Thursday, April 01, 2010

A Passover Story

Guest Post by Rabbi Yossi Ginzberg

The story below is true, and happened to me about 15 or so years ago- I'm still in touch with the principal. This was published some years ago in a NY paper. - YG

When the Russian Jewish immigration started, Jewish organizations got busy trying to reintroduce them to Judaism by having them as Sabbath guests in Orthodox Jewish homes, with limited success.

We also tried, with the same lack of success.

This changed when we were asked to host a family of four: Yaakov, his wife Svetlana and their two daughters, who had come from Ukraine. Because his English was quite good, we were able to talk, and his daughters were the same ages as two of mine so they got along well.

The Shabbat meal turned out so pleasant that I called him a few weeks later to invite him for the upcoming Purim meal. They accepted, and were pleased at the atmosphere. I offered Yaakov a drink of scotch, but he said he was a teetotaler. I was surprised, but didn’t make an issue of it.This meal too went well. The family enjoyed Purim, the kids especially.

Having successfully introduced Purim, I tackled Passover. Fortunately, it was easy as there was an elderly grandmother that I hadn’t known about urging them to have a Seder, something she vaguely remembered from childhood. Of course, we included her too.

At the start, I tried to fill Yaakov’s goblet with grape juice. He protested, saying that grape juice was only for children, and since it was a Mitzvah, he’d happily drink wine.

The entire Seder went beautifully. It was thus surprising to me when they didn’t show up for the second Seder.

Not wanting to jeopardize our relationship with the family, I waited two days before calling to inquire. A daughter answered the phone, and told me “your wine put him in the hospital”. She grudgingly informed me that no one else was home, that her father had been in severe pain after the Seder, hehad been operated on and was in Mount Sinai Hospital.

Afraid to confront him but feeling the obligation to atone, I went to the hospital with trepidation. At his room, I found many extended family there, adding to my tension.

To my shock, when Yaakov saw me he insisted on standing, which he did with visible pain, clutching the bandaging over his abdomen. A stunning surprise came with his embrace, when I had expected either a left to the jaw or the equivalent.

It turns out that the reason he didn’t normally drink was that several years earlier and just after applying for a Soviet exit visa he had started to see blood on urination after drinking alcohol. Visiting a doctor, they ordered a full battery of tests, but when they found out before the results arrived that he was in line to leave the country they told him that if he had symptoms only after drinking alcohol, he should just stop drinking, and cancelled further diagnostics. Being busy trying to earn a living after being blacklisted because of the visa application, he accepted this suggestion, and since the blood did indeed stop as long as he stayed away from alcohol, he never pursued the issue.

Late that Passover night after returning home from the Seder, Yaakov felt the old pain return for the first time since his arrival in the United States, and more severe than before. He walked to a small community hospital. After basic X-rays and blood testing, a sympathetic Orthodox doctor appeared in his room and told him that he must immediately request a transfer to Mount Sinai, while requesting that he tell no one of this advice. Sharp enough to realize that if someone was risking their job to tell him this, it must be important, Yaakov and his wife made arrangements for an immediate transfer.

Arriving at Mount Sinai, he was scheduled for immediate emergency surgery. When he returned to consciousness, the surgeon informed him that one kidney had been totally removed and part of the other, up to the point that he had missed by the smallest possible margin losing the second. In fact, he was left with the absolute minimum possible to live normally on. According to the surgeon, had the surgery been delayed even a little longer, Yaakov’s tumor would have destroyed enough kidney tissue to require him to live the rest of his life tethered to a dialysis machine.

Hence Yaakov’s surprising words as he hugged me, “Your cups of holy Passover wine saved my life!”