Tel Aviv, Israel – Hannover, New Hampshire – Beirut, Lebanon
Serafina Cohen was born to an American, Susana Feinberg, and Saul Cohen, a Dutch Jew. Saul, a Holocaust survivor, had seen his faith evaporate in the furnace of Europe’s great catastrophe that claimed the lives of his parents, brothers, and his precious sister. Any fire of belief in God’s purposes in this world were snuffed out with the ashes of Auschwitz and Saul retained his agnosticism throughout the rest of his life. He made his way to America beleaguered and longing for a new life. Shortly after arriving in Brooklyn, Saul met Susana – the daughter of a prominent rabbi. It was no small scandal in the Feinberg family when Susana married an irreligious Jew, having refused engagement to the young rabbi her parents preferred. Saul was an accountant and Susana was completing her PhD in literature from NYU when the couple met and married soon thereafter. The Feinberg’s actively encouraged Saul and Serafina to move to Israel, hoping this might inspire them to a deeper faith. They loved life in Israel, but religious impulse never returned to Saul and Susana found her spiritual needs nurtured by the power of literature. The Cohens emigrated to Tel Aviv, where Saul opened an accounting firm. Susana returned to New York for the birth of Serafina, remaining there with her family for Serafina’s first year, while Saul continued to work to build his firm into one of the most prominent in the region.
Serafina was raised in Tel Aviv’s White City in relative affluence. Susana brought her up to be fiercely independent and passed her love of literature on to her daughter. Serafina’s freedom grew as a young teenager when Susana became a tenured professor at Tel Aviv University, teaching modern literature. Afternoons after school until her parents returned home from work belonged to Serafina, and she took full advantage of city life with a cadre of friends that seemed to grow with Tel Aviv as it developed. Many of her afternoons were spent reading on the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean as her friends conjured up whatever trouble could be found along the sandy beaches.
However, Serafina was almost eighteen when the Six Day War had broken out, and the conflict had a profound effect on her as it underscored the tenuous relationship her people had with the land and their neighbors. Her father knew all too well just how fragile the Jews place in the world could be, and the summer of 1967 spelled the end of a world that she felt secure in. In the face of such insecurity, people have one of two choices – shrink away in fear and paralysis, or live with the fear and accept life’s grand adventure with all of its dangers. Serafina chose life and lived with a boldness that enabled her to navigate many dangers throughout her life.
After her military service, Serafina left Tel Aviv to pursue her education in America. She enrolled as an undergrad at Dartmouth, studying literature, much to the pleasure of her mother. Life in a sleepy New England college town like Hanover could not have been more far removed from the near-constant specter of conflict in the Middle East. The rhythmic flow of New Hampshire’s seasons and the relative seclusion of the college created a fertile ground for her mind to grow and expand into new vistas. She didn’t give much thought to the future during those years, preferring to drink in the possibilities of discovery that an education was meant to provide. However, in the fall of her junior year, something quite unexpected happened. She met a man that managed to capture her interests.
Elias El Rassi, a Lebanese national, was the son of a Presbyterian pastor in Beirut. His family were Maronite Christians who had lived in the region for centuries. However, his grandfather had converted as a teen through the efforts of Western missionaries, and had become the first Lebanese pastor of his congregation. In his final year of medical school at Dartmouth he crossed paths with Serafina one night at a frat party. She normally would have avoided these kinds of parties, preferring the comfortable seclusion of her studies, but her girlfriends insisted that she needed to loosen up and enjoy herself for the evening. Elias wasn’t exactly unknown by Dartmouth’s female population. His dark complexion, pale brown eyes, and bright smile made him something more exotic than the typical Anglo-American fare at the college. This afforded him liberties with Dartmouth coeds that he took full advantage of in the way only pastors’ sons do. Naturally, Serafina despised him, holding Elias in the kind of suspicion that only belied attraction.
Elias was taken with her immediately. Her olive skin seemed to glow. The light brown hair that fell to Serafina’s shoulders accentuated a grace of movement that spoke of a deeper grace. Beneath the suspicion that lit her brown-green eyes something shone, an invitation he was determined to accept. Midway through the evening, he made his way over to her after several moments of eye contact had already been shared. He approached her with an extra beer in hand and offered it to her as he introduced himself. She hid behind a stern façade when she told him her name, informed him that she already who he was, and refused the drink. Elias grinned, undaunted by her apparent lack of interest and proceeded to pour the beer down his throat in one fluid motion, crush the cup, drop it at her feet as he nodded and winked and left without a word. She wouldn’t have told him her name if she wasn’t interested. He knew he had her, and it was only a matter of time. Serafina knew it, too. The game of cat and mouse persisted through the fall, blossoming into romance during the spring semester.
Elias took on his residency in Boston, planning on becoming a trauma surgeon. He and Serafina married after she graduated and he completed his residency. They had plans to establish a life in America, however Elias’ father took ill, so they moved to Beirut. He took a job in the ER of a local hospital, and she worked at the school that was founded by his father’s church. Serafina’s parents were thrilled to have her so close to Tel Aviv, and returning to the region, even though it wasn’t Israel, felt like a homecoming. Living in the salt-filled air of the Mediterranean coast served as a reminder that some piece of her would always belong in the Levant. The fact that she was a Jew and Elias was a Christian didn’t ever occur to her to be much of an issue, since religion was never a crucial part of her upbringing. She enjoyed teaching English at the Presbyterian school, and slowly assimilated into the life of the church. The process of her conversion and baptism seemed to her to be unobtrusive and natural; if Elias’ family were Presbyterians, she would be one as well. She also felt like faith would be a heritage worth passing along to her children since she was raised with none. Neither she, nor Elias were particularly devout Christians, but even then, the seeds of faith were being sown into her.
Life in Beirut erupted into chaos a little over a year after the El Rassis’ arrived to care for Elias’ father. An ugly incident between Palestinian Muslims and Lebanese Christians in the Ain el Rammenah district had descended into violence that sparked decades of conflict. Elias and Tina moved out of the city limits to Rabieh, one of Beirut’s eastern suburbs, where Christian communities were safer from the sectarian conflict that raged in the heart of the city. Elias took on the role of trauma surgeon and battlefield medic as the conflict unfolded. As danger mounted in the first few months of the war, Elias insisted that Serafina go to her parents in Tel Aviv. She spent most of the second year of their marriage and part of the third away from Elias, with only sporadic contact with him. She would have stayed with him and constantly insisted upon returning. The war zone did not frighten her and it had created incredible needs in their community that she felt a responsibility to. But Elias would have nothing of it; he would not compromise her safety if it was within his power to ensure it.
Serafina was able to return in the months following the establishment of an uneasy peace to find Beirut had been torn apart by the fighting. War had ripped out this jewel of the Mediterranean and crushed it underfoot. The citizens of Beirut carried the hollow stare of war with them wherever they went. Serafina’s responsibilities increased upon her return. Not only was she back teaching, now out of the home of a wealthy patron, but she was also a caretaker to almost a dozen children who had lost parents in the war. As much as she valued the sense that she had useful work to focus upon, it was the intensity of the love and affections she shared with her husband that lit her world. Their love had grown in proportion to the uncertainty brought on by the war. The threat of death loomed over their young marriage as it did over the whole region, but they made their way forward with courage, determined to forge a life together in the face of a world gone mad.
Within a year of her return, the war took another ugly turn. What would become known as the Hundred Days War began in earnest in February. Elias was called in to serve as a medic in Beirut near the Green Line that ran north to south along Damascus Street, which demarcated eastern Beirut, held by Christian forces, and the west, held by Islamic ADF forces. He was desperate to get Serafina out to her parents in Tel Aviv, but it took him to the end of March to secure passage on a boat out of Beirut’s harbor south to Tel Aviv. There was a finality that loomed over the parting on the night before she left.
“I do not want to leave you again Elias,” said Serafina, “Besides, what about my students and the children I am taking care of?”
“It is far too dangerous for you to stay,” he answered, “I would never forgive myself if something happened to you. You must take the ship tomorrow to Tel Aviv, and stay until it is safe.”
“Why don’t you come with me?”
Elias answered, “I cannot leave my people. Besides, there have been many wounded, and there will be more. I am one of the few Christian doctors left in the region and they need me.”
“They are my people, too,” she protested, “I am tied to them just like I am to you.”
“I know,” said Elias as he held his hand up to her cheek to catch the tears streaming down her eyes, “But for me, for our love, I am asking you to go. I cannot lose you.”
“What if I loose you? Have you thought about that?”
“Of course I have. But, should that day come, I know you will be able to carry on and forge a new life. I fell in love with you because you are strong and free.”
“Not because you thought I was pretty?” she said, smiling through her tears.
“Well,” he said lifting her chin and kissing her lips softly, then pulling back and giving her the same wink that won her years ago, “That too, I suppose.”
Serafina held Elias in an embrace that lasted through the night. They filled themselves with each other’s love as they held on to the hope of a future together that was dimmed by the fog of war. In the morning before dawn, he drove her through the streets of Beirut, past military checkpoints, to the harbor where she would sail to Tel Aviv. Before parting, he held her close and kissed the top of her head as she wept on his chest. There was a tender fury in his arms that stoked the fire that already burned inside of her, and the warmth of that embrace never left her.
“Dr. El Rassi,” gruffed the general of the militia, “What is a Muslim doing in a Christian med station?”
“I can see that,” said the general with a mixture of exasperation and fury, “But, why is he here?”
“Because he is dying, and I am a doctor.”
“But, he is Muslim and this is a Christian med station.”
Elias answered with a sharp question, “What color is his blood?”
“That is beside the point,” answered the general, as he pulled out his sidearm and pointed it at the Muslim man bleeding on the cot, “We will not give aid to our enemies, not while I am in command.”
Elias responded by reaching behind his back for his pistol and aimed it directly between the general’s eyes, “You have a choice General. Either no one dies here, or you both do. Make your choice quickly. As you can see, I am very busy.”
The general lowered his weapon, and turned to walk away.
He made only a few strides toward the door when Elias said, “And never again will you tell me who I can and cannot treat in my med station. You are a soldier and your job is to take life, this I understand. But understand, I am a doctor and my job is to save life. It matters little to me whether it is a Muslim life or a Christian life; if they are under my care, I will do all I can to save them.”
The general stormed out of the med . Elias tended to the Muslim’s wounds, as he did for the dozens of wounded that poured into his station over the next several days. There was a silent understanding that he would not be crossed, and that whoever came to his station would receive treatment.
A week later, Elias was out on the Green Line pulling a wounded combatant to safety when he caught a bullet in the neck that severed his spinal cord. He was killed instantly. The bullet was shot from the east, not the , and the pattern of his blood sprayed on Damascus Street bore silent witness to the stern warning to any Christian who would cooperate with the enemy. No words were ever spoken surrounding the circumstances of his death, but the fighters along the Green Line heard the message loud and clear.
The weeks following Elias’ death were filled with a vacuous, ever-present ache while Seraina waited for the chance to go back to Beirut to visit her husband’s grave. She could not return before his funeral, and could not pay her last respects before his body was returned to the earth. The conflict continued to rage as April waned into May, and safe passage into Lebanon was still weeks away. Grief washed over her in successive waves, penetrating the empty spaces inside her, sounding and resounding in painful echoes. Elias’s love was her home, a refuge in the uncertain world, a light now swallowed by darkness. All that remained now were the haunting shadows of memory that crept slowly over that vacant space. Days before Elias died she discovered she was pregnant with his child. She decided not to call him with the news right away so that she could share the joy of the pregnancy with him in person. Sorrow pierced her pregnancy; even the happy anticipation of a firstborn child was mingled with bitterness.
She returned to Beirut in June, after the Hundred Days’ War concluded in yet another tenuous peace, and paid her respects to her fallen husband. She stayed five months with Elias’ family mourning the loss with them and tending again to the children that had become refugees of war. Having some work to direct her efforts toward kept the insane moments of rage and grief at bay. The news that Serafina bore his child in her belly, a son, while she remained in Beirut, was the singular consolation in the whole tragedy. The brilliant and all too brief life of Elias would live on in his son, a childof great destiny, Elias’ family was convinced.
During her days in Beirut, Serafina planned on sharing the name of her son with Elias’ loved ones. Her plan was to name the boy after his father. She shared her intentions with Elias’ aging parents. However, her father-in-law suggested a different name; one that he felt would honor his son and speak to the destiny that he sensed upon the boy.
“Malachi,” the aging pastor said, “Malachi should be his name.”
“Why not Elias, like his father?” asked Serafina.
“Malachi spoke of Elias’ return before the coming of the Lord. In this son, Elias will return. Every time you look in his eyes, you will see his father, and remember the man, his goodness, long after the pain of his death has passed. He is your messenger of memory and a future hope. I do not know what purposes God holds for my grandson, but even now, I sense a greatness in him; not only his father’s greatness, but a greatness wholly other, something that is his alone.”
“Malachi Elias is his name,” said Serafina as her father-in-law’s words struck a previously unknown chord within her, “What destiny lies before him is for God to reveal.”
Serafina returned to her parents’ home in Tel Aviv. On a stormy night in January, Malachi was born. For Serafina, Malachi’s birth stood as the nexus of the past year’s sorrows and the future promise as she forged a new life with her son. She remained in Tel Aviv for eighteen months after Malachi’s birth, much to the delight of Saul and Susana. As Malachi grew past infancy, his personality began to emerge. Even as he became a toddler, he displayed an expansiveness, living with a carefree tenacity, full of his mother’s fire and his father’s fearlessness. Restlessness grew in Serafina, as much as her parents wished her to stay and raise Malachi, she felt a pull back to America. Serafina began a master’s program at the Tel Aviv University in humanities, but she felt uncomfortably confined in her parents’ home. She looked for schools in America that would accept transfer credits that she already completed. With Saul and Susana’s reluctant blessing and financial support, she decided to return to school to complete a master’s in English. Longing for somewhere far beyond the griefs that lingered in the Levant, she decided on a program at UCLA and in the fall, before Malachi turned two, she left for Westwood with a year left to complete her degree.