On March 21, 2002, a suicide bombing on Rechov King George in Jerusalem killed three people and injured eighty-seven. Though our apartment’s proximity to downtown Jerusalem is such that I recall hearing the explosion’s dull thud, the only news item I retained from that particular pigua (bombing) was tangential: A few minutes before dying, a couple in their twenties had just received the results of an ultrasound test. To their amazement and joy, the woman was pregnant with twins.
There must have been something in the papers about a seven-year-old by the name Yehonathon, blinded and paralyzed by shrapnel. But during an intifada, details such as these escaped me; no sooner would one tragedy burst onto our consciousness than it was already being eclipsed by another family’s catastrophe.
Dr. Avraham Bauer, originally from Chicago, graduated Harvard University in 1987 and earned his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. He moved to Israel in 1992, married in 1994, and four years later founded the Israeli biotech company BSD, whose research lab he directs in downtown Jerusalem. The Bauers have four sons; Yehonathon is the eldest.
In the remodeled Jerusalem home in which his Yemenite wife, Revital, was born and raised, we take seats at the dining room table. Passing in and out between the kitchen and the rooms in back, Revital, petite and quick, apologizes with a flash of a smile for not joining us; she’s getting the kids ready for a family wedding. “And actually,” she pauses long enough to add, “b’emet [truthfully], I don’t like going back there.”
The boys show up fleetingly in the dining room, one after the other, to eavesdrop on the conversation for a few seconds before moving on. Their playing was rambunctious and noisy out in the courtyard, but their dark eyes are shy and smiley when warily appraising the stranger writing about the pigua. I wonder which boy is Yehonathon, but none of them seems the right age—he must be about thirteen by now. I ask Avraham if he’s here.
“Yes, he’s around.”
“Can I speak to him, too?”
“Well … Yehonathon doesn’t talk about it.”
“Does he know why I’m here?”
Avraham rolls his eyes and smiles. “Oh yes.”
One son, introduced as Yehudah, about five, climbs up onto his father’s lap and turns to regard me with a mix of curiosity and boredom. No sooner does our conversation resume than Yehudah starts fiddling with Avraham’s ears, playing with his shirt buttons, carrying on a running monologue all the while. He’s not an English speaker, this little boy, but his determined interruptions tell me he knows what we’re talking about. His father keeps lifting him off his lap, telling him to go “find Ima,” and finally Yehudah does depart, whereupon the story unfolds.
“It was a cold, miserable day, the week before Pesach, and Yehonathon hadn’t been feeling well. It turned out he had strep throat; he could hardly speak. I’d just taken him to the doctor and had a prescription in my pocket—I was going to stop off at the pharmacy to have it filled—and the two of us were on our way home, walking hand-in-hand along King George Street.
“The guy blew up three feet behind us. I didn’t see Yehonathon fall down. I was pushed forward by the shockwave. Picture someone pushing you powerfully from behind, and you have no control. I was thrown like a sack of potatoes about five meters forward and the next thing I knew, my arm was bleeding.
“I knew what had happened; it didn’t take much to figure it out. The initial experience was of a complete, total silence. And perfect stillness. Everything was in smoke, like a fog, and I couldn’t see anything. Nothing was moving. It was surreal. There was no sound.
“People around the corner had heard a massive explosion, but in the immediate area of the bombing where all the air was blown out, there was no sound. We heard nothing.
“I looked for Yehonathon and couldn’t find him. Then I saw him, lying face down on the sidewalk. I lifted him under the arms and held him up high in front of me, his legs dangling, to look at him. He was moaning. That was the first sign of life.
“I ran with him away from the site of the bombing and put him down on the sidewalk. Two policemen were already there, and a group of people had gathered around, wanting to help. Yehonathon was moaning but not fully responsive. I saw that [someone was] taking care of him so I ran back to get my bag with my cell phone so I could call Revital. Everything was upside down. I couldn’t hear, and I was screaming into the phone. I told her we had been in the bombing and [people] were taking care of us.
“They put Yehonathon on a stretcher. He was the first one to be put in an ambulance. I started to climb in [to the ambulance] but they closed the door and started pulling out—they didn’t know who I was. I screamed, ‘Ani ha’abba! Ani ha’abba!’ and they stopped and let me in, and we took off for the hospital.
“In the ambulance, the medics stripped Yehonathon but couldn’t find anything wrong. There were no outward signs of anything. He was oscillating between being totally quiet and flailing his arms around and screaming, but the medics still couldn’t find anything wrong; that’s when they checked the towel under his head.
“It was totally drenched with blood. It was a lifetime, that ride in the ambulance. All of Jerusalem passed by me through the [ambulance] window. I remember how the [window] was speckled with rain.
“I had to call Revital again—I had to tell her where they were taking us—but all the lines were down. All over Jerusalem people were calling their loved ones. So from the time I made that first call to her, from the site of the bombing, until I called her from the hospital, Revital went through twenty-five minutes, not knowing what the situation was.
“At Hadassah Hospital, the CT scans showed that Yehonathon had suffered a severe brain wound. A piece of shrapnel had passed through the right occipital lobe of the brain and had lodged itself in the front cranial bone. They determined that Yehonathon was paralyzed on the left side and that he was blind.”
Revital stops on one of her trips through the dining room to remark that from their house, they had always heard all of the bombings that took place downtown. “When Sbarro was bombed, we saw the smoke. Moment Café, we also heard it. We heard the bombing of the Machane Yehudah shuk. We don’t know why I didn’t hear anything this time. Min haShamayim [from the Heavens]. I was trying to call Avraham back and couldn’t reach him. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what to do, where to go. My brother rushed right away to King George Street but couldn’t find them. When I finally arrived at Hadassah, our rav was already there. He was in shock.”
“We were in a new world now. We were speaking a new language and using a new currency….Everything had already changed.”
Ironically, one week before the bombing, explains Revital, she had asked the same rav a she’eilah (question): should they move to the States? “Most of the bombings had been downtown, where my husband works. [Every possible route from our] house to Avraham’s lab on HaRav Kook Street had had bombings, so we wanted to know: what should we do?”
Avraham points out that it is halachically forbidden for a Jew to intentionally put himself in danger, and the couple had sat down with their rabbi to go over the relevant laws.
Speaking a New Language
“In the hospital,” says Revital, “they took me to see my husband—they were preparing him for surgery. Then they took me to see my son. He was already anesthetized, and they had put a brace on him, so I just gave him a kiss. For a few hours I was jumping back and forth between the two of them.”
I ask Avraham about his own injury and he shows me a disfigured forearm. “Two screws went through my left arm. One went in here and passed through fully, coming out here, and the other one lodged in the wrist. Each one knocked out one artery. The bombing was at 4:20 in the afternoon. My surgery, which involved two skin grafts and a vein taken from my left leg, started about 6 PM and lasted about six hours. At 2 AM they presented me with this.”
He holds a rusty screw on his palm for a moment, looking at it with wry thoughtfulness, as if it were some ancient archaeological find. He appears to be remembering something, and with somewhat of a smile, he relates that Friday morning, the day after the bombing, he got a voicemail message from his optometrist. “He didn’t know we had been in the pigua. He called to say my contact lenses were ready.”
“On a normal day that would have been important to me: my contact lenses were ready. Now it had no meaning. No meaning at all.
“That’s when I realized: we were in a new world now. We were speaking a new language and using a new currency. Where we were now, the lenses were worthless. Everything had already changed.”
The Beginning of the Recovery
After the bombing, Avraham tried to maintain an internal balance between objectivity and hope.
“The morning after the bombing, when I saw Yehonathon for the first time after the first surgery, his eyes were completely gray. His head was terrifying to see. I sat next to him and said Shema. Then I went outside and cried.
“When they took me to my ward after my own surgery, there was a young soldier in the bed opposite mine who had suffered a penetrating head wound, very much like Yehonathon’s. His condition is definitely better now, but at that time he was close to a vegetative state. During the week that I was in the ward, I had a hard time interacting with him and his family. I didn’t want to graft his situation onto Yehonathon’s developing condition.
“Any conclusions I could have come to, or was frightened of coming to, based on the condition of someone else who had gone through a near-identical event, would, in fact, have had no meaning. What Hashem plans for one person is by no means a sure indication of His plans for anyone else. Hakadosh Boruch Hu decides each person’s fate. But [at the time] I was trying not to equate ‘brain injury’ with ‘vegetative state,’ trying with all my might to keep my distance from that conclusion.
“For the first three days, Yehonathon was unconscious, and was medically sedated to allow the fluids in the brain to drain and the fluid pressure to return to normal. When the doctors decided to bring him out of the sedative [state], the entire staff came in to watch. They wanted to see how he would react to questions, and to some general commands—to see what he could and couldn’t do. First they asked me to interact with him. Then they asked Revital to say something, and at the sound of her voice, Yehonathon opened his eyes and said, ‘Ima sheli. Ani ohev otach.’ Everyone in the room started crying. That was the beginning of the recovery.”
A Positive Report
For the next few weeks Yehonathon was bedridden, blind and unable to move his left side. “He had tremendous head pain,” says Avraham. “He cried. He would scream from the pain. We didn’t know if it was part of his healing process or if there was something inside that needed medical attention. So they would run tests on him, and do CT scans almost every day. They couldn’t tell what was going on in his brain.
“One of my roommates at Harvard had become a brain surgeon. A week and a half after the bombing he got in touch [with me], and offered to look at the X-rays and all the medical material. And from then on, he stayed in touch with Yehonathon’s doctors. After looking at the material, he said to me, ‘His vision is going to come back—his left side function is going to come back. And he’ll walk again.’ Revital and I knew this was no guarantee. We knew my friend wasn’t a prophet, and he himself had said, ‘I’m not God.’ But we knew, too, that he wasn’t saying it to make us happy. He made his prognosis according to the path of the screw through the brain, and it gave us tremendous hope. Hearing a positive report was tremendously helpful. On the other hand, we didn’t know how significant it was, how seriously we could take it. Maybe it didn’t even mean anything at all. There was no way of knowing.
“You try to look at your child objectively, but you see him suffering. You can distract him. You can read him stories. We spent time—hours and hours—reading stories to him. But when your child can’t see and is writhing in pain … there’s a limit to how much comfort you can provide.
“Months later, someone told us that a well-respected medical expert had come by the Pediatric ICU during those first hours and after examining Yehonathon, said one thing: ‘Ain ma la’asot’ [Nothing can be done]. Baruch Hashem, it’s a good thing no one mentioned [this] to us at the time.
“And Hashem had the last word. After three and a half weeks at Hadassah, Yehonathon could be made to sit up in a wheelchair. Then Yehonathon was transferred to Alyn Hospital, and on his first night there, I was sitting by his bed when all of a sudden he said to me, ‘I see it says Spring on the juice bottle.’
“I was in shock. It was overwhelming. From then on, more and more, he liked describing the world around him. And shortly after that, he started walking again.
“A month or so later, prior to the operation to remove the shrapnel from Yehonathon’s brain, the surgeon was reviewing the CT scans and said, ‘You know, if I had to put a bullet into someone’s head, this is the exact path I would have chosen—it missed the blood vessels and critical regions.’”
At this point in our conversation, a fawn-like, almost ethereal boy—something about his hesitant step tells me instantly this is Yehonathon—passes unobtrusively through the dining room with a lowered glance in my direction. He proceeds to devote his attention to setting up a trick he wants to play on his brothers, which involves draping a large paper contraption over the front door that will fall down when someone walks in. I realize that what I saw as hesitancy might actually be a slight limp, and ask Avraham about it.
“Yes, he does have a slight limp. He’s still in rehabilitation to bring back feeling and movement on his left side. And he doesn’t see the extremes of the visual field. But he’s fine, his mind is completely fine.
“These days we have to decide how much rehabilitation to insist upon. He comes home from his Talmud Torah and he wants to play, he doesn’t want to go to a clinic for exercises, and we have to remind ourselves, he’s a child. We have to let him be a child.”
Perspectives on Faith
I ask Avraham if he ever asks Hashem why his family had to go through this experience. He thinks for several moments, then replies:
“In any situation such as this, you ask, ‘Why did this happen?’ And you can answer it in one of three ways. The first answer is, ‘It was a random event. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ The second is, ‘It happened because of the terrorists; terrorists have the power to hurt people.’
“Now, if you believe either of these two, you’re repudiating the Torah. The Torah is full of pesukim [passages] that [say] there is no such thing as chance, and that there is nothing separate from Hashem. Would anyone say, ‘Hashem was out having coffee when this happened’? And if you believe that the terrorists possess power independent of Hashem’s Will, you’re denying hashgachah pratit [Divine Providence], and that Hashem is One.
“There’s only one other possibility: that everything is from Hashem and Hashem is only good. Everything evil in the world is under Hashem’s total control. The Ramchal writes this, and a person has to see this very clearly, that all is controlled by Hakadosh Boruch Hu. Even though we may not understand it, this is the foundation: that everything that happens is for the good. Even though it was very painful, and we did a lot of crying, what we went through was only from Yad Hashem [the Hand of God]. On this, there was never a moment of doubt.”
“Never a moment of doubt?” I ask. “Really, Avraham?”
“In daily life I can miss a bus. Someone can dent my car. Do I believe these events are too insignificant to have been directed from Above? Faith is always needed in our lives, but sometimes it’s challenged to the nth degree—the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges associated with life and death issues. Let’s say a person has a fire extinguisher in his house. It can be there for years but it’s only when fire breaks out that he runs to use it.
“When something like this happens, either your faith is going to get stronger or you will fall apart. You either start having all kinds of questions and all kinds of doubts, or you throw yourself onto Hashem. There is no middle ground. With a five-second event, our lives were turned upside down. If you don’t have faith, you can [end up] jumping out the window.
“There were a lot of crucial decisions to make every day—there are still a lot of decisions—and the only thing we could do was turn to God to show us the right path. “The most difficult decision we had to face came two months after the bombing, when the time came to remove the shrapnel from Yehonathon’s brain and we had to choose a surgeon. The enormity of this decision overwhelmed us. We didn’t know where to turn. The person [most] widely known for his expert advice on medical matters was the one who had said, ‘Ain ma la’asot.’
“That day, as we were struggling with this question, Revital’s sister was waiting in line at a local copy shop and heard the man ahead of her talking about his daughter’s successful brain surgery. She asked him who the surgeon was and he said, Dr. Shlomi Constantini of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. We called Dr. Constantini, went for an appointment, and decided to take him as our surgeon. Had we undertaken an international search for the right surgeon, had we sought the best possible advice from experts all around the world, the operation couldn’t have had a more successful outcome.
“We derive from our faith a perspective, not only on what happened to us but on how to go forward. Ultimately it is a great challenge to be a Jew, to take the principles we affirm both in our davening every day and in our learning, and actually apply them to life. A person goes through an experience like this and has to decide: Am I going to abandon what I believe? Am I going to throw my fate onto the doctors and the politicians?
“Would the values and ideals imbibed comfortably at home or on a padded seat at shul stand up to challenges of this ‘new’ world? Our lives were no longer that which they had been, and as is always the case during crisis or tragedy, the ability of other human beings to understand and empathize is limited, giving rise to a new awareness of one’s aloneness with Hashem.”
I return to the question of whether Avraham ever asks Hashem why this had to happen, and he replies:
“When something bad happens, you should look around and say, ‘What is God trying to tell me?’ This doesn’t mean, though, that we’ll get the answer. The Choftez Chaim says, ‘We can’t understand.’ But we can try to understand what we did that could have helped bring this about, to cause us to be tested in this way.
“There are two ways to relate to God. You can see Him as omnipresent and omnipotent, the Creator and Ruler of the entire world, and I’m a little thing in His Creation. Or you can say, ‘I’m a genius, I can understand.’ In the bombing, there were eighty-something people injured, and if you were to interview all of them, you’d get a lot of different perspectives on life, different answers. Maybe there are some who would say, ‘If I’d only been walking a little faster, I wouldn’t have gotten hurt.’ In a moment of truth such as this, a person finds out where he hangs his hat.”
“So, Avraham,” I ask. “Aren’t you and Revital glad to see where you hang your hats?”
Avraham thinks this over, then replies: “A person can’t give himself a report card. Only Hakadosh Boruch Hu knows how we’re actually doing. We hope that we’re better for the experience, because you either come out better from something like this or you come out more detached from Him. [There’s] no way to come out as we were. No way you’re ever going to be the same person.”
Striving for Achdut
“What would you say to the rest of us, as a result of what you’ve experienced?”
“I’m the last person to give advice, but what I would say is, strive for achdut [unity]. It was a horrific event, but we also saw it bring out tremendous ahavat Yisrael [love for one’s fellow Jew], and in other circumstances we wouldn’t have been zocheh [worthy] to see it.
“In the case of the horrific No. 2 bus bombing, perhaps you’ll recall that most of those injured were Chareidim, but after it happened, someone from the anti-religious Shinui Party came to visit the wounded at the hospital. He must have felt, ‘Human beings have been hurt, I want to go see them.’ That’s what I would hope for. That we should do more of this for each other. To recognize our oneness with one another without the fire, without shrapnel. Achdut without terror.
“Our family received a tremendous amount of siyata d’Shamaya [help from Above]. The families here in Sha’arei Chesed cooked food for us for two months, every single day. They gave us meals for Pesach, for Shavuot and for every Shabbat. When I told them they could stop, they said people had already cooked and frozen meals for the next two weeks—the people who organized it arranged meals two weeks ahead of time—and would feel bad if we didn’t use it, that it meant a lot to them.
“People babysat for the kids at home so my wife and I could be at the hospital. Others slept at the hospital so we could be with the children at home. For Revital and me to be able to get some sleep like normal people … and the fact that our kids at home could see both their parents….They gave us financial assistance. Clowns and magicians came in to do free performances for the kids….
“I wouldn’t wish what happened to us on anybody, but I must note that my wife and I were overwhelmed by the true warmth and sincerity, the help we received from friends and from complete strangers.
“One boy from Yehonathon’s class said he wouldn’t make a birthday party until Yehonathon could come. Each child gave him a note [saying] how much he missed him and presented him with a gift—something new or something dear. My wife and I were in tears, watching the sincerity of the kids. They cared very much about Yehonathon. They said Tehillim. On Shabbat they came all the way on foot to see him.
“On Pesach we say Hallel to praise Hashem for our deliverance from Egypt, but ignore the fact that it was He Who sent us there. If someone locks you in a closet for three days you’re not going to hug and kiss him when he lets you out. So why are we so grateful?
“One answer that’s given is this: it says in the pesukim that when we went down to Egypt we were seventy souls, but when we left, it was as one, a united people. That’s what happened with this bombing. We all came out better than we came in.”
Revital, now ready for the wedding, has come back in to the dining room and sits down by her husband. “Years before the bombing,” she says, “our rav told us, ‘A person should feel the Hand of Hashem on his shoulder.’ He told us to feel that Hashem is with you in times of distress. After the bombing, people would say to us, ‘Hashem is with you.’ But we really did see it. We really felt Hashem. I want to feel this sweetness of closeness with Hashem without the suffering.”
Sarah Shapiro is the author most recently of Wish I Were Here (Artscroll 2006) and The Mother in Our Lives (Targum/Feldheim 2005).