Coping With Grief Through Storytelling

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“The Cockroach” and “26 Pictures,” two self-published children’s books by Yaakov (Yankele) Yakobson, with illustrations by Shirley Waisman, constitute for the writer a dialogue with his daughter Tal, who died of cancer four years ago at the age of 26. “Dad has ordered an espresso and is daydreaming in front of the computer. He can’t see me, nor can the waitress who brings the coffee. Dad can’t see me catching the sugar bowl that has slipped from the table and holding it until he catches it himself. What quick instincts… the waitress flatters Dad, who’s really pleased with himself,” he writes in “26 Pictures.”

The interview with Yakobson, 62, takes place at a time of great sorrow for him: A few days earlier, the family marked the anniversary of Tal’s death, according to the Hebrew calendar. The secular date of her death was yesterday, December 26 which is also the date on which the Tal Center for Integrative Medicine, founded by Yakobson and his wife Zohar, a talent agent, was to be inaugurated at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. The center aims to develop and promote cancer treatment that is based on the integration of conventional and alternative medicines.

Yakobson is a veteran actor, artist and storyteller whose target audience has always been children. In 2009, he received a lifetime achievement award for his work. But it’s been five years since his last performance on stage. “I stopped on the day Tal became sick,” he says, and wonders out loud if he may ever perform again for schoolchildren. “I don’t have enough energy for plays. You need motivation to get up on a stage. I never had much of that drive. Even during my first year at the Be’er Sheva Theater, after completing my studies at the Nissan Nativ Studio, I began asking myself, what for?”

Didn’t you enjoy it?

“Not at all.”

Then what kind of actor are you?

“First of all, I’m really shy. It doesn’t come naturally for me. I asked myself why I wanted it. When I studied with Nissan Nativ, there was something there – there were different people and there are no more people like that today. It’s just a different world.”

Yakobson found the drive to create when he began doing his own productions in the mid-1980s. “It was something larger than me. My first solo performance was called ‘The Password Is Cream Cake,’ about the Lebanon War. I’m not an ordinary actor, I’m not a service provider, as [children’s author] Yehuda Atlas put it. I don’t know how to. The plays I did for kids are productions I really believed in, but it’s not that simple. I was always swimming upstream.

“In general, you can say – though there are always exceptions to the rule – that those who do this kind of thing [children’s theater] have no alternative, so they go and ‘dump’ it on kids. By the way, it’s the same with writing for kids ... Even at my old age, I’m still naïve. People are always saying that children are the most important thing and they deserve the best, so why don’t the best work with children? I have yet to receive an answer to that question.”

It’s a marginal sort of market.

“Someone says, ‘I’m writing something for kids.’ Why does a kid need that person? I used to go crazy hearing actors say, there’s no work, the situation is really bad and so I’m doing something for kids now. Over the years I insisted on taking the best actors, but that would screw up the show. Because you would produce a play, and then the Cameri Theater wouldn’t release the actor [to perform]. They would tell me to take someone else, but I didn’t want someone else, I wanted that actor, because he was good for the role.

“In children’s plays, there’s usually no such thing as cancelling a show. If the actor is sick in the morning, you get going [to the place you’re performing], and along the way, when you see someone who more or less looks like the sick guy, you pick him up.”

Tal was the Yakobsons’ youngest; they also have a son, Lior, who works with his mother at the agency. “He runs it,” jokes his father. For her part, Tal was an activist and artist. As early as the age of 12, she was a member of Anonymous for Animal Rights.

“She got me into trouble with a fur store here on Ben Yehuda Street,” recalls her father. “First, she showed up with a sign and stood on the sidewalk with a friend. Then she brought the entire class and Anonymous people. One day I passed by and the store owner says to me, ‘That’s your daughter, right?’ I said yes. He says, ‘Listen, when it was just a day or two, okay, but look what’s been happening’ ... One day I come home and see the whole house full of stickers – on the shampoo, the shaving cream: ‘Cruelly tested on animals.’ She would go to all the demonstrations.”

At the age of 18, Tal moved to a commune in Holland, where she volunteered with various organizations, studied Chinese medicine and began preparing natural skin ointments under the name Ecosmetix. Her teacher continues to prepare the ointments according to Yakobson’s recipes, and the name ‘Tal’s Creams’ has been added to the original logo. Her father laughs and says she probably wouldn’t have liked that.

“I believe not everything [in life] begins and ends here,” he says. “There’s something paradoxical in that Tal is gone, yet she’s so totally here. She was a girl who lived for years abroad; sometimes we wouldn’t talk for a week because she didn’t always answer the phone. She would call and say: Why are you so uptight, Dad, what’s the big deal. I said, I’m not uptight, it’s just that I haven’t talked to you for a week. I wasn’t worried about her at all, I had total confidence in her.”

When Tal returned to Israel, she continued her studies at Tel Aviv University’s Campus Broshim, to study alternative medicine, but in her second year she fell ill. She had gone on a trip to Jordan and come back with a stomach ache. “We thought it was from something she ate,” says Yakobson, “but it didn’t stop. The last thing I had in mind was cancer. It’s insane.”

‘I wouldn’t give up’

Tal Yakobson was ultimately diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor, the same kind Steve Jobs had, and this is where she and her parents began their journey through the labyrinthine corridors of modern medicine, one that eventually led the survivors to establish the new Tal Center.

“The oncologists present everything in the worst possible way, the most pessimistic way, they dump it all on the patient,” says Yakobson. “That’s because they’re miserable, they experience one failure after another and they come to the new patient with the previous patient’s failure. It’s very difficult to make any progress that way. At the time of Tal’s first crisis, her doctor asked who else he could talk with, and I said he could talk to me. He said to me, ‘Listen, I don’t know what you’ve been told, but Tal has an incurable illness.’ I said I hadn’t been told that and asked what it meant. He said he wasn’t sure but thought she had another two or three days to live.

“This was seven months before she left us. It’s a worldview that says, that’s just the way it is. It doesn’t take into consideration the person’s spiritual and emotional powers, or treatments such as diet, acupuncture, medicinal herbs. They reject things they don’t know because of ignorance.”

In Yakobson’s view, the general disdain for alternative medicine is also partly the fault of its practitioners. “It’s an unregulated field. It’s like my destiny in life: Anyone who has nothing else to do becomes a storyteller, or produces plays for children or becomes an alternative healer. Maybe he knows how to hammer a nail, so he does acupuncture. It’s awful. That’s the [real] enemy of alternative medicine, even more than Western medicine.”

Ultimately, the Yakobsons took their daughter to Switzerland for special treatment. “That was the ultimate treatment for this cancer. There had been ego battles between the doctors until we reached that point. You think those things only exist in the cultural field? This was a neuroendocrine cancer, nothing is known about it. But I wouldn’t give up. If there’s anything that’s keeping me going now, it’s that at no point did she see in my eyes that I had given up, because if I had given up and lived with it, I would have gone crazy. I didn’t believe it. Not for a second.

“On the last day, it was like the stories you always hear, that people feel better. She was in a big room, and Zohar was in a bed on the other side of the room. Tal said, ‘Dad, listen, I want you to help me get up now, I want to go to Mom’s bed.’ I said, ‘Tal, that’s going to be kind of hard today.’ She insisted and walked about 15 meters, sat down and said, ‘What do you say about that?’ Then she asked us to get her some French fries. She felt like eating French fries, she was sick of all the healthy hospital food.”

The family’s experiences brought about the desire for change. “You see how they fight for the kids in the oncology ward, there’s a fire in their eyes. Tal was lying in a room with an 80-year-old woman on her left and a 70-something-year-old woman on her right and she said to me: ‘Dad, I’m 25 and what I’ve already seen in my life!’ Sentences like that are like nails. Why shouldn’t young people in the middle of their lives not receive special treatment? You come into the oncology ward and see everyone looking down, including the nurses and the staff. They don’t look in your eyes, it’s awful.”

The Yakobsons have been establishing their center with the help of Dr. Yair Maimon, who researches and teaches Chinese medicine.

Yakobson: “In the lab, you see crazy things. Chinese herbs have never been studied using Western methods. Maimon has been focusing on cancer for 12 years. We went to China, to an integrative hospital: That’s a Western hospital where the oncological department has Western doctors and also healers that use a Chinese method. You see patients lying there and getting herbs intravenously, and they have all their hair on their head. It’s a different language, it’s Chinese in every sense. That was the only thing Tal believed in.”

Where is the funding coming from?

“We’ve raised funds, partly our own and partly from friends, but we need a lot of money, donations. People in this country don’t donate enough. I suppose people who contribute want to know they’re doing so for a major cause, and an effort like this is like walking on eggshells – because of the bad reputation of Chinese medicine. Because of all kinds of charlatans, people are wary of these things, but we’re backed by all the hospital’s microscopes. The best healers are waiting to work here. The money will decide whether we have two acupuncturists or 10, and whether we have really good psychologists. Not psychologists who say, ‘Let’s prepare you for dying.’ In oncology, the medical staff sets up a gate for the Angel of Death to come in, instead of kicking him down the stairs. That should not be their agenda at all. You should treat patients up until the last minute, forget all the failures you’ve experienced. But it’s true that it’s easier said than done. It’s also true that not everyone can be an oncologist. So, you should work in the lab. The patient wants to see the eyes of someone who’s fighting for his life. Tal understood everything. I would say to the doctor: Do you really realize who she is? We’re nothing compared to her, she’s powerful. And he had this kind of sober look, I could read what he was thinking.”

Yakobson says the hardest question anyone can ask him is “How are things?”

Is it better not to ask? “No way. I always tell my students that if you’ve risen in the morning and opened your eyes, then that’s it, you have to justify the day with joy. I said that when Tal was here, and after she was gone, I thought, how can I say that now. But you have to have meaning; otherwise, what’s it all for? I still say that to them.”

Three flowers

Tal Yakobson is buried at the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv. When she was still undergoing chemotherapy, artist David Wakstein, a good friend of the family, made her an offer. “He had a huge mosaic work in which one strip was left blank and he said to her, do what you feel like on it. She filled up the entire strip with three flowers. Before we made the tombstone, David called and said he had cut off everything Tal did and suggested we install it on the stone we put there. Her friends said, take a stone from the Jordan, and we went along with that idea. We talked a lot with her friends, they’re really special, all those activists.”

The family inlaid the tombstone with two flowers from the mosaic; the third is framed on the living room wall. “It’s like she made her own tombstone,” says her father. “Twice a week, I go there to water the plants. She’s buried right next to Arik Einstein. There were lots of aloe plants that we planted there, and I would talk to them personally. At Arik’s funeral, they trampled it all. Lior said to me, ‘Dad, don’t go, call the gardener, tell him to go plant new ones. Don’t go see it.’ I didn’t go. I didn’t want to see what happened. For me, it was part of her. The gardener said: Calm down, I’m replanting it all and it will be nicer than it was before. I told him there had been aloe plants there that would blossom every year on the anniversary of her death, and he said: There’s one in the corner that’s going to blossom in a week, right on time.”

Yakobson’s new books suggest that there are some things that are always there, even if you can’t see them. And, of course, that there are some things that cannot be explained.

Yakobson: “Zohar was born in Morocco, and until the age of 13, her family would go to all these kabbalists. For her, it’s built-in, it’s part of her life. She’s not an Ashkenazi like me. I come from the home of Lithuanian Jews for whom going to cemeteries is idolatry. My dad was a Holocaust survivor. He lost a wife and a small kid; we were his second time around. They were three brothers in one labor camp. My dad didn’t say one word about what he’d been through, not one. Sometimes I would hear him crying at night in a nightmare. I would place a giant pillow over my ear because it was a wail that would rip your soul apart.

“When he died, I asked one of his brothers how they had the strength to go through the day at the labor camp. And he said, ‘We saw and we didn’t believe what we saw.’ When Tal got sick, I adopted that approach. It’s so true, we didn’t believe what we saw. There was this one doctor who would always say to me: Yankele, be realistic. I said to him: I don’t want to be realistic, do you think you would have become a professor if people before you had been realistic? Why come down from the trees if you’re realistic? There’s nothing realistic in what’s going on.”

Yakobson recalls that he asked his daughter’s doctor where the cancer came from. “He looked at me and said, ‘from Allah.’ You go and treat with medicine something that comes from Allah?”

Do you know where it came from?

“I have some ideas. Tal’s way of life … she didn’t accept the world. She wasn’t the kind of person who sees that someone is in pain and says too bad and goes on; she didn’t go on. It irritated her in a very deep place. When she was in ninth grade, I went to pick her up from the police station. She had been arrested while demonstrating against the Trans-Israel Highway. I always said to her: Tal, you’re right, but don’t be angry. She was angry.”

He looks at the turned-off TV set in his home and says that on memorial days, when he would see on television people who had lost their children, he would ask himself how they could go on living. “On the last Memorial Day, I was watching television and again I asked myself how they could go on living. I forgot for a moment where I was.”

Yankele Yakobson.Credit: David Bachar
One of Yakobson's books.

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