It’s hard to say if Dr. Rappaport is a naturally exuberant individual. His perpetual, toothy smile and jovial demeanor are part and parcel of his work. His reputation as one of Jerusalem’s finest and most repected pediatricians derives from his medical prowess, while his popularity derives from his concern and friendliness. When asked how he is able to maintain so cheerful an outlook with a hectic practice such as his, he shrusgs and explains that someone has to look cheerful in an office always crowded with chicken-pocked children and bawling babies. But for all of Dr. Rappaport’s congeniality, he was not about ot brighten Rivkie Shreiber’s Wednesday morning.
Rivkie was the consummate, Brooklyn-born-and-bread wife of a Yeshiva student: Gregarious, endearing, wide-eyed, a touch flamboyant-in short very American-frum. But beneath the façade of stylish wig and fashionable attire beat the faint heart of a timid Bais Yaakov graduate terrified to be on unfamiliar turf. A newcomer to Israel, Rivkie did not have local family or close friends, and barely spoke the language. The little Biblical and Mishanic Hebrew she could muster evoked gales of laughter from the natives. To have found a pediatrician who was not only well-qualified but able and willing to speak to her in her own tongue was a relief.
As Dr. Rappaport’s deft fingers examined Rivkie’s seven –month-old baby Deena, however, his smile faded. This was not the common ear infection or simple case of bronchitis for which a standard prescription and best wishes for a speedy recovery sufficed. The baby’s chronic listlessness and soaring temperature were the symptoms that alerted him; stool specimen tests corroborated his tentative diagnosis. There was little doubt now as to the nature of Deena’s ailment.
As gently as he could, Dr. Rappaport broke the news. His diagnosis etched painfully sharp lines in Rivkie’s brow, reducing her vivaciosness to stony silence. She had never heard of shigellosis before, but she realized that her Deena wasn’t suffering from an ordinary case of diarrhea.
To make sure that the baby received the proper care, Dr. Rappaport told Rivkie the truth: “This disease can be fatal in infants. It is also highly contagious. The baby must be admitted to a hospital immediately.”
“Fatal?!” Rivkie thought to herself, her heart pounding loudly in her ears. “Oh, my God!” Her hands trembled as she attempted to button up Deena’s creeper. If this simple chore of closing a button seemed a near impossibility to her now, how in the world was she going to manage to bring Deena to the hospital? Besides being nearly hysterical with fright over her baby’s condition, Rivkie could barely breathe at the prospect of all the red tape that would surely confront her there. She often became flustered and embarrassed when attempting minor transactions at the bank or supermarket; how, then, could she overcome the infamous bureaucratzia to admit her baby into an Israeli hospital?!
Rivkie’s thoughts drifted back to the more carefree times of her childhood, when her warm, large family was always there to help her over even the most inconsequential hurdles. Tears welled up in her eyes as she recalled her mother’s kid loving face. But Rivkie’s daydream lasted only a split second, her maternal instincts galvanized her into actions, penetrating the inertia of despair. This was no time to sob on the phone to Mommy in Brooklyn. She had to take care of Deena herself, and she had to act now.
Reaching down into herself for the fortitude she had to have, she turned to the doctor and said: “Just tell me exactly what I must do.”
“I am preparing all of the papers,” he told her while he quickly tended to a veritable ream of printed forms. Dr. Rapaport punctiliously explained each item, repeating himself where he thought it was necessary. He then escorted mother and child out of his office, ensuring that the infectious baby did not come into contact with the dozen patients in his waiting room.
"To the depressed and downtrodden
whos cases were never even heard
in the courtrooms of our mind"
Once outside, however, Rivkie’s courage waned. Of all the times to be left on her own! Her husband had flown to the States the night before for his brother’s wedding. Even before the present crisis, she had felt incompetent dealing with the normal rigors of daily existence without her husband’s patience, calmness and fluency in Hebrew. She had never been so completely alone before.
Rivkie had come to Israel for the same reason many of her peers had: she wanted her husband to ascend in learning, and there is not Torah like that of Israel. Attaining that goal entailed a sacrifice on her part in terms of separation from family and friends, but she was sure it was worth it. Besides, it was sort of a tradition. Hadn’t Rabbi Akiva’s wife, and all of the wives of great scholars before and after her, made sacrifices for Torah’s sake?
Because of budgetary considerations, Rivkie had not traveled with her husband, but she no longer regretted having remained behind. The thought of toxins attacking her baby in mid-flight with no proper medical attention available was even worse than the current state of affairs, as bad as it was.
Rivkie raced through her apartment, stuffing into a bag whatever she thought Deena would need in the hospital. Just when time was so critical she found everything disorganized and nothing in its place! Frantically scurrying from the baby’s room to hers, she improvised, settling for anything that was clean and serviceable. She grabbed pajamas for Deena and a denims skirt for herself, as her fingers fumbled for the Tehillim (psalms) on the shelf. Grasping the little book tightly, she reassured herself “I’m not really alone,” in an effort to fight off the terrible thought that Deena might never return to their apartment.
To complicate matters, one of the pediatricians forms had to be stamped by the Kupat Cholim (“Health Fund”) office in downtown Jerusalem before Deena could be admitted by the hospital. Rivkie’s few encounters with Kupat Cholim led her to fear a protracted process involving several offices and interminable lines. But even if it were to go quickly this time, how could she take Deena with her? On the other hand, how could she leave her very sick and contagious baby with a sitter or a neighbor? The walls of her apartment seemed to be closing in on her. There were no doors in sight.
Rivkie’s instincts impelled her to get the baby to a hospital without delay. If necessary, she would turn on the charm and hope for the best. If a womanly approach failed to get her any medical attention, she would…she would…she’d just scream!
Rivkie dialed for a taxi and explained that it was urgent. But the problem with taxis is that every caller feigns urgency, desperation, or the like in order to receive a cab quickly. Waiting for a taxi at any time is a trial of patience; waiting for one in an emergency is a test of nerves. Rivkie failed both.
But the mother was not the worse off. While Rivkie and her daughter were waiting for the cab to arrive, Deena began to convulse. Her fingers kept clenching and unclenching. Her eyes rolled wildly and she hissed through her closed mouth. Rivkie clutched her baby tightly in her arms, her eyes darting up and down the street frantically. Just then the taxi pulled up at the curb.
As they sped away, Rivkie implored the cabbie to drive as fast as possible. She nearly screamed each time he slowed down for another red light. Her body tightened like a spring around her baby’s contorted form, and she prayed that the hospital would soon be in sight….
Deena’s grave condition circumvented the admission procedure. When the taxi finally arrived, it went straight to the emergency room entrance. Layers of red tape fell away when the medical personnel saw the agonized baby and her panic-stricken mother.
The convulsion passed but its effects lingered. The insidious toxins attacking Dena’s brain had turned her into a baby her mother couldn’t recognize. An alert attendant in the ward sized up the situation at once and rushed to notify a doctor. Within seconds Deena was injected with a tranquilizer.
The baby was placed in a crib, and a medical team huddled around. One nurse inserted an IV tube into Deena’s tiny wrist, while another left to arrange a spinal tap and a third took her blood pressure. The doctors prepared a stool sample and ordered a battery of other tests.
Rivkie was unable to comprehend the Hebrew words flying back and forth, but the word ”shigella” cut into practically every sentence. “What’s happening with my baby?” she pleaded several times, but the doctors were too intent on their work to respond. They motioned for a nurse to remove her so that they could continue unhampered.
“Not to vorry,” a nurse tried to assure Rivkie in broken English, “you baby go upstair to qvarantine and get good care.” Not worry?! Rivkie was terrified! The doctors’ looks of concern and the pediatrician’s earlier warning about fatality converged like cymbals crashing in her ears. She trembled and began to cry hysterically.
Rivkie loved her baby more than anything in the world, and the thought of her demise was…God forbid! She refused to allow that unimaginable thought in her head; it was too horrible even to contemplate. The death of a child was the kind of tragedy no one ever thought could befall his or her own family; it only struck hapless strangers and was only discussed in dark whispers that hovered somewhere between sympathy, shock and Lashon hara (slander)
It was astounding that in just a few short months one could grow from a teenaged bride into a mother willing to endure the worst tortures ever conceived in order to save her child. Rivkie would have gladly changed places with little Deena if only to spare the baby even a second of pain. She chastised herself for having earlier indulged in homesick thoughts of Brooklyn, and wasting precious seconds-seconds that might have meant the difference between life and death.
As helpless as she felt, Rivkie was determined to do anything to save her Deena. But for the time being, her lonely crib-side vigil, her constant prayers, and her continuous loving caresses were all she had to offer.
At six forty-five in the evening Deena was moved from the emergency room to the quarantine section of the Pediatrics Pavilion. It had been eleven hours since Rivkie had last eaten, but she was still too inexperienced to know that in order to tend her baby properly she had to take care of herself as well. It was so hard to be separated from Deena, even for the few minutes she would have needed to find some food. Feeling as alien and vulnerable as she did, Rivkie instinctively sensed a hostile environment. Even though though she knew that the hospital housed a professional, caring staff, Rivkie felt an evil presence lurking in the corridors. Dizzy from hunger and fatigue, and consumed with anxiety over her daughter, she was unable to think rationally.
As the attendant wheeled Deena’s crib out of the elevator, Rivkie’s worst fears were realized: from the corner of her eye she suddenly caught sight of a hideous black monster. A gasping shriek escaped her lips and she fell upon her baby to protect her from the creature’s sinster gaze.
“What is that?” she whispered urgently, but the attendant, a cold, seasoned hospital worker, neither replied nor flinched. He continued to push the crib, dragging the stumbling, hysterical mother along.
“Wait, wait, please!” Rivkie begged as little Deena was wheeled straight toward the monster. Frantically tugging at the crib to prevent the attendant from advancing, Rivkie alarmed the whole floor. “Can’t you hear me?” she yelled. “Please, let’s go the other way. Can’t we go the other way?” Nurses and patients rushed to the scene of the commotion and began to jabber in Hebrew about the crazy American. A nurse tried to get her to let go of the crib and calm down, but it was no use. A security guard was called.
Rivkie thought she was living a nightmare. The spasmodically twitching monster, emitting a fetor as foul as the stench of a charnel house, was advancing closer and closer, and everyone was conspiring to bring Deena into his vile clutches. “Help! HELP ME!” Rivkie screamed. But her pleas fell on deaf ears.
The security guard arrived and first set about dispersing those who had gathered to watch the spectacle. He and the attendant exchanged a knowing look. Then, approaching Rivkie from behind, he grasped her arms and removed her bodily from the path of the crib. Rivkie struggled to wriggle free, but she was no match for this burly, experienced guard.
Devastated, Rivkie watched helplessly as Dena’s crib was wheeled inexorably closer to the monster. How could they do this to her baby? Clearly the beast sensed another victim approaching. It raised its massive head, displaying gruesome, bloated lips that opened and closed like the mouth of a giant fish. Rivkie moaned, and the guard tightened his grip. She felt faint, but she forced herself to maintain consciousness. She had stumbled into a nightmare world: This was some voodoo temple behind the façade of a hospital. Before her very eyes, her baby was about to become a heinous sacrifice on the alter of a hideous god. The crib was nearing the monster, which raised itself on its elbows in anticipation, a white froth forming around its distorted lips. Rivkie’s breath caught in her throat as her eyes bulged out of their sockets. She had no voice left to scream.
When the attendant came within the creature’s reach, it thrust out a blackened limb to arrest the advance of the crib. But miracle of miracles, the attendant waved it off and continued into the pavilion. Rivkie started to breathe again. Deena was safe from this creature for the moment…but who knew what perils awaited her inside? The guard released her at last, and Rivkie ran after her baby.
But as she approached the frightful miscreation, it once again extended a ghoulish black limb. She leaped out of it’s reach, racing to catch sight of the attendant pushing Deena’s crib into a private room. A nurse was busy taping a sign to the door-Highly Contagious
Rivkie had almost forgotten her earlier hellish encounter, attributing it to nerves and exhaustion. But as she dropped off to sleep, she again found herself face to face with the frightening monstrosity she had seen in the corridor a few hours before. In her dream he was standing over her, trying to pull Deena from her arms. His black talons ripped her daughter away and carried her oward a raging fire. Wit harms raised he held the little body above the flames, ready to hurl her into a fiery furnace. Rivkie shrieked uncontrollably, waking herself and baby Deena. It took some time before she was able to restore both the child and herself to normal. And even then, alone in the dark, all her fears resurfaced. Was she safe fom his vile clutches here in this ward? She could not shake the haunting feelings that he had aroused in her.
Shigellosis, Rivkie soon learned, is a disease not quickly cured. The nerve-racking experience of a prolonged stay in the hospital was somewhat ameliorated by the slow but steady improvement in Deena’s condition. After two days the baby’s temperature dropped and she appeared less sickly. The diarrhea, however, did not relent.
Toward the second evening, Rivkie detected some difficulty in Deena’s breathing. Her observation was confirmed by a doctor, who quickly ordered a chest x-ray.
Alarmed by the new development, Rivkie accompanied Deena to the radiology department. When they emerged from the elevator the terror of that first night was abruptly rekindled. Propped up in a bed, only meters away, was the same jet-black beast, his face indiscernible but for the opening and closing of gruesomely swollen, protruding lips.
Rivkie flinched involuntarily and tried to prevent herself from again emitting a terrified shriek. She instinctively threw her hands around Deena to shield her from the gaze of the creature and kept her own eyes riveted to her daughter.
After a few brisk strides Rivkie realized, to her profound horror, that they were headed directly into the path of the dreadful beast. She had begun to hyperventilate with fear. What could she do? She turned sharply and walked backwards, pretending the attendant needed her to help pull the crib.
Suddenly hse felt a hand brush against her back and Rivkie jumped as if stung by a live wire. She was too petrified even to scream. She ran, pulling the crib all the way back down the corridor to their room.
He had touched her, there was no doubt about it. She felt that she immediately had to have her blouse incinerated. What lake was wide and deep enough to cleanse her of the contamination of that demonic contact? Was it the Satan that had grazed her, or the Angel of Death? Rivkie was shaking and sobbing, gagging from terror.
The attendant caught up with Rivkie and threw her an angry look. He grabbed the crib and deliberately began pushing it back toward Radiology. Rivkie simply could not believe how nonchalant the hospital staff was about that most craven of creatures! Surely that thing should be kept away from good, healthy people. Didn’t they realize that God would not punish one so unless he truly deserved it? She couldn’t imagine what iniquity could be so grievous that the Almighty would mete out such a punishment.
The x-ray technician asked for her help in placing the baby on the x-ray table. Rivkie froze, afraid to touch her precious Deena. Who knew what pernicious disease could possibly be transmitted by contact with that Frankenstein? The technician let out an exasperated sigh and repeated his request through clenched teeth. Wit ha sudden shock, Rivkie realized that her child was the contagious one on this floor, and she had no time to worry about whether she ahd contracted some horrible disease from the monster. She’d have to save her own personal worries for that silent hour of the night when banished, subconscious thoughts invade the conscious mind, robbing the soul of sleep.
The head radiologist examined the x-ray of Deena’s chest and scribbled some notes. Everything was in order and they prepared to return to the ward. Rivkie begged the attendant to tell her if “it” was still in the corridor. He informed her with a smirk that he had been removed, and she prayed that the man was telling the truth. Rivkie had heard that hospital employees become inured to everything, but that accursed creature’s condition was far worse than any debilitating disease or chronic ailment she could ever imagine. She was still frightened, and couldn’t expel the horrible visage from her memory.
Rivkie was quivering from head to toe from the experience, which no one had bothered to explain to her. After seeing it at close range, she now understood that the “monster” of her hysterical imagination was actually a pathetic human being with some unspeakable disease or congenital defect. Surely the mark of Cain had not been as pronounced, she thought, and wondered again what abominable sin this person must have committed to have deserved such a frightful disfigurement. She hoped she would never know. Rivkie prayed that she would never see it again and that she would be able to concentrate on her baby now, she tried to tell herself, not on the few moments of horror with that malevolent creature. But the image of the monster made her shiver suddenly and violently. It somehow embodied all of her fears, everything she couldn’t face.
Later that night, a nurse brought Rivkie a cot so that she could sleep alongside her daughter. Her presence was needed to change the diapers that Deena was soiling with such frightening frequency. She also had to notify the nurses when the intravenous solution ran out, since they paid less attention than normal to the quarantined patients.
Rivkie collapsed on the cot, a little more in control of herself after the quick meal she had virtually inhaled while standing over Deena’s crib. Her thoughts drifted to her husband, Yossi. His brother’s wedding was to take place tonight, she recalled. Teas swam in her eyes as she visualized all the happy, smiling faces of friends and relatives who would be dancing with the bride and groom…while her baby was here in this sterile, unfriendly hospital, hovering between life and death.
How Rivkie had wanted to join Yossi on his trip to America! But in the end, she herself ahd decided to remain in Jerusalem, knowing full well that they could scarcely afford a second plane fare. Her parents had been generous enough when Deena was born, and Yossie’s parents were already strapped with all the “extras” a wedding calls for.
The thought of being alone in a foreign country had been daunting, but she had not dared to tell him for fear of spoiling his trip. Now she wondered what she could possibly have done to have brought this torment on herself and little Deena.
Rivkie glanced down at her baby. Deena was looking so much better, thank God. But what use was her recovery if this monster would cast some satanic spell upon her? If ever there was an “evil eye,” it was his to give.
Because Deena was kept in isolation, Rivkie didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the matter with other patients or visitors to the hospital. The next morning, she told herself she would bring up the problem with Deena’s doctors. Rivkie had no intention of asking for a history or medical analysis of that poor soul’s condition: she simply wanted to know how they could allow such a thing to remain in plain sight-roaming all over the hospital and terrorizing patients and any sane visitor.
But the opportunity never arose. The next morning a physician came to visit Deena, flanked by interns and residents. He turned to Rivkie and said in near-perfect English: “I have good news for you. Your daughter is showing real improvement. She’s making a far more rapid recovery than we had anticipated considering her condition when she was first admitted to the hospital. I imagine she will have to remain here for another day or two-pending examination by the head of Pediatrics. He will probably put your daughter on Phenobarbital tranquilizers for several months, and, as a matter of course, order an EEG six weeks after discharge to see if the convulsion has left any lasting effects.”
The doctor’s “good news” didn’t sound all that cheery to Rivkie. Aside from the part about leaving the hospital soon, the prospect of an EEG made her fearful once again. Then the nagging, subliminal question that had been haunting her every night came to the surface: “Will my daughter have any brain damage because of the convulsion?”
The doctor tried to allay her fears: “Electroencephalograms are performed routinely on anyone who has experienced a convulsion. Undoubtedly in your baby’s case it was a shigella toxin that caused the seizure, but we just want to make sure she doesn’t have a tendency to convulse-data which would be valuable for you to know.”
The prospect of being released from the hospital was blissful- but it was marred by the nightmares and the overwhelming stress Rivkie had suffered from her grisly encounters with the ubiquitous monster. Who knew what ghastly scars this experience would leave on her and the baby?
The next morning the head of the department examined Deena as promised, and announced that she could be released that day if lab results confirmed his prognosis. Needless to say, Rivkie was elated when the lab gave Deena the green light; the dreadful week in the hospital would soon be over. Rivkie had to go downstairs to handle the paperwork before the release could be authorized-a procedure that took close to an hour.
When she returned to Deena’s room she found a nurse getting the baby dressed to leave. “Well, you’re all set to go,” She cheerfully greeted Rivkie. The nurse was British, the first native English-speaker Rivkie had met all week. “Submit a copy of the papers you received downstairs to the nurses; station near the entrance to this ward, dear, and you’ll be on your way. Oh, yes-I also have a message for you: Yigal wants to say goodbye.”
“Yes, you’ll find him at the desk”
Rivkie wondered who “Yigal” was. Maybe he was the intern who had received them in the emergency room and had come up several times to check on Deena’s progress. Or perhaps he was the taxi driver who had driven them to the hospital and who had refused payment-that first day and again when Rivkie subsequently met him near the outpatient clinic.
Rivkie packed their few belongings, picked Deena up and turned to the nurses to thank them for their care. Each glorious step was bringing them closer to freedom. She was finally leaving, just in time to get ready for Yossie’s return in only two more days. She would need that time to get the house back in order and put this whole ordeal in proper perspective. What was she meant to have learned from it?
Rivkie approached the nurses’ station and began kissing Deena’s forehead excitedly while she waited for someone’s attention. Deena’s lively personality had been almost fully restored and she babbled merry gibberish while her mother beamed.
A nurse finally turned to them, and Rivkie handed over the mass of papers. After a vrief perusal, the nurse said she required the passport numbers of both Deena’s parents. Rivkie smiled and reached for the purse she had placed on the counter-and nearly jumped out of her skin.
There he was, looking directly at her from down the corridor! “Oh dear God,” Rivkie whimpered. “Not now, when we are almost out! Please, just let us leave this place!” She clutched Deena tightly, pressing the baby’s head into her side. Deena struggled to wriggle away but her mother refused to relax her grip.
“Nu?” the nurse demanded, rolling her eyes.
“I..I don’t..know,” Rivkie spluttered back. “I ..I must go now, and I will call in the information.”
“Wait just a minute,” the nurse replied sharply, “I must ask the head nurse.” The nurse stood up and went into the head nurse’s office. Rivkie remained frozen in place, her eyes tightly closed. She didn’t know what to do. She wanted to run away, but was afraid they might call downstairs and not let her out of the building. Without an official release from the ward she would be ineligible for reimbursement of both the hospital fees and the cost of the EEG, which the head of the department had said was so crucial. She was trapped, a captive victim of his vile gaze. She began to tremble once more, her earlier elation forgotten.
“Mrs. Shreiber.. Mrs. Shreiber?”
She was being spoken to. “Yes,” she answered, startled, and opened her eyes.
“Do you have at least one of your passport numbers with you?” the head nurse asked. She was a middle-aged woman with an air of efficiency about her, and she appeared more cooperative than the nurse who had gone to get her.
“Uh, uh..yes, sure.”
“Then that will be adequate. Now, if you don’t mind my saying so, your baby appears to be very uncomfortable. It seems you’re crushing her! Are you trying to conceal something?”
Rivkie realized how foolish she must have looked, but she was scared, scared for herself and for poor Deena. She and her baby had gone through enough. She did not need to look at the monstrous face of sin in the form of a man.
But why was everyone else so calm about his presence? Irony of ironies, she looked like the queer one, and “it” was treated like a cherished patient to be wheeled everywhere, deposited wherever he wished, and tolerated throughout the hospital by one and all.
Grabbing hold of herself, Rivkie reached out again for her purse. This time she saw that he was inching closer to her and, to her consternation and utter chagrin, she let out a high-pitched, long-suppressed screech.
“What’s the matter?” the head nurse asked in alarm.
“N..nothing,” Rivkie responded, controlling herself. She fumbled for her passport and hastily read off the number. The nurse jotted down the information and nodded her approval.
The last hurdle was behind her now, and Rivkie could finally leave. As the nurse stamped the document and handed it back, she told Rivkie that Yigal was waiting for her, and would she just take a few more minutes of her time to speak with him?
With all the tension, Rivkie had completely forgotten about the mysterious Yigal. With the monster so close she did not wish to remain an extra second. But who was this Yigal?
“Please tell him that I’ll call him,”Rivkie said hurriedly, “but I don’t remember exactly who he is.”
“You don’t know who Yigal is?” the nurse asked with surprise, as though Rivkie had not recognized the name of the Prime Minister. “Why, he is lying right at your side!”
Rivkie cowered. “What is he?” she asked, ashamed that her tone evinced such disgust.
“What is he?” she asked, ashamed that her tone evinced such disgust.
“What is he?” the head nurse repeated in bewilderment. “Yigal is our favorite patient, that’s who he is.”
At this point Rivkie’s anger overcame her fear. “Favorite patient? How dare you all treat him like some privileged character when obviously he’s a living example of the wrath of God!”
The nurse’s expression reflected her astonishment. “Why don’t you ask him yourself how he got to be this way? Go ahead,” she cajoled, “he’s waiting for you. He has wanted to talk to you for some time now.”
Rivkie, her anger spent, and became flustered and stared pointedly at the counter. She felt faint again, and wished she were somewhere, anywhere but in the company of that malfeasant.
In the meantime the head nurse wheeled Yigal right over to her. Remembering the interdiction of the Rabbis forbidding one to look an evil person in the face, Rivkie felt no urge to violate the rule at this time. Close up, she was certain, his features would be even more gruesome than they had appeared from a distance.
The grossly ballooned lips parted and the creature uttered a muffled “Shalom.”
“This young lady,” the head nurse told Yigal, “would like to know how you came to look like this.”
“Motek”for my buddies I would be willing to burn a hundred times, just so that Jewish boys might be saved.”
All this time, Rivkie had not shifted her gaze from the counter. But when she heard these last words about saving Jewish boys, she lowered her eyes to the foot of Yigal’s bed. Deena had fallen asleep and Rivkie supported her on her shoulder.
“Go on, Yigal,” coaxed the head nurse, “tell Rivkie your story.” A few people in the hallway gathered around him.
“It was the first day of the war,” he began in such surprisingly perfect English that he might have been a foreign correspondent, “Operation Peace for Galilee, that is, when we set out. We were part of the armored brigade which was to lead the attack on the western axis up the coastal road. Almost all the boys in my unit were Hesder yeshiva students, just eighteen-to twenty-year-old conscripts who were seeing action for the first time.
“We had regrouped within Major Haddad’s enclave in Lebanese territory, and at 11:00 A.M. we headed out for the U.N. zone.
“Half an hour after starting out, shells began erupting From a fortified position on the road to Tyre, Palestinian terrorists showered the lead tanks with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades, but it didn’t take us long to destroy their position.
“Just a little while later those same tanks were blown off the road when our own planes mistakenly bombed the cross-roads just as we were approaching. Fortunately our tanks sustained only minor damage.
“Since the directive was to reach the Kasmiye bridge over the Litani River as fast as possible, the lead tank unit did not engage in any mopping-up operations after we destroyed the Palestinian stronghol. This enabled them to regroup before the advance of the second unit.
“The problem was that the commander of the paratroop battalion farther back in the column was unfamiliar with the area, not having been briefed as fully as we had been. To compound the problem, his communication system became inoperative just as his armored personnel carrier crossed the border.
“The battalion mistakenly traveled through some citrus groves. This made visual contact very difficult for us, while it allowed the terrorists easy access to the battalion. From out of nowhere, RPGs were fired and several tanks and APCs suffered direct hits. My unit was trapped.
“We were being hit from all sides and lost contact with our commander. Soldiers started leaping out of their disabled vehicles before they exploded, frantically running for cover in all different directions. Several, including our commander, were captured by the enemy.
“I also had to bail out of my APC; the steering mechanism had been jammed by a rocket. I was painfully aware of the fact that many of my buddies could not escape from their vehicles. A little ahead of me I saw a Merkava tank get hit and burst into flames.
“The rear escape hatch was engulfed in fire and I knew that the tank’s crew was roasting inside. I pried the hatch open and crawled in to save my comrades. My clothes were on fire.”
By this time even more people had congregated around Rivkie and Yigal. They urged him to continue as he paused to catch his breath.
“I found the entire crew alive,” Yigal rasped, “but they were unable to extricate themselves from their positions. I pulled and shoved with all my might to maneuver them toward the escape hatch. The door at the end was still burning, but once you were out you could roll on the ground to extinguish the flames. The tank’s gunner was in shock and bleeding badly but we somehow managed to push him out. Thank God, those boys are all fine today.”
“And you, Yigal? What happened to you?” asked an orderly who had heard the story many times but never ceased to be amazed by it.
“By the time I was able to escape, the chute was red-hot. My skin melted right off of me. Most of it remained on the walls of the slide.” He paused, dropped his head, then added wit hrenewed animation, “But I’m telling you, chabibi, if I could have, Iwould have climbed into a dozen such tanks-anything to save our boys!”
Yigal fell silent. There were tears coursing down his own charred cheeks, and his damaged hands were shaking.
Rivkie had been crying for some time now. So these stories did happen to real people, not just to nameless faces you read about in the Jerusalem Post. These were the valiant individuals who risked their lives to save fellow Jews, men who fought and suffered the most horrible disfigurements so that women like her-and infants like Deena-could live safely in the land. Heroes, she realized with a sense of profound shame, weren’t the child-women who braved a stay in a hospital for a few days.
How she had incriminated this courageous man, accusing him in her mind of terrible deeds! Rivkie had been so involved in her own troubles she had failed to consider his possible sorrows. She had shunned and castigated a fellow Jew based on nothing but her own fears and weaknesses. How could she ever make up for the pain she had inflicted, the untold suffering she ahd heaped on him?
“Please,” Yigal said, speaking directly to her now, “forgive me for frightening you. You see, I sometimes forget how I must look to others. When I saw you with your sick little baby, all alone and so worried, I wanted to comfort you. I, too would love to have a family, a home, someone to care-really care about me. But the truth is I have no one. I’ve been here so long that even my old comrades have tired of visiting me. So I live through others, experiencing the pain and the joy of people here in the hospital. It’s become a sort of hobby. Blieve me, I only wanted to help you. Instead, I scared you. I forget how ugly I must look. Please, please,” he said softly, “I’ve been wanting to ask your forgiveness.”
Rivkie looked deeply into the Tzaddik’s(righteous man) moist brown eyes. “Ashrecha,(praise)Yigal,” she began through her tears, “halevai there should be more like you among our People.”
After a few parting words, Rivkie Shreiber finally left the hospital, but she knew the ugly scars would remain on her soul for some time, a small reminder and a cheap price to pay for her unpardonable act of misjudgement. She stood on the sidewalk a moment and inhaled the crisp, fresh air of Jerusalem. The streets were awash with sunlight.
Rivkie stared out the bus window all the way home, her thoughts in tumoil. “As soon as we get home,” she told her precious sleeping baby, “I’ll bake him a cake. And tomorrow I’ll bring it to him-can you imagine, no one visits him?” She smiled to herself, thinking how happy it would make Yigal to have company.
All at once, Rivkie felt buoyant, lighthearted. One small scar had suddenly disappeared.
By: Hanoch Teller
“Courtrooms of the mind”