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When I went to find my father and my sister

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

I don’t know what this story is really about nor why I’m telling it to you. But we’ll figure it out.

Let’s begin in a refugee camp in the American Zone in Germany right after the war. We'd made our way there by wagon all the way from Uzbekistan, almost 4,000 miles. The camp was a place of sadness and confusion and fear for people who’d suffered enormously and yet were some of the luckiest people in the world. They’d survived the Holocaust. But the problem was where they’d end up next, whether anyone else in their families had survived, whether they’d turn out okay...all that was shrouded in a mist of uncertainty.

And there I was, with my mother and father and brother and much older sister from my father's previous marriage. I lived there from the time I was 6 months till I was 4. But it was not a time of sadness, confusion, and fear for me, because I was a little child who ran around and talked to everyone and made friends with all the grownups. They delighted in me like people who'd thought they’d never see another child again. By the time we left I spoke fluent Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German, and Hebrew. There was no before for me to compare things to.

Suddenly my world--this world of the five people you can see--was blown apart. My mother and brother and I were going to America. New York. Which meant nothing to me. My father and sister were going to Israel. Which meant nothing to me. What meant everything to me was that all at once my father was no more.

Later my mother would tell me he was dead.

So we travel on the Queen Mary to New York, where we live in huge poverty on the Lower East Side. My mother worked in a factory. I was very young and my memory of my father and sister dimmed, but I never stopped thinking about him. I knew I wanted a father. When guys would walk down the street past the stoop in front of our building, I’d grab them and bring them to my mother in hope of getting a father for myself. Believe it or not, that finally worked at one point. And so Benny entered my life. Not, as it turned out, a great father. Or a great husband either.

The years went by.

At 17, after my freshman year in college, I’d heard stories that maybe my father wasn’t dead. So that summer, with money I’d saved up and all my clothes in a large straw handbag, off I went, Europe first, then Israel. I tracked down various leads I had that my father, the handsome Yitzchak Grafstein, could be found in the Israeli seaside town of Netanya.

Now this is supposed to be one of the great, dramatic, emotional scenes in life. You’ve seen it play out in a lot of movies. I’d played it out in my head countless times. Always some form of two people falling into each other’s arms, rediscovering each other, a wonderful bittersweet sunrise of new possibilities.

I was of course expecting Mr. Wonderfather, but what I got was a 60 year old guy who—duh!—could have been looking for me! this whole time but hadn’t. I guess he was pleased that I’d turned out well, but he was mostly thinking of me as a houseguest: Oy, how long is she going to stay and what does she want from me?

His idea of doing the father thing was telling me I should do something different with my hair and not wear blue jeans.

I also found my sister Rosa. (There I am between her and my mother back in Germany.) She was a bit more welcoming, but I was less to her than I was to my father, just a half-sister she’d known when I was a baby a long time ago when she’d been a teenager herself. Now, with three kids, she had no time for me.

The word anticlimax was invented for a situation like this.

When I asked my father why he hadn’t reached out to me, he fumbled out bullshit non-answers just the way my mother did when I got back to New York and asked her why she’d told me he was dead. Parents! You just can’t get a straight answer from them.

And here are my sister and I on that visit, posing for a good-bye picture.

So that was it. I didn’t leave Israel on bad terms with my father and sister. Just profound disappointment.

I saw my father again when I went back to live for a year in Israel with my husband and first daughter, plus a second daughter about to be born. My relationship with my father was distant and formal. A few years after we’d returned to the States, my sister wrote to tell me that one day he’d gone for his usual mid-day swim in the Mediterranean, had lain down for a nap, and just never woke up.

What did I feel when I heard that? People feel the feelings about other people that those other people earn.

What do I want to say about all this?

That we live in a world full of uncertainty. In the words of the old Jewish joke, man plans, God laughs.

American culture is based on hope. I rarely read pieces in the American press that don’t try to land on where the hope is in any situation. If you’re not feeling hopeful vis-à-vis anything, there’s something wrong with you. Positivity no matter what!

But in the real world, which even Americans can’t escape, hope all too often fails. And failed hope turns to rage and despair. When you look at the rage and despair in our political landscape, it’s just the other side of the coin of the promises of hope that went nowhere. False promises of impossible hope.

The hope I had in my trip to find my father went nowhere.

But in the world of uncertainty there may be a better star to navigate by than hope. That star is being able to cope. Coping is being able to make things happen effectively and deal with the situation when it doesn’t turn out the way you’d like. If you have that, what does hope add to the equation? If you don’t have that, what good is hope?

If, in the words of Michael Ovitz, nobody knows nothing, and if it’s true that man plans, God laughs, then we are in a world of uncertainty where both safety and wisdom require us to focus on being able to cope with whatever life has to throw our way.

Because just like Inspector Clouseau’s ninja manservant, life is waiting in the wings with all kinds of surprises—nothing but surprises, really—and we’d better be ready to cope with them.

Suppose someone had said, Okay, you’ll go to Israel and find your father. What will you actually find?

I wish my answer would have been, “I don’t know. We’ll see...” Not having unrealistic expectations is a great coping skill.

The reason why coping is better than hoping is that’s how you’ll never be disappointed. You’ll never need to descend into rage and despair.

But most of us Americans are too addicted to hope to want to hear this. (More to come about the psychology of hope in the next post. Interesting stuff!) I recently got caught up in the hope of mastering social media. Well, that turned sour fast! Soon came my rage and despair. Oy! Who needs it!?! But we can all learn to cope with anything. Everything. It just takes patience. But I have little hope I’ll ever become a truly patient person. Sigh. But I’ll do the best I can...

And when things don’t turn out the way we’d hoped, you might find real help and comfort and new direction in our bestselling Everything Happens for a Reason. It’s all about finding meaning in the events of our lives.


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