My Word: A tribute (and Paddington Bear-hug) to Nechama Rivlin

Nechama – a botanist, zoologist and environmentalist who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem until she retired in 2007 – quickly made the official residence a home for all.

June 6, 2019 21:15
PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, enjoy the beauty of Jerusalem in the snow in February

PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, enjoy the beauty of Jerusalem in the snow in February 2015. . (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Sometimes you are hit by the loss of someone you didn’t know. I met Nechama Rivlin, the wife of President Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin, only once or twice, but I admired her from afar. 

Permit me to call her by her first name, Nechama. She didn’t like the title “first lady,” and similar to the president, who is widely known by his nickname, she was not given to pretenses. 
I have followed Ruvi Rivlin’s career fairly closely over the years, from when he was a Jerusalem city councilor to his entrance into national politics as a Likud MK, his appointment as Knesset speaker, and of course as the head of state. That I didn’t see more of Nechama during those years is probably a testament to the sort of person she was: utterly supportive of her husband throughout the 48 years of their marriage – even when she didn’t agree with him – but also busy with her own career and interests.

Nechama died on June 4 and was buried on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl the next day, her 74th birthday. In interviews that were replayed after her death, she can be heard describing her shock when she realized the scope of the work that awaited them when her husband was elected president in June 2014. 

I got the impression that they decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They probably believed they would have plenty of time to enjoy together in peace after the seven-year tenure ended. And the two made sure that despite the challenges of the job, they spent time with their seven grandchildren.

Both were initially upset that they had to move from their modest apartment into the official President’s Residence, but understood that from a security viewpoint and to facilitate the smooth running of the position, there was little choice.

Nonetheless, Nechama – a botanist, zoologist and environmentalist who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem until she retired in 2007 – quickly made the official residence a home for all. Typically, she established a community garden in the large grounds where children from all over the country came to plant plants, spices and flowers. Having undergone back surgery when she was young, she had a special warm spot for children with special needs. As befitting someone who apart from her scientific background also studied art, she decided on the paintings and sculptures in the residence-home. Together, the Rivlins, although not Orthodox, hosted Bible study sessions under the auspices of the Rabbi Benny Lau’s 929 Project in their Jerusalem abode.

As I passed by on the bus on my way home from work one afternoon, I noticed several excited children leading equally excited dogs out of the presidential compound. The Rivlins – ardent animal lovers – had opened their official residence to a pet adoption event. 

As usual, only after a person dies do you begin to appreciate all they have done. I knew that Nechama Rivlin had been invited to be the voice of Gertrude, the wife of Judge Gerald Biggleswade, in the Hebrew-dubbed version of the film Paddington 2. I hadn’t realized what preceded it, although I wasn’t surprised. Nechama was fond of movies, frequently going to the quaint Cinematheque and Smadar Lev cinema houses. And she had a special affinity (which I share) with Paddington, the bear who ends up at the eponymous London station from “darkest Peru.”

Nechama’s foray into the film world started with a social media post she made in tribute of author Michael Bond when he died two years ago.

“Thoughts of children’s books I loved fill with me with joy, and Paddington Bear – created by Bond – I loved especially,” wrote Nechama Rivlin. “Through Paddington’s adventures in the home of the Brown family we all learned about helping others and sympathizing with their hardships... And how often do we walk past an injured animal or bird and look away, only so we don’t have to take on the burden of caring for it?”

A PR woman saw the post and on behalf of Lev Cinemas extended a bear hug and the dubbing invitation to Nechama, who was thrilled. 

AFTER HER death this week, the press was filled with moving stories and pictures that were worth thousands of words. Here she is straightening her husband’s tie before an official event in Spain; there they are, touching each other affectionately, in front of the Taj Mahal. Here they are, arms widespread in a classic Titanic pose on a boat in Vietnam; there they are very much at home, holding hands in Jerusalem.

In many of the photos, a nasal tube attached to an oxygen device – “my best friend, which I’d love to be able to get rid of” – is discreetly present. I doubt many of us can fully appreciate the tremendous effort Nechama made to do everyday things, let alone accompany her husband in his official duties at home and abroad.
One of the most touching images is of US first lady Melania Trump holding hands with Nechama Rivlin and slowing her pace to match that of her Israeli hostess, who was holding an oxygen device with her other hand, the way most women carry a clutch bag.

In March, Nechama underwent a lung transplant, the only solution for the pulmonary fibrosis from which she suffered. Although at first she seemed to be making a good recovery, while the president was on an official visit in Canada, her condition deteriorated.

Apparently, almost every night, after his official workday was over, President Rivlin traveled to see his wife in the Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva. It was his second marriage, but the first lady was very clearly the love of his life and they had three children together. (He has a son from his first marriage.)

BORN IN June 1945 to Drora (Kayle) and Mendy Shulman on Moshav Herut, in the Sharon, she was given the name Nechama (consolation) to commemorate the end of World War II and the Holocaust.

With a birthday so close to Shavuot, the Festival of First Fruits and of the Giving of the Torah, it was only natural that the nature-loving Nechama should particularly like this holiday, which starts Saturday night.

Jews and non-Jews from all over Israel and around the world had been praying for her recovery. There was a huge outpouring of love, marred by a jarring incident. Musician Efraim Shamir – a member of Kaveret, an iconic group in the 1970s – posted on Facebook, “Why not Sara?” It was an obvious allusion to the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nechama doubtless would have been horrified by this shocking example of how political hatred can be so overpowering that it becomes manic, and neither far Left nor far Right are immune.

She kept her own political views hidden, once joking that she sometimes kept her mouth shut because she was afraid of what would come out. When she did talk and write, she did so beautifully. Among her many talents and affinities was a love of the Hebrew language.

Last year, she established the President’s Award for Hebrew Poetry. When the first recipient, Amichai Hasson, was announced, Nechama said: “I congratulate the lovers of language and words, the writers and poets who make magic with them and wish that our world will always have people in it who make poetry from it.”

The official death notice issued by the President’s Residence included a poignant quote by poet Avraham Chalfi:
“It’s sad without them in the rooms,
Where they left the echoes of their voices.”

May her memory be blessed and may Ruvi Rivlin – or as he jokingly referred to himself: “the man who is married to the wife of the president of Israel – find comfort among the mourners of Zion.

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