September 4, 2003 Update

Letters from Israel

Thursday, September 4, 2003

Dear family and friends,

My mother's passing was framed by terror.

The morning of August 12 two suicide bombers attacked a Rosh Ha'ayin shopping centre and later an Ariel bus stop. I was sitting alone in my teacher's silversmithing studio working on a pendant, listening to radio reports of the morning's terrible news, feeling like the nightmare was starting all over again.

Yet there I was at the workbench making something upbeat and full of optimism, taking a dirty looking, jagged piece of metal and turning it into a beautiful silver necklace, the act of creation as always restoring my spirits and my faith.

Then came that terrible phone call. Stunned, my hammer fell to the workbench, the tiny pomegranate clattering to the floor, my world shattered in the blink of an eye.

When Jason called I knew from the timbre of his voice that something was very wrong. I was sure someone we knew had been hurt or killed in that morning's bombings. I wasn't prepared for what followed: My mother had died suddenly, after a routine outpatient scan to assess the progress of her chemotherapy.

After the initial shock, I was struck by the irony of it all. I was worried about friends who worked in Rosh Ha'ayin. My mother had been nervous of riding the buses in Jerusalem. Sometimes in the mad rush of current events here, you forget that despite the hell of terror, ordinary life kills far more people.

During the shiva, the initial week-long mourning period, I sat with family and friends reminiscing about my mother's life, browsing through stacks of photo albums. My mother aged three at the beach. Aged fourteen on her first visit to Israel. As a young bride. A new mother. On vacation with family friends. At my bat-mitzvah party. At my wedding. Vacationing with my husband and me. And so on and so on. So many wonderful memories, so many beautiful photos. A life cut short, but nevertheless a rich life.

As I sat barefoot on the floor on the eve of the last day of shiva, August 19, I heard the news of the bombing of a Jerusalem bus packed with worshipers returning from the Western Wall.

My shirt was torn as a symbol of my bereaved status, my hair unwashed since the funeral, according to Jewish custom. The thick seven-day memorial candle flickered at the makeshift prayer lectern, and extra prayer books and chairs were stacked by the door for the thrice daily prayer services held in a house of mourning.

I couldn't conceive of deeper grief than what I felt for my mother. Yet my grief must pale against that of the parents mourning their children, taken so suddenly, brutally and deliberately.

How ironic that the bomber was a teacher. My mother was a religious studies teacher, an educator of hundreds, maybe thousands, of students young and old, with so much good work left to do in this world. She had dedicated herself to life, fought her illness tooth and nail. The morning of her death my uncle found her notes and bible spread out on the dining table, preparations for a class she was planning to give later this summer.

And here was this Palestinian religious studies teacher, a healthy, young man, ready not only to throw his life away, but to take a score of innocent souls with him on his demonic quest for paradise via mass murder.

Oddly enough the last time I rode on that bus from the Western Wall was last winter with my mother. Usually we preferred to walk back from visiting the Kotel, savouring the stone streets, the maze of alleys with their sheltered courtyards and market stalls.

It was an invigoratingly cold day and my mother was enjoying our walk through the Old City, but then she started to feel bad, some kind of stomach upset she thought, so we took the bus back to the new city. It was as usual packed to the gills, but a sweet seminary girl gave my mother a seat and she felt better by the time we got off the bus.

Only this May we discovered that the persistent stomach upsets were terminal cancer.

Amidst the terrible heartbreak and sorrow of seeing my mother undergo chemotherapy, of losing her so suddenly, there is some consolation, however poorly I can grasp it, in knowing that this is the way of the world, the way of all life. Despite the war, most people here die of illness and accident, as in other Western countries.

Cancer strikes so many, destroying lives, destroying families, but it is an insentient disease, an indiscriminate killer performing its function in the world. It is sadly the natural order, in every nation on earth, that children bury their parents.

My mother died peacefully, of natural causes. In some ways that itself is a blessing.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.

Ktiva vehatima tova,


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Copyright 2003 by Leiah Elbaum.