While no protocol exists for the funeral of the wife of a president of the State of Israel, the funeral on Wednesday of Nechama Rivlin, spouse of the country’s 10th president, Reuven Rivlin, was as close to a state funeral as an ordinary citizen can get.
Rivlin, who died Tuesday after a long illness, was buried on Mount Herzl on what would have been her 74th birthday. The ceremony was far more formal than the 2011 funeral of Sonia Peres, partly because the wife of the ninth president chose to be buried in the Ben-Shemen Youth Village, where she had spent her childhood and adolescence.
In contrast, Rivlin was interred among the nation’s leaders, near the grave of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, in the final resting place for most of Israel’s former presidents and prime ministers.
The exceptions are presidents Chaim Weizmann and Ephraim Katzir, who are buried in Rehovot; Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who is buried on Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot; and Ezer Weizman, who is buried in Or Akiva. Prime minister Menachem Begin is buried on the Mount of Olives, and prime minister Ariel Sharon at his Sycamore Ranch in the northern Negev.
Prior to Rivlin’s funeral, her flag-draped coffin was carried by a contingent of white-shirted young men to the lobby of the Jerusalem Theater, where it was placed on a black dais. A family wreath of orange and red flowers was placed in front of it beneath a framed photograph. A large memorial candle stood atop a stand.
Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) agents guarded the theater for three hours, while Israelis came to pay their last respects, some bearing wreaths and others a single flower.
The phalanx of media documented the well-known personalities who joined the mourners – among them retired Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, former justice minister Dan Meridor, former defense minister Amir Peretz, Yair Stern, chairman of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and Pepe Allalo, the former Meretz chairman on the Jerusalem City Council.
Other mourners included Rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman of Migdal Ha’emek, and an Arab delegation led by MKs Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh. The president warmly embraced them all, spoke to citizens who had arrived in wheelchairs, and shook hands with many who were pressing forward.
At 4 p.m., the president and his grandson Shai went to the coffin, bent down and kissed it.
At the graveside, Shai together with the president’s other grandchildren laid the first wreath. Other wreaths were placed on stands adjacent to the grave by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on behalf of the government, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on behalf of the Knesset, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, Matti Cohen on behalf of the police, and Ambassador of Ukraine Hennadii Nadolenko, dean of the diplomatic corps.
The somber funeral service was conducted by Rabbi Benny Lau, who knew Nechama well since both were regulars at the monthly Torah study circle at the President’s Residence. The only time Rivlin missed a study session, said Lau, was after she was hospitalized.
Author Haim Be’er, a personal friend of Rivlin, called her “a noble, authentic and dear woman,” adding that she loved the Hebrew language, Hebrew literature, Hebrew poetry, culture and the arts.
He recalled that one of the presidential couple’s first outings after Rivlin became president was on a Saturday night to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to peruse the offerings at Hebrew Book Week. There Mrs. Rivlin engaged one of the exhibitors in a long conversation about the relationship between an editor and a writer.
When she came to the President’s Residence, she wanted to use her position as a platform for the promotion of Hebrew poets and poetry, said Be’er. But while she pushed the concept, she never pushed herself. “She was anonymous, yet always present.”
Anat Rivlin described her mother as a warm person who always praised and embraced her children when they deserved it, but always reminded them when having an argument that everyone was entitled to think differently, but to respect the other’s opinion.
Her mother had been sick for 12 years, said Anat. “She suffered a lot, but she always found the strength to continue.”
President Rivlin tearfully said that when he got up in the morning after a sleepless night and saw the date was June 5, he wanted to wish his wife Happy Birthday. But it wasn’t a happy birthday. It was a sad birthday.
A few weeks ago, he recalled, when she was still able to talk, Nechama had asked him to take her home. “Today you have come home,” he said, noting that she was close to the plants that she loved and the streets in which she liked to walk.
She had been a farm girl when he met her, said Rivlin, but she had shown him that produce and spices could also be grown in Jerusalem. Though born on Moshav Herut, she was more of a Jerusalemite than those born in the city. He also praised her cooking, saying that her kugel was more delicious than any in Mea She’arim.
Recalling her enthusiasm for art, Rivlin said that whenever they went abroad, she knew exactly which museums and galleries she wanted to visit.
Even when she didn’t feel well, she was always ready to look at art, flowers and museum exhibits. They gave her strength and were her spice of life, he said. But more than anything else, she loved poetry, and read poetry every day. She harbored no prejudices. To her, Jews and Arabs were first and foremost human beings.
“I was blessed to be the husband of the wife of the president of Israel,” Rivlin said.
Noting his wife had a marvelous sense of humor, Rivlin said that he could not believe that he was taking his leave of her. “I will continue to seek you day and night,” he said.
Rivlin and members of his family will receive condolence visits at the President's Residence on Thursday, June 6, between 10: 00 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m to 7 p.m.