A Near Miss

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22 Nov 2006

Today, something happened that made me realize the importance of not putting off saying “Thank you.” The story really begins close to forty years ago, when I was a teenager traveling to Eretz Yisrael for the first time. Short on money, I booked an extremely inexpensive flight from my hometown, San Francisco, California to London, England. From there, the plan was for me to fly standby to Eretz Yisrael. The only hitch was that the flight to London arrived on erev Shabbos, when Tisha b’Av began on motzei Shabbos.

There were no kosher meals available on my flight, and I, being young and stupid, had not thought to bring kosher food along. The old propeller plane was packed to maximum capacity and we literally bumped our way across the Atlantic. Water leaked from the broken air conditioner directly onto my head. I managed to down bottles of cola between bouts of vomiting, and by the time we arrived in England, I was barely able to stand.

Again, being young and stupid (no, I don’t equate youth with stupidity, but I definitely was young and yes, I definitely was stupid) I lost the phone number of the family where I was supposed to stay in London. At a loss of where to go, I took a bus into the Jewish neighborhood of Stamford Hill, where I assumed I’d find a family willing to take in a very young and very unconventional guest for Shabbos and Tisha b’Av.

It was 1970. The terms “BT” and “FFB”* had not yet been coined. If a person was frum, it was because their parents were frum. Everyone had family, and if someone didn’t, well, they just didn’t belong – which meant that I didn’t belong. That was one strike against me. In addition, after spending the last 20 hours vomiting and downing coke, I looked more like a drug addict than a Bais Yaakov girl. That was another strike against me.

Standing on the main intersection of the Jewish neighborhood, grasping a heavy suitcase in one hand, a camera, purse, and overnight case in the other hand, while balancing a bulky backpack between my knees, I asked the first Jewish woman I saw if she knew of a family that would be willing to host me for Shabbos.

Instead of answering, she quickly scuttled away.

The next woman was more accommodating. Yes, she would be glad to have me as her guest, but since she had a house full of boys, that was impossible.

At least she hadn’t looked at me as if I were a visiting Martian.

To make a long story short, a very lovely woman took pity on me and welcomed me to her home for Shabbos and Tisha b’Av. She fed me and mothered me, which, despite my strong desire for independence, is what I sorely needed at that moment.

It was a Shabbos that I will never forget; it was a Tisha b’Av that I will never forget. Everything was so different – the food, the tunes, and even the accent – and yet, Shabbos is Shabbos and Tisha b’Av is Tisha b’Av. I realized how connected we really are; that despite the distance separating us, we are all members of one large family. I spent the entire Shabbos and Tisha B’av dreaming of the moment I would finally set foot in Eretz Yisrael and stand in prayer before the remnant of our Holy Temple.

Monday morning, I left England to travel home — to Eretz Yisrael. The next time I traveled to England was 34 years later, for my daughter’s engagement. I tried to look up the family that had hosted me so many years before, but was unable to find their name in the local directory.

A few months ago, I asked one of my neighbors if she would be willing to look for grammar mistakes and typos in a book that I had just written, entitled “Bridging the Golden Gate.” Although my neighbor was too busy, her mother, Mrs. Levi* was more than happy to do it. She was visiting from Stamford Hill and had plenty of extra time on her hands.

Among the stories in the book, is the story of my first trip to Eretz Yisrael, and how I came to spend Shabbos with a lovely family in Stamford Hill.

“Do you remember the family’s name?” Mrs. Levi asked me.

I did.

“That’s my neighbor. We’re very close friends!”

A few weeks later, Mrs. Levi phoned to tell me that she had spoken with her friend, and that yes, she remembered the girl from San Francisco (how could she forget?) who had spent Shabbos and Tisha B’av with her family. Yes, she would love to hear from me.

That same afternoon, I placed a long distant phone call and spent an hour or so bringing my hostess up to date on the last thirty odd years of my life. I thanked her again for taking me into her home and promised to send her a copy of the book as soon as it was published.

This morning, I phoned to let her know that the book had been published, and that I would be sending her a copy. But a stranger answered the phone. When I asked to speak with my friend, the stranger paused before asking, “Are you sitting down?”


The stranger continued, “She passed away on the first day of Sukkos. I’m her sister-in-law.”

Silence. I couldn’t say anything. I was overwhelmed with a strange mixture of sadness combined with relief that I had called a few months ago to express my gratitude. I explained to the stranger my relationship to her sister-in-law.

“My sister-in-law told me all about you” she replied. “She was so pleased to hear from you. Your call meant so much to her.”

I closed the phone, and remained seated, trembling. I was sad that this wonderful woman had been taken from the world, yet grateful that I had been given the opportunity to express my appreciation for the warmth and hospitality that she had shown towards me so many years before.

And to think that I almost missed the chance…

*BT is a Ba’al Teshuva, returnee to a religious life. FFB is Frum From Birth, someone born and raised in a religious home.

**a pseudonym

Debbie Shapiro is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem with her family. She is presently writing the biography of the late Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.