Analyze This: Terror victim Jan Relevy laid to rest

Jan Relevy - the Renaissance man who worked as a repairman.

Jan Relevy 224 88 (photo credit: Reproduction)
Jan Relevy 224 88
(photo credit: Reproduction)
When the names and occupations of the victims of the bulldozer terror rampage were announced on the news Thursday morning, my wife exclaimed, "Jan... an air-conditioning repairman... isn't that the Jan who came to fix the heating? He's still supposed to come back." Jan Relevy, 68, was the first to die of the three people killed on Jaffa Road Wednesday, when the bulldozer driven by Husam Taysir Dwayat crushed his car. I met him last winter after our heating unit went on the blink, and a friend referred him to us as a reliable repairman. When he first came into our apartment I thought the small, gray-haired man looked a little old to still be doing this work, but he seemed to handle himself well. More surprising was his conversation; hearing I was originally from the United States, he began speaking excellent English, which he said had come from the years he had studied in the UK. We talked continually while he was in my home, including about his fascinating background, and on Thursday members of his family filled me in on the details of his life. Relevy was born in Mashad, Iran, part of a fabled Jewish community that suffered forced conversion to Islam in the 19th century and spent decades afterwards as crypto-Jews, practicing their faith in secret. A few years after his birth the family fled Iran, making their way across Afghanistan and settling temporarily in Bombay while awaiting permission to immigrate to Palestine. They finally arrived here in 1949, and a few years later Relevy was sent to study in England, returning to Israel after seven years. He subsequently worked in maintenance and repair jobs in several places around the capital, his nephew Nati Avni said on Thursday as the family sat shiva in Relevy's Gilo neighborhood apartment. "But he wasn't a man defined by his work," added Avni. "That was just for him a means of making a living. He had a wide range of interests, was well read, and was someone who could speak knowledgeably on many subjects. He was also very creative; he did photography and also wood carving, doing these amazing little sculptures from avocado pits." That became instantly clear to me the day Relevy came to my own house. It is one of the truthful clichés about Israel, especially Jerusalem, that nearly everybody here has an interesting personal story to tell, including the guy who comes to fix your heating. But not all of them have the intellect and charm that Jan did; indeed, while he did his work well enough, that seemed almost a secondary consideration as we discussed art, events in Europe and thoughts he shared with me about my own journalistic profession. "That was Jan," said Avni's American-born wife, Miki. "Whomever he was with, he tried to talk to them in a way to make them feel comfortable." At his funeral in the Har Hamenuchot Cemetery on Thursday, Relevy's family spoke with affection about his many interests, his love of life and the way he served as a mentor and adviser to his loved ones. "Jan was close to his siblings, especially to his older sister, my mother, in part because she helped raise him after their mother died when he was just one year old," said Avni. "And he was very dedicated to his own family, his wife Hannah, his son Ron, and his daughters Keren and Shiri." The latter is due to give birth this summer to Relevy's first grandchild - a joy he will now never know, one that clearly meant a great deal to him. When I ask Avni if there is anything else significant he wants to say about his uncle Jan, he hesitates and adds: "You know, maybe I shouldn't say it, but he wasn't born with that name. He was originally named Mashiach, but decided he would be called Jan, I think, when he came back here from England. That's the way he was - he chose to define himself, who he was, in his name and everything else. I don't know if you understand." I do, having once chosen to do the same thing myself, and also feeling that on the day that he came to my home, fixing the heating was only incidental to the more important goal of meeting new people and having an interesting discussion with them. Actually, although he got the unit back working again, Jan told us he needed to order a new part for it, and come back later in the year to do the installation. We called him a few times after that asking when he was going to make it; each time he said not to worry, he'd find the time, but right now he was too busy with other clients who needed more immediate help. He was on his way to one of those jobs when he was killed this week. A post-it inscribed "Call Jan," with his work number next to it, is still pasted on our note-board. No doubt we will get someone just as good to finish the job, and it is likely that they will have just as interesting a personal story to tell. But somehow I doubt they will tell it with as much warmth and joie de vivre as did Jan Relevy on that winter day. [email protected]