From Jacob Wexler to Avraham David Moses
Varda EpsteinVarda Meyers Epstein is an expatriate, third-generation born Pittsburgher...
From Jacob Wexler to Avraham David Moses: The Story Within a Story
My mother in-law describes a lonely childhood as an only child in a house filled with adults. There were few relatives to flesh out the extended family so that she remembers them in clearest detail. So it is with her distant cousin Essie Wexler, whom she recalls with distinct clarity and pleasure. The Wexlers would visit the Schwartz family and the two little girls would play in the backyard, Seena and Essie. They must have both been about three years-old.
But then Essie’s family made Aliyah and Seena never saw Essie or the Wexlers again.
That is the story that came out when my husband, taking a cue from my forays into my family genealogy, began to ask questions about his own family history.
My husband had made Aliyah in his mid-twenties, so this was intriguing news. “Aliyah?” he asked. “They came to live in Israel? When was that?”
Dov wondered if he had relatives right here in Israel, perhaps the descendants of Essie Wexler. He never suspected the rich and awful history he was about to hear. It was a personal tragedy the likes of which no one wants to hear—the kind of story that raises gooseflesh on your back and arms and remains a part of your everyday consciousness, forever.
Essie’s brother, Jacob (Yaakov), was 16 when he traveled to British Mandate Palestine, to study at the Slobodka Yeshiva in Hevron for a year of intensive study, in 1929. It was at this time that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin El Husseini, preached from the Al Aqsa Mosque that the Jews planned to take control of this spot, the Temple Mount, the holiest site of the Jewish people.
It was a ridiculous claim. The Jews had no power to take back their rightful property. The British held the reins and they favored the Arabs.
No one favored the Jews.
But the Mufti’s words had their desired effect. Angry Arab mobs stormed Safed and Hevron, massacring more than 100 Jews. Yaakov Wexler, HY”D, was one of the 67 Jews killed in Hevron. It was a pogrom.
There were decapitations, gouged out eyes, rapes, members cut off and stuffed into body cavities, limbs and digits sliced off, the heads of babies bashed against ancient walls. They spared not women, babies, the old nor the young. Jacob died from an axe blow to the head, thanking God with his last breath for the privilege of dying while immersed in the study of the holy Torah in Eretz HaKodesh, the Holy Land.
The dreaded telegram, misspelled names and all.
Dov knew about the Hevron Massacre. Who didn’t? But he never knew he had such an intimate connection to the terrible event.
This was a great deal to take in.
Yet there was still more to the story.
Seena told Dov that it was just one year after Yaakov’s murder that the rest of the Wexler clan left Chicago for Israel and settled there. Dov and I were impressed with their bravery—their dedication to the mitzvah of settling the Holy Land, in spite of their intimate personal knowledge of the dangers this decision entailed.
We further learned that little Essie Wexler grew up to marry the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Betzalel Zolty. Both of them, Essie and Rav Betzalel, are long gone. But their son, Rabbi Aryeh Zolty, heads up the Kollel (a study institute for married Torah scholars) of the Jerusalem branch of the Hevron Yeshiva, a branch of the very same Yeshiva his late uncle studied at in Hevron. Could there be a more appropriate way of commemorating the sacrifice of the young martyr from Chicago?
We didn’t think so. We, Dov and I, were struck by the beauty and symmetry of how things worked out. We saw Rav Aryeh’s position as a way of not only perpetuating his uncle’s memory, but bearing fruit, the fruit of Torah scholarship, as a sort of substitute or perhaps an exchange for the life Yaakov would have had, and the brilliant descendants he might have left.
At that point, it was as easy as opening a Jerusalem phone book to locate Aryeh Zolty. There were conversations by phone and Dov met the Zoltys in person. But there was still more to the story. Because in Israel, no story is ever over. Every story is a seed within a seed, waiting to be watered and nurtured, to produce its own seed and progeny.
And so it was, in 2008, that another 16 year-old boy, immersed in the study of Torah, was slaughtered by an angry Arab, this time in Jerusalem. That precious martyr was Avraham David Moses, the son of my friend Rivkah Moriah. He shouldn’t have been in the study hall at that time. All the other students were planning the festivities that would usher in the joyous Jewish month of Adar, of which the sages said, “He who ushers in (the month of) Adar, increases happiness (Ta'anit 29a).”
But Avraham David, HY”D, was in love with his learning. He found the study of Torah to be the thing that gave him the most joy—more than parties or merrymaking. And that is where the bullet found his young body, bent over a volume of Talmud, in the study hall, in deepest concentration. I have seen the photo of his blood-stained tzitzit, the ritual fringes. I have watched my friend Rivkah live with the knowledge of her beautiful firstborn, slain out of Muslim hatred for Jews, yet at the same time, killed as the result of a random coincidence. It could have been anyone. But it wasn’t. It was HER SON.
And he was killed for the crime of being a Jew.
In Efrat, the terror touched us deeply, though not as deeply as it touched Rivkah. We, parents of children, struggled with putting makeup on our children’s faces, and costumes on their tender bodies, as they got ready to celebrate the new month at their respective schools. It was meant to be a time of great merriment.
Liba, my teenaged daughter, at that time attended a Haredi school, a Beth Jacob seminary located in Jerusalem. Somewhat of an anomaly, our family is Haredi, though we live in a National Religious community and our sons serve in the army. In fact, my kids are often made fun of, for being in the “enemy camp.”
I kissed Liba goodbye, got the little ones off to school and got on with my morning chores, plodding dully through the day, unable to stop thinking of Avraham David.
Later that afternoon, Liba returned. She had something she’d stored up to tell me on the long ride home from school involving two buses. Something had happened that was, for her, momentous. Something that made her feel equal to her peers in Efrat.
A rabbi had come to speak to the girls of her school. He was an important man and had simply shown up and asked if the girls could be assembled—if he could address them as Banot Yisrael (daughters of Israel)? The principal and teachers were flattered and hastened to accede to his request, especially since the New Month festivities had been canceled because of the Jerusalem tragedy, the murder at Mercaz HaRav of 8 young scholars, among them Avraham David Moses.
The students were quickly assembled and the rabbi spoke to them from behind a curtain, so that he might guard his modesty while addressing a female audience. The rabbi told the girls the story of his uncle, Yaakov Wexler, who had been killed in Hevron, in 1929, while immersed in the study of the Holy Torah.
This was a war, he said, that had never ended. It continues from 1929, until today. Jewish boys in Batei Midrash, in study halls in Israel, are slaughtered by Arabs, simply because they are Jews.
It doesn’t matter, said the rabbi, if it plays out in a study hall on Sorotzkin Street, in a Haredi neighborhood, or in a study hall affiliated with the National Religious community, such as at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. In this, in the killing of Torah scholars, we are all one people, one family, one nation.
There is no greater sacrifice, said he, than dying for the sake of learning Torah in Eretz HaKodesh, in the Holy Land. There is no greater privilege, than dying as a Jew immersed in study only because one is among God’s chosen people. It is a tragedy that belongs to us all.
And it is the Banot Yisroel, the Daughters of Israel, he continued in a thunderous voice, who must continue to supply our nation with generations of Torah scholars that immerse themselves in the study of the Holy Torah, even though they will slaughter us in our study halls, and target us because we are Jews. This! The Torah, is our secret weapon. It is through the study of Torah and the sacrifices of mothers of sons that we survive as a nation.
Liba was deeply impressed by these words.
“Liba,” I said, already knowing the answer, “Was the rabbi who spoke to you named Aryeh Zolty?”
“Eema,” she cried. “How did you know?”
“He is your cousin, as was Yaakov Wexler before him, may God avenge his blood. Rav Zolty is your Savta’s (grandmother’s) cousin and therefore your cousin.
It made so much sense—still does all these years later—that of all the seminaries Aryeh Zolty might have chosen as the venue for his speech, he had chosen my daughter’s small school, with its student body of fewer than 100 girls. It was here that Rav Zolty chose to tell the story of a story that never ends.
It’s a story of death and survival: the survival of one nation that imagines among its own people all sorts of divisions, but is nevertheless comprised of soldiers, both willing and unwilling, all of whom are willing to die for their principles and for their nation.
For the sake of holiness.