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Parenting a lone soldier

When orphans marry, it's small wonder that their child finds a large clan in the Jewish people

Two orphans stood under the wedding canopy. Like me, my new husband’s parents had died when he was young, and I was convinced that the mutual friend who introduced us relied on this shared family quirk for assessing our suitability.

In the early years, being parent-free served us well, for there were no in-laws to impress, however, as our children were born, the loss suddenly became more profound and poignant. When I was a child, grandparents were a luxury in a community of refugees, but for my children, grandparents are de rigueur and I was jealous that all the other children had living, joyful, playful, real grandparents who came to their school plays, bought them birthday presents and took them out for ice cream. There was none of that for my children, and over time, I simply got used to it.

But this week, the sadness returned as I sat in the bleachers at “Ba’ad Echad,” and watched my daughter, a lone soldier from London, become an officer in the IDF. I thought of my father who, at the same age as my daughter, had been tattooed number 10927 in Auschwitz and managed to survive Buchenwald. I thought of my mother who had been hidden during the war as a 7-year-old child. And as happy as I was for my daughter, I was sad that her grandparents had not lived to see this modern miracle.

626 soldiers graduated from the IDF Officer Training School at my daughter’s ceremony this week. 626 miracles who are exceptional in their ordinariness. The children of Ethiopian families, Druze families, Haredi families and from all strata of Israeli society — miracles of survival with alienation and displacement stories of their own who are all contributing to the complex mosaic of Israeli society.

In fact, my father Eliyahu tried to enter pre-State Palestine, but in 1947 was shipped in third class passage from Haifa to Freemantle, Western Australia. He was deeply appreciative of Australia and loved Israel from afar, awed by its very existence and vicariously proud of its achievements. Yet he would never have dared to imagine that one day, Elisheva, his namesake granddaughter, would be a defender of the State.

As a rookie chutznik parent, I watched as large family clans arrived, laden with baskets of food, carrying placards and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with their son or daughter’s beaming face (why didn’t anyone warn me?) The woman next to me proudly told me it was her fourth grandchild that she’d seen graduate. And as we stood to sing Hatikvah, I finally understood that Elisheva and her sisters have lost more than just the physical absence of grandparents — they have inherited loss but by definition, cannot recognise it. With scant knowledge of their family history and with parents who themselves have wandered from home, my children have become somewhat rootless, “glocal” millennials. While the army is not a solution to this existential challenge, perhaps it helps explain why a young woman from the Diaspora would embed herself in the central story of the Jewish people in modern times.

Poignantly, we arrived in Israel in time for the haunting echoes of Yom Hashoah, and will return to London with the reverberations of Yom Ha’atzmaut ringing in our ears.

We are leaving the country a priceless gift. Please look after her.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly prize, which reflects on raising her daughters while straddling the tensions between Orthodoxy and modernity. First published in 1997, it is being reissued in the summer of 2019, with an extensive update reflecting on the changes in Orthodox women's lives over the last 20 years.
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