The joke between my brother and my kids goes something like this . . . Ellin walks into a room or into a huge railway station, or into another country and in five minutes she’s met someone she knows . . . or someone who knows someone she knows. While this is actually true, we’ve all gotten used to it. I remember that when I was still living in Connecticut, I had a series of meetings in NYC that made it necessary for me to take a subway at Grand Central. Within the span of two weeks, while waiting for that same train, I repeatedly spotted a college roommate, with whom I had had no contact since 1974, exiting the subway car while I was pushed forward with the flow of traffic into it. At first I thought I had mistaken her. After all, I hadn’t seen Robin Wheeler since 1974 and was quite amazed that I even remembered her name (I’m terrible at remembering anything about my years in college). By the second time, I was sure it was Robin, but could not push my way back out of the car to approach her. But on the third try, I decided to seize the moment and forced my way back onto the platform, whereupon I called after her. Indeed, it was Robin, and we made plans to meet the following week for coffee and to catch up (that was actually much more anti-climactic than finally spotting her, unfortunately!). What were the chances of such a meeting? And why should I be so surprised?
But in the past two weeks I’ve had two very profound “coincidences” and I must admit feeling a bit unsettled.
The first of these recent encounters happened the night before Pesach began. I was in Jerusalem to meet with my dear friends, Bambe and Joel, who were in Israel to celebrate a friend’s wedding. We decided to meet on that particular day at the Kind David Hotel. After hugs and more hugs, we made our way to the Israel Museum, to spend a lazy afternoon enjoying their renowned archaeology collection. It was lunch time and we were all getting pretty hungry. We figured we’d be able to get a nice bite at the museum, but forgetting that it was the day before Pesach, we hadn’t counted on all the museum’s restaurants closing early so they could change over for the holiday. We were left to make do with a cafe hafuk (Cappuccino) and a hot pretzel—a rather interesting combination. After walking around the museum for a few hours and really regretting our failed lunch, we took off to Emek Refaim in the Germany Colony. Don’t worry, I said. There are plenty of restaurants on this street. We’ll find something. But after arriving there, we were confronted by the same story. Each restaurant had its chairs piled atop the tables, a sure sign, even to those fuzzy with hunger, that they were closed. We marched toward an open Aroma Coffee Shop (Israel’s better answer to Starbucks) and found that it was, indeed, open. But we decided to see if we could find something a little more exciting for our much-awaited and needed luncheon. Finally, we found a bagel store, and after waiting about half an hour, then moving from one table to another (the first was too small), we finally planted ourselves down at a small, but sufficiently ample table, right next to the window. In due time the waitress came over and gave us a list of everything that wasn’t on the menu, a list that far exceeded what was. Accepting our fate, we ordered whatever we could and waited for our food to arrive.
What is her point? you ask. Precisely. The point is that I could have been anywhere in Israel on that day and that time, but I was in Jerusalem at that spot, that table, that chair that looked out the window. Who was on the other side of the window? you are now asking yourself. None other than the one person who had been on my mind for more than a week—Dr. Arthur Turetsky. Dr. T had been my puliminologist for 20 years and who had absolutely saved my life a few years ago when I had a trifecta of ailments: sepsis, pneumonia, and pleurisy. Dr. T had been on my mind a great deal as of late. I had wanted to contact him and let him know that I was settled here, I was fine and actually thriving for the first time in more than a decade. And there he was. Staring at me, face to face at this very same time and place. At first I was stunned, but then I found myself almost overturning the table as I ran through the hungry, growing crowds who also wanted a last pre-Pesach meal, to give him a hug. Dr. T! Dr. T! I yelled. I could see that he clearly knew me, but was trying to put my face to a name. I hadn’t seen him or been in contact for almost three years and seeing me at this moment and place was completely out of context. After it was clear that he recognized me, his wife turned to me and said, “You must be the Afula lady!” My gratitude at seeing him was immense but I must admit that seeing him was a bit of a stretch of belief, even for me. We quickly said our hellos and goodbyes, as the seats at the restaurant were precious and he was there with a large party. With a light heart, I returned to my dinner with my friends who were greatly amused by this coincidence. Joel even went back over to Dr. T as we were on our way out, thanking him for saving my life so that they could have the opportunity to get to know me. I think it was, for both of us, a gratifying piece of serendipity.
But that almost pales when I consider what happened today.
New friends in Haifa had invited me over for Shabbas luncheon to celebrate the last day of Pesach. Judy and Mike are lovely and very interesting people and I have come to really enjoy getting to know them. Rocco and I were the first to arrive, and shortly afterward, another couple arrived. We began chatting and in literally three minutes we realized we had friends in common at Kibbutz Mizra. Ok. Big deal. Not such a stretch. Israel is a small country. People are always running into someone they know or to whom they are related. But what happened next still has me reeling.
Eldad, the husband, told me that his father had written a very important book about the Jews of Bratislava. I asked what his father’s name was, and he said the last name was “ben Asher.” Oh! I said. I only know one person with that name, and he was the principal of my Hebrew School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. (The kicker is that only two days prior, my brother, Charles, and I were having a very philosophical conversation about “What’s the point?” What’s the point for those people to have made it through the Holocaust, only to be neglected and forgotten? What was their life-long struggle about? Why? We talked about how perhaps the answer didn’t lay in the present generation, but in the contributions of their children, or their grandchildren. Perhaps we weren’t meant to know, but there must be some reason, I answered. Somehow, Charles and I got on to the topic of Henry Asher.
Look at Henry Asher, I offered. Mr. Asher dedicated his lives to the children in his Hebrew school. His involvement in our lives, in running the “Junior Congregation” at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, defined our understanding of our Judaism on a level that far exceeded that of our parents. He was our Jewish educator. And educate he did, especially when it came to showing you his joy at being around all the children. Henry Asher was famous for his cheek grab and twists, the way he would grab your cheek in the crook of his fingers and give it a little zetz to let you that he loved you. You knew they were coming. They hurt a bit. And you loved him for it.
So, Charles, I said. Think about Henry Asher. He came here from Germany through England as a child. He survived. He had a purpose. He had a point to make. Look at us. It’s more than 50 years later and we’re still talking about him and his influence on our lives. Yeah, Charles answered. I guess you’re right.
And there I was. Realizing that I was having Shabbas lunch with Henry Asher’s nephew—Eldad’s father’s oldest brother. What were the chances? And how did I react when I realized we were talking about the same person? I started to cry. I filled up instantly and couldn’t help myself. It was like a relief at being able to tell someone who’s been important in your life, yet absent for decades, just what a difference they made. The relief. The joy. The confusion. The questions . . .Why? Why?
If I wrote here about all the other convoluted encounters I’ve had, you’d cry too. From boredom. It is a constant theme in my life. If it happened only once in a while, I wouldn’t take much notice of it. But it seems to be coming in such frequency, and with such a sense of magnitude, that I can’t help but ask these questions.
So if you’ve got any insight, feel free to share. I just don’t buy the tired old dog, “It’s Israel! It’s a small country!” There has to be something more to it. I want to believe there’s something more to it.