by Lynne Reid Banks
My first memories of Dan are warm and funny. My last are sad, but full of warmth, too. I had few older or dearer friends, and a Dan-less world is several degrees less well lighted for me.
I first met him in the late ’50s at the headquarters of Hashomer Hatzair in London. He was an emissary from the kibbutz movement, and one of his more thankless tasks was to try to teach Hebrew to people who were theoretically interested in making aliya to Israel. Dan noticed me for my obsessive keenness. As I had no Jewish connections, he naturally had to work harder in my case. But he cheered me on with after-class coffees and by lightening our portentous text with very “Dan” codas. “‘Lea is a good Jewess. She keeps a kosher home. She helps her neighbors and asks no thanks. When times are hard, she never complains.’ And may God preserve us all from Lea.”
Years later, after I had made aliya and was living on his kibbutz, Yas’ur, Dan and I did a skit for the Purim holiday on Pygmalion in which he played a Hebrew-teaching martinet and I, his furious, overstretched pupil. Our unique version of “Just you wait, Henry Higgins!” enlivened with some Yiddish curses brought the dining hall down.
During my time on the kibbutz, roughly the ’60s, Dan did more stints as mazkir in Yas’ur than anyone else, because he was such a good one. Mazkir loosely translates as “secretary,” but it really means “struggling to keep everyone happy.” This was no easy task in a place with such a disparate population: Hungarians, Brits, Germans and Brazilians, from a wild assortment of backgrounds and histories. Even deciding who was to do the communal cooking could cause trouble. And my problems adjusting to the rigid collective baby-house regime didn’t ease his path. Quite recently when I visited him in Jerusalem, I returned to him a letter he wrote me, circa 1966, gently and tactfully smoothing over a cataclysmic row I precipitated over feeding my first baby which threatened to spark a revolution. I read it aloud to him. He smiled. “I was a nice guy in those days,” he remarked.
Dan was, in my experience, never less than a nice guy.
After we each in turn left Yas’ur, we lost touch for a while, but later we resumed our friendship. In 1977, when my family was invited to stay in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Guest House for artists, in Jerusalem, where Dan was then living with his new young family, it was he who pressed us to visit Sinai “before we hand it back.” He booked our trip to Saint Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai, Sharm el-Sheikh, Coral Island and other “sights” of the period, an unforgettable adventure which we wouldn’t have had without Dan.
For years he was preoccupied, personally and professionally, with his commitment to opposing the occupation and striving for some kind of reconciliation with the Palestinians. I found all this admirable, and devoured his letters. I remember one in which he spoke of meetings and demonstrations and his deep anxiety about the worsening political situation, and concluded, “And now I must go and pick my daughter up from school and take her to a birthday party. We live our lives on two entirely separate levels, the political, which becomes daily more terrible, and the mundane and everyday, which is peaceful and happy. How? I don’t know. It’s the mysterious dichotomy of our life here.”
Dan was obsessed — not too strong a word, I think — with the Holocaust. I never visited him in his home in Nahalat Zion without finding a new book about it on his coffee table. I asked, “Why are you reading all this? Why torture yourself? There can’t be anything more you can learn.” “I need to,” he said. “It’s the only way I have of sharing it.”
I always visited him when in Israel and loved our intimate talks. Once he told me he’d received a shock. He’d attended a meeting with a Palestinian colleague. Another Palestinian made a speech in which he spoke of the Jews as “a cancer on his country.” Dan came out pale with dismay. His colleague said slyly, “What’s the matter, Dan? Someone say something you didn’t like?” “I’m doing my best to achieve harmony between our two peoples,” Dan said, “and my thanks is, I get called a cancer.” “You mean you didn’t know?” his Arab colleague said quietly. It was somehow typical of Dan that he didn’t. He told me when the suicide bombings started that, although he understood anger and resentment, such actions were completely beyond him. A man, even an educated and sophisticated man, who cannot look down into the lower depths of human nature may be accused of naïveté, perhaps. But I found it indicative of a civilized mentality.
After Dan contracted Parkinson’s disease he was forced to give up his journalism, but his political convictions remained as strong as ever, as did his fighting spirit. Our emails retained a lot of “edge.” A year ago, during the Gaza operation, he wrote:
You ask me to write to you, but there don’t seem to be any words capable of expressing what one feels about the present situation. For peace lovers, it almost appears as if everything for which we strove for so long is now being destroyed before our eyes. Not only are the Palestinian casualty figures rising — so is the tide of hatred and their desire for revenge. These are the inevitable consequences of an Israeli policy founded on the belief that only force counts…. The country seems to have been seized by a fit of madness. Who knows where it will end? How far have we come from the image of the Israel we believed in.
However, when in a state of fury and despair after the Gaza operation, I tried to renounce my Israeli citizenship, I copied my letter to the Israeli ambassador to Dan. He responded with a robust telling-off, asking who was the most important part of a football game, the players on the field or those shouting in the bleachers? The players, of course. “Your letter might be seen as giving encouragement to people to flee the country. Would that not weaken those who are trying to improve things here in Israel?” For once, he made me ashamed of myself, and I am still an Israeli citizen.
My last visit was in September. Dan had deteriorated. We could no longer take walks through the market with his beloved dog Bella. But despite the ravages of the disease that had rendered him virtually helpless, he was still Dan, and wanted to hear all about Yas’ur’s 60th birthday celebrations. My last words to him were loving words of appreciation for his work and for 50 years of challenging, heart-warming friendship.