Something about the small, tattered book caught my eye. It was tucked among a shelf full of secondhand books at T’mol Shilshom, the beloved bookstore and restaurant in Jerusalem, where I sat sipping coffee on a winter day over a dozen years ago.
It was a book of poems, dedicated to the memory of a fallen Israeli soldier, Captain Yosef Dirhali, and written by the soldier’s nephew, Shalom Roitman. The cover image of Captain Dirhali was gripping, even more so, the title:
היה חייל – אך איננו
There Was a Soldier — He is No Longer
Inside, there is another photo of Captain Dirhali, who was injured in a battle on the Golan Heights on October 30, 1972, and died a few days later. He was 22 years old. Roitman penned the collection of poems in memory of his beloved uncle and all the IDF soldiers who fell with him and before him on the ‘altar of the homeland.’
I began reading, engrossed by the poems and by the physical, tangible memorial resting in my hands. In those years, I taught Hebrew to 7th and 8th graders at our Jewish day school. In a few months, those students would lead the school ceremony for Yom HaZicharon. Why not bring this book back with me? We could choose one of the poems for the ceremony, highlighting the memory of one soldier to help us honor the memory of them all.
There was just one problem. Inside the front cover of the book were the words, לא למכירה — not for sale.
I found the owner, David Ehrlich, and asked him why the book was not for sale.
He told me that he would not sell books written in memory of fallen soldiers; they are in a category beyond merchandise. He asked me why I wanted the book. When I explained that I hoped to use it in a Yom HaZicharon ceremony at a Jewish day school, he said: “It’s yours. You may have it for free.” This small anecdote tells us much about Ehrlich, a remarkable man who passed away just over a year ago.
We used a poem from the book for our ceremony that year — a simple poem, ‘החדר ריק’ (The Room is Empty) describing a fallen soldier’s room. All his belongings are in place just as he left them… but even the room itself knows what is missing and calls out for the soldier. My middle schoolers could relate to the image of the empty room; they read the Hebrew poem with great reverence.
Some years later I stopped teaching, and the book came home with me.
Yom HaZicharon is a day that highlights the difference between being an Israeli Jew and a Jew anywhere else, a day when we must think about the unfathomable grief borne by the loved ones of Israel’s fallen soldiers.
We can try to imagine their worry for children, siblings, and spouses serving in the IDF or in the reserves. We can try to imagine the terrifying knock on the door, holding our finger over that flame until the pain makes us pull away. Media sometimes helps us. The Israeli film ‘Foxtrot’ begins with such a knock on the door, the camera tight on the face of the soldier’s mother. As it dawns on her why two uniformed soldiers are standing there, she passes out, sinking slowly to the floor.
On Yom HaZicharon we can watch a video of the siren being sounded, we can even stand in solidarity, but our experiences are vastly different. We love Israel intensely, but we love from afar. We take part in this solemn day of memory several steps removed.
My tattered, red book of poems helps me bridge that emotional distance, to reckon with the duty and sacrifice of IDF soldiers and their loved ones.
The poems pierce my heart, they jolt me, they force me to stare into the abyss. Captain Dirhali, who died barely out of his teens, would be 71 years old, had he lived. The decades he could have lived, all he might have achieved, the descendants that could have come from him — all disappeared. The final lines of this poem express the aching loss of this soldier, of every soldier:
כל אשר אותו זוכר
בודאי היה אומר
״אך, לו היה הוא כאן״
?אך איננו. לאן נעלם לאן
Every person who remembers him
Surely would say
If only he were here
He is no longer. To where has he disappeared, to where?
Captain Yosef Dirhali’s Yizkor (memorial) page can be found here.