For many years, while waging a legal battle against Iran for sponsoring a suicide bus bombing in Israel that killed his daughter, Alisa, Stephen M. Flatow has told his story. His new book, which includes material not previously published, is less an account of the tragic event itself than it is a story about the nature of such loss in the context of a particular family’s history and values.
One thread of the story is the shortened life of Alisa: her promise, her personality, and her influence on others, as a child and then as a young woman. It was Alisa, readers learn, who from a very young age influenced the family to fully embrace Judaism and Israel. Flatow shows how much a parent can learn from a child, and how family members can work through their grief — though it never really ends.
While the narrative generally proceeds from past to present, there are openings in the strict chronology that reveal additional background or impart new understandings and emotional resonance. These passages add to the book’s impact, providing it with heart and wisdom.
The legal and political aspects of the story focus on Flatow’s determination to turn disaster and loss into positive action. Having proven the Iranian government’s culpability, he seeks — with the help of others — an appropriate punishment. The best that can be arranged is a financial judgment based on Iran’s assets in the United States; this takes a great deal of time and effort to make happen. Even when the payments arrive, written on U. S. government accounts, Flatow is disappointed. He is also greatly disappointed when President Clinton’s subordinates, striving for a new arrangement with Iran, ask the grieving father to slow down and not rock the boat. However, the breakthroughs that Flatow make open the doors for others to launch successful claims against sponsors of terrorist killings.
Flatow’s richly personal book not only memorializes his daughter, but gives hope to others, as it gracefully conveys important life lessons from the perspective of an observant Jew. Flatow takes the time to explain Jewish mourning customs, the nature of Talmud study, and many other aspects of his Jewish identity. His love for Judaism radiates throughout the book, intertwining with and reflecting his love for the daughter he lost but will never forget. The monetary judgments that Flatow eventually received went primarily to charities having goals consistent with Alisa’s values and the choices she made in her short life.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.