Seeking Refuge

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10 Aug 2006

A cool breeze blows on Shabbat evening as we sit on the white plastic Israeli-made swing. There are still vestiges of a multi colored sky which is slowly turning darker. Our view faces the even higher mountain community of Neve Daniel. It is quiet and serene. This is exactly what the woman sitting next to me needs.

New immigrants of two and a half years from Argentina, refugees from the northern Israeli city of Carmiel, Victoria and Leon are living with us for an undetermined amount of time. They each look at least a decade older than their chronological age. The South American sun has left its mark. So has life’s worries. While Leon speaks Spanish, Yiddish (his parents were from Poland), and a little Hebrew, my companion on the swing speaks only Spanish. They are part of a group of Spanish-speaking immigrants who are learning about Judaism twice a week in Carmiel. Most of the families are of mixed marriages. I do not know if my companion is Jewish.

I desire to help her. I want her to be able to ventilate and to spill out all the troubles of her heart. She speaks to me in Spanish. (I now regret having studied French in high school.) She speaks slowly and softly. I do not understand most of the words. At times she speaks in an agitated manner. She speaks with her hands and with pathos. I hear the word “boomba” over and over. She and Leon have had their share of “boombas” falling in Carmiel. She speaks of her fear of those “boombas.” Most likely speaking about the time spent in a bomb shelter, she shows me how her hands trembled. There is terror in her eyes. She continues to talk and some of her agitation seems to vanish.

Suddenly there is the sound of gunshots in the distance. She says, “Carmiel! Boombas!” She makes hand movements of katyushas falling. I attempt to quell her fears and explain that it is an Arab wedding in a village in the distance. As part of the wedding celebration some of the men shoot into the air. (I heard of a case in which a groom was killed in this manner.) The following week when I related the scene to a friend she said that some say that the shooting is the Arabs’ celebration of the deaths, maiming and destruction of Jews in Israel.

Our younger daughter returns with the Spanish-Hebrew/Hebrew-Spanish dictionary that I asked her to borrow from her friend. It becomes our companion. While it is somewhat helpful, the lack of being able to properly communicate makes life very difficult, uncomfortable, frustrating and adds great mental fatigue.

I start a new list. It is a list of people I know who speak Spanish. I even ask the Argentine man who runs the health store for his number so that I can call him if in need, and I do. “Wait!” I say to Leon in Hebrew after he or his wife has spoken and I have no inkling what they are saying “I will call my “amigo.” I call one of my translators. Our guests are thrilled to be able to speak their “momma lashon” and I am relieved to hear a translation in Hebrew of what they are endeavoring to communicate.

I discover that they are very worried because they have not heard from their 18 year-old daughter Margalit (who made aliyah on her own at the age of 14) who lives in Haifa, since the start of the war. They have her mobile phone number, and a phone number of the family (they do not know the name) for whom she works. We all hope that the only reason they have not heard from their daughter is that there is no mobile phone reception in the bomb shelter. I pray that she is not wounded, laying unidentified in a hospital bed. Various people leave messages on the phone machine of her employers. We do not hear from them.

Finally after a week soaked in worry and with various attempts to locate Margalit’s whereabouts, a friend of their daughter’s calls to relate that Margalit is well. Some of the strain on their faces dissipates. A day later Margalit calls. She calls again the next day. I have a chance to briefly speak with her. I ask her how she is faring. She responds, “It was a bit tense this morning, but now I’m “sababa” (slang for “great.” ) Victoria agitatedly talks to me in Spanish and describes a “boomba. I catch her say “Margalit” several times. I later learn that a katyusha fell close to where Margalit had been, but thank G-d she managed to flee into a nearby building.

And we are undergoing our own personal trial. Our brother-in-law Keith in America had suffered a severe heart attack in the end of May. It is touch and go. We receive daily emails about his situation and we speak to involved family members. His wife Sue, a registered nurse, takes leave of absence from work and gives tender-loving care to her husband of nineteen years.

It is like a roller coaster ride. At times we feel there is hope, and at times we feel that the situation is hopeless. Meanwhile, Keith’s father, who had been ill for years with heart problems, dies and Keith’s mother requests that no one inform Keith. He will be informed when he is stronger.

During the beginning of Leon and Victoria’s stay we receive the phone call. We are plunged into mourning over the loss of a sweet, fun-loving 48 year-old brother-in-law and uncle.

In the meanwhile Shabbat has entered our lives once again. It is the calm amongst the storm. When everyone returns from shul I see a newcomer. It is not a soldier who we often host on Shabbat night. It is a young man from Argentina named Shimshon who sometimes works with Spanish-speaking groups. Shimshon was invited to Rosh Tzurim by our friend and neighbor Muli, who works in a conversion program for Israeli soldiers, and who helped organize the group of Spanish-speaking immigrants who is staying in Rosh Tzurim. It is also Muli who, after about a week of their being with us, passed on the information that Victoria finished the conversion process one month previously. We are thrilled to have a built-in translator for the evening!


I attempt to remember all the questions that I had wanted to ask, but did not have the language ability to do so. Shimshon serves as a bridge. We learn more about their two sons who live in Argentina and who have no plans to come to Israel. We learn that Victoria is one of six siblings. We learn that Leon’s yiddeshe name is Laibel and Victoria’s is Rivka. We learn that the only reason they came on aliyah is because of their daughter Margalit. We learn that if they could afford to go back to South America, they would. (One of Leon’s brothers is very ill with cancer.) They did not bargain on a war when they made aliyah. Previously, through hand motions, I had understood that Leon had been a carpenter and that Victoria is a seamstress. My husband told me that Leon sold machinery. At the Shabbat table I learn that Victoria used to sell make-up door-to-door. This is surprising because Victoria has a pronounced limp and walks with a cane. It makes her appearance all the more fragile.

On Sunday the long and anxiously awaited call comes. Margalit plans to join her parents in Rosh Tzurim. There is confusion over when she will be coming. From her mother who looks up the word “Thursday” in that well used dictionary, I understand that she will come on Thursday. My husband asks Leon and understands that Margalit plans to come on Monday. On Monday, through the use of an almost 12 year-old Uruguay refugee from Carmiel, I learn that their daughter is due to arrive on Thursday, Tisha B’Av. The boy tells me that Thursday is his birthday. In a nutshell I tell him what Tisha B’Av is, and ask him to tell Victoria.

This couple is not the first refugees we have hosted this summer. Several days before they came, we had a family of eight from Zefat stay with us for two days. Since they are bilingual, with American parents, we had no trouble communicating. In fact, we get along very well and we just had the mother and four of the children over for dinner. Her husband and older two daughters had returned to Zefat in order to pack up the house, since they had made plans to move to Gush Etzion before the war broke out.

Numerous people have praised me for taking strangers into our home. It makes me very uncomfortable because at times I don’t fit the part of a gracious hostess. Recently I commented to my husband that I am glad that he does not have two wives. I like to run my own kitchen and my home. I know that our guests feel indebted to us and are eager to help, but I don’t wash the floors everyday, and I certainly don’t wash my stove top daily. Our friend Muli jokes and says that I should send our guests over to his home! (They have eight children thirteen and under.)

One day I found Leon with a broom in hand sweeping up black dirt from around the door leading to our front garden. What looked like dirt to him is actually ashes from a Lag B’Omer bonfire. The ashes were put there on purpose to keep the ants from marching in. I asked him not to sweep and I looked up the word bugs in the dictionary. I explained to him that the ashes keep the “insectos” away. He stopped sweeping and I assumed he had understood me. I figured that if he wanted to help out I would give him a different job. I took him to our outside front entrance and stairs and pointed to a broom. I got him a dustpan and hand broom. He did an excellent job of sweeping. Later that night after returning from the supermarket, Leon proudly called me over. He pointed to the front patio. There were no ashes. He had swept up the entire place! So much for my Spanish!

I sometimes feel that hosting them is a burden. Our guests have a lot health issues. There were three doctor visits within one week, including a trip to the local emergency center on motzei Shabbat. These trips necessitate all sorts of logistics: the need for an interpreter, the need for transportation, the need for trips to various pharmacies, the need for child care, etc. Then I say to myself, “Adina, if it were your parents you would do everything you could to help them. Thank G-d my parents usually manage all medical affairs on their own.” Moreover, I think about how many Jewish families were crammed into one apartment in wartime Europe under very difficult situations. Thank G-d we have space for guests. Thank G-d we are on the giving end. It is much more of a challenge to be forced out of one’s home, one’s familiar environment, one’s circle of friends, one’s daily routine than to host strangers in one’s home.

Several times the couple expressed to interpreters that they really appreciate our hospitality, but they would like to move into a place of their own. When something became available nearby Leon, Victoria, some of our family members, friends of our younger daughter and some neighbors helped clean and furnish the unkempt dorm apartment. On Monday evening before Tisha B’Av I moved them in.

That night our ten year-old Eliyahu Yeshaya asked where our guests are. I told him, and he said, “I liked having them here.” I asked him why. He said, “Because I played chess with the abba and I hardly had jobs to do.”

Who knows what will be with all the displaced people from up North. We must continue to pray that God will give all of our precious soldiers success and good health, and that everyone can safely go home. For God is our best refuge.

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