“Rochela has it in the femur. The doctors had already given up hope. They’re trying an experimental medicine. It seems to be working, thank God.”
I was in a taxi, listening to Chaiyanu’s dedicated director of volunteers describe the children I would meet that evening. We were on our way to a private concert, to hear the famed Jewish singer, Yaakov Shwekey, perform for a select group of child cancer patients.
An elegant five star hotel donated one of their simcha halls for the performance. There were light refreshments, a small stage, a sophisticated PA system, and, of course, a mechitza. It looked like a small, exclusive wedding reception. But instead of women in fancy evening gowns and men in suits and ties, many of the guests were in wheelchairs, and almost everyone’s head was covered.
On our way into the hall, Chaiyanu’s director of volunteers bent down to greet an adorable little girl. An oversized cap was perched on her hairless head; a silk scarf was wrapped around her distended neck. The director of volunteers introduced us. “This summer, Esterka traveled to New York to attend Camp Simcha,” she said.
Esterka grinned. “I sang on stage, together with Shwekey.” Her voice was rough and hoarse. But before we could continue she caught sight of a tiny waif of a girl, supported by two wooden crutches, navigating her way to the women’s side of the mechitza. Esterka skipped across the room to greet her.
Esterka’s mother, a middle-aged Yiddish speaking woman, wearing a black Yerushalmi tichel, her lace shawl modestly draped across her dark suit, started speaking. “Esterka takes morphine for the pain. Sometimes it is almost overwhelming. But whenever there’s a special function, like tonight, or Chaiyanu’s trip to Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim last week, the anticipation and joy literally banishes her physical discomfort.”
Esterka is in the last stage of her terminal illness. The nurses at Hadassah told the Chaiyanu volunteer that works with her that it was time to begin saying goodbye.
A young woman walked over to me and introduced herself. “I’m Shaindy,” she said, radiating health.
“You’re a volunteer?” I asked. It was more a statement than a question.
“I’m finishing my first round of chemotherapy.”
Our conversation was cut short by a little girl looking almost celestial in a flowing cream colored dress. “Shaindy! Look!” she cried, jumping into Shaindy’s outstretched arms. “My eyebrows are growing back!” Her joy was palpable.
“And I’m just losing mine!” Shaindy laughed as she spun the girl around in the air. “But they’ll grow back again soon.” Her smile was real. (And I complain about having to pluck mine.)
The lights dimmed. Shwekey entered the hall. He immediately broke into a lively rendition of “shehechiyanu, v’kiymanu v’higianu l’zman hazeh,” thanking Hashem “Who has kept us alive, sustained and brought us to this moment.” The words blasted across the room. Conversation became impossible.
I peeped over the mechitza. The men were dancing in a circle. A teenage boy in a wheelchair, his face puffy and pasty-colored, was observing them. Meanwhile, his attendant administered oxygen. Someone else arranged the boy’s pillows and helped him find a more comfortable position. The men started dancing before the youngster — forwards, backwards — exuberantly singing, almost yelling “shehechiyanu, v’kiymanu v’higianu l’zman hazeh.” One danced a kedatchke; another turned a cartwheel, while a third twirled in the air like a spinning top. An elderly man with a broken foot jumped out of his wheelchair and, using a crutch for support, started hopping on his healthy foot, all the while holding the second crutch triumphantly in the air. Victory! The boy grinned.
The spark of joy lasted for a split second before the youngster was overwhelmed with pain. The attendant bent down to adjust his medication and rearrange his pillows.
I was crying, but I wasn’t the only one. I noticed several of the dancers furtively wipe away their tears.
In the women’s section, several teenage volunteers had hoisted children onto their shoulders and were dancing wildly around the room. One tiny leukemia patient, with translucent skin and golden hair that had just started to fall out, leaving a bald patch at the back of her head, was in the center of the circle, twirling around like a ballerina. Her mother stood at the sidelines, laughing.
Shwekey stopped singing and asked one of the children, a chubby faced boy with peyos (sidelocks) glued to the side of his bald head, to sing a solo. His clear, innocent voice rang across the room.
When the boy finished, Shwekey asked two little girls to join him on stage. Each time he passed them the microphone, they screeched, “Bom, bom, bom.” The room went wild. When they finished, the applause was deafening.
Later, a small girl asked Shwekey to sing his well known and well loved song, “Rachem.” “Rachem, have mercy, Hashem, on your people, Israel, and on your city, Yerushalayim. Rachem; rachem; rachem. Have mercy; have mercy; have mercy.”
The words washed over the audience. Have mercy, Hashem! There was not a dry eye. Have mercy, Hashem! Mercy, mercy, mercy! The entire room was united in prayer. Have mercy Hashem! Mercy, mercy, mercy.
At the conclusion of the evening, Rabbi Yaakov Pinsky, Chaiyanu’s Director, thanked Shwekey for donating his time to giving the children such a wonderful evening. The two men hugged each other. There was nothing false in the love and respect they felt towards each other.
I had come to that evening expecting to encounter desperation and defeat. Instead, I discovered life and joy; love and respect. In their battle to survive, the members of the Chayainu family had learned to savor each moment of life.
When I returned home that evening, I hugged my daughter, phoned my married children and told my husband how much I appreciate him. After all, life – and love – is too precious to become routine.
For more information about Chaiyanu the Israel Division of Chai Lifeline please call 212-699-6683 or email Chaiyanu@bezeqint.net or visit the web site www.chaiyanu.org.il
Postscript: Prior to publication of this article, “Esterka” passed away. She was thirteen years old. May her family be comforted among the mourners of Tzion.
Debbie Shapiro is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem with her family. She is author of Bridging the Golden Gate, and 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.