The first time was many years ago. I had just concluded explanations about Yeshivat Knesset Yisrael” which arrived in Hebron from Slobodka, in Lithuania in 1924. The Hebron Heritage Museum at Beit Hadassah features an exhibit about this illustrious Torah-learning academy, nicknamed the ‘Hebron Yeshiva,’ which includes a ‘class picture’ from 1928.
As I finished my brief account, an older man approached me, put his finger on a picture of one of the yeshiva students and asked me, ‘do you see him? That’s me.’
That was Rabbi Dov Cohen, a phenomenal Torah genius, who, following my tour, came back to Hebron and gave us his tour.
I always thought that this was a ‘once in a lifetime event,’ having someone point themselves out in a photo taken so many decades ago, here in Hebron.
But it happened again.
On Friday afternoon the Farbstein family came into Hebron for Shabbat. Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Farbstein, today dean of the ‘Hebron yeshiva,’ now located in Jerusalem, arrived with his wife and many grandchildren. And his mother, Rabbanit Chana Farbstein.
Chana Farbstein was born in 1923. Her father was Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, a Torah giant. Her grandfather was the legendary Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, dean of the yeshiva, located then located in Slobodka, which, a year or so later, moved to Hebron. Chana lived in Hebron until the 1929 riots, in an apartment next to Eliezer Dan Slonim and his family.
Friday afternoon, before Shabbat, the Farbsteins took a short tour of Hebron, which began in the museum. When we approached the Hebron Yeshiva exhibit, she moved, as hypnotized, to one of the photos on the bottom row, stared at it, and then pointed to a small girl in the right corner, saying, ‘that’s me.’ To her right, a young woman had her hand on little Chana’s shoulder. ‘That’s my mother.’
A ‘once in a lifetime event.’ And it happened to me for a second time.
Chana later told us that she must have been about four years old at the time the photo was taken.
Even though she was barely five and a half at the time of the riots, she remembered them quite clearly: “I remember a big truck going through the streets. They were throwing rocks at our house and calling out my father’s name ‘Chezkel.’ They were looking for him. It was our good luck, he was in Jerusalem.”
“Do you remember what was told to you, what was going on?”
“No one had to explain. We knew exactly what was happening.”
She said that on Saturday afternoon, her family was removed from Hebron and taken to the ‘Strauss Building’ in Jerusalem, across the street from ‘Bikor Cholim hospital. Asked when she ‘left’ the city,’ she replied: “We didn’t leave. The British came, on Shabbat, and took us to Jerusalem.”
Later she also spoke about remembering the pain of having to pray at the 7th step at Ma’arat HaMachpela, not being allowed to enter the structure. “We would stand there for a few minutes, and then leave.”
Were relations with Arabs always poor? “No, when we went shopping in the market an Arab with a large round basket would go with us. We would put the produce we wanted into the basket, he would carry it and later bring it to our home.”
Chana Farbstein is a phenomenal woman. She also stood with us on Friday afternoon, at the cemetery in Hebron, where 59 of the 67 massacre victims are buried. Her son, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Farbstein, recited two Psalms at the site, his voice breaking, sensing the atrocities and pain of the events occurring 84 years ago.
The next morning, Mrs. Farbstein walked from Beit Hadassah to Ma’arat HaMachpela for morning prayers, and later in the afternoon, to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood to attend a special class presented by her daughter-in-law, Dr. Esther Farbstein, an expert on Holocaust studies, author of the book, “Hidden in Thunder.”
After Shabbat, as I arrived to interview her, I found her sweeping the floor.
Her son, Rabbi Farbstein, told me that that last winter she had been very ill, and there was grave concern that she might not recover. But recover she did, and despite only meeting her for the first time, her inner strength and iron will were quite obvious.
The Hebron yeshiva lost 24 students during the massacre. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein moved the Torah academy to Jerusalem, but never really recovered from the horrors of that awful day, dying five years later. But the family tradition of Torah greatness continues, as was apparent during the Rabbi’s Torah class Saturday afternoon. Asked why the yeshiva hadn’t returned to Hebron following the 1967 Six day war, Rabbi Farbstein related that his grandfather, Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, met with then Prime Minister Levy Eshkol to discuss this matter. ‘Eshkol,’ he said, ‘basically scared my grandfather, saying that he shouldn’t take such responsibility on himself. ‘
“However, every year, on Tisha B’Av, after reciting Lamentations, my grandfather would get on a bus and come to Hebron, to visit at Ma’arat HaMachpela.”
My encounter with the Farbsteins, and especially with Rabbanit Chana, left me full of wonder and amazement. As we left them Saturday night, I told her, ‘here in Hebron we are blessed with ‘zechut avot,’ with the birthright of our ancestors, beginning with Abraham, thru to King David, and continuing on to such heroes as your father and grandfather. We are links in a chain, trying to follow in their footsteps, to continue where they left off. “
This is our inheritance, our legacy, an eternal bequest, from time immemorial.