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We Are All Brothers

May 9, 2009 | by Rachel Ginsberg

Imagine a dream where you discover that your best friend is really your brother. For Lior Alhanati, it was no dream.

Lior's odyssey began 30 years ago, as an underweight, sickly 2-year-old, whose emotionally- and financially-depleted parents couldn't cope with this third child in as many years. The Social Services Office in Tiberias, Israel swooped down on the family and took Lior away, putting him up for adoption.

Lior's father was glad to be relieved of the burden. Lior's mother was less certain, and she assumed that any new arrangement would be a type of foster care, where she would be able to visit her son on a regular basis, until the family got back on its feet. But little Lior was placed in an orphanage and the door to his family was locked.

Lior lived in the orphanage for two years, until he was adopted by the Alhanati family, a devoted and loving childless couple from the Galilee town of Carmiel.

Eventually Lior's biological parents reestablished themselves and had another five children, but Lior was permanently out of their lives.

"I still remember the horror, the devastation of the separation and abandonment," recalls Lior, sitting in his sun-drenched living room in Mitzpeh Yericho overlooking the Judean Desert, where he now lives with his wife and three children. "I grew up knowing that I was adopted, that somewhere there are other parents, brothers and sisters. It was an awful feeling that accompanied me through my youth."

Lior praises the parents who raised him, referring to his father as "one of the 36 tzaddikim (righteous people) in the world" with his deep, unswerving faith, and his mother who took in a strange child and raised him as her own.

Although he grew up in a nurturing environment, Lior could never shake the feelings of bitterness, resentment and abandonment.

In the Alhanati household, Lior was raised observant, and recalls as a 7-year-old being in shul and reading Psalm 27. When he reached the words, "Although my father and mother have forsaken me, God will gather me in," it shook him up.

"I went up to this old man and said, 'Who wrote this prayer? Does he not have parents either?' The man explained that I was 3,000 years late, that we were talking about King David. Yet I've always felt connected to those words, even in my most rebellious times."

Hitchin' a Ride

Although he grew up in a nurturing environment, Lior could never shake the feelings of bitterness, resentment and abandonment. He was angry, at the world, at life, at God. "I felt God is my Father and I am his son, and just like a son can do anything and his father will always be there, I knew I could rebel, and at the end of the road God would still be waiting for me.

In the army Lior left religion and discarded his kipah. "I committed many transgressions, and I would feel lousy because I knew that God was watching. But I had so much anger, I just wanted to kick. I couldn't express it any other way. Yet I knew in my mind that I could always come back. I never stopped believing."

One time during his army service, Lior was waiting with another friend to hitch a ride from his base to Jerusalem. Just then, terrorists in a stolen car were on the lookout for a soldier to kidnap, and the car pulled up next to Lior and his friend.

"Three of them were in the car, so there was room for another two people, but they only offered place for one. It was a little suspicious, but I was so tired I decided to get in anyway. Just then my legs locked, as if an outside force was holding me back. They saw my hesitation, and immediately sped off."

Several minutes later a police car pulled up and asked if they had seen this particular car, since they were chasing a gang of terrorists. Later, Lior heard on the news that the car was found torched in an Arab village.

"God never let me totally fall. If I was on the brink, He wouldn't let me step over the boundaries to total disaster. He always pulled me out at the last minute."

Closed Doors Now Opened

After the army, Lior did a typical Israeli tour abroad, came back, and worked some odd jobs. Then, at age 22, something inside propelled him to open his adoption file.

"My adoptive parents took it hard. Maybe they had some underlying fear that I would reject them, and leave them for my natural parents. But I explained that it had nothing to do with my relationship with them, it was just this internal need to know where I came from.

"At the same time I wasn't sure I wanted to meet my mom. I had so much anger. She threw me out of the house. How could a mother do that? Let her live and die with her guilt! But the social worker arranged it, and there I was in Haifa, walking into the room where my mother was waiting, together with her sister and their social worker. I told myself I'm just going for curiosity's sake. I just want to see who this woman is.

She said she prayed that if she didn't find me in her lifetime, one of her children would.

"I approached her, and she started to cry. I thought to myself, why are you crying, you threw me out! But then I really opened my eyes and saw that she was crying from the heart. I sat with her for an hour, while she explained how she tried to find me, but how all the doors were closed to her. She told me that she lit a Shabbat candle for me every week -- it was the only mitzvah she kept. She said she prayed that if she didn't find me in her lifetime, one of her children would."

When the meeting was over, Lior's mother asked if she could maintain contact. "I explained that I have other parents and cannot betray them. I said maybe later, when I get married. I was scared to meet the rest of the family. My heart tore. I felt that she was sending me away for the second time. I returned to my life and she to hers. It was too complicated for me emotionally to retain the relationship. It just wasn't the right time."

Inseparable Friends

Lior continued to work and travel. One day he found himself on a bus to Eilat, and struck up a conversation with the security guard, a young man about two years older, named Ofer Shushan. There was something familiar about him. Lior thought perhaps he knew him from his army days. He just couldn't place it. Lior and Ofer became fast friends.

At this point, Lior knew he had to do something concrete with his life. The first step was to get rid of the resentments and return to religion, so he enrolled in a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

"I was at the yeshiva for a few weeks," Lior remembers, "and then in comes Ofer. I was really surprised, because his family was totally secular, and he never hinted to me that he was searching. He certainly didn't look it, with his earrings and ponytail."

For five years, until Lior got married, he and Ofer were inseparable. They studied together every day, ate their meals together, roomed together, spoke about the meaning of life together, and played music together in late-night dorm-room jamming.

At Lior's wedding, Ofer took center stage, just like a brother.

Family Reunion

After the wedding, the two friends moved in different directions, with Lior settling into his own routine. It was then that Lior's wife encouraged him to reestablish contact with his biological family, to reopen the file.

"Now I felt ready. The family now lives in Acco, but the social worker set up the meeting in Tel Aviv, 'neutral territory.' I was quite excited. It was eight years since I'd seen my biological mother. Perhaps she was angry with me for leaving after the first meeting? I hoped not. Now I felt healthy enough to have a relationship. It was to be a great day."

Lior was given a report about the family: two brothers and five sisters. Lior's siblings didn't even know he existed until the social worker arranged the meeting. One sister noticed an additional child's name on one of her mother's documents many years before, but the mystery ended there.

Lior met a warm, enthusiastic group of siblings. They were together for the first time in 30 years, and between comparing who looked like whom, his mother mentioned that there was another brother who wasn't able to make it to the meeting. His name was Ofer.

Does he have a long beard and play guitar? I turned white as a ghost.

Lior reflects on those earth-shaking moments: "Suddenly the pieces started fitting together. The family's name is Shushan. Could it be my Ofer Shushan? Impossible! They told me he was studying at yeshiva in Jerusalem. I thought I was going to faint. Does he have a long beard and play guitar? Affirmative. I turned white as a ghost.

"'Ofer is my best friend!!' I shouted."

Somebody needed to call Ofer, but everyone was too much in shock. Finally an aunt made the call.

"Ofer," she said, "we're here at the meeting with your long-lost brother. Well, have we got a surprise for you!"

Lior took the phone. "Ofer, shalom. This is Lior, your brother."

"Shalom," said Ofer, trying to place the voice.

"Ofer," said Lior again, "this is LIOR, from yeshiva!"

No response. Ofer had dropped the phone.

Brothers Again

The next day the two young men met. They hadn't seen each other in two years, since Lior's wedding. "How do you greet your best friend who suddenly turns into your brother?" Lior asks incredulously.

Lior never made the family connection with his friend's last name, even though he knew for eight years that his mother's name was Esther Shushan. Firstly, he never told Ofer that he was adopted. It was still too painful a subject to discuss. And second, Ofer didn't have relatives in Haifa. Lior's first meeting with his mother was in Haifa; he didn't know that she actually lived in Acco.

Had Lior attended Ofer's wedding the year before, the revelation could have been catastrophic. Lior would have seen their common biological mother, whom Lior had met years earlier. The shock would have turned the event upside-down. Actually, Lior had planned to attend the wedding, but just that evening, Lior's wife called to remind him his parents were expecting him for a birthday party.

It was only later that Lior met his biological father. The Shushans have been divorced for many years. "It was hard for me to meet him," says Lior. "He was really the one responsible for sending me away. I was still so full of anger toward him. Then, when I went to visit my mother in Acco, I saw a man on the street, speaking to another family member. I knew it was him. Sometimes you just know. I went over to him and said, 'Do you know who I am?' He did know. He'd heard that I had came back into their lives.

"I always pictured him as a huge ogre, the incarnation of evil. But he is actually a thin, frail, broken human being. We hugged each other, but to this day I don't know how to relate to him."

And what about a meeting between Lior's adoptive parents and his biological parents?

"Perhaps one day," says Lior. "But it will have to be from my initiative. Now is not the time. I think my parents would feel threatened. I owe them so much. They gave me everything. I wouldn't want to make them feel uncomfortable."

Two-Man Show

Today, Ofer is a scribe in Kiryat Gat, while Lior works as a renovations contractor in Mitzpeh Yericho. He is also earning a degree in the new field of horseback riding therapy, a breakthrough therapy for emotional and physical healing.

And like the old yeshiva days, Ofer and Lior have again teamed up with their music. Their two-man show, appropriately titled, We Are All Brothers, has reached thousands around Israel. Ofer strums the guitar and Lior thumps on his darbuka. In the show, Ofer tells of his route to Jewish observance, and Lior tells of his adoption, the army, his spiritual fallout and search.

Then the stories converge when their lives become intertwined. It's dramatic, beautiful music, with lots of crying.

"The show is about getting back to your essence, discovering who you really are and what God wants from you," says Lior. "And that's my own life story. We get so busy defining ourselves by what we do, instead of looking into our essence. We need to see where God is leading us in the world."

A version of this article originally appeared in Country Yossi magazine.

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