Sherri Mandell wanted to continue doing the little things for her son, Koby: taking him to school, packing his lunches, sharing the joy of bringing home a brand new DVD player.
Those dreams halted the day Koby was killed.
Mandell and her family became internationally known in 2001 when Koby and his friend Yosef were murdered in their neighborhood of Tekoa, Israel by terrorists.
But her message of turning grief into hope has helped others learn to cope.
Her 2004 memoir, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, has since been adapted into a play of the same name, written by playwright Todd Salovey and performed in Philadelphia by Theatre Ariel as part one of four of this year’s salon series.
Her book and Salovey’s play explore the depths of a grieving mother and the resilience of the human spirit.
Mandell has led many lectures and discussions about her journey of hope and healing while also leading the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs programs for other Israeli families and children who have lost loved ones to terrorism.
Most of the audience had stifled sniffles and solemn tears from the get-go of the one-woman dramatic reading, listening to the heart-wrenching story of loss performed so genuinely by Theatre Ariel’s Alana Gerlach.
Gerlach, who has been in Theatre Ariel for more than 10 years, didn’t remember Mandell’s story at the time that it occurred, but she still felt a deep connection retelling it.
“For me, I feel that Sherri Mandell is generous,” she said. “She’s so generous about her grieving process. It gave me a lot of permission to feel my feelings. I was drawn to her as a person, so then wanting to do the play was easy because I loved who she is. I also, being a person of deep, deep faith, really respect and honor her search to find God and the meaning of why bad things happen to good people, essentially.”
The Mandell family could have felt constant bitterness, anger and resentment, but instead, Gerlach said, they turned a tragedy into a blessing.
Theatre Ariel is raising funds to make The Blessing of a Broken Heart a full-blown production in Philadelphia some time in 2017.
For Salovey, he was so drawn to Mandell’s book and the way she described her journey with grief, but he was fearful at the time to write his version because he was a father of an 11-year-old and 13-year-old, the same age as Koby when he was murdered.
“It was a play that as a father was something I was very afraid of,” he said. “I’ve come to learn as a writer and as a theater director that sometimes you have to go into your vulnerabilities to find something to create and to create in a truthful way. So I couldn’t use that as an obstacle to steer me away from working on the piece. And I knew that if I had strong feelings of the piece other people would, too.
“There’s a lot of Jewish plays that dramatize why a person loses their faith or loses or their connection to God, religion and belief. When I read this book, I thought this is extraordinary because this is a person who faces a tremendous test and a tremendous loss and yet she uses it as an inspiration and a challenge to become closer in her faith and also to make meaning and also to do good. It’s a story which alternates between pain and meaning and pain and inspiration. I find that very moving.”
Salovey, who lives in San Diego, said he used about 95 percent of the original language from Mandell’s book.
“I’m attracted to certain kinds of language, and I think that Sherri Mandell’s book has a poetry that describes Israel and describes being a mom and describes her family and describes her connection to Israel and to Tekoa,” Salovey said. “I knew that language would resonate in an actor’s voice.”
The play is drawn from the book, interviews Salovey conducted with Mandell, her lectures and speeches, and some other correspondence.
But he never knew her before he picked up her book.
After writing the play, he was concerned how Mandell would react to it.
“Her overall response has been to thank us because she told her story a lot and she felt like she got to a point where she was numb to the story,” Salovey recalled, who has since continued to stay in touch with the Mandell family in Tekoa. “She couldn’t feel anything in the story and she felt she couldn’t tell her story anymore. She’s so thankful that the play had an actress and was able to live the story and tell the story. Her biggest hope is to keep Koby’s story going.”
Tickets can be purchased at theatreariel.org for the next performances of The Blessing of a Broken Heart on Sept. 17 and 18.
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