It is a Tree of Life

An excerpt from This Jewish Life by Debra Darvick

The Story of Jules Doneson

“I want you to carry one of the Torah scrolls,” Chaplain Major Naditch said to me as I approached the bimah. I shifted my weapon to my left side and prepared to shoulder the Torah on my right. Was it sacrilegious to hold an instrument of death in one hand and the tree of life in the other? Given the circumstances, I didn’t think so.

Somehow I had known as I made my way through the mobs of people crowding the Great Synagogue’s courtyard that morning that I would be given a Torah honor. Not because I was such a hero. I just figured that if I were organizing the event it would make sense to give the kavod, the honor of carrying the Torah scrolls to Jewish soldiers representing the Allied nations.

Despite the fact that announcement of this service for Jewish soldiers had been hush-hush, it seemed as if every Jew in Paris caught wind of it. When I approached the synagogue, police officers were still removing the boards that had covered the ornate doors and windows of the Rothschild Synagogue during the four years of Nazi occupation. The courtyard outside the synagogue was mobbed—men, women, children, mothers pushing their babies in perambulators—all wanting to enter. Everyone in a uniform was allowed entry first, and then as many in the courtyard as could squeeze in, did.

When I finally made my way into the synagogue, I immediately heard “Shalom aleichem” echoing from every corner of that magnificent building. Tears of joy streamed down the cheeks of all who could cry. Not only was France free, but the entire Jewish population of Paris was liberated, too. I had never been to the Wailing Wall, but I imagined that the emotions filling the sanctuary couldn’t have been much different than if we were gathered in Jerusalem itself.

The crowds had been fairly quiet during the service and Chaplain Naditch’s sermon. But when Rabbi Kaplan, the chief rabbi of France, opened the ark and began taking the Torahs out, bedlam broke loose. It was total pandemonium. Tears. Shouting. The applause reverberated from the floorboards into the soles of my shoes. I have never seen anything like it before or since.

Rabbi Kaplan handed a Torah to me and one each to soldiers from the Free French, Great Britain and Free Polish forces. Then he took the fifth and final Torah for himself. It was time for the hakafah to begin. Hakafah means “to march around,” but inching around better describes what we did that morning through what seemed like thousands of people.

The women who had been sitting in the upper balconies came down in waves, shrieking and crying. Imagine the joy of seeing a loved one you thought was lost to you, how you would touch her, hold her, to know all was okay. Everyone wanted to touch the Torah scrolls. Kiss them. For nearly four years this synagogue had been boarded up, completely inaccessible. On Rue de la Victoire that September morning, was a family reunion of the most emotional kind possible.

The Torah is not an artifact. We chant from it every week. We study from it. Kids prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs using it. Old men have aliyahs over it. The Torahs of the Rothschild Synagogue in Paris had lain mute in a state of suspended animation—and now we were celebrating with the most profound joy possible. We were literally bringing the scrolls back to life.

There is something very electric about carrying a Torah. You can’t help but realize in the pit of your soul that when you carry a Torah, the essence of the Jewish people, the entire history of the Jewish people, is in your arms—Abraham and Isaac, Moses on Mount Sinai, Sarah entering motherhood so late in life—it’s all there cradled against your shoulder.

I had no idea as I inched through the synagogue that I would soon meet a soldier who would change the direction of my life. I had no idea that Marcel Berger was rescuing Jewish children and transporting them to Palestine or that I would join him, unasked, in his mission. Holding one of the Rothschild Synagogue Torahs, I had no inkling that I would soon journey to Palestine in ’45 and again in ’46, or that from ’48 to ’50 I would serve in the Israeli army. All I knew at that moment was that I was crying along with everyone else. Paris was liberated. The tide was turning.

And then, during our final turn, a young girl approached me. She couldn’t have been more than 15 years old. She tore from her coat the beige six-pointed star with Juif, “Jew,” painted on it in blue ink. “C’est pour toi,” she said. “This is for you.” Then she kissed me on the cheek and pressed the star into my hand. I watched her melt back into the crowd, her rough cotton badge of honor grasped between my fingers. Before my eyes, in the form of one slender girl who had suffered unimaginable cruelty, was the value of liberty, the price paid for freedom.

I have carried many Torahs in my life. It’s an honor I have never refused, not even when I was in Singapore and was asked to carry a Torah whose ornate silver case alone weighed a knee-buckling 100 pounds. When you are asked to carry a Torah, you are given the honor of being part of the jubilation. You become a messenger of joy.

It’s been 57 years since that morning celebration in Paris—57 years since I experienced the power our Torah has over her people. Each Sabbath after the Torah is read we sing “Etz Chaim He”—“It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it and all who cling to it find happiness.” This is an amazing thing—a people who dance with a book. Cling to it. Hold it fast. Find happiness.

Front Cover of "This Jewish Life" by Debra DarvickFor more stories like this

This story is a section from my book, This Jewish Life. The book contains more personal stories like this one. Fifty-four voices enable readers to experience a calendar’s worth of Judaism’s strengths — community, healing, transformation of the human spirit, and the influence of the Divine. This Jewish Life is a year in the life of a contemporary Jew told by a variety of individuals.

To sample more stories like this one, you can return to the Jewish Traditions and Customs page, or check out my book now for entire collection.


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