The Human Spirit: Brit in Beersheba

With tenacity and faith, strength and guts, we came through the five years of terror.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Today, November 9, in the city of Beersheba, where the patriarch Abraham once dwelled and dug a well, an eight-day-old Jewish baby will enter into the covenant of the same Abraham. What makes this circumcision ceremony unusual is that the father of the newborn died seven years ago. The baby is the first child of Aviya and Shimon Ohana. Those of us who spent the years of the second intifada in Israel are likely to remember Shimon's story. A border policeman on his first assignment, Pvt. Ohana was dispatched to Gilo as shelling on the Jerusalem neighborhood began. He leapt forward to protect a child and took a bullet in the chest. Medics tried unsuccessfully to revive him in the field. He was brought to Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem: Dead on arrival. His heart had stopped beating. Chief surgeon Avi Rivkind, in a decision he has a hard time explaining or justifying seven years later, (except to say "you can't argue with success") turned to his team of medical all-stars and asked them to try to revive the dead man. Call it a sixth sense, call it a moment of heavenly inspiration. Vast units of blood were poured into the heart, which was empty. Cardiothoracic surgeon Amir El Ami sewed up a bullet hole and then found another, and repaired that. He massaged the heart until he felt the first beat. It began to pump. The anesthesiologists poured in adrenalin. Shimon Ohana was alive again. The dark-haired teenager lay in a vegetative state. Nonetheless, Prof. Rivkind continued to tell Ohana's mother Rahel and his father Meir that they shouldn't worry; one day, he would personally jog with Shimon on the streets of Beersheba. More than that, he promised that he would stand under the huppa with Shimon on his wedding day. Eighteen motionless days passed. And then suddenly, the patient's eyes fluttered and he woke up. SHIMON REFUSED to eat. Rahel Ohana confessed that her only son had always been a picky eater. What did he like? Only her homemade meatballs. Prof. Rivkind ordered her home to Beersheba to cook meatballs. Who was she to argue with the doctor who had predicted her son's recovery? She took a taxi south, on the way phoning her neighbor to please defrost the meat in the freezer. All night, Rahel Ohana cooked meatballs. In the morning, she returned to Jerusalem with a pot full of the fragrant food. This time she was the one giving orders to Dr. Rivkind. The trauma surgeon would have to stand nearby if she was going to try to feed her recuperating son his real first meal: peppery Moroccan meatballs redolent with garlic and cumin, each one larger than a golf ball. When Shimon finished his first meatball, he made awful gulping sounds. At first Rahel thought she'd injured her son, but then she realized he simply wanted more. His doctor nodded. Shimon swallowed another meatball and made the same scary sounds. Four meatballs later he was calm and quiet. Before long he left the hospital on his own two feet. Shimon became a celebrity, cheered at national soccer tournaments. He was invited to Paris and rode to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, Avi Rivkind ran with him on the streets of Beersheba, and when Shimon and Aviya wed a year ago, he showed up for Shimon's wedding. No trumpet would hit the right note; the musicians blew a shofar. I CAN ASSURE you there won't be a dry eye at the circumcision ceremony on Friday as new life is celebrated in the Ohana family. But this isn't just one of those happy-ever-after stories. During the years of rehabilitation, through the many ups and downs, Rahel confided her worries about Shimon's future. He's not, as she says, exactly the same as he was before in terms of his health and concentration. Neither are we the same, the people of Israel, as we tentatively approach a pressure-filled peace conference in Annapolis. We are not the nation of the year 2000, when all polls reported we were ready to accept the painful concessions prime minister Ehud Barak proposed at Camp David. A European journalist I hosted last week simply couldn't understand why we weren't racing toward this "opportunity." Middle East envoy Tony Blair has urged us to make a "psychological shift" from indifference and skepticism to active determination. With tenacity and faith, strength and guts, ingenuity and prayer, we came through the five years of terror. But dspite our blessed resilience, we haven't forgotten those years. We remember the cheering on the Palestinian rooftops as the Twin Towers crumbled, and the father from Bethlehem who went on TV to urge his other nine children to blow up buses as his terrorist son had. We remember the schoolteacher with an explosive belt who stood in the middle of an accordion bus from the Western Wall to maim as many children as possible. I asked Dr. El Ami, the heart surgeon who sewed up Shimon Ohana, what happens to a heart muscle with holes in it. First, you can get a heart attack while the surgeon is sewing. Sometimes, because of the initial injury and the repair, the heart gets tough, losing its flexibility and elasticity. Not a bad description of how we feel about making peace these days. You might say we're gristly. So today, also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we will be welcoming Baby Ohana into the Jewish people with bittersweet tears. Bittersweet tears and spicy meatballs.