My dear mother, Mrs Esther Scheinfeld, z”l, was niftar about seven months ago on Rosh Chodesh Elul. My mother was a very special person. Despite being bound to a wheelchair for the last six years of her life and eating through a feeding tube for the last six months, she had a youthful love and appreciation of life that was so special and precious to be around. She also had a very deep soul that felt and conveyed appreciation for all of life and all people who came her way.
My mother grew up in Brooklyn in a passionately religious and ardently Zionist family, and internalized all the devotion that she lived with. My grandfather Reb Asher Anschel Weinstein, z”l, opened up the Beni Israel shul in East New York at 6 each morning and, along with my grandmother, used to pack clothing to send to new immigrants in Israel after the birth of the state. My grandfather worked his whole life in the garment district, endeavoring each week to keep Shabbat, but dreamt of moving to Eretz Yisrael. Upon his 65th birthday and retirement in 1972, he immediately made aliyah to Bayit Vaggan in Yerushalayim.
My mom grew up in a home filled with love of Israel and Toras Eretz Yisrael. In her youth she was a member of Shomer Hadati, the forerunner of Bnei Aviva. After living a good part of her life in Far Rockaway, she moved with my father to the Wolfson Towers in Shaarei Chesed. She spent the last 20 years of her life in an apartment in Jerusalem that overlooked the Knesset.
It was such a joy seeing her in that apartment overlooking her beloved Yerushalayim, feeling and experiencing the kedusha, love of Israel and national pride that she lived with and imbued in us throughout her life. As my brother Hillel mentioned at the levaya, it was my mother’s vision and influence that was the reason my siblings and all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in Israel.
After my mother’s petira, my siblings and I spent a considerable amount of time taking care of the unenviable task of going through her apartment to sort out her possessions and close it up. On the last day of that process, we double-checked all the closets and cabinets. During this last check, I noticed a small gold cardboard box with a black cover in the back shelf of a bottom cabinet. After asking my brother if he knew what it was and getting “no” for an answer, I curiously bent down to retrieve the box and open it.
Inside the box were 150 or so aerograms. (For those born after 1990, an aerogram is a lightweight, self-sealing prepaid airmail letter that was used for overseas correspondence.) But these were not blank letters. Just about every inch of the 150 aerograms was covered with dense script writing. Although I wasn’t yet sure who wrote these letters and what they contained, I had a feeling that they were precious, and I was so relieved that we had double-checked and found them.
Subsequently, over the next few weeks, I spent a good amount of time painstakingly and gently opening and sorting these letters. And what I found was truly a treasure.
First some background.
I am sure that many of us have grown up hearing stories from our parents about their younger years, as tweens or teens or pre-marriage years. And if you are like me, you might have listened with one ear, partly incredulous and assuming stories morphed into legends over the years. And even if you did listen attentively to the stories, it was almost always something that was “once upon a time” in an unrelatable past. At least that’s the way it was for me. Yes, my mother told us many stories of how she went to Israel when she was a teenager for a year. But exactly when that was and what really happened was all a big blur. But all that changed when I opened the box.
For in this box of aerograms I found over 60 letters that my mom wrote to her family from July 1952 when she left on the Queen Elizabeth to sail to Paris and then Israel, to when she came home in August 1953. Each letter was dated and described, in painstaking detail and heartfelt passion, her experiences and feelings throughout the year. The letters turned vague stories into tangible, explorable documented facts. And after organizing the letters by date, I was able to follow my mother’s experiences just about week by week for the entire year.
The letters ended up reading like a diary or a storybook. I couldn’t believe what a treasure we had found. I analyzed each letter, its postmark, its return address, the amount of Hebrew that slowly crept into each letter. I was able to feel and experience the gradual progression of my Mom’s feelings throughout the year. I felt like an investigative reporter trying to reconstruct, both factually and emotionally, each step of my mom’s journey as a 19-year-old in Israel in 1952. It was just amazing to hear and feel my mother’s heart anew with each letter, even though she was no longer with us.
Eventually I decided as a project, and as a way of staying in touch with my mother’s memory during this year of aveilus, that each Thursday night I would type up one of the letters and send it out to our extended family and close friends so that we could feel the warmth and inspiration of my mother’s special nesahma each Shabbat. And that is what I have been doing each week since Chanukah. Each week I begin with some sort of introduction that is relevant to that week’s letter, and then send it out.
I have tried to go chronologically, week by week and month by month, but it has not been easy. My mother wrote beautifully and gave us such a thorough record of her year, that during each chag I jumped ahead as I wanted to share our chag with her, hear about her experiences and feel the inspiration for that occasion from her heart.
Last week I couldn’t help but search for her letters describing her experiences of all the “Yoms” (Yom HaShoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut) in Israel in 1953. I did find a beautiful letter about Yom Ha’atzmaut, but to my great disappointment there was not a word about Yom HaShoah or Yom Hazikaron. I couldn’t imagine why my mom had not written about those powerful days. How could she not have told us about her experiences? It was a mystery I had to solve. I did some
research and found out that Yom HaShoah wasn’t enacted into Israeli law as a national Holocaust commemoration day until 1959. Similarly, Yom Hazikaron was not observed by law as a separate day from Yom Ha’atzmaut until 1963.
So all I can share is her Yom Ha’atzmaut letter. Below is the letter she wrote in April 1953 describing her Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel. I hope you will find it as inspiring as I did.
Mommy’s Letters: Installment #15: Yom Ha’atzmaut 1953
Dear Mom, Pop, Israel and Moisheב״הApril 25, 1953ירושלים
Although I really intended writing you before this, so many things have happened here this week that this is really my first opportunity when I can sit down and concentrate. It is now ערב שבת and while the floor is drying and I have to stay put for a while anyway, I figured it is as good a time as any to write. By the way I haven’t written to Henrietta either in quite some time so please beg her forgiveness for me. I don’t know whether or not I will have time before candle lighting to write her also, but I promise her my next letter that I write.
How are you and how is everything back home? Here in Israel this week I got the biggest thrill of my life just watching the preparations for and in the end witnessing the 5th celebration of Yom Haatzmaut-Independence day. There are no words to describe it, for how can words express what a heart can feel.
Sometimes I really feel sorry for all you people back home. You simply don’t know how wonderful it is to be in your own country, see your own flag waving in the wind from every rooftop, and dance arm in arm through the streets with people and friends from every country in the world, bursting with pride and with the fact that you are finally in a country that’s all your own and that no human power in the world can ever take away from you again. Just imagine this feeling to yourselves and multiply it by 10 and perhaps only then will you understand how I feel here.
Sunday night I was in Tel Aviv, where there was a beautiful sea display and thousands of people were dancing in the streets and on the boardwalk. Monday at 5:30 in the morning we (Shulamit and her boyfriend’s family and I) left on an open truck to Haifa to see the official celebration and Parade take place. Every year it is somewhere different and by the time we reached Haifa a tremendous crowd had already gathered. However with the help of our American passports we managed to get good standing room and take photographs also, which I hope are successful.
The parade lasted 2.5 hours without stop and it was very inspiring. In form it was military and showed the progress in equipment since the state’s declaration which had a great deal of meaning to most citizens. After standing a good four hours we finally got back to our truck and started back to Ramat Gan in time for the tremendous celebration in the Ramat Gan stadium. The roads were jammed and what would normally take us two hours to travel took almost 4 and a half. It was well worth it though. The stadium, similar to Yankee stadium, holds 60,000 people and approximately 100,000 entered. Again we stood. These are the times I am thankful for being tall as what I saw very few others did. The spectacle was beautiful and very well designed and enacted.
At the end of the evening the big event was a half hour display of fireworks, which reminded me somewhat of Coney Island. These however seemed more beautiful than any I had ever seen, though perhaps because the glory of Israel was reflected in them.
Upon returning home we got some well deserved rest and resigned ourselves to the comparatively dull normalcy of the following day when we would once again return to Jerusalem and resume our studies. That really started off our week with a bang. I also saw some wonderful films this week, “Death of a Salesman” & Gone With the Wind.”
You have probably heard of a few unpleasant incidents occurring here this past week also. I will not elaborate on them, as to tell you the truth they did not affect me at all. Let us all pray that there are no re-occurrences or similar events.
I just received Papa’s letter where he told me about getting a ticket for me to come home in August. I have no reaction at the moment and reserve comment for later.
Regarding the questions I haven’t answered, I think I already told you I received the script you sent and I thank you very much. At the moment I have more than enough food to eat even without changing script. I get almost a quart of milk a day, and all kinds of vegetables are easily attainable in every store now. The food situation is progressively improving and already many things have been taken off ration.
Regarding the gift you sent, Rabbi Gorlin’s brother gave it to me and told me it was worth only $50. I think it was more.
Must end off now.
Regards from Yaakov and Rochke and the family .
Be well and write soon.
Love and Kisses,
Estherשלום, להתראות בקרוב
Rabbi Benzion Scheinfeld is a veteran Jewish educator and is the founder of Camp Kanfei and Camp Bnos Kanfei, a ski and travel adventure camp founded in 1994.