The wadi near our home in Tekoa is part of the African Syrian rift, a gash through limestone worrying its path for millennia. A fifth-century Byzantine monk named Haritun lived here and built a monastery. You can see its ruins as well as a network of study cells the monks carved from the caves. Before that, Jewish rebels who fought the Romans hid in the hills here. For many centuries, the wadi was mostly uninhabited. Twenty years ago, a group of seekers, Christians from California, traveled here and stayed for a few months, trying to make their home in one of the caves.
I imagine that they were looking for the presence of God in the landscape of jagged mountains. Or maybe they craved the gift of solitude, the quiet, the stark beauty of mountains that repeat themselves like pages in a book whose spine is overturned.
To see clearly. Not to see. The first sign of age. I remember the ophthalmologist’s words: After the age of 40, each year your vision will decline. I can see in the distance. It’s what is up close that is impenetrable. Is what we see what we know? The Shema, the fundamental Jewish prayer, tells us not to follow your eyes. Listen O Israel, the Lord your god is one.
One cold night in December, my husband and I drive from our home in Tekoa to Modi’in, a city close to Tel Aviv. We are going to the comedy fundraiser for our organization, Comedy for Koby, named after my son. On May 8th, 2001 he and his friend Yosef cut school to hike in the wadi. They were beaten to death with stones, their bodies found in a cave, blood smeared on the walls. The burial society buried the bloody rocks in the wadi, in accordance with Jewish law.
Biblical Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, and yet, when he lifted the knife, an angel appeared and told him to put the knife down. A ram instead was offered. Sometimes it seems like a joke to me, that his son was spared, and mine was taken. I skip this passage in the daily prayers.
For the first year after Koby’s death, I didn’t go down to the wadi. I didn’t want to see where my 13-year-old son had been killed. Twelve years later, Hillel, a young father, drowned in a well not far from where Koby and Yosef were murdered.
We drive through Jerusalem, where snow is a phenomenon, a rare occasion. On the way to our fundraiser it begins to flake and cover the windshield: it’s difficult to see, the wipers slow down, almost getting stuck. But we know that in Modi’in near the coastal plain there is no snow. Besides, my husband, from Connecticut, has no fear of the snow. He has experience driving with poor visibility.
My husband and I introduce each comedy show—they are held in five different cities for English speaking audiences—with a joke, and then we talk about our organization. We run a summer camp for 400 Israeli bereaved children, many of whom have lost family members to terror.
I don’t have a joke. I am terrible at telling jokes. As we drive to Modi’in, I make up a joke based on the shimmering curtain of snow we are driving through: “Some people say that religious Jews are sexist. I don’t think so. At least I didn’t think so. Except on the way here I was in Mea She’arim (a neighborhood of ultra-Orthodox Jews) and it was snowing and I saw Chasidim building snowmen and you know what? There were no snow ladies.” As we drive on Highway 1, I tell my husband the joke. He says, “That is terrible.”
Before the show, I tell the joke to one of the comedians from LA in the dressing room behind the stage. He has performed on David Letterman and the Comedy Channel. Dan says to me: “That’s an awful joke.”
“I know but I don’t have another one.” I can see myself in the wall of mirrors behind him.
He sits on the chair and faces me. “You have to believe in it yourself. You have to own it. Can you own it?”
I’m not really sure what he means. “I don’t know. I guess not.”
“Then just be really cute.”
It’s a sell-out crowd. I tell the joke. I’m cute. The crowd applauds. Humor can be a form of catharsis, a purging. Once during a comedy show I got a sore throat from laughing so hard. The plot of a tragedy is supposed to bring catharsis to the reader or viewer. That’s why people like going to the movies—it’s not just entertainment, but a ritual act of purification. The root of the word catharsis is to cleanse.
That night when we walk out of the theater, it’s raining but we can’t get home. Every road to Jerusalem is closed. The cars are stuck on Highway 1. The snow must be coming down thick. There aren’t enough plows. There is only one direction we can drive in the ferocious rain and wind. We stay in a hotel in Tel Aviv, and when we get to our room I see an ironing board in front of the door. As I reach out with the key card I hear a woman in the next room yelling: you bastard, you whore. I take the elevator back downstairs and change rooms.
I get a new key. We have nothing with us, no toothbrush, no underwear. As we test the hardness of the mattress I realize that I have my glasses, but no book. It’s not enough to be able to see. You have to know what to look at.
Hillel used to bake spelt bread. He made a business of it. Years ago, I took his olive spelt bread to Rhodes on a vacation with my 18-year-old daughter. Eliana and I ate the bread all week.
He was only 31 when he drowned in the well in Tekoa, not far from where my son was murdered. It’s called the well of the glasses: two small pools connected by a narrow passage, two circles with a tunnel in between that resemble a pair of spectacles. An iron ladder hugs the wall of the well. The kids in our yishuv often climbed down into the cramped space and splashed in the cool waters. Hillel was using the well that day as a mikve, a purification, Friday afternoon, before the Sabbath. Now the authorities have closed the well of the glasses, so that nobody can go there. Hillel and his wife, Hadas, played music together, he on his guitar and oud. Hadas played the flute at his funeral. When she played I heard only the breaths between the notes, the way she gasped for air. Later in the cemetery, she collapsed.
The day that Hillel drowned, my husband met with reporters from the London Times. They were doing an article called “Meet the Settlers” that Friday in July. They wanted to see the cave where Koby was killed, so Seth escorted them down to the wadi. They parked the car and saw Hillel’s little kids by the well, crying because they didn’t know where their father had gone. The oldest son said that they’d been playing catch with a brightly colored plastic beach ball—red, green, and yellow. They ran to get the ball as it tumbled out of the well and onto the hard dirt.
Somebody brought the kids to my house before they told Hadas that her husband was missing. The kids still had their water wings on. I was cooking for the Sabbath meals and fed them chicken soup even though the oldest boy told me they were vegetarians—but it was okay for them to have soup. The little one wanted a double portion. The police arrived and interrogated the oldest son, who was only seven. The other kids were three and one. My daughter stayed with the boy, but I heard them asking him, a seven-year-old: what happened.
He drowned said the little boy. He drowned.
We knew and we didn’t know. We hoped Hillel had found a ledge to rest on. But it turned out that he had sunk like a stone. He went down so far in the mud, plunging like a weight. The police brought divers, who couldn’t find him, so the elite unit of army divers was summoned. They pulled his body up right before Shabbat. We wondered if it was a snake bite, but there were no marks on him. More likely, a heart attack: a blockage in the arteries; the oxygen could not reach him.
Now his wife continues to bake bread for Shabbat and sell it to the community. Before she eases the loaves of challah into the oven, she takes part of the dough out, burns it and says blessings for everybody she can think of who needs help: those who are sick, or orphaned, or looking for their perfect match.
The youth group, twenty-five junior high school kids, descend to the canyon at the edge of our settlement in order to plant trees on Tu b’Shvat (the 15th of the Hebrew month of shvat), the Jewish holiday commemorating the birthday of trees. Yedidya, the adult in charge, hopes that planting trees will rid the wadi of the malevolent spirits that seem to reside here.
On Tu B’Shvat, the rabbis of the mishnah tell us that the winter rains are almost over and the trees will soon begin to bud again, to revive themselves. They will release their sap, the vital fluid that circulates within them. The almond trees will begin their wild blossoming, their branches lush with white buds.
Don’t be a sap, we say. Don’t be a fool. Don’t be sappy. Don’t be sentimental. Pejorative words constructed from sap, as if the language has to undercut the pure power of the essential.
After the storm, four days of snow and rain, the canyon bed, which is always dry, fills with water. Centuries ago a river snaked through here. Now waterfalls burst from the rocks, the dust is saturated with water as if the landscape has returned to its past. A man and a woman hike through the canyon, past the well of the glasses, which has been nailed shut with lumber, blocked so that nobody can enter the waters. The man’s glasses fog because of the abundant moisture. They descend the steep hill, past the small cave where their son was murdered. Skunk cabbage dots the hills, its extravagance of curly leaves like ribbons stripped with a blade to adorn a gift.
Sherri Mandell won a National Jewish Book Award for her spiritual memoir, The Blessing of a Broken Heart. Translated into three languages, the book was adapted into a stage play which opened at the San Diego Repertory Company. In December 2010 she won first prize in Moment Magazine’s Karma Short Fiction Prize. Sherri studied poetry at Colorado State University, where she received an MA in Creative Writing. She directs the Koby Mandell Foundation programs for bereaved women. Sherri teaches Creative Writing in Jerusalem.