These streams have usually been a compilation of personal thoughts with a serving of history and a dash of opinion. For the next few days, while in Israel, I want to detail some experiences too.
It will take me months, if not years, to digest what we are seeing and experiencing.
I arrived from the airport, checked into the empty hotel and ran upstairs to my room to quickly shower. I grabbed the closest cab and we headed to Har Herzl, the Arlington Cemetery of Israel. There was a funeral for Yossi Hershkovitz starting. While I did not know him personally, he taught at one time at the SAR school in Riverdale and was the principal of the Pelech Boys School in Jerusalem. We shared many friends in common. Yossi died in a tunnel that was booby-trapped by Hamas terrorists. He leaves both his parents, his wife, and six children.
The traffic crawled getting to the cemetery. Lining the streets were throngs of people standing at attention, waving blue and white flags, awaiting the funeral cortège for Yossi. Most of these people never knew him but they all loved him and wanted to pay homage for his sacrifice.
Upon entering the cemetery, makeshift tables with drinks, sandwiches and light snacks were available for anyone attending any funeral. I say ‘any’ funeral because there have been dozens a day. There is an enormous new section of freshly tilled soil that the dead of October 7th and most of the 45 – to date – soldiers who died in Gaza, are buried. It is haunting. A giant tent is set up over the graves. It will be there until they move to a new section. No ‘if’ they move. We are all resigned to ‘when’ they do.
Somehow or another I slithered my way towards the front of the masses waiting for the burial. My eyes scanned the crowd and I saw a familiar face. We were surprised to see each other. I asked if she knew Yossi and she pointed to her teenage son, fair haired and blue eyed with red rims, from tears.
“He was his principal,” she said.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said how sorry I was. He just stared at me. What could he say?
Before the family walked in, about every fifteen minutes there were a set of announcements on the loud speaker. They were not prerecorded. My Hebrew is pretty good but I was not able to piece it together. They said something about the pain of the family and that we should all pray for the soldiers and wounded. Then they said we have 1 minute and 30 seconds. We need to get to the floor and hands on our head.
I had attended many a funeral in Israel but never a military funeral and never at Har Herzl. Was this a form of mourning for soldiers? Was this a Sephardic custom? Do we greet mourners at the grave for this short time?
After the third round of announcements, I turned to that familiar face and sheepishly said, “What is this custom about 1 minute and 30 seconds?”
She said, “That is how long we have if there are rockets overhead from Gaza. Get to the ground and cover your head.” She then went on to say that at a few of the funerals there were sirens in Jerusalem.
My God! I was fresh off the plane and totally native to what was the reality and jargon of life here. Even at funerals, instructions for rockets and shrapnel overhead have to be given. My mind was on mourning. Everyone else’s mind was on mourning AND on knowing how to protect themselves if sirens are heard. This was their daily life and I was walking right into it like a simpleton. Oblivious. Naïve.
In the front of the open grave where the family was supposed to sit, were chairs for dignitaries. Yossi’s commanding officer was there. A few others from his platoon. Noticeably present was the Mayor of Jerusalem, Moshe Lyon. He eulogized Yossi eloquently. Noticeably absent was Bibi. When 9/11 happened, Mayor Giuliani attended EVERY fire-fighters funeral. Every one. All 343. Rudy might be a free falling nut-case now, but at that horrible time for New York, he personified leadership and grace. Bibi’s absence was felt.
I looked back to the crowd, and while never very good at estimating crowds, there must have been 7-8 thousand people assembled. They joined in a soft chant of consoling songs. Have you ever heard 8,000 people sing softly? It is beyond description. It wasn’t loud but the sounds were in stereo, from all directions.
This is the rain season in Israel but it is unusually warm. Summer is hanging on and not letting go. I thought to myself, Israel doesn’t need a rain season. The collective tears will give all the water the country needs.
Yossi’s father eulogized him. How strange that a father eulogizes a son?! Then, Yossi’s oldest son spoke. In a painful poetry, his name is Be’eri, which is the same name as the Kibbutz near Gaza that was hit worst on the 7th of October. Now there is a second Be’eri that is shattered.
Please forgive me for what I am about to write. It hurt to hear those eulogies. It pained me to look in every direction and see grown, tall men, rifles slung over their shoulders, wallowing in tears. Whimpers were heard like a kennel full of puppies whose mother was taken from them. And at the very same time, right then and there, I felt whole again. For the first time in five-weeks my body was complete. My feet were exactly where my heart had been. They were united. I was home and exactly where I needed to be. That felt whole. It was incredibly painful, but right.
I went from the cemetery to my cousins house where family from my side and my wife’s side convened. We were in no mindset to go to a restaurant. We picked up dinner and ate at her kitchen table. This is not a 2 Plate Solution trip.
I hugged each cousin so tight. They let go of me, but I would not let go of them. They were worried because I squeezed them so tightly. They predicted that being here would help me. I hope they are right.
Within two bites we began talking about the Matzav, Hebrew for the situation. Not the Jersey Shore situation. We danced from Hizbollah to Hamas to our kids to kids in the army to what Bibi should do and how Gantz is handling the forced marriage of joint leadership and what we think of Biden and Blinken and more. It was a jagged conversation. We were all over the place and still, the conversation flowed. Six of us around the table and we were already disagreeing on little things like strategy and timing but united in resolve and purpose. We would pepper in some light hearted moments to the meal and stopped every few minutes for check ins on each others kids and family. Even as I exited, I realized I forgot to ask how one cousin’s mom was feeling. I felt badly but also knew she understood.
After a very little sleep, I headed to a morning shiva minyan for Rose Lubin. Rose was about the same age as my daughter. She made Aliyah and was a border patrol officer in the IDF. On October 7th, she happened to be at Kibbutz Sa’ad, which is near Gaza. The members of the Kibbutz heard there was a terrorist infiltration and six people, including Rose, stood at the gates of the kibbutz and fended off the terrorists for hours with hand guns. In addition to shooting, Rose was instrumental in getting wounded kids from the Nova festival into Sa’ad for safety and medical triage. Rose was one of the many unsung heroes of that day.
A few weeks later, she was back in Jerusalem, working her beat in the Old City. A 15 year old terrorist took a knife and stabbed her and her colleague. She succumbed to her wounds about 12 hours later.
Rose was a lone soldier. She was from Atlanta, and her dad’s family was from Memphis. Like my wife and her family, she was a bonafide Southern Jewess. Her family all flew in to bury their daughter and sister and niece. Rose was buried at Har Herzl. Her shiva was set up outside the David Citadel hotel, in a large tent filled with plastic chairs and rows of soda bottles and lite bites. In that way it was like any other shiva, though it wasn’t.
I arrived a few minutes early and put on my Tefillin. I noticed a woman who seemed Western and bore an English accent. I found out it was Rose’s aunt. We exchanged pleasantries and it was clear she would tell me who everyone is. She pointed out Rose’s two brothers and sister. Then, she pointed to a finely dressed, sweet man who did not seem too old. Maybe early 70s. Svelte. Kind eyes. She said that is Rose’s grandfather.
Her grandfather?! I had to see a grandfather say kaddish for a grandchild?
Sometimes, God is cruel.
The Minyan was full of people. Soldiers next to family, next to city officials, next to friends, next to other border patrol police, next to random rabbis visiting from the States.
Rose’s little sister sat with an aunt and nestled herself into the crook of her shoulder. She lost her big sister. While I do not know any of the family dynamics, I am a little brother. I bet this little girl lost more than her sister. She lost her north star. Her idol. Her confidant. Her friend. She also lost her innocence and perhaps her faith.
My heart ached just looking her way.
When I connected with my bus driver for the week, Ovadiah, I told him that I went to the funeral yesterday at Mount Herzl. He asked, “Which one?” and listed the names of the dead who were interred yesterday like he was the foreman at the cemetery. When I said I visited the shiva, he did the same thing.
Usually, shivas are limited to family and social circles. In Israel that always expands a bit. In times of war, the social orbit has no borders. Everyone is mourning. Everyone brings support along with something they baked. It is one of the many beautiful colors about this place that shines brightest in the darkest hours.
One last reflection, and one last piece of data. Trigger warning. The reflection is about politics and the data point is hard to digest.
The cab driver who took me to the cemetery yesterday was from central casting. He was Mizrahi with a raspy voice from 3 packs of Marlboros a day. He did not wear a kippah, but he keeps kosher and prays thrice daily, in between his smoke breaks. You get the picture.
Before I even said hello, he murmured to me with shoulders shrugged, “What’s going to be?”
I said to him, “I have no idea. What do you think?”
In Israel, every cab driver is a frustrated Prime Minister. They seem to have most of the answers to the world’s problems, if you bother to ask them, and they are in the mood to share.
He says to me in his thick Hebrew, “Every morning since October 7th, I put on Tefillin and I turn to pray to God. I say, ‘God. How? Why? How in the hell did you allow me to vote for Bibi, God?’”
That is NOT what I expected to hear from him.
He then held forth for the slow ride to the cemetery about how Bibi betrayed the entire nation. That the investigations and trials were child’s play compared to this moment. He explained, “There is no excuse for leaving the country vulnerable. For the army being MIA. For Bibi not owning this disaster, since at the least, he was in the pilot’s seat when it happened. And for all the shenanigans that led to division and anger and protests which took our collective eyes off the ball.”
What makes his point even sharper for me, is this driver is cut from the cloth of someone who would usually lay down in traffic to protect Bibi. His sworn protector. Someone who thought Bibi could do no wrong. Ever. In his food chain there was God, then Bibi, then the Prophets and Angels and then his family.
Yet this wannabe Prime Minister who moonlights driving as cab agreed with Benny Gantz, which is the sentiment of most the country right now. First, we must decisively win this war. Decisively. Win it hard. Then, we deal with Bibi and elections. First things first.
How the mighty have fallen.