There will certainly be many thousands of words written and spoken in the coming weeks and months to celebrate the remarkable life of Dr. Ephraim Even, who died yesterday at 85. My contribution would add little to the extensive Hebrew-language celebration of Rabbi Ephraim’s unique personality and contribution to the establishment and building of this magnificent country. In English, however, it is both my duty and my privilege to present a portrait of a man from whom I learned so much, who shared so much of himself with me.
I use the phrase “this magnificent country” very much advisedly, for those are the Hebrew words he used to describe Medinat Yisrael over the course of virtually every conversation I had with him – and there were many – over the last 15 or 18 years: Medinat hahadar. It is a not insignificant point, for the phrase serves to illustrate two qualities Rabbi Ephraim possessed in abundance and shared with abandon: a lifelong romance with the land of Israel that never, ever subsided, and a deep sense of humility and gratitude, first for having been born in this generation of redemption, then for the opportunity to work for its growth and success and to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
Ephraim’s sense of gratitude is illustrated most clearly by one of the earliest conversations I had with him: A two-hour interview he granted to my son, Shalev, then, nine years old. At the time, Shalev had developed a passion for the Etzel and Beginist Zionism and chose to write about the group for a school report. From our cursory interactions at our synagogue, I knew Dr. Even had been active in the pre-state underground and now served as chairman of the Etzel Veterans Organization. Rabbi Ephraim was only too happy to be interviewed, and of course his memories and stories were thrilling.
Two things stand out in my memory about that afternoon. The lesser of these is the breathtaking window he opened for us into Israel’s Greatest Generation. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that as Rabbi Ephraim talked, Begin, Jabotinsky, Yaakov Meridor and Yitzhak Shamir were sitting in the room with us, a presence so strong one would have been forgiven for thinking they were physically there.
Shalev, of course, enjoyed having a really special interview for his school project, and with an illustrious resident of Efrat to boot.
I, on the other hand, was rapt. Catch-my-breath rapt. I hung on every word as if I were standing on Mount Sinai. Decades after I had become infatuated with Menachem Begin and the Etzel (yes, the apple seems to fall close to the tree), here I was talking with a man who was not only there, but played an active role! As a journalist (at that time), I had grown accustomed to meeting and interviewing famous people and rarely became star-struck. This time, I could barely contain my excitement.
As for the substance of that session, two things stand out. One is the clarity with which Ephraim recalled the passions and disagreements that so defined the pre-state era and early years of Israel’s independence – humiliations and insults suffered at the hands of Ben Gurion and the Labor Zionist establishment, persecution of anyone with even a slight connection to Revisionist Zionism or Ze’ev Jabotinsky come immediately to mind.
The second substantive thing that stands out about that conversation is Rabbi Ephraim’s total lack of resentment at the perpetrators of those injustices. Even when speaking about Great Britain, a country that remained in his mind a hostile occupation army six decades after he and his Etzel comrades sent their army packing, Dr. Even somehow managed to weave together an uncompromising commitment to ideology and to comrades past and present without even the smallest hint of bitterness or anger. The fights had been fought, the winners declared: Begin and Shamir had become prime ministers; the Jewish state had survived and thrived. Gloating was not only unnecessary; it was beneath him.
All of which leads to the most impressive, and by far the most significant, thing about that day: the generosity of spirit that drove Rabbi Ephraim to dedicate the better part of an afternoon to a 9-year-old boy doing a fourth-grade project. It was a generosity born of a deep sense of gratitude and informed by a lifetime of dedication, inspiration, commitment, respect, intelligence, wisdom, struggle, scholarship and accomplishment. It was a generosity that stemmed from a bottomless well of joy, one that drew its waters from his passion for Zionism, for the Land of Israel, the Jewish People, and so very much more.
To be sure, Rabbi Ephraim and I differed on several issues, most prominently on the career of Binyamin Netanyahu. I knew to expect his call on our endless election days, exhorting me to vote for the Likud; he knew I would push back and argue that the current party chairman has erased any resemblance to the Revisionist Zionism he wore as a badge of honour.
But he sought my opinions nevertheless, and on more than one occasion – partly because he wanted to convince me, but mostly because he was perennially thirsty for ideas, for engagement, for discussion, debate. For the personal connection that derives from honest interaction. Rather than shy away from our differences of opinion, Rabbi Ephraim embraced them as a cornerstone of our friendship.
He did not see himself as a mentor or a role model. He was far too humble for that. He simply was one.
Andrew Friedman is the founder of Efrat Debate Workshops, a platform for preteens and adolescents to build logic, public speaking and argumentation skills. He can be reached at 0547 323 500