From generation to generation
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.
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.