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Gary Epstein
And now for something completely different . . .

Three Jewish Lives and One Living Jewish Corpse

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This has been a tough week in Israel.

The normally somber events and ceremonies of Yom Hazikaron–Memorial Day– were rendered even more meaningful and poignant by the immediacy of our most recent losses and the depressing and distressing awareness that they are not yet ended. The raucous celebration that is customarily Yom Haatzmaut–Independence Day–was tempered by the awareness that the flower of our youth are fighting for the very existence of this beautiful country for which so many have already sacrificed so much.

What a terrible price has been exacted for our desire to live as a free people in our land.

And then came the news of more casualties from friendly fire. Once again the newspapers showed the smiling faces of our heroes whose lives were cut short making the greatest sacrifice for their nation, their people, their God.

Sometimes it just seems like too much to bear. You don’t want to see another picture of a smiling soldier, taken when he was full of life and expectations, who is no longer with us. You don’t want to turn on the news. Sometimes you just want to hide from the reality that surrounds us every single second. Every. Single. Second.

And then you remember the stories, and you see the faces and hear the voices of the comrades and families of the fallen, celebrating their lives and their sacrifices.  You hear the stories of their bravery, their composure, the equanimity with which they embraced their destinies. The ones that flew back from abroad to fight with their comrades for the life of their country. Then you see hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people who love this country and venerate its heroes gathering at cemeteries and memorial programs and houses of bereavement to express their gratitude for those who gave their lives, their last full measure of devotion, to protect and defend it. You hear the chant “Am Yisrael Chai”  and you know that those who died so that this nation and this people could live did so willingly, graciously, bravely, courageously, with a sense of purpose and mission, with an abundance of honor and love beyond measure.

And they are honored and loved in return. Their losses are tragic; there is no escaping that. But their lives had meaning and purpose. There is no denying that.

I think of Ilan Cohen, a 20-year old from Argentina, who came to study at the Har Bracha hesder yeshiva. He was a lone soldier who came to share the destiny of his people. He fell in Gaza and thousands of mourners attended his funeral at Har Herzl. Last December 29, his Mom, who had not seen him for eight months, came to visit. The Instagram video of their meeting at the airport shows their wordless embrace.  It is heart-rending.

From one perspective, a meaningless loss. From another perspective, the most meaningful of lives, the most meaningful of sacrifices, a noble link in the chain of Jewish history. A life that mattered.

I think of Oriya Ricardo, who was murdered on October 7, at the Nova Music Festival massacre. Her mother, an Israeli musician, historian, and educator, participated in the memorial ceremonies of Yom Hazikaron  and spoke of the 26 years of light, love, and happiness her daughter had provided. She lists the names of Oriya’s friends who were murdered at the festival, and the names of those who died trying to save them.  And the message of this bereaved, devastated, shattered woman is that “we, as Jews, must be united in the understanding that we are here by right and not by grace . . . I’m standing here today, with pain and agony, with my heart bleeding–but I’m standing, and I’m calling all of you to stand up, stand tall, and call, loudly and clearly, so the whole world will hear and understand: Never again.”

The dignity and courage expressed in those words was on display, over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times, each one different and all of them the same, emanating from a people who understood what it was to lose something of utmost value, and how those losses accumulated and coalesced to create a tragedy of terrible beauty and unending inspiration.

She concluded:

אמא מתגעגעת, ותפילה אלייך נושאת; עשי שלום עלינו, אוריה, שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל, ונאמר אמן

Mom misses you and extends a prayer to you: Make peace upon us, Oriya, upon us and all of Israel, and we shall say Amen.

I think of my neighbor, Lavi Lifschitz, a remarkable young man for whom the municipality of Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut just held a commemoration and consecration ceremony, dedicating an eternal monument to his memory in a local park. At his shiva, which had to be held outdoors to accommodate the hundreds of visitors, Lavi’s parents spoke of his love for Israel and his determination to fight for her, his friends spoke of his grace and talent, acquaintances spoke of casual kindnesses. One parent of a fellow soldier related a story of the time he brought a meal for the platoon (and where else in the world do strangers and acquaintances drive for hours to bring meals to combatants?), and Lavi did not partake. The donor assured him that the food was kosher (where else do restaurants make sure that every morsel of food provided is kosher, so that no soldier will be excluded?). Lavi still demurred, and then, the man said, he realized that the food was being served on non-biodegradable plates. Lavi’s parents laughed.

He left a letter for his parents, instructing them not to mourn, because if he died on behalf of his country and his people, he had willingly offered himself and died without regret.  מי כעמך ישראל?

Dear God, what has befallen us? How can we bear these and so many other stories, all different and all the same?

How can we draw upon their courage and strength and dedication and devotion to see this terrible thing through?  How can we possibly fail to draw upon their courage and strength and dedication and devotion to see this terrible thing through to a victorious conclusion? We need to make ourselves better so that we can be worthy of their sacrifice.

And then, and I apologize for moving from the heights to the depths, but I promised you a living Jewish corpse, to serve as a counterbalance and vivid contrast to the shining images of these Jewish lives.

For that I turn to The Nation, once a respectable liberal journal and now a parody of its former self, with such recent articles as “Harrison Butker is a Jerk, a Bigot, and a True Representative of the NFL” (Mr. Butker offended by giving a commencement speech at a catholic college in which he suggested that women might find fulfillment in traditional family roles), “How Oil Companies Manipulate Journalists,” “News Deserts are Obscuring the Breadth of Climate Disasters,” “Joe Biden Should Pardon Marilyn Mosby,” “Capitalist Rot Has Spread to American Kitchens,” “The Israel-Affiliated Organization Leading the Backlash Against Student Protests,” and the inevitable “The Mainstream Media Is Failing Trans People.”

You get the idea.

Under the pretentious, bloviating title “A New Jewishness is Being Born Before Our Eyes,” a pretentious and bloviating (and really bad) writer named Will Alden has the temerity to suggest that he and his tentifada campus friends comprise “the future of our people,” “thousands of Jews of all ages [who] are creating something better than what we inherited.”

Stop. Take a breath. Consider. This . . . moron . . . claims to be creating a better Judaism by joining together with antisemites to support those who seek to annihilate the Jewish nation, the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. Right up there with Abraham and Moses. They gave us circumcision of the flesh. Paul, when he tried to create a better Judaism, propounded circumcision of the heart. This obtuse Alden fellow appears to be promoting lobotomization of the brain. Make way for the new and improved low-information, low-IQ Judaism.

In the opening paragraph he speaks of welcoming Shabbat in downtown Los Angeles with candles, grape juice, challah and a CEASEFIRE NOW sign. “We heard speeches and joined together in song and prayer as the sun dipped behind the Department of Water and Power Building and the wind blew through.” Not since I taught remedial English at Iowa State University have I encountered such drivel.  And at least those earnest students did not hold themselves out, as Mr.Alden does, as “a writer of fiction and journalism.” (That’s a curious combination for him to admit, isn’t it?) In one of those puerile fiction/journalist tricks I remember from the remedial classes, Mr. Alden returns to the image in his final sentences: “We said the blessing over the challah in honor of those who are starving in Gaza. We pinched off the pieces of the passed loaves and sang ‘Ceasefire now’ as the daylight faded. It got chilly, all of a sudden, after sundown.”

See how cleverly he did that? The wind blowing through in the first sentence; the chill after sundown. It takes the efforts of a serious fiction/journalist to pass wind throughout a 1,500 word article, but Alden maintains his flatulent prose throughout, giving new meaning to the term “gaslighting.”

In between those bookends, he touches all the bases. Genocide? Check. Brutalized innocent protesters? Check. Brave camp-dwellers standing firm in the face of counter protesters and their stream of hateful intimidation? Check.

Not an ounce of self-awareness that it is he and his friends who are committing violence. Remarkably–truly remarkably–not a single mention of the Hamas invasion of October 7, and the brutal rapes, kidnappings, and murders. Nope. Just a Passover Seder (with olives, strawberries, and watermelon added to the ritual to symbolize Palestine and Gaza) and a Kabbalat Shabbat service, which he describes as “Shabbat’s mystical, emotional, Hebrew-heavy expression.” Hebrew-heavy? The service consists of six Psalms and a 16th century Hebrew song welcoming the Sabbath bride. Alden seems mystified by the fact that the Psalms are presented, for some reason he is unable to fathom, in Hebrew, of all things. I was reminded of the young Jewish veterinary student from Long Island at Iowa State who told me that she had resisted the blandishments of the Campus Crusade for Christ and was staying Jewish out of loyalty to her family and her religion. “But, Professor Epstein,“ she wanted to know, “Why can’t we Jews have anything as beautiful as the twenty-third Psalm?” I told her that we were working on it.

Mr. Alden claims to be growing a new Jewish tradition in solidarity with his Muslim friend named Aliyah (he probably misses the irony) and various Christians in attendance “where the future of our people is being written on campuses and in the streets.”  Yes. He really says that. The future of Judaism is being written not in Jerusalem, but on the UCLA and Columbia campuses.

God help us.

The Passover haggadah (the one without watermelon) refers to four children: wise, simple, ignorant, and . . . wicked.  Three of them refer to states of cognition and one refers to a state of immorality. The wicked child rejects the Jewish ritual; he wants no part of it. Because he separates himself from the community, the haggadah denies him a place in the community. Had he been in Egypt, it says, he would not have been redeemed. He has written himself out of the Jewish people. Noted.

Mr. Alden was apparently too focused on the watermelon to recall that passage. Or the one that says that in each generation our enemies try to annihilate us, but that God saves us from their hands. Will Alden has cast his lot with the enemies of Israel, and the only reason I am spending any of my and your time repeating his drivel (and, believe me, it goes on and on and on and on), is to draw a contrast between the holy and sanctified younger generation in the blessed land of Israel and the morally bankrupt ciphers munching their gluten-free snacks on campus and congratulating themselves on speaking truth to power while demanding amnesty for doing so.

One final note: Alden wants to secure liberation and justice for Palestinians. He makes no mention of Israelis. Indeed, one of the hardest moments, he states, was when a “fellow Jewish woman” screamed at his colleague, accusing her of wanting to murder Israeli children. Truth sometimes is hard.

Alden attempts to demonstrate his Jewish bona fides in a number of revealing ways.  He explains that the Sabbath offers a taste of the world to come, which he defines, presumably following the Marxist-Engelish Rebbe, as a “holier world, one outside capitalist logic and capitalist time.” He also notes that the week’s Torah portion was “Acharei Mot,” which means “After the Death,” suggesting, either disingenuously or ignorantly, that the death to which the parsha refers is that of the scapegoat sent to the wilderness on Yom Kippur.  Of course, as anyone who actually knows anything might have told him, the death refers to the two sons of Aaron, who died when they introduced a strange fire and new service into the Tabernacle, one which God had not commanded. Maybe they deceived themselves into believing that they were creating something better than what they had inherited. Maybe the text is not about the death of “nationalism and Jewish supremacy,” as Alden vacuously suggests, but about the inevitable and ignominious demise of those who arrogate to themselves the creation of a new Judaism, even though they know less than nothing about the tradition they are rejecting. The hell with 4,000 years of history and culture. They have watermelon.

I don’t want to make the same mistake that Alden does and skip over the suffering and casualties in the Palestinian community. Even though the war was begun by Hamas, even though Hamas employs a strategy of maximizing Palestinian civilian casualties for the most grotesque of political purposes, and even though every single drop of blood that has been spilled is attributable to the actions of Hamas, it is impossible to view the carnage without regret. But with the regret comes a righteous anger at the monsters who created this situation and welcome the deaths of their own children. They started the war. They can end the war. They can stop the killing.  They choose not to. They are at the center of Alden’s new Judaism.

And so, here we are, a week after Yom HaZikaron. A week after Yom Ha’Atzmaut.  Still at war. Still trying to find solace in what remains of the unity of a fractured and damaged nation. Still hungry for stories that compel us to believe that our young heroes have not died in vain.

Let us take comfort and consolation in the knowledge that these righteous souls that have been lost to us have become, now and forever, part of the Jewish eternal cavalcade. Their spirits are forever bound in the eternal spirit and ongoing saga of the Jewish people. They belong to the ages, as an undying part of us.

So–as advertised, three Jewish lives, emblematic and representative of hundreds more, connected for eternity with Jewish history and the Jewish destiny.  And one self-righteous, smug, obnoxious Jewish corpse, who, I firmly believe, has been granted existence in this world for the sole purpose of exposing his own vapidity and fecklessness, and, by contrast, demonstrating how blessed we are to have the generation of noble warriors to defend our beloved country.  תנצב”ה.

About the Author
Gary Epstein is a retired teacher and lawyer residing in Modi'in, Israel. He was formerly the Head of the Global Corporate and Securities Department of Greenberg Traurig, a global law firm with an office in Tel Aviv, which he founded and of which he was the first Managing Partner. He and his wife Ahuva are blessed with18 grandchildren, ka"h, all of whom he believes are well above average. He currently does nothing. He believes he does it well.
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