Saying Goodbye to the Cousin I Never Knew

Were a mortal to live but a single year,
Or even a thousand,
It would not seem enough

– from an Interpretation of Tziduk Hadin, Justification of (Divine) Judgment

My 86 year-old Dad saw it on CNN first. American-Israeli soldier Max Steinberg, Golani Brigade, killed in action. Dad got completely flustered. Jake. Dad remembered Jake’s name. But what was his brother’s name? Was it Max? His 86-year old mind, often sharp as a tack, raced with shock, and then went blank with fright. He knew he had been to the boys’ joint bar mitzvah. The boys were the grandsons of my Dad’s first cousin, Sandy Steinberg.

My father called my brother, who stays in touch with everyone in our family. My brother checked. “It’s him, Dad.” Stuart and Evie’s son, Sandy’s grandson, Jake and Paige’s brother, Max.

My father’s call and my brother’s email arrived simultaneously. How could I not have known? I had already read everything I could get my hands on about Israel that day, as I do every day, wishing (to the bewilderment of most) that I was there, even now. I too, had heard and even read his name, Max Steinberg, a passionate 24 year-old Golani soldier, who reluctantly went on a birthright trip in 2012, only to find his heart and true home in Israel, his true passion fighting for its survival. I didn’t make the connection. I felt sick, as I do when I see a picture of every one of our beautiful sons and daughters lost, feeling like each is my own. But the truth is I had no idea a branch had now fallen off my own family tree.

How is that possible, you ask? That’s life in America. It’s a big country, and I’m the youngest by a broad stretch in a big family. Although Max’s grandfather Sandy was one of my Dad’s closest cousins and a huge part of my life, that larger than life, cool “uncle” from California who lit up the room when he walked in was one of three in that branch of the family I had the chance to meet, and the only family member I truly stayed in touch with. If I did meet any of my other cousins, I was too young to remember. Life went on, and I never met the next generation, which means I never met my cousin Max Steinberg. Our family and this country were just too big for every branch of the family tree to know every other branch.

It wasn’t like that before I was born. In the 1950s, most of my extended family lived in Youngstown, Ohio, and every birthday, every occasion, meant celebrating with all your relatives, on both sides of your family, whether or not you got along. But by 1970, my extended family began to spread from New Jersey to California, and staying in touch often meant an update via the Oyer grapevine, a.k.a. the telephone. Fewer were able to attend events, which led to “which one of us can go and represent our branch of the family?” and then to “who is going to send the card or plant the trees in Israel this time?” My extended family learned to celebrate our simchas and share in our collective losses from afar, honoring our family, but knowing the days of everyone living in the same community were long gone.

So there I sat. Staring at the computer screen, dumbfounded. A vague memory surfaced of my brother telling me about a cousin, enamored with Israel. But I couldn’t recall any details. So I read the articles again. And again. And I watched the videos. Over, and over. And I realized Max was the cousin my brother had once mentioned. My gut wrenched, sorrow welled from the marrow of my bones. I have 25 years on Max, but I was now learning how much we had in common. The loss felt enormous, impossible to contain. The tears poured.

Max went on his first trip to Israel in June 2012. I went on my first trip to Israel in October 2012. Max fell in love with Israel and returned six months later. I fell in love with Israel and returned six months later. After his first trip, Max decided to make aliyah. After my second trip, I made a commitment to myself to return every year with a goal of aliyah in six. They called him a free spirit. I have spent my life trying to ignore this moniker. How much more would we have found that we had in common, if only we had the chance to meet?

I look at his photograph. His eyes, his beautiful eyes, pierce my soul. I feel an unexplainable deep connection. His spirit is extremely present. I identify with Max’s rare passion, his choice to move to Israel, the feeling that a life lived in Israel has more meaning, and the knowing, the ultimate personal truth, that in Israel he is home. His brother Jake was quoted as saying Max was the guy who lit up the room. Just like his grandfather, my Uncle Sandy.  I am so damn proud of this cousin I never met, and he will always be a hero to me, and a precious, precious soul to all.

Max, although I never got the chance to know you, and my next trip to Israel will, incomprehensibly, include a visit to your grave instead of a visit to meet you, your beautiful soul is shining through to me right now. I can’t provide proof, but I have it on good authority that we are never born and we never die, but rather, our souls live forever. I take comfort in that notion, and therefore, Max, I have decided not to say “Goodbye,” but rather, “Until we meet again.”

Baruch Dayan HaEmet

Max 1

Max 2

Thirty thousand attend funeral

Max 3

About the Author
Nancy Oyer is a night owl who lives to ski, cook, eat, nap, play music and ride her bike in between being a geologist and doing her best to help keep Montana’s Jewish community alive and well in the new millennium. She feels most at home in the mountains of Montana and the hills of the Galilee.