Parshat Vayakhel March 1, 2003 TOPIC: Lebowitz Baby Naming
In September of 1989, I was invited to the Great Synagogue in Vienna Austria for the High Holidays. The 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, right after the services, a fellow came up to me. I looked at him, he looked a little weird, his eyes were red, his face was red, and he obviously had become very emotional. This man said to me, "Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Peter, and today is my first time in a synagogue. I have never been to synagogue in my life. I was touched by the singing of the melody of Jerusalem of Gold. As I told you, I have never been in the synagogue, I don’t know anything about the synagogue or Jews. When I was a little more than seventeen, my father was very sick and on his deathbed. He said to me, "Peter" "I know that my days are few. I need to share something with you. Your mother and I decided when you would turn 18 that we would tell you that we left for you a savings account that you could use for education or whatever you need. And also because I am so ill and she died last year, I wanted to tell you that we actually adopted you.’
I said, "Dad, what do you mean?" He said, "When you were two years old----- it was right after the war. We adopted you, your mother was Jewish, alone and penniless. She was very ill and she handed you over for adoption, she had no choice."
"Who was she?" I asked my Dad. He said, "Peter, I really don’t know anything about her, the only thing I know is her name was Ziesel Berenstein."
Peter continued sharing his story with me. "Well, Rabbi, my Father passed away several months later, and I was brokenhearted. I started Law School, completed my studies. For years I searched for information about my mother. I was very lonely in the world; I didn’t have anyone left. One day, I talked with my partner at the Law Office and I told him my story, asking him for advice. He advised me hire a large firm to do a private investigation. I hired a special detective—his expertise was on the subject of adoption. I paid him a fortune and nothing happened. I waited for many months, I used to call him almost every day—"Hello John," I would say, "this is Peter"…and he would say to me, ‘Sorry, I don’t have any new information.’"
"One evening, while I was in my office, the phone rang. ‘Peter I have news for you. Finally we have information, we found your mother…she is still alive, very ill, but she is in a nursing home in Hanover Germany.’"
"Rabbi, I couldn’t sleep at night, I called him again and asked John to make contact and ask her if I could come and meet her and talk to her. Two days later, I was on a train from Vienna to Frankfort, from there I went to Hanover. I can’t describe to you Rabbi, how I felt when I walked into her room. I looked at this lady, whose body was just falling apart, there wasn’t much left. But her face was beautiful, there was a glow in her eyes, and after a few moments of silence, she started talking to me."
"We spent many hours sharing, she told me the story of her whole family. She said to me, ‘you have two brothers and three sisters. They are all gone. Your father was taken to work and never returned and when I was pregnant with you, I ran away from Poland to Germany, from Germany to Czechoslovakia from Czechoslovakia to Vienna. I was very ill and you were a little more than a year old when I arrived in Vienna. I thought I was going to die because I ate very little and I hid you all the time when I crossed the borders. I was actually starving for many months, I was so ill, and had no money. It was so difficult a choice, but my only one because I wanted you to survive--so I handed you over for adoption. Now, I look at your face, and you remind me very much of my father. My father who is you grandfather was a cantor in the city of Sevirz in Poland. He had a beautiful voice. His name is Yosef and everybody loved to hear his voice. He had a wonderful personality and one day they took him to work-- he never returned. When you were born we named you after him, Yosef Berenstein. I want you to know that even though I went through many different countries, I never changed my name, my name was always Ziesl Berenstein. I don’t know how long I will live in this world, but I want you please to promise me one thing, I want you to remember all your life that your name is not Peter. Your name is Yosef Berenstein.’"
Peter continued with his story. "This happened just a few weeks ago. I couldn’t sleep at night and I was looking for a great Jewish place, so I found this place. My mom sang this song to me , Jerusalem of Gold, many times and now, the first time I am in a synagogue, I heard the song and I was very touched."
I looked at him and I said, "The only thing I can tell you is that I bless you, and will give you the blessing that your mother gave you, that you always remember who you are: Yosef Berenstein."
After the High Holidays, I went back to Israel, and for years, I never heard from this man, Yosef. On the festival of Hanukkah, during the evening prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I participated in the service of lighting the eight candles of Hanukah. All of a sudden, this fellow came up to me after the service, he looked at me and said, "Are you Rabbi Weisblum?" I looked at him and said, "Yes." He said, "Do you remember me?" "No," I replied. He said, "Look at me." The man had a long red beard, black hat, holding hands with two little religious boys, and I said to him, "No, I don’t know you." He said, "We met on the High Holidays at the Great Synagogue in Vienna." I was shocked, "Do you remember me, I am Yosef Berenstein. I made Aliyah, I came to Israel, I have a law firm here in Jerusalem, I married, and I have four children. I am very happy here. My oldest daughter, her name is Ziesl, which I named after my mother."
You know friends, today, we name a new baby here, I want to address you, that all your life you remember you are "Yakirah Shoshana" and you should be proud of that. Bless you, bless your family your mother, grandmother, with good health and happiness. Mazel Tov.