Tonight, a man walked into a yeshiva here in Jerusalem, and shot and killed 8 people, 7 of them teenagers, and wounding dozens of others, 11 of them seriously. They were celebrating the first day of Adar Bet, the happiest month of the year. I don’t have more to say. What can I say? I can remember the fallen, but frankly, that just isn’t enough right now. When there’s a real hurt, a physical pain in the pit of my stomach from this…bedlam, then all of the pretty words or high-minded ideals don’t help. It’s just, sometimes a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed.
Archive for the 'War' Category
So here we are again, on the eve of another Yom HaZikaron, (Israeli Memorial Day), only this time it’s different. At least, for me, it’s different.
Last time, it was the Other People we were mourning – people from stories, people from history. Even when I was living in a Yeshivat Hesder, where many of my peers were soldiers on active duty, even (and I truly hate to admit it) when those I knew were affected or even killed, I still had a level of detachment. I see that now, because I can feel that falling away. Now these people don’t just include my friends or family. They’re also the neighbors downstairs whose kids make so much noise, the barber who cuts my hair, the strangers I exchange glances with on the bus.
And now, I look at the soldiers still protecting us, mourning their fallen comrades, and realize I could be one of them. Because I recently received a tzav rishon, the first step in the army draft process. Now, I know that at 24 years old (having moved here at 23), I won’t be assigned anything resembling a standard tour of duty, and I might not end up getting drafted at all. But I’m on the list, and when I saw that letter, it affected me more deeply than I’d expected. I mean, I knew it was coming, but like a lot of things in my life lately, seeing it out-there-in-the-world caught me by surprise. There it was. The Israeli army, talking to me, asking me whether I should join them. Israelis are ‘us’ now, not ‘them.’
This morning, I opened the newspaper and saw two stories plastered across the front page: “Israel Remembers the Fallen, page 2,” and “Kassam Rocket hits House in Sderot, page 3.” One can’t help but be struck by the odd juxtaposition. We are remembering those fallen in the past even as we tearfully add the recently killed to the list. I’ve heard it said once that Israel’s problem is that it remembers too much. Past injustices and hatreds and problems don’t go away, because we’re always caught up in what happened, never able to put it behind us. That may be so – I don’t know – but I wonder if we really have a choice. We aren’t just remembering the past; the past is constantly protruding uninvited into the present. We’re putting flowers on the graves of the fallen, while missiles crash into our houses.
And the flowers. 600,000 of them are being laid on graves tomorrow, according to the newspaper. 600,000. A significant number: the population of battle-ready Jewish males that left Egypt for the Land of Israel, and roughly the population of Jews in the very same Land of Israel in 1947, right before the creation of the state. In Ancient Egypt, there was an enemy with an irrational hatred of us, who subjected us to inhuman suffering just because. And we left, the 600,000 men taking their families with them. 3000+ years later, 600,000 Jews faced a similarly implacable enemy. And now, we put 600,000 flowers on 22,305 graves, get up, and continue fighting the same war we’ve been fighting for 60 years, the same war we’ve been fighting for 3000 years, ever since we were forged into a nation in the iron furnace of Egypt.
Put the past behind us? Some days I wish we could. I really do. But it’s simply not possible.
The question here, the real important question, is what do we do on Yom HaZikaron? Because I think this says a lot about us – how we remember, how we mourn. Rather than succumb to the bitterness that, arguably, we have a right to, we hold our ceremonies, and we tell our stories. We honor our fallen and commit ourselves to pursue the values they died fighting for. And we sound a siren, and for a full minute, everything else stops. Everything listens to the siren wailing for potential lost, families torn asunder, and rivers of tears shed. The same siren is sounded on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, but the two couldn’t be more different. True, both are for Jews killed by their enemies, and both are a way of remembering and honoring the departed. But while the deaths in the Holocaust stand silently in defiance of explanation, dragging reason kicking and screaming from the room, the deaths in Israel’s wars are a result of people fighting for Israel. They’re a result of people living lives of meaning, lives of purpose, lives of dedication to something greater than themselves. And when you look at it that way, it’s a bit easier to staunch the flow of bitterness. When you look at it that way, it makes a lot more sense that at the moment that Yom HaZikaron ends, Yom HaAtzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) begins. We’re not just fighting the wars of the past; we’re also living the dream of the past. The two are linked.
Last night, I heard in great detail, the story of Roi Singer, a doctor who was among the first miliumnikim (reservists) sent into Lebanon last summer. As he told his story, I tried to imagine myself in his shoes, performing surgery under fire, or as one of the soldiers he was treating. It was a weird feeling, to say the least. Yes, I know: I likely won’t see active combat any time soon. But there’s still that letter from the army sitting on my desk. I still have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday to see if I’m fit for combat. And I’m still going to the enlistment office in a week or so, as ordered by the government. No matter how this turns out in my particular case, that little letter was an important one to me. Here’s the government saying, in its own bureaucratic way, “like it or not, you’re part of our story now, not just a spectator. You can’t stand on the sidelines anymore; we have more than enough people there. It’s time to be an active participant.” I just hope I’m up to the task.
I moved here to Israel two weeks after the Second Lebanon War ended, when the bitter taste of it still lingered. As the nation now prepares (or braces itself) for Lebanon War #3, people are looking back to last year and what happened then. I recently stumbled across this article (via Good Neighbors) and it threw me for a loop:
Together, Helen and I had tried to create a tidy little universe with a population of two. In this universe, it didn’t matter that I was a Jew and Helen was an Arab. We were beyond the politics….
Politics slumbered alongside us. Sometimes it spoke in its sleep, sometimes it rolled over, but it did not wake up.
And then, the war.
When the morning newscast announced that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped along the border of Lebanon, I felt the dream world that Helen and I had constructed around ourselves begin to evaporate….
As the war raged on, our morning ritual of listening to the news on NPR became agonizing. Helen still hadn’t heard from her aunts and uncles and cousins, and she feared the worst. I switched my alarm clock from “radio” to “buzzer.”
One morning, about a week after the conflict had begun, the tension was especially palpable. All of a sudden, Helen threw down her boots in frustration. Her fingers balled into fists.
“We have to talk,” she said.
“I know,” I replied.
“You are so distant,” she said. Helpless and angry, she stared out the window.
I picked up Helen’s boots and brought them to her.
“I don’t even know what to say,” was the best I could do. I was afraid that if we talked, we would discover that we just could not be together. I was afraid of discovering that love had failed to elevate us to a place beyond politics. “Please,” I begged, “give me some time.”
….I was terrified. Terrified that someone from Helen’s family could get killed by an Israeli bomb. Terrified that every time I saw her Caller ID, I thought it would be our last conversation. I kept imagining her carefully chosen words, her contrite tone as she whispered through the tears, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore.”
My friends were supportive, and a few admitted to being inspired by us, framing our relationship in hopeful, hyperbolic terms, a microcosm of the peace process itself. When I expressed my own doubts, one overzealous friend scolded me, “You can’t give up! You owe it to humanity to make this work.”
As if I didn’t have enough on my mind. Now world peace hinged on my ability to find common ground with my girlfriend.
And so on. They go through some really rocky times, and the emotion is real and needs no hyperbole to validate itself. (Read the article itself to see how it turns out.) My issues with intermarriage and interreligious couples aside, it was touching.
In any case, after reading it, a memory bubbled up from the depths of my head – something I’ve hardly thought about in 3 years, even though at the time, it seemed like one of those moments, the ones you remember in a very real way. Back when I was in college, during my sophomore year, I was hanging out in my room in the CJL, the Jewish living house on campus. My door was open, and I heard (or maybe saw) a girl about my age wandering around cautiously. She clearly was looking for something and was not familiar with or particularly comfortable in our house. Being the friendly guy I was (am?), I walked out of my room to help her out. She her name was Tori (I think) and she was looking for the Hillel and I explained (as we often did) that we were not the Hillel, but I could show her where to find it. She dismissed my offer wearily, too emotionally drained to go wandering around another unfamiliar building. I invited her to sit down, she collapsed on the couch and started breaking down in tears.
The story came out: she was Jewish and going out with an Arab guy, I think a Palestinian. At some point, The Conflict came up. One of his friends said something negative about Jews, and she protested. Her boyfriend said “your people are f-ing unpleasant.” She was floored. She hadn’t expected this at all. From what she said, it seemed like that, and the brief fallout afterwards, were the last words they’d exchanged. He and his friend called several times during our conversation, but she hung up on them each and every time. There was no bridge-building here. It wasn’t even a consideration.
Back to her sitting on the couch, crying. Here I have a girl crying because politics and bigotry reared their ugly heads in this place she thought was safe. Tori felt so helpless, she told me, since she didn’t know much about The Conflict and couldn’t argue with them. I started to explain the issues and complexities of the whole messy situation in Israel, but it was clear (or at least, it’s clear to me now) that she didn’t need a history lesson. She needed a friend. She didn’t need someone to solve this; there was no solution. She needed someone to listen. And I did somewhat, and I hope it was sufficient. She left, with nothing resolved, nothing accomplished, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just missed an opportunity. But for what, exactly?
This story has a postscript. I emailed her shortly after her visit, offerring to help if I could. She didn’t reply in any meaningful way, and I didn’t hear from her again. Months later, I was leading a seder (among many others) at school, and who should show up at my table, but Tori. But not weeping, uncertain Tori. This was dressed-up, confident, sorority-girl Tori. And since I hadn’t met this version of her, she acted the part. There was a flicker of recognition, a brief nod, when I started pointing out that we’d met before, but then it was gone. We went through the whole seder and throughout, no one but us could’ve guessed that here was a girl who’d broken down crying and poured her heart out to me. I was like her psychologist; I had seen her at her most emotionally vulnerable. We’d been strangers from the moment she’d walked out of my room that day.