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Friday, July 27

The blast from the past, through the eyes of a twelve year old

The blast from the past, through the eyes of a draft-dodger turned secret agent.

Remembering the Bomb Attack on European Pirchim boys, Summer 1980

Thirty two years have passed, since the sad events unfolded in Antwerp, my hometown. Nearly every year, as the month of Av rolls in, I remember those innocent victims, my classmates who lost an organ or school friends who were maimed for life.
Still, life continued and we slowly adjusted to new realities like terrorism, physio-treatment to ease the release of shrapnel. And then another word entered our young minds - Holocaust, the dreaded word the adults mentioned, were schmoozing about the bad times, thinking that we're long gone to bed.
It was another regular day in Antwerp, the same as any other – with a cloud-filled sky and smog filled streets. In our flat, we had a higher than usual traffic, for a number reasons. In our showroom-cum-bedroom, wide open Luggage was in the process of being filled up with our belongings, in preparation for an overseas trip. In the dining room, my parents were entertaining Mr & Mrs Lieberman who were visiting from Haifa in Israel.
I still remember the distinct noise that came as a thud in the distance, which saw our guests perk up. Mr Lieberman said that a bomb just went off, adding a wish that no one has been hurt. Having lived through half a dozen conflicts in the holy land, they were sadly well attuned to these kinds of sounds. I was the first out of the house, racing down the steps to the street, two floors below. My father was soon behind me, trying to keep me away from danger (and perhaps, mischief).
We met my younger brother on the Mercatorstraat, where he told us the sad news: an Arab attacked the Aguda boys, who were about to embark on a bus on their way to the Ardennes. There were many victims, all with as yet unknown injuries to all parts of their body.
My brother Aaron was outside his friend Shmuly's house when the father was coming out of the underground garage, where he had parked his car. With one fell swoop, the man pulled the heavy garage door downwards, until it closed completely. The sound of the garage door hitting the wall had an overstated echo, which made Shmuly's father remark that something must have happened just now. The two boys ran in the direction of the Lamorinierestraat, where – according to their guesstimate the 'boom' originated from.
Sure enough, they were of the few who managed to get to the scene, before the police cordoned off the whole area.
I commented to my father how Arele always manages to be where the action is. My father berated me, saying that I shouldn't envy him when such sad things happen to our people.
The rest of the day passed in a blur, with people offering new details of the sad event on a constant basis. One boy was killed and many lost vital body functions such as hearing, sight whilst others were being treated in trauma departments in hospitals across Antwerp.
The following day, at the levaya of Hakodosh Habochur Kahana from Paris, all of Antwerp attended. When cars started pulling out on their way to the Beys Hachayim in Putte, which is across the Dutch border, I also wanted to go. I felt it my duty – all of a thirteen year old – to be present at such a harrowing time, so that I could participate in the historic event unfolding in front of my young eyes. However my father would have none of it, especially as no other boys were going. With no other option, I made my way home and started switching into holiday mode. Our preparations to join the Bobov summer camp "Shalva" in the Catskills were now going to be in full swing.
Before I had a chance to reach our street, I saw my father as a passenger in a car that was passing by on its way to the cemetery. I quickly forgot my plans for a vacation and ran after the car, which slowly ground to halt. I peered into the vehicle, hoping there would be an empty space for me to squeeze in. Alas, the passengers had already squeezed in as much as they could, with no room left for me skinny little thing. As I was contemplating my predicament, a small car stopped in the middle of the road and the passenger asked something in Hebrew. I went over and realised that these two non-frum people are trying to make their way to the Beys Olam, to attend the funeral.
This was my chance! I told them that I would show them the way, if they only waited until I tell my father, to which they consented. Rushing over to where my father was waiting, I quickly told him that I am going with these people who are on their way to the Levaya. I jumped into the small car and in a panic told them: "don't lose sight of this car!", pointing to the old banger my father was travelling with
Did I pray! Just imagine we lose the car in the lead and they ask me for directions. The only other time I went to Putte was for the Levaya of Reb Itzikel Ztz"l and that was four years before. . .
During the trip I realised that the guy in the passenger seat is none other than the Israeli Ambassador to Belgium. He kept peppering me with questions about me and my family, about our schools and our knowledge of the Hebrew language.
Having travelled to Eretz Yisroel before, I knew that my status as a draft-dodger, as my mother A"H was an Israeli citizen, making me one by default. Therefore when the representative of the State wanted to know how come my Hebrew was so advanced, I quickly countered with a one-liner that I ended up repeating many times at passport control on my way out of Eretz Yisroel: we in Antwerp are being taught the Hebrew language as part of the curriculum. The guy must have been impressed as he didn't press any further . . . As if he would have arrested me on the spot for bolting from the draft before I was called up!
As we arrived into the cemetery the two officials donned head coverings and proceeded to the place where people congregated around the freshly made grave. We realised that we've just made it in time for the Ambassador to offer a few words, we heard the Kaddish and then returned to the car. I refused offers for a lift from other people, not wanting to forego the trip with these dignitaries. One of the bystanders, a Yeshiva boy many years my senior couldn't resist asking me if I was enlisted as a camouflage for possible terrorist attacks. This made me stop in my tracks and think again about making my way home with my hosts. However the lure of mingling with tack brass overcame my fear and I deftly followed them into the little white car.
When we arrived back home, I showed them my address and invited them for coffee. The ambassador amicably accepted the invitation and my father was duly impressed when he received the ambassador's own, personal, embossed business card.
I still remember people repeating speech that Reb Zalman Lehrer Ztz"l held, during the trial of the Arab terrorist (who has since been set free by the Belgian authorities, having sat out his sentence). It was a true Kiddush Hashem!
This story might only be an anecdote, still it shows that when calamity befalls us we learn to drop our guard, breach the walls that divide us and see our brethren as Yidden – however far they've gone. As the Gomorrah says: Yisroel, af-al-pie shechoto – Yisroel huh. A Yid, his grave sins notwithstanding – always remains a Yid! The ambassador was light years away from what we hold dear, however he understood that he must be part of such an event, to share the pain of Kellal Yisroel.
Next time you pass by a person who looks like a Yid and behaves like a goy – remember: by you greeting him nicely, you may pull the lever that may eventually propel him towards Yiddishkeit. And who knows, one day he might end up reminding you to stop schmoozing in middle of Leining . . .

Footnote:
Exact date:
1980(14th of Av, 5740): A Jewish boy from France was killed and others were injured when terrorists threw grenades at a group of children in Antwerp, Belgium (Source)

Wednesday, July 25

Beautifying Knowledge over Physique

With all the hype surrounding the Olympic games and the procession of the torchbearers, it is important to turn our focus to the real challenges in life.
I feel it is important for us as Jews – the People of The Book – to promulgate the studying of our life guide: the Torah. Whilst we all believe that the written and oral law were given at Sinai, it is sometimes out of our grasp to really delve into it on a daily basis. Some people tend to be intelligent, studious or principled; they will find the time, resources and the drive to become well-versed in our holy Torah. Not everyone is like this, so what is there the rest of us? Are we to remain ignorami forever?! 

It is therefore heartening that a solution is there for every Jew to familiarise himself with the words of wisdom, comportment and lore that is hidden in the fountain of wisdom. The Daf-Yomi* programme is just this: a daily learning programme, which has in it's dozen cycles brought the word of HaShem to millions of Jews.
Join the real torchbearers of our ancient rich heritage, which distinguishes itself with the power of the intellect – not raw physics. The Daf Yomi sets us apart as a species that thinks, analyses and grows from this continuous educational experience. Whereas the Greeks gave a competition-filled game to the world, the daily Daf gave us an even older future: to know the Creator though the blueprint of the universe – the Torah.
Next week, the current Daf Hayomi cycle is nearing its finishing line, which will be celebrated throughout the world in the form of grandiose Siyum Hashass** events. Perhaps the time has come to enlist more members to this uninterrupted learning programme.
Let's do it for the sake of HaShem, for the sake of the Torah and for the sale of Am Yisrael. Let us remember all those who gave their life for belonging to the People of the Torah: those who were murdered during the Hebron Disturbances in 1928, the victims of the Nazi monster, in the period leading up to – and in the course of – WWII, and the many individuals or whole communities who were killed or wounded in the Zionist-Arab conflict – on the holy soil of the holy land and elsewhere.
Let's hope that - in the merit of all the millions of hallowed pages, which ascend to heaven – we will soon be able to line the streets and witness the torch of Emuna, Tiqwa and Geulah*** being led through our streets, on its way to the Holy Temple where we shall celebrate the ultimate redemption from Galut Yavan and Galut Edom****, speedily in our days, Amen.
Thank you,
Menasche Scharf
* (lit. daily leaf/page)
** (lit. the finishing of the six tomes)
*** (lit. belief, hope and redemption)
**** (lit. the Greek exile and the Edomite exile)