Yosef and Chana — our unlikely friends
It’s pretty safe to say that you can predict the kinds of people you, or I, would like to have as friends. In my case it would be an elder, definitely someone over 70, a serious Jew, and a politically liberal strong supporter of Israel. My friends wouldn’t eat a ham sandwich or go to the movies on Yom Kippur. Most of my friends would, no doubt, come from New Jersey or New York.
Our friends in Jerusalem, however, had more diverse histories. They too were all Jewish but they came from other places. For example, it was unlikely that we would have met Diana and Mesh from Johannesburg in Parksville or Newark. And we certainly never would have befriended Maurice and Delia from Casablanca, probably the most elegant couple we’ve ever known.
And then there were Yosef and Chana from Brooklyn. Yes, from nearby Brooklyn, but a vast journey from us even if the miles were inconsequential. We and they had been thrown together, an unlikely and remarkable collision of Jewishness and lifestyles. Circumstances — very complicated and ultimately tragic circumstances — had pulled us together like powerful magnets. And what normally would have been a polite and cursory nod in the elevator became a close and beloved friendship. Strange as it was.
We met first in an immigrant absorption center, Mevaseret Zion Ulpan. Yosef and I were in the same class, a class for those who had some — but not very much — spoken Hebrew. Yosef, a devoutly religious Boro Park yeshiva head, and I, some 25 years his junior and quite far from devoutly religious, chatted away in Hebrew, Ivrit, as was the tradition in the ulpan. That was the extent of our friendship.
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His wife Chana was in an even more introductory class. She was a bit of a complainer, I thought. I didn’t predict the strength, or the sadness, that was to come.
After our five-month stint in the ulpan we moved to French Hill in Jerusalem. At the time it was a new neighborhood, developed after the 1967 war. As we were there on the invitation of the government due to my husband’s work in pollution control, they assigned us a nice three-bedroom apartment that, as it turned out, was coincidentally about five steps beneath Yosef and Chana. We moved in at about the same time, August 1973.
Our lifestyles were markedly different. But they were nice people and so were we, so we had an amicable relationship that started with smoking. Cigarettes were the shared bond between Yosef and me!
I had been trying to stop smoking for many years. Eventually I did succeed, probably due to the policy I had seriously undertaken, which was never to buy myself cigarettes. The logic was that if there were no cigarettes within reach, I could not smoke.
Yosef, on the other hand, was a confirmed smoker and never was in pursuit of a smoke-free life. For me, the hour of greatest temptation was always after supper. To this day, all these years later, I know I could easily revert to smoking that after-dinner cigarette. And so, with lots of chutzpah, I asked Yosef if I could join him for a smoke after dinner, every night except Friday. He said yes, and our friendship was the ultimate result.
It was lovely for many reasons. For me, adjusting to life in Jerusalem with a busy household of six plus a dog, those nightly visits were an island of calm. Every evening, I would climb those few stairs to a place of serenity, while Yosef and I attempted to understand each other’s radically different ways of life. It helped that neither of us was judgmental. I cannot say whether, nearly a half century later, that would still be true. I hope so.
We chatted about endless topics. Our lives were so totally foreign to each other. How could either of us anticipate what a speeding train was heading our way?
With no warning, in October 1973, we were all confronted with the Yom Kippur War. We civilians had certain mandatory tasks. We had to comply with the blackout, keeping our “trisim,” the metal shades that were on every window and would make our building invisible to aircraft at night, in the down position. This was not a difficult task and we all complied, but Chana whined about it as if she were a combat soldier. Yosef shrugged off her complaints and I guessed that he had been doing that throughout his married life anyway. Her show of unbelievable strength was yet to come.
We survived the war. Although many chayalim lost their precious lives, I don’t recall civilian casualties and actually there were only very few trips down to our building’s bomb shelter. The main issues we had were about the lives of family members serving in Tzahal, particularly my sister’s husband, Zeev, who had been in every war since 1948. He came out unscathed.
Finally the war was over, and we learned from military analysts how challenging it really had been. Throughout that very bad time, Yosef and I continued to smoke our cigarettes.
And then, when things seemed more normal, a terrible thing happened. Abruptly, without notice or prior symptoms, Yosef was rushed by ambulance to the old Shaare Tzedek Hospital on Rehov Yafo. He was in agonizing pain, suffering deeply.
That was when we realized who Chana was, who was hiding in that qvetchy persona. Her strength was simply unimaginable. She carried on staunchly. Uncomplainingly. During the hospitalization, on Shabbat, when she could not go to the hospital by bus, she walked, up and down the fierce, bitterly cold and windy hills of Jerusalem, to reach her beloved.
By that time our family had already started to be more observant. This was attributable to Yosef and Chana and to our children’s friends. But on the last Shabbat of Yosef’s life, when we knew the end was imminent, my husband decided to drive to the hospital to see if he could be of help to Chana. When he reached the hospital he found that Yosef already had died and it was the hospital’s policy not to reach out to family members until the end of Shabbat. He awaited Chana’s arrival and broke the tragic news to her. Her treasured 57-year-old husband was gone.
Chana rejected my husband’s offer of a ride back home. She said, “In all of the years of my life and marriage, I never once desecrated Shabbat. I would never forgive myself if I did so on the very day that Yosef died.” Thus she walked home, carried by her grief and the fierce and crying winds of Jerusalem.
Yosef was buried on Ha ha Zeitim that very night. I will never understand how, in those days long before cell phones and email, those communications worked, but his funeral, at which no women were allowed, was attended by vast numbers of yeshivish men, young and old. It was a huge tribute to my dear friend.
Chana was a rock, a pillar, a mountain of enormous strength. Her dignity in the midst of this profound loss was truly inspirational. There was no sign of the Chana I thought I had known. She had complained only about the little stuff. When it came to true heroics, she was a powerful force. I know Yosef would have been proud of her indomitable spirit.
I learned recently that Chana had joined Yosef many many years later, reaching very old age. She joined him there on the Mount of Olives in the holiest cemetery in Israel. May their memories be for a blessing.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!