My rabbi and dear friend, Rav Menahem Froman, was well known throughout the Jewish homeland, even – and this is quite an accomplishment for a rabbi – to the Israeli secular public. His long flowing grey beard and peyot (over the last few months of his life turned completely white and considerably shorter from chemotherapy), his large, crooked nose and his somewhat otherworldly demeanor gave him a Gandalf-life aura.
While only a few months ago he was crowned by Ehud Banai, one of Israel’s top musicians, as the “Rav of Israeli rock-and-roll,” he was most famous for being a “settler rabbi” who was (as far as the country of Tel Aviv is concerned, quite ironically) fervently engaged in inter-religious dialog dedicated to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. He counted Sufi sheiks, Fatah generals and assorted Hamas members as close friends. After the unfortunate Mavi Marmara clash, he traveled to Turkey to meet with Erdogan. And a few weeks after he held my second son on his lap during his brit milah, he met with the Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Nineteen years ago, when I was studying and teaching in the Hesder yeshivah of Otniel (just south of Hebron), I was privileged to be his driver – shuttling him back and forth from Tekoa to the yeshiva where he gave a weekly class. Our time together was mostly spent ‘speaking in learning,’ and over the years we became very close. One October afternoon in 1994, he needed me to take him to Jerusalem where he was to appear on the evening news. This was part of his effort to help negotiate the release of the Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman, who had been kidnapped earlier that week and was being held captive by the Hamas. Rav Menahem had been speaking with his contacts non-stop since then and wanted to present a proposal for an exchange on the air.
Now, Rav Menahem, for all his engagement with the secular world, actually had a rather dim view of what I would call its spiritual quality (or perhaps lack thereof). Therefore, before making any television appearance he would make sure to visit a mikveh in order to purify himself for the meeting with what he called, the sitra achra, or as George Lucas would put it, the dark side. Unfortunately, on this particular afternoon, we wasted time tracking down the key to the Otniel mikveh, which was, in the end, being refilled. Time was short and we needed to get to the Jerusalem studio. He deliberated over different options, and someone suggested that perhaps we could stop on the way at one of the rural Arab homes that lined the road between Otniel and Hebron. Many had wells in their yards and we might find one where the good rabbi could immerse. We set off on our journey as the sun began to drop behind the hills.
After a few miles, we came upon a likely candidate: A stone farmhouse, its dirt yard home to a number of chickens and a donkey. Rav Menahem told me to pull in. The owner came out to meet us as we stepped from the car. Unsure of the proper etiquette in this situation, I slung my Uzi as far as I could behind my back and smiled broadly. The rabbi began to speak, explaining why we stopped: he was looking for a well in which to bathe.
Now, in the West, I’m sure that such a scene – an armed driver accompanied by an odd looking religious fanatic coming a’calling unannounced – would have played out quite differently. But here, our uninvited entrance was cause for the most effusive greetings. Our surprised host introduced himself and with a smile larger than mine invited us into his humble home. Perhaps we would like some tea. It was a scene out of Vayeira, the Torah portion of Abraham and the three angels fame. Rav Menahem demurred, explaining that he was in a hurry and just needed a well. “Ah, a well – of course I have a well…you want to drink?”
“No, to bathe.”
Perhaps unsure that he was really hearing correctly, he barked a few words of Arabic at one of his by now many gathered children and sent him to fetch a flashlight. It was already dusk and he wanted to show us the well, which we had, it seemed, oddly confused with a bathtub. While his son went in search of the light, he continued, all smiles, to inquire whether the Rabbi wouldn’t come in and have a bite. During these few minutes I stood off to the side. Our host waited until the rabbi’s back was turned and suddenly stepped over to me.
Through clenched teeth and a fixed smile, his eyes glaring in the fading light, he whispered to me, “What are you doing here?! Do you want to get me killed?! This is all I need – Israelis visiting me at night. Everyone will think that I’m in cahoots with the army. Get out of here, now. Go. Go!” He motioned with his hands as if he was shooing away an unwanted cat from the sofa, before turning back to the rabbi. Again, seemingly calm and unhurried he took the flashlight from his son and shone it on the well. “This is my well, my friend.”
I stepped up to Rav Menahem and gently took his arm. “We don’t really have time. You’re on in less than an hour and it’ll take us that long to get to town. Let’s just go.” I pulled him to the car, while rolling my eyes at our visibly relieved host, who continued to voice his disappointment that his esteemed guest was leaving without so much as a glass of tea.
We made it to the studio just in time. Rav Menahem laid out his plan – the release of Sheik Yassin, on the condition that he would renounce violence, in exchange for Nachshon. Our drive was for naught, though. Two days later an elite IDF commando unit would storm the home where our soldier was being held. In the ensuing firefight, the unit’s commander would be killed and ten of our soldiers wounded. The Hamas men guarding the captive – all killed as well. And Wachsman’s bullet-riddled body (according to some, showing signs of earlier torture) would be recovered for burial. Jihad Yarmur, a member of the Hamas cell that had kipnapped Wachsman was released from Israeli prison two years ago – part of the exchange for Gilad Shalit.
And my friend, my rabbi, after a difficult struggle with cancer returned his soul to his Creator last night.