Sherri Mandell lives 10 time zones outside her New York City birthplace and 10 minutes from a landmark whose notoriety challenges the existence she knew back home. Every May 8, she, her rabbi husband Seth and their three children visit that site, a desert cave near Tekoa, Israel, where they spend the night with another member of the family. In this case, “family” is only as real as a mother's memories and as imaginary as the earthly departure of a human soul—for on May 8, 2001, at this lonely locale 12 miles south of Jerusalem, Mandell's 13-year-old son Koby and his close friend were bludgeoned to death with rocks and stones, an act attributed to Palestinian terrorists.That the boys were savagely assaulted for two hours defies the power of thought. That Mandell survived her trip to hell is a testament to the power of hope. Life's somewhat more manageable now, with Mandell a reasonable distance from her descent into “a labyrinth so dark you can't even see your hand.” That hand is one of two that cranked out The Blessing of a Broken Heart, the book from which that quote is taken. The work won the 2004 National Jewish Book Award and was a catalyst for The Koby Mandell Foundation, created to aid families affected by terrorist violence.
On Friday, Jan. 4, The San Diego Repertory Theatre will weigh in on the mix, opening a world-premiere production based on the book. And as the central figure in the public recounting of Koby's life, Mandell welcomes the infusion of different material for a different audience.
“I'm not much of a playgoer,” Mandell, 52, told CityBeat from her Tekoa home. “But I'm happy the book has taken this form. The theater is a good [forum]. Sometimes you tell your story over and over so many times that it flattens out.”
The operative word is “story,” as the book is remarkably devoid of political overtones. Mandell, a former writing professor at the University of Maryland and at Penn State University, wrote it only as a tale of bottomless loss, of a community's hurt and of serious human resilience. That last part is the product of an excruciating personal inventory, and Rep associate artistic director Todd Salovey, who wrote and directs the play, said that accounting is a crucial element in the book's transition to the stage.
Mandell's writing, Salovey explained, “is incredibly dramatic. She asks big questions of her herself, of her son Koby, of God, and she pushes and pushes for an answer. To me, the piece is not about hardships but about courage.“We can't let fear keep us from rising to the occasion and making a difference. And the best way to make a difference, as Sherri does in the play, is to find a way to give—to take the pain that we have and say, ‘How can I make a difference?' That's an incredible act of bravery and beauty.”
“There's a saying,” Mandell concluded, “that no sorrow can't be borne with a story. That's the way this was written. There's no politics in it—it's just a story of love and about Koby, and it keeps our focus away from the pain, which is always there. Writing helped the pain, but telling the story transforms that story and changes you and [those] who hear it.”
On Friday, the Rep will play host to Mandell's message, its infancy imminent as two young friends lay dying in a desert cave, ignorant of their destinies and of the theater's extraordinary power to convey them. Blessing of a Broken Heart runs Jan. 4 through 20 at The Lyceum space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $28-$36. 619-544-1000 or www.sandiegorep.com. More details on The Koby Mandell Foundation are available at www.kobymandell.org.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.