - was something that had become familiar to me from my acquaintance with Jewish people. Many, if not most, of them had connections with some aspect of that terrible time as this was still only 23 years after the war. Some of the people I had known - or their mothers and fathers - still bore the evidence of their past in the concentration camp numbers tattooed on their forearms.
One day Hortie seemed more thoughtful than usual and a little distant. She didn't seem to be listening to anything I said and wasn't answering my questions. I thought that she was probably just tired, and just when I was about to excuse myself and go back to my weeding she suddenly said, quite out of the blue: 'Mark, I have something to tell you. I'm going home'. Seeing my puzzled expression - we were after all sitting on her lawn outside her house - she suddenly laughed and said: 'I see I had better explain that!' 'I am going home - to Israel - at the end of this year'.
She had often talked of Israel, but never in terms of it being 'Home'. She had visited it a couple of times and had told me all about how friendly everyone had been and how polite the young people were and so on. I knew that, in one sense at least, the Land of Israel is a homeland to every Jew, but she had never referred to it other than as somewhere she had visited. But this time she seemed positively lyrical as she talked of walking by the Sea of Galilee, which Israelis call 'Kinneret'; about strolling around many of the ancient sites and finally about her visit to Masada.
She had talked of such things before, but never with such a sense of urgency in her voice. 'You see Mark', she went on, 'I always told myself that I would 'go home' to Israel one day and now that Jim has gone that day has come'. I recalled that there is a line in the Passover celebration which goes 'Next year in Jerusalem', and I mentioned it to her now. 'For me', she said, it will be 'this year in Jerusalem!' She then went indoors and came out with a folder full of papers. There were pictures of her new apartment in Tel Aviv, and of the local area where she would be living and information about Israeli life and culture.
Hortie and I must have spent the rest of that day leafing through all the information that she had on Israel. When the time came for me to go home I was ready for her to stick me in her suitcase and take me with her! She was one of those people who can make things come alive just by talking about them, and she had struck a chord in me that I wasn't yet fully aware of.
She was a wealthy, retired and widowed businesswoman and I was a teenage dreamer, but we had become real soul-mates. Her stories about Israel awakened in me a burning desire to go there, a desire that is yet unfulfilled but which has never entirely left me. She made it real in ways that books and TV shows could never do, because she spoke of it with such love - and from her heart. Many times she had told me how, as a little girl at home in Austria she had sat around the Passover table and heard those words, sanctified by time, 'Next year in Jerusalem'. But for those other dear people around that table there would never be a 'next year in Jerusalem'. Their lives and their hopes would be brutally cut short by the gas-chambers and crematoria of the Holocaust.
In September of that year Hortie and I said our good-byes and she left America for good. As far as she knew - and she was pretty good at family history - nobody in her family had lived in Israel for twenty centuries. They had been Hungarian, Austrian, and finally American Jews, but they had never been Israelis. But she was going 'home'. Our last afternoon together involved no gardening. We sat and had our tea and some slices of Israeli cake and shared our thoughts and hopes for the future. As we said our final goodbyes we both had tears in our eyes. She said: 'When I was there last time I had a feeling, deep in my heart. I knew that this was where I belonged. This was my home, my real home. It is where I will live and it is where I will die - happy I hope!' and she laughed.
I was terribly sad to say goodbye to this beautiful woman, and made some half-hearted promise that I would come and visit her. In a very real way I loved her. I know that sounds a bit extreme if not a bit foolish, but there is no other word that works. 'Well don't leave it too long', she said, 'I haven't got forever you know!' and laughed again with that happy, carefree, lovely laugh that had so brightened our afternoons.
That summer with my two Jewish mothers, and my earlier years in Skokie all came back to me eighteen months later as I prepared to graduate from High School. It followed a lot of deep thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and I had decided that a gap year was what I needed. At first my father wasn't too keen on this, having heard all about hippies who drifted off to California communes where they laid around all day smoking pot and having loads of free sex (I'm not sure whether he was worried or just jealous), but when I explained that I would be doing quite a lot of hard work during this year and that I would be paying my own way he came round.
It would mean that I would delay entry to University and would be paying for my own keep for once. But when my mother heard my choice of where I wanted to spend my gap year she was horrified. If I had suggested spending it on the Lower East Side of New York working with down and outs she couldn't have been more worried.
I had decided to go to Israel and spend a year living and working on a Kibbutz in the Galilee. I had, for once, kept my plans to myself until I had all the necessary facts and figures. I knew that I could get the required visa from the Israeli Consulate in Chicago, and that I would be permitted to live and to work with the Kibbutzim for one full year. I even had a Kibbutz earmarked - it was in the shadow of the Golan Heights, which meant, of course, that it was also in the shadow of Syrian artillery.
Even at a remove of more than 40 years I can still feel a frisson of the excitement that filled me at the expectation of that trip. To actually see the places where Biblical history had been made! To dip my hands into the Jordan River or my feet into the Sea of Galilee was something that I could hardly dare to think about it was so exciting! To walk among the remains of Joshua's Jericho that my friends and I had known in our childhood games was going to be magical.
Of course at the back of my mind was the desire to see Hortie again. I had written to her and she had invited me to come and stay with her for a few days in Tel Aviv. She was going to have several visitors from America staying at the same time so it would have been fun. For some reason I kept this from my parents. They had never understood my fondness for Hortie and thought that she was in some slightly sinister way trying to convert me to Judaism, or what was worse, take me away from them permanently with her romantic stories about Israel that she was 'filling my head with'.
And when I had to tell my parents than the Kibbutz was near the Syrian border my mother's fear knew no bounds. Some of the Kibbutz in that area had indeed come under periodic Syrian fire and Kibbutzim were expected to share in its defence were it to be attacked. Mother had visions of me being blown to bits by a Syrian shell, or shot defending some barricade thousands of miles from home.
I have often thought since that my parents fears were more about not 'letting go' of me and allowing me to live as an independent adult than they were about any real likelihood of my imminent death or maiming in an Arab-Israeli war. I could still have gone if I had really persisted, but it would have taken a willingness to defy my parents - especially my father - that in those days I simply did not possess. That I did not do so I bitterly regretted. I know that it's no use living in the past, but whenever I see a travel brochure of Israel my heart misses a beat!
from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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