On September 18, 2002, Yossi Ajami, 36, of Jerusalem was killed when terrorists opened fire on his car near Mevo Dotan, close to Jenin. Although Aliza, his widow, has built a stable home for their four children, twelve years later, the family still struggles with the fiery pain of his loss. “How would Abba have reacted?”“I’m beginning to forget what Abba looked like.”
“I’ve learnt to give them their space and let them cry,” says Aliza when I meet her in OneFamily’s office in Jerusalem.
Making Israel’s Roads Safer
Yossi worked for the Barashi construction firm and the company was paving a bypass road around the Palestinian town of Ya’abad, eighteen kilometers west of Jenin. In 1981, Mevo Dotan was established south of Ya’abad and north of Shakeed. Then, in 1993, Al Rihan was built. Jews living in these yishuvim needed a safer way to travel and Yossi was helping to make this happen. As manager of the project, he stayed in an apartment nearby and commuted home to Jerusalem twice a week. With the Second Intifada at its zenith and the additional security risks involved in his work, Yossi often had a Druze guard by his side. Awareness of danger was something he lived with.
The Blackest Day
Then again, so did all Israelis. The day Yossi was killed there were two other attacks: a taxi driver was burned in his car, and a policeman was killed and three people wounded in a suicide bombing at a bus stop at the Umm al-Fahm junction close to Jenin. “It was a time when we lived with the sounds of bombs and sirens and the shaking of our houses,” recalls Aliza.
Five months earlier, Aliza gave birth to Mai, who was born with a congenital heart defect. Mor, their eldest daughter, was 11-years-old; Tzach nine-and-a-half and Eden eight. Thanks to the support of their families, particularly Aliza’s mother and younger sister, the family held together through a lengthy hospital stay, Mai’s heart operation when she was but a month old, and a long recovery period. By the time Mai was five months old, they had just settled into some sort of routine with Yossi once again sleeping over at work.
“The day he died, he woke up early to leave. Sleepily, I watched him kissing Mai’s chubby thighs. Because of her heart defect, she always slept by my side. I warned him not to wake her up,” recalls Aliza. The rest of the day was a harbinger of disaster. Aliza kept remembering the dream she had had the previous night: the family was sitting shiva for Yossi. Tzach refused to go to school and cried that this was going to be the blackest day of his life. Mai refused to stop crying. “It had been a long, hard day and I wanted Yossi at my side. At that moment, I decided that living with him absent for half the week was too difficult and I wouldn’t let him go back to work. I kept trying to call him, but there was no answer,” recalls Aliza. At about five o’clock, two policemen, a medical team from Magen David Adom, a social worker and the owner of the construction company knocked at the Ajami’s door. Aliza’s children realized what this meant before she did: “I told you it would be the blackest day of my life,” screamed Tzach. The family was told that two hours earlier, while traveling near Mevo Dotan, terrorists had opened fire at Yossi’s car. He was hit by a bullet and wounded. He lost control of the car, which overturned by the side of the road.
As family members arrived and hundreds of people began milling around outside, Aliza refused medical treatment for herself and directed the Magen David Adom paramedisc to her baby who had developed a fever. She retreated into a bedroom with her children. “I wanted to protect them, to embrace them with love,” she recalls. Her initial reaction, a kernel of maternal support, became the leitmotif that has seen the family through the years.
Jews all over the world were reeling as the death toll rose during the Second Intifada. For most of us, the pain faded in the maelstrom of daily living. For the victims of terror, however, the pain remains.
Moving The Family Forward
For the first two years after Yossi’s death, with the added pressure of Mai’s on going heart surgeries, Aliza was happy to have her mother and sister move into her home for support. Aliza and the children slept in one bed. Her nights were broken by their sobs and by the two-hourly feedings that Mai still needed.
From the start, OneFamily actively supported the family both financially and emotionally. “I could call Mindee Levinger, our Polish mother, and she’d be by my side within five minutes,” says Aliza. “OneFamily didn’t give me pity, but understanding. They see me, not what I’ve been through.”
Despite all the help, after a year of keeping things together, Aliza fell apart. “For three months, I stayed in bed, cried all day and stuffed the windows with pillows to protect my family,” she recalls. Luckily, Aliza was able to realize she wasn’t being fair to the children. She summarizes her struggle to recover by saying simply, “After a visit to a psychiatrist, I began medication and pulled through.”
The next three and a half years passed in a blur of Mai’s medical complications, including several strokes, additional surgeries, and ongoing infections. During this period, Aliza realized the time had come for her mother and sister to leave because she needed to take charge of her family.
Mor, who was then fourteen years old, fell into a depression. She refused to go to school, spending her days on the couch with a blanket. On good days, Aliza convinced her to attend classes for an hour, while she waited outside. Her recovery began with the birth of a niece. Aliza, who had been present at the birth, instructed Mor to get dressed and take a cab to the hospital. “Seeing new life awakened within her the will to fight for her own,” explains Aliza.
Tzach too withdrew into himself. Once a popular boy, he refused to socialize, spending his days at school or opposite his computer screen. Food took the place of friends and his weight ballooned to a hefty 180 kilos. “His fat became his belt of defense,” says Aliza. After being refused admittance to the army because of his weight, at the age of twenty, Tzach underwent surgery and is now learning to be a paramedic.
Eden was the closest to Yossi and walked around hugging his photo to her chest. A month after his death, the eight-year-old told Aliza, “I’m wearing a mask and you won’t see me crying.” Today Eden, who is in the army, is the child Aliza worries about the most. “I’m waiting for the mask to drop,” she says.
One Life for Another
A year after Yossi’s death, when his childhood friend was killed in the suicide bombing attack on the number 33 bus, Mor asked her mother, “Where is Hashem?” Aliza pauses thoughtfully before she continues. “I told her that for every bad thing, there is a good thing that balances it out,” she says. “I believe Yossi gave his life for Mai. In fact, my uncle won’t look into her eyes because he says Yossi is looking through them.” Aliza continues, “After Mai’s third operation, when we weren’t even sure she would make it, Tzach and I were keeping a night vigil. Tzach woke me up and told me, ‘Daddy’s here. He’s wearing a white shirt and talking to Mor.’” Although Aliza didn’t see Yossi, she asked Mor what Yossi had said to her, “He called mechaitaloch,” she answered. It was a Kurdish word she had never heard her father using.
As we close our interview, Aliza mentions that Yossi’s killers were released in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Perhaps, I think, Yossi gave his life for more than his daughter.