Last Thursday evening, the Springer Auditorium at the Israel Museum was filled to capacity with members of the Rivlin family and their friends.
, the wife of Israel’s ninth president, Reuven Rivlin, loved to visit art exhibitions, museums, theaters and cinemas. She was an avid movie goer, enjoyed concerts and devoured literature – both prose and poetry.
She was so keen on poetry that she took it upon herself as the wife of Israel’s No. 1 citizen to promote poets and their works, along with a prestigious poetry prize. She also promoted painters and sculptors, and did her utmost to make their works known to the public through her Facebook musings about the exhibitions she had seen.
Nonetheless, she shied away from the limelight, and did not see herself as a public figure. Other than the writers, poets, singers and artists that she cultivated, most Israelis knew little or nothing about her until after her death on June 4, following a lung transplant.
Due to her long-term illness prior to the transplant, Nechama Rivlin was seldom seen without an oxygen tank in tow. This gave her added sensitivity to and a strong appreciation for people dealing with diverse disabilities. When she met such groups of people through the organizations that represented them, she used to tell them that everyone has a disability of some kind, and some disabilities are simply more obvious than others.
Even this side of her character was included in the memorial program at the Israel Museum.
YOEL NEUBERGER, a young man with special needs, had written a poem about the colors in the world and what they signify. He was invited by Bruno to read the poem, which he did with some hesitation at first, but improved as he went along. The look of pure joy on his face when the audience gave him a resounding ovation proved how important it is to focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t.
President Rivlin spoke of how much his family missed his wife, but together with their yearning for her was the comfort of meeting people who had been influenced by her and who carried the memory of her in their hearts.
Nechama Rivlin, who was particularly fond of contemporary art, he said, treated it as an emotional language.
In her conversations with visiting heads of state and their spouses, she always suggested to them that they visit the Israel Museum for a stirring cultural experience.
“Even if you don’t go inside, at least look at it from the outside,” she urged. She made a point of taking their grandchildren to the museum as often as possible as well.
Before every visit abroad, he said, she knew which museum exhibits she wanted to visit, and she later shared her impressions on Facebook. She also wrote book reviews on Facebook.
She made sure that during official visits abroad, her husband would not be occupied wholly and solely with affairs of state, but that he would accompany her to at least one exhibition. Through such visits, he learned a lot, not only about art but also about social issues as reflected in the art, the president said.
Whenever his wife didn’t feel well, he recalled, she visited a museum and it gave her a boost.
PRIZE-WINNING author David Grossman, who had a particularly close relationship with Nechama Rivlin, paid tribute not only to her but also to murdered soldier and yeshiva student Dvir Sorek, who had been found with a copy of Grossman’s latest book, Life Plays with Me.
Grossman, who lost his 20-year-old son St.-Sgt. Uri Grossman in Lebanon in August 2006, when his tank was hit by an anti-tank missile, could empathize with the Sorek family, perhaps more than most other people. At the outset of his address at the museum, he spoke of Dvir as an exceptionally humane and sensitive young man who loved humanity and who loved peace. Grossman said his heart was with the Sorek family, and he knew that such a special boy would light their way in their time of sorrow.
As for Nechama, Grossman said that he could almost see her before him with an ironic expression on her face and quizzical smile playing around her mouth.
They had engaged in many engrossing discussions, and to illustrate the kind of person she was, he told of the time she wanted to get hold of one of his earlier books of which he had several spare copies. He wanted to give her one, but under no circumstance would she accept it as a gift: She insisted on paying.
Later when she was in hospital recuperating from the transplant, he received progress reports on WhatsApp from Naomi Toledano Kendal, the president’s spokeswoman. One day, she reported that Nechama was interested in reading his new book, and asked if he could bring a copy to the President’s Residence.
Promptly at 7 a.m. the following morning, Grossman was there with the book. The president’s security detail had already been primed, and rushed toward him to grab it. Only in Israel could anyone be so eager for a book, he quipped. Unable to read for herself while in hospital, Nechama Rivlin had members of her family read to her whenever they were at her bedside.
“It was a great privilege that words I wrote accompanied her on the last days of her life,” said Grossman.
AMITAI MENDELSOHN, the curator of Israeli art at the Israel Museum, showed paintings by Naftali Bezem and Michael Gross dating back to the 1950s, explaining how each in his own way had imbued his work with the social realities of the day, while leaving the painting open to interpretation.
Mendelsohn said that he had been impressed by Nechama Rivlin’s in-depth appreciation of art.
The highlight of the evening was a monologue recited by the amazingly talented actress Evgenia Dodina, based on an excerpt from Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness.
Oz had been a personal friend of the Rivlins. Dodina played her character so well that the audience literally roared when she finished, and Rivlin gave her a warm hug.
Though contemporary art was probably Nechama’s favorite genre, when it came to songs, she was more into nostalgia. At the event, composer Naftali Alter obliged with a song by poet Natan Alterman.
The final tribute for the evening came from Nava Schwartz, the administrative director of the museum, who enjoyed four years of friendship with Nechama.
Just as a matter of tradition, she had of course sent an invitation to an exhibition opening to the wife of the president, whom she had never met before. Nechama Rivlin was late in arriving, but was recognizable due to the oxygen tank that was her trademark. Schwartz went over and introduced herself. They clicked and became very close friends. President Rivlin made a point of thanking Schwartz for that friendship.
Schwartz said that on many of her visits, Nechama liked to go to the youth wing of the museum to see the activities that captured the imaginations of young people, including one of her own grandchildren.