It is a hallmark of the talk swirling around the Arab-Israeli conflict that large swaths of the culture downplay Arab violence and terrorism.
There are many reasons for this, with fear being near the top of the list. No one wants to incur the wrath of Muhammad’s followers, whether it is book writers or giant networks.
So it is that Sherri Mandell’s searing memoir, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” is especially poignant and courageous. It details the ghastly murder of her son, Koby, and his friend, Yosef Ishran, in a cave barely a half-mile from the Mandell home in Israel’s Judean Hills.
The boys, entering their teen years, were brutally stoned to death by Palestinians; the killers were never caught.
Sherri and her husband, Seth, subsequently created the Koby Mandell Foundation, which helps families of terror victims cope. Much good has come in the aftermath of Koby’s death. Still, the wrenching away of a wonderful boy from his family more than lingers.
Before May 8, 2001, Koby was growing into manhood, and the future looked bright. His family had moved to Israel from Chicago and immersed themselves in the miracle that is the Jewish state. No doubt Koby would have gone on to the Hebrew University or some other prestigious school. He had leadership qualities and compassion.
But when the boys didn’t return home in the evening, that promise began to dissipate. Sherri, a fine writer, discusses the cave where the murder took place, but in a tone that hearkens back to her ancestors:
“A cave is a place of constriction, of darkness, of fear,” she writes. “It is like the darkness from before light was created. The cave is moist, slippery; a hollow that reverberates with secrets and all that has been lost. Moses and Shimon Bar Yochai and Eliyahu all dwelled in caves and encountered God from the clefts of the rock. They each entered the cramped space of fear, pain, and darkness – in order to find the truths they were seeking.”
Koby, Seth and Sherri’s first-born, still teaches, even after almost a decade gone.
Sherri describes how, even at a young age, Koby possessed wisdom that is rare, even in adults. She also shares how he inspires her still:
“I could have stayed in bed the rest of my life mourning him. I could still have remained broken, resenting my life, my lot,” she writes. “But there is something in me that refuses to be broken, no matter how intense the pain, something that moves toward the light.”
In gripping detail – “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” will resonate in a huge way with mothers everywhere – Sherri describes the blurry pain of Koby’s funeral. She also gives practical lessons in grief, as described in Chapter 22:
Taking her son Daniel to Jerusalem to buy shoes, she realizes, as she stares into a shop window and begins to cry, that this act of pain is troubling to Daniel. She decides then and there to bring it down to her children’s level.
She gives Daniel her watch and tells him, “Give me one minute to cry.”
She cries for 22 seconds. It is a process that both mother and child can cope with.
It is impossible to say that in a book filled with moving moments, one can stand out from the rest, but Sherri relates a very sweet memory:
A year after Koby’s murder, she and Seth went to a restaurant to celebrate their wedding anniversary. As Sherri watched their bubbly waitress, she thought that the girl has no idea of the pain Sherri carries.
Later, as the Mandells leave the restaurant, they inquire of the manager how a local couple is doing; they’d lost their son in an accident.
“You can ask them yourself,” he reveals. “Your waitress is their daughter.”
In this way, Sherri began to see that humanity carries “pockets of pain,” and that acknowledging that pain is a way to cope with it. No longer is the pain an uncomfortable guest, but a shared humanity.
I met Sherri once. We visited in a hotel lobby just steps from Jerusalem’s Old City walls. As she left, I watched her strength of character, and then I thought of that golden city, where peace will one day spread over the earth. There will be many happy family reunions in that day. The Lord said once that Jerusalem’s walls are ever before him; in other words, he never forgets his people.
Koby and Yosef most of all.