From gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - BAR­BARA SOFER

I’m vis­it­ing with the Zerah fam­ily – mother Ju­dith, fa­ther Marc and son, Emmanuel – in their charm­ing home in Jerusalem. “Char­mante,” I should say. The lan­guage and style of this home, with its flower-filled bal­cony and tall win­er­ack, is French.

Emmanuel Zerah – a lanky, hand­some young man with blue eyes, a quirky sense of hu­mor and ironic smile – says he has no idea what he wants to do when he grows up. After all, his life has changed. After a year as an IDF pi­lot cadet, he trans­ferred to the elite unit of the Is­raeli En­gi­neer­ing Corps called “Ya­halom.” That’s “di­a­mond” in He­brew and an acro­nym for “Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions En­gi­neer­ing Unit.” Emmanuel says he is a “bomb tech­ni­cian” and not in the Sa­mur (Weasel) Unit, which de­stroys at­tack tun­nels. His job is to iden­tify and re­move ex­plo­sive de­vices placed, tossed or flown into Is­rael from Gaza.

Fe­bru­ary 17, 2018, was a Shab­bat like so many oth­ers, marked by demon­stra­tions, at­tempted at­tacks and in­cen­di­ary ob­jects. Zerah re­moved a Pales­tinian flag stuck in the fence. While he was car­ry­ing it away, the flag ex­ploded in his left hand.

At the mo­ment of im­pact, Zerah didn’t re­al­ize how se­ri­ously he was in­jured. He didn’t think he would die. The blast broke his eardrums, scorched his legs and de­stroyed his left hand.

He’s a lefty. He’s had eight op­er­a­tions so far, and more to come to fix his leg, his ears and re­con­struct the hand. Says Emmanuel, “I’m good with my right hand now. It’s amaz­ing how you can change when you have to.”

Emmanuel tells me that he is the first in his fam­ily to serve in the IDF, and proud of it. I’m in­trigued by the paint­ing on the liv­ing room wall of a dif­fer­ent sol­dier, debonair but serious in a green uni­form, to whom Emmanuel bears a strong re­sem­blance. That’s his grand­fa­ther Rabbi Nis­sim Ben Aaron, Ju­dith’s fa­ther. Her fam­ily comes from Al­ge­ria, a com­mu­nity that dates back to the first cen­tury CE. Most Al­ge­rian Jews set­tled there in the 15th cen­tury, when Jews were cast out of Spain and Por­tu­gal. Al­ge­ria won its in­de­pen­dence in 1962. The Na­tion­al­ity Code of 1963 de­nied ci­ti­zen­ship to all non-Mus­lims. Most Jews, like the Ben Aarons, moved to France. Be­fore that, Rabbi Ben Aaron served as chief rabbi of the French forces. He was with the US Sev­enth Army’s 45th In­fantry Di­vi­sion at the lib­er­a­tion of Dachau on April 29, 1945.

Dr. Marc Zerah, a gy­ne­col­o­gist at Hadas­sah Hospital, left Tu­nisia when he was a boy. The 2,000-year Tu­nisian Jewish com­mu­nity is also gone. Dr. Zerah, who also served in the French Army’s med­i­cal corps, was sent to the West Indies.

Ju­dith is a speech ther­a­pist. She and Mark met in Paris.

And then, in 1999, the fam­ily ful­filled its own Zion­ist dream by mov­ing to Is­rael from Paris with their three daugh­ters and their son, Em­mauel. It’s been a long fam­ily jour­ney.

I WAS still think­ing about the Zerah’s fam­ily his­tory when a few days later I vis­ited the Ten­e­ment Mu­seum in New York, where I signed up for the so-called Sweat­shop Tour. One of my re­grets is that I know only a few de­tails of the lives of my grand­par­ents who im­mi­grated to the United States. How­ever, I do know that my pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther worked in a sweat­shop after he landed in New York.

There are no fac­to­ries on the tour. The in­fa­mous Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­tory, where 123 women and 23 men were burned to death in 1911, is now part of New York Univer­sity. The Ten­e­ment Tour takes tourists to 97 Or­chard Street, an apart­ment build­ing where 7,000 im­mi­grants lived from 1863, when it

‘I’m good with my right hand, now. It’s amaz­ing how you can change when you have to’

was built, un­til 1935, when it was aban­doned. The ten­e­ment was dis­cov­ered, de­void of ren­o­va­tions, and pur­chased by the board of the Ten­e­ment Mu­seum in 1988.

I never pic­tured wall­pa­per in a ten­e­ment, but the cu­ra­tors scraped off 20 lay­ers of it along with 40 lay­ers of paint. Re­put­edly, they dis­cov­ered mail still in mail­boxes from the 1920s. One was an over­due no­tice for a li­brary book ti­tled Is­rael. Most of ten­e­ment re­mains a ruin, but sev­eral apart­ments have been re­stored to their con­fig­u­ra­tion of the 1880s, a time of mass im­mi­gra­tion of Eastern Euro­pean Jews to the United States. When I grip the orig­i­nal ma­hogany ban­is­ter, I pic­ture my grand­fa­ther, a man in his 20s, climb­ing the nar­row stairs.

One apart­ment on the tour was both the home and fac­tory of a fam­ily named Levine. Child-rear­ing and dress-man­u­fac­tur­ing – sewing and press­ing – went on in the same space. There were also board­ers. The in­ter­nal rooms of the apart­ment were di­vided by “tu­ber­cu­lar win­dows,” an in­no­va­tion of the health depart­ment to in­crease light and air and com­bat the con­ta­gion of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. Later, these home-based work­shops were re­placed by the in­fa­mous sweat­shops that gave rise to the la­bor unions.

My grand­fa­ther Fishel also served in an army – the Polish Army, I think – some­how tak­ing the place of a brother who es­caped to the United States dressed as a girl. My grand­fa­ther – an or­ga­nizer of a move­ment to fight back against pogroms – threw an an­tisemitic po­lice­man over a fence. That pre­cip­i­tated his passage by steer­age to the US. He’s listed on the rather won­der­ful Ellis Is­land web­site. By 1905, after their son had died, he had saved enough to send for my grand­mother. My grand­fa­ther con­tracted lung dis­ease and was ad­vised to re­cu­per­ate at “a health farm.” In­stead he went to a real farm in Colch­ester, CT, where Baron Mau­rice de Hirsch had set­tled Jews as farm­ers. He lived to old age, cor­re­spond­ing of­ten with his younger cousins who went to Pe­tah Tikva and Kfar Saba. Their chil­dren would greet me when I made aliyah.

How long and cir­cuitous and dif­fi­cult has been our re­turn as a peo­ple!

I ask the Zer­ahs if they regret their de­ci­sion to move to Is­rael, con­sid­er­ing Emmanuel’s in­jury. They shake their heads no. And what of Emmanuel him­self? Is he sorry about be­ing brought to Is­rael? Not at all, he says, shak­ing his head. No re­grets. If called upon, he’s ready to do his part again.

(Photos: Courtesy)

ON FE­BRU­ARY 17, 2018, as a sol­dier in the IDF’s elite Ya­halom unit, Emmanuel Zerah re­moved a Pales­tinian flag stuck in a fence – and the flag ex­ploded in his left hand. Zerah – pic­tured below in his hospital bed, lis­ten­ing to the megillah on Purim – has since un­der­gone eight op­er­a­tions.

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