One of my constant High Holy Day companions over the years has been a wonderful book, Days of Awe, by Israel’s Nobel Prize-winning author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon. In my last web essay, I listed it among the ten books that have influenced me most in my life.
As much as the book means to me, the person who gave it to me means even more. It was a gift from my father’s first cousin Dr. Judith Kaplan, whom I met when I came to Israel for the first time 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.
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 o’clock 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. They lived in what was, by U.S. standards, a modest apartment. Yet, they seemed very content.
Though Judith was a busy professional, she was also a Jewish mother, and her first reaction after greeting me was, “You must be hungry; you have to eat.” She went and fixed me a cheese sandwich. I had never eaten cheese before. But I did not have the heart to tell Judith that what she had made at four o’clock in the morning something I did not eat, so I did eat it. And it was delicious.
Judith was eager to know about the family. She was excited that I was going to be a rabbi, but she herself was a secular Jew. Yet, I knew from what I had heard about her, and I knew from what I saw 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. She had been very close to my father when they were children in Germany, and she told me wonderful stories about him.
I still remember walking with her along the beach in Tel Aviv. She had taken a day out of her busy schedule to be with me. The months passed, and when it was time for me to return to my studies in the United States, Judith gave me a present I shall always treasure. It is the book I mentioned earlier, Days of Awe, by S.Y. Agnon.
I have read the book many times. I try to read it in the summer as part of my preparations for the High Holy Days. I am reading it again now as Rosh Hashanah approaches. This year, though, I am reading it in Germany. The Germany that Judith wisely fled in 1935 is the Germany to which I have returned with hope and optimism nearly 80 years later. Days of Awe is the only hard copy book I carried 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 the most meaningful present I have ever given myself.
The introduction by Yale professor, Judah Goldin, refers to the book as a classic, and he defines a classic this way: “A work becomes a classic the minute I discover that my many moods, my perceptions … are startlingly anticipated … in that work.” By that definition, Days of Awe is certainly a classic, and so was my cousin Judith.
I shall never forget her insight or her caring. Her life was a shining example of service. Although she was well into her seventies, she rose early in the morning to go to the clinic where she worked. She came home in the afternoon to care for her ailing husband. Then she saw private patients in her office at home.
She was ever grateful that she left Germany in 1935, and that she was able to live happily with her husband, raise her daughter Devorah, who is also a physician, and bring healing and hope to many in the Promised Land.
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, I think of how she was there for me not once but twice when I needed her most, I think of her smile, and I try to be worthy of her example.
When I was last in Israel, I had a wonderful visit with Devorah, who is now a grandmother herself. When I shared with her my memories of her mother, tears came to her eyes, and in a very real way, Judith was there with us as we talked.
I pray that during my stay in Germany, I will feel Judith’s presence once again and that my efforts here will be worthy of her blessing