Aryeh Leib Wasserman is tall and wiry, with a scraggly russet beard and shocks of bobbing, dark sidelocks framing the austere contours of his face. His earnest eyes, brimming with untold suffering in the shadow of his smart black fedora, search for me as he enters the modest Sha’arei Hesed cholent joint where we agreed to meet for our interview. I wave him over to my table.
Wasserman, 17, became an unlikely international celebrity on January 12, when a group of fishermen found him on a remote Mexico beach, naked and face down, his emaciated frame raking with sobs as he kissed the sand and muttered incoherently. Later they would learn that he was rambling psalms of thanks, and that he had just washed up after surviving as a castaway for 227 days, bobbing on a 16-foot-long lifeboat in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, his sole companion the Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli, who was found sunning herself nearby.
The two were the only survivors when their transatlantic flight tragically crashed on May 27, 2012. In a testimony delivered to airline officials a few days after he made landfall, Wasserman said that a large group of ultra-Orthodox men that had assembled in the back of the cabin to recite the afternoon mincha prayers caused the plane to pitch. The pilot was unable to steady the aircraft, which plummeted into the ocean.
Even though almost nine months have elapsed, when he recalls the fateful first minutes after the crash, Wasserman is overcome with emotion.
“It was a miracle. It was beferush an outbreak of hashgaha [divine providence],” he tells me feverishly, curling and uncurling his sidelocks and gently rocking back and forth in his chair. Stunned by cold, and tossed by the seething water amid drifting bits of passengers and fuselage, he came upon what would prove to be the instrument of his deliverance, his very own Noah’s Ark — a fully inflated lifeboat.
‘Stretching, I could have pinched her bottom,’ he says. ‘And between us there was nothing but a thin tarpaulin, easily got round’
Wasserman’s first few attempts to board the boat proved unsuccessful, and the second time he fell back into the choppy waters, he says, shuddering, “a shark’s fin glided right before me.”
It was then that he noticed the oar wedged under the bright orange tarpaulin that was stretched tight over most of the boat.
“There was a little looseness in the tarpaulin,” he says. “I lifted the oar in the air and I shoved its handle into this looseness, into this life-saving detail. I pushed the oar in as far as it would go. The lifeboat now had a prow projecting over the waves, if crookedly. I pulled myself up and wrapped my legs around the oar. The oar handle pushed up against the tarpaulin, but tarpaulin, rope and oar held. I was out of the water, if only by a fluctuating two, three feet.”
But terrified as Wasserman already was, what he saw next almost made him wish he hadn’t survived the crash.
“A shiver went through my body,” he recalls, a slight tremor echoing through his wrist as he stirs a fourth spoon of sugar into his steaming glass of Turkish coffee. “Between the life jackets, partially, as if through some leaves, I had my first, unambiguous, clear-headed glimpse of Bar Refaeli. It was her haunches I could see, and part of her back. Lithe and clad in a skimpy tiger-print bikini. She was facing the stern, lying flat on her stomach. She was still except for the breathing motion of her sides.”
Wasserman says he “blinked in disbelief” at how close she was. She was right there, two feet beneath him.
“Stretching, I could have pinched her bottom,” he says, his nose crinkling with disgust. “And between us there was nothing but a thin tarpaulin, easily got round. ‘Hashem yishmor [God forbid],’ I thought. I lay absolutely motionless.”
Eventually, exhaustion got the better of him, and he drifted off.
“I slept all morning. I was roused by anxiety,” he recalls. “That tide of food, water and rest that flowed through my weakened system, bringing me a new lease on life, also brought me the strength to see how desperate my situation was. I awoke to the reality of Bar Refaeli. There was a woman in the lifeboat. I could hardly believe it, yet I knew I had to. And I had to save myself.”
He considered jumping overboard and swimming away, but, he says, “my body refused to move. I was hundreds of miles from landfall, if not over a thousand miles. I couldn’t swim such a distance. What would I eat? What would I drink? How would I keep the sharks away? How would I keep warm? How would I know which way to go? There was not a shadow of doubt about the matter: to leave the lifeboat meant certain death. But what was staying aboard? She would come at me like a typical woman, without a sound. Before I knew it she would seize the back of my neck or my throat and I would be pierced by desire.
“Every hair on me was standing up, shrieking with fear.”
But Wasserman didn’t despair. An ancient voice echoed through his mind, he recalls, his eyes lighting up.
“The voice said, ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. Gam ki eilech b’gei tzalmavet lo ira ra. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.'”
‘The voice said, I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare’
Wasserman realized that in order to keep Refaeli out of his sight, where she couldn’t tempt him, he would have to relegate her to her own territory, under the tarpaulin. For several days, he drank copiously from the lifeboat’s supply of canned water and clearly marked his territory with urine. Then he proceeded to train her with short bursts of the whistle that was attached to his life jacket, interspersed with frantic hand-flailing and spirited shouts of “shikse” and “tfuy.”
When she despaired of talking to him and finally retreated under the tarpaulin, Wasserman set about figuring out how to catch fish. He concluded that despite her being a “manifestation of his evil urge,” as he puts it, as a Jew she may yet repent and thus “could not be allowed to die.” So he would toss her the occasional morsel, averting his eyes as she scampered out from under the tarpaulin to retrieve it.
After an excruciating ordeal that lasted 227 days and pitted him against sharks, killer fungi, agonizing thirst, and, no less dangerous, the caustic doubt that at times threatened to erode the very foundations of his faith, Wasserman finally landed on a golden beach in Mexico. Refaeli — “You can imagine my horror at the sight,” he says — immediately jumped out from under the tarpaulin and began to sun herself on the sand.
“I know my survival is hard to believe,” he says. “When I think back, I can hardly believe it myself.”