I don't know why Nachman Klieman and his wife moved to Israel in 1977. I
don't know him that well. I actually met him only three times, though I spoke to
him regularly over the phone, especially when I was late paying the rent.
I remember his wife, Ruchama, the first day we met, dressed in a plain
flowered housecoat, sitting at their dining room table, well ensconced in her
place, phone and coffee cup by her side. It was a comfortable apartment in
Rehovot, and they'd put care into remodeling and furnishing it. Nothing fancy,
but very livable. We were pleased to rent it. And we were very relieved to be
making our rental contract with other Chicagoans. There was an immediate ease
between us as there is between many Jews from Chicago, especially when they meet
in a foreign country.
The last time we saw the Kliemans was three and a half years ago when we
picked up the keys. They went off to their new home in Halamish, about ten
kilometers on the other side of the Green Line. I don't even see them when I pay
the rent. I bring the check to Ruchama's mother and her husband. They live only
a few blocks away. They were sad when Nachman and Ruchama moved away. I imagine
it must have been nice to have the grandchildren so close. They constantly
worried about their safety, especially lately.
Lots of changes for the Kliemans over the years. One boy lives in a tent in
an agricultural settlement in the southern Hebron hills. Another came close to
Chabad and drives a "Mitzvah Tank" providing services to the soldiers
and settlements in the Binyamin area of the Shomron. The 23-year-old daughter
became a kindergarten teacher for Down's Syndrome kids in a kindergarten close
to their yishuv (village). And Nachman recently made the announcement to
retire as the spokesperson for El Al Airlines.
In my brief and sporadic contact with Nachman I know him as a nice and gentle
soul, a compassionate man. A midwesterner through and through. Twenty-five years
in Israel hadn't taken that out of him. His character shines through in the
softness of his voice, in his humility and slight timidity, in his patience. He
never once expressed anger towards my chronically late rental payments. Even
when I was so late that he had to call and ask me for the rent, he did so in an
almost apologetic and most under- standing way. When he learned of my cancer, I
felt he wanted to be no further burden in my life. I accepted his patience as
his way of making my life easier.
Yesterday morning when I read of his daughter's murder, my wife, Sharon, and
I prepared to go to the funeral. Once again in our short time in Israel we were
about to hear the sorrowful screams of a mother who has lost her child to
We joined their friends, past neighbors and coworkers in Rehovot on a
chartered, armored bus to their yishuv. Even before we arrived at the army
checkpoint the terrain turned rough, wild and beautiful. I broke our silent bus
ride by mentioning to my wife how understandable it was that the Kliemans had
left Rehovot for more beautiful environs. I was anxious to see the yishuv to
which they'd moved; to see the house and community that had, in some oblique
way, played a part in this tragic death.
The Kliemans didn't strike me as heroes. I had the feeling that they were
like many Israelis that had moved to communities across the Green Line to both
live in a beautiful place and to be among those who settled land they firmly
believed was part of the "Land of Israel". I had the sense (though I
never talked to them about this) that living across the Green Line - that simple
act - added a certain sense of purpose to their lives just by waking up in their
yishuv each morning. Most of us who move to Israel have this sense of purpose.
We believe that just living here, especially now, is in and of itself an act of
commitment and purpose. It adds a touch of heroism to our lives. Living where
the Kliemans did - making their stand on contested land; being part of the
Jewish presence that awoke in the morning and carried on their daily tasks on
their piece of this ancient Jewish terrain was, in its simplicity and
ordinariness, a heroic act. Their daughter's death confirmed this. The savage
who killed her would have been just as happy to kill any Jew going to work that
morning. He was not trying to kill Esther Klieman. In his arbitrary hate he was
trying to kill us all.
When the Kliemans moved to Halamish, the security situation was not as
dangerous as it is now. Sure, there was risk. But only three and a half years
ago, there was less perceived risk of death than pervades life across the
Green Line today.
I wonder if any of us living in Israel squarely faces the possibility of
being killed as the consequence of our choice? Have we decided that our
commitment is worth the price of one of our family, G‑d forbid?
I haven't and don't want to. I know there is risk but I feel some protection
against the risk in statistics. I affirm the risk, but believe the chance of it
striking me - G‑d forbid - is minimal. I make a statistical choice, rather than
face squarely whether I'm willing to pay the price should statistics add me to
the wrong column.
I don't know how or whether the Kliemans squarely faced this risk. Though I
don't believe they are warriors, they became people willing to put their lives
on the line for what they believe.
It's wild and barren out there in Halamish. Empty hilltops, deep valleys,
wide spaces, big sky, the occasional Arab village. Olive groves with spectacular
swatches of deepening shades of green upon green on terraced hills. Empty roads
with fewer army vehicles than one would expect, or want. Rocky. Boulders lining
the road, making excellent hiding places for snipers and killers. High ridges
where one's imagination creates hoards of marauders spilling over in a murderous
rage or a lone shooter taking aim or, (depending on your childhood), swarms of
Indians attacking a vulnerable wagon train of simple, defenseless pioneers.
At the funeral most every man from the yishuv wore a gun, but, like the
Kliemans neither did they strike me as warriors. The yishuv looked middle class.
Beautiful, with abundant greenery lining the streets. Lush gardens. A large
population of professionals, it seemed, like the Kliemans; Jews with Zionist
ideals living across the Green Line in this beautiful hilltop yishuv with a
Mrs. Klieman was a shattered, broken woman who, as she walked from the car to
her seat, collapsed continually in the arms of her neighbors and friends. She
had lost her only daughter just hours before. Esther had been on her way to
work. I could not imagine the phone call they received. I didn't want to.
The sorrow was guarded by soldiers dressed for battle. They were everywhere
and they were at war. Fully armed, prepared for any contingency, they were
determined that no more grief would strike this yishuv and this family - at
least until the funeral was over.
The armed men from the yishuv, the ones not in uniform but carrying loaded
weapons for the defense of themselves, their families and their community, stood
strong and ready. Defiant. And as I stood with them, looking at the Kliemans,
feeling this family's grief, I sensed a change occurring in my self. My sadness
and pity were changing to anger and challenge. I could feel the change in my
body, in my muscles, in the way I stood, in the set of my jaw. And though I
didn't wear a gun, I thought that if I did I would enjoy any excuse to use my
gun, a provocation to kill and punish those that had perpetrated this horror. No
longer feeling the victim, I sought to be the aggressor, the punisher, the
avenger. I marked this feeling for remembrance thinking that it marked some
integral part of the national character that I had not till this moment
understood. It was a part of the strength of Israel and those of us who live
here. It is our refusal to be victims as we live in this land with purpose and
The rabbi of the yishuv spoke of revenge, as well. But he spoke differently,
more wisely than the raw feelings flowing through my body. It was justice, not
revenge we sought, he said. Not in anger do we stand strong, but in the demand
for equity. We beseech G‑d to demonstrate that His is a righteous world, one in
which the bad are punished, the good rewarded… or at least protected.
The murderer of Esther Klieman has not yet been caught nor killed, he pointed
out. He is alive and free. But, he said, it is not for this individual murderer
that we seek destruction, but the culture that gave rise to him. We want an end
to the society that breeds terrorists and killers, suicide bombers and those
that massacre children. We want an end to a way of life in which mothers cheer
the martyrdom of their sons and praise the act of slaughtering Jewish infants.
We want an end to a culture that gives no sanctity to life and seeks world
domination through terror and death.
Esther Klieman was buried in a beautiful grove in the yishuv. The grave site
was surrounded by tall pines, large boulders, and a ridge that overlooked the
surrounding hills. There were several hundred people present, and a large
contingent of soldiers. They stood on the hills surrounding the hole into which
Esther's body was being lowered. And so they had a clear view of the blood that
began to spill from Esther's wound as she was being carried from the stretcher
to her grave. It was the sight of Esther's blood that caused her mother to cry
out and collapse into her husband's arms. The blood soaked bandages set her
crying "I want my Esther. I want to hold her."
Esther was not immediately covered with earth. Because it is the Jewish
custom that all parts of the body be buried, especially any spilled blood, we
waited as they tried to wipe the blood from the stretcher with tissues. When
that proved ineffective, the decision was made to cut the canvass from the
stretcher poles and bury the whole blood soaked thing in the grave with Esther.
Her mother and father watched and waited. In their rush, the
stretcher-bearers and other helpers worked clumsily. It took time to find
scissors, to cut through the tough, thick canvass, to rip it from the metal
poles. It was gruesome and frustrating and all the while Esther's body lay
before her mother and father.
More speeches were made. The father and brothers said kaddish. We formed two
lines through which the Kliemans walked as we said "May you be comforted
among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem". We washed our hands and daavened
the afternoon prayers guarded by machine guns and young soldiers. We got back on
the bus and rode home in the dark. The bus was silent. And as my wife looked at
the hills and the high ridges that lined the road between the yishuv and the
army checkpoint she said:
"It's a miracle that it doesn't happen more often."
Note: Following completion of this story, I sent it to the Kliemans for their
approval. Nachman and Ruchama responded:
Thank you for a very moving and compassionate story. Your insight and the way
you expressed it was beautiful. We were very touched… Just for your
information we received reports from people who were passengers on Esther's bus
and the doctor who confirmed her death that Esther died immediately from one
bullet that pierced her heart… When death took her she was in the middle of
laughing with one of her friends, and Esther died with a smile on her face.
Believe it or not, we took comfort in this knowledge and the fact that Esther
died B'kedushat Hashem [--as a Jew who gave her life for her G‑d and her people]
and on her way to doing a mitzvah.
We learned today that her killer was apprehended as part of Operation
Defensive Shield. At least we can take comfort that he won't kill again.
With warm regards, Ruchama and Nachman