As the High Holy Days draw near I am reading, as I have for each of the past forty-five years, Days of Awe, by Israel’s Nobel Prize-winning author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon.
I read it each year because it is so rich that even after so many readings, I learn new things from it.
As much as the book means to me, the person who gave it to me means more. It was a gift from my father’s first cousin Dr. Judith Kaplan, whom I first met when I came to Israel as a rabbinical student in July 1970.
Another of my father’s cousins was to meet me at the airport, but there was a mix-up, and she was not there. I shall never forget the sinking feeling in my stomach as the crowded reception hall at Lod airport slowly emptied out leaving me just about the only one there. This was, of course, way before computers and cell phones revolutionized the way we communicate. I never felt more alone.
All I could think of was that my father had told me, “Judith is an angel.”
Well, we would soon find out how this angel would react to a cousin she had never seen waking her up at three in the morning. I found the number and figured out how to use the strange Israeli public phones. My heart pounded as the phone rang.
“Judith,” I began when she picked up the phone. “My name is Stephen. I am Leo’s son from America. I am here to study in Israel. His cousin Hedwig was supposed to be at the airport, but no one was here.”
Judith said, “Come immediately.”
Those were the most comforting words I could imagine. I got into a taxi, gave the driver the address in Tel Aviv, and before long I was at her door. She and her husband Lazer greeted me with hugs, kisses and genuine joy.
Lazer owned a thriving hardware store in the heart of Tel Aviv. Judith was a successful and busy dermatologist, but she was also a Jewish mother. Her first reaction after greeting me was, “You must be hungry; you have to eat.” And I did.
Judith was excited that I was going to be a rabbi, but she herself was a secular Jew. Yet, I had heard and now I could see that she lived her life infused with the Jewish values of caring and compassion. And, she lived in the Jewish homeland.
The next day, Judith and Lazer sent me on my way to Jerusalem. I visited often, and I loved her very much.
A few months later, my father died, and I, heartbroken, went home for the funeral. I stayed home a month to be with my family. When I returned to Israel, Judith’s house was once again my first stop.
She was there with love and comfort and took a full day out of her busy schedule to be with me. She had been very close to my father when they were children in Germany and told me wonderful stories about him as we walked along the beach in Tel Aviv
The months passed, and when it was time for me to return to my studies in the United States, Judith gave me Days of Awe, by S. Y. Agnon.
This year, Vickie and I are once again in Germany for the Days of Awe and two months thereafter. Days of Awe is the only hard copy book I brought with me.
Oh, it was a soft copy when Judith gave it to me,with a cover price of $2.95 back in 1971, but it fell apart from continual re-readings. The $65 I paid to have it custom rebound with my name embossed on the cover is one of the most meaningful gifts I have ever given myself.
Judith has been gone for several years now, but I think of her every time I pick up Days of Awe. I think of her love and dedication and how she was there for me not once but twice when I needed her most. I think of of her smile, and I pray that my efforts here in Germany will be worthy of her blessing