I went to lunch with the same friends as usual and got back just in time to receive a frantic call from Frimet, my wife. “There’s been a pigua and I can’t reach the children.” I went directly into calm-husband-and-father mode, trying to say what I really believed: “Don’t reach for the worst. Give the kids time to call in and reassure us.”
But the call ended while I was in mid-sentence.
Jerusalem had been free of major terrorist attacks for years at that point and the grim reality of armed guards emplaced outside supermarkets and restaurants had not yet been instituted. But the massacre at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium had happened in June and the raging terrorism that the more ideological parts of the media repulsively called the Second Intifada had gotten started almost a year before. In the capital, we were living on borrowed time but we didn’t realize it.
Frimet and I phoned back and forth several times over the next two hours. Malki was the fourth of our children, the oldest of our daughters, and at 15 busy, energetic and independent. Her older brothers all checked in by phone during the early afternoon.
As a rising sense of something awful started settling in, I phoned Malki’s cell a couple of times, begging her to call back as soon as she could. I imagine Frimet did the same.
Around 4:00 pm, and although I had a string of meetings and conference calls to deal with, I left my desk to go home. Frimet called me just before that to say she couldn’t bear waiting at home, was going mad from the worry and stress and needed to do something, go somewhere. We have a very disabled youngest child who needs constant care so Frimet leaving the house meant I needed to be there in her place.
I think of myself as religiously observant and believe hashgacha pratit - divine providence at the personal, individual level - is a real thing. I was trying to negotiate private deals with the Almighty as I walked to the bus: Let her phone be broken. Please let her be in an area where there is no reception. Let her be mildly concussed.
One by one, the children arrived home and then so did Frimet, accompanied by one of our sons who had started his compulsory military service the previous day and was sent home to help with the emerging crisis. He and Frimet, it turned out, had been at one of Jerusalem’s hospitals looking for whatever there was to look for. But before Frimet left our street to get there, she encountered Avivah, our neighbor. Avivah’s daughter Michal, it turned out, was with our Malki from early that morning.
We all, in our separate private nightmares, did our praying and hoping and deal-making in the ensuing hours. As night fell, a neighbor struggled up the stairs, ashen-faced, to tell me at the open door that Michal’s name had just been reported on the news as one of those killed at Sbarro five hours earlier.
The world, already deeply grim, now looked a lot blacker.
|Sbarro, Central Jerusalem - August 9, 2001, shortly after 2:00 pm|
Another neighbor, at the time a department head at Hadassah Ein Karem hospital who had been working the phones to tap into his network of doctor contacts, walked in and told me to get ready to go with him. “I was told there’s a teenage girl on the operating table. I’ll drive you there.”
It turned out not to be Malki.
But as we stood there in the miyun (emergency room) area, surrounded by people who looked like I felt, a medical colleague of his took in the situation and as he rushed to deal with yet another emergency case, he may have said to my friend: “I don’t know what to tell you” or something else guarded and careful.
That’s how one of life’s hardest moments is engraved in my memory.
We didn’t find Malki anywhere.
A hospital social worker having what was surely one of her own most challenging days, walked over to me and, under huge stress herself, said without much ceremony: “If you’re looking for a child here and can’t find her, and it’s now nine hours after the bombing, you need to go to Abu Kabir. Now.”
I understood what she meant but demurred. “I will ask one of my sons to go. At this point, it will be better if I go back and stay with my wife at home.” As I left, the social worker calmly did exactly what was needed: arranged for a taxi and a social worker to collect two of my sons and bring them to Israel’s only center for performing autopsies and identifying terror victims. It’s known as Abu Kabir after the Jaffa neighborhood where it is located.
My two older sons phoned from there at two on Friday morning, exactly twelve hours after the Battle of Sbarro Pizzeria started and ended. They had found their sister. I recited the brief and awful prayer that’s said on learning of a death and was aware of my wife starting to scream as she ran out the front door and into the night...