You Can’t Keep Us Down (Longing for a Hug)

I miss my father and I miss his guitar. Playing on his guitar, my father would sing, ‘Happiness is in your heart.’ Happiness likes to be in our hearts because it’s warm in there and comfortable.

Lately in my capacity as a blogger for the Times of Israel I’ve been getting lots of invitations, so many in fact, that I can’t possibly honor them all. I’ve had to pick and choose and sometimes the choice is really difficult. Last Thursday the choice was between attending the gala opening of an exhibit on trauma and healing by OneFamily or attending a political rally against the formation of a (third) Palestinian State, to be held in front of the Prime Minister’s office.

It was a no-brainer. I picked the OneFamily exhibit. There was no way I was going to let them down: the child participants of this art and literature exhibit, the victims of terror. Besides, the subject matter fit in perfectly with my day job as an education writer at Kars for Kids. The exhibit was all about creative ways to help children cope with trauma, something right up my alley.

Called Longing for a Hug (“Ga’aguah Le’chibuk”) the event was also a book launch. In the book, 150 children describe their pain at losing a family member to terror. For purposes of the exhibit, artists chose writings from the book and tried to give expression to them through art (photography, sculpture, and painting). There are 35 such artworks in total.

The exhibit, which is located at the Old Railway Station (HaTachana) in Tel Aviv, will be open to the public for a month’s time, after which the artworks will be auctioned with the proceeds going to benefit the work of OneFamily. I got a quick briefing when I arrived, by Elie Klein of Finn Partners who was managing publicity for the event. He showed me a list of names separated in two by a space.

“You can interview these people,” he said, pointing below the space. “But if I see you speaking to any of these people, I will come over and let you know to move on. These are people who prefer not to talk about their trauma.”

Wow. This was going to be intense. I decided I’d start slow.

I was with Cheryl Mandel, who’d lost her son Daniel, HY”D, a platoon commander, while he was leading his men in an IDF operation to capture three wanted terrorists who were responsible for killing some thirty people and injuring more than 140 Israelis. Cheryl was an old hand at these events. Not something you really want to be. But she took me by the hand and led me to the hors d’oeuvres. We munched on little vegetable tarts and drank fresh cold juice and talked about going across the street to the beach if things were slow.

Then she said, “C’mon, let’s go to the VIP room.”

Why Not?

I knew I was allowed to go there, thanks to my briefing with Elie, so okay. Why not? When we got to the VIP tent, Michal Belzberg was standing at the entrance. Cheryl fussed at the girl like a mother hen, lifting the girl’s lovely blond hair to button one button in the back of her dress.

I knew a bit of the story of OneFamily. Michal was having a bat mitzvah. Then the Sbarro bombing happened. Michal and her parents, Chantal and Marc, decided to help the victims. And then they realized that there were other victims of other terror attacks that also needed help and nurturing and OneFamily was born.

Cheryl schmoozed a bit with Chantal, who chatted with her on a first name basis. Throughout the evening, I bore witness to the fact that Chantal and Michal knew ALL the OneFamily people on a first name basis. It was kind of awesome. The Belzbergs are important philanthropists, but here they showed that what defined them was their kindness and concern for all the OneFamily people. It was so obviously genuine.

In the VIP room, I found myself next to Miriam Peretz who had lost two sons. I knew exactly who she was but eerily; found myself discussing with her the merits of the kebab versus the turkey skewers. It was surreal.

After fortifying myself with the succulent food offerings in the VIP tent, I finally went to see the object of my attendance: the exhibit. I found myself attracted to the words, more than to the art. The words were so powerful they socked me in the gut. Three offerings stood out.

This one by Levona Levanon, writing about her father Erez Levanon:

I miss my father and I miss his guitar. Playing on his guitar, my father would sing, ‘Happiness is in your heart.’ Happiness likes to be in our hearts because it’s warm in there and comfortable.

Having lost my father when I was 13, not to terror, but to a sudden massive heart attack, I knew just what she meant—the way you could hold a loved one in your heart and feel the joy of them for a moment on a good day—on a day when you could manage to bar all other thoughts, at least for a moment or so. This was powerful for me on a personal level.

Moving on, I came to a writing by Roee Rosen, writing about his mother Eliyah Rosen. He wrote:

I mainly remember the pictures. Here’s Mom, and here’s Mom, and here she is again. I so badly want to be able to tell my mom that I really, really miss her and I want her to come back, but even I know this is not possible.

Rosen’s words were accompanied by a breathtaking acrylic on canvas painting by Yoram Ra’anan called Dance of Life in which a mother’s blood red hand reaches up through a fantasy sea of sparkling color. As far as I was concerned, this was a masterful piece, the best at the exhibit.

Next, I moved on and discovered this by Ziv Amrani writing of his mother Sarit Amrani:

I miss my mother’s presence in many places in my body and in the world around me. I feel her absence in my heart, when I am indoors or outdoors, when I’m at home and inside my body.

I want her to be in all those places. I want to be there with her, in all those places.

Alongside Ziv’s poignant words was another acrylic on canvas, this time by Elayne Rosman. Called Garden of Eden, there’s a mother who looks accessible yet somehow forever out of bounds. Painted all in neutrals it’s as if all the color had been bled out by an unquenchable winter. I liked the detail of the mother’s blouse, the way it pulled a bit too tight, as it might do in real life.

While I was working my way through the exhibit, Elie came to me and asked if there were anything I needed. Did I want him to assist me in finding someone to interview? I confessed my ignorance of the Hebrew language and asked if they knew of someone I could interview in English. Nothing was too difficult for Elie and his assistant, Sarah. They found me Yakir Taranto, a handsome, 20 year-old soldier from Ashdod, and Sarah gave me a pen, since here I was a blogger caught out without a writing implement.

Yakir lost his big brother Moshe Taranto (23) nine years ago when Yakir was only 12. Moshe was killed during an operation in Gaza to root out terrorists. Yakir’s parents were devastated and he and his sister have struggled to make up for the loss in their parents’ lives.

Yet here he was, this handsome young man with the warm brown eyes, carrying a rifle, proud to be serving in his brother’s same unit. I asked him what was hard. “It’s always hard before the anniversary,” he said. Then he told me his sister had just got engaged a month ago, as if to say, “The life force persists. Life goes on. Am Yisrael Chai (the nation of Israel lives).”

I asked Yakir how many of these events he attends during the course of a year. His eyes sparkled. “All of them,” he said.

I asked him to tell me why. I knew why, and since he was a guy, I was able to say what I guessed he was thinking and he nodded his head and smiled. I said, “Because they are the only people who really understand what it’s like. Because they are your real family in a way that no one else can be.”

Summer Normalcy

I asked how he knew English so well. He told me that OneFamily had twice sponsored him for summer camp in Canada and then for a third year as a counselor in training (CIT) at the same camp. His gratitude shone from his eyes. That bit of summer normalcy in a land far away had done much to prop him up and keep him sane. I could see the entire story in his sincere young eyes.

Everyone was then asked to be seated as the children were presented with their books. It was a roster of names I knew. It hurt to hear them. It was a damp and hot coastal evening and I could no longer tell whether I was crying or just melting in the heat. My “press” sticker slowly peeled off my blouse as the names were called. “Tamar Fogel, Asael Shabo,Osher Twitto. Tamar Fogel was a beautiful, spirited, and smiling young lady.

I felt myself getting really fragile from all the emotion and felt relieved when a striking singer with an incredible voice, Chagit Yasso, sang a song about remembrance. Her soaring voice stole my breath away. But then I found I needed a break. I went to look for Cheryl in hopes we could go to the beach when I saw Elie, who urged me back into the VIP tent where MK Danny Danon was speaking.

I grabbed a delightfully alcoholic glass of lemonade and listened to Danon speak about the possible American attack on Syria. He said that if anything happened to Israel, we’d be okay because we’re all in it together. I couldn’t get very excited about that. Sounded like a lot of platitudes. Danon was followed by the Bereaved Fathers’ Choir and they were darned good. You could see they put their hearts and souls into the music. They were doing it for their sons and daughters.

Then David Hatuel spoke. He said that what OneFamily did was get you back on your feet. But the way he gestured as he said it (twice) made us understand that losing your eight months’ pregnant wife and all four daughters had laid him out completely. He had suffered the most devastating loss possible. Only OneFamily made it possible for him to get off the floor and begin to live a semblance of a normal life.

David wanted to tell us that there is life after terror. That he had remarried. That his daughter (of two children born since his remarriage) Techiya, which translates to “rebirth,” had started first grade a day earlier.

I heard stories throughout the evening. Stories of how OneFamily showered love on teens with purple hair, multiple piercings, and risky behaviors who threatened suicide. Miracles regarding families who had no money to buy school supplies and then suddenly a busload of tourists would phone in to the OneFamily office, wanting to give school supplies and other goods to someone real, someone with a face. I saw tall brawny soldiers with the images of loved ones etched into their skin as tattoos. I saw secular and religious, all bound together by dint of being Jews targeted by terror.

I witnessed the dedication of those who work for the organization first hand. I got a ride to the event from OneFamily spokesperson Rachel Moore. On the way home, I offered to pay for parking even though I was fairly sure OneFamily was footing the bill. Rachel said she might take me up on my offer because she didn’t want to take money from the organization that might go to help terror victims. She couldn’t bear to take away one cent from them.

As it turned out, OneFamily had already prepaid Rachel’s ticket. When I offered to help her out with gas expenses, she said, “Well, I was going there, anyway,” and wouldn’t take my money.

White Against The Night

Oh, and yes. I did finally get to the beach. The surf broke white against the night and warm across my toes. I thanked God for making the sand and the sea and for the pulse of life that continues to beat within my nation thanks to people like the Belzbergs and thanks to our indomitable Jewish spirit.

You really can’t keep us down.

So why bother?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.