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The Blessing of a Broken Heart

May 9, 2009 | by Sherri Mandell

After terrorists murder her son, a grieving mother journeys back towards life and faith.

An exclusive excerpt from Sherri Mandell's recently published book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart.

Koby's death is a Biblical death. It is a murder that is shocking in its raw pain, its unmediated cruelty. Two Jewish boys, my son, Koby Mandell, and his friend, Yosef Ish-Ran were attacked in a cave by Arab terrorists, and bludgeoned to death with stones the size of bowling balls. I can't think about a murderer pummeling my child to death with rocks. I don't know how to cope with the pain and the evil. I imagine my son afraid, crying out, dying alone, in horror and agony. A thirteen-year-old boy.

Anachronistic, primitive in its horror, the murder hearkens back to the first murder in the world. In his jealousy, Cain slew his brother Abel with stones, and the Bible tells us that "his blood cried out from the ground." The boys' blood was wiped all over the cave. The murderers have not been caught.

My son died in a barbaric murder, and blatant, overpowering hate was the agent of his death.

My son died in a barbaric murder, and blatant, overpowering hate was the agent of his death. How could God decide to kill the boys in such a cruel way? How can we live with such a gruesome death?

Since Koby's murder, I am unable to read the paper or listen to the news because what I hear is pain. The television broadcast on NBC, CNN, the articles in the Jerusalem Report, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsday… none of them got it right. They wanted sound bites, fast information. They wanted to sell newspapers with our tragedy.

The story was reported around the world in every major newspaper. Each article had a mistake or two -- and they said nothing about what was important to us: the way that you had left the house that morning, laughing and happy; the fear when we waited for your return; the way my friend Shira told me that you were dead, intercepting the police, she told me later, so that she could tell me with love.

When I watch the attack on the World Trade Center, all I think about are the mothers. I feel like a voyeur and can no longer listen. Because I know that behind the news are families that are suffering. And I know that suffering is a knife that keeps digging into the most tender areas, and then pierces even deeper.

At 7:00 a.m. on May 8, 2001, I listened to the radio as I made Koby two salami sandwiches. I went up to get dressed and came downstairs. Yosef came to pick him up at 7:20 a.m. and I thought good, maybe Koby will get to school on time today. I didn't kiss him goodbye because Yosef was there so I just went upstairs to finish getting ready. That was the last time I saw my son.

At 8:00 a.m., I left to go swimming about twenty minutes away with a friend. Then I hitched about thirty minutes into Jerusalem for three meetings. I got to town a little early so I sat and drank coffee and edited a manuscript for my friend, Aryeh -- a murder mystery. I had edited up to page 25, but had grabbed the wrong pages that morning and had taken pages 106-126 by mistake. I began to edit them, when suddenly I was in the murder scene. A star basketball player gets murdered, pummeled in the head with a baseball bat. As I edited, I thought: What does Aryeh know about murder? What do I know about murder? How can I edit a murder scene? Later I had a meeting with the editor of Hadassah magazine, where we discussed article assignments for the coming year. Mine was to write an article on miracles.

My husband, Seth, then a freelance business writer, was in Tekoa, working at home, so I didn't worry much about the kids. I called at three o'clock and got no answer. I called again at four o'clock and spoke to my husband, who told me that all the kids were out. In Tekoa, it's common for the kids to be out all day. They come home from school, throw down their bags, and go right back out, to the basketball court, or to friends, or to afternoon activities. So I wasn't worried.

I got home a little before 6:00 p.m. and asked my husband: "Where's Koby?" My middle son, Daniel, then eleven years old, wasn't home either but on an overnight school trip. We heard the six o'clock news, which reported that a child had been killed on a school trip, hit by a falling branch near the Jordan River. My husband immediately got on the Internet to check the news and make sure that Daniel was safe.

Then, at about 8:30 p.m., my ten-year-old daughter, Eliana, returned from youth group activities. I hoped that she had seen Koby but she told me that she hadn't seen him. I put the two smaller children to sleep and then I began to really worry.

I call Koby's friends and Yosef's mother, Rena. She says that she thinks they might have gone to the demonstration in Jerusalem calling for more protection for our roads and settlements. Another mother tells me that the road from Jerusalem to Tekoa is closed. It's often closed because of shootings from Beit Jalla. So I think to myself: it will take him a while to get home, but he'll get home. Then at ten o'clock at night I begin to dial madly. I call Koby's friends in Efrat and Jerusalem. I call Rena four times, who assures me that they're at the demonstration. Rena's husband is an Israeli policeman so I take comfort in the thought that she would know if they were in danger. She says they're on their way home, not to worry. Then, suddenly, it's eleven o'clock and Koby isn't home. I call the police. They check the hitchhiking posts.

My neighbor, Orly, who is a sabra, a native Israeli, comes over and calls Koby's teacher and is told: he hasn't been in school. Neither has Yosef. I still don't panic. I think: he's with Yosef. Something must have happened but they'll be home soon. Then Shlomo, Koby's friend, comes over and tells us that Koby and Yosef had said they were going to the wadi -- a dry riverbed that cuts through a magnificent rugged canyon nearby. They must have gotten lost, I think. The Haritun Cave in Tekoa (named after Hartiun, a fifth century monk who established both a monastery and study cells in the wadi) is among the largest in the Middle East, with sixty chambers that extend two miles. He's stuck somewhere in there: it's happened to other kids before. He'll come home and I'll yell at him, and we'll go on. I truly think I'll suffer nothing more than lost sleep.

All night there are neighbors in my house. They say: "Welcome to the teen years. He's your oldest. We've all been through this."

I believe them. I can't accept that Koby isn't safe. I can't allow myself to think that something has happened to him.

But Koby has never done anything like this before. No matter what, he doesn't worry me. Because if there is one thing I am sure of, it is his love. He would worry me a little, but not like this.

The other mothers sit in my house, reassuring me. He's the oldest, this is your initiation, they do foolish things. They worry us. One's fourteen-year-old daughter had been missing until three o'clock one morning. One's eight-year-old son had been lost in the cave. Two ten-year-olds had taken the bus to Kiryat Shmona, a four-hour trip, without telling anybody. "We think they're like us, but they're not. They have their own logic, their own way. They don't think like we do," Orly tells me.

Then the policemen march in, rifles slung over their shoulders, with beautiful sad young faces, asking questions, filling out their papers. 'Go find them,' I want to shout, 'just go find them.' But I answer their questions.

I ask Orly for a glass of wine. I think: he's on his way home. Just be calm. It's all going to be okay.

Search crews from the area scour the wadi. They will find them, I think. They are lost, stuck, waiting. Pini Birnbaum, a twenty-three-year-old with American parents, who grew up here and knows the caves inside out, returns after three hours. He's been calling and shouting, but there has been no answer. "Since the caves are so big, there's still a chance they're in there," he tells us. That is the hope I cling to. I imagine them, stuck on some ledge in the cave, unable to go up or down, to rise or fall. Or they are on a bus to Eilat -- on a whim -- they aren't in the wadi at all, they've decided to get away from the madness here. It's a foolish act, but it makes sense: they are living in a war zone. They've been through eight months of the Intifada -- of drive-by shootings every day. People could crack and just run away. Could do things that weren't like them. They could.

Shoshana sits knitting in my living room. She has three boys in the army. She says: "Go see if you can feel him somewhere, feel his being."

It's already four o'clock in the morning. Seth and I go out looking for him. We walk to the entrance of the wadi, less than five minutes away. I don't feel him. We see a van with two security men inside. They say they've searched all over. A crew of searchers will continue when the sun comes up. My legs begin to buckle, but I'm sure he'll come home. But when the sun rises and they're still not home, it hits me. They need to come home now. I remember something about missing children -- if they aren't found the first day, chances are they won't be found alive. I plead with God and with Koby: Come back now! Come back now! I remember giving birth and how the midwife, worried after listening to Koby's heartbeat, said: push this baby out! push this baby out! I say: Come home now! come home now! with the same kind of urgency. I can will him to come home. I pace in front of the house. At 6:00 a.m., my husband walks to the synagogue, hoping that the strength of his prayers will bring the boys home.

In the house, my friends sit around me. I say: "He's okay, right, he's okay?" My friend Shira walks into the house and I see the fire of fear in her eyes and I know that there's pain there, more pain than I am willing to admit, to let enter my heart. Now I know that I am being too optimistic.

I say: "I'm going in the backyard." I think I can protect myself, as if bad news can only come to the front door. Then Shira comes out to me a short while later. She looks at me, takes my hand in hers, and says: "They found them. They're dead."

I do not want to live in a world where Koby is dead. Even worse, where Koby is murdered.

I say: "No he's not. Koby is not dead. He's not dead. He's not dead."

There is one thing I know: I do not want to live in a world where Koby is dead. Even worse, where Koby is murdered.

Friends tell me I fainted. I remember lying on the dirt in my backyard. Just lying there. I remember holding my husband, holding him and crying. I remember people talking to us about telling the other kids. Seth went up to tell them.

The two little ones were asleep. Seth woke Eliana, ten, and told her. She said: "Stop joking Daddy."

Gavi, six, just listened. And then they both curled up and went back to sleep.

They told Daniel on the school trip. The kids had heard on the radio that two boys from Tekoa were missing. Daniel had a feeling it was Koby, because Koby had been talking to him about wanting to go to the wadi. Then later, the person in charge of the trip took Daniel off the bus and told him that his brother was dead. The whole class got back on the bus and drove home. Daniel sobbed all three hours and then my whole village could hear him crying as he returned from the trip and ran to the house. I held him and held him and his crying was raspy and it was hard for him to breathe. He cried as if he was crying for all the pain in the world that was, and would ever be.

Now I am like the canary in the mine. I have been sent out to the land of death to see, can one live there? Can one breathe after death has taken one's beloved? How do you cope with overwhelming evil and pain? People ask me: How are you? The question is one from my former world. Now it is one that I cannot answer. I have lost the ability to be in a world where I answer okay. There is no okay. Nothing will ever again be okay. I answer: I'm breathing. I'm alive. But I will never feel relieved, relaxed. Because something will always be missing. I can never again take anything for granted -- that the sun will rise, that my husband will return from work. I carry the weight of my son's death everywhere I go, even into my dreams.

Suffering has thrust me into a world where there is no okay. Each moment is a miracle and an agony. A miracle that the world exists in all its glory. An agony that this world is one of suffering and pain. Jewish tradition says that each person is a world. I have lost a whole world.


Your funeral is no more real to me than a fire made of water, than an ocean made of stone. My friends in New York see us on TV, my body bowed over your coffin. But I don't believe, and I will never believe, that you are in the cemetery.

We begin the funeral procession in our town. The wind has been blowing all day, ferociously, so strong that friends help me find my winter coat, which is already packed away, so that I can wear it to the cemetery. I step out of the house and have to hold on to my friends because the wind is pushing me back. The social worker has designated an adult responsible for each of my children. They walk alongside us to the main road in our town. I hold my kids' hands. People line the street. There is an ambulance and a line of cars. Where is Koby's body I wonder. Where is my son?

As soon as the funeral procession begins, the wind dies down. I hold my husband, my children, my friends. The rabbi's wife takes a knife and slices a rip in my shirt from the collar, rends my husband's shirt and my children's as well. The tear is like the tear in my heart. I do not faint but my legs don't want to accept the weight of my body; my body wants to collapse, wants to plunge to the earth; wants to disappear. But I don't.

I feel like my heart has stopped: this moment is the moment that will stand as forever in my life.

I scream at the horror and the pain and the fact that I am in a car with my husband and three innocent children and we are on our way to bury their brother.

Somebody brings me a folding chair and medics take my pulse. The rabbi speaks. I look out and see the pale gray color of the wadi, the rugged cliffs. I stand and hold my children. I don't hear a word that the rabbi says. Somebody gives me a drink of water. Cameras push their way toward me like burrowing animals, trying to expose my pain. I walk to a car and as soon as I get in the back seat, I scream at the horror and the pain and the fact that I am in a car with my husband and three innocent children and we are on our way to bury their brother. There is a long procession of cars. We drive through an Arab village and then we pass the neighboring town of Efrat. Throngs of people fill the road. We drive through them and they part for us like the Red Sea. They are praying, heads down, bowed. They have come to say goodbye to Koby and Yosef. Later, I am told that they have waited for hours.

We stop at a junction for a public ceremony before proceeding to the cemetery. Thousands of people join us. Limor Livnat, the Minister of Education, and some other politicians speak, and I see two stretchers on metal stands. I can't breathe. I had no idea that my son's body would be laid out here, exposed. On top of each stand is a body wrapped in a tallit, a prayer shawl. Written on a tag at the bottom of the stretcher is the name: Koby Mandell. This is the last day I will see my son, and this is the last touch I will give him. I lay my face on top of his body and wonder where is his head; where are his legs? He is so tightly wrapped I can't tell. I hold him and try to hug him and remember how the nurses swaddled him tightly when he was born, bound him so he would feel secure. And now he is swaddled again, and I hold him and feel nothing, and suddenly I understand death. He is a body without a spirit. I know his soul has gone somewhere else; is no longer with us. There is a huge throng of people but I am alone with my son's death. Take me into the earth, I would like to pray. But there is something in me that keeps me upright, that keeps me walking, that keeps me alive. The life force that led me to my closet to pick out an outfit for the funeral; the life force that keeps me from collapsing. We get back in the car. A convoy of cars containing Rena and Ezra and their family drives away from us to the Har HaMenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem. Our friend Avraham drives us to the cemetery in Kfar Etzion. I think: I can't bear this; I can't live anymore. I don't know how I will live with evil; how I will explain evil to my children; how we will live with death as our companion, how we will live without Koby.

We arrive at the cemetery and are about to open the doors of the car. This is a moment of sheer terror for me, pain that is so intense that I feel that my soul has also left my body. I am disconnected from my limbs, from my heart, my breathing. A mother should not have to watch her son put into the ground. A mother should die before her child. A mother should not have to bear witness to the terrible fact that much as she loves her child, she can't protect him; she can't save him from a death so brutal we had to provide dental records so that my son and Yosef could be told apart.

I wonder where I will find the strength to walk to the grave. As I open the car door, Gavi, my six-year-old son says: "I'm hungry. I'm hungry, Mommy."

"What?" I ask. "Didn't anybody feed you?"

"No, I'm hungry," he says.

A policeman makes an emergency run, siren blaring, to a nearby market and brings Gavi potato chips and we remain by the car as he eats. Hunger. Simple hunger. Even at the moment of death. Even at the most tragic, cruelest hour of life, God is pulling me out of my pain by giving me a son who is alive and hungry. God is reminding me that life is all around me, even here, surrounded by dead souls. Gavi is crunching potato chips, enjoying them.

There is a life force that makes us breathe, that calls us to look up to the stars at the most tragic moments. There is a life force that demands our attention. As Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor who has done extensive work with cancer patients, says in Kitchen Table Wisdom: "That tendency toward life endures in all of us, undiminished, until the moment of our death." Though it may be impermanent, life is not fragile. The drive to life is strong.

We walk down to the graveyard. The darkness is a gift that keeps me from seeing too clearly. Thousands of people surround the grave and fill the space between the grave and the parking lot overlooking the graves. Without having told us, my eleven-year-old son delivers a eulogy, crying out to the crowd in the midst of his tears. He tells Koby: "I wanted you to be there when I got home. What will I do without you, my best friend? Who will tell me what to do? Who will I laugh with? Who will I talk to? How could they have killed you, a thirteen-year-old boy?"

Rabbis speak. Koby's teacher speaks. A friend speaks. I hold on to Eliana and Gavi as my husband speaks. "This is not our script," he says. "This is not the story we came here for. We came here to be close to God. We wanted to be part of Jewish history but we forget what Jewish history means, we forgot the suffering and murder that are part of our history. I remember when you were a baby, I used to hold you as I studied and learned the words of the Talmud and I hoped that the holy words would enter you and fill your being. As you got older, I taught you and taught you. But there's one thing I never taught you -- how to die."

I hear without listening. I see with my eyes closed. My son's shrouded body is lowered into the ground. As in all traditional burials in Israel, there is no coffin because we want the body to naturally return to the earth, to the dust. We don't want to impede the process of separating the body from the soul, because the body needs to go through a period of purification so that one day, in the time of the resurrection, in a new form, the body can be reunited with the soul. The men begin to shovel dirt over my son and people line up to toss rocks on the open grave.

I am at someone else's funeral, someone I don't know. I don't cry. I walk up to the parking lot, a procession of men standing on either side of me, lining our walk back to the car. They chant a prayer and I walk past them and through the darkness, my friends holding my weight as my body collapses into itself. I feel nothing. Because Koby is not here. Koby is nowhere near this grave. Koby is not in the air and Koby is not in the ground. I would know if he were here.

He would be poking me with his elbow or shouting in my ear. He would be lifting me up to show me how strong he is. He would be stepping on my toes to get my attention. He would put his arm around me and hug me. I would feel him.


The doctor tells me I must eat. But food is for people who are alive, and I am not.

During the seven days of mourning, the shiva, I live in the land of pain. My friends fear I won't return to myself, that I won't have the strength to go on. Seth worries about me because my eyes swing in their sockets; I can't eat. My friends beg me to eat. They rub my shoulders and my back. They try to spoon baby food into my mouth. The doctor comes and checks my tongue, my blood pressure. He tells me I must eat. But food is for people who are alive, and I am not. I get up and go downstairs and cry out in my pain. I sit on the floor and am cradled by thousands of people who reach out to me. My children join me on the floor; they are in their rooms with friends; they play upstairs, I don't know who is taking care of them but I see them eating. I see adults surrounding them. I speak to them and hold them, but they prefer to be with their friends. My pain is a flame that they can feel in my hands, see in my eyes.

Seven days of mourning. The mirrors are covered. Vanity is a luxury in the midst of such pain. One wants to forget the material world, be transformed into a spirit so that one can merge with the dead. This world seems like a world of shadow. The body is insubstantial. I don't want to perform my rituals of vanity -- the quick dab of eye makeup, lipstick. I don't bathe. I wear the same ripped shirt all week. Breathing is all I can manage. Most people can't tolerate a mourner's silence, and rush to fill it, but Jewish mourning laws dictate that a person paying a shiva call should be silent until the mourner speaks. If the mourner says nothing, the person visiting should say nothing as well. Neither should greet each other. The first three days, when the pain is most intense, the mourner is like an egg, without a mouth, dwelling in silence. The point of the shiva is not to comfort a mourner for her loss but to stand with her in the time of her grief. As Rabbi Maurice Lamm notes, the main purpose of the shiva is to relieve the mourner of his loneliness. A person expresses compassion for the mourner through his presence and silence. Job sat with his friends for seven days and none uttered a sound. For only God can comfort. That is why, when departing a shiva, many traditional Jews state these words: "May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." But I am not silent. I need to talk about Koby. I cannot contain the pain of silence.

And there are people who come and offer me words that ease my loneliness. Not formulaic statements like -- 'he's in a better place', or 'thank God you have your other children', but words that tell me that they can stand with us in this place of sorrow. I need to speak. I need people to talk to me. I ask my friend to put a sign on a door-this is a house of shiva and all conversation should be about Koby. I refuse to listen to anything trite, anything mundane. I tell people: only Koby, only Koby.
There are many people who offer me wisdom, and I hold on to their words like a rope that I can climb. The women bend down to me, sitting on the floor, putting their faces to mine. Their faces are so beautiful -- their eyes open, their voices soft and strong. Today I know that each person is created in the image of God, because I see and hear God in their faces, the faces of God. I know all of these women are God coming to comfort me, their arms wrapped around me; their eyes looking into mine. They reach into their souls and give me divine pieces of themselves; love and compassion-they feed me with their words. Israeli women are unafraid of suffering; they know death as a companion. They say:

"Your son will not be forgotten. We will not let him be forgotten…"

"We will be with you. You will never be alone, never…"

"He is our son too; we are crying with you.…"

"He is with God and he is basking in God's love and you will bask in our love…"

"Your son is like a boat, a beautiful boat sailing and when it goes over the horizon you won't be able to see it, but it's still there, sailing along the open waters.…"

And this: "My brother was killed and my mother suffered but after the terrible pain, there were gifts. My mother was a Holocaust survivor, her parents and brothers and sisters were killed in the war. She made a new life here in Israel. Then my brother was killed in a terrorist attack on a bus in 1979." I remember this. I once stayed at this woman's house for Shabbat, and all night, the picture of the handsome young man in the photograph looked down at me, and I felt he had died. In the morning, I asked her, and she told me that her brother had died when he was twenty-six. She says: "My mother had great blessings in her life, even with her misfortune, and so will you. God takes away, but he also gives. You will receive. God will give you bracha."

These words move me, and I want to believe them. But I don't understand them.

"You will go on. You will live. Don't make a shrine for your son."

The mothers who have lost children to terrorism arrive. One, who lost her teenage son in an attack when he was hiking in Wadi Kelt, says: "You will go on. You will live." She gives me practical advice: "Don't make a shrine for your son. Pack up his things and put them away. Use his room. You don't need to keep out his pictures everywhere."

She is an attractive woman, her hair styled in a fashionable, short cut. She is wearing makeup, earrings. I look at her and realize: You can still be alive after your son is dead.

A woman who lost her nineteen-year-old son in a drive-by shooting, says: "He is not gone. He will live inside of you now. We miss their physical bodies but we are still tied to them. You will never forget him."

I reach out for their hands like branches that will pull me across a raging river. One of my friends tells me: "You are all soul, you are letting us see your soul."

The politicians arrive. Israel is a small country with a history of conflict, and there is a custom of politicians attending the funeral or the shiva of each person killed by terror or war, each person killed by a national enemy. I tell the President, Moshe Katzav -- I need a father to comfort me. He stares at me without seeing me. The chief rabbi, the ministers, the mayors…none of them have the right words of comfort for me.

"What do we do with the pain?" my husband asks a rabbi who, years ago, lost his eleven-year-old child in a bus accident. The rabbi answers: "You must use it to grow."

Another rabbi says that ours is a heartbreaking test, but we need to turn to God, that only God can give us comfort. Outside of the house, my friend Valerie tells me, the rabbis cry like babies.

Because no matter how much we try to intellectualize or interpret the pain, to will it away, the pain crouches on our heart like a beast who is waiting to crush us, to chew us to bits until we are nothing, dust that the wind can blow away.

I wake up each morning crying and I go to sleep in tears. My body is a poor companion now. It is too material. I want to peel it away, find the soul inside and merge with my son.

I look at the women who wrap their arms around me, who give me their bodies to cry on. They are my Yemenite and Moroccan and Portuguese and American mothers. There is so much love in that shiva, so much love; the love lifts me up and keeps me afloat like I am a body being carried.

Click here to purchase The Blessing of a Broken Heart, by Sherri Mandell, Toby Press.


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