Roman Ben-Manasseh was in the thick of it by the time his students settled in their usual seats.
Class convenor, Adela Sugarman tried to look confident.
“Rabbi Roman says he’s terrified about what could happen to him and his close friends during Operation Pillar of Defence. But we know he’ll do a better job because of it.”
“He’s such a modest chap,” said Penny Raisman. “He’s already gone through a lot although he’s still quite young. I heard that on top of everything else, he’s volunteered for both the Magen David Adom and ZAKA emergency services since coming to Israel. It’s amazing how much people fit into their lives. I feel so inadequate.”
“Me, too. Ramon called me a ‘hero’ for emigrating to Israel from the U.S. as a retiree, but I’ve had a really easy time,” said Gus Steinman.
Ramon Ben-Manasseh served as part-time rabbi to the Shaarei Tzedek Congregation in Ashkelon but had been recalled for active duty as a gunner along with thousands of other I.D.F. reservists. In civilian life he made up his income with several teaching jobs and was researching for a book on the history of the ‘hidden’ Jews of Spain and Portugal.
“That we’re here tonight is a tribute to another of Ramon’s skills,” said Adela, distributing the notes and maps he had left for students’ use.
“It’s great that a native Spanish speaker conveys his knowledge of bible to an English language group so ably.
“Most of you may be unaware that Ramon emigrated here alone from Argentina in his early twenties after discovering that he came from a family of conversos – Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism.
“In a short time, someone who had barely known he was of Jewish stock became fully immersed in Israeli life. First, he took several menial jobs to eke out his immigrant grants. Then, working with other young people he learned good colloquial Hebrew and Arabic and also improved the English he had studied at school.
“Originally, Ramon had intended to become a secular teacher but began to reflect more upon his Judaism, eventually studying for the rabbinate. But it was by no means easy because he had no paperwork to prove his ancestry.
He underwent a full conversion to Judaism, with a circumcision, via the Conservative movement after his application to the Orthodox authorities was rejected.
“We’re very lucky to have him here,” said Penny, “even for a short time. I think we’re talking about a young man on the brink of a brilliant career.
“I’ve just glanced at his notes for the relevant chapters from the Book of Judges and he’s shown how the story of Gideon and the battle against the Midianites may be compared to the continuing war of attrition we are forced to fight against our near neighbours in Gaza.”
“Well,” quipped Gus. “The stone jars, torches and trumpets used by the biblical Gideon would be a lot cheaper to use than Bibi’s 'Iron Dome’!
“But as a former teacher, I’d like to add this: the view that ’those that can do, those that can't teach’, has become a wicked modern commonplace. Ramon may be a reluctant hero but it makes him a greater ‘man of valour’ both in the field and on the battlefront of education. He is blessed with a rare gift that cannot be acquired but which he has honed and polished to a high degree.
“He’s less than half my age with a fraction of my experience,” Gus continued, “but still I find his sessions compelling – even thrilling. He’s by turn authoritative and funny, serious and engaging. I haven’t studied Torah like this since I was pre-barmitzvah – and then it was just another chore.”
But then Gus looked grave. “If things were different,” he sighed, I’d have introduced Ramon to Eva, my granddaughter. My guess is that they would have liked one another very much.”
“So what’s stopping you?”, asked Penny.
“She’d just started training as a combat camerawoman, able to film IDF operations in real-time, when she was shot dead by a sniper while on exercises in the West Bank. She was terrifically ambitious and had written to dozens of film studios in California and the U.K., in the hope she’d have an internship ready when she’d completed her service.
“I’m no hero. But my son and daughter-in-law will continue to put on brave faces for the rest of their own lives. Eva had been their only child, born after a struggle with fertility treatment. How do you cope with a loss like that?”
*** This story is dedicated to the young men and women in the IDF. Thank you for looking after us. – N.I.W.
(Copyright, Natalie Irene Wood – 23 November 2012)