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Voices

Much like Ulysses, Eli was an adventurer

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I hadn’t thought of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses for some years. And yet, there I was in the middle of a conversation with Avi Kay, the father of the late Eli Kay, when the words started to swim in front of me. I couldn’t help it. Because much like Ulysses, Eli too seemed to “drink of life to the lees”, meaning he squeezed the maximum out of every experience he had.

And much like Ulysses, Eli was an adventurer.

I knew that I didn’t have the vocabulary to express what I felt when we spoke. I knew that there was no comfort I could offer Avi. I was acutely aware that I couldn’t relate to the pain that he must be experiencing as the father of a son who was murdered on his way to work by a Hamas terrorist two days prior. And I knew that the conversation wouldn’t be an easy one. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would end the call feeling inspired by a 25-year-old that I didn’t have the privilege to meet.

The funeral had taken place the day before our conversation. Along with many thousands of people, I watched how Israel came together to accompany Eli on his final journey in this world. Many, I imagine, hadn’t heard his name until Sunday, and yet they left their homes, their towns, and their work to be there. They showed up because they cared.

On Sunday, when my son called me to tell me the tragic news, I struggled (unsuccessfully) to contain my emotions. I was acutely aware that I could never comprehend the loss that the family must have been feeling. But when I saw the outpouring not only from the South African community but those in Israel and around the world, I realised that I shouldn’t have attempted it. Because indeed, to some extent, the loss is all of ours.

I asked Avi what he thought defined Eli. “Joie de vivre,” he answered, only hesitating because neither of us could remember the expression. “It has to be his exuberance and enjoyment of everything that he did.” Eli, it would seem, was unafraid to face new experiences, whether it was going to a yeshiva that was higher than his level at the time, or joining the army and not settling for a unit that didn’t align with his vision.

He embraced the new. Which is why it’s unsurprising that he was the first in the family to make aliyah. And when he did so, he introduced the family to the richness of a Jewish world that they hadn’t experienced in South Africa.

I could hear the pride in his voice and the smile in his heart as he described some of the experiences that Eli had made possible. Much like our adventurer, Ulysses, he became “part of all that I have met”.

The lack of bitterness, the faith, and the strength apparent at the funeral was no different to that which I encountered in my conversation with Avi. When Avi described how Eli’s unit carried him on the final stop of his journey and that it did so held high, it was clear that it wasn’t carrying just Eli, but the entire family on its shoulders.

I don’t doubt the difficult days that lie ahead. But nor do I doubt that easier days will come and that Eli’s memory will indeed be for a blessing.

“One equal temper of heroic hearts,” concludes our poem,

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

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