The Other Mother’s Day

May 10th, 2009

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Today is Mother’s Day in the US. That there is no Mother’s Day in Israel – only something called “Family Day,” celebrated around when Americans mark Groundhog Day at the end of winter – is a matter for another discussion entirely: On consumerism and cultural expressions of appreciation for the role of motherhood. But seriously, I can’t get into now, so don’t make me. Let me just say that in Israel, there is no Mother’s Day, but paid maternity leave is 3 months long and you can generally get an additional 6 months unpaid, where they will hold your job for you. But I digress.

On Israeli Family Day, mothers receive cute poems from nursery school, usually adorned with a picture of the child (often taken by the teacher on the day you put him in the last shirt before laundry day), but there is none of the Hallmark Holiday feel that you have in the US…. And, sadly, no breakfast in bed, unless you happen to have just given birth and are actually IN the maternity ward. So…where I sit, today is May 10th.

This past Friday was another kind of Mother’s Day: The flip side, the dark side, the impossible side, the side that haunts every mother’s quiet moments until she chases the demons away. Friday was the “yahrzeit,” or anniversary of death, of Koby Mandell. You may remember Koby from the news, because the story is a hard one to forget. Koby was the 8th grader who, along with his friend, had cut school one beautiful day in May, 2001, as the second Intifada was heating up, to go explore the valley and caves near their home in Tekoa, a West Bank settlement not far from Efrat. They were found in the pre-dawn hours the next day, bludgeoned to death with large rocks, mangled to the point of having to be positively identified by dental records. Koby was going to turn 14 a few weeks later, in June.

The story struck the world dumb for a few minutes, before it moved on as usual. Me, it took a bit longer. The morning the boys were discovered in one of the Haritun caves, I was on the way to meet Sherri Mandell, Koby’s mother, at a lecture in Jerusalem. Sherri and I were friends from our days working as part of the content team of a promising Jerusalem startup, and, in the months after its inevitable collapse during the first market crash in the fall of 2000, used to meet for coffee along with our other ex-office mates next to the unemployment office.

I was in the car on the way to the lecture when I heard the news update: two boys had been found a few hours before murdered near Tekoa. One was from an American family. Immediately I called Sherri, to see if she knew the family, which I assumed she did: Tekoa is a tiny place. I figured our “date” was a no-go. But Sherri did not answer. A neighbor did. In a whisper. And told me the worst news I have ever heard in my life. I turned around and went home and started calling our mutual friends, and then got on my way to the funeral.

Of course, although it took a while to go on as usual, I did (other than being a little extra-neurotic, still, when it comes to my bigger kids going places on their own.) But going on as normal is a privilege Sherri didn’t, doesn’t, have. For her it is a daily nightmare, long after the news cycle spit the item out, long after many hundreds of “new” Israeli deaths – in four years of terror and eight years of rocket attacks and two wars – have come to replace it there.

But what Sherri and her husband, Seth Mandell, have done with the tragedy is astounding. Because while they can not go on as normal, they have most certainly gone on. First of all, Sherri wrote a book, The Blessings of a Broken Heart. It is a beautiful work, not just because Sherri is a writer of unblinking humor and sly depth and jolting clarity, but also because she is a human being of unparalleled morality. There is no raging for revenge, there is no extremist political fomenting.

Sherri is a mother who lost her son to terror – and she is a “settler,” as the media was quick to point out – and she does not indulge in hate or bigotry, or call for anyone’s blood. It is worth noting that at the entrance to the Shiva there was a sign: ‘We are here to mourn the death of our son. Please do not engage in political discussions.’ The Mandells have again and again redefined grace and humanity for anyone who meets them.

Second, the Mandells launched and continue to run the Koby Mandell Foundation, an organization formed to provide support to families – especially mothers and children – who have lost loved ones to terror. The foundation runs workshops and retreats and summer camps, all subsidized, to bring some joy and empathy into the lives of people who live daily with the pain of having had a loved one disappear in mid-sentence in a cloud of smoke and hatred. Despite their grief – with their grief – they seek only to help others heal. The Mandells are nothing short of an inspiration of the highest order.

In any event, every year, on the anniversary of Koby’s death, friends gather at the graveside for a memorial service. And every year, I am stunned by Koby’s friends: First they got taller. Then they grew facial hair and back muscles, while Koby was still not-yet-14. I thought to myself, in 2004, who are these teenagers and why are they here? Until I realized they were Koby’s classmates, and my heart sunk, for Sherri and Seth, and for the world, in general, that produces the kind of cruelty that makes going on and living sometimes a great blow. Then the friends got drafted and showed up in fatigues.

This past Friday, on Koby’s eighth yahrzeit, they were young men and women, 22 years old. The gathered friends of Seth and Sherri, who are from different places and stages in the Mandells’ life and often only see each other at this event, progress in time, as well. Especially the boys’ 8th grade teacher, the young rabbi who was clearly completely devastated by the event, and who is not quite so young anymore, and continues to show up every year and recite Psalms. Koby’s yahrzeit has become a measure of time for the assembled, and maybe also, as one speaker at the services this year pointed out, a measure of self: Where am I now that I wasn’t last year or the year before? Where should I be that I’m not?

This year, Sherri, in her characteristic way of being funny while she is in agony, wrote a poem – We Are Tired of Your Grave – that made me cry for a long time. Her son, Daniel, now almost 20 (He was not yet 12 at the time of the murder, and was called home from a school trip to sit Shiva) also wrote a poem, for his mother – This Is What She Does – which made me cry for even longer. Sherri and Daniel: The two of you owe me a tube of mascara.

Please do read them. I think they are the Mother’s Day poems of the ages.

At least here, where it never and always is Mother’s Day.

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  1. One Response to “The Other Mother’s Day”

  2. Sara-
    Lee Lasher forwarded this to me and I just read it and didn’t realize until the end that you wrote it. It was very moving (as is everything written about Koby and his parents). Thanks for sharing and letting me check out your site. Happy Mother’s Day and best to the family.

    By Marcy Cohen on May 12, 2009

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