November 14, 2018
by Alfred Münzer
There is an ancient Jewish belief that there are seven imaginary, mystical guests, called Ushpizin in Aramaic, who visit families on Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles that commemorates the protection afforded by the Eternal as the Israelites wandered the desert. The guests, one for each day of the holiday, are said to be the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Each is invited in turn, with a prayer formulated by 16th-century Kabbalists, to join the family in the sukkah, the temporary shelter built of natural materials that is at the heart of the holiday.
But I welcomed my own imaginary guests to the table long before I knew about Ushpizin. The Holocaust deprived me of a father, sisters, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. When I was five or six, I first became aware of those missing members of my family. I boasted that I would make up for the loss and have 12 kids of my own, and I conjured up a whole loud brood around the dinner table. But that was before I learned the facts of life and that it takes more than the wish of one person to make a family. Slowly, through my childhood and teens, I came to understand that I was different and that marriage and having a family of my own wasn’t to be.
It’s not that I lack the love that comes from having a family of my own. There are the continuing bonds with the brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews that I acquired when I was rescued during the Holocaust by the Madna family. There are the distant survivors of my mother’s family who escaped to Bolivia. And most importantly, there is the family of Joel, my life partner, who has embraced me in every possible way as one of their own, just like my mother made Joel her second son. And, considering our very crowded table at the Passover Seder, I certainly do not want for friends. There are also the hundreds of kids, far more than any imaginable progeny, whose lives I have touched by sharing my life story and the lesson that I derive from the Holocaust: that even when surrounded by evil, it is possible, like the family who saved me, to do what is right.
But especially on Friday evenings, as we welcome Shabbat, and on Jewish holidays, as we stand at the festively set dinner table, when we take in the aroma of traditional cooking coming from the kitchen and light candles in candlesticks that long ago graced the table of my grandparents, and we chant the Kiddush over wine to sanctify the day, I often sense being joined by generations of family. Joined, not only by my late mother or Joel’s late mother, who indeed often spent their Shabbat or holiday with us, but also by my dad, my sisters, and even my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, all of whom I only know through photographs and stories told by my mother. I hear their voices as they softly sing along in an ageless melody, and I see their smiles and feel their warmth as we embrace and say, “Gut Shabbos, Gut Yontif.” I do not know what comes after we die. But these Ushpizin, these personal mystical guests, speak of a bit of an afterlife that gives me a measure of comfort.
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