'The Elephant in the Sukkah’

The elephant is both inside and outside the sukkah. Which is similar to living with grief: You’re part of the world but at the same time, you’re not fully in it.

By SHERRI MANDEL
October 10, 2019 20:48
‘THE ELEPHANT in the Room,’ by #Banksy

‘THE ELEPHANT in the Room,’ by #Banksy. (photo credit: DUNK/FLICKR)

I worried that I would never walk again. It was Sukkot 2016, and I had fallen down the steps and broken my ankle. After waiting in the emergency room at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem for eight hours, I was sent home, told that I needed an operation but that they didn’t have an appointment for me to be operated on. A few days later, I had an operation. Then because of all of the stress, when I finally got home from the hospital, I had a rash on my hips that I thought was probably a staph infection or one of those terrible hospital infections that kill you. I tend to dramatize. Still, this was awful. It turned out that I had shingles. Right now, reader, go get the vaccine against it. I could hardly move. And it was Sukkot, zman simachtenu. The time of our happiness. I didn’t feel very happy.

I went into the sukkah with my walker, my leg outstretched with a huge cast on it. I felt like there was no room for me. That’s when something unforeseen happened.

For 30 years, I’ve been dreaming of writing a children’s picture book. For years, I wrote draft after draft while I was raising children, moving from the US to Israel, co-running a foundation, working as a pastoral counselor, teaching writing and writing books about grieving my son Koby’s death.

Once I had a major publisher call me to say she was interested in publishing one of my children’s stories, and then a month later she wrote me that they had decided against the manuscript.

My work kept getting rejected, and it hurt.

But I kept going.

That Sukkot, I again felt dejected. I felt like there was no room for me and my walker in the sukkah. I felt like an elephant. And that’s how I got the idea to write The Elephant in the Sukkah.

I sent it out to publishers, and finally it was accepted. My first children’s book came out last month.

I was really happy to be published. But I was happy for another reason: I had finally written a book that wasn’t about grief.
My son Koby was murdered by terrorists 18 years ago when he was 13. He and his friend Yosef Ish-Ran went hiking and were killed in the wadi near our home in Tekoa. He was my oldest son. Of course, our hearts were shattered.

I wrote two books about our loss and healing (not that a person ever heals from this kind of loss) – The Blessing of a Broken Heart and The Road to Resilience.

My husband Seth and I established the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs Camp Koby for bereaved children. At first, camp was only for children and orphans who lost loved ones to terrorism, but now we have opened the camp to kids who have suffered loss from other tragedies. We also run support groups and retreats for bereaved mothers and widows, including psychodrama – thank you, Tzippi Cedar, our psychodrama facilitator. We just ran our first healing retreat for women in Greece. We have an art group that does mosaics, and in fact, we are holding a mosaics exhibit this Sukkot – Shards of Hope – on Wednesday, October 16 at Beit Hasid (Emek Refaim 47). (Thank you, Roochie Kohlenberg and Tzippi Sivan). And, of course, there is Comedy for Koby, a comedy tour where comedians come from America to perform for English-speaking Israelis. Ironic that a family like ours that has suffered such tragedy is now part of bringing so much laughter to Israel. (Thank you, Avi Liberman.)

ANYWAY, I was happy that there was no grief in The Elephant in the Sukkah. The book is about a retired elephant who used to perform as a singer in the circus and longs to sing again. One night, he hears singing from a sukkah. He stands outside and learns the songs. And then Ori, the little boy in the family, invites him in, but there is no room for him. How will this happy singing elephant fit into the sukkah?

Eventually, the boy gets the idea to take out one wall of the sukkah and the elephant becomes a wall, which is a kosher solution offered by the Talmud (even a dead elephant is kosher, but we don’t want to think about that, do we?)

I was sure that the book wasn’t about grief. But as I started to think about it, there was that elephant – the proverbial elephant in the room, the thing that stands there and is huge but nobody wants to talk about because it’s too painful.

In the story, even when the elephant is in the sukkah, part of him is inside, but part of him is also outside of the sukkah. So he is both inside and outside. Which is similar to living with grief. You’re part of the world but at the same time you’re not fully in it.
And then I remembered the last page of my book – the following year, Henry builds a sukkah that is big enough for him and for the others.

And I realized: My book unwittingly records the stages of post-traumatic growth. At first, the pain of loss is too big to be contained – there’s no place for it. We don’t know how we will bear it. Then we learn to live with the loss and it becomes part of us. Not something we wanted but part of our lives. Eventually with the support of others, we may find a way to build from the pain – we create something new that is big enough to hold ourselves and others. In spiritual terms – a new vessel. Because the old vessel, what we formerly knew, is not enough to contain the trauma and sustain us, to offer us solace or comfort.

That is what we offer to the kids of Camp Koby and the mothers and widows and families who attend our healing retreats. A place to feel part of a safe community, to feel happy. Because in the rest of the world, bereaved children and families often feel like they don’t fit in. They feel isolated. Especially around the holidays when it seems that everyone else is rejoicing with full families. The intimate knowledge of loss and trauma can be a very lonely place.

But some of the families we work with eventually build from their pain. We know that they are recovering when they are busy with their own projects.

Could this be one of the secrets of the Jewish people? We use our pain to create and build – families, foundations, shuls, community projects – in short, more meaningful lives.

He who sows in tears reaps in joy, it says in Psalm 126.

May we be privileged to turn our pain into happiness.

Happy Sukkot.

The writer is co-director of the Koby Mandell Foundation as well as a certified pastoral counselor. Her books include The Blessing of a Broken Heart (Toby Press), The Road to Resilience (Toby Press) and The Elephant in the Sukkah (Kar-Ben Copies). sherri@kobymandell.org


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