Arts and Culture

In Jerusalem, a chance encounter with my deceased mother

The Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem. (Yoninah/Wikimedia Commons)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — When I moved from the U.S. to Israel, I expected to feel closer to my Jewish roots. But I didn’t expect to feel closer to my mother. This is not a place I associate with her — at least it wasn’t until I had a chance meeting with a stranger a few weeks ago.

It wasn’t long after I had moved to Jerusalem. I was downtown exploring the city my family and I would call home for the next year. A couple who looked to be in their 60s approached me at an ATM and asked, in English, if I was able to withdraw money — it wasn’t working for them. But I had the same problem, so I wasn’t much help.

The woman thanked me anyway, and then we proceeded, in the customary manner of two Jews meeting for the first time, to see if we knew anyone in common.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

When she answered “Montreal,” I knew I had hit the Jewish Geography jackpot. I grew up there, and it’s a well-known (if unproven) fact that all Montreal Jews are connected in some way.

I started with my father’s side. He comes from a big family and is related to a well-known Canadian author. She had heard of the writer, of course, but didn’t know my father or his brother. I asked what neighborhood she lived in and where she had gone to school, but there were no obvious connections.

Almost as an afterthought, I said my mother’s last name. I often don’t think to mention my mother in these situations. Most of her extended family died in the Holocaust, so the number of possible connections is fewer. Also, she’s been dead for over 16 years.

The instant I said “Helfgott,” the woman’s eyes widened.

“Not Ruth?” she asked.

My mother’s name.

The woman had grown up on the same street as my mother until the age of 7, when she moved to a different neighborhood and the two lost touch.

Still, she remembered my mother clearly.

“You have her mouth,” she said, something many people have remarked upon. And it’s true — I have her large teeth and full lips.

The woman remembered other things, too: what my mother’s parents looked like, that she had a little brother, that they used to go ice skating at a nearby park.

As she recalled the day she heard about my mother’s death, her eyes filled with tears. My mom died in a hiking accident, the kind of story that is unusual enough to make the local news. I started crying, too, but for a different reason — I was imagining my mom as a little girl, ice skating with her friends, flashing her wide smile.

I gave the woman a hug and we parted ways, my knees still wobbling.

Although the passing of time has made the pain of losing my mother less raw, it has also made her feel more distant. Sometimes I actually long for those early days, just after she died, when I could easily call up her face or voice in my mind, when I could bury my nose in the clothes hanging in her closet to catch the smell that still lingered.

Now she feels just out of reach, fleeting, the way people are described in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite on the High Holidays: “… like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away.”

When I meet someone who knew my mother, who utters her name and remembers her smile, it is like a camera appearing out of the blue and suddenly zooming in. It makes her feel closer, if only for a moment.

The fact that this encounter happened in Israel, just a few weeks after my arrival, made it more poignant. My husband and I could have picked anywhere to spend his sabbatical year — he’s a tenured professor in finance — and we chose Israel. That’s not because we’re observant Jews, or because we have close relatives here, as many immigrants to Israel do.

We chose Israel because, given our formative, deeply personal experiences here, it is the place we feel most at home. We both spent time here as teenagers, and of everything we experienced, what we remember most are the close, lasting bonds we formed with the people we met, both Israelis and visitors like us. It felt right that Israel was the place where, many years later, I’d meet someone connected to my mother, the person I felt closest to.

Of course, given the sheer number of Jews packed into a country the size of New Jersey, perhaps Israel was the most likely place for a meeting like this. Still, it would have been so easy for me not to make this connection. If I hadn’t taken the time to get to know this woman, I never would have learned she was my mother’s childhood friend.

At home in Indiana, I’d say such an encounter would be out of character for me. When I’m out running errands, I keep my head down and dutifully check items off my to-do list. But being in Israel has made me more open, more inclined to take the time to talk to people. It’s partly that I’m following suit from Israelis, who are apt to strike up conversations with strangers just about anywhere — at the bus stop, in an exercise class, at the newspaper stand.

But it’s more than that: I feel a kinship with people here, a sense of comfort and familiarity that I don’t find in my American day-to-day life. Some of that sense of kinship comes from fact that most of the people I meet here are Jewish. There is a camaraderie that comes from having everyone from the bank teller to the bus driver wish you a “Shabbat Shalom” on Friday and a “shavua tov” (good week) on Sunday. That certainly doesn’t happen in southern Indiana.

But we have something else in common, too: Everyone has an interesting story about how they ended up in Israel — whether for a visit, for a year or for life. I’ve been reminded of this fact since the day we moved into our apartment. After a few minutes chatting with our next-door neighbor, I learned that her grandfather had been the rabbi of the only synagogue in Malmo, Sweden — which means he had very likely married my grandparents, who had moved there from the liberated concentration camps of Poland. Our paths to Israel had been very different, and yet here we were, living next door to each other, swapping stories.

In this country, I’ve learned that it’s worth taking the time to look for connections because you never know where you’ll find them. Of course, I felt connected to the woman on the street because she knew my mother — I feel that way about anyone who can share a memory of her. But my link to her also runs through my son, who is 7 — the same age the woman was when she knew my mother.

To my adult ears, 7 sounds very young, maybe too young to form vivid, lasting memories. In the two months we’ve been here, my son has already experienced so much, and I find myself wondering what will stay with him. Will he recall the struggles and triumphs of learning Hebrew, the tranquility of watching the sun set from our roof deck, the thrill of jumping the waves at the beach?

Meeting this woman — with her clear memories of my mother — made me think maybe he will. And maybe one day, many years from now, he’ll meet a stranger with whom he’ll swap stories. He’ll talk about his childhood year in Israel, and maybe he’ll make a new connection.