I was shocked and saddened to hear that Batya Gur died last week. Along with so many others, I have long admired her books, and I had the privilege of spending some time with her twice.
The first time, we shared a podium at a book fair in Rockville, Maryland. I don't recall the substance of her remarks--about mysteries in general, about her series--but I do recall that she was engaging, and that she spoke in a husky, raspy voice with a wry, sardonic humor that is so Israeli. I also recall that, hearing her talk about her series character, Michael Ohayon, and pronounce his name (Mi-cha-el' O-ha'yon'), I realized with chagrin that I had been butchering his name all these years. After the event, while we signed books, Batya described some of the humorous and not-so-humorous details of her U.S. Tour, and she invited me to get in touch the next time I visited Israel.
A year later I did just that. We arranged to meet at a coffee shop in the German Colony, the Jerusalem neighborhood where Batya lived, not far from my hotel, the Sheraton Plaza (pronounced "plaja"). A half hour before our date, I found myself inside the hotel's entrance, standing next to a woman who mentioned that she, too, was going to the German Colony and offered to share a cab.
It was Batya. She had just enjoyed a massage at the Plaza and was leaving to meet me at the coffee shop. I hadn't recognized her, and she certainly hadn't recognized me. We laughed about the coincidence. At the coffee shop we discussed mysteries, life and politics in Israel (our views didn't mesh). I told her my Israeli sub-agent, with whom I'd met the day before, had cautioned me that mysteries don't do well in Israel. ("Israelis have enough strife and tension in their daily lives," he'd said.) Batya wrote down the name of her Israeli agent and told me to use her name if I was interested in switching agents. She talked about her former career as a teacher and spoke with sadness about the disappointingly stingy reaction of some of her colleagues to her success.
This past Friday, when I heard that Batya had died of cancer, I flashed to our meeting at the coffee shop. Batya had pulled a cigarette out of her purse as soon as we were seated at one of the small tables.
"Do you mind?" she asked.
It was an uncomfortable moment. Cigarette smoke makes me choke, but I wasn't sure what to say. A few seconds later I admitted, with some awkwardness, that I would prefer that she didn't smoke.
Later, I related the details of my meeting with Batya to a close friend who is a great fan of her work. I told her about the cigarette.
My friend was appalled. "How could you say that, Rochelle?"
Im my mind I see Batya, returning the cigarette to her purse with a shrug.
"Americans," she said with a pitying smile. "You worry about everything."