I met Katya when we lived in Israel – my husband’s job took us there for about 18 months. She was an older lady in the small sea-side town where we’d rented a house. She usually wore black and lived on her own except for a scruffy little black and brown dog, in a little villa (bungalow) about four lanes from ours.
It was one of those communities where everyone wants you to do well. Everyone would talk to you – even the assistant in the corner shop would help you learn Hebrew by holding up the item you’d asked for in English and have you repeat the Hebrew word. Most of the older people spoke Yiddish.
When Katya’s little dog went missing we were all asked to look out for him. Fortunately, he turned up a few weeks’ later looking even scruffier and much thinner, and a couple of months after that another neighbour on the edge of town announced that her bitch had just produced a litter of puppies the image of Katya’s dog. There was a sigh of collective relief and knowing smiles.
We were there over Christmas that year. I didn’t know Katya very well, so was surprised when she knocked the door one morning holding out an elegant oval plate bearing a beautiful fruit cake.
In her halting English she said, ‘It is for you because you are without your family at this time.’ I thanked her in Hebrew and English and knew she could see how much I appreciated it. It was a beautifully shaped cake, glistening with fruit and nuts and altogether wonderful.
I enthused to Ruth, my nearest neighbour, saying how kind it was of Katya, who hardly knew me. Ruth told me that Katya felt sad for me because she was a survivor of Auschwitz, and had lost her entire family. My heart sank to my feet and I said I didn’t think we’d be able to eat it, knowing that. ‘No!’ said Ruth, ‘She wants you to be happy! She wants you to enjoy it! She wants you to celebrate this time.’
Christmas is about family, probably more than at any other time of year. Mine will be missing my youngest son and a much loved 19 year old grandson, killed last December in a motor bike accident. I’m thinking of the gaps in other families, too, including the two-year old toddler of the worship leader at Bethel Church in Redding, California, who simply stopped breathing during a nap. Senior Pastor Bill Johnson wrote that the whole church family is supporting her family.
In making the cake for my Christmas all those years ago, Katya, who had lost so much, was choosing to celebrate life. We know that in the gift of His Son to us, God was giving us life that transcends more than the little time we spend on earth. What would we see if we could unwrap it, as we do our other gifts? Reunions, yes, banquets, rejoicing, and so much more. 1 Corinthians 2:9 says that we have no idea of all that God has prepared for us who love Him.
L’Chaim in Hebrew is a toast meaning “to life”. So, against the background sadness this Christmas, even while we’re thanking God for His ‘unspeakable gift’, let’s also celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us and look forward to the ‘unimaginable’, to life – L’chaim!