An Israeli story of death, longing, and Gandhi
Balfour Street seemed to go on and on endlessly. Daniel Reuven, the grandson, I was told, of Gandhi’s physician, Dr. Solomon Abraham Erulkar, lived somewhere off this street.
Reuven had mentioned where, but he spoke so quickly it was not clear to me. Somehow I wound up a few feet from the sea in Bat Yam, where the bus driver, hatchet-faced, in the Israeli bus driver tradition, evicted me. The stillness of the water tempted me to abandon my Israeli Gandhi story and hunker down on the beach before catching an afternoon bus back to Jerusalem, a city badly in need of a sea, or even a lesser water body, to soften all that stone, all that holiness.
My cell phone rang. It was Reuven telling me breakfast was ready.
“Dr. Erulkar was not my grandfather,” Reuven said, greeting me at the door of his small, sunlit apartment. “He was my grandfather’s cousin.” The retired gray-haired security guard for Bank Hapoalim saw my chagrin, and quickly added, as if pumping air into a flattened tire, “I feel great pride that someone in my family was Gandhi’s doctor. The big Gandhi gave his life for his country, but gave his body to a Jew to take care of.” He hoped that would satisfy me.
To make sure, he plied me with hummus and pita and omelets inside bright circles of lettuce and tomatoes. A frequent visitor to India, I was familiar with the Indian service-provider’s penchant to please, even when the service provided was simply submitting to an interview. He was born on Givat Brenner, one of Israel’s first kibbutzim, to teenage parents from Bombay. I first heard about Brenner in my high school Hebrew class in New York, the same time I heard about Gandhi. A story of Jews from Russia, Poland, Germany, somehow making the land of Israel flower beneath their scholarly European hands.
“My parents were the first Indians at Givat Brenner. The kibbutz wanted new blood. They were getting tired of only Europeans. My mother raised flowers in the greenhouse.” His mother, Shoshana Reuven, died at nineteen of a liver disorder when her son was just six months old. He showed me the painting of her on his wall. Wide-eyed, dark, remote in her classic Indian beauty. Sixty years after her death I noticed Reuven trying to battle back a tear in front of a stranger.
I resisted the urge to gently touch his shoulder. He told me he had his daughter make him a puzzle from the painting that he called The Riddle. He found it therapeutic to put the pieces together. “How can you miss someone you never knew?” How can a journalist obsessed with one story be so easily Shanghaied by another? I contemplated life’s treachery: A young woman hauls herself from Bombay to Brenner for the sake of a future that lasted less than two years. Did she have time to imagine herself growing old in Hebrew, forgetting words in Marathi?
“She is buried in the Givat Brenner cemetery,” said Reuven, “two graves away from a famous leader of the Hagannah (the Jewish paramilitary organization that fought for independence from the British), Yitzhak Sadeh.” His tone of vindication was passed to me like a bruised trophy. He pocketed the small satisfaction of his mother’s closeness in death to one who had a long, full, fully lauded life. Perhaps, in taking note of him, visitors to the grave site might also stop and wonder: Who was this woman who lived just nineteen years? What was she like?
Before I left, Reuven remembered to tell me something he’d forgotten: “At some point, Dr. Erulkar changed his surname back to Reuven, so the world would know that Gandhi’s doctor was Jewish.”