The Blessing of a Broken Heart
Reviewed by Toby Klein Greenwald

An exuberant, religious Jewish couple, ba'alei teshuva, move from Maryland to Israel to be close to their heritage. Their adventurous first-born son and his friend, skipping a day of school to take a hike in the land that they love, are bludgeoned to death by terrorists in a cave, and their blood is smeared on the walls. Satan himself could not invent a more horrific storyline. Sherri Mandell calls it "a Biblical death."

But Mandell is determined to not let the hate that led to the murder of her beloved child destroy her. "Hate can steal a person's soul," she says. "But I will not let it. Instead, I will learn about the soul, about the new land Koby and I share. I will learn the customs and the language, to translate the signs."

And indeed her book is filled with signs. She finds meaning in a deer with bloodstained hooves that peers into a neighbor's window. Only afterwards do they understand that it had been at the site of the murder and was afraid to return to the horror of the cave. Later she learns that, according to the Zohar, the deer is a sign of compassion, and is only able to give birth when a snake-bite causes her opening to widen. She senses messages from Koby in the chirp of a cricket that would greet her every morning, only to learn later that in France , a cricket is a symbol of the soul. She relates beautiful and symbolic stories about birds, and writes about the commandment to send a mother bird away before taking her eggs. This, from the mother whose bird was ripped so mercilessly from the nest she built so lovingly.

Mandell writes in a down to earth fashion about the everyday challenges of grief. How does one celebrate Koby's 14th birthday, a month after his murder? (By giving charity to 14 beggars.) But she also threads religious themes delicately throughout, like an artist who touches the canvas with an occasional dab of indigo, or a brushstroke the color of the sea. These brushstrokes introduce us to the wisdom of the Torah that she has learned from scholars, to whom she reaches out. She becomes intrigued by the story of Shimon Bar Yohai, who lived in a cave for 13 years, learning Torah while he hid from the Romans. "Since Koby's death," she writes, "I have had moments of peering through the curtain of ordinary reality, touching something greater, deeper, more extraordinary. Sometimes I think that God and Koby are in cahoots, preparing these moments for me."

Her wry humor is apparent, and is almost painful for those of us who knew her before the tragedy. "There are 903 ways to die, according to the Talmud." Mandell writes,". Most sages agree that stoning is the most difficult death. In the hierarchy of pain, I am a winner."

As a columnist in Israel , her funny family anecdotes and satire about the challenges of child-raising led us to call her "the next Erma Bombeck." She could spend her lunch hour with her fellow women writers behind a closed office door, dancing barefoot to the strains of '60's music. Yet this was the same woman who had made a long journey from being, by her own admission, "a boy-crazy cheerleader" from Long Island who, via the shores of Spain, to ending up in Israel, where she met Seth, originally from Willimantic, Connecticut, on his own spiritual journey.

"People were happy that I was in Israel ," she writes. "People that I met casually would say - 'Stay, you're home.'" And it was to this home that they returned in 1996. They eventually moved to Tekoa, a warm and embracing rural settlement, where children have goats and donkeys for pets, where people raise their own olives and mushrooms, where religious and non-religious live in harmony. Sherri writes, "Tekoa is a village like the one Hillary Clinton describes when she says - "'It takes a village to raise a child.' If a small child on his way to school here cries because he forgot his sandwich, another mother will hear him and make him one."

It is from these mothers and friends, as well as from her husband and children, that Sherri draws strength in her darkest hour. From Shira, the bereavement counselor and massage therapist who breaks the horrid news to Sherri and Seth of Koby's death, from others who bring food and books, who nurture her.

"Sometimes people say to me - I don't know what to say," writes Mandell. "But a neighbor who didn't know what to say came to my house and washed my clothes, cleaned my house, hung my laundry."

Sherri describes how they get through the first Sabbath, in the middle of the shiva, with neighbors seeking to help them heal, joining them in song and laughter at a beautifully set table that they have prepared for the Mandells. But she is not fooling herself.

"In a few hours, I will be lying on Koby's floor, weeping, being held by my daughter. I will look at his walls...the pictures of Cal Ripken and Michael Jordan. I will feel like I want to die. But for a few hours, the Sabbath offers me the belief in peace, the belief in a respite from suffering."

The personality of Koby shines throughout the book. As her oldest, Sherri writes, "He taught me how to be a mother." We learn that he was a child who was fiercely competitive at sports, but would choose the weakest child first for his team, to help him learn. He tied up a babysitter, but loved to study the Talmud. When Seth goes through his room, he finds that Koby has squirreled away "not compromising magazines or cigarettes," but books of prayers and psalms. We are treated to a delightful sampling of his writing at the end of the book, including a piece called "What Makes a Good Parent".

Rather than allow their grief to destroy them, the Mandells have mobilized their tragedy into the creation of the Koby Mandell Foundation. They run summer camps for children who have lost parents or siblings to terror. Sherri directs women's healing retreats.

"Everybody has something to offer those in grief, something essential from their own being," she writes. "There is something inside of everybody to give - if they are not afraid of the pain on the other side."

"The Blessing of a Broken Heart" leaves us with gifts of wisdom, and hearts that are more whole for having read it.