Farewell, Dear Friend

For Dina Lee, the dream of a better world was a way of life, and pain could not stop her.

Twenty years, one week and one day ago, I visited the isolated house on Mount Meron for the first time. The date was April 5, 1992. I remember it because my birthday is April 4. As a birthday present, I asked the person who was supposed to be the love of my life for a trip to the Galilee, including a visit to my friend Dina, who was then living with her partner ‏(and later the father of her only daughter, Romy‏) in a house on Mount Meron. He was in charge of looking after the nature reserve there. Dina raised horses and dogs, and grew tomatoes, and planned to build a B&B in Beit Jann. In the meantime, she hosted friends at her home and tore around the roads in a Land Rover. That was when she was in the rural period of her life.

Eleven years earlier, she was living in Rehavia, in Jerusalem. I had come to sit by her bedside in Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, after she was found to have cancer of the lymph nodes. Cancer, as far as we knew, was a disease that you died from, a grown-ups’ disease. “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” was the opening line of Erich Segal’s “Love Story,’ the first best-seller we’d ever heard of and which Dina and I had studied for the oral matriculation exam in English. Like the heroine of “Love Story,” Dina, who was just a year older, was diagnosed with cancer. But unlike Jennifer Cavalleri – who, like Dina, was beautiful and brilliant and loved Mozart and Bach – Dina fought and got well.

Neri Livneh - Avi Ofer - April 12, 2012

From then on, until just a short time ago, Dina was for me proof that one could triumph over anything, that cancer wasn’t necessarily a death sentence. Dina was the first person who ever told me, before many more who would follow, before the line became a cliche, that the disease had changed her life, for the better.
For many years I was angry at those people who refused to accept the fact that Dina had completely recovered, those people who would ask how she was in a special tone of voice, and then, just to be sure, would place a hand on her shoulder, gaze into her eyes and ask quietly, “No, really, how are you?” − as if, having been sick once, she was doomed to forever play the role of patient.

We met in our first year of university in Jerusalem. Dina always claimed that she remembered me from back in elementary school. But she wasn’t in my class. She didn’t even live in the same city. “She was the princess of Nahariya,” someone who knew her from there told me this week, and by the time she came to university, she had already managed to see some of the world. She had a car when no one else did. She had family in Switzerland. She’d even been to Japan. I remember how stunned I was when I walked into her parents’ house in Nahariya for the first time and saw that it was literally just a few steps from the sea. Dina loved the sea.

Famous artists used to give recitals at the home of Ben-Ami and Devora Friedrich − he was a plant manager; she a piano teacher and socialite. But Dina was the total opposite. Instead of a “socialite,” she became a social activist. She wanted to create change. I was envious of the beautiful house and lifestyle, but from the very start of our friendship, Dina always talked about how all the beauty and affluence into which she was born had mostly made her feel guilty about those who were not as fortunate. Dina turned her life into an attempt to atone for what she saw as an injustice that she was a part of – by having been so lucky as to be born into a rich family, as an Ashkenazi Jew, half-Swiss even, part of the elite, and thus part of the injustice done to Arabs.

I remember her first home in Jaffa. It was a rented apartment on Mendes-France Street, practically at the waterline. “Looks like you’ve established a community center here,” I said to Dina, as little Romy ran about chattering with her neighbors in Arabic and Dina, as usual, was trying to bake something. Dina always loved having guests over. Even in her student apartment on Hapalmach Street in Jerusalem, she would serve elaborate meals featuring things like grapefruit peels stuffed with Waldorf salad, or zabaglione made with Marsala wine − dishes none of us had ever heard of before, but then, Dina was a woman of the world.

Because of the cancer, the doctors had given Dina very little chance of getting pregnant. “When you get out of the hospital, you should open a stand that sells lottery tickets. You beat all the statistics,” I told her when I came to see her in the hospital, when she was eight months pregnant and recovering from a stroke. When I arrived, she was already gaily roaming the corridors, the queen of the ward, as if nothing had happened. Life in Jaffa, combined with her studies at Alma College, another bout of cancer she overcame, and separation from her partner − all contributed to Dina’s transformation into a key activist in the effort to repair relations between the Arab old-timers and Jewish newcomers in Jaffa, into a fighter for social justice and equality. She learned Arabic and then, together with a partner, founded the Yafa Cafe, a coffeehouse and Hebrew and Arabic bookstore that soon became a genuine Arab-Jewish community center, with Arabic classes, performances by Palestinian and Jewish artists, and joint celebrations. Later, she split from her partner and Dina from Jaffa became known as Dina from another coffeehouse, Dina’s Cafe, on Yehuda Hayamit Street. The big blue eyes, fair freckled skin and broad smile remained, but Dina became “baladi” − like the vegetables in the salads she chopped and prepared by hand for visitors to her cafe.

Even though I had known for two months that Dina was this time doing battle with a truly vicious type of cancer, I still hoped that, like always, she would beat the odds yet again. But then, on the day after my birthday, 20 years after the first time I visited there, Dina’s ashes were scattered on Mount Meron.