March 12, 2021
The Human Spirit: Yusef revisited
By Barbara Sofer
Welcome. Marhaba. I’m at a birthday party for 11-year-old Yusef Jadata. He lives in what Wikipedia calls “the northernmost neighborhood of Jerusalem.”
Although I’m a longtime Jerusalemite I have no idea that part of my city isn’t directly accessible through Israeli roads. Neither does Bracha Grossman, who is driving. She’s the head nurse of pediatric surgery at Hadassah Ein Kerem. She’s decided to take her car because she lives in Gush Etzion and driving back to Ein Kerem to retrieve her car would be out of the way.
We’re following the car of neurosurgeon Moatasim Shweiky, who grew up in Israel and Jordan and today lives in Beit Hanina. We’re not sure if he’s teasing when he suggests that Grossman leave her car at the mosque parking lot and drive with him. We do, eventually, park her car on a side road and ride with the doctor through the Kalandia checkpoint. The IDF waves us through. Passage through the checkpost is so slow that a dozen men and boys are peddling ankle socks, tomatoes and strawberries to drivers.
We turn left on Ramallah Road (!) with its heavy traffic moving through the multi-storied apartment buildings and shops.
The directions lead us to the parking garage two floors beneath Yusef’s apartment building, which is officially Jerusalem, although you could fool me.
The videographers who have come to film this special birthday party are from Tel Aviv. They whisper that they’re uncomfortable and want to leave. I coax them to stay. We’re not in an episode of Fauda. My only concern is not to drop the large Ima Borekas bakery box. Inside is the “Happy Birthday Yusef” cake decorated with a picture of Hadassah Hospital surrounded by fluffy white vanilla frosting.
Readers of this column know I like nothing better than to follow up on a remarkable story with a happy ending.
Yusef’s father joins us and says they live on the 7th floor.
WE TAKE the very elevator where this story starts: on a Saturday night in the winter of 2019. It’s a dark and stormy night, as the cliché goes.
Yusef’s mother Lina is going to a family party. She insists that the weather is too blustery for the youngest of her five children to go out. He’ll catch a cold. Yusef, a good student but mischievous, decides to surprise her in the underground parking lot.
He runs down the stairs to the ground floor and then pushes the elevator button to -2. The door opens. Without looking, he steps inside.
There’s no elevator car. Yusef plummets down the shaft, falling 10 meters to the space below the parking lot.
His parents know nothing of this.
In his apartment, neighbor Maged Khourf is getting ready for his night shift as a taxi driver.
“It was fate,” he says. “Three different times I tried to go down in the elevator, but each time the electricity went out because of the storm.”
A neighbor with a sack of rice on his back further delays him in conversation.
In the elevator, Khourf hears whimpering. When he gets to the parking lot, he bends down and uses his cellphone flashlight to see around the cracks.
Khourf can see a child’s body. Broken. Covered with blood. He raises the alarm.
A neighbor knows how to access the space below the elevator.
A well-built athletic man, the taxi driver is lowered down and manages to pull Yusef up. Followed by a cluster of neighbors, he takes Yusef to the nearest health clinic. An ambulance is summoned. When Yusef’s mom arrives, she’s told Yusef has had a “small accident.”
Across town, Dr. Adir Cohen and his son are in the Arena stadium cheering on the Hapoel Basketball team. It’s a rare night out for the Ashkelon-born maxiofacial surgeon whose father is from the old Spanish-exilic Jewish community of Kuwait, his mother from Libya. Dr. Cohen’s heart sinks when he sees the photo that arrives on his phone.
“The boy’s head was cracked like a watermelon with the brain spilling out,” he says.
He apologizes to his son and sends him home in a taxi.
In the city of Modi’in, neurosurgeon Samuel Moscovici is having pizza with his three children when the photo of Yusef pings in his phone. Dr. Moscovici was born in Venezuela, brought up by a mom who was paralyzed from the shoulder down. He drives his children home and races to the hospital.
Dr. Naum Simanovsky, a pediatric orthopedist, is on call.
“I knew Yusef’s head injuries were critical, but his multiple fractures weren’t trivial either,” says Simanovsky. He and his wife, a radiologist, resigned from their jobs in Moscow to make aliyah in 1989, at the cusp of the mass exodus of Russian Jews.
THEY ALL scrub up in the underground surgery complex at Hadassah Ein Kerem. First, Simanovsky stabilizes Yusef’s shattered limbs. He will go back later for fine-tuning if the boy survives.
A large team of doctors and nurses works through the night and through the next morning.
All the hospital’s forces and all the hospital’s women and men are needed to put Yusef together again.
When I meet Yusef, he’s out of intensive care, on nurse Bracha Grossman’s surgery ward.
“He needs a lot of care and attention,” says nurse Grossman. “So much of him is broken. But he’s going to make it.”
And he has! We’re here to celebrate. Yusef is back in school. “On Zoom,” his father clarifies as the coffee is served. Yusef’s parents and siblings have gathered, and the neighbor who found him. Yusef has invited two friends, both named Abed. They play soccer on the balcony and Yusef strums chords on his guitar. The plastic surgeons will fix the remaining facial scar.
“It’s a hard story to tell,” says Kharouf. As he describes finding Yusef, tears fill his eyes. Everyone chimes in with details, in a mix of Hebrew, Arabic and English. Dr. Shweiky of the neurosurgery team, does the lion’s share of translation.
“We’re so thankful,” says Yusef’s Dad. “Our Yusef survived like ancient Joseph in the pit.”
Our Biblical Joseph story, with variations, also appears in the Koran.
Time for the cake. Yusef blows out the multicolor candles and we sing multilingual rounds of the “Happy Birthday” song.
It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes two: the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly one.