Row, row, row your boat

‘What blessings can I give this child? With what shall he be blessed?” lilts a chilling Hebrew song played incessantly on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars

July 25, 2019 17:39
Row, row, row your boat

MORAN SAMUEL, paralympic rower, taking the Bronze at the Rio Olympics.. (photo credit: KEREN ISAACSON)

‘What blessings can I give this child? With what shall he be blessed?” lilts a chilling Hebrew song played incessantly on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars. The angel bestows on the boy a smile as bright as light, legs to dance forever, a heart to feel. But this boy, this beautiful boy, himself ends up an angel, whom no one will ever bless again. “God God God,” aches the last line, “If only you’d blessed him with life.”
Daniel Marcus was one of those blessed boys. Tall, blond and gorgeous, he moved to Israel at age six with his British parents and younger sister. His family, the Porters of London, were Zionists and hugely philanthropic; life stretched out ahead, looking sweet. At 16, Daniel complained of difficulties concentrating in class, and suggested finishing high school in England. His parents, preferring a Jewish framework, sent him to Carmel College. There he discovered rowing.
Rowing is quintessentially British; professional watermen held their first regattas on the River Thames some 400 years ago. Oxford and Cambridge Universities are fierce rivals in the sport, which has its own vocabulary. “Sculling,” “the catch,” and “outriggers,” are not terms usually mentioned over kosher wine at a shul kiddush; Jews are not traditionally known to be great coxswains. In the early 80s, Carmel had a rowing team of sorts; competitors laughed at the “Yids” in boats. Then Daniel was chosen as captain; very soon his team captured the silver medal. “I ran along the bank yelling, ‘Go Daniel!’” recalls his mother, Linda Streit. “And he replied, ‘Root for Carmel, not for me!’”
Daniel returned to Israel for the army; he served as an air force meteorologist at Sde Dov. As an outstanding athlete and Israel’s Olympic hope, he continued training as a rower during his service. In November 1993, with only a short while to go until his release, Daniel and three soldier friends spent a weekend in Eilat. They filmed themselves on the beach, flirting with Scandinavian tourists, cutting themselves shaving in the hotel bathroom. They filmed the drive home: the laughing kids, the friend at the wheel, the speedometer racing up to 120 kilometers an hour, 130, 140. Then a sudden shocking clap, and the tape goes fuzzy.
All four boys were killed outright. They were 21.
“We got the news when we landed in Mexico for a Tel Aviv University Board of Governors meeting,” recalls Linda, a board member and lecturer in English Literature at TAU. “We turned around and flew home for the funeral.”
In the blur of concentrating on continuing to breathe, Linda remembers some five young girls introducing themselves at the shiva. Each claimed to be Daniel’s girlfriend. Linda, who’d separated from her husband a few months previously, recalls standing on the balcony of her mother’s flat, and wondering whether to hurl herself off it.
“I couldn’t kill myself,” she says. “I had another child. My son had been a rower in his heart; as a family we decided to establish a rowing center in his memory.”

LINDA STREIT (right) takes in the 2017 Dragon Boat festival, with (second from left to right) Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Daniel Rowing Centre manager Eitan Gluzman and Chinese Ambassador Yung Sin. (Ravid Avraham)

TEL AVIV has a river, but the Yarkon is not the Thames. Then-mayor Roni Milo donated a plot of land at the entrance to the city; an area addled with drug addicts, homeless and down-and-outs. The family widened the banks to comply with international standards, chose an architect, raised the funds. The project is an ongoing family endeavor: Linda’s mother, Shirley Porter, serves on the board, together with Joanna Landau, Linda’s daughter. In October 2002, the Daniel Rowing Centre opened on Rokach Boulevard; providing Israel with a world-class rowing facility.
The sleek, spacious, environmentally friendly and utterly accessible building houses a variety of rowboats, kayaks and dragon boats. Professional high-performance athletes train here in the best conditions under the Mediterranean sun, kayakers can paddle out to the sea. A state-of-the-art gym and comfortable classrooms provide all the facilities needed to nurture champions; Dani Fridman is Israel’s new Olympic hope. The Maccabi Games nautical races take place at the center. And the elegant Riverside Café is available for private upscale events on the water.
But the DRC is much, much more. Israel’s Paralympic athletes have found a home here, and are propelling the Holy Land onto the rowing map. Moran Samuel, an outstanding champion athlete suddenly paralyzed from the waist down after a spinal stroke, has won multiple international gold and silver medals and a bronze at Rio’s Paralympics. In Italy, she took gold in a single scull competition in 2012; the unprepared organizers did not have a copy of Israel’s anthem for the podium ceremony. Samuel, undeterred, asked for a microphone and sang “Hatikvah” alone, loud and clear. This year, she lit a torch at Independence Day celebrations; there was no problem on Har Herzl to follow with Hebrew songs.
Other rowers at the DRC include Simona Goren, a sight-challenged mother of three, who’s out on the water every morning at 6 o’clock. Reuven Magnadgi, a religious artist and writer and father of five, was badly injured in Jenin. Slowly he rowed his way back to life; now he’s a champion and a DRC coach. At the London Olympics, in an only-in-Israel twist, he slept in a sleeping bag on the riverbank overnight, so as not to break Shabbat – the day of a big competition.

THE “SEA of Friends” community project teaches youth at risk nautical skills; parallel workshops nurture and heal. A counselor tells of Muhammad, who joined the group. “What can you do to contribute to society?” asked the leader. Kloom (nothing), wrote the youngster on the board. Afterward, he went on to captain a crew of sailing kids. “I see that I can contribute after all,” he confided at the end of the day.
Among the people who go down to the water are women survivors of breast cancer, adults with Parkinson’s Disease, children with autism, and a group of haredi kids with special needs. In addition, the center runs regular rowing, sailing and kayaking courses for the general public, for around NIS 250 a month. Corporate members of all sorts of companies bond in a boat; fun-filled days on the Yarkon are also available as work outings or treats.
The soul of Daniel Marcus soars through the space of the center: his own boat hangs suspended from the ceiling, a sculpture of the blue sea lights up with his photos. If angels do hover above, bestowing blessings on mortals below, Daniel’s angel is definitely doing God’s own work.
And Linda – a beautiful angel right here on earth, who won the 2018 Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize for her efforts – is quietly facilitating miracles every single day.

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The writer lectures at Beit Berl College and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

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