Friday, January 1, 2010

David and Jonathan

The Torah has many lessons about many aspects of life that can be relevant to almost everyone, in one way or another. Some only become clear at different stages and phases of life. There are many Biblical models of friendship but one that is most striking is that of David and Jonathan. Their relationship is particularly interesting because while they should have been competitors for Saul’s throne, instead they were best friends. We all should be lucky enough to have at least one such relationship in our lives. I have been fortunate to have many, and since moving to Israel to make many more. Recently, I was thinking of one of my earliest, substantial, and most meaningful friendships with a dear friend whose name happened to be David. No, we did not reconnect on Facebook. A mutual friend found some letters from 25 years ago that he had written to her, and shared them with me. It brought back vivid memories of early morning classes and late night conversations from the 1980s. I met David during my freshman year of college. We were fraternity brothers and became instant friends. David became the closest thing to an older brother that I had. We shared hopes and fears, talked politics and religion, cooked meals, and drank together. There was scarcely anything that David and I didn't talk about, and we learned many things from each other. My friendship with David was, and remains, one of my most cherished relationships. When I met David he had just returned to college following surgery and recovery from having a grapefruit-sized tumor removed along with a large piece of his colon. His prognosis was very good, and he returned to finish his senior year at Emory. In addition to studying, David did a good bit of informal teaching, about recovery from cancer. I never knew about the effects of morphine, either as a hallucinogen or as a pain killer, or what a colostomy bag was. A grandmother had died from cancer, but I never knew what recovery was like, or about what one who has/had cancer and is in recovery was thinking. I didn’t know David before his cancer, but he was entirely open with me about all his thoughts, not just about cancer, but about life. In addition to being open about his hopes and fears, David retained an extraordinary sense of humor. It was common to have nick-names in the fraternity and David was no different. His was “semi-colon.” His fraternity jersey had our three Greek letters on the front and, while others had their names or nick names on the back, David’s simply had the punctuation mark “;” representing the name by which we all knew him affectionately. Having cancer forced David to confront many things that an average college student never considered, or even knew about. David graduated and stayed in Atlanta for a while where our friendship continued to flourish. He returned to New Jersey and was preparing to go to medical school when, following a typical post surgical medical checkup, it was discovered that his cancer had returned. David had to put medical school on hold to deal with more chemo and other treatments in order to beat the cancer again. If medical schools took credits for personal experience, David would surely have entered far ahead of his classmates. His understanding of medicine, cancer, surgery, recovery, and both the physical and psychological side effects made David far more aware and sensitive to aspects of medicine that most medical students would take years to learn. And it drove him to get well so he could be the best doctor he could be. In the 1980s, before e-mail, Facebook, cell phones, or even long distance phone plans, keeping in touch long distance was harder. David and I did so with an occasional phone call, and the now antiquated art of letter writing. My studies kept me busy in Atlanta and I rarely traveled to the north. After graduating, I kept busy finding a job and planning my second visit to the USSR to continue my advocacy for Soviet Jews. David had been a huge supporter and participant in my advocacy for Soviet Jews. We talked about it all the time, and why it was imperative to do everything we could. In October 1987, I returned to my parents’ house in Jew Jersey for a visit en route to the USSR. This trip was less nerve stressful than my first trip two years earlier, partly because I was going with a friend, and partly because I had already been there before. But I was still nervous. David was too ill at the time to drive himself to visit me before my departure, so he had his parents drive him the 90 minutes to my parents’ house so that he could visit me, encourage me, and partly live this impending experience through me while giving me an outlet for my nerves. Among the things in my life that I’ll never forget was that visit. David was bald again, thin bordering on emaciated, and his bright eyes were sunken, all as a result of the new round of chemo that was trying to arrest the cancer. Yet, as physically weak and broken as he looked, David was vibrant and full of life. His eyes were piercing and his interest in the mission on which I was about to embark was intense. David was interacting with me on every level of his being. As he left, we embraced and agreed that I’d be in touch after my safe return. He was not worried about my safety, but he knew I was. I returned to the US after an “adventure” filled trip and filed lengthy reports with the Soviet Jewry organizations and many individuals that had facilitated my trip. I sent David a copy. Settling back into a routine, I got a job, winter came, and my life went on. One day I got a call that David had died. My emotions ranged from shock, sadness, and denial. I realized then that David probably knew he was dying which is why he made the effort to visit me two months earlier. But I had not understood that. Maybe he didn’t want me to. I was in Atlanta and the funeral was in New Jersey the next day amid a winter storm. As much as David was, and always will be, one of my closest friends, I still regret not having been able to make it to the funeral. We held a memorial for David with friends from the fraternity, Emory, and all over Atlanta. This was important closure for us all, and even though he had left Atlanta several months earlier, the void of his death was pronounced. If David had lived, ours is a relationship that would have transcended the need for Facebook because we’d have been in close touch even throughout these many years. We’d have danced at each others’ weddings, shared the blessings and challenges of parenthood, stresses and achievements of work, and endless thoughts on life. Instead, I have a child named for David who I hope will grow up knowing at least this much about the man behind the name. I have been blessed with many “David and Jonathan” relationships since then. Not all my closest friends are named David, but my friendship with David is the model upon which I base many of these relationships since. David’s death was, and is, a big loss in my life. It has not been replaced by other relationships, but supplemented by them. David taught me many things, including dealing with mortality. As I have gotten older, one of the best things that I have been able to take away from my friendship with David is to realize that life is finite and that the “David and Jonathan” relationships that we are fortunate to have are ones that should never be taken for granted.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Taking Stock in Hamas

If Hamas were a publically traded company, there's little doubt that they would be rated a stock to buy. As it appears Israel may be about to strike a deal with Hamas to release nearly 1000 terrorists and others in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped and held hostage for three and a half years by Hamas in Gaza, it’s a safe bet that upon concluding this deal, Hamas’ stock will go up. Especially on the Arab street. Hamas’ ability to kidnap and hold Shalit hostage all these years gives them added prowess in the eyes of the Arab world for holding Israel at bay. Exchanging Shalit for as many as 1000 Arab terrorists will be perceived as a big victory for Hamas. In business terms, it’s like launching a new product that replaces that of the nearest competition, or the conclusion of a hostile takeover. Yes, if Hamas were a publically traded company, now would be a good time to buy. But a careful analyst, while issuing a recommendation to “buy Hamas” now because of the impending deal, and a resulting increase of Hamas’ value, would be remiss not to consider other factors that might change the “buy” recommendation to a to a “sell”, almost as quickly as many of the terrorists who are expelled from the region find their way back to Gaza through the porous border with Egypt, through the network of tunnels to which Egypt and the world turn a blind eye. One of the reasons Hamas’ stock is likely to dive as fast as it rises is an ongoing conflict with Egypt. While Egypt facilitates the smuggling of weapons, drugs, prostitutes and terrorists through the tunnels if only in not preventing it, Egypt has been embarrassed by Hamas too many times and consequences are likely to arise. Egypt has been trying to serve as the broker to strike a deal to release Shalit but Hamas has embarrassed Egypt by seeking to work through German mediators. Egypt has also been trying to strike a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah since the violent Hamas insurrection that saw Fatah and the ruling Palestinian Authority expelled from power in Gaza, and the establishment of a mini Hamas terror state in Gaza under its total hegemony. Hamas’ agreeing to, and then retracting from, reconciliation with Fatah was a personal slight to Egyptian President Mubarak, diminishing Mubarak’s own stock in the Arab world, challenging his strength, influence and even legitimacy. As a result, Egypt announced its plan recently to build a 30-40 meter deep underground metal wall along the Gaza border to block and prevent smuggling in the tunnels which, until now, they have let happen with virtual impunity if not active support. The political struggle between Egypt and Hamas aside, were smuggling like this to be stopped or significantly diminished, access to many items that have been smuggled will decrease, their prices will increase, and Hamas’ stock on the street will fall. While Hamas’ stock may well go up as a result of its ability to strike a deal that sees the release of as many as 1000 terrorists and others, a good analyst will not discount the fact that a year ago this week, Hamas instigated a battle that saw Gaza attacked and an equal number of Gazans killed as a result. If half of the human tragedy that Hamas (and Goldstone) claimed took place actually did take place, while there may be cause for celebration in the release of the terrorists on Gaza’s streets, nobody can ignore that the suffering that Gazans have endured is a direct result and consequence of Hamas’ religious extremism, ideological intransigence, and their unrelenting attacks on Israel whose very existence they still give no legitimacy. With nothing changing on the extremism, intransigence or physical attacks, a good analyst will know it’s just a matter of time before there is another battle that could see 1000 or more Gazans killed, again. This too will diminish Hamas’ stock on the Arab street. There is a great conflict in Israel over this deal with Hamas. There is near universal support for and solidarity with the Shalit family and desire to bring Gilad Shalit home. He is one of us and could be any of our sons. But there is equal division, and are lots of questions, about at what price to do this. How should the relatives of someone murdered by these (soon-to-be-released) terrorists feel that their murderer is going free? How should any of us feel in making such a deal? It gives us pause to go out for coffee, ride a city bus, or spend a holiday with family in a hotel, knowing that the terrorists responsible for some of the worst terror attacks in places just like this are running free, plotting to do it again. There is concern that in making such a deal we are legitimizing Hamas’ tactics and rewarding terrorism. The world chastises Israel for fighting Hamas which is part of the reason that Israel does so without completing the battle and crushing them entirely. Yet the very completion of the deal at hand may be the inevitable act that necessitates Israel to fight Hamas yet again. Of course, Hamas is not a publically traded stock but a criminal Jihadist terrorist organization. In business there are any number of factors that cause a company’s stock to rise and fall. Some we can project and predict. Others surprise even the best analysts and planners, and can only be responded to. If Hamas were a publically traded company and I were a business analyst, I would project is that a deal to release Gilad Shalit for some 1000 terrorists and others may increase Hamas’ short term value and may bring Gilad Shalit home to sleep peacefully in his own bed at last. But, I’d issue a call to sell shares in Hamas as fast as Shalit gets home, because his return will give no reason for Israelis, or Palestinians, reason to sleep peacefully for very long.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


This week is the anniversary (yartzeit) of the death of my grandfather. He was born in Poland to Yosef and Yaffa Feldstein, and made aliyah in 1931. He and my grandmother were married and she arrived in Israel in 1933 where my father was born 4 years later. Luck, and passionate Zionism, had it that my grandfather’s arrival was eased by the earlier arrival of some of his siblings. By shortly after Israel declared statehood, he lived in Israel with three sisters and a brother who had either made it to Israel before the Holocaust, or in the case of one brother, survived the war and arrived afterward with his surviving son. Most families of Polish Jews were not as lucky as the Feldstein siblings who survived and were reunited all in close proximity to one another. A variety of circumstances transpired that my father and his mother left Israel in order to reunite with her two brothers and sister who survived the War and had settled in New York. In 1963, my grandfather died. He is buried in the beautiful old Haifa cemetery. According to Ashkenazi Jewish custom, since I was born after he died, I am named for him. While my father returned to Israel immediately after his father died, he lost touch with his uncles and aunts and cousins. I knew the names of uncles and aunts, but had no real way of finding them. During my junior year in college I studied in Israel and visited Haifa often. When I’d visit, I’d go to the cemetery to look after my grandfather’s grave. But other than imagining what my grandfather was like, a man whose name I carried but who I never knew, I had an ulterior motive. I’d leave notes on the grave, wrapped in plastic, weighed down under the rocks that were the sign that I visited, with the hope that a sibling, niece or nephew or old friend might find it and I’d reunite with my family that I didn’t know. I don’t know if they were ever found, but I never received any indication that they were. During my first visit to Israel, and the only time that I’d be in Israel together with my father, he brought us to visit his old neighborhood and his school. He found an elderly former neighbor who recognized him immediately after 30 plus years, and found an electronic shop owned by his best childhood friend, Ben Zion, across the street from where my father grew up (and next to where my grandmother once had a clothing shop of her own). We found that Ben Zion lived just two buildings down on the same street in which they grew up and where they played together as children. While it was meaningful and interesting to see where my father spent his early years, and I really enjoyed being taken in by Ben Zion and his family as if I were family, I always wondered about the biological family my father left behind. I wondered how he dealt with going to the US with his mother to reunite with her siblings who survived the Holocaust, and what it was like in an age prior to the internet and easy phone access to leave a parent so many miles away, just as his parents had done leaving their families in Poland, never knowing when, or if, they’d see each other again. Many years later, after my own father had died, I still had an unquenchable desire to find my Israeli relatives. Every time I’d meet a Feldstein I had to play genealogist to see if maybe we were related and if I could track that person’s family to find my own. Once, on vacation in Israel, I took a Haifa phone book and called all the Feldsteins, but had no luck considering that there was only one surviving male relative and all the sisters took on their husbands’ names. Ten years ago, I stumbled upon a Jewish genealogy web site and tried to look up all possible configurations of names and locations to find living relatives. brought me to a page on which a woman also named Feldstein was looking for relatives from the same town from which my grandfather came. Her phone number was a Haifa area number. I could not contain my excitement. I woke up early the next day, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and called her. In my broken Hebrew, I was able to discern that her husband was indeed my father’s first cousin. As I would learn later, Shlomo arrived in Israel after the War with his father, Jacob, and lived with my father and his parents until they got settled on their own. After searching most of two decades, I had found my family. Fortunately, my mother had planned a family trip to Israel that December and thirteen American Feldsteins had a family reunion with nearly 100 other Israeli descendants of Yosef and Yaffa Feldstein, finally meeting our Israeli family for the first time. After moving to Israel with my own family in 2004, I was able to get to know my relatives here somewhat. We were moved that some of my father’s cousins (and their children) joined us at the celebrations of our daughters’ bat mitzvahs, we have shared in their celebrations, and have had other occasions to visit and get to know one another, some more than others. What’s so interesting is that one cousin after the next are really fine people. While none are religiously observant, they are proud Jews and Israelis. They run the political spectrum from right to left. I have enjoyed getting to know them as people, but also have been grateful for their ability – and willingness – to piece together my own family history by sharing parts of their past, and memories of my father and his parents. This past summer we were invited to the 80th birthday of my father’s oldest cousin, David. We had met the cousins before but had not seen some since 1999. Just before the party, I found a photo of my grandfather along with several others and shared it with David. As I suspected, this was my grandfather and his siblings all in Poland, including each of the brothers and sisters who made aliyah, and a brother, Ephraim, who was murdered during the Holocaust. Sharing the photo at the party brought back memories to the cousins, and brought me closer to them. As I sat with them, I couldn’t help think that my father really would have loved to have been there. It would have made him happy to sit with his cousins and reminisce even though he left Israel as a young man and did not see them again. My father would have been proud to see that everyone grew up and came out OK, that they had raised beautiful families of their own. It was sad that he couldn’t have been there with us, but I was happy, and fortunate, that I had the privilege myself. My grandfather was the first of his siblings (in Israel) to die, and my father was the first among his cousins. These are not milestones about which to be especially proud, but that’s the reality. Now, ten years after reuniting with my family and 46 years after my grandfather’s death, I hope that circumstances will enable my nuclear family and all generations of my extended family to get to know one another and share many happy occasions together. We are very different people with very different perspectives, but we are all family and descendants of those who left Poland to build a better life for themselves in Israel. By thriving in Israel, we honor their memory and truly play a direct and active role in realizing the goals and dreams that they had for themselves, and for us. We fulfill the dreams of my grandfather, who never knew his grandchildren or great grandchildren, but who came to Israel so we’d have the privilege of being here as well. As I observe the yartzeit of the man for whom I am named, wondering about his life, I know that if he were around still he’d be very proud of our coming full circle, not just living here but in our reuniting with my father’s cousins with a common bond and a common destiny, as well as our common DNA.

An 'Al Het' Too Little Too Late

To the Editor, Jimmy Carter's sudden crocodile apology to the Jewish community is about as sincere as the probability of his reversing the flow of the Chattahoochee River. While it might be a stretch to doubt that Carter may truly wish for peace in the Middle East, his calculating “apology” is hard to accept given three decades of his cozying up to Arab terrorists and their collaborators, his faulting Israel for every problem in the Middle East, and blaming the Israeli victims of Arab terrorism. After three decades of strong arming and pointing a finger at Israel at every opportunity, Carter's word is about as good as the United States' credit rating during his presidency. Demonstrable actions are needed to back up his words, not copying liturgy from Judaism's most solemn Day of Repentance. Judaism requires meaningful actions to accompany repentance, not just the insincere utterance of scripted words. This is the standard by which Carter's sudden “apology” should be measured and judged, maybe in another 30 years. Jonathan Feldstein Jerusalem, Israel