Praying For My Friend, Hersh Goldberg-Polin

My long-distance friend was taken hostage by Hamas, and the pain feels astronomical.

I don’t really know how to write this story, but it starts at Myahn’s house.

Myahn invited me for Shabbat dinner; we were attending the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies at the time, and the other guests were all Pardesniks. I don’t remember much about the day, not the weather, not the date, nor do I remember which of my friends comprised the other guests, to be honest with you. But I remember what Myahn’s apartment felt like, the entryway cramped with as many guests as she could muster, the kitchen filled with her savta’s recipes and her roommate’s baked goods. I remember the warmth of being with my friends at Shabbat dinner.

And I remember Hersh GP.

Myahn’s apartment was being leased to her, furnished by a family connected to the Pardes faculty. That’s how so many apartments work in our parts of Jerusalem – Jews come from all parts of the world to study Torah at Pardes for a year or two or three, and they find furnished apartments filled with other families’ sefarim (Jewish religious books) and become a temporary resident of an ever-changing home. These apartments link generations of yeshiva students who pass the keys to one another, who share beds and kosher kitchen utensils, torchbearers of Shabbat meals and Torah study.

That’s how I found Hersh Goldberg-Polin’s bentscher, a small booklet that contains Kiddush, Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) and various songs we sing on Shabbat. Bentscher culture is real, and it is amazing. I’ve seen thousands of bentschers in my day, for weddings, brises, mitzvahs both bar and bat, and for the most part, they’re exactly the same.

Hersh’s was unique. It was made to celebrate his bar mitzvah and customized more than any bentscher I have ever seen. Serendipitously, it was handed to me, and I remember smiling – the front cover had water imagery, and his bar mitzvah portion was Parshat Noach (as in, Noah’s ark). Clever. And then I opened it, and fell in love with the Goldberg-Polin family. The front and back inside covers contained song parodies, written by Hersh’s Safta Leah and Bubbie Marcy. Each page was filled with pictures of Hersh and his family, all lanky and smiling.

I think I interrupted whatever conversation my friends were having to show them the bentscher, in particular the wonderful parody of “Edelweis” written by Safta Leah. We immediately sang it together.

Hersh G P Hersh G P
Jon and Rachel they bore you
Fun and bright
Sheer delight
This is why we adore you.
Interest in sports and with sharp retorts
Reads and learns most daily
Hersh GP
We agree
Now a perfect Israeli.

I don’t think I can really describe how weirdly obsessed we (OK, mostly I) were with Hersh. We sang his other songs (to the tunes of “The Marines’ Hymn,” “Old MacDonald” and “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean,” all certified bops). The small WhatsApp group we made to coordinate who would bring what to dinner, and what time we would eat, and all the other minutia of a Shabbat meal, was soon renamed “Hersh GP Fan club.” We were so enthralled by this guy and his bar mitzvah bentscher, without ever having met him.

After Shabbat, I posted about Hersh on my Instagram story. One of my followers saw it and sent it to Hersh, because all Jews know each other. Myahn also had mutual friends with him, and got his number and told him about my story. He replied, saying he’d always wanted to be famous. He sent me a selfie of him with his safta, saying he’d tried explaining to her that I loved her songs and posted them for thousands of people to see. She replied, “Doesn’t she have anything better to be doing with her time?”

It was an honor and privilege to be roasted by Safta Leah.

Hersh sent me pictures of his sisters’ bentschers and the personalized songs his grandmothers had written, based on “Chad Gadya,” “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine,” “Doe A Deer,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Bicycle Built for Two” and “I Have A Little Dreidel.” Soon after, a different friend randomly found Hersh’s parents’ wedding bentscher in another Jerusalem apartment. We’d sing Hersh’s “Edelweis” cover from time to time, a running in-joke for the Shabbat meal participants. We joked that we wanted Myahn to marry Hersh so Safta Leah and Bubbie Marcy would write her songs, too. I had custody of Hersh’s bentscher for my remaining time in Jerusalem, and I’d use it most weeks. It was such good, silly fun.

Two Shabbats ago, Hersh was abducted by Hamas terrorists from the festival and taken into Gaza.

I say this abruptly because the shock is what it felt like when I came across Hersh’s picture on my Twitter feed. It’s how I felt as more details have been released about Hersh’s kidnapping, and his extensive injuries. It’s how I feel now, every time I think about Hersh. Until now, this whole story was just a goofy anecdote from my group of friends at Pardes. Now that image of a silly bar mitzvah kid is shattered, and I shudder to think of where he is now.

I’ve never met Hersh GP in person, but the news that he was one of the festival-goers took the wind out of me. Because I know him. I know, thanks to the songs, that he only used to eat Wacky Mac and schnitzel. He likes the White Sox and the Chicago Bulls. As I write this, I cry. I think of his family, whose pictures I looked at so often, the grandmothers who so lovingly wrote these odes to their grandson. I think of his friends, and his parents’ friends, and his sisters and everyone who knows him, waiting in agony for any news they may receive.

And then I remember that the Goldberg-Polins are one of over a hundred families currently feeling like this. And of thousands of families that are in pain.

Their pain feels immeasurable. This pain feels astronomical.

I don’t have a novel message about this conflict, nothing new to add to the outpouring of grief and fear that so many people are feeling right now. But this week’s Torah portion is Parashat Noach – the 10th anniversary of Hersh’s bar mitzvah.

I think maybe that when Noah was on his ark, he couldn’t imagine seeing dry land again after being in the storm for so long. The ebb and flow of the water – unsettled, unforgiving and so vastly deep – became his new normal so quickly. But, as we know, a rainbow was just around the corner. A dove was close by.

I don’t think any of us can imagine rainbows right now, nor do we particularly want to.

All I can think about is my family and friends caught up in the conflict, about the victims of horrendous terror that we cannot begin to imagine, about families waiting to be reunited with their loved ones.

All I can think about is Hersh Goldberg-Polin. All I can do is pray for Hersh GP.

Posted with permission of the Goldberg-Polin family. Follow @bring.hersh.home for updates.

Shoshana Gottlieb

Shoshana Gottlieb (she/her) is a writer, film fanatic, and future Jewish educator who dreams of writing Jewish rom-coms. Her mother thinks she would've made a great doctor. You can find her too-niche memes on Instagram @JewishMemesOnly and her dumb Jewish jokes on Twitter @TheTonightSho.

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