Hanukkah miracles can still happen, no matter the place or year

 Heavy snow fell on New Jersey this week, just as it did 14 years ago as I prepared to return to Israel.

After a two-week speaking tour in 2006, I was anxious to get home and join my family for the final days of Hanukkah. But as always, I first stopped to visit my parents, still living in the house where I grew up, a 20-minute drive from the airport. After our visit, I arrived at the terminal filled with my mother’s latkes and my father’s always-solid advice, and stood in line for check-in.
Directly in front of me was A.B. Yehoshua, the internationally acclaimed writer and outspoken peace activist whose novels I revered but whose politics I often abhorred. It wasn’t only his ultra-left positions on the peace process I rejected but his recent pronouncements on American Jews. They were only “partial Jews,” he declared, unlike the “complete” Jews of Israel. I ached to tell him that American Jews were complete in their own way and did not think of themselves as exiles. Their identity was not at all as frail as Yehoshua depicted it, but frequently brave and even muscular. Zionism, I wanted to state, was not a zero-sum game. One could be proudly Israeli and still respect the integrity and legitimacy of American Jews.
Yet I said none of this. Rather, in a typical Israeli way, the moment we starting talking it was only about the balmy weather back home and how much we missed it. Warmly, we exchanged stories about our respective journeys across the United States. He insisted that I call him “Boolie” and introduced me to Rivka – “Ika” – a clinical psychologist and his wife of 27 years. Handing over our bags, we retired to the departure lounge still chatting.
But the snowfall grew heavier, canceling many flights. Soon ours, too, disappeared from the board, and then the entire airport closed. Thousands of travelers were stranded without food, ground transportation or the slightest guidance. The Yehoshuas, I could tell, were anxious. Nearly in their 70s and with limited English, they had nothing but the clothes they wore and absolutely no one to phone. 
“Stay calm,” I assured them. “I’ll call my father.”
They seemed perplexed. How could some man who was even older than they were extricate them from this mess? They didn’t know Lester Bornstein.

Raised during the Great Depression in a tough Irish neighborhood of Boston, he daily fought off antisemites and then, during World War II, battled the Nazis. On another snow-chilled night in December 1944, he stopped the enemy’s advance through the Ardennes Forest by blowing up the lead tank with a bazooka. Three months later, he rowed US infantrymen three times, back and forth, across the Rhine River under murderous fire. For these actions he received two Bronze Star medals and the French Legion of Merit.
His heroism didn’t end there, though, but continued in his capacity as president of the Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark. After the devastating riots of 1967, most of the city’s leading hospitals fled to the suburbs, but not Beth Israel. My father and his all-Jewish board insisted on remaining and serving the mostly African-American community. At a time when black doctors often could not find jobs, he insisted on hiring them, remembering how Jewish doctors were once similarly shunned.
THIS WAS the man who, to Boolie’s astonishment, I turned to in the middle of our seemingly hopeless plight. Though my father and I occasionally had our differences – he’d opposed my moving to Israel, my volunteering for the paratroopers, and Hebraicizing my name – I could count on him in a fix. And, sure enough, my father’s immediate response was “Hold on, I’m coming for you.” I tried to explain that both the Parkway and the Turnpike were closed and that driving was extremely hazardous. It didn’t work. He was already on his way.
Twenty minutes later, shivering, confused and grateful, Boolie and Ika piled into the back of my father’s sedan. My mother, Marilyn Bornstein, was in the front seat – he’d brought her along! – and helped navigate our way out of the airport. Into the night the car crept, frequently braking and skidding, into one of the state’s worst-ever blizzards.
Apart from the many vehicles stalled on the shoulders, ours was the only one on the road. Visibility was essentially zero. Still, here was my father hunkered over the wheel, a sheepskin hat pushed doggedly forward, undaunted. The Yehoshuas were speechless.
The usual 20-minute drive took close to an hour and a half, but miraculously we arrived. Waiting for us inside was the dinner table my mother had set before leaving. So, too, was a stack of the translated A.B. Yehoshua novels she adored, opened to the autograph page. My daughter, Lia, staying at my parents’ home on her post-army trip, was there to greet us and assisted in making the Yehoshuas comfortable. My father poured out some bourbon and toasted us “l’chaim.” Then, gathering around the menorah, together we lit the candles and recited the blessings, giving thanks to “He who performed miracles for our forefathers.”
That night, Boolie and Ika slept in the bed I occupied throughout my childhood. The next morning, the sun was out and our flight to Israel was rescheduled. My parents drove us back to the airport and said goodbye with a teary exchange of hugs. And then we parted, Israeli and American Jews, each to their own reality.
Years passed and Boolie and I remained in touch. Politically, we still agreed on virtually nothing – not on the peace issue nor on matters of Jewish identity. He continued to dismiss Diaspora life as “partial” and insisted that only Israeli Jews were “complete.” And yet, each meeting was an exhilarating exchange of ideas and impressions, historical references and literary themes. We couldn’t express them all fast enough.
Unfortunately, we never paused to consider the meaning of that night: how those “complete” Israelis were helpless until rescued by my “partial” American Jewish parents; how, irrespective of where they live, Jews can display Maccabean courage and an ironclad sense of peoplehood; and how, whether they occur here or there, Hanukkah miracles can still happen.
Ika Yeshoshua – “the only woman I ever loved,” Boolie told me – passed away in 2016. My father died last week, at almost 96, beloved by his three children, 10 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. Thursday night, in Israel and the United States, our family lit the last of the eight candles and remembered him.
The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, member of Knesset and deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the author of The Night Archer and Other Stories (Wicked Son, 2020).


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