First Person: The Yitzhak Navon I knew

The fifth president was brilliant but modest, erudite in the Bible and Judaism, able to communicate in six languages with cleaning workers and kings, a talented playwright and lover of Jerusalem.

President Yitzhak Navon at the wedding of Judy Siegel and her husband, Nahum Itzkovich (photo credit: JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH)
President Yitzhak Navon at the wedding of Judy Siegel and her husband, Nahum Itzkovich
‘The great man – who if he had not lived, you would not exist – has died.
Baruch Dayan Emet [Blessed is the true Judge],” I tearfully told my three grown children after I heard the terrible news on TV right after Shabbat. My children did not have to guess; they knew exactly whom I meant.
Yitzhak Navon, the fifth president of the State of Israel, passed away late Friday night – according to Jewish tradition the fate of righteous individuals – at the age of 94 in Jerusalem.
Although he had been hospitalized periodically at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center during the past few months, he had asked to be sent home, where he died among the loving members of his family.
Even though details of the funeral had not yet been announced, I knew that he would be buried the next day, Sunday, in the plot of the Great Leaders of the Nation on Mount Herzl – just a kilometer, as the bird flies, from my home. I was also sure he would be laid to rest next to his first wife, Ofira, who died at the age of 57 in August 1993; I had attended her funeral as well.
But what does a veteran journalist who covers the news and follows the trends of Israeli life have to do with a presidential family who made the news? And why the tears upon learning of his passing? Navon had hundreds of friends who knew him much better than I and hundreds of thousands of admirers.
But he changed my life with a small and totally unexpected considerate act.
He was directly responsible for my meeting my late husband, Nahum Itzkovich.
In 1982, with Ofira looking on, Navon recited the second blessing under our huppa in the old Holyland Hotel’s garden, and the same blessing when our elder son, Noam, got married nearby, in the Shalom Hotel, almost 10 years ago. The president and his wife also visited our home soon after our daughter, Shira, now 29, was born, and he came to the bar mitzva of our younger son, Natan Hillel, in 2004.
Although I have been The Jerusalem Post’s health and science reporter and editor for the last three decades, within weeks of my aliya from New York I started covering immigration and absorption, religious affairs, the Jewish world and the President’s Residence soon after – and in a year joined the editorial staff.
I REMEMBER meeting Navon for the first time in the Jerusalem International Convention Center, when he was the chairman of the Zionist General Council and I was a neophyte reporter. The wrangling of the delegates was so bitter that – when I sat with him in the cafeteria (and not knowing all his incredible history in the Hagana and as a close aide to David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett) – I suggested with temerity that the council was an organization whose usefulness had passed.
In 1978, then-president Prof. Ephraim Katzir completed his term, and Navon tried a second time to become chief of state (then-premier Golda Meir had preferred the Weizmann Institute biochemist in 1973), and he won.
Brilliant but modest, the son of a Sephardi father whose family had arrived in Jerusalem centuries ago and an earthy Moroccan mother, erudite in the Bible and Jewish tradition, able to communicate in six languages with cleaning workers and kings, a talented playwright and lover of Jerusalem, Navon fascinated me. I went to so many events at the President’s Residence and on tours with him around the country that I never was short of subject material.
But other reporters who officially covered the President’s Residence were not much interested in his encounters with the common folk and his erudite speeches, and I was very often the only reporter present. Sometimes I went back and forth to the residence three times in a single day.
WHEN I saw the large photo of Navon that a Hebrew daily published about his passing, I was astonished: Of all the thousands of pictures taken of him as president, the one chosen showed me standing right behind him as he visited a Jerusalem kindergarten for Purim.
One day in November 1980, listening to Navon speak, I picked up a tiny error in his Hebrew. Instead of saying yahid (meaning only one), he said yehidi (meaning lonely). With much chutzpah (in hindsight, for a relatively recent immigrant), I sent him a note noting the mistake. He quickly sent me a handwritten, Hebrew-language card that I framed: “Yehudit, Yehudit. You were right! I should have said yahid.” He then quoted Psalms 19:12-13, “Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not rule over me. Then I will be blameless.”
When I was at the President’s Residence, Navon suddenly developed abdominal pains that were thought to have been caused by kidney stones. As no one besides the busy security guards was around, I was asked to babysit for their small children Na’ama (then Nira) and Erez until the Navons returned from the hospital.
I had urged him several times to write an autobiography, but he waved off the suggestion, saying he had no time. Thus it was with great pleasure that I read Yitzhak Navon: Kol Haderech, his fascinating, 445- page, fact-filled story of his life that was published in Hebrew this summer.
Journalists certainly were eager to cover Navon’s first-ever state visit to Egypt in 1980, when he met with president Anwar Sadat in the Muslim leader’s native village. Navon introduced me to Sadat, who shook my hand. Two years later, I was also among those covering Navon’s state visit to the US and met then-president Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn and Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik in Boston.
Ofira was made miserable when – during the brutal winter weather in New York – she bought a fur hat and was castigated by Israeli journalists back in Israel for her alleged extravagance. I defended her in my reporting as the hat was mandatory for keeping warm, and she was forever grateful.
One day in 1981, I was invited to cover Navon’s visit to Beit Ulpana, a live-in seminary in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan quarter for new-immigrant young women from the former Soviet Union.
Covering absorption, I was fascinated to hear his discussions with the woman in charge. “And how do these women, who don’t have any family here, get married?” Navon asked. “We introduce them and marry them off,” the Beit Ulpana educator said.
I ran home to write a story, but little did I know that when Navon returned to his official residence, he called the woman. “Judy is always so busy reporting and writing. Please find a shidduch [match] for her!” he implored. That same night, the woman called me and said: “President Navon has asked me to find a shidduch. I have a doctor, dentist, lawyer and psychologist. Which one do you want?” Thinking it was a joke, but curious because I had taken psychology courses, I picked out the last one.
Nahum called me the next day, and we had a date. We quickly realized it was serious.
Six weeks later, I brought Nahum – the first time I ever came accompanied – to a President’s Residence reception in honor of the 90th birthday of a Yiddish actor.
Seeing us, Navon pulled us to the side and said: “Nu, how’s it going?” He had been keeping tabs on us by calling the Beit Ulpana angel. “Invite me to your wedding!” Navon insisted, and before a year was up, we indeed invited him to the ceremony, which was held a month after the First Lebanon War began.
THE YEARS passed, and the Navons left office in 1983. From time to time, we were in touch. I remember Ofira’s bravery when she developed breast cancer, from which she eventually died after a second battle with it. Oncologists had insisted that she undergo a total mastectomy if she wanted to live, but Ofira insisted on a lumpectomy and radioactive needles, for which she went abroad against doctor’s advice. Covering a Hadassah conference on breast cancer just a few weeks ago, I listened as doctors said that they now favored lumpectomy in most cases.
When Nahum – as chief psychologist of the Israel Employment Services’ Jerusalem branch – was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, Navon somehow heard of the sad news and called us at home, where we were taking care of him in his terminal state. The former president was the last nonfamily member to speak to Nahum before he lost consciousness. “I have lived 90 years, and I have learned that one should never lose hope,” he told my husband, giving him the gift of optimism.
At Navon’s funeral this week, standing less than 10 meters away from Yitzhak and Ofira’s graves – as the now-grown Na’ama and Erez eulogized him – I felt like an orphan, having lost not only a beloved national leader but a friend who changed my life. I will be sure to visit them again.