The prosthetics ward of Tel HaShomer Hospital was in a lightweight Quonset hut. During the cease fire, twenty beds lined the walls, each filled with a young man who had lost a limb during the Yom Kippur War.
My kibbutznik friend, Michal, and I visited her friend Ron on a gray day in December. Ron lost his arm in an explosion in Sinai. A champion equestrian, it was a big loss for him, jeopardizing his hobby and possible livelihood. He confided in Michal that he worried he would never be able to ride again but felt embarrassed complaining. He knew his injury wasn’t the worst and that others suffered more, like Danny, the soldier next to him.
Danny lost his leg and suffered “b’li sof” – without end. He screamed from phantom pain in the middle of the night, waking the other soldiers. No medication could abate his agony. The others had pain, too, but painkillers worked. They were all tired and anxious not knowing how long or hard their rehab would be, what their lives would be like afterwards. They wondered if their losses and the loss of their buddies’ lives were worth it.
Despite how much ground the Israeli military recovered and conquered during the war, they were humiliated by their lack of initial preparedness, their reliance on US military aid, and the forced cease fire — just after they had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army. They weren’t the proud victors they had been in 1967; they felt defeated. The mood in the Quonset hut was somber, depression hung from the ceiling like ancient cobwebs.
My Hebrew was only so good. When Michal and her friend started talking about personal matters, my attention wandered off, muffled voices and an occasional phone ringing at a far-away nurse’s station in the background. As late afternoon approached, a soldier at the other end of the Quonset hut released his right leg from traction and stood on his left, leaning against the bed for balance. He wrapped himself in a prayer shawl and quietly began to daven.
A voice broke through the low hum. “Amerikaiyit!” I didn’t react.
Again, louder. “Amerikaiyit!” I turned around. It was Danny.
“Ani?” “Me? You want something?”
“Kayn, motek.” “Yes, sweetie. Come here.” I went to the end of his bed.
“Amerikaiyit, tashiri shir!” “American! Sing a song!”
I was put off by his request. Was he mocking me with his sarcastic “Amerikaiyit”? I’m not one of those Americans who visits Israel in a large tour bus, seeing the sights but never meeting Israelis or finding out what Israel is really like, I said to myself. I’m here, now, no bus, no silly kibbutz hat!
Impatiently, he demanded, “Tashiri shir!”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like you sing on your buses!”
In a mocking, nasal voice, he started to sing a childlike, “Dovid, Melech Yisrael…” I rolled my eyes, but he kept singing. I joined him, meekly at first, and then together we sang in strong, adult voices, “Dovid Melech Yisrael, chai chai vikayom!” David, King of Israel, lives — lives forever!
The soldier in the bed across the aisle joined in, “Dovid Melech Yisrael,” then the next guy and the next, “Chai chai vikayom!” In a flash, the whole ward was singing “Od avinu chai, od avinu chai!” Our father lives on! Those who could sat up in their beds. Nurses and doctors, visitors and patients on crutches and in wheelchairs poured into the room from the hallway. Then everyone burst into, “Am Yisroel am Yisrael am Yisrael chai, am Yisrael am Yisrael am Yisrael chai!” The people of Israel live! The Quonset hut seemed to be levitating.
The late afternoon sun broke through the clouds, seeping through the window behind the man who was davening. He finished praying and finally looked at all the people singing in the room. They responded with one voice, singing, “V’taher libeinu l’avdecha b’emet.” Purify our hearts so we may serve You in truth.
Suddenly the singing ended. Silence. The people looked at each other, holding onto the moment with a faint smile that seemed to say, “Now we remember why.” A sense of lightness floated in the air as people drifted out of the ward and the bedridden soldiers settled back into their pillows.
Michal signaled it was time to leave. Danny leaned over to me and said warmly, “Shalom, Amerikaiyit.” “Shalom, Danny. Todah.” Thank you.
On the 50th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, thank you, Danny, Ron, and all the IDF for your sacrifices defending Israel and Am Yisrael, time and time again. Am Yisrael Chai!
The names of the soldiers are changed. If you were at Tel Hashomer Hospital that day, please contact me.