“Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles, and speedily gather us from the four corners of the earth to our land.”
–From the daily prayers
Naomi is a 23 year-old major in languages at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is a new immigrant to Israel, arriving from Hungary, and a newcomer to her identity as a Jew.
Only two years ago, Naomi would have never dreamed of coming to Israel. She was a university student living with her parents in Szeged, near the Romanian border.
"This word `Jewish,' was not part of my vocabulary. I knew nothing. I never even heard of Yom Kippur," relates Naomi.
Her mother and grandmother had been inmates in a concentration camp during World War II, but they never discussed their experiences. Before the War, her grandmother lived as an Orthodox Jew and her grandfather wore a shtreimel, the special fur hat worn by Hasidim on Sabbath.
Her grandfather was killed by the Nazis when Naomi's mother was five years old. Returning to their native land after the war under a Communist regime, Naomi's mother and grandmother hid their Jewish identity.
Of the once flourishing Szeged Jewish community, only about 200 elderly Jews remain in the city's population of 100,000. Like Naomi's grandfather, many of the Jews were killed in the war, and the remainder largely disappeared through assimilation and intermarriage.
Naomi's own father is not Jewish. He used to work for the secret police under the Communists and now he repairs old furniture. Her mother is a seamstress. Their combined income is $100 a month.
Buried deep in Naomi's consciousness is a memory of being quietly taken by her grandmother to the big, old synagogue near her house. It looked to her like a museum. Nobody was praying there, and she did not know what function the synagogue had. She only knew that she must keep her visit a secret. But she wasn't successful, and when her mother found out, she forbade her to go there again.
When her grandmother passed away, Naomi made an discovery which changed her life. Among her grandmother's possessions, she found a Jewish prayer book with some old photographs inside the pages. Naomi resolved to learn Hebrew so she could read the prayers in the siddur. Her grandmother had left her a precious inheritance: her Jewish identity.
Naomi came to Israel just before Rosh Hashanah a year and a half ago. She had limited funds, and the best option seemed to be volunteer work on a kibbutz. But after a few months, she felt that the kibbutz life did not satisfy her desire to understand her Jewish roots.
A flyer at the central bus station in Jerusalem led her to enroll in a yeshiva for women who, like Naomi, are unfamiliar with the treasury of Jewish teachings. Presently, she continues her intensive Jewish studies while pursuing languages at the Hebrew University. Naomi is fluent in five languages and hopes to work as a translator.
Last Pesach, she ate matzos and attended a Seder for the first time. On the festival of Sukkot, she shook a lulav and etrog. For Naomi, each Jewish holiday is a first-time experience and an exciting discovery, and she feels a deep gratitude that she is celebrating in Israel with other Jews.
Naomi's mother in Hungary still lives with the fears of the past. When Naomi sent a Jewish calendar, she refused to hang it up on the kitchen wall where others might see it. But last Yom Kippur, her mother quietly observed the fast for the first time. Naomi hopes that sometime soon she will have enough money to bring her mother to Israel for a visit.
"I don't think my story is so incredible," says Naomi, "I just want to be a Jew and I will never forget it."
Copyright 1997 Varda Branfman