The Gift of Bravery: The Story of Eli Cohen Our Hero and Spy by Waleuska Lazo is the first children’s book to be published about Eli Cohen’s life. It tells the story of how an ordinary man disguised his identity to become a secret agent and rise to prominence in the Syrian government.
The Gift of Bravery was written in 2008 and self-published last March. Cohen’s story is now the focus of the Netflix series, The Spy.
“I want to inspire kids and let them know what it’s like to be brave, and that they can take action and be their own heroes on their own terms,” said Lazo. “I’ve had the book for a long time, but only printed maybe 20 copies for the family. It was not until this year that I decided to share it with the world.”
Lazo was in the throes of research long before the The Spy made its international debut.
“In the 1920s and 1930s, young Eli Cohen was bullied and discriminated for being Jewish, and dreamed of helping build a state where he and his Jewish family and friends could thrive and prosper, safe from hatred and persecution,” explained Lazo.
“During World War II, Eli worked covertly inside Egypt to weaken the enemies of his people by destroying hostile military outposts. Under a cloud of suspicion, he eventually moved to Israel, where he married, started a family and took a civilian job. With a growing threat from Syria on the northeastern border, the Mossad recruited Eli to spy for them because of his flawless Arabic accent and bravery. Eli Cohen risked his life to save his nation. Thanks in part to the contributions of this heroic young man, Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967.”
Born in Nicaragua, Lazo immigrated to Canada with her family as a teenager. “Growing-up in a country where there is a lot of political upheaval and inequality, I was drawn to the story of Eli Cohen. His is a political story and I thrive on that,” she said.
Lazo first learned about Eli Cohen while touring Israel with an ex-Mossad guide. “I remember being at the monument in the Garden of the Missing in Action and after hearing his story, I cried,” said Lazo. “I came home with this burning force – I wanted everyone to know what Eli Cohen had done for Israel. So I wrote a story that the younger Jewish generation could know, and I wrote it through the lens of bravery. Eli is someone who changed our world and deserved to have a place in every child’s heart.”
Lazo’s daughters were the inspiration behind this children’s book. “When I wrote the story, my daughters were only six months and five years old. I wanted to write it in a way that would make sense to them. My vision was that a parent would be the one reading the story to their child,” said Lazo. “My daughter is now 17. When she was 15, she was still reading it with her friends.”
The 62-page, fully illustrated picture book includes a glossary of important facts and encourages conversation by asking the reader questions, such as, “How would this have affected you?” and “Wasn’t our spy so ingenious and clever?”
“It is important for young kids to read a story that shows them that we have a moral responsibility to stand for something that is bigger than ourselves and that it’s OK to feel fear,” Lazo said.
“Eli was fearful and conflicted – should he stay with his family or should he follow his desire to do something that was greater than himself? I wanted kids to know it’s also OK to be brave and to do it anyway. I tried to highlight certain dialogue with different colours throughout the book to encourage personal acts of bravery, like lifting your hand at school – that can be very scary for a lot of kids. I wanted them to think about what they were reading and really grasp the story.”
Lazo would like to see The Gift of Bravery used as a teaching tool in Jewish day schools. “If I can inspire even one person through my writing, then I’ve done my job. That is my goal,” she said.