Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Blessing of a Broken Heart

Every fiber and bone in my body tells me I shouldn’t be reading this book. And yet I cannot put it down. Because I have a son who will be thirteen too. Soon.

The Blessing of a Broken Heart” (Toby Press, 2003) is Sherri Mandell book-length prose poem of love, courage and faith to her 13-year-old son Koby who was brutally murdered by terrorists, three years ago this weekend, on May 8, 2001.

Koby and a friend, Yosef Ish-Ran, had cut school one day to explore the caves just outside the West Bank settlement of Tekoa where they lived. When finally discovered some 24 hours later, their bodies were so badly beaten they could only be identified through their dental records.

When I first heard the news, I was devastated. That’s not hard to understand. The details and circumstances were horrendous: two teenagers play hooky and never come home. It was also not hard to picture the spot where they were killed: my wife Jody and I had gone hiking there years ago, back when it was supposed to be safe.

But it was more than that. The more I read, the more I couldn’t help thinking how Sherri Mandell’s life paralleled my own.

We were both born in the United States, growing up with non-observant backgrounds and developing an interest in Judaism at the Livnot U’Lehibanot program in the Old City of Tzfat in the early 1980s. We both earned degrees in creative writing and make our livings as writers. We even both took a seven year “break” from Israel before formally immigrating.

And now, my son is about to be the same age as Mandell’s Koby.

So is it any wonder I kept asking myself as I read – how would I deal with such a tragedy? How would I cope? And would I be able to transform such a deep and personal horror into some greater purpose if, God forbid…

Mandell tells her story slowly, in short chapter spurts that alternate between details of her life and her growing understanding of Koby’s – and her own – place in a bigger spiritual picture. There is, thankfully, precious little about the “event” itself – for a more in-your-face numbing experience, pick up a copy of Nechemia Coopersmith’s “Israel in the Shadow of Terror” (Targum/Feldheim, 2003) which presents details from tens of gruesome terror attacks.

At the same time, Mandell doesn’t attempt to sugar coat what she’s been through, to make it easier for readers. Her pain, she writes, “is like a rock thrown into a calm pond. It keeps expanding. As soon as you deal with one pain, there is another to take its place.”

And she is bitterly aware of life’s unrelenting uncertainty. As she describes her move to Tekoa, it is serendipitous at best, stating simply “When there were no rentals available in Efrat and homes were being built in Tekoa, we moved and tried to buy a house.” How could she know what was to come?

That doesn’t stop the guilt, which “comes in waves. To fight it I have to realize that even if I was the best mother in the world, the most attentive, least selfish…I could not have stopped this death….maybe he would have died in a different way…maybe not in Tekoa. I did not kill my son. Terrorists did.”

As she attempts to deal with the tragedy, Mandell looks for comfort in the smallest things – a cricket’s song, a shooting star, a bag of potato chips.

In one poignant passage, she describes how her six year old son turned to her in the car at Koby’s funeral to complain that he is hungry. Jolted out of her misery for a brief moment, she asks “Didn’t anybody feed you?” While a policeman runs to the nearby grocery store to pick up a bag of chips Mandell remarks that “even at the most tragic, cruelest moment of life, God is pulling me out of my pain and giving me a son who is alive and hungry.”

This turns out to be the transformative theme that runs through and ultimately unifies the book. At one point, Mandell writes “Koby is more present in my life now than he has ever been. The trick is to forbid death to be more present than life.”

Later, she reflects “my job is not to forgive, but to give meaning. My job is to remember.”

And finally, in perhaps the most telling statement of all, she admits to a growing belief “that everything is for a purpose, that I have a new purpose and I will not waver from it – to take all of the unbearable cruelty in your death, all of the evil, and transform it into love and kindness, the love you had for the world.”

These are not just words, of course. Mandell and her husband have set up the Koby Mandell Foundation which runs an annual six-week summer camp for some 250 kids who have lost someone to terror, as well as sponsoring activities that take bereaved mothers away for a weekend of massage, art therapy and yoga.

“Through the work of the Foundation,” Mandell explains, Koby has become a symbol of fun and healing, a symbol of love. It means that Koby’s spirit is growing. Koby’s capacity for joy, his great love, is in some way staying alive.”

This new unavoidably public persona pervades other aspects of her life and Mandell, to be sure, is aware that her role in the world has changed. She describes herself as “the person nobody wants to be,” and because of that, when people look at her “they love their kids more.” They think “Thank God I’m not her. Thank God I still have my kids, my family intact.”

By the end, Mandell can even laugh. When a friend calls to say that she is upset because she caught her son with a joint, Mandell responds by saying ”What a great problem.” And she means it.

As my own son turns 13, I reflect on what Mandell has lost…and what she has given us. Mandell’s ability to bare her soul and share – her feelings, her hopes, her faith – and to quietly transform the events of three years ago, is a stunning testament to the good that still prevails in the vast majority of humanity. That is, ultimately, the true “blessing” of Mandell’s broken heart.

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