After a Child's Death, Discovering Signs and Wonders
Reviewed by Nathaniel Popper, The Forward
Two years and an ocean removed from the brutal murder of her 13-year-old
son, Sherri Mandell still has problems confronting the question "How
are you doing?" with much more than downcast eyes and a sigh.
"The grief stays with you. It's not something that goes away,"
she said before beginning lunch with the Forward last week, while in New
York for the release of her new book, "The Blessing of a Broken Heart"
The book recounts Mandell's process of grieving and healing since her
son Koby and his friend, Yosef Ish-Ran, were stoned to death by Palestinians
in May 2001 while hiking in the Judean Hills, a half-mile from their homes
in the West Bank town of Tekoa.
This trip back to the United States has not been easy for Mandell. Though
she grew up on Long Island, Israel has become her physical and spiritual
home in the seven years she has lived there. Her old home now seems foreign.
"Coming to New York, I see how people are wrapped up in the wrong
things," she said. "In Israel I feel whole."
Mandell says she does not seek a public life. But after finding that her
son had become the public face of the suffering wrought by the intifada,
she decided to try to provide a public face for the healing that she believes
is possible in the wake of such tragedy. In addition to writing the book,
she has founded and directed the Koby Mandell Foundation, which offers
adult retreats and children's camps for the families of terrorism victims.
She writes with some frequency in the press, both Jewish and non-Jewish,
trying to bring home the meaning of her son's death.
Mandell says she has made a conscious effort to keep anger at a distance.
"I am making the choice to not hate every day," she said. "What
I respect in the Jewish community is that there is very little desire
for revenge. We say, 'Let's cope and move forward.'"
The anger seeps through, though. At one moment in the book, she writes:
"I would like the killers to be caught. I wouldn't mind if the state
killed them. But to me, people with the capacity for hate and cruelty
are already dead."
Mandell and her husband Seth, a former Hillel rabbi at Penn State and
the University of Maryland, initiated and campaigned for congressional
passage of the Koby Mandell Act, which would allow terrorists who kill
Americans citizens in other countries to be extradited to the United States,
where they can receive the death sentence. The bill was introduced in
the Senate last May by Oregon Republican Gordon Smith, and is currently
before the Judiciary Committee.
Mandell says the grieving process that she promotes ultimately involves
submitting to the whirlpool of contradictory emotions that surface in
the wake of tragedy.
"In America there is this rush toward closure," she said. "You
can show anything here, except feelings, and I want to open that up."
Her life has been a tableau on which the five steps of grieving have played
out in grand fashion. The book is in part a plea for other mourners to
submit to the panoply of emotions that spring up after an unexpected death.
There are, though, things she would rather banish. Guilt, for one, "would
eat me up alive," she writes, and for guilt she can reserve her hatred.
"I hate that which wants to suck us up alive and overwhelm us."
To those who wonder why she took her family to such a dangerous place
in the first place - she asks herself the same question sometimes, she
says - she writes: "Nobody had ever been hurt in the [gorges] or
in Tekoa. Here in our settlement, I used to feel safe."
The deaths of Koby and Yosef came just two days after a four-month old
Palestinian baby died in a rain of Israeli tank fire. The deaths together
came to symbolize the innocence lost in the spiraling violence. But the
book does not dwell for long on these raw facts. Instead it moves to the
more intimate details of her own mourning and recovery.
But it is more than just a chronicle of this process. The book, the foundation
and much of Mandell's current life are outgrowths of an acknowledged desire
to keep some part of Koby alive.
"If I didn't change or make some meaning out of his death, it would
be as if his death didn't count," she said.
As part of her project, she refashions Koby's life through her words into
an almost mythical tale. In each memory of her growing son she recalls
some small sign of divinity. She recounts how anonymous posters in Jerusalem
had predicted the coming of the messiah on Koby's birthday. Of his end,
she writes simply, "Koby's death is a biblical death."
Her spare, muscular prose itself has biblical echoes, and the story of
her mourning is replete with images from Jewish mysticism - broken vessels
as well as broken hearts abound.
Though she is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi, Mandell says the vitality
of Judaism's mystical side came to her only after Koby's death. During
her childhood on Long Island she did not attend synagogue or Hebrew school.
Traveling in Europe after graduate school, she went to Israel to visit
friends and there she met and fell in love with her husband, a fellow
She began studying the Torah, though without any strong spiritual belief,
she says. After marriage she adopted her husband's Orthodox lifestyle.
Belief followed only gradually, while they raised four children - Koby
was the oldest - and Seth pursued a career as a Hillel rabbi in Pennsylvania
and Maryland. In 1997, when Koby was in fourth grade, the family moved
to the West Bank. Four years later, Koby died.
"Once Koby was killed, all of a sudden it was as if I was living
all these signs and wonders," she says now. "God was revealing
himself to me."
For Mandell the Torah provided a key for these symbols, and suddenly the
words she had read before with the eye of an academic became manna for
a hungry soul. In a reverse of Job's story in which disaster engendered
spiritual doubts, for Mandell the tragedy actually generated belief, and
now in every cricket and oddly shaped rock she sees God and the promise
of another world.
"So much emerged from his death that I knew it was a blessing,"
She has come to see the divine everywhere in the world, and she has come
to appreciate her family more deeply.
In addition, she and her family have created Camp Koby, to help the siblings
and children of other victims of terrorism. But Camp Koby's growing list
of attendees is only a cause for celebration in the most backward of ways.
There seems to be little question that if this is all a blessing, it is
a decidedly mixed one. That is the nature of Mandell's world, though,
as she writes in her book: "In this world, pain and beauty coexist."