Saying Good-bye to My Mother – Prof. Tamar Liebes-Plesner

by Yohanan Plesner


My mother had three salient characteristics: she was connected to her family, to the story of the state, and to her intellectual endeavor.

Mother was a devoted family woman and dedicated to the family into which she was born and to the family she created. Whoever knew our mother was aware that on all aspects of her family she was not objective and not ambivalent. As one of her close friends put it: she always acted “like a tigress protecting her cubs.” So, in the period I was a Knesset member, I knew that even in the most difficult times I would always have at least one supporter.

Tamar was also intimately linked to the story of the life of the state. The miracle of the revival of Hebrew and the national revival engaged her emotionally and intellectually, and this was an integral part of her being. Like other members of her generation, in response to the question “How are you?” one invariably received a reply integrating her personal situation with the national one. This is also the source of her interest in political and public arenas. She did not care for, or take special interest in, the practices or mechanics of politics, but she did understand the importance of the public arena for our future here as a state and as a community.

Mother’s third characteristic was her intellectual endeavor. She was motivated by deep, interdisciplinary curiosity to understand, to explain, and to describe the communications discourse in all its various dimensions. Her intellectual depth was based on personal experience from working in radio and on her interest in Israeli culture and public nature. In light of the increasing Israeli academic involvement in the humanities and social sciences in content with international facets, Tamar chose to do research on and go in depth into our local experience.

Beyond Mother’s spheres of interest, by her very nature she was a strong, wise woman of noble bearing and motivated by internal fervor. She did not have tendencies toward attenuation or refinement that typify those who try to appease or “round out” their message. That being so, she did not stand out in organizational politics. Each person knew where they stood with her and what she thought about them.

As for myself and my sisters, she loved us very much. We knew and felt this. I had the privilege of living 43 years with such a wise, special, strong woman standing behind me: supporting, urging, backing, and loving. Without a doubt, we shall miss her very much, and life from now on will be totally different and incomplete.

Mother was born in 1943 in Jerusalem. In recent years, she used to mention life-shaping childhood experience of walking to kindergarten through the trenches during the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. After she completed high school at the Hebrew University Secondary School (“leyada”), she served in Galei Tzahal and obtained her bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew University. She met my father, Ulrik, and went to visit him in Sri Lanka. Forty-nine years ago, and after knowing each other for three months, they married and sent a telegram to Mira and Gerhard—Tamar’s parents—to inform the surprised family. Ulrik, who was always polite and well-mannered, added a sentence at the end of the text: “P.s.: Hope you approve.” That was how Mother founded her nuclear family to which she was completely devoted until her dying day.

After living in London for 5 years, Father attests that he understood that two things were really significant for Mother: her family (especially her links to her father, Gerhard) and her country. So, in 1972, Tamar returned to Jerusalem, and this time with Ulrik and her three children: Daniella, Maya, and me.

Mother began her professional life as a producer, editor, and presenter of programs on Kol Yisrael. At a certain stage, she began simultaneously to develop her academic career at the Hebrew University. Mother was exceptionally diligent and talented and published many dozens of books and articles. But reality, or fate, put her devotion to her family to the test a number of times. And she passed these tests with superb courage. Above all, it is impossible not to mention on this day of leave-taking the struggle she waged to save the life of my sister Daniella who was struck by leukemia when only 19. The cliché “turned the world upside down” dwarfs what our mother did, and we may confidently say that had it not been for her activity and initiative around the clock and around the world, apparently the battle against this terrible disease would not have turned out well. In my opinion, this was my mother’s greatest, most impressive achievement. Thank you, Mother!

Preparation for the tragic end began long before this unfortunate, cruel disease. All of us experienced the terrors of Alzheimer when grandfather Gerhard, Tamar’s father, came down with it. About ten years ago, her older sister, too, dear Ruhama, was struck by this disease in which the brain degenerates and gradually effaces one’s personality. Mother feared that perhaps fate had in store for her to meet the same disease, and she was fully aware that she did not want to tread on this same horrible path as her father and sister had.

After she became ill, a few years ago, the frustrating, sad process of erosion and sinking began. Yet, at the same time, her strong character traits persevered. Mother continued to be very interested in her family and grandchildren, part of whom never knew — and will never know — her in her prime. Even when her analytical and administrative ability was worn away, her intellectual curiosity did not expire. Yesterday, I took a look at the last books she recently borrowed from the library: Herzl’s Altneuland, Alterman, Shlomo Avineri on Herzl, journals from the time of the War of Independence alongside literature analyzing the role of radio in constructing national identity. Such, that even when the ability to analyze, remember, and process no longer really existed: the intellectual desire and motivation to understand and develop the national story still went on.

And in this difficult period, it was not only Mother’s family that accompanied her. Also, colleagues and scholars who had worked with her took a decision to continue to meet and have discussions with her on a regular basis. My hearfelt thanks to Elihu Katz, Zohar Kampf, Oranit Klein-Shagrir, Oren Sofer, the staff of the Communications Department of the Hebrew University and the Open University. You were a home for Mother, and we will always be grateful to you for the way in which you treated Mother, even with the shadows of her disease hovering over her. 

The end itself was not disconnected from the family and intellectual heritage. The life project of grandfather Gerhard, Tamar’s father, was the translation and annotation of the writings of Plato, whom he greatly admired. In light of the circumstances, Mother’s approach to the purpose of life and its conclusion is reminiscent of Socrates’ approach. According to it, the soul of the departed continues to exist among his beloved ones: “Some carry the seed in their souls, more than in their body; and they will sow in the soul of their beloved a seed of all things fit for it so that the soul will encompass them and give birth to them.”

The dialogue Phaedrus describes the story of the sad death of Socrates. When Socrates is asked, a few minute before drinking the poison, what directions he wishes to leave for those present to serve him. He replies, “If you take care of yourselves, you will serve me and mine and yourselves, whatever you do, even if you make no promises now.” So I promise that is how we will try to serve you Mother and show our gratitude.

Even when, it was proposed to him that he reject drinking the poison, Socrates acted lucidly while taking responsibility for his life. He answered those appealing to him: “For I think that I should gain nothing by taking the poison a little later. I should only make myself ridiculous in my own eyes if I clung to life and spared it, when there is no more profit in it.” Socrates was brave and so was our mother.

In conclusion, in the name of the family: Ulrik—who takes leave of Mother after 49 years of marriage; Daniella and Itai and their children, Yael and Yair; Maya and Amir, and their children, Yonatan, Uri, and Daniel; and Shimrit, my beloved wife, and our four daughters: Michaela, Ayala, Talya, and Avigail – –

In the name of all of them, I want to thank you for coming to pay your final respects to Tamar, and I want to say a few words of final leave-taking from my mother:

Lay in repose in peace, our dear mother. After your having experienced a few final years that involved quite a bit of frustration and suffering, now calm can be restored to your soul along with the pride for all that you achieved and for what you were. You will continue to be part of our being and existence, and we promise you to remember you always.