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Esther's Smile

Esther's Smile

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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 terrorism.

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 spectacular view.

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 commitment.

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


Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website Chabad.org.
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