By Yosef Shandling, L'Chaim Magazine
In the spring of 1968 I completed my commitment as an officer in the United States Public Health Service, having been stationed the last six months in Cincinnati, Ohio. A friend invited me to a Passover seder in Cincinnati, but I decided to return to my home in Brooklyn and attend the seders with my family, largely because of the warm feeling I associated with the family seder and all its rituals led by my grandfather.
But my grandfather had passed away the previous August, and I knew that without him, the seder would be lacking. Grandpa Milkman was a traditional, Yiddish speaking Jew from Russia, and he certainly conducted a traditional seder. Each year my immediate family would attend, along with all my cousins, uncles, and aunts. It was by far the richest Jewish experience of the year.
That first year after my grandfather's passing, at my aunt's home in Long Island, we celebrated Passover with a festive meal, much more "modern" than Grandpa's seder. Our meal included matzas and rye bread, and not too much singing or reading from the Hagada. It was more than lacking, it was a disappointment. I knew then and there that if there were to be any more seders in my family, I was going to have to be the one to make them.
In the summer of 1968, I went to Israel and learned in an ulpan (intensive Hebrew language course) for six months in Kibbutz Maayan Tsvi. I then worked as a volunteer for a year at Kibbutz Yotvatah in the southern part of Israel.
At the end of the year, I toured Israel, and arranged the paperwork and other details in anticipation returning home to the U.S.A., and touring Europe on the way. Yaakov Klausner, my ulpan teacher and mentor at Maayan Tsvi, where I had returned for a visit, suggested that I see a village called Kfar Chabad.
I traveled to Kfar Chabad and stayed there for a couple of days. Meir Bastomski, a young Israeli Chasid who could speak some English, encountered me early in my visit. He befriended me and shared his genuine warmth and love for Jews and his enthusiasm for learning Torah. I was impressed by the village's warmth, spirituality, and authentic old-world Jewish character. I was touched by the camaraderie of the guys, much like me, who were studying there in the yeshiva's special program for young men from non-observant backgrounds. This program was later to become Yeshivat Ohr Temmim presently led by Rabbi Schneur Zalman Gafne and Rabbi Tuvia Bolton.
As attractive and alluring as I found the people and the environment, I was presented with a challenge. I saw myself getting caught up, perhaps indefinitely, with the Chasidic village, and ruining my plans for Europe in particular and my very exciting, free ranging future in general. I decided I needed to leave before I got stuck.
I boarded the bus for Tel Aviv, where I would continue preparations for my return home. As the bus left Kfar Chabad, I took off the yarmulke from my head that I had been given and placed it in my pocket.
Once in Tel Aviv, I walked on Allenby Street, the busy "Forty-Second Street" of Tel Aviv. I needed to sort out where I wanted to be for the upcoming Passover seders. I had a number of invitations. "Kfar Chabad, that's where they will really make a seder like Grandpa Milkman, the way its supposed to be," I thought to myself. "No," I said, quashing the idea, "If you go back there, you're going to get stuck there."
I decided to go back to Kibbutz Yotvatah for the seders. Having settled that matter in my mind, I continued walking on Allenby Street. As I walked, I realized that I was in the thick of the urban "garbage" that I had talked about the other day with one of the American yeshiva students that I had met in Kfar Chabad.
During the year and a half that I had been on the two kibbutzim, I would from time to time travel from the kibbutz and visit other places in Israel including various cities. I would typically look forward to these trips with some excitement. But inevitably, I would find the city environment, in contrast to the rural kibbutz, to be very disorienting. When I became aware of this, I tended to be somewhat wary of making the trips. The cities were full of distractions, many of them not necessarily very wholesome.
As I passed the shops, signs and the masses of strangers, I felt strongly the disorientation I had experienced over the last 18 months whenever I visited a city while living in the rural kibbutz. I thought to myself: "Here I am in the middle of the city, Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, and all the garbage. I don't know anybody and nobody knows me. I want to meet someone, right now, who I know."
After the briefest of pauses on my part to see what response any "Higher Power" might offer, Meir Bastomski popped out of the crowd, gave me a warm "Shalom" and asked me "Where are you going to be for the seders?" You can just imagine where I spent Passover and the seders that year.
Yosef Shandling is a member of the Chabad Community in Monsey, New York. He leads his family seders every year, with all of his children and grandchildren in attendance.