“The power above is set in motion by the impulse from below, even as vapor ascends to form the cloud. If the community of Israel did not first give the impulse, the One above would not move to meet her, for yearning below makes completion above.” – Zohar, Genesis 35a
I have always believed the secret of Jewish survival is exemplified in the life of my grandmother, of blessed memory, who I never met. She died when my mother – the second youngest of 11 children – was only 7 years old. Young as she was, my mother, Sarah Rebecca Opas, never forgot her mother, or the spirit of Yiddishkeit she left behind.
My grandmother’s name was Mila and she was betrothed to my grandfather David from the age of 3, when her parents in Plotsk, Poland, called her in from playing to tell her that, when she grew up, she was to marry the little boy next door. This was back in the early 1800s when betrothals were arranged by parents as a matter of course.
It was the time of pogroms in Europe and, when he reached the age of 17, David informed his parents he was leaving for the New World and had secured a job on a ship. “What about Mila?” he was asked. “I will send for her when I get settled,” he assured them. “No you won’t, you’ll take her with you.” So, Mila, then 16, and David were married by the rabbi before sailing to the New World, which David believed to be America, but was in fact Australia.
The ship took six months to reach Port Adelaide in Australia. David was hired to be a handy man on the vessel, and his first job was to look after the food. As there was no refrigeration then, the whole supply of meat was lowered on cables into the ocean, where the salt water would preserve it. However, he failed to secure it properly, and it all sank to the bottom of the sea – no meat for the crew for the entire trip. His next job on board was to sew any sails that had been torn in the strong winds. He had no idea how to sew, so his young wife did it for him, as well as keeping the captain and crew’s clothing repaired.
Before they reached Australian shores, Mila was already expecting her first child.
Both having come from Orthodox homes, it was a terrible shock to them when they landed. No synagogues, no kosher butchers, no established Jewish communities. They settled in a little country town, Bombala, near the border between Victoria and New South Wales. David opened a store to provide fodder and dry goods to the farmers in the surrounding districts and, gradually, as they learned English, the business prospered enough to give the family a comfortable lifestyle.
But Mila’s heart was always sad, because she did not know how to keep her family Jewish, as there were no other Jews for them to meet and marry. So, she made a plan.
Mila had heard that there was a small Jewish community in the city of Sydney. As each of her older children turned 18, she would travel to Sydney and stay there until she found a Jewish boy or girl willing to go back with her to Bombala and marry one of her children, sight unseen. Her love of her Jewish heritage was such that achieving this became the most important part of her life, and she was amazingly successful. Of the 11 children, only one of them married a non-Jew; there were no divorces. Sadly, Mila died of scarlet fever still relatively young, before the penicillin was invented that would have saved her life.
My mother and her little brother were raised by their older sisters, who by then were all married. They never let her forget her mother and the importance of remaining Jewish even in near-impossible situations where Jewish rituals are almost nonexistent.
In retelling my grandmother’s story to me so many years later, my mother always stressed that the Jewish soul is unquenchable. No matter how far one strays from observance, the spark remains and it is something precious that must be cherished and passed on from generation to generation. By making my home in Israel, becoming an observant Jewish woman, and being blessed with 18 Israeli grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren here, I hope my mother and grandmother can be at rest.