A real miracle, or the doing of extraordinary people?

One year on, a grief-stricken mother who lost her son in Gaza finds her life unexpectedly linked to another boy called Dvir.

It’s been almost a year since St.-Sgt. Dvir Emanuelof became the first casualty of Operation Cast Lead, losing his life to Hamas mortar fire just as he entered Gaza early in the offensive. But sitting with his mother, Dalia, in her living room last week, I was struck not by loss, but by life. And not by grief, but by fervent belief. And by a more recent story about Dvir that simply needs to be told.

This past summer, Dalia and some friends planned to go to Hutzot Hayotzer, the artists’ colony constructed each summer outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. But Dalia’s young daughter objected; she wanted to go a week later, so she could hear Meir Banai in concert.

Dalia consented. And so, a week later, she found herself in the bleachers, waiting with her daughter for the performance to begin. Suddenly, Dalia felt someone touch her shoulder. When she turned around, she saw a little boy, handsome, with blond hair and blue eyes. A kindergarten teacher by profession, Dalia was immediately drawn to the boy, and as they began to speak, she asked him if he’d like to sit next to her.

By now, though, the boy’s father had seen what was unfolding, and called over to him, “Eshel, why don’t you come back and sit next to me and Dvir?” Stunned, Dalia turned around and saw the father holding a baby. “What did you say his name is?” she asked the father.

“Dvir,” responded Benny.

“How old is he?” Dalia asked.

“Six months,” was the reply.

“Forgive my asking,” she continued, “was he born after Cast Lead, or before?”

“After.”

Whereupon Dalia continued, “Please forgive my pressing, but can I ask why you named him Dvir?”

“Because,” Benny explained to her, “the first soldier killed in Cast Lead was named Dvir. His story touched us, and we decided to name our son after him.”

Almost unable to speak, Dalia paused, and said, “I’m that Dvir’s mother.”

Shiri, the baby’s mother, had overheard the conversation, and wasn’t certain that she believed her ears. “That can’t be.”

“It’s true.”

“What’s your last name?”

“Emanuelof.”

“Where do you live?”

“Givat Ze’ev.”

“It is you,” Shiri said. “We meant to invite you to the brit, but we couldn’t.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dalia assured her – “You see, I came anyway.”

And then, Dalia told me, Shiri said something to her that she’ll never forget – “Dvir is sending you a hug, through us.”

At that point in our conversation, Shiri told me her story. She’d been pregnant, she said, in her 33rd or 34th week, and during an ultrasound test, a potentially serious problem with the baby was discovered. After consultations with medical experts, she was told that there was nothing to do. The baby would have to be born, and then the doctors would see what they could do.

A day or two later, she was at home, alone, anxious and worried. She lit Hanukkah candles, and turned on the news. The story was about Dvir Emanuelof, the first soldier killed in the operation. She saw, she said, the extraordinarily handsome young man, with his now famous smile, and she felt as though she were looking at an angel.

A short while later, Benny came home, and Shiri said to him, “Come sit next to me.” When he’d seated himself down next to her, Shiri said to Benny, “A soldier was killed today.”

“I heard,” he said. “What do you say we name our baby after him?” Shiri asked.

“Okay,” was Benny’s reply.

They told no one about the name, and had planned to call Dalia once the baby was born, to invite her to the brit. But when Dvir was born, Shiri and Benny were busy with medical appointments, and it wasn’t even clear when they would be able to have the brit.

By the time the doctor gave them the okay to have the brit, it was no longer respectful to invite Dalia on such short notice, Shiri told me. So they didn’t call her. Not then, and not the day after. Life took its course and they told no one about the origin of Dvir’s name, for they hadn’t yet asked Dalia’s permission.

So no one knew, until that moment when a little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy – whom Dalia now calls “the messenger” – decided to tap Dalia on the shoulder. “Someone’s looking out for us up there,” Shiri said quietly, wiping a tear from her eye, “and this no doubt brings Him joy.”

It was now quiet in Dalia’s living room, the three of us pondering this extraordinary sequence of events, wondering what to make of it. I was struck by the extraordinary bond between these two women, one religious and one traditional but not religious in the classic sense, one who’s now lost a husband and a son and one who’s busy raising two sons.

Unconnected in any way just a year ago, their lives are now inextricably interwoven. And I said to them both, “This is an Israeli story, par excellence.”

As if they’d rehearsed the response, they responded in virtual unison, “No, it’s a Jewish story.”

They’re right, of course. It is the quintessential Jewish story. It is a story of unspoken and inexplicable bonds. It is a story of shared destinies.

And as is true of this little country we call home, it’s often impossible to know which part of the story is the real miracle, and which is the doing of extraordinary people. In the end, though, that doesn’t really matter. When I lit Hanukka candles this year, I was thinking of Dalia. Of Shiri. Of Dvir. And of Dvir.

I thought of their sacrifice. Of their persistent belief. Of their extraordinary decency and goodness.

And as I moved that shamash from one candle to the next, I knew that Shiri was right. These are not easy times. These are days when we really could use a miracle or two. So perhaps it really is no accident that now, when we need it most, Dvir is sending us all a hug from heaven above.

Dr. Daniel Gordis is senior vice president of the Shalem Center, where he is also a Senior Fellow.

 

This article was printed courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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United Nations honors Jerusalem children’s center

For Irishman Captain Gerry Casey, now serving with the UN, a year of service in Israel proved a lifesaver for his Down syndrome child.

Earlier this month Jerusalem’s quiet, Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof became the center of international attention as representatives of UNTSO (United Nations Truce Supervision Organization) and members of the diplomatic corps representing the United States, Finland, Venezuela, Uganda and more, came to the headquarters of Shalva, the Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children to honor its service to the international community.

Over 100 distinguished guests, together with their spouses and their children enjoyed a tour of Shalva and a casual buffet lunch while being entertained by the Shalva band. Honored guests included James Carroll, special representative (Ireland) to Palestinian Authority and Colonel Timo Rotonen (Finland), deputy chief of staff – UNTSO.

The tribute was arranged by Captain Gerry Casey (Irish Defense Forces working with UNTSO) and his wife Theresa, who hosted their friends and colleagues at Shalva for a celebration of the wonderful year their daughter, Rachel, spent with us. Rachel, now two and a half, spent this past year in Shalva’s Me & My Mommy Program and both she and her parents made friendships that will last a lifetime. The family is scheduled to return to Dublin, Ireland, this coming January and a most fitting ‘send-off’ is planned.

Gerry-and-Rachel-Shalva
Photo courtesy of Yair Hovav
Captain Gerry Casey of the Irish Defense Forces with his daughter, Rachel.

The story of Rachel’s journey to Shalva began in August 2008, when Andrea Simantov, then director of communications, was giving a tour of Shalva to a large group from the US and at the end of the visit – as per standard practice – the group posed for a photograph outside the center. Andrea handed the camera to a man she presumed was the bus driver and asked him to take a few photos. Happily he complied and the group went on its way.

Imagine her surprise when she saw someone else driving the bus and the fellow that she had presumed was the driver still sitting in the entrance plaza. “Can I help you?” she asked. He replied in a very strong Irish accent, “My name is Captain Gerry Casey and I’m with the UN Peacekeeping Division from Ireland.” He proceeded to tell her that he was scheduled to begin a year’s rotation in Israel, primarily because the youngest of his four children – 16-month-old Rachel – was born with Down syndrome and a severe heart defect. The doctor in Ireland strongly urged Gerry and his wife Theresa to take her to a warm climate in order to heal.

Pulling up in a Hummer jeep

Knowing that Israel was a medically advanced country, he came on an exploratory visit and on a sunny Friday morning, he went directly to Hadassah in Mount Scopus where he was told by a visiting patient that he was in the wrong place. “You want to go to Shalva. They are the specialists.” Gerry resolved to go there the next day.

His arrival, with his wife, Theresa, and daughter, Rachel, caused quite the stir. Pulling up in front of Shalva, Gerry emerged from a huge Hummer jeep that was adorned with the UN insignia. And he was wearing full military regalia, i.e., camouflage fatigues, high laced leather boots, medals and other decorative pins, and dark green beret.

Yet, from the moment they entered the program, they became part of the Shalva family. In Ireland, little Rachel was entitled to three hours of speech therapy per month but at Shalva she received three hours of therapy per day. Hydrotherapy, massage therapy, speech training, physiotherapy, and multi-sensory work were only some of the disciplines that were part of Rachel’s standard treatment. And because the Me & My Mommy curriculum relies on parental partnership, Theresa was enthralled with her newfound skills. Envisioning their eventual return to Ireland, she felt better equipped and greatly inspired by her Israel experience.

The Casey’s were so overwhelmed by their new friendships and eye-opening experiences that they vowed to invite their friends in the international and diplomatic communities to share a glimpse of the Israeli world that they had discovered. As Gerry readily admits that, were it not for his sick little girl, he most probably would never have had the opportunity to cross paths with regular Jerusalemites and other Israelis outside of the United Nations and east Jerusalem communities.

In the words of Irish ambassador to Israel, Breifne O’Reilly: “If I had to bring one message to the world after visiting with the impressive people at Shalva, I’d say that this is a magical world of hope.”

Sid Slivko is the director of Communications at Shalva, the Association for Mentally & Physically Challenged Children in Israel.

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Let’s hear it for high-tech Israel

Israel isn’t a tragic nation, it’s one of the most highly educated and technologically advanced nations on Earth.

Over the weekend I read Start-Up Nation, the new book about why Israel has emerged as a global leader in high-tech. Even if its authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer were not my friends, I would still say this book is the best ad for Israel in recent memory. Sidestepping the usual discussion of Israel as an embattled nation, it focuses instead on the invincible ingenuity of the Israeli people, and their vast technological contribution to the global economy. Where the Israeli army is discussed, the focus is not on soldiers chasing down terrorists but on how the Israeli military serves as a commercial networking tool for soldiers. So the book both informs and inspires.

Am I the only one tired of hearing only bad news about Jews and Israel? Remember the old joke about the Jew who loves reading anti-Semitic magazines? When asked why he says, “When I read Jewish newspapers, all I hear is that we’re hated. When I read the anti-Semitic alternatives, they tell me we run the world!”

Israel is not a victim. Less so is it a tragic nation. Rather, as Start-Up Nation makes clear, Israel today is one of the most highly educated and technologically advanced nations on Earth, with one of the planet’s fastest-growing economies. It’s time that Jewish papers and periodicals stop with the tired, worn stories predicting Israel’s imminent demise.

True, Israel has implacable, terrorist enemies, and yes, Iran is building a bomb which is an existential threat. That’s all mighty serious stuff.

But is that all there is to the modern Jewish story? Is there not also a story of breathtaking success? If only the world could hear about Israeli universities ranking in the top 10, of its growing number of Nobel Prize winners, of Andy Grove, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates rushing to invest in Israel and how a crazy percentage of the world’s computer chips are manufactured in the Jewish state.

Revealing Israel’s potential

The time has come for world Jewry to see Israel as the place where the limitless potential of the Jewish people is finally being made manifest. All we needed was for people to get out of our way, and just look at how we thrive. And we prosper not as a self-absorbed nation but as a people who make vast contributions to all of mankind.

In light of this, it is time for Israel to consider forgoing American economic aid. I understand the military aid; the country has an insane number of crazies who wish to destroy it. But the economic aid creates an unnecessary dependency, undermines the perception of Israel as a prosperous country and gives the US undue influence over Israeli policy. Surely we all believe that decisions governing Israel’s right to defend itself should be taken by the Israeli prime minister rather than the American president.

There is more.

Many a Jew has wondered aloud why the Arabs got all the oil and Israel got none. What could God have been thinking in making despots and dictators like the Saudis and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi so insanely rich, while Israel has to struggle for every shekel it earns?

Only now to do we see the truth. Oil is the greatest curse ever to befall the Arabs.

A constant struggle

By simply digging a hole and having money flow from the ground, the Arab states had little incentive to build universities or a high-tech industry. And when the day comes – and it will – when the world finally finds an alternative energy source, these despotic regimes will collapse, returning to the sand from which they arose.

This isn’t rocket science. All of us know at least one rich friend whose kids don’t have to work, and who consequently became indolent. Israel has had to struggle for everything it has. No country has ever been more unjustly reviled or more continuously attacked.

Conversely, no country better inspires the world to ponder the infinite capacity of humans to rise from the ashes of despair and build a shining state on a hill.

Israel still has a lot of problems and a lot of enemies; it must remain hyper vigilant.

But it is time for the other side of the story to be told as well.

It is time that more books like Start-Up Nation begin to focus on Israel’s colossal achievements.

Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published The Blessing of Enough and The Michael Jackson Tapes.

Published courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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Public singalongs – food for the soul

Italians do it operatically. The French do it romantically. And Israelis do it in public.

Singing, that is.

Israeli entertainment without what is known as shira be tzibur – public sing-alongs – is like Israeli food without falafel. Just as you can put anything into a pita, smother it with tehina, and then enjoy eating it even though everyone can see the sauce dripping down your chin, a sing-along evening comprises a strange but healthy combination of the schmaltzy, the piquant and a measure of public embarrassment – food for the soul.

Legend has it that the Greeks dance no matter what. This side of the Mediterranean, we sing. We sing to remember, we sing to forget; we sing when we’re happy and we sing so much when we’re sad that a whole genre has developed called shirei piguim – terror attack songs.

Waiting for the Messiah

One of the best things about living in Israel is how in-tune it is with the times. You can forget about a “White Christmas,” but at Succot, “Shlomit Bona Succa” (Shlomit Builds a Succa of Peace) and Gali Atari’s “Stav Yisraeli” (An Israeli Autumn) are high on the Israel Radio playlist.

For the New Year, Yediot Aharonot’s entertainment supplement drew up a list it tagged as “The Country’s Hit Parade: the top 500 songs of Israeli music.” The list held some surprises – the No. 1 of which was the choice for the top spot. Whereas I had expected that the genius of Arik Einstein would beat all others – Einstein, celebrating his 70th birthday, is the ultimate timeless Israeli entertainer – it was sometime-rocker Shalom Hanoch who led the list with his mega-hit of the 1980s, “Mehakim Lamashiah” (Waiting for the Messiah). As the paper summed up, “Sometimes it all comes together – the words, the music, the composition, a few minutes of inspiration and the perfect song.”

The paper attributed the song’s success to its continued (or, perhaps, renewed) relevance: Not only are we still waiting for the messiah – “Mashiah lo ba, mashiah gam lo metalfen” (The messiah doesn’t come, neither does he phone), as Hanoch put it – but even a generation born after the double whammy of the First Lebanon War and the Israeli market crash of the early ’80s can still identify with the lyrics.

The Yediot list makes fascinating reading, partly because of its very unpredictability. In an unscientific but fun survey of sabra friends, I found that without exception they all expected Einstein to lead the chart and Shlomo Artzi to follow, with something either written by Ehud Manor or sung by Kaveret (a group too good to last) in the third spot.

A song to end the heatwave

Instead, Hanoch’s raw rock was followed by former Kaveret member Gidi Gov’s “Shlal Sharav,” verbally painting the picture of the end of the great heat wave, “as the sun sets in the blue sea and a silent wind calms face, neck, nostrils and blood.” If you’ve never suffered an Israeli hamsin, or more specifically the swelter of Tel Aviv, you might not appreciate how much there is to sing about when it finally breaks. The combination of Gov’s rasping tones, Meir Ariel’s lyrics and Yehuda Poliker’s music definitely created a hit, although one wonders if the voting wasn’t influenced by meteorological conditions and location as much by musical tastes.

Third place went to Yehudit Ravitz’s “Viduy,” a poem by Alexander Penn set to music by Sasha Argov. Not my favorite Ravitz number, it nonetheless has the immortal line: “Haya ra letiferet” – it was wonderfully bad.

It is, also, wonderfully Israeli to take classic poems and give them a musical life. This summer, for example, singer Etti Ankri is making a comeback and giving Yehuda Halevy’s words significant public exposure after almost 1,000 years. It’s hard to imagine Israeli music without the touch of poets Rachel (like Shakespeare, she needs but one name), Yona Wallach, Natan Yonatan, Natan Alterman, Bialik and so many others that Yediot could probably have drawn up a top-500 list of just those works.

Incidentally, Einstein only finally appeared in the Yediot chart (with Hanoch again) in the No. 4 slot, with a message we might all ponder now and again: “Lama li lakahat lalev?” – Why should I take it to heart?

Liat Collins is the editor of the International Edition of the Jerusalem Post.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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Why Leonard Cohen moved Israel

It’s not what Leonard Cohen was trying to say here that matters, but what his audience was voting for with its feet.

If there is one place along the notoriously hedonistic Coastal Plain that is even less spiritual than the rest of that restless urban sprawl, it is Ramat Gan. The city to Tel Aviv’s east prides itself on assorted claims to fame, from the country’s first mall, tallest building and largest stadium to the world’s leading diamond exchange.

Inspiration and introspection, however, let alone repentance, were hardly on the minds of this town’s builders – a set of liberals who were even more secular than Israel’s socialist founders.

That alone, therefore, made last week’s encounter in Ramat Gan Stadium between 50,000 mostly secular Israelis and the lone, frail, contemplative and unfashionably capped Leonard Cohen – seem like the unarmed Jonah’s improbable conquest of sinful Nineveh.

Cohen the singer, poet and novelist needs no introduction to most Israelis; and those who hadn’t known of this graduate of Montreal’s Herzliya High School who became Canada’s leading poet could have learned all about him through the extensive coverage that preceded and followed his concert, a moving event that put to shame recent musical attempts by Madonna and Depeche Mode to sweep the country off its feet.

The question, therefore, is not what Leonard Cohen was trying to say here – unique though his inspiring lyrics and caressing tunes are, they have been with us for decades – but what his audience was voting for with its feet, artistically, politically and religiously.

Defying noise and shallowness

Artistically, Cohen defies two traits that frequently plague the popular genres to which his music partly belongs: noise and shallowness.

The thousands of Americans and Europeans who crowd this septuagenarian’s concerts don’t just tolerate the minimalism of his tunes, the near-silence of his tone and the quest for meaning that runs through his lines, they crave them.

We Jews are passively reminded every fall that for centuries most people ordinarily heard hardly any artificial noise, even that of a shofar, let alone a musical orchestra, not to mention factories, highways, locomotives or jets. Now we have come full circle; modern man’s ears are so infused and invaded by cacophony, blabber and clamor that he has come to thirst for the velvet touch of a whisper, the very kind that is Cohen’s hallmark. That is why his music has won an estimated 2,000 different renditions over the years.

In yearning for this departure from contemporary musical routine, Cohen’s Israeli following is no different than others. Moreover, some in the audience that packed Ramat Gan Stadium were there because everyone else was there, or because they wanted to be seen, or just for the heck of it. And yet, the critical mass was there for very Israeli reasons.

For Israelis, the sight of a successful man tenderly searching his soul and at the same time worshipping God in quest of repentance is rare.

I didn’t come to fool you

When hearing words like “they sentenced me to 20 years,” Israelis don’t think of larger-than-life revolutionaries accused of “trying to change the system” but of smalltime politicians charged with wheeling, dealing, embezzling, skimming and double billing, too. When, they ask, will one, just one, of this snaking line of disgraced notables emerge from his jail term and confess, “I did my best, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch,” and how many of these can credibly say, “I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you,” or at the very least concede, as Cohen has to the crowd’s delight, “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah?”

Now this is not to say that the large audience in Ramat Gan was really captured by, or even aware of the irony, from our Israeli viewpoint, in Cohen’s follow-up on David’s surrender to temptation. This context was there, at best, subconsciously. What was not subconscious was Cohen’s kind of religiosity.

Having lost his father as a child, Cohen was deeply influenced by his grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Klinitski, who taught him Bible, Talmud and mysticism, and inspired Cohen’s The Spice-Box of the Earth, the book that made him famous back in 1961. There, in “Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal,” Cohen brought together King David and 16th-century sage Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, for a kind of dialogue that can only be imagined by someone who is intimately familiar with Judaism’s sources and attached to its traditions.

Though a growing number of Israeli performers, from Shlomo Gronich to Meir Banai, are seeking their Jewish roots, there are very few in the country’s cultural scene today, from novelists and painters to academics and rabbis, not to mention singers, who are capable of this sort of creativity.

That is why Cohen is an inspiration here. His is a kind of Judaism that has yet to emerge here in full force. That is why 50,000 Israelis joined Cohen in singing “Who by Fire,” his version of the 12th-century prayer about the judgment on Yom Kippur of all people, some to life and some to death, and of all states, some to the sword and some to peace – a song he wrote after journeying to the charred battlefields of the Yom Kippur War.

Lifted hands and a blessing

Last week, so close to and yet so far from the Diamond Exchange, the Ayalon Mall and the Aviv Tower, and so deep within yet so well above the stadium that ordinarily hears the curses of Israeli soccer fans, a multitude of Middle Israelis swayed as this Diaspora Jew named Cohen, in what may have been his last appearance here, lifted his hands and blessed all at hand in the traditional blessing of the priests.

Yet this Cohen is a priest only by name.

In practice, he is the antithesis of the caste that cultivated ritual, frosted faith and suppressed spiritual spontaneity, let alone dissent. A man like Leonard Cohen – who in a 1964 conference of Canadian Jewish leaders said money had replaced for them the values of the prophets, and that the very term “Jewish establishment” was an oxymoron – is in his substance more prophet than priest.

And that’s what is so unique in him to secular Israelis.

Here and now, Judaism is also often held hostage by an establishment that cares more for faith’s legislation and imposition than for the souls of the people it is meant to inspire. That at least is what 50,000 Israelis voted last week by their feet as they flocked to Ramat Gan Stadium where they joined a distant cousin’s prayer, some waving candlesticks, some moving lips and some wiping tears.

Reprinted by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.