Fifteen years. Is it possible that fifteen years have passed since Yizthak Rabin was killed at a Tel Aviv peace rally? Fifteen years since that Saturday night when the prince of peace was killed with the words to Shir L’Shalom, The Song for Peace, bloodied and pierced with a bullet hole still in his pocket.
Two years ago my friend Mindy Binderman asked me to participate in her son’s hagaddah project by sharing with him a story about being present for an important historical moment. This was what I wrote to him:
I am so glad that your Mom asked me to participate in your school hagaddah project. I want to tell you about where I was and how I was affected when Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime minister of Israel, was assassinated.
In 1995 I was living in Israel for the school year when I was in Rabbinical School. My classmates and I were having a wonderful year – taking classes in Hebrew, shopping at the shuk, travelling around the country, playing cards during our lunch break, and enjoying Jerusalem and all of Israel. At the same time it was a difficult time for the country of Israel. It was in the middle of the second intifada and the security situation was shaky. There were some bus bombings and other terror attacks.
On Saturday night November 4, 1995 I was in my apartment on Ha Gedud Haivri Street in Jerusalem. After Shabbat my friends and I all went out to do different things for fun – I went to Israeli dancing and some of my roommates went to a café. When I got home from dancing the phone rang, it was one of my roommates calling from the café to tell me that Rabin had been shot at the peace rally in Tel Aviv and that they were coming home. He asked me to turn on the television to “warm it up.”
We were one of the only apartments that had a television but it didn’t always work, you had to turn it on half hour before you wanted to watch something. So I turned it on and waited as our apartment slowly filled up with people, some I didn’t even know who came to watch over and over again the footage of Rabin reading the words to “Shir Le Shalom”, his being shot by Yigal Amir and then being taken away to the hospital. In the car on the way to the hospital you could hear him asking, “Aifo Le’ah?” “Where is Leah,” his wife Leah Rabin. Within a few hours the news reported that he had died. Many of us called our family in the United States to tell them the news.
In Israel the school week begins on Sunday so the next day we went to our classes as usual. I remember that everyone was so very sad and our teachers, all Israelis, were trying to deal with the sad news. Our Hebrew teacher spent the day teaching us sad Israeli songs. Our Talmud teacher began by quoting the Torah “Aikh naflu giborim” this is how the mighty have fallen and then taught our regular lesson. He said that when something like this happens a Jewish response is to study and turn to our tradition. That was an important lesson that I still keep with me when something terrible happens – I take comfort in learning and teaching Torah.
When a leader dies, in many countries, the custom is for their body to lie in state which means that their coffin is left in the public building where they served so that the public can pay their respects. Rabin’s funeral was going to be on Monday so his coffin was at the Knesset all night. My friend David and I walked to the Knesset long after dark. It was the middle of the night and there were hundreds of people out all walking the same way. The streets were so crowded that we never made it into the Knesset but we spent hours listening to the teenagers sing their sad songs of peace and we watched them light yahrtzeit candles in Rabin’s memory.
School was cancelled the day of Rabin’s funeral and we went out to do the mitzvah of halvayat ha met, taking part in a funeral. We waited for hours on the street and listened to the funeral ceremony on the radio. During those hours we saw many dignitaries who had come from all over the world to attend Rabin’s funeral, they called him the Prince of Peace. We even saw the President of United States, Bill Clinton, who had come all the way to Israel to the funeral. It made us proud that our country acknowledged what a great leader Rabin had been.
Eventually the simple army jeep carrying Rabin’s coffin came through the street on its way to the military at Har Herzl. The coffin was simple, covered with an Israeli flag, and escorted by other soldiers. It was powerful in its simplicity and dignity and is an image that stays with me even until today. But even more powerful were the hundreds of thousands of people who walked behind the coffin to escort Rabin to his grave. We too joined these waves of people and got as close to Har Herzl as we could manage.
Rabin’s assassination was one of the most significant events in the story of the State of Israel since it’s founding. Being present for that event, being part of Israeli society, and being a mourner at that funeral and burial is forever bound up in my Jewish identity.