Living the Dream
Since moving to Israel a year and a half ago, I have gained a deeper appreciation and admiration for Israelis. One aspect I’ve always marveled at over the years is the equanimity and grace displayed by families of terror victims. Though I felt the tragedy of the events deeply from my bedroom in my then-leafy suburb in New Rochelle, NY, the comportment of the families overwhelmingly seemed otherworldly – or superhuman – and therefore difficult for me to relate to.
One does not unfortunately need to go back too far in time for examples of this extraordinary Israeli trait. Take Devorah Paley. In February this year, her 2 young sons, Yaakov Yisrael (6) and Asher Menahem (8) – who by their photos look like little angels with their impish grins and gorgeous innocent blue-green eyes – were murdered by a terrorist who rammed his car into the Jerusalem bus stop where they were waiting. Their father, Devorah’s husband, was critically injured, still hospitalized in a coma, when reporters interviewed Devorah during the shiva. She spoke of her belief “that just as Hashem gave them (Yaakov and Asher) with love, He also took them from us with love”. She urged people not to look for revenge and pleaded for unity. Her grace and אמונה (faith) stunned me.
Fast forward to early April, when the Dee family of 7 tragically became a family of 4, after a terrorist gunned down elegant wife/mom Lucy and 2 of their daughters, Rina (15) and Maia (20) in their car as they were traveling to טבריה (Tiberias) during חול המועד (intermediary days of) Pesach. In every photo I’ve seen of them, Rina and Maia’s refined beauty shines through, the epitome of Jewish חן. I remember reading Rabbi Dee’s email and hearing him speak very shortly after his loss and being completely gobsmacked as he spoke of unity, love, and peace, decrying hate, and describing the “shalom” plan he was working on with an imam in Haifa. In addition, Lucy’s heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys were generously donated and transplanted, saving the lives of five people including an Arab Israeli Muslim, all before she was laid to rest. I found myself having the same reaction I had been having for years, but with a renewed sense of awe: Who are these גיבורים (heroes)? They are the finest human beings I’ve ever encountered. How do they reach this level of אֱמוּנָה in their relationship to Hashem, עם ישראל, and humanity? Could it be their religious practice that drives their spiritual perfection?
Regrettably, my journey of observation was far from over, as since Oct 7, there has been a steady supply of examples of Israelis at their finest. Eyal Waldman, a highly successful Israeli tech executive, is known internationally for attempting to foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians through his work in technology. His company Mellanox – before being sold to Nvidia – hired Palestinian tech workers in Gaza, Nablus, and the West Bank town of Rawabi, even leading to a “60 Minutes” appearance. Over decades, Eyal explained: “We wanted to make peace, to work together, to bring prosperity to the Palestinian people, the same as we have in Israel ” He even influenced Apple and other companies to open design centers in Rawabi. Tragically, on Oct 7, Eyal’s youngest daughter, Danielle, 24, and her boyfriend, Noam Shay, 26, were murdered while attempting to flee the Supernova music festival. Danielle and Noam were students who met six years ago in the army and had been inseparable since. One of their favorite activities was dancing together. Pictures of Danielle portray a carefree young woman with a wide smile, just on the cusp of what could have been a very exciting adult life. In an interview Eyal gave to an Israeli English news program shortly after Oct 7, he describes how he went down south seeking answers and was able to find the bullet-ridden car in which his daughter and her friends met their deaths. He comes down hard on Hamas, admitting that peaceful cohabitation has taken a setback of several years, but says towards the end of the interview that even as he buries his beloved daughter, taken from this world far too soon, he extends his hand out for peace. Who is this deeply thoughtful man who despite losing his most precious gift, clings to the dream of peace? Eyal is not דתי (observant) like Devorah Paley or Rabbi Dee, yet I am equally floored by his equanimity and courage amid the worst kind of pain. At a time when his tragedy is still so raw, he can see beyond it to a better future for Israel and its neighbors.
The most recent example is Iris Haim, whose actions and words following her very complex family tragedy wow my senses so much that it destabilizes the very foundation of my framework for expected human reactions. I first encountered Iris in an interview she gave a few weeks ago regarding her son Yotam, 28, who was abducted by Hamas on Oct 7 from Kibbutz Kfar Azza. At the time of the interview, her son was a captive in Gaza for a month and a half already, with no news about him. On that terrible Shabbat/Simchat Torah, Yotam had texted her, “Mom, I’m burning,” and then silence. Iris was one of several family members of hostages interviewed in this segment rallying for the release of their loved ones. Yet, I could not help noticing something very special about her in particular. It wasn’t just her hip hairstyle, or gorgeous eyes and smile. I thought of her many times since, because her overwhelming positivity and grace impressed me so deeply. I discovered that weeks earlier, she had given an interview with Maariv, in which she so eloquently expressed: “Now that I understand that my son is in Gaza, I allow myself to decide what I see and how I live. I live in the consciousness that my son is suffering or I live in the consciousness that my son is fine. And I choose to live in the consciousness that he is fine. It is a completely informed choice, very difficult, but it is a choice that is accessible to me.”
From the pictures I’ve seen of Yotam, who was a drummer for the heavy metal band Persephone, his shock of thick orange-red hair and easy smile make it impossible to ignore how much he and his mom resembled each other. They seem to match each other’s energy. Tragically, Yotam was one of the 3 hostages who were shot dead in error by IDF soldiers on Dec 15. Since then, Iris had the presence of mind to record the following message, addressing the soldiers of the Bislamach Brigade’s 17th Battalion, who were responsible for her son’s death: “This is Iris Haim. I am Yotam’s mother. I wanted to tell you that I love you very much, and I hug you here from afar.” She continues: “I know that everything that happened is absolutely not your fault, and nobody’s fault except that of Hamas, may their name be wiped out and their memory erased from the earth. I want you to look after yourselves and to think all the time that you are doing the best thing in the world . . . Because all the people of Israel and all of us need you healthy.” She urges: “And don’t hesitate for a second if you see a terrorist. Don’t think that you killed a hostage deliberately. You need to protect yourself because that’s the only way you can protect us.” She closes by saying: “At the first opportunity, you are invited to come to us, whoever wants to. And we want to see you with our own eyes and hug you and tell you that what you did — however hard it is to say this, and sad — it was apparently the right thing at that moment. And nobody’s going to judge you or be angry. Not me, and not my husband Raviv. Not my daughter Noya. And not Yotam, may his memory be blessed. And not Tuval, Yotam’s brother. We love you very much. And that is all.”
As I relay Iris’ message, although I’ve read it twice before, tears are spilling over my bottom eyelids, leading to a full-throated sob. Perhaps it is simply the emotional overflow when witnessing a very holy person. I am not very knowledgeable yet about Israeli politics and all its complexities, but as a keen observer, it appears that most Israelis want a clean sweep of government once this war is over. I think Iris Haim should be our next Prime Minister. Who agrees?
I would be remiss if I didn’t also describe the great awe I have of Israeli parents in general. They are the hundreds of thousands of moms and dads who send their sons and daughters to war with a real sense of duty and commitment to the cause, but also spend the next weeks, months, or more, in a suspended state of sleeplessness, worry, panic, dread, and an unending chain of prayers on their lips. They tell me “No news is good news”, but in the same breath: “It’s so hard . . .I haven’t heard from him/her in weeks!” What blows my mind is that I don’t see these parents hesitating in this duty, even though many of them hate the current government, and even though they are putting their children in the trust of the same IDF, intelligence, and leadership that – through many layers of failures – allowed Oct 7 to happen. A huge shout-out to the amazing lone soldier parents, who are true גיבורים in their own right, but frankly, I can’t see this level of commitment and duty replicated at scale in the West. We Westerners tend to equivocate. We weigh our choices and optimize possibilities, and we are not accustomed to sacrificing in this very personal way for the כלל (collective). The fact is, we are never asked to.
And this incredible Israeli grace perseveres even at the unfortunate growing number of funerals for our supremely brave soldiers, male and female. A couple of weeks ago, Ben Zussman, a 22-year-old soldier killed in Gaza was laid to rest. His mother Sarit ended her הספד (eulogy) with the following words: “The Nation of Israel lives, for all of eternity, forever and ever, standing tall, head held high, now more than ever. Be strong, believe, pursue goodness – demand goodness, and we will win.” Sarit – like too many other parents – lost her precious son in a fight to protect us and yet finds the courage to comfort and inspire עם ישראל. The saying “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ smacks me in the head as I read the letter Ben penned in preparation for his potential death in combat. He writes his family: “If something happens to me, I refuse to let you wallow in sadness.” He continues saying that he had the privilege of fulfilling his dream [of defending his country] and that if he was captured by Hamas, he did not want terrorists to be released for him or other soldiers or citizens harmed to secure his release. This is a 22-year-old young man, barely out of his teenage years!! Many of his counterparts in the U.S. are getting drunk every night at frat parties stressing over their upcoming test in their Gender Studies course or where to vacation over spring break. The divergence in terms of maturity, responsibility, courage, focus, and love of country couldn’t be greater.
In closing, I want to address all the incredibly brave soldiers of the IDF: I am eternally grateful for your enormous sacrifice and service, and for putting your lives on the line for our collective future. And to all Israelis: You have a unique and remarkable salt-of-the-earth quality that I greatly admire. I am new here. I want to drink in and learn from you, what drives you to put your communities and nation first, above your own needs. I want to internalize your מידות, so they become mine and suspect it will take me a long time to get there. In ספר ישעיהו (Book of Isaiah) Hashem calls upon the Jews to be אור לגויים – a light onto the nations. I’ve discovered that you, Israelis, are the brightest light of all!
May Hashem protect our soldiers and bring our hostages home unharmed. May He heal the wounded, who are often forgotten in the news and statistics, and in the retelling of stories of Oct 7 and its aftermath. May the נשמות (souls) of all the murdered and fallen have perpetual aliyot and their memories be a blessing for us always.
,אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַנְּתוּנִים בְּצָרָה וּבַשִּׁבְיָה
הָעוֹמְדִים בֵּין בַּיָּם וּבֵין בַּיַּבָּשָׁה,
הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה, וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה, וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה,
הַשְׁתָּא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב.