Yisrael Valis: Two Versions of a Story
by Sarah Shapiro
On April 10th, Erev Pesach, an appalling news item appeared in The Jerusalem Post:
The Jerusalem District Attorney’s Office on Sunday filed an indictment against a 19-year-old father on the day a medical team at Hadassah-University Hospital, Ein Kerem, declared the baby, whom he had severely beaten, clinically dead.
Without my realizing it, the wording, “whom he had severely beaten” established instantly in my mind that there was no question so far as the facts were concerned: a father had beaten his baby and the baby had died. The article went on to inform us that the man was “charged with abuse and violence of a minor or helpless person, causing severe injury, and faced a maximum sentence of nine years in jail.” Of course he should go to jail, I thought with disgust. “There were “signs of violence on the baby’s body,” the report continued, “including teeth marks.” With horror and indignation, I wondered what in the world was going on with the baby’s mother, to have entrusted their newborn to her psychopathic spouse.
During questioning by police, the father at first denied that he had deliberately hurt the infant. He said he had tried to calm him down and that the baby had slipped from his hands. Afterwards, however, he admitted that he had bitten the baby in the face, pinched him in the neck and chest and slapped him because the baby’s cries wouldn’t let him sleep….On the night the baby lost consciousness, the father allegedly slapped him and shook him violently. The baby slipped out of his hands and his head struck a wall.
As Pesach approached, each morning’s headlines about the case produced fresh dismay and new disgust, and for me as an Orthodox Jew, a personal sense of shame. “Police in Jerusalem,” I read “are preparing for possible violent protests over their refusal to release a young ultra-Orthodox man charged with the killing of his three-month-old baby boy.” Didn’t my haredi brethren differentiate between the guilty and the innocent? And if the young man was mentally ill – which seemed likely, given such bizarre, savage behavior — wouldn’t it be better, I thought, to acknowledge the reality and help him and his family on that basis?
Someone showed me a cartoon of the father from a secular Israeli website. There was the face that had by then become familiar, with its straight, dark eyebrows and long curled payos. The cartoonist portrayed him sitting inside a baby’s crib in a pool of blood, a pacifier in his mouth, eyes shut nonchalantly in blithe self-absorption. It looked like something from Der Sturmer.
One morning a few days after the end of Pesach, an elderly woman in Yerushalmi black scarf and shawl was sitting in the visitor’s chair when I arrived at the hospital to see a post-operative friend. My friend, who lives in Mea Shearim, was conversing with the woman in Yiddish, and told her that I write for various papers.
The visitor, whose broad, placid face had until now borne a faint smile of aristocratic serenity, turned a penetrating gaze my way. Switching to Hebrew, she asked starkly, “Why not something about the young man in prison?”
“The young man in prison? You mean the one who…”
“You know him?”
“I know him well.”
“All right, I will. If you can put me in touch with the family.”
Which is how I was introduced to relatives and neighbors of the father in question. What follows is the other side of the story.
One night while his wife was working late Erev Pesach, Yisrael was taking care of their three-month-old newborn and the baby was crying. The father had been trying for some time to calm him, and lying down on his bed, lifted the baby up over his head and was moving him forward and back when — dozing off for an instant, or from sheer carelessness – he dropped the baby. The baby’s head struck the wall in back of the headboard before he fell down into the corner next to the bed, hitting his head again.
When the father saw that the infant’s head was bruised and bleeding and that he had lost consciousness, he panicked and ran across the hall to the neighbors but no one answered. He ran back to his apartment and called Magen David Adom. Communication was difficult. The father’s mother tongue is Yiddish; in his Yerushalmi community, Yiddish, not modern Hebrew, is the language used in daily life. It was highly unusual for him to interact with anyone from the secular world.
They told him on the phone to try pinching the baby and slapping it to awaken him, which he tried, desperately, to no avail.
On the way to the hospital, in the ambulance, he wanted to tell the medics what happened, that he had been rocking the baby, which in Yiddish is: vigen, but Yisrael used the Hebrew word, tittul, which connotes not “rocking,” as in rocking a cradle, but rather, a strong shaking motion. He wanted to say that when he dropped the baby, the baby got a knock on the head. In Hebrew, this should be, “Hu kibel maka,” he received a knock,” but he mistakenly said, “Natati lo maka,” “I gave him a knock.” He wanted to tell them the baby had not been able to get his breath, from crying so hard, but used the word in Hebrew, titalef, which meant that the baby had fainted. They were surprised and said, “Really? He fainted?” and he answered, “No it wasn’t unusual, it happens to him a lot.”
By the time they arrived at the hospital, the medics were already suspicious that this was an abuse case and alerted the doctors on duty to be on the lookout for the predictable signs. The first to examine the baby was an Arab doctor who had recently dealt with a case of undetected abuse, and was thus being especially vigilant.
In the meantime, the hospital had alerted the police, who arrived at the hospital and took Yisrael into a separate area for interrogation. Yisraelwas freely expressing his distress over his guilt, and was eager to answer their questions -– anything he could do to help the doctors determine the right treatment. After a few hours he was released, and allowed to join his wife and baby in the emergency room, but at 10 a.m. was summoned back for further police interrogation, and from then on, until his release from prison more than a week later, he was denied any communication whatsoever with anyone other than the police. At first, he didn’t grasp that he was under suspicion, and spoke freely in his imperfect Hebrew of his guilt for what had happened. Comprehension of Yiddish and Hebrew continued to be a problem for both him and the police.
Meanwhile, back in the emergency room, among the other relatives who were already at the hospital with H. was a first cousin of the baby’s mother, E., in her early thirties. She and her husband, Z., a close friend and chavrusa of Yisrael, later described to me the condition of the baby upon being brought to the hospital: he had a bad bruise on the forehead and on the top of his head.
I asked if there had been any signs of violence on the body.
They shook their heads.“We didn’t see anything like that,” the cousin said.“When we talked about it later, and were trying to figure out if maybe they [the doctor and the police] really saw something, we thought maybe from the pinching they told him to do to wake the baby up. Maybe there was something from that, but none of us noticed anything. They took an X-ray and said there was a small amount of blood outside the brain cavity but they wouldn’t do anything right away; they would let the baby go through the night, then see what to do in the morning. My mother and I kept asking them to do tipulim of some kind, but they said no, it was unnecessary. They would wait until the morning, then take another X-ray. Once they saw what his condition was, then they would determine what treatment was needed, if any. In the morning, when they took the X-ray, they saw that the brain cavity had filled with blood.”
I asked Z. how the story came about that there were teeth-marks on the baby’s body. He said: “Dr. Yisrael was the doctor in the hospital who told the press in the morning that there were signs of violence. Later on, he denied having said that.”
It was reported later in Haaretz that Dr. Yehuda Hiss examined the baby on April 11, a day before he died. and wrote, “There is no evidence of injuries.”
A female police interrogator was speaking to Yisrael. She told him they knew that he had lost his temper and beaten the baby and that he should confess. Shocked, uncomprehending, Yisrael denied it. She insisted. At some point -– this was about 3 a.m. — she rose and laid hands on him, shaking him. He pulled away. She was yelling, close to his face, that he might as well admit what he had done, that he had thrown the baby against the wall. She said there were teeth marks on the body and signs of violence, and that he should confess. He kept denying that he had done anything on purpose and she kept telling him to admit it, that he knew and they knew what he’d done. She said they knew that the reason he didn’t want to confess was that he didn’t want his family to know the truth, but his family already knew. She said, “Don’t think you’re going home after this because you don’t have a home to go back to anymore. Your parents don’t want to see you, and your wife says she’s finished with you.”
The female officer continued yelling at him and demanding that he tell the truth. until someone entered the interrogation room and greeted him warmly in Yiddish. He said he had been appointed by the family to help, that he knew Yisrael’s family and had grown up in the Yerushalmi community. For Yisrael, it was as if an angel had appeared. In a lengthy conversation, he gave Yisrael to understand that he was on his side, and said, “All you have to do is confess and then you can get out of here in two hours and see your wife and baby.”
Yisrael said he couldn’t confess to something he didn’t do; he didn’t want lies coming out of his mouth. The Yiddish-speaking man, who was actually a police officer in civilian garb, said, “OK, then, you can just write it down.”
“I wouldn’t know what to write.”
“I’ll help you.”
It took time –- eight hours of interrogation -– but Yisrael (who had not slept now for thirty six hours) said finally, “All right. I’ll do it.” The policeman told him to describe in detail how he had often beaten and abused the baby when the crying deprived him of sleep, that he had beaten his wife, and that he was ashamed of the baby because he had a birth defect.
Yisrael wrote as instructed. After a while, he looked up and said, “You know none of this is true.”
The officer said, “Don’t worry.”
After a while, Yisrael said, “I can’t lie anymore.”
The man said, “It’s all right. That’s enough.”
“All right, so take me to the baby,” said Yisrael. “Where’s my wife?”.
He was handcuffed and jailed. The first time his wife and family were allowed to see him was at his first court appearance, but they weren’t allowed to speak with him. Z. said that when he saw Yisrael, he stepped forward to talk to him and was pushed away by police guards.
H. called out to her husband across the room, “Don’t worry! We know you didn’t do what they’re saying! What happened is min ha shamayim! [a decree from Above.]”
The police wanted to give Yisrael’s name to the press, but a judge ruled that the name could not be publicized until the baby actually died, so the police requested a document from the hospital that the baby was brain-dead. The document, however, was not accepted by the court as proof of death, so release of the name was delayed until the baby died.
Yisrael, still in jail –- was informed in this manner: someone said to him, “Now you can be happy, you got what you wanted. Your son is dead.”
Yisrael was not allowed to attend the funeral. Without being told why, he was led from his cell, brought to a room, and the baby’s body, in a shroud, was brought before him. The father said kaddish.
Had I not interviewed people who were personally involved in the above events, I would have simply believed what I’d read about the father in question. For people to suggest that there could be more to the story would have struck me as wishful thinking and self-deception, or intentional cover-up.
If your reputation or mine, God forbid, or anyone’s in our families, were being destroyed in public, we would want our fellow Jews to exercise the self-discipline and wisdom to know we don’t know. The only way to become worthy of such mercy is to extend it to others, reserving judgment in the privacy of our own minds.