Israeli Widows Speak
This year, widows of fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism will be embraced by Zoom rather than in crowded cemeteries. But the pain remains the same.
I say the word out loud – widow. It's heavy, like iron. The chin drops as the syllables come out. Wi-dow. Our widows come in all colors and with lips of all shapes, thousands of widows of fallen soldiers or victims of terrorism, hair worn loose or covered.
If not for coronavirus, I'd hug them, one by one. But we can't embrace or step closer to each other than two meters – and what a chunk of memories and longing fills those two meters – and instead, we talk via Zoom, in the shadow of bereavement.
Rachel Sadan-Shtock, 66, from Jerusalem, a mother of three, retired from the Israel Museum, lost her husband Udi, head of security at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara, in a terrorist attack at the embassy in 1992. He was 37 when he died, and she was 38 when she became a widow.
Pnina Kahlun, 43, from Hadera, a mother of four and a teacher and mentor for the Education Ministry, lost her husband Rami, a career paratroops officer, in Operation Protective Edge. He was 39, she was 37.
Sharon Azari Yahav, 50, from Kiryat Ono, a mother of two who works in banking management, lost her husband Nati, a commander of an engineering battalion in the Paratroops Brigade, in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. He was 36, and so was she.
Tami Pdut, 70, from Haifa, a mother of three (one from her second marriage), a retired nurse, lost her husband Tzvika, a pilot, in an accident in 1978. He was 28. So was she.
Sivan Gil Navon, 37, from Tel Aviv, a mother of two (one from a second relationship), lost her husband Maor, a cadet in the Israel Prison Service officers training course in the Carmel forest fire in 2010. They were both 27. Sivan works in the music field.
Anger, and everything that follows
"Corona caused everyone to become flooded with insights about a meaningful life, about proportions. We in the family of the bereaved learned that already," Pnina says. "We learned to appreciate the little things. I remember the first shower I took after sitting shiva. Saying thank you for what had been taken for granted."
Pnina Kahlun (Arik Sultan)
I ask how their feelings have changed over the years. They all agree that the first feeling was anger: "At the government, at Hezbollah, at myself for letting him go to war," says Sharon.
"I realized that for the sake of the children, I had to let the anger go. When the anger passed, the hole left behind filled up with missing [him]. That was the second strongest feeling. The absence that is with me, for better or for worse," she says.
Tami says, "It's been 42 years, and I haven't stopped dreaming [about him] or missing him. At first, I was angry too. At him for flying while he was sick, at the air force for putting him on call when he was sick."
Sivan: "Death is an inseparable part of us. I want to add another feeling other than anger and longing – pride. Maor's dream was to be an officer, and he made it come true. I'm proud of him, as well."
Rachel Sadan-Shtock (Oren Ben Hakoon)
Rachel: "When life falls apart, you don't know how to rebuild it. It took me 12 years to be able to say, 'I'm a widow.' I was angry at the situation – I had a family and harmony, and it was ruined. Anger at the murderers? They don't exist as far as I'm concerned. I don't care who murdered him. I was given an envelope containing their names, and I didn't open it. Feelings? I long for him. I want him. I go up the stairs and dream that he's sitting on the sofa.
"One day, a hummingbird flew into the house. It was in the middle between the first and second floors. I said, Udi, what do you want to tell me? Thanks for visiting … The next generation missed out, too. The kids grew up without a father. The grandkids are growing up without a grandfather. My grandson wants to learn chess and he doesn't have a granddad who will teach him, and there's no granddad to play soccer with him," she says.
Pnina: "The first two years, I was also angry. Every crisis with the kids, every little thing I had to deal with, I was angry at Rami for leaving me alone. Today, I know that he didn't leave me alone. I learned to cling to the little signs that are sent, hold my head up, and say, 'Rami, fix this.' I can point to where he was standing at our son's wedding. Rami was orphaned at the age of 12 and people who had lived with him on the base for years learned that only after he was killed. He insisted that being an orphan was just a part of his life, not what defined him. My kids choose to be 'happy,' as part of their father's legacy. On seder eve, I was proud of them, I saw how they acted on it. Our Prophet Elijah was Rami, too."
The supportive shoulder has fallen away
At the time of the interview, the government had announced that because of coronavirus, it would be closing off cemeteries on Memorial Day.
"Going to the cemetery and seeing Israelis flock there to be with us during the siren is the most Israeli thing there is," Sharon says.
Sivan Gil Navon (Yehoshua Yosef)
"For 13 and a half years, in the group at the Kiryat Shaul [cemetery], I've felt the shoulder from everyone. It always fell on a hot day. There was a crush [of people] that warmed the heart. Suddenly, everything has fallen away. Corona. People see one another and move to the other side of the sidewalk. There will also be an absence on the eve of Memorial Day, when dozens of people come to the house, and the kids – who were little and have no memories of their father – hear stories about him."
Sharon says that this year, they'll "stand for the siren in the commemorative garden we built not far from our house, then go home."
Pnina: "The physical embrace, the hug without words, will be missing. On Memorial Day we feel the human puzzle that Rami was, the astonishingly varied mosaic he collected around himself and includes us."
Tami: "Every year, we debate about where to attend the ceremony – at Hatzerim [air force base], where Tzvika served? In Haifa, where he was born and raised? At the grandkids' schools? On Pilots Hill [outside Jerusalem]? At the military cemetery? Coronavirus broke out, and there's no more discussion. We'll be on Zoom, without hugs, without salty tears, without touching. How I'll handle that extra hardship of not being together, I don't know."
Sivan: "I was 27 when I was widowed. When Hila missed her father, I explained to her, from a simple belief in God, that Dad is with us even when we don't physically feel him near. Corona made that a reality. The grandmothers are at home, but they're not alone. People are in contact via Zoom, without the physicality. There is a distance that's for our own good, and we have no choice."
Rachel: "I don't need Memorial Day, because the memory has been with me every minute for 28 years. But when everyone stands for the siren together and the entire country comes to a halt, and the silence rings in our ears, I'm enveloped. Before I was widowed, I was touched by the lovely transition [from Memorial Day] to Independence Day. Then out of the clear blue sky, I'm the bereaved family. The switch to Independence Day is painful. Maybe this year it will be de-emphasized. I don't like the sudden switch to celebration."
Q: They say a widow moves on, while parents are left with a gaping hole. A widow can find love again, maybe even have more children, but bereaved parents have no future. Are there different levels of grief?
Rachel: We're one family. The children have lost their fathers. The parents and brothers are bereft. I'm a widow. There's no such thing as a 'former widow.' It's forever. Each of us experiences a different kind of pain. Sometimes the pain is interwoven."
Pnina: "I think mothers face something special in keeping their child's memory alive, making sure they're remembered, wondering about what will happen when she's gone."
Sharon: "There's no competition for who is worst off and no one has ownership of the grief. There were days when it was harder for me and his parents were a comfort, and the opposite. Shortly after he was killed, his mom said to me, 'Poor you, we have each other, but you're alone.'"
Tami: "When Tzvika was killed, his mom and I both thanked God that two sons were still alive. We felt that our fates were joined together. I'm always at her side on vacations and holidays. Both our grief is boundless."
Q: How does society respond to the title 'IDF widow'? Does it still inspire respect?
Rachel: "I feel a partnership of loss, of pity, of curiosity to know what happened. I'm also a police widow. There are fallen police who are also recognized by the Defense Ministry, who were killed during operations, and others who weren't. With every police incident, there's always the question, 'Are you recognized or not?' I stopped attending the [police widow] gatherings because I couldn't handle it anymore."
Sharon: "I have a friend who lost her husband to cancer. Her daughter said about my daughter: 'How nice for Noam, they [IDF orphans] get treats.' An IDF widow is embraced in a way that other widows aren't, but a widow is a widow. And when you say, 'My husband was killed in a war,' there is a sense that the other side salutes you."
Sivan: "You've heard the saying, 'If you have to be a widow, then be an IDF widow,' because the country owes a debt to anyone who was in uniform and set out on a mission to serve the state. Society really embraces us, as if part of it was killed along with Maor. The packages from the Defense Ministry are heartwarming, but every one of us would forgo the title."
Pnina: "After the shiva, representatives of the Organization of IDF Widows and Orphans arrived. What did widow-hood have to do with me? Who sends their kids to camps for fatherless children, God help us? That was really hard for me. In the end, there is strength in the commonality. A fatherless child is one thing, but a kid whose father was killed in the IDF is something else."
Approval from the fallen husband's parents
I tentatively ask about the new relationships that each of the women developed at some point. When they talk about their hearts opening to love once again, their dead husband's parents are mentioned repeatedly. They are a bit apologetic. Tami met her second husband, Eli, two years after she was widowed. "Tzvika's mom treats Eli like a son. She sees our daughter as a granddaughter in every respect, and our daughter also asked her, 'If Tzvika hadn't been killed, I wouldn't be here?"
Sivan: "I talk to my mother-in-law every day. The second year after I was widowed, I went out for coffee for someone for the first time. I needed his parents' approval, their blessing, for every step. Everyone I went out with knew who Maor was. My life's mission is to keep his memory alive. Today, now that I'm married again, I have three families – my parents, Maor's parents, and my husband's parents. Maor is still alive in my home. Sometimes I laugh about feeling like a threesome."
Rachel: "Udi was my best friend, and no one can fill that spot. I don't have another friend like that. But it was clear to me I would have another relationship. I was 38 when I was widowed … It was important to me to experience my femininity and not die along with Udi.
"I was introduced to a widower. In our first conversation, we discovered we had both lost our spouses on March 7, me in 1992 and he in 1996. We were together for 21 years, then we broke up. But not once in those 21 years did I compare my two partners," Rachel says.
Sharon: "Nati was killed on [Israeli Valentine's Day] Tu Be'av. The rug was pulled out from underneath me. I thought my life was over, the loss shook me up. We had a rare, wonderful partnership. We met because we went to the same hair stylist and three months later we decided to get married. I was a queen. I lived on a cloud of love.
"Nati's mom told me after he was killed, 'You need to find someone, don't worry about what we'll think.' The first five years, I wouldn't be introduced to anyone. I needed to build a live, raise the kids. I felt guilty – how could I be alive, and Nati wasn't. I didn't understand how it was possible to enjoy hearing a song. People tried to fix me up, I didn't want to. I didn't believe I could find more room in my heart.
"Later, I realized that I was looking for someone who I could live with along with my love for Nati, someone I could love along with Nati without feeling guilty. Today I have a partner, I'm learning that the 'drawers' of the heart can be opened a few times. My partner, a widower, respects that. Thirteen and a half years ago, my life stopped, and at the same time, I'm growing a new love. I'm not trying to fill the void. That's not appropriate. It's hybrid.
"I hesitated about how to tell Nati's parents. The night before I met with them I felt suffocated. I couldn't sleep the entire night. I sat down with them in their kitchen and after I said I had someone, they got up and hugged and kissed me. Every time I meet them, my partner comes along. They hug and kiss him, too."
Pnina also devoted the first five years of her widowhood to grieving and rebuilding. "I was in survival mode with the kids. My heart opened slowly, and I was already used to being alone, to my comfort zone. Now I've been with a divorced man for almost a year. The world of divorcees and the world of widowhood have nothing in common. In a divorce, the child still has two parents, even if they don't get along. Rami, bless him, is part of the new relationship. My partner can talk about him as if he knew him personally."
Sivan looks drawn. She says that the conversation is going on, and we haven't talked about those who fell, only themselves. She's angry. She says it isn't a day to talk about herself. Her friends join her. I apologize. In fact, an entire article, book, or library could be written about each of the people they lost. I wanted to discuss their walk over broken ground, their lives as the ones who were left behind.