In the blink of an eye, another year has gone by, marking my seventh full year of writing this blog. Another year of being able to indulge my love of writing, whether about travel, food, Jewish stuff, or anything else that grabs my interest.
Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I published a lot fewer posts than usual this past year. But there is a good excuse for this, and it is not that I wrote any less than usual.
No, the real reason I was a bit “quieter” is that a huge amount of my writing time in 2018 was devoted to getting two books ready for release. I had hoped that at least one of them would be out by the end of the year, but the vagaries of the process – writing, rewriting, editing, reediting, proofing, kvetching, etc. – took their toll, and things inevitably got bumped into 2019.
However, I can now say with near certain confidence (and a fair amount of nervousness) that in the coming year I will wind up putting two fully formed books out into the world.
First up, in late February 2019, Man Mission will become available. This is my first attempt at writing a novel (albeit with a narrative rooted in real travel and born, in no small part, out of many of the posts on this blog). The story of Man Mission follows four guys across fifteen years, as they make annual adventure trips to far-flung corners of the globe, and along the way explores the concept of modern manhood.
And then in about June 2019 it’ll be Head-Waggling in Delhi, a collection of travel stories I wrote while backpacking around India, a mere 25 years ago, and initially published in serial form on this blog about five years ago (never let it be said the process of writing a book is a quick one!).
Both Man Mission and Head Waggling in Delhi will be released in hardback, softcover and e-book formats, and will be available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Closer to the date I will provide more details.
Posting less this past year also did not mean I traveled less. On the contrary, owing to the usual combination of work obligations, family needs, and happy circumstance, I traveled more than ever, with 2018 turning out to be an absolute bumper year from a travel perspective.
The basic statistics (thanks to a wonderful new app I got that most helpfully tracks these things for me) are, even if I say so myself, not so basic. Specifically, I clocked up a total of 396,741 miles in the air (across 541 hours). Which is pretty much the equivalent of having flown to the moon and almost back again.
Other 2018 travel stats: I went to 15 countries; made use of 32 different airports; flew on 15 different airlines; and took a total of exactly 100 individual flights. This, if my app is to be believed, ranks me in the Top 1% of travelers globally this past year.
In and among all of this back and forth, in September 2018 I added two first time countries to my list – Chile and Argentina. Visiting these was a huge highlight for me, in that South America has until now been a neglected continent in my travels (I had previously only ever visited Colombia). And I was not disappointed, with both Chile and Argentina blowing my socks off – amazing scenery, amazing food, and amazing people possessed of a sheer joy of living that is hard to explain, but which anyone who has ever been to these countries will understand immediately. [You can read about my Jewish encounter in Santiago, Chile by clicking here].
Traveling to Chile and Argentina increased the total number of countries I have had the pleasure of visiting in my lifetime to 71. Which is okay, I suppose, but when you consider that there are about 245 countries, territories and dependencies to visit in this world, it seems I have barely scratched the surface. So stay tuned for what I hope will be a few more “first-time visits” in 2019….
Other first-time experiences in 2018 included a long weekend in Mexico City, which instantly vaulted itself onto my “all-time favorite cities” list [click here to read about my food adventures in Mexico City, and click here to read about an interesting Jewish tour I did while there]. And I made a first trip to Nanjing, China, where I was reminded of just how incredible the modern Chinese miracle is, and just how fast the pace of change in China actually is [click here to read my observations about “Deep China”].
On top of all that, my 2018 travel list also included return trips to many spots I have been before: USA (Los Angeles [read here for my “only in LA” experience of goat yoga], New York, Miami, Denver and Houston, as well as a first time ski-trip to Big Sky, Montana); Canada (Calgary [read here for why Canadians really are the nicest people]); China (Shanghai); Singapore; Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane); New Zealand (Queenstown); UK (London [read here for my restaurant encounter with the English grouse], Manchester, and oddly enough, a little town called Spalding); France (Paris); Spain (Madrid); Israel (Tel Aviv); Cuba (Havana); and The Bahamas.
So in travel terms, I really can’t complain: 2018 was another pretty great year, and the travel Gods continued to smile in my direction.
For the last five years, I have managed to end each year in my favorite way – on a beautiful beach, in some sunny part of the world. But this year has been different, and a lot more grounded in “real life”, in that I spent the closing part of the year in Israel, at my parents’ house, cleaning out a spare room.
The reason for this is that almost three years ago, at the tender age of 65, my mother was diagnosed with a pretty ferocious strain of leukemia. Luckily, my folks live in Israel, where you will find some of the best, most advanced oncology treatment departments in the world. So after two rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, a leukemia that by rights should have been fatal is now in remission. That’s the good part.
The not so good part is that the treatment process has been very hard on my mother, and it has taken an awful toll, both physically and emotionally. For the past two years she has dealt with all manner of unexpected, utterly debilitating side-effects of the treatment, which she has faced with equanimity and an unbelievable rock-solid determination to get through. Although I’d be lying if I said it has been anything other than brutal. And so recently, as much to ease the burden on the rest of the family as anything else, my mum has decided that having full-time live-in care will be a good thing. Thus explaining the need to clean out the spare room.
Anyway, in the course of me doing this, buried in a pile of old papers and dog-eared books I found an unassuming little notebook, about the size of my palm, with a grey fabric cover. There were no markings on it, and the cover was a bit tatty. So it looked like an old nothing, really, and I almost threw it onto the garbage pile.
However I didn’t. Instead I opened it, to have a quick look at what it was. And thank God I did, because I immediately realized I was holding something pretty special in my hands.
On the first page was an inscription in handwritten Hebrew letters, and a date: “5/VII, 1945” (5th July, 1945). On the facing page was a flower, made up of leaves and bits of paper and fabric stuck to the page. The flower was obviously hand-made, and looked like a collage that a child might make in an art class. As was the rest of the notebook, which looked a lot as if someone had taken a sheaf of papers, cut them into shape, and then hand-stitched the pages together before affixing a hand-made cover.
Slowly, I turned the yellowed pages, one by one. Each was covered in writing: some in pen, some in pencil. Many of the writings were faded to the point of being barely legible; but each was unique, and in an obviously different handwriting. Most of the inscriptions were in Hebrew letters, some in Roman letters, but none were anything that I could readily understand.
And then, about halfway through the notebook, I came across a few inscriptions in English. On one page: “Thank you Lily for a happy evening. May your sorrows lead to happy days”, signed by Lt. Brooksbank. And a few pages later: “To Lily. Maybe you suffered in years, but tonight everything is left behind – only the future may it be happy”, signed by Sergeant Harry Sharp.
As soon as I read these, goosebumps broke out all up and down my arms, and tears welled up in my eyes. Because now I knew what I was looking at.
My maternal grandmother, Lea (or Leah; her English nick-name was often “Lily”), would have been 105 this year. She passed away almost 20 years ago, yet even today, long after her death, she remains a towering presence in my life (I have written previously about her and some of the lessons she imparted to me and all those around her – read here, here and here).
Lea was a Shoah (the Jewish holocaust) survivor, having been interred for most of WWII in various Nazi concentration camps. During the course of which almost all of her family – including her husband, and her young son after whom I am named – were murdered, for the “crime” of being Jewish.
Towards the end of WWII my grandmother had been transferred to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, which was located deep inside of German territory. The Nazis were so pathologically attached to their plan to wipe Jews off the face of the earth that often, as they retreated in the face of Allied advances, they made the Jewish prisoners in their concentration camps move too, rather than leave them behind to be freed.
In Bergen Belsen my grandmother was placed in charge of part of the camp kitchen, tasked with preparing whatever meager food was available for the camp’s inmates. This responsibility was given to her because of her formidable intellect and language skills, which enabled her to communicate and intermediate between the German camp overlords on the one hand, and Jewish prisoners from all over Eastern Europe on the other (my grandmother was fluent in German, Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Yiddish, English and Hebrew, and conversant in a few other languages as well).
From time to time, Lea would come across young Jewish girls in the camp who were on their own, having been separated from their parents and family (and who had presumably since been killed). In these cases, using her position of “authority”, my grandmother would petition the German authorities, claiming that she needed extra help in the kitchen and requesting the young girl in question be assigned to her detail.
And in this way, over the course of a few months, my grandmother gathered around her a group of about a dozen orphaned Jewish girls. Basically children who had lost everything, who had no-one to take care of them, and who were otherwise completely alone in the world.
These girls became my grandmother’s adopted family, who she protected until the end of the war – so much so that until she died, my grandmother continued to refer to them as her “daughters”.
When Bergen Belsen was eventually liberated by Allied forces in April of 1945, my grandmother and her “daughters” remained in the camp for another year, continuing to work the kitchen and assisting the Allied authorities with the horrific task of dismantling the Nazi death machine. And then slowly, one-by-one, they all left, to return to the “real world” and reclaim their lives.
In my grandmother’s case she eventually made her way to South Africa, to join her brother who had migrated there before the war, her one surviving relative from what had once been a large, vibrant Lithuanian Jewish family. A couple of her camp daughters went to the United States, but most ultimately made their way to the fledgling Jewish state of Israel.
And over the next decades these women all rebuilt their lives from ashes. Like my grandmother, most eventually married, had children, and somehow found the strength needed to continue living and to be happy. This despite having experienced horrors and deprivation that the rest of us couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Now, I knew about all this because my grandmother had told me the story of her camp daughters many times, in reference to my frequent questions about a photo she kept on display in her apartment for all of the time I can remember. It was a photo of her at my parents’ wedding, in Jerusalem in 1970, surrounded by a group of women.
Apparently when my mother had got married, 25 years after the end of the war, many of my grandmother’s other “daughters” – most of whom felt that they owed their very survival in no small degree to her – had turned up for the wedding. That photo – of my grandmother, surrounded by her camp daughters, at a time of celebration – was one of my grandmother’s most prized possessions, and whenever she told us of her extended “family” it was always with much love, affection, and pride.
Which is why as soon as I read the English inscriptions in that little notebook I was so quickly able to put two and two together, and figure out that it was a handmade gift that had been presented to Lily (Lea), on 5th July of 1945 (my grandmother’s birthday), while she was still in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp (but after liberation). (Subsequently my aunt and mother both confirmed these details).
And that little notebook had now miraculously made its way from Germany in 1945 to South Africa, then to Australia, and then on to Israel, for me to find it while cleaning up in my parent’s apartment in 2018, 73 years later.
The cover of the notebook – the tatty, ragged bits of fabric I had so casually thought of as worn-out junk – are actually pieces cut from a Canadian soldier’s uniform. The inscriptions in Hebrew and Yiddish are messages from Lea’s “daughters” – a collection of thank-you and farewell notes, if you will. And those in English are contributions from Allied officers and officials who had got to know my grandmother in the months after Bergen Belsen had been liberated.
Like I said, paging through that little notebook, more than seven decades down the road, quite literally reduced me to tears. Unexpectedly I had found a piece of real, irrefutable, enduring history to hold in my hands – a history that is mine, my family’s, and my people’s.
But more than that, it felt like my grandmother, on the eve of a new year, was yet again trying to tell me something important. And on this occasion, she was being joined by my mother, who, it appears, is a chip off of the old block – equally determined, resilient, and strong.
Because while 2018 may have had a few pretty big downs in it for me, it occurred to me that my trials and tribulations have been a mere nothing compared to the very real sufferings my grandmother, and now mother, have endured.
I have wonderful children and a loving family, and enjoy lifelong friendships with some pretty special people. I am blessed with a job and a lifestyle that allow me the great privilege of being able to do exactly what I most love to do – travel, explore, eat and write. And most of all, I have my health.
So if my grandmother and mother have taught me anything, it is that in the end, these are the things that really matter. However bad the situation might seem at time, it is always possible to find happy days ahead. And no matter how bleak the outlook may seem at times, there is always a better tomorrow we can look forward to. Always. For reminding me of that, I am grateful.
Once again, as the year draws to a close, I want to thank you all for your ongoing support and readership, and I want to wish you, wherever you may be, a very Happy New Year. As ever I am amazed, honored and humbled that people – all around the world, most of whom I have never met – have the slightest interest in the things I have to say.
I hope that in 2019 you enjoy good health, and have many opportunities to feel blessed and grateful. And I hope that whatever it is you most love to do, you are afforded ample opportunity to do it, and ample opportunity to be happy. All in all, I don’t think anyone could ask for much more than that.