A lesson in grammar and life

Though she will be best remembered for the impact she had on the community, Evelyn Solomonov left a legacy through her two sons.

September 24, 2015 09:57
Evelyn Solomonov

Evelyn Solomonov. (photo credit: INSTAGRAM)

Evelyn Solomonov may have relished the irony of the fact that her obituary was written by someone who she taught to love grammar.

She would have been less amused at the use of passive voice in the second part of that sentence, bristled at the misuse of “who” instead of “whom,” and questioned the word choice of “irony,” which doesn’t precisely describe the situation.

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Solomonov, who died on September 14 at the age of 68, was a well-known figure in Kfar Saba, where she taught English at the Herzog School for 20 years.

She insisted that her students speak to her in English both inside and outside the classroom – only in part because she was never fully comfortable with her Hebrew – and settled for only the highest of standards, leaving a generation of Israeli Anglophiles in her wake.

It was important for her to add Shakespeare to her curriculum wherever possible, even when she had to bend the requirements to fit it in.

“She was the teacher’s teacher, she was a mentor to a lot of other teachers,” said Fran Rotholz, who, along with Marj Bitran, was one of Solomonov’s best friends. “I’ve never heard anybody speak so perfectly. Everything she did was all-out. She never did anything halfway.”

BORN EVELYN Fisher on December 24, 1946, in East Liverpool, Ohio, Solomonov developed an early love for Israel from her parents, who were active in Jewish organizations such as Israel Bonds. She and her younger sisters, Aline and Ava, first came to the Holy Land when Evelyn was just 12. She started spending summers in Israel while in high school, but returned to study at the University of Denver and George Washington University before deciding to make aliya.

While living in Washington, she took a job at the Israeli Embassy, where she worked under then-ambassador Yitzhak Rabin. Her direct boss was Yehuda Avner, author of The Prime Ministers, a memoir detailing his career under four Israeli premiers.

When Solomonov finally decided to move to Israel, she took a job at the Osem food company, where she became known as the company president’s “English- speaking secretary,” and eventually moved on to teaching English at the American School. It was then that she met Mordechai Solomonov, a native Israeli who went by the nickname “Solo,” and got married. After her son Michael was born, the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she gave birth to David.

(A personal note: I knew Evelyn from her years teaching English at Community Day School in Pittsburgh, where I was a student. Funnily enough, she was never my teacher, although she drilled grammar into my older sister, Ori, who then insisted that I put my participles and prepositions in order. I joked that Mrs. Solomonov was such a good English teacher that she managed to teach me grammar second-hand.) The decision to move back to Israel 12 years later was fateful. Evelyn and Mordechi divorced, and Michael went back to the US to finish high school. David soon acclimated to life in Israel, and after finishing high school joined the Golani Brigade in the IDF.

Just days before he was scheduled to be discharged, he agreed to swap patrol shifts with a friend on Yom Kippur.

Solomonov wrote about that day in Hadassah Magazine four years later: “A knock on the door. I open it and see four men in Israel Defense Forces uniforms. They wait, silent. I stare at them, uncomprehending. My mouth struggles to form words.

“‘Is it my son? Is he dead?’ “They back me through the living room to the sofa.

“‘Hezbollah snipers…killed instantly….’ “I get up and smile, reassuring the soldier who follows me to the bathroom that I am not going to faint, pass out, do whatever he expects me to do. And I stand there, leaning against the cold white tiles, not even crying because how do I know what I am supposed to do when someone comes to tell me that my son is dead. My son David, who was to be demobilized in only three more days after serving for three years. Three years less three days.”

In the years since his passing, Solomonov searched for constructive ways to deal with David’s death. She became the glue that kept his friends and army unit together, inviting them over each year on David’s birthday for Sloppy Joes and Chinese Chews, David’s favorite cookies. Many of them formed strong, personal bonds with her over the years.

“For so long, I thought they were coming here for David, but I think a lot of it is my mom,” said Michael.

Though Michael and her grandchildren live in the US, Evelyn stayed in Israel.

“She would never leave David behind,” Fran Rotholz said. Besides, she had developed an amazing network of friends, participating in book clubs and writing groups, as well as bereavement groups. Her quick intellect, incisive humor and warmth fostered lasting relationships.

“Evelyn was kind of friends with everybody, from the hairdresser down the street to the baker, and she remembered the names of every student she ever taught,” Rotholz said. “She had more friends than anybody I know. She was a magnet, and people drifted toward her and supported her.”

Solomonov launched plans to create a dog park in David’s memory – he, like her, was an avid animal lover – and after several years of bureaucratic battles, she succeeded in getting it built in 2011.

Michael, who was in the nascent stages of his culinary career when he lost his brother, says the tragedy spurred his interest in Israeli food. In 2008, he opened an Israeli-inspired restaurant in Philadelphia called Zahav, which went on to win a James Beard Award in 2011, and plaudits from The New York Times and Food and Wine magazine. He describes his journey in a TedX talk that’s been viewed thousands of times.

When Evelyn, who had been battling lung cancer for two years, had a stroke in mid-September, Michael quickly boarded a flight. He managed to get to Israel in time to see Evelyn one last time. (His wife Mary and their sons Lucas and David, the latter named in memory of his uncle, arrived only after she passed). Before she died, Evelyn got to see an advance copy of Michael’s forthcoming first cookbook, titled Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.

Evelyn Solomonov, who lost her younger son on Yom Kippur, passed away on Rosh Hashana, surrounded by friends and family.

“Everybody that passed by,” Rotholz said, “said, ‘I love you.’”

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