Almost every appreciation of Nechama Rivlin says the same thing, that she was humble in a way that elevated all of the rest of us. She had no airs, she was not fancy, she was direct.
A childhood friend said that when she would invite the old gang, women who were friends on the moshav almost 70 years earlier, to the President’s Residence, she served them cake she’d stayed up late the night before baking herself.
Shelly Yachimovich, the Knesset member and former head of the Labor Party, who was a close friend, said that she spoke to Nechama Rivlin on the phone just a few days before she died, and Nechama Rivlin told her she was reading David Grossman’s new book but it’s become hard for her to focus to read. Yachimovich offered to come to the hospital to read the book aloud to her. Nechama Rivlin said that David Grossman made the same offer but she couldn’t possibly trouble him that way.
Grossman himself told the paper how every so often, Nechama Rivlin would call to say that “she wanted to give one of my books as a present to a leader from another country, Trump or the King of Spain. She would phone and ask me to sign the book and write a dedication. She said, I’ll send you a book to sign. I said to her: No need, I have lots of copies. I’ll sign one and you can give it. She said, Absolutely not. I’m buying a book with my own money, and you’re signing it. And that is what happened.”
It is true that Nechama Rivlin was without pretense, and that there was a decency to most everything we saw her say and do. A couple of years ago, a radio interviewer asked if people make comments about the whirring portable oxygen tank that, for the past few years, she needed to breathe, owing to the pulmonary fibrosis she was diagnosed with a dozen years ago. She said, oh yes, all the time. What do they say?, the interviewer asked. Oh they ask questions like, where did you get it?, how much does it cost?, is it a good one? Is it durable? And what do you tell them? Well, she said, they ask these questions because they have a parent who has trouble breathing, or a husband or a child. So I answer the questions. I tell them what store I bought it at, and ask them to say hi for me to the man that runs it.
It is hard to pinpoint just what it is about all this that so many of us here, almost all of us, find so beautiful. The head of Naamat, Israel’s National Organization of Women, said yesterday that “Nechama Rivlin was the Beautiful Land of Israel, the Israel that we miss so much, especially in these days that are characterized by crass and divisive discourse.” A lot of people have said the same thing, that Rivlin’s death is heartbreaking because she somehow embodied something that we have lost.
And I think that’s wrong, maybe even exactly wrong. I think we love Nechama Rivlin not because she is who we are not, but because she somehow is who we are.
She’s those kids clamoring to get the army to let them spend a year before they enlist, so they can live in a run-down apartment in a run-down town, teaching math or art to kids whose parents can’t buy them books.
She’s Maria Nahmias from the torch-lighting ceremony, who, after surviving the Holocaust raised 53 Jewish and Arab foster kids.
She’s Miriam Schler, director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Tel Aviv, who spends all day helping women cope with having been assaulted and then gets up the next day and does it again.
She’s Dudi, my mail carrier, who phoned me in DC because he knew I was abroad and worried a package I got would be returned; is there a neighbor he could bring it to?
She’s the person who notices that you’re confused at the bus stop and says, let me help you.
She’s the random mensch we come across so often here, that – like David Foster Wallace’s fish – we fail to see is there at all.
Nechama Rivlin touched us so much because she did not think that being decent, here, in this place, is somehow special. And, yes, I do see that Nechama Rivlin was the best of us. We loved her for that, for who she was. And we loved her, too, because she showed us what we are, at our best.
Yehi Zichra Baruch.