HomeApril 2012From the Homeland

From the Homeland

I was in New York City for a wedding when I turned on the television news and saw pictures of the Otzar Hatorah School in Toulouse.

I could not believe my eyes.

A little over twelve years ago our daughter Rachel had done her second year of National Service there, trying her best to infuse the children and the community with her own love of Israel and their Jewish heritage.  Rav Monsenego, who had interviewed her for the position in Jerusalem, was the head of the struggling Jewish school, and Jonathan Sandler had been one of the older students there.

It was a small Jewish community back then, a bit raw and isolated.  All the men in synagogue were either over forty or under ten.  And it was impossible to ignore the growing Muslim presence in the city.  Only a year or two later, the town would suffer a massive explosion in a chemical factory.  While the police called it accidental, Toulouse was abuzz with the rumor that a Muslim factory employee had been found dead wearing multiple sets of underwear, a hint that he had been preparing to meet his multiple virgins.

I’ll never forget the hospitality of Rav Monsenego and his wife, Yaffa, on the Shabbat we came to Toulouse to visit our daughter.

Oddly, what sticks in my mind is how modest their little house was, and how I stood next to Rabbanit Yaffa as she carefully washed dishes in cold water with a metal scrubber permissible for use on the Sabbath.  There was something very young and girlish and sweet about her, a gentle light in her eyes as she flashed her beautiful, gracious smile.  It was so comfortable and easy to speak to her and her family over the wonderful Sephardi dishes she’d prepared.

They had four children then, some of whom had already been sent away to school because Toulouse had so few Jewish educational institutions.  As I recall, her two youngest children, son Benny and daughter Yael, were still there, beautiful, smart, lively kids who spoke to us in Hebrew.  Yaffa, Israeli-born to a distinguished Sephardic rabbinical family and a teacher in the school, was full of energy and goodwill.  She and the Rav could not have been kinder.  My husband, Alex, and I thanked them both for letting our daughter become one of the family during her year abroad, little realizing how much more important they were to become to her in the years ahead.

For as her year of National Service drew to a close, Rachel, who the entire year had been telling us how much she was looking forward to coming home, suddenly began hinting she’d like to prolong her stay.  The mystery was solved when a handsome young Orthodox Parisian came to visit her in Jerusalem that summer.  He had been studying engineering and computer science in Toulouse for the year and also learning Talmud with Rav Monsenego during every spare moment.

Their marriage brought his French-Jewish family to Jerusalem.  I remember all my Israeli guests talking about the fabulous hats the French women wore.

Soon after we visited Yaffa Monsenego in Jerusalem in the tiny Geulah apartment that belonged to her parents.  As always, her lovely smile lit up the room although things had not been going easily for her.  She was still struggling to have another child.

When my son-in-law, Ygael, completed his studies, he and Rachel and their new baby relocated from Toulouse to Paris to be near his family.  But my daughter always kept in touch with the Monsenegos.  I was happy to learn that after a decade of disappointed hopes and unanswered prayers, God had finally granted them another child, a girl they named Miryam.  Everyone who knew them said their joy was palpable.

And now eight year-old Miryam, the pretty, shy, beloved child that had brought so much happiness to the fine people who had single-handedly brought Torah and Jewish community to Toulouse, had been murdered.  The Monsenegos had lost their baby.

I thought nothing could be more horrifying than that single fact, until I heard the details.

While life in Israel should have inured me by now to Islamic-inspired atrocities against children, somehow the image of little Miryam’s soft, tender blonde hair yanked by a stranger, the cold revolver held against her childish temple was unbearable, harking back to the darkest nightmare of our people.  To the million children brutally slaughtered for being Jewish by Hitler, we now had to add three more: Miryam, and little Gabriel and Aryeh Sandler.

“It’s the same Europe,” my daughter said, far away in Paris.  “I feel like running to take my children out of school and locking them in the house.”

French police cars, which had been removed from the entrances of Jewish schools in France, were now back, she told me.  “But something’s shifted,” she admitted.  “The Jewish community is uneasy.  Things aren’t the same.”

The next day, when the news programs shifted to the manhunt for the lone killer, I turned the set off.  Who, honestly, cared about him?  They were all the same, those cowardly young jihadi butchers; all soul-less, Nazi wannabees inspired by hatred and death; morons with brains and hearts the size of pebbles.  Instead, I decided to use my ticket to visit the newly opened memorial for the victims of September 11.

It is an awesome sight to see those two new towers rising; to hear the voices of hundreds of men and machines as they strive to return that vital part ripped so brutally from the heart of this great city.

You hear the memorial long before you actually see it.  It sounds like massive waterfalls in some far-off forest.  The closer you get, the less you can believe your eyes.  Two identical, enormous square pits fill the areas where once the old twin towers actually stood.  On all four sides waterfalls cascade down, the water meeting in a square black hole which sucks everything down into its bottomless darkness.

I felt my knees shake and tears come to my eyes as I stood there.  There, chiseled into the long, low marble enclosure were the names of every victim who had perished in that particular building.  Right in front of me was the name Marie Lukas.

Marie Lukas was 32 years old, a beautiful, vivacious girl, beloved daughter and sister, who loved to dance and had so many friends when terrorist planes struck her building.  She was sitting at her desk on the 103rd floor at Cantor Fitzgerald.  As the room filled with smoke, she dialed her father, a retired firefighter, and asked him what to do.  He told her to stay calm.

Miryam and Marie, I thought.  So far apart in time and space, and yet that dark, black hole had swallowed them both, leaving only darkness and endless pain behind.

I have always believed that evil is simply an absence of good, the way darkness is an absence of light. But now I can see that isn’t true. Evil is a real and separate thing: a tangible force in the world, like hurricanes or volcanoes.

Ten years have passed since my ears rang with the explosion of the terrorist bomb that tore apart the Park Hotel on Seder night.  Every time I get lulled into thinking the world is getting wiser or kinder, some other horror pops up to remind me that we should never fool ourselves into letting our guard down.  On the contrary, every good person in the world has no choice but to battle evil in any way every minute, every hour, every day.  The battle is never going to stop.  No peace treaty, no land giveaway, no distinguished gathering of slick-tongued politicians can, will or should make it stop.  Our journey from Egypt to freedom and peace continues.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on April 6, 2012.


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