Letter to friends & colleagues

I'll start with the distressing news of Yael's Lotan's death last week. I'm not entirely certain of the details, but I believe that she was in her 70s and had been diagnosed with liver cancer just weeks before. I also don't know if the disease was very quick and aggressive, or if she chose not to have treatment, or if simply, faced with her age and her illness, decided that her time had come. I tend to think the latter, since she was strong-minded and independent and would not have chosen to spend time in a hospital or even at home, having to be cared for.

For those of you who didn't know her, Yael was one of the founders of the Vanunu campaign in Israel (which was how we met more than 20 years ago) and was a peace activist for many years before that. She was one of the Romania Four, Israeli citizens who, in the 1980's, defied Israel's ban on contact with the PLO and traveled abroad to meet with PLO representatives. The last time I saw her, she was delivering clothing to an organization that sends humanitarian aid to Palestinian communities (where I sometimes volunteer). It was the first time we had spoken in several years (after a rift relating to the campaign that was never mended) but we had a civil and even friendly conversation, practically picking up from where we'd left off.

The ironic thing is, that I'd thought about Yael the day before she died, and that wasn't an unusual occurance. In addition to being co-activists, we had attended several conferences abroad together and over meals, or waiting for meetings to start (we had punctuality in common) or in buses to Dimona or Ashkelon, or ducking out of boring panels in some UN-sponsored conference, she told me the most hilarious stories from her life, and they come back to me from time to time. Like the time when she was living in Jamaica and a Jehova's Witness knocked on her door, trying to sell her a set of bibles the purchase of which, he insisted, would assure her a place in heaven. Yael said that the culture of the place was such that you simply could not send a person away and had to offer them a cold drink, at the very least, so she spent some time talking with the man over lemonade, naturally getting nowhere. Finally, she asked him: "If I buy your bibles, I get into heaven?" "Yes, no doubt about it." "And people who don't buy your bibles, they don't get into heaven?" "Not if they are sinners." "Well," Yael found a winning argument, "I just wouldn't feel comfortable, you see, knowing that I am certainly going to heaven and all the people who don't buy your bibles will not. And I wouldn't enjoy myself in heaven, thinking about all the poor people who didn't buy bibles and can't get in. No, I simply couldn't live with myself." He never came back.

But Yael was not in fact anti-religion and she told me some years ago that she was a practicing Buddhist, a fact that stunned me, since I'd never known her to speak about any kind of religious beliefs (and you should have heard her on the subject of Southern Baptists….). But she said that it was the only religion that made sense and it was a fundamental, if not publicly prominent, part of her life. She took a trip to India a few years ago and it was a very spiritual experience, as well as an adventure.

Yael was also a journalist and an author who knew lots of very famous writers and other dignitaries around the world and had stories to tell about them as well. All in confidence. It was funny to talk to someone who, when you would say "have you read the new book by so-and-so?" might reply, "Yes, he gave me a copy last time I was in London. His wife got so drunk that night, she passed out on the couch and he and I had a wonderful conversation, so I know what his next book is going to be about."

I'm sorry that I won't be hearing any more of her stories. I'm sorry that we never made the effort, if not to be friends again, at least to discuss the issues that we had. I'm glad for the times and experiences we had together.

- Rayna Moss