A time to laugh
The guests who came to this year's memorial for Yael Kfir, victim of a 2003 suicide bombing, got a shock when instead of solemn speeches and sad songs, they were treated to a comedy about death and mourning. It was a while before anyone dared to laugh
Rosh Hashanah marked the seventh anniversary of the murder of Yael Kfir. She died on September 9, 2003, at the entrance to the Bahad 7 training camp, on the vast Tzrifin army base near Ramle. Yael, 22, a captain in the Israel Defense Forces career army, was standing at the bus stop, chatting with friends, when a suicide bomber blew himself up. Eight people were killed and dozens were injured.
Up until this year the memorial was held at the cemetery in Ashkelon, on the first Friday in September. It was organized by Ben, her father; Yafa, her mother; and Tal Kfir-Shuv, her sister.
This year her father decided instead to invite family and friends - Yael's friends and teachers, along with soldiers from her base (the army never forgets to send soldiers to the event, even though they are young draftees who never met her ) - to come to her old school, in Ashkelon, to see a play he had arranged to be presented there.
"Michael" revolves around a memorial ceremony for the titular character, using techniques from visual, nonsense and improvisational theater. The audience has no information about how old he was, how he died or what he did in his life apart from amassing an impressive eraser collection and being fond of a picture of a white horse in his living room. His mother, Rivka, his uncle Dubi and his sister Yasminish, who wear absurd wigs and glasses and have speech impairments, together with Ikea Cataloga from Ukraine, reminisce about Michael. There was also an artistic program, and refreshments.
Bourekas (excellent, with flaky pastry, literally melt-in-your-mouth ) were served to the almost 200 people who came to the school to attend Yael's memorial and suddenly found themselves at a play. There were also wonderful grapes, an electric urn for hot beverages and plenty of cold drinks on hand. Even the weather cooperated, and in the open amphitheater there was a slight hint of salt air from the sea.
I sat behind a large mixed group of soldiers in dress uniform. It took them a little while, though less than the older audience members, to grasp that this was a performance, that Dubi and Rivka, who were running around onstage and in the audience, asking each other who hadn't arrived yet, were not really there on behalf of the Kfirs, and that "OK, let's begin" marked the start of a play, not a memorial ceremony. The soldiers were also the first who dared to laugh. "Michael" is a very funny play that ridicules all the cliches of mourning and commemoration on which we were raised, including "In their death they commanded us to live," "The best die first" and "always with us." Perhaps we didn't do enough to keep our own children from being raised on them.
So the first to laugh (apart from myself ) were the soldiers. They began snickering after about 15 minutes. Then, slowly, the rest got into the spirit of the play. Toward the end, when it suddenly turned into a birthday party for Yasminish and her mother declared, "I will remember you for eternity," just before a fight broke out among the characters onstage, the entire audience (with the possible exception of a few recalcitrant ladies ) was rolling with laughter.
Yafa Kfir, Yael's mother, continued yet also interrupted the sport when she came onstage, dressed in white, and told the actors she shared their grief for Michael, adding, "The most important thing is for us to be together." There were those who, like me, saw this as a marvelous example of irony and well-developed self-deprecating humor. Others, such as the play's director, Itay Weiser, viewed it as anger masquerading as sarcasm. Ben Kfir, Yael's father, told the audience that ever since he saw the play at Jerusalem's The Lab he had not been able to stop thinking about it. "It's exactly what Yael would have loved," he said. "She was very fond of Hanoch Levin and really enjoyed laughing at nonsense. She would split a gut laughing at the nonsense of Erez Tal and Orna Banai in [the television show] 'Only in Israel.'" Ben decided to bring the play to the school where his daughter had studied theater, and to turn the memorial into a performance and vice versa.
Yafa, onstage once again, added that she was abroad when Ben made the arrangements, but thought it was an excellent idea. "Holding a memorial every year is a major production. Since some people come from far away there must be an artistic program as well. We're a little tired of memorials in the cemetery," Yafa said.I planned revenge
Ben Kfir is a strapping fellow who looks like Santa Claus, with his heavy white beard, round pink cheeks, ample belly and sparkling eyes. Here is someone, you would think, whom life has smiled on. But you would be wrong.
On the porch of his large wooden house at the edge of the Ashkelon beach, he relates, with a distance that betrays great sadness, how his life changed forever on that day in September 2003, the same day of the terror attack at Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem. "The same cell carried out both attacks," he says, "two Hamas suicide bombers from the same cell."
Yael was a very gifted young woman. "She was a multitasker," her father says. "She took courses in modern history and physics at the Open University. She went to plays and concerts like a junkie running after his next fix. She read four books at a time - one in English, one a novel, one a play and one science fiction. To amuse herself she read scientific studies in astronomy. She never managed to open the office on the base by 8 A.M. but her commanding officers didn't care because they knew she'd be there until 2 A.M. that night. She was an instruction officer in a technical training unit and then was promoted in rank again. She mixed her civilian schedule, like studying acting, with her army job, and because her work days were so nutty she only came home on weekends. But that Tuesday she had a meeting scheduled in Ashkelon, and she did not make it to the meeting.
Yael Kfir was born in Ashkelon in December 1981, four years after her sister, Tal. "Yael was so jealous of her big sister who could read that she started teaching herself to read" at the age of four, Ben Kfir relates. He said that within six months she could read a newspaper.
In 1986, the year Yael was to start first grade, Omanuyot - the school where the memorial/performance was held - opened its doors. She was not admitted that year, and at the principal's recommendation stayed in kindergarten for another year. She was accepted to the new school, which as its Hebrew name implies is a school of the arts, the following year. It was the kind of place, Ben says, where the parents had to fight with their kids to get them to come home at the end of the day, and where the students' social life revolved around the school. Nevertheless, when she was in the seventh grade Yael informed the principal that she was leaving because she was bored. "The principal said, 'You don't have to leave, school can be made interesting,'" her father relates. "She ended up finishing nearly all her matriculation exams in 10th grade, and in 11th and 12th grade she went to classes maybe 15 hours a week, sang in the choir and acted in the theater program, because that was her passion. Evenings she worked at McDonald's and made a fortune in the stock market. In her spare time she almost completed a bachelor's degree in mathematics at Bar-Ilan University."
Yael turned down an invitation to join the army's Talpiot program, for conscripts with outstanding potential in math or science, or the Atuda academic deferment program. She enlisted, completed an officers' training course and signed up for the standing army. In January 2003, two months before her scheduled discharge, she was asked to extend her service - the army needed people like her. "She requested a two-week furlough, during which she learned to dive, in Eilat," Ben says. "When she got back she told me, 'Dad, I've decided to sign on for two more years because I don't think I've given enough."
On Thursday Yael came home on leave, and the next day she went to Omanuyot to organize a retirement party for the principal, together with her 12th-grade homeroom teacher. Yael suggested holding an alumni reunion that could also serve as a cover for the retirement party. They scheduled a brainstorming session for 9 P.M. the following Tuesday, September 9, with teacher and alumni representatives. Yael called to invite people to the meeting, Ben relates.
That Tuesday Yael left the base earlier than usual, a little after 5 P.M. Apparently no one in the large group of soldiers waited at the bus stop took much notice when a military vehicle stopped next to them and a young man wearing an explosive belt got out.
"I was in the house alone just then," Ben says. "Just before 5 I turned on the TV for the hourly news update and went to the kitchen to wash dishes. The TV remained on. Suddenly they interrupted the program to report that there had been a terror attack at Tzrifin. "They showed a stretch of road, on the far side a bus stop, behind it a fence and buildings a few dozen meters away. And I watch and say to myself, 'Hey, that's Yael's base. I've been there dozens of times.'
"I waited for Yael to call. Every time there was a terror attack, no matter where, she called home so I'd know she was OK. But she didn't call. After half an hour I called her mobile and got her voice mail, so I called her office and the line was busy. I called her commanding officers and got more busy signals. I figured they must be dealing with the attack. I didn't learn until two weeks later that one of the officers, who knew that Yael and four more of his soldiers had been killed, so much didn't want to lie to us on the phone that he ordered the phones taken off the hook so anyone calling from outside would get a busy signal."
The telephone in the Kfir home remained silent. "Evening fell, it was already dark, and as time passed it gradually dawned on me that Yael would never call. At about a quarter to nine I heard noises on the ground floor. I looked out over the railing and in the great sea of dark I saw two silhouettes. Two officers. I asked them, 'Why did you only come now? I've been waiting since a quarter to six.' And all the people at school had waited for her to come to the meeting," Ben relates.
"For a week there were thousands of people here. I didn't know most of them. After a week the house emptied out and I crawled into bed and decided I didn't want to live anymore. That's the moment when you break. There was uncontrollable crying and fury at the whole world. I was mad at the Palestinians who murdered my little girl, I was mad at the IDF and the security forces for not preventing the attack, at the politicians on both sides. Without being a religious person, I was mad at God. And I was mad at myself, for failing at my most important role as a parent by not protecting my offspring. I stopped answering the phone.
"Above all I wanted revenge, because there is nothing more natural than the desire for revenge. We're not suckers. We were attacked, so we want revenge. Nothing could be simpler. I have two pistols and I'm a pretty good shot. Not far from here there was a construction site with Palestinian workers. I planned how I would get up in the morning, put on nice clothes, take the pistols and go over there and kill five Palestinians.
"All the sleepless nights I had gave me a lot of time to work on the idea. In the end, I reached the conclusion that I'm not Superman. I can maybe influence the future but I can't affect the past. Even if I were to murder five or 50 Palestinians, or all the Palestinians in the world, I won't get Yael back. The only thing I will accomplish is that their families will want to take revenge on us, the Israelis. By my own stupidity, with my own hands, I'm putting myself into a cycle, where I take revenge on them and they take revenge on us and the revenge will never end.
"Through that process, which went on for two and a half weeks, I arrived at the conclusion that revenge isn't the solution. But when something like that happens in your life, when a child of yours is murdered - well, I felt like the sky had fallen. I wanted very badly to do something, but I didn't know what."
As the shloshim, the 30-day period of mourning following the funeral, drew to a close, the family placed a notice in the newspapers to thank the thousands of people who sent letters and e-mails, who paid condolence calls, who brought photographs of Yael, who talked about her. At the bottom of the notice was the sentence, "The approach of peace will be our consolation."
Some time after that, Ben relates, they received a letter from Kfar Sava, from the mother of a soldier who had died while serving in the military. She wanted to speak with the Kfirs. "I was in a sorry state, and the letter just lay on my desk. It wasn't until a month or two later that I called her. She told me she was active in an organization called Parents Circle-Families Forum - Bereaved Israeli and Palestinian Families Supporting Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance. She said there was a weekend seminar at Neve Shalom [an Arab-Jewish community near Jerusalem]. I asked her: 'Who do you want me to make peace with, those who murdered my daughter?'"
He hung up the phone with no intention of attending the event, but somehow when the day arrived found himself packing a bag and making the trip. "I met a wonderful group of Israelis and Palestinians, all of whom lost family members as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group gave me a reason to get out of bed every morning."
If the father of a suicide bomber like the one who murdered Yael had come to the forum, would you have befriended him?
"I wish the parent of a suicide bomber would come to the forum, because that would indicate that there are people in their families who oppose the attacks and the murders. But relatives of suicide bombers do not come to the forum, [among the Palestinian members there are] only the relatives of people murdered by the Israeli security forces.
"The true goal of the forum is to prevent more bereavement on both sides. That's the goal, to prevent bereavement. Anyone lucky enough not to be where we are has no idea what it's like. What really drives me crazy is people telling me, 'I share in your grief.' Come to my home and take a kilo of grief. Do you know my grief, do you have any idea? Well, then, shut up."Things that can't be said
Until Yael's death, Kfir ran the large printing company in Ashkelon he inherited from his father. Now he focuses mainly on the forum and on hobbies, including winemaking.
His first exposure to theater was through an uncle, the actor Michael Kfir. "He said I could be a great theater critic because the plays I liked would close after six performances and the plays I didn't like would be hits." In late June he read an article about "Michael" that mentioned a post-performance discussion in which a bereaved father took part. "Today I know it was Rami Elhanan [whose daughter, Smadar, was killed in a suicide bombing on Jerusalem's Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall at the age of 14]." Ben and his daughter Tal went to the show together.
"We sat in the front row, and I laughed as I hadn't laughed since Yael's murder, and I cried, too. It was such a jolting experience. The performance is built around trivialities, high-school skits, and Yael really loved that." Afterward he called Yafa. "She said she had just been thinking about what to write for the memorial. I told her I thought I'd solved the problem. After all, we are always trying to organize cultural events to commemorate Yael; her school choir is now called the Yael Choir, after her. Yafa liked the idea of the play."
It makes fun of those who came to the memorial.
"It doesn't make fun of them. It shows exactly what a memorial ceremony looks like, and above all it depicts a memorial and then a birthday party and shows that they're the same. That's one of the most terrible analogies."
Did you sense any differences between the performances at The Lab and at the school?
"There was something special in Ashkelon. For the first 10 minutes the actors were in shock. They're used to people laughing right away. Here people were afraid to laugh because they had come to a memorial, not a show. That rattled the actors; they couldn't figure out what they were doing wrong."
You said then that this would be the absolute last memorial.
"On the fifth anniversary I decided that's it, we're done, no more. We always held the memorial on a Friday. The army sent soldiers from Bahad 7, and the soldiers hated me because the memorial ruined their weekend. I don't see the point of holding memorials in the cemetery, because it's just bones and stones and a little landscaping. There are no memories there. There is nothing of Yael there.
"So two years ago, at the end of the memorial I announced that it was the last one. It set off an attack from every direction. The army, her friends, relatives, all telling me, 'Maybe it's not important to you, but it is to us.' So last year we held a memorial and I didn't take part. I was there physically but I didn't organize it and I didn't say a word.
"I agonized over what to do this year, and then this 'Michael' comes, like winning the lottery. It says exactly what I feel. There's a big conflict between Rivka and Dubi, she's mad at him because she thinks he's saying things that mustn't be said at memorial ceremonies. She doesn't grasp that since her son died, nothing is right and it doesn't matter whether the memorial ceremony is right."
What will you do next year?
"I won't go to a cemetery memorial. I don't think Yael's there."Life goes on
In contrast to her ex-husband, who has lived in the same city for more than 50 years, Yafa Kfir likes change, and she has turned her wanderlust avocation into a vocation. After teaching biology and Land of Israel studies and being a school principal, she now leads tours in Israel and abroad. She has remarried and lives in Kfar Tavor, in northern Israel. She was between apartments at the time of the terror attack. "I spoke with Tal. We didn't know what was happening and at one point she said, 'Mom, come to Dad's place, Yael was wounded.' I told her, 'If she was wounded you'd have told me to come to the hospital.' I already understood." Yafa was 53 at the time. "My life went completely haywire. You really can't describe it. But I told myself that by the time I'm 60 I will have a totally different life. And now I'm 60 and I have a new life."
What did you mean when after the performance at the school you said onstage that the main thing is for everyone to be together? Were you being sarcastic?
"No. No one wants to be around pain and grief. Later I said that no one wants to be in the vicinity of a bereaved mother because bereaved mothers are annoying things. It's scary."
Was the performance at the school the first time you saw "Michael"?
"Yes, but it wasn't a surprise. Ben told me about it in advance and I enjoyed it very much. We don't do the Jewish ceremony. We're not religious, and we didn't create an alternative [structure]. I think that what Ben did was excellent. That gathering provided an alternative."
Yafa says that while she is far from believing in mysticism there were omens of her daughter's death. "When I spoke to Yael about the terror attacks she said, 'Mom, we're the target,' meaning that soldiers are the real target. Her last Rosh Hashanah card looked like a death notice. The last two things she did were to shred all her papers, so if something happened to her the press couldn't use them, and to write in her blog, 'I want to get away from my life a little and live somewhere else, far away, cut off.' She went but didn't come back.
"I told her not to take buses and she said, 'Then give me your car and I'll have an accident and be killed.' I realized that our attempt to control the lives of those we love to avert disaster is pointless.
"I knew I had to go on living. I told myself that the terrorist killed her, not me, and that I have to go on living my life and that I have a responsibility to myself and to my remaining daughter and to my friends. Also, my life circumstances put me in a different place. I had just met someone, 10 days earlier, and he immediately understanding the advantages of being a bereaved mother. First of all, there's the government stipend. That relationship ended very badly, but then I met the man who is now my husband.
"There are many ways to continue living after losing a child. I grasped at once that Yael was dead, but people have different expectations."
What was expected of you?
"To be wretched, an object of pity. Your daughter was killed, you must be wretched or you're not a good mother. Yael was a wonderful girl but the moment she was killed, she was dead. She is gone. You know what I compare the tragedy to? To a person whose legs are amputated. You can pity yourself all the time or you can get prosthetic legs and continue to walk."
You didn't want to join an activist group, like Ben?
"I think the people who have to become activists are those whose children haven't yet been killed. I'm busy rehabilitating myself."
Does the grief lessen?
"It's mixed. The absence is greater but the sadness is lighter. You get used to grief and sadness. It's hard to say that out loud, that the loss becomes lighter with the years. But in Judaism there is the idea of accepting fate, and life has tremendous power.
"Loneliness is my middle name. Yael was the realization of the Zionist dream, besides being my daughter and being sweet and talented. My mother was on the Exodus immigration ship and my father spent two years in Cyprus [in British detention], and they came to Israel and had me and I had Yael and Yael was killed in a war. There you have the Zionist dream in its realization and in its death. As for me, I am the Zionist miracle, because after everything that happened I decided to go on living the best way I can. In the middle of this tempest I manage to remain normal, and I think that's a huge achievement."Raveled fringe
"Michael" won the fringe theater awards in 2009 for best director and play of the year and has become a cult show. Some people have seen it eight or nine times at Tel Aviv's Tmuna Theater. "There's a lot of improvisation so it's a little different each time," says Itay Weiser, the director. He says that while there are many repeat customers at The Lab, too, the composition of the audience in Jerusalem is slightly different from that in Tel Aviv. "Lots of knitted skullcaps [typical of the national-religious community], and older people and young people, but hardly anyone in between. The character of the play is also different there." Weiser, like most of the actors in "Michael," studied at Jerusalem's School of Visual Theater. A partner in Shafa Bar and the adjacent Shafa hair salon, in Jaffa's flea market, Weiser was a dancer, video editor and the founding director of a Jaffa theater before realizing that in visual theater he could combine these disciplines.
"Michael" began in 2007, as the final project at the School of Visual Theater of Avi Dangur, who is now a cast member. "It began without a concept, with characters in wigs and glasses," Weiser relates. "Gradually a story was woven around them. It became a ceremony around a character - originally it wasn't clear whether he was alive or dead, and then we killed him and named him Michael. It became a memorial with an electric urn for hot drinks and bourekas pastries."
Why a memorial?
"First, I think that as a pretext for a gathering there's nothing more Israeli. It's a ceremony where everything connects to symbols and it is organized, and there's a basic accessibility that immediately plays on the audience's sensitivities. I also like the idea that the order of ceremony is posted on the wall and that it's obvious that everything on it is going to screw up and that something terrible is about to happen. I'd like for there to be something joyous in every encounter with death. That's the reason for the interplay between the memorial for Michael and Yasminish's birthday. People have to realize that death is a part of life.
"What I like in 'Michael' are the raveled fringes. In [conventional] theater there is always a center, whereas for us what's important is what happens at the water cooler. Also, nothing is written here. Just the opposite, what I tell the actors as a director is to continue to be new, to surprise themselves and to ignore prior experience."
Has anyone ever reacted with hostility?
"Once in Jerusalem some woman grabbed my arm after the performance and said, 'Explain to me what I saw, what it was.' It turned out she had read an article about someone named Michael who died in Lebanon and thought it was a play about him."
So what is it about?
"It's about the fact that we are buried while we're still alive. That we forget to live. For me the play is a form of release, because it's grotesque. All the things that aren't supposed to be said are spoken in it. The quarrels burst into the open and the wounds are opened. Most people don't allow themselves to do such things.
"There's a guest book. The first person to write something about bereavement was a bereaved father. He wrote that we have no idea how much the play touches on the pornography of bereavement. That bereavement has become a well-oiled machine."
What was special about the performance in Ashkelon?
"In the middle of the show I suddenly realized it was the first time people had come from throughout the country not to see Michael but in order to feel Yael."