When Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach went into critical condition Sunday evening, his doctors did not expect him to make it through the night – but Orbach loved upending people’s expectations.
Orbach died at age 54 on Monday in Shaare Zedek Medical Center of a chronic blood disease. He left behind his wife, Michal, and four children, and was buried in Modi’in.
A bespectacled man of slight build with a thick mustache and crocheted kippa, Orbach never looked like he could pack as hard a punch as he did whenever he took the podium, but words were both his weapon and his plaything.
He had an unparalleled ability to string them together in a way that was simultaneously entertaining and effective.
Before Orbach entered politics, running on the Bayit Yehudi-New NRP list in 2009, he was best known as a humorist, radio host, columnist and author of books for children and adults, whose talent for word play and wit was unmatched.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett posted a video of a 1994 political TV program on Facebook Sunday night, in which everyone participating praised then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin for shaking PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s hand, and Orbach was the only one to say – managing, as he did in the Knesset, to be both witty and serious at the same time – that just because his fellow members of the press were throwing a victory party, and just because Rabin shook his hand, Arafat didn’t turn from a murderer into a statesman.
Orbach wrote the 90s political slogans-turned-ubiquitous- bumper-stickers; “The Nation is With the Golan” and “Hebron From Time Immemorial,” to oppose territorial concessions.
Yet of all the puns and digs at the Left he made over the past decades, perhaps the most influential phrase turned by Orbach was “Send the Best to the Press,” a take on the wellknown Hebrew phrase “Send the Best to the Air Force.”
When Orbach moved from the religious press to the general one, most famously co-hosting Army Radio’s The Last Word and writing a column for Yediot Aharonot, his was one of the few crocheted kippot seen on members of the mainstream media, strongly representing the Right’s cause.
Orbach encouraged his fellow religious-Zionists to follow in his footsteps and let their voices be heard. By the time he died, religious-Zionists played central and visible roles in just about every media outlet in Israel.
Orbach did not only plant a seed that grew into fruits of religious- Zionist influence in the media. Though Bennett is the charismatic face of that group’s political renaissance, Orbach was its catalyst.
It was Orbach who convinced what was then called Bayit Yehudi-New NRP to open its ranks and hold a primary to attract new voters and candidates to the party, and once again, his idea’s success defied expectations, expanding the party from three seats to a dozen.
Not only religious-Zionists were touched by Orbach’s wit and innovativeness. As senior citizens minister, he took an underfunded portfolio and turned it into a positive influence on senior citizens’ lives, fighting for their rights and encouraging those who can to get out of the house and volunteer their vast experience to help others. He used his never-ending creativity to invent “Tuesday in Suspenders,” a day on which senior citizens received discounts on entertainment.
On Monday, during a special meeting of the Knesset, MKs from Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yesh Atid prayed on the podium for Orbach’s health, but the news of his death came during the proceedings.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein stopped the meeting to make the announcement, saying that Orbach “was above all arguments; was a pleasant person with a remarkable sense of humor... He had great respect for every man and I, like all of us, had respect and immense appreciation for this man.”
Messages of condolences soon poured in from all ends of the Knesset’s spectrum, where Orbach was beloved by many, even those who had deep disagreements with his political opinions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, along with President Reuven Rivlin, visited Orbach at his hospital bed the night before and eulogized him at his funeral, said Orbach’s “charm conquered everyone who heard him and his knowledge and intelligence came from the depths of his soul.
“Although he was exceptionally witty, he was never mean-spirited. I never met anyone who knew him and did not like him,” Netanyahu added.
“Orbach will be missed by his dear family, his friends in the Israeli government and the State of Israel.”
Rivlin, a close friend of Orbach – who specifically requested the president eulogize him – said Orbach “knew how to speak to adults in the language of children and children in the language of adults.”
Speaking by Orbach’s grave, Rivlin quoted a poem Orbach wrote that exemplifies his dedication to Jewish unity: “Prayers of Sephardim, prayers of Ashkenazim, prayers of all Jews, go up to heaven, like angels, and stand there together with all the styles of prayer.
“And God accepts every prayer immediately and doesn’t ask ‘where was your father born?’” Bennett, who also eulogized Orbach, said that he lost his big brother, a true friend, and someone whose advice he valued.
“Uri was a man of laughter and of seriousness, of intelligence and integrity, of courage and of vision. He knew how to pave an ideological path with stubbornness and grace, with determination while winking, with endless self-awareness and personal charm that never expired,” he said.
Bennett praised Orbach for connecting with religious and secular people, and for his love of the people of Israel.
“There is no one as beloved as Uri in the cold, cynical political world. I will miss him very much,” he added.
Bayit Yehudi stopped all campaign activity, including its social media, in mourning for Orbach.
Many on the Left paid tribute to Orbach as well.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On called Orbach “fair, pleasant and clever,” saying that he was a hardworking parliamentarian and a worthy sparring partner who knew how to build bridges between sectors in Israeli society.
Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni said Orbach “brought wit and humor to the Knesset, along with true ideology. His presence will be missed.”
Weeks ago, when Orbach entered the hospital, MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) wrote a Facebook post about their long friendship, saying they got along well both as journalists and as politicians despite their ideological differences.
“He is one of the funniest people I know,” she added, sharing a text message Orbach sent her before the Labor primary wishing her “big success in a small party.”
On Monday, Yacimovich wrote: “My friend Uri Orbach died, and it is sad and painful. It is outrageous and unjust that the life of the best, smartest, most honest and fair of all, the funniest, was painfully cut short at such a young age.”