TEKOA - There is no direct path from the playground to the cemetery in Tekoa. It is a circuitous route, with the paved section quickly giving way to rocky ground. One winds through a junkyard, overgrown with weeds and filled with car carcasses, cuts past a boutique organic winery, stumbles alongside beds of asparagus and peas, and finally rises upwards to a small clearing surrounded by pines.
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The journey takes an especially long time if hundreds of people are making it at the same time, as happened today in this West Bank settlement of about 700 families, located in the northern Judean Hills some 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Jerusalem, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) northeast of Hebron and a pebble’s throw away from the Palestinian town of Teqoa.
It takes even longer if the crowds are walking slowly, reluctantly following an orange stretcher upon which lies the body of a 26 year old, draped in a dark blue shroud — a young woman, one of their own, who everyone seems to remember just seeing, just saying hello to, just smiling at — “was it not moments ago?” they ask themselves —and whom no one here is in any hurry to see buried in the ground.
Dalia Lemkus was murdered Monday, on her way back home, as she stood waiting at a hitchhiking station outside a neighboring settlement of Alon Shvut. The terrorist, identified as 30-year-old Maher Hamdi Hashalamun from Hebron, first tried to run her over with his Subaru minivan. He then stopped his vehicle, got out and stabbed the dark-haired occupational therapist who worked at a Kiryat Gat kindergarten in the neck, over and again. Two other passerby were wounded before Hashalamun was shot by a security guard and gravely wounded himself.
“Bye Dalia, Bye Dalia,” wails Brenda Lemkus, barely able to catch her breath as the first shovel of rock and sand are piled on her daughter’s body. “Bye baby. Bye baby.” The sun beats down and everyone looks worn out. It’s a long, and not at all obvious, journey from the shiny swings of the playground to this somber resting place. “Thank you for being you,” says the pale mother to her daughter. “Forgive me for everything I did wrong,” she weeps. “We won’t stop doing anything because of this,” she then vows, gathering some composure.
Born, like her husband, in South Africa, Brenda speaks in English, her accent evident even after decades of living in Israel. “This country belongs to us,” she calls out in as loud a voice as she can muster. “God forgive me,” she concludes, breaking down all over again, “but I hope he dies.”
It was a sentiment echoed widely here. “What kind of country gives medical treatment to terrorists?” one man asks his friends. “This country. Only this country,” they respond bitterly. “It’s too bad the security guard missed by a few centimeters,” added Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who lives in a nearby settlement, during his eulogy.
Nachum Lemkus recites the Kaddish for his daughter, his eyes hidden under a baseball cap and behind dark glasses. Then the mourners scatter, laying down stones and pebbles on the grave, as is the tradition, as they leave. Dalia’s five siblings linger. One is inconsolable. Another sits quietly in a white plastic chair. Brenda sits cross legged on the ground, her billowing black skirt gathering dirt. She smoothes the earth alongside the new grave, picking up and releasing the sand. Nachum reaches down to help lift her up, but she doesn’t even notice.
The chatter on the reverse trip to the playground veers off into the mundane: who is coming for dinner this Shabbat or whether one has frozen chicken left in the freezer or not. English mixes with Hebrew, Russian with French. It’s a jumble of winter tights and summer sandals, long skirts, cutoff jeans, head coverings, knitted kippot, baseball caps, side locks, tzitzits and baby carriages — all heading back to regular lives. A beggar passes through the crowd asking for alms. Dalia’s work mates wrap their arms around each other’s waists. The soldiers on hand relax.
Back at the playground, the podium for the eulogies has been moved, and a man is sitting on the grass there strumming a guitar, his girlfriend’s head on his lap. It’s Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changin.” An older man walks by with a sack of potatoes and a shopping list for the minimarket. A Taekwondo class is starting soon at the community center.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, it’s almost time for the funeral of Almog Shilony – a 20-year-old soldier stabbed to death by a terrorist at a Tel Aviv train station Monday -- a few hours before Dalia was targeted. A different set of mourners are just beginning to gather at Mt. Herzl, soon to start what will be another slow journey.
A woman mourns during the funeral of Dalia Lemkus (Photo by AP)
Mourners at the funeral of Dalia Lemkus (Photo by AP)