They can’t take that away from me
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OpinionGuest columnist

They can’t take that away from me

So, no, they can’t take Kibbutz Alumim from me.

Sunset at Ashdod (Photo by Iforce courtesy of flickr.com)
Sunset at Ashdod (Photo by Iforce courtesy of flickr.com)

It was perhaps the most peaceful Shabbos I’ve ever known.

Perched in a little piece of paradise hard by the Gaza border, Kibbutz Alumim was calm, quiet; a beautiful green farm, a blessed respite from weeks of travel. In the summer of 2000, a dozen Pittsburgh teens, educators and I went on our own version of the March of the Living, first to Europe, then to Israel.

Beginning in the Czech Republic and Poland, Europe, while both memorable and fascinating, was hard to enjoy. Prague, brilliant and brittle, was empty of Jews. Ditto Warsaw and Lublin. Then there were the camps, now all state museums, all brutal beyond belief: Theresienstadt. Auschwitz. Birkenau. Maidanek.

Perhaps the saddest experience of all was our Shabbat in Krakow. Once the epicenter of Ashkenazi Jewry, Krakow, filmed to such great advantage in “Schindler’s List,” remains almost entirely Judenrein, its few remaining or reconstituted Jewish businesses dependent almost entirely on tourists.

Friday night we went to the Remah Synagogue, named for Rabbi Moshe Isserles, arguably the greatest European Torah scholar of the last 500 years. Author of the Ashkenazi version of the “Shulchan Aruch,” the comprehensive code of Jewish law, the Remah, by his very presence, made Krakow into a kind of Jewish king’s capital, an Eastern European Jerusalem.

On our Shabbat there we arrived to find the synagogue deserted. Not certain what would happen, we waited, hoping to get
a minyan for Kabbalat Shabbat. We did, finally, but only because there was an abundance of tourists, including us.
Knowing what was once there, and how important it was in Jewish life and history, the sight of this empty place was heart-wrenching indeed.

Happily flying to Israel a few days later, we toured for a bit, then headed off to Kibbutz Alumim for Shabbat.

Built the year before the 1967 war, adjacent to then-Egyptian-controlled Gaza, Alumim is a textbook kibbutz, a lovely bucolic village given to carrots and potatoes, chickens and cows. A separate income source is a row of guest cottages.

While our first experience in these Israeli bungalows was a bit of culture shock — the tiny bathroom-as-shower brought peals of laughter (“I can poop and wash at the same time!” one teen proudly proclaimed) — we quickly settled into our small, austere rooms, relishing the ubiquitous Elite coffee and cake we found.

It was splendid.

As was our truly joyous Shabbat — singing, eating, basking in the warmth of Alumim’s friendship and fellowship, everything heimish and heavenly.

After dinner, we walked outside into a cool summer night, then lay on the lawn, looking through dark trees at the starry sky — and Ashdod’s distant, twinkling lights. It was perfect; it seemed as if the entire world were at rest.

It’s an absolutely wonderful memory.

And then …

Last Oct. 7, 30 Hamas murderers breached the Alumim perimeter, killing 19, kidnapping eight. The photos are unspeakable; the
descriptions even worse.

There’s a tricky Talmudic concept called lemafrayah — can we change the status, the fact of something retroactively? That’s the question here. Can these monsters commit an act so heinous now as to ruin even the memory of a place then? Can their bestiality besmirch even the recollection of beauty?

Can they erase a most beautiful time in my life — a Shabbat of incomparable menuchah/consolation?

Now, every time I hear or think of Kibbutz Alumim, will I immediately conjure up unspeakable horror?

Or will I hold, as Ira Gershwin wrote, “the memory of all that; no, they can’t take that away from me”?

Because their taking even memory is a wholly intentional tactic of their war, their pogrom, one designed not only to destroy life, but to destroy our souls as well.

It will not succeed.

For I categorically refuse to grant them any kind of victory — any shred of it.

I refuse to surrender to their darkest visions of humanity, their visceral hatred of the Jewish people, their genocidal desire to obliterate us and everything that belongs to us, especially, our minds and spirit.

So, no, they can’t take Kibbutz Alumim from me.

I won’t let them.

Not the place, not the Shabbat, not the best Kibbutz Alumim Shabbat moment, which actually occurred before Shabbat.

Doing a profoundly un-Jewish thing, the teens and I actually showed up early for Kabbalat Shabbat services. Sitting alone in the kibbutz beit knesset, we began to feel that we might have another Krakow moment, a few scattered souls wandering in, hopefully enough to make a minyan.

All at once, a small army of kibbutzniks strode in, a sea of white shirts, dark skirts and trousers. In a heartbeat the entire room was filled.

Wide-eyed, speaking with the complete surety of a 15-year-old, one student leaned over and whispered, “We’re home.” PJC

Abby Mendelson is the author of many books about Pittsburgh.

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