“My father died three times,” said Gilad Sharon. He recited the Kaddish as 350 invited guests stood solemnly at an evening of remembrance for Ariel Sharon, Israel’s 11th prime minister, on Feb. 26 at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The first time his father “died,” Gilad said, was in the War of Independence when he suffered three bullet wounds in the first Battle of Latrun. “All around him were 139 comrades who fell. He said that was the last time he’d see them. His own rescue on the battlefield was miraculous. That day a rule was set in the army: never leave a man behind.”
The second time Ariel “died” was in 1967 when his first son Gur was accidentally shot in the head while playing with an antique gun with a friend. Ariel saw countless wounds in his life and knew this was hopeless. He cradled his 11-year-old son in his arms and watched his life slip away. “There is nothing sadder than the death of a child,” Gilad said, a tear on his cheek. “The pain never diminishes, but my father kept going.”
The third and final time came on Jan. 11, after the 85-year-old leader endured eight years in a coma.
Consul General Ido Aharoni told the audience how Ariel loved classical music, nature, and animals. And he loved to eat. It showed in his ample girth. Asked why he doesn’t wear a bullet-proof vest he cracked, “They don’t make one in my size.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who saluted Sharon as prime minister of Israel and the Jewish people, had known Sharon since the Six-Day War of 1967. “He took us on tours of the land, always with a map in hand to make us realize how vulnerable Israel is with such narrow borders.”
I can attest to that. On a UJA/Federation fact-finding mission in 1990, we visited Alfei Menashe on a hilltop in Samaria. Sharon was waiting for us on the outskirts of this sparkling modern village. In a month he would become minister of housing and construction under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
“Look,” he said, “you see Tel Aviv in the distance?”
His aides held up an oversized map to show how close Arab missiles would be to Tel Aviv and Haifa if they were to control this elevation in the West Bank. He maintained that Israel could not afford to allow an Arab presence overlooking the coastal plain.
Elie Wiesel said that he accompanied this “eternal hero of Israel” in January 2005 for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. They walked in profound silence, in deep contemplation, on the ground that had been sprinkled with the dust of human depravity.
“Auschwitz for Arik was a discovery,” said the Nobel laureate. “It opened his eyes to the danger of relying too much on other people.”
At Shabbat meals with their wives, Marion Wiesel and Lily Sharon, they would sing Hasidic zmirot [songs]. Lily came from a Hasidic background and knew all the melodies. Wiesel said, “Arik could carry a rifle but he couldn’t carry a tune.”
On Tisha B’Av philanthropist Ira Rennert and his wife Ingeborg would find themselves with Elie and Marion in Jerusalem. They spent hours with Sharon at the King David Hotel. They’d ask him what he’d like to eat and he’d say, “If you’re not eating, I’m not.”
“Arik was the personification of the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish people in their God given land of Israel,” said Ira, who sponsored the memorial event with Ingeborg.
Among the notables who crammed the Fifth Avenue sanctuary were Sam Domb, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Cantor Joseph Malovany, Rabbi Yaakov Y. Kermaier, Gail Propp, Michael Miller, Abe Foxman, Ken Bialkin, Betty Ehrenberg, Richard Stone, Mel Salberg, Seymour Reich, Gail Perl, Eddie Trump and Eugen Gluck.
Rennert extolled Sharon for his concern about people. He marveled how Sharon took care of his staff. He made sure they were served before he sat down to eat. If a woman comes in he would always stand and greet her.
Rennert related the story of a young Israeli woman who was imprisoned in India “for good reason.” Her mother pleaded with Sharon to intercede. He called the prime minister of India: “That Israeli girl, what does she know? Please let her go.” The next day she was back with her family.
“Arik’s memory,” Rennert concluded, “is not only a blessing but an example that we are our brother’s keeper.”
He was aptly named Ariel, “lion of God.”
Photo by Tim Boxer