What Dov Lautman Meant to Me

This leading Israeli industrialist's tenacity in the face of illness is an inspiration for all.

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When my mother was told she had ALS back in 2010, the prognosis we were given by her doctors was grim and unforgiving: This neurodegenerative condition, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has no cure. It affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, gradually paralyzing the entire body, except for the eyeballs. My mother would not be able to speak or swallow. She would not be able to kiss her own grandchildren. In those first days, my family and I tried to come to terms with this devastating forecast.

I Googled ALS frantically for words of optimism that I could repeat to her, I begged the doctors for some kind of solace, but received only sad shakes of the head and gentle advice to make her as comfortable as possible. She was 73 years old at the time, a feisty, funny woman who rarely paid a visit to the doctor, who volunteered in a hospice for the terminally ill in Jerusalem and whose only fear was that my father would die before her.

So I continued to search desperately for some fragment of information that would give her hope, a concept I had always regarded as something of a cliché. Whilst surfing the net on my laptop outside the neurological ward at Hadassah Ein Karem, I came across the name Dov Lautman, the iconic Israeli industrialist.

But, I learned, he was not just a successful businessman. A social activist, he had received the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, founded the peace initiative Dor Shalom, and was a fierce proponent of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Like my mother, he had overcome personal tragedies in his life. Most importantly, as far as my mother was concerned, he had ALS, diagnosed in 2003.

“You are in good company,” I told my mother as she lay in her hospital bed, giving in to the prognosis. Not only was Dov Lautman still alive, eight years after his diagnosis, but he was continuing to work – this time for the good of others. “He likes classical music,” I whispered, “and you will always be able to listen to that.” She smiled at me faintly. “So, it’s not too late for me to win the Israel Prize after all,” she said.

Soon after learning about his condition, Lautman sold the highly successful Delta Galil company that he had founded back in the ‘70s, devoting his life to educational projects and the promotion of Jewish-Arab coexistence. One afternoon, soon after we brought her home from hospital, I showed my mother a clip of Lautman receiving the Israel Prize at a ceremony in 2007. She watched him walking slowly up to the podium, his hands waxy and immobile at his sides. Lautman had already lost the ability to use his arms but he could still walk, and smile, and help others. And he danced afterwards, sort of, at a party held for him.

By that time, my mother was already confined to a wheelchair. The disease was spreading more quickly through her body than we could have ever imagined. In my mind, Lautman was like a small light at the end of a tunnel. “If he can do it, so can you,” I would tell her. Indeed, my mother was encouraged by Lautman’s perseverance and his down-to-earth philosophy of life. She was aware that he was prepared to try anything possible to keep going, to keep busy. In fact, he claimed that keeping busy was what kept him alive. So my mother kept busy, too. She played Scrabble, she listened to classical music, dictated emails and put on a brave face when speaking to her brother in England.

Nevertheless, she remained adamant that she did not want to be intubated when the time came, did not want to be kept alive at all costs. She hung on for the bar mitzvah of my son, held five months early with the blessing of my parent’s local synagogue, so that we could be together in happiness one last time. I agonized that I was playing with fate. I did not know whether she would make it, but she did.

When her respiratory system finally collapsed one bright Saturday morning, exactly a week after the bar mitzvah, I called the doctor in a panic. He arrived at our house in Mevasseret Zion within minutes. By then, my mother could no longer talk or even nod her head when the doctor asked her what she wanted. It was up to me and my shocked father to say it: Let her go. Eleven months had passed since her diagnosis.

It has been two years now since my mother died. Since then, I have followed Dov Lautman with interest, always marveling at his incredible tenacity for life. He somehow reminded me of my mother, of the albeit small portion of optimism she had managed to summon up, and this comforted me. Last Saturday, Dov Lautman succumbed to ALS. In a recent interview, when asked how he would like to be remembered, he said, among other things: “that I had a good heart.” My mother had a pretty good heart, too.

Joanna Chen is a poet and literary translator whose work has been published in literary journals in Israel and abroad. She blogs at www.joannachen.com.

Dov Lautman: Suffering from ALS, he received the Israel Prize in 2007 , his hands immobile.Credit: David Bachar

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