by Yair Sheleg
December 17, 2004 -- Sherri Mandell has mustered the strength to write a book about the pain and the emergence from it, following the horrific death in 2001 of her son at the hands of terrorists.
This week, while Sherri Mandell was in Eilat, she met a family in the street who seemed to recognize her face. It turned out that they are connected by a deep tie: This family immigrated to Israel from the United States only a few months ago, to a large extent because of Mandell's book "The Blessing of a Broken Heart."
The story deals with how Mandell coped with the disaster she experienced in May 2001 - the murder of her eldest son Koby, together with his friend Yosef Ish-Ran, in one of the most horrendous terror attacks of the current hostilities The two were stoned to death in a cave near their home in the Jewish settlement of Tekoa in Gush Etzion in the West Bank. The mother of the family in Eilat told Mandell that the thought of immigrating had already been on their minds, but reading her book prompted the final decision. "She said to me that `if you, after all you have been through, are able to remain in Israel , we are also able and obliged to immigrate to Israel ,'" says Mandell.
In the U.S. , where the book was published (for the moment, only in English; Mandell and her husband Seth were born there), it has won warm responses - not only from Jewish readers, but also in other contexts. "A non-Jewish American woman wrote to me that she had read the book, on her mother's recommendation, after she lost her baby, and she read it on the way to the funeral and wanted to thank me for it," relates Mandell. Two weeks ago the book was awarded the Book of the Year prize in the field of Jewish literature by the Jewish Books Council, which is associated with the United Jewish Communities in the U.S.
The name of the book already hints at its contents. Mandell says explicitly that the "blessing" is not despite the broken heart, but because of it. "The Rabbi of Kutsk said that `there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.' I had been familiar with this saying even before Koby was killed, but I hadn't understood it. During the days of the shivah (seven-day mourning period) and thereafter, I began to understand it. In a state of terrible pain like what we went through, the heart opens with such strength that people can enter you in so many different ways you hadn't known before. People from all over the world contacted me after the murder, even before the book came out, and wanted to encourage and console me. And also, when you receive so much you also want to give a lot. Koby was murdered a short time before his 14th birthday, and that birthday was a terrible day for us. I felt like I had to celebrate it, and I didn't know how. In the end, I took the children to Burger King, a place where Koby liked to go. There wasn't any room there, and we went to a nearby vegetarian restaurant. The children had already ordered, and I didn't want to eat. And then, when they came back to the table, I suddenly go the idea of marking the birthday by giving money to 14 beggars. The children were enthusiastic and we walked around the pedestrian mall (in Jerusalem ) and looked for 14 beggars to give money to, and this gave us such a good feeling."
Sign of the birds
The book is of a quasi-mystical nature and it documents Mandell's feelings during the first year after her son's murder, a year that included "a lot of strange and powerful feelings." It is divided into two parts - "In the Cave" and "The Bird's Nest," which symbolize the pain and the emergence from it.
Mandell: "These are two images that complement each other, because both of them are like a protective womb, only the cave is a dark place and the bird's nest is a clear and illuminated place. When you are inside the cave, inside the tragedy, you are stuck, and you need something external that will get you out of there, but the bird's nest is an open place and you can fly away from it."
These two images are not only symbols, but are connected to events that Mandell experienced during that year. The choice of the cave as a symbol of suffering has to do, of course, with the fact that the bodies of her son and his friend were found inside a cave (and apparently they were also murdered there) - but not only that.
"Koby was killed two days before Lag Ba'omer. On the night before the murder I went to learn about Rabbi Simon Bar Yohai [who, according to the Talmud, spent many years in a cave - Y.S.]. On the night before his death he went out to collect planks of wood for the bonfire, together with his friend Yosef, and I was so happy at that moment that at long last he had been absorbed into Israeli society. After he was killed, I also began to understand the story of Bar Yohai who emerged from the cave and with his glance burned everything he saw. I also had a feeling like that - of the desire to burn everything. I realized how unsatisfactory ordinary life is. I went to swim, simply in order to survive, and near me I heard women talking about the usual silly things of life and I understood Bar Yohai. How, after something like that happens, you are simply not prepared to live at such a low level," says Mandell.
And on the other side, there is the bird's nest. "During the whole first year after Koby's death, birds appeared in my life. I was in Jerusalem with a friend and she told me about a dream that someone had dreamed about us, in which Koby said to him: `Tell my mother that I'm all right.' And I told my friend that I wanted him to appear to me in a dream. And she said to me, `No. With you there is interference in the reception.' And the moment she said that a bird flew into the window of our car and kept on flying, and for me that was a sign.
"Or when I was at the beach near my mother's house, in Florida, and during a walk I said to myself: I wonder whether Koby's soul got to here too, and the moment I thought that a bird flew right in front of my face and I said to myself: There. He has come to say to you: `What more do I need to do so that you'll know I'm here.' And then I talked to God and I said, how can you say that you are merciful? And God said to me: Look at the good deed of sending forth from the nest [in which the mother is released to freedom and the children, the young birds, are the ones taken prisoner - Y.S.]."
But there were not only mystical visions during that year; there were also very difficult decisions. "Immediately after the murder, I said to my husband: What are we going to do now? And he said to me: `We have three other children, and the fact that Koby was murdered doesn't mean that we will neglect our other children.' And I thought that although Koby's body had died, I would not let his spirit die: not necessarily in the direction of memorialization, but to take the power of the loss and to transform it into something positive, because we immediately felt that the pain could kill us. We have seen that pain kills people, like people who a short time after a child died came down with cancer or had a heart attack.
"What helped us a lot was the huge support we got from the community, and especially friends who supported us over time, because Israeli society is very good at short-term support, but afterward people disappear. They don't set aside space to long-term pain, maybe because all the pain that there is here, from as far back as the Holocaust, only gives rise to a desire to be strong and not break. Even in the education system, they very quickly tended to relate to my children as ordinary children, and they themselves didn't talk about it either, and every year I had to explain their special situation to the teachers again. I felt that it was necessary to do something with the long-term pain, too. Not that I knew right away what I wanted to do. I only knew that I wanted to live."
Personally, Mandell fulfilled this wish by means of a renewed return to life, and in fact with great enthusiasm, especially for the physical aspects of life - swimming, dancing, getting massages. During a lecture a few months ago in Britain a woman in the audience astonished her by saying: "The best revenge is simply living well."
She and her husband have also taken this message in a public direction by establishing the Koby Mandell Foundation, which is devoted to helping victims of terror and their families. The bulk of its activity is directed at children - camps during the summer vacation, and during the holidays of Sukkot, Hanukkah and Passover.
"The holidays are very difficult for bereaved families," she explains, "and therefore this is a good time to get the children out, so they can be together. It is important to them to have a place where they can `talk about it,' because at home they see their parents' enormous pain and they try to protect them.
"This also happened with us. At first, our children took care of me, but gradually this changed. These are children who are afraid to be happy in their own homes, because they are afraid that this hurts their parents. There are many who don't go out and enjoy life, because `it isn't right,' and we are trying to give them the feeling that this is perfectly all right. We hold separate camps for children who were hurt in terror attacks and for the children or siblings of people who were killed by terror, because we saw that there is a big difference in the strength of the emotions. For children who have experienced a death in the family, the emotions are much more extreme - when they are happy, their happiness is greater than the happiness of ordinary children, but to the same extent, they can suddenly be overwhelmed by sadness. And with children who were injured, the emotions are more ordinary, maybe a bit noisier."
This activity only began in the summer of 2002, about a year after their son's death, but last summer 500 children attended the camps and this week, during Hanukkah, about 300. In addition, the foundation underwrites short, two-day breaks to mothers of children killed by terror.
"We saw that a lot of mothers don't have time to deal with their pain because they have to deal with their husbands and their children. So we thought that it was necessary to get them out of the house for a few days too. Thus far, we have held 15 such breaks, during which mainly they do therapy of all kinds - from art to massage and healing. People don't realize that it is necessary to deal with pain not only with the soul, but also with the body.
"We also have support groups that operate throughout the year. These are groups that break up after a number of meetings - not only because of the budget, but because after a certain amount of time they feel strong enough to start projects of their own, and the possibility of creating a means of giving of their own is very important to them. One mother made a library in her child's room; another mother was an art therapist who hadn't done art for 20 years and went back to it."
The budget of the foundation today stands at $1.5 million, all of it from donations, almost entirely from abroad. Only now is the foundation starting to prepare to raise funds in Israel . "At first, my husband did most of the fundraising. I hardly went out of the house during the first months; I only started going out after several months."
And what does Mandell do during the moments of breakdown that still accompany her? "First of all, sometimes I let myself submit to the pain. I sit and cry, or I stay in bed. It's true that as time goes by I let myself do this less and less. When the pain takes over, I try to do a massage or something else physical, or just talk with someone. It helps a lot."