In summer 2014, a friend with a reputation for being a tough guy was on the verge of tears when he handed me a picture taken at the Jerusalem funeral of Max Steinberg, a member of the storied Golani infantry brigade who had been killed by Hamas fighters in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. Steinberg, who hailed from California, was classified by the Israeli army as a Lone Soldier because he had no close relatives in the Jewish state. In a stunning act of solidarity, thirty thousand people, the vast majority of whom did not know him, came to his funeral to pay their respects. One of them placed a sign on the pile of flowers next to the grave, which in simple Hebrew said: “There is no such thing as a Lone Soldier in the State of Israel.” Whatever status Steinberg had been given, this well-wisher wanted to make it clear: he was not alone because in joining the IDF he became part of the family of Israel. It was this message that my friend found so powerful and I readily admit that I did as well and have often looked at the picture since then.
I was reminded of this last week after hearing from my two youngest sons, both of whom are in the IDF, that they had been asked to stand on Memorial Day at the grave of a soldier from their units (the Nahal infantry brigade and the Armored division) who were killed in the line of duty. The purpose is to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by ensuring that on the day we remember our fallen warriors, at least one person is present at every military grave, thinking about the soldier buried there. The message: there is indeed no such thing as a Lone Soldier in Israel, and long after you have passed from the earth your country and its army won’t allow you to be forgotten.
I was so struck by this custom that I decided to accompany my son Shmuel this morning to Mount Herzl, the national military cemetery in Jerusalem, where he had been assigned to stand next to the grave of Yaakov Toledano. Shmuel was given a link to the page on the army’s Yizkor website that memorializes every fallen soldier, so we knew that Toledano had been born in Morocco in 1934, moved to Israel in 1952, and was killed in a battle against terrorists in 1955 at age 21—the same age Shmuel reached a month ago.
Given that he died nearly seven decades ago and presumably had not had time to bring children into the world, I understood why it was necessary to designate a soldier to be present: Ya’akov’s parents were long gone, his siblings were in their eighties if they were alive at all, and he had no descendants. Since we arrived well before the memorial services began, I had time to walk around the section of the cemetery where Ya’akov had found his final resting place and look at the tombstones, which revealed that the 100-plus soldiers buried there, who had come to Israel from twenty different countries, had been killed during the decade between the start of Israel’s War of Independence in 1947 and the end of the Sinai Campaign against Egypt a decade later. Though a handful were in their mid-twenties or older, the vast majority were in their late teens or early twenties, including some as young as 16. I assumed there would be few family members present and that my son and his IDF comrades were the main guarantors that every soldier would be in someone’s mind on Memorial Day.
Though a steady stream of soldiers began to arrive well before 11 a.m.—when the main memorial services start at Mount Herzl and around the country—I was worried as there were a number of graves that as of 10 a.m. had no one next to them. But I was neglecting an important truth: One should never underestimate the IDF. This is especially true when it takes on the mission of ensuring that every one of the graves of the country’s 24,000 fallen soldiers is manned. I asked my son what would happen if any remained without a soldier and he said that he and his Nahal comrades were under orders to report if there was such a case near them, at which point soldiers stationed in reserve nearby would fill the gap. Curious if this was standard practice, I spoke with a young woman in uniform a few rows away and was told she had received similar instructions. I then noticed that next to many of the graves there were now two soldiers wearing light blue berets, signifying they were in the Artillery Corps. Puzzled, I asked one of them why they were doubled up and he explained that their officers, concerned lest someone fail to show up due to a last-minute accident or illness, preferred to err on the side of caution.
Around that time, I noticed that next to many of the graves were groups of people of all ages who, I realized, must be relatives of the fallen soldiers. I approached a man who had his arm around his young son next to the grave of Ya’akov Mizrahi, who was killed at age 18 in 1955, and asked if he could tell me what their connection was. He explained that he was the son-in-law of the elderly woman sitting next to the grave, who was the younger sister of the deceased and the only surviving sibling. I asked if I could take a picture of the headstone and he said yes and suggested I also take a picture of the footstone, which noted that Mizrahi had been given an award for heroism due to his bravery in the battle that took his life. I approached the hero’s sister and learned that she was 83, had come here on Memorial Day every year for more than six decades, and had insisted on bringing her children and grandchildren, none of whom had ever known the uncle and great uncle whose memory they were honoring. She said that she wants this tradition to continue after she passed on, and her children and children-in-law immediately assured her that they would.
Shortly afterwards, I returned to be with my son. At the grave to his left, where Menachem David Schwartz had been buried in 1948 at age 28, there was a large group of people of varying ages. I asked one of them how they were related and was told that Schwartz was killed defending his kibbutz, Be’erot Yitzhak, as part of a successful effort to slow the Egyptian army as it sought to advance towards Tel Aviv. He left his pregnant widow with two children, and a third was born five months later and named David in his memory. The person telling the story, the son of that David, was there with his own son. The latter told me he was ten and that this was the first time he was allowed to come memorialize his great grandfather. He pointed to a small stone on the tombstone—the traditional Jewish way of paying one’s respects at a person’s grave—and said, with pride, that he had put it there. He told me that he was going to continue the family’s tradition, but he didn’t have to. I knew he would.
While I was talking to this family, a middle-aged woman came to the Toledano grave, placed a memorial candle on it, and lit it. She and Shmuel spoke briefly, after which Shmuel told me her story: her mother had been Toledano’s first cousin and had long been his closest surviving relative. Before passing away nine years earlier, she had asked her daughter to promise that she would come each year to Mount Herzl to honor her first cousin once removed, whom she had never known. And of course, the daughter had said yes.
Moments later, the siren sounded, summoning Israelis to stand silently for two minutes and think about those who fell so that we could have a country. Eyes closed, I thought about the people whose stories I had heard, the soldiers who were there to pay their respects, and the family members who came to memorialize someone whom most of them had never met. In Israel, there is no such thing as a Lone Soldier because the country acts as if it’s one big family, and the relatives of those who fell in the country’s service show all of us how you act when you are part of a family.