Jeremy M Staiman

Old Words, New Meanings

Image by Staiman Design

The war here in Israel brings back memories from the past. 

In July 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, I was one several members of Baltimore’s Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim who flew to Israel for an intensive two-day mission of support. We visited shiva houses of slain soldiers, hospitals where the wounded soldiers were being treated, and various locations where families from northern Israel had fled from the rain of missiles. Our frenetic mission of mercy yielded many experiences and many stories. The following is but one, which I captured in words following that conflict. 

Old Words, New Meanings

There are Hebrew words we have all used – perhaps our entire lives – which can abruptly and permanently take on radically new meanings. 

Such was the case last week, when I learned new usages for several familiar words. 

Word Number One is Sukkah. We are used to referring to a sukkah as the festive dwelling where we celebrate zman simchaseinu – the time of our joy. We had the unfortunate privilege to witness a far different sukkah — a sukkas aveilim – a tent for mourners.

As we all know, Israel is a small country, and in troubled times it can be all too brutally reminded that it is also one small family. The outpouring of support and honor for its fallen soldiers can easily overwhelm the confines of its typically modest apartments. Thus, mourning families will sometimes erect a large temporary outdoor structure to host the many many who have come from near and far to help comfort them on their loss. 

This sukkas aveilim looks a lot like a traditional sukkah, minus the schach and without regard for any particular halachic structural requirements. It is set up to accommodate dozens, or even hundreds, of visitors at a time. One can only wish that our annual sukkahs would hold as much simcha as these sukkahs hold grief.

The truth is, we never sat in one. But we passed one on the way in to visit the Klein family in the Tel Aviv suburb or Ra’anana. At the time of day we arrived, their apartment was able to bear the relatively small number of visitors.

Our intent was to visit the Klein home even before it became the site of Israel’s most recent legendary hero. In truth, Ro’i Klein should be called Israel’s most recent martyr, but that title has been so painfully perverted by our foes, that to apply it to one of our own seems almost demeaning. 

Ro’i’s inspiring story had been told the night before by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the Knesset, and has since been retold around the world. It bears yet another repetition, for reasons which will become apparent. As the Prime Minister explained, Ro’i found himself in a fierce firefight early on in the battle to wrest the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil. Unlike the practice of most other armies, Israeli officers go into battle in front of their men. Ro’I, as an officer, was at the forefront of the battle, accompanied by his radio operator, when they were faced with old familiar Hebrew Word Number Two.


Rimon is the pomegranate we all enjoy and connect to Rosh Hashanah, a time when many have a custom to pray that HaShem increase our merits to become as bountiful as the seeds of the pomegranate. But rimon in modern Hebrew also means grenade. And in the split second in which Ro’i Klein and his radio operator were faced with the grenade that had been tossed in front of them, Ro’i threw his body upon it to absorb the blow. The 31-year-old father of two didn’t give a second thought to giving his life for the 19-year-old kid who held his radio. Ro’i’s body, the story went, absorbed the blast, blowing off his legs. Yet he did not immediately die. He lived for another two minutes, during which he did two things. First, he ordered the surviving radioman to call in their position and situation so that the other men of his troop might get the tactical support they desperately needed. And with his last words, he cried out the Jew’s ultimate declaration of faith: Shema Yisrael HaShem Elokeinu HaShem Echad!

It was a truly uplifting story, and a proud testament to the soldiers fighting for our homeland. Until we entered the Klein’s home.

Sitting in the living room, there were several minutes of the uncomfortably tense silence which is often present in a shiva home. What do you say to someone you don’t know, who has just lost a family member in the line of duty? Complicating the matter was that we were not sitting close enough to comfortably engage the mourners in conversation, but close enough for them to wonder why a group of complete strangers had parked themselves in their home. 

Determined to fulfill our mission of somehow lightening the load of our Israeli brethren – if only temporarily and minimally – we moved closer to the family. I was now seated right next to Ro’i’s sister.

“We have come from America,” I began in Hebrew, “to tell you how much we appreciate all that you have given, and all that you have sacrificed.” I had practiced the words so that I could at least begin to tell the family why we were there. It was a line that I repeated often during our many visits, which did nothing to diminish its sincerity. Our message was that we care. That the entire Bnai Yisrael cares, whether up North, down South, or across the globe.

As in other homes, this introduction was followed by the sister reacting with some surprise, and informing the other mourners who we were, and why we had come. It led naturally to other discussions, which each of us held with the various family members. 

One of us said: “We heard the story of your brother,” to which we were treated to a surprising response. “Ani lo betucha.” I’m not sure, she told me. Was she saying that she didn’t believe the story of her brother’s heroism? Or perhaps she was saying that she wasn’t sure the story should be told at all. She continued, but her explanation didn’t really resolve this question for me. 

“My brother would not have liked this at all. He was a very quiet person. We don’t think this story should have been used in the Knesset like that.” So that was it. The family seemed to suspect that the story was being used as pro-war propaganda to boost Israeli morale, and that it may not have happened like that at all. What a shame it would be if the story was an exaggeration, or even worse, a fabrication.

We steered the conversation away from that storyline to discuss Ro’i, the deeply religious person, to talk to his mother, the English teacher, and to discover a strong Baltimore connection to the family. And we left, hoping that we had given some measure of comfort to the kin of a hero – whether or not the dramatic war story surrounding his death was true.

We moved on to Rambam Hospital, where many of the wounded were being treated. There we met other soldiers whose stories might have been less dramatic than Ro’i’s, yet no less heroic. There was the soldier who had dragged his injured buddy over a wall to safety. There he had encountered fire, and been badly injured himself. The buddy did not make it, but as his family had concluded shiva, they went immediately to the hospital to visit and thank the surviving soldier for trying to save their dear son. 

There was the soldier who was first on the scene of his battle, and the first to be injured. The bullet entered the front of his face, shattering his jaw, and exited the side of his head, taking along part of his ear. The bandaging around his head and the unfamiliarity of his new Swiss titanium jawbone muffled his speech. Yet he clearly expressed a common sentiment: this is an important battle, and he wants to go right back up and finish the job. One commander we met there told us that as soon as he learned that the bullet had been removed from his head, he had pulled out his IV lines in an effort to get back to his men. The nurses had to tie him down to keep him from leaving the hospital and rejoining his unit.

And then there was the kid. He looked fourteen, but we knew he must have been older than that to be serving in the army. He greeted us warmly, despite his leg injuries. His father was at his side, also radiating warmth. This was a special boy, you could tell immediately. They told us that when he was brought in, before he would allow them to operate and remove the shrapnel from his body, he insisted on borrowing a cell phone from the nurse. He called his parents to tell them he had been injured, but that he would be o.k. He wanted the dreaded call to come from him so he could reassure them, rather than from some anonymous Army officer whose call would only plunge them into a nightmare of uncertainty and fear.

This sweet, considerate young soldier had not heard the Prime minister’s address, so he hadn’t heard the story of Ro’i Klein. He hadn’t heard it, but he knew it. He had lived it. He was the radioman. His was the life spared by the life sacrificed. 

We asked what had happened, and he told us the story. How the grenade had been tossed in front of them. How Ro’i had pounced upon it. How his dying words were the words of Shema, uttered, as he said: “b’kavanah gedolah,” with the greatest feeling and intent. Every word of the story was true. 

I might debate the propriety of publicizing Ro’i’s story, in deference to the wishes of his family. But it’s not only now a matter of public record; it’s a matter of national pride. A Jewish soldier dying al Kiddush Hashem with the words of our faith on his lips being carried heavenward. It’s a story that should be told. That must be told.


Familiar Hebrew Word Number Three is not really a word at all. It’s a smell. And where the first two words might forever scar my positive associations with their earlier meanings, this one will, I pray, always sweeten a previously pungent odor. Let me explain.

After the official mission was over, each of us was left with the spiritual aftershock of our efforts. There was still more to do, and we were inspired to find meaningful and productive avenues for our emotions. I was told of a soup kitchen near Machaneh Yehuda that needed volunteers to help prepare meals for Jerusalem’s needy. Friday morning, the morning after Tisha B’Av, I headed to Chazon Yeshaya Soup Kitchen. I arrived at the converted schoolhouse, and was shown into the kitchen. There I met Tamir, the amiable tall Israeli who seemed to be running the show. At that time, fairly early in the day, there were only a few of us. 

“What can I do?” I asked. Tamir showed me some zucchini that needed to be peeled and cut. Some? Actually, he showed me 10 cases of zucchini! I got started. In the course of the next couple of hours more volunteers showed up, and I was lucky enough to be reassigned to such various tasks as schlepping hundreds of pounds of rice, peeling dozens of potatoes, counting 200 pitas, dividing cases of fishcakes and helping serve countless ravenous-yet-boisterous Yerushalmis. We helped prepare 200 Shabbos meals to be shipped up to the war-torn North, to families whose supermarkets were either bare or simply shuttered.

When I left, I tossed the gloves I had worn in the trash, and rolled up my disposable apron, stowing it in my pocket as a prized souvenir of a deeply rewarding day. 

Then I smelled my hands. They had the familiar sour smell of medical gloves. It was an odor that had always been the stench of sickness. Perhaps even of death. It was a smell that, even hours and multiple hand-washings later, seemed to linger.

Only now this smell had mutated into something holy. It had become the aroma of kindness. Of feeding the hungry. Of doing for others in need.

So many transformations. 

From sukkahs to mourning. From pomegranates to grenades. I only hope that the overwhelming transformation for myself and for all of Israel is that the smell of death be forever replaced with the sweet, lingering bouquet of loving-kindness.

Reprinted with the permission of Baltimore’s WhereWhatWhen magazine

About the Author
Jeremy Staiman and his wife Chana made Aliya from Baltimore, MD in 2010 to Ramat Beit Shemesh. A graphic designer by trade, Jeremy is a music lover, and produces music on a regular basis -- one album every 40 years. He likes to spend time with his kids and grandkids slightly more often than that.
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