Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Imagining the Un/Imaginable

Imagine that a topic that has demanded a consistent and persistent place in your thoughts for the past 5 years is no longer just a conversation in your head but a reality. 

In a few cases, you have gone against the advice of friends and family yet find your strongest support from the same people.  Some will never agree with your decision, but many many more have learned to live with it and send encouragement and smiles from all over, including the unlikeliest of places.  Regardless of personal opinion, all eyes are on you, charting your early successes and failures with varying degrees of distance or eagerness and sometimes a weirdly distant eagerness.

'How are you doing?' 'How is he holding up?' 'Is your Hebrew good enough?' 'Does he look healthy?' 'Are you ripped yet?' 'What exactly is his job?'  'When are you coming to visit?' 'When is he coming home?'

These questions and many more like them are the ones I have been fielding (directly or indirectly) since I enlisted in the Israeli army on November 23, 2011.  That was quite a day, exactly six weeks ago.  Emotional not only because I was finally entering the army after a process so prolonged the wait was becoming unbearable, but also because it was my nephew, Ezra Eli's, brit milah back in New Jersey.  Since then, I went through a few days of 'Intro to Basic Training' which was by and large a funny joke.  I participated in what I assume was my final gibbush (unit tryout), this one for the advanced units in the Nachal brigade, and was placed into the Gadsar company of the Nachal brigade.  [I'll explain in brief what that means: Nachal is one of five infantry brigades in the Israeli army, the other four being Givati, Tzanchanim, Kfir, and Golani. Within Nachal there are 4 companies--the 50th, the 931st, the 932nd, and Gadsar/934th. The first three are your normal infantry companies, with Gadsar housing the advanced units in one.  Within Gadsar there are specialty positions, which is where I come in...].  Most importantly, the army became a very tangible reality for me.  After the Intro Basic and tryout, real basic training began.  The majority of the month of December was spent on base, including a very intense 21 day stint where my platoon of 22 soldiers began to collectively get our asses kicked and the collective molding process of a) transforming us from civilians into soldiers and b) becoming a tight knit unit ratcheted into full gear.  Almost the entirety of the three week period was spent by us counting the days toward the light at the end of the tunnel, symbolized by our swearing in ceremony at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem and a weekend leave.  But before we were to be sworn in we had a week of first aid and bio warfare training (very interesting), a week of shooting (the first of many, as I understand it), and a week of hell on earth (called 'field week,' or שבוע שדאות/shavuah sadaut), where we operated in the desert's cold and wet winter terrain, guarded our shanty tents that were not in the least bit waterproof, crawled up rocky hilltops for as much as 45 minutes at a time just to eat our can of tuna, and 'slept' in holes that we dug.  These three weeks, strangely enough, I had prepared myself for.  They were on our schedule that is posted on base, and I had asked around to try to gauge what to expect.  It was the day we were being sworn in, when we toured Israel's military cemetery on הר הרצל/Har Herzl, that grabbed hold of the framework I had built for myself and threatened to shatter it all.

Har Herzl is the final resting place of many of Zionsim's earliest and biggest leaders, from Jabotinsky to Herzl himself.  It is also where most of Israel's prime ministers and other noteworthy leaders are buried, from Golda to the Rabins and more.  The vast majority of the cemetery, however, is reserved for Israel's fallen soldiers, where the highest generals are buried next to fresh conscripts.  I had been to Har Herzl several times before, most recently with my garin a couple of months ago, but this was the first time visiting the military cemetery donning a military uniform.  I understood there was a new importance and meaning to this visit as soon as I stepped through the front gates, but for the majority of the tour, things were for the most part standard.  This changed towards the end when I was walking with my group and I ran into my friend Robert, also a garin tzabarnik in Gadsar Nachal.  My group was walking up a set of stairs and his walking down.  As we crossed paths I closed my fist to give him a pound and he out of nowhere just grabbed and shook me.  Staring me in straight in the eyes, Robert said something like 'Michael Levin's grave is totally different in uniform; you just don't see things the same.' 

Michael Levin is the name of a very well known American Jew who immigrated to Israel earlier this decade and a year into his army service was tragically killed in the Second Lebanon War of Summer 2006.  His story and name have since become household among Zionists across North America.  I had visited his grave twice before (including two months prior), but I hadn't prepared myself to see the tombstone again.  Seeing Robert with that look in his eyes jolted me a bit, and I found my commander a couple of moments later and asked him if I could walk away from the group and seek out Levin once more.  I spent the next 15 minutes in the area of the grave, but, subconsciously or not I am still not entirely sure, I was not able to find it.  There was a memorial of another fallen soldier taking place in the area, and the deceased's mother was reading a passage about her boy.  I knew Levin's grave was right by the memorial, and I couldn't get myself to get too close.  I do not know why, but something in me was telling me to seek him out, but only at a distance.  I was guarding myself.

Before we left Har Herzl for the Old City, my platoon commander sat us down and summed up the importance of visiting a place like this.  He then asked if anyone saw a grave site in particular that touched them personally, and pointed to me and asked me if I wanted to tell the story of Levin.  Some of my platoon mates recognized the name, but I know it is an honor to recall one's memory so I agreed to tell everyone what I knew about the soldier from the States.  I began by saying that though I never met him personally, I had met Michael's sister on my college campus last year and have many friends who were his friends from summer camp.  He was a spark plug of a character who literally sneaked his way into an army building to convince superiors to let him into the unit he desired.  He was a devoted American Zionist who left his friends and family to serve his country.  He was a lone soldier.  And then my voice cracked, my throat choked, and I could not get another word out.  I just coughed, cleared my throat, and blurted out (in English for the first time), "Yeah."  My commander took that as a cue a moved on. 

I nearly broke down at that moment because after a mere month in the army, I had had a real taste of what it means to be a soldier, what it means to shoulder expectations (some real, others self imposed) from friends and family, and what it means to represent the Jewish people--not just by self identification but also in official dress and look.  And thinking about the far too early death of an American Jew who 'left it all' made me think really hard about my own position.  It might sound morbid and even selfish, but anyone who visits a military cemetery while in uniform and doesn't at least for a moment think that in the near future it could be their plot being prepared is simply probably lying.  My buddy Sam met Levin's parents at an event for lone soldiers once and told them that Michael served as an inspiration to him and countless other lone soldiers.  Sam said the parents responded that Michael never intended or wanted to be an inspiration; he just wanted to do his part and serve his country.  It is scary, uncomfortable, and possibly disrespectful to say this, but for that moment at Har Herzl, Levin represented my biggest dream and my biggest fear.  He is inspirational for me because his fervor and passion for Israel led him to make difficult life decisions that brought him to a place far away from the people he knew and loved.  In that sense, I see a lot of myself in him.  Which is why he is also my biggest fear.  Because like Levin I am here to serve my country.  But I am here for many other reasons, too.  I am sure that Michael also had many other dreams and life goals that were not fulfilled.  Robert was right when he hold me that I wouldn't be able to look at tombstone the same post enlistment.  And that thought scared me; it kept me away from paying the proper respects to a soldier for whom I have utmost respect. 

The journey that I have just begun and the experiences I will gain over the next two or three years will surely be formative, but they are supposed to be just the beginning.  In death, however, there is no 'things were supposed to happen differently,' or 'this was just supposed to be the beginning.'  How does one coherently explain this, that my life, too, might very well be tragically cut short, and then attempt to convince close ones with a full heart that combat military service is something that needs to be done?  It is a task I have struggled with for 5 years-- not an easy task, and one that does not end.  In life, Michael Levin's story provides American Zionists like me with an inspirational story of aliyah and enlistment.  In death, his story provides us same Zionists with a deep sense of mortality, humility, and a stark reminder of Job's message--we do not understand death, we cannot understand death, so do not try; for to try will bring too much doubt and pain into our lives.  In both Michael Levin's life and death, heroism prevailed, and the story of his smiling, determined character continues to be passed and spread.  Thus while I am ashamed of myself that fear got the better of me during my last visit to Har Herzl, I know that I will return again and give Michael a visit without hesitation.  For after thinking and writing this out, I believe that he would do just the same.  


  1. Jonah - Beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing and if I can indulge myself, be safe.
    Love, Anya

  2. Very tough to read. But, as always, thank you for writing. I love you.

  3. Jonah, really amazing piece of writing. Its remarkable when looking at the exact same thing but from another perspective really changes perception. I wish you the best and obviously be safe.

  4. I've watched you grow from a little boy, to a rambunctious teenager in car pool to the man you have become.
    It is an honor for me to be able to watch you live your dream.
    Safe travels my friend!

  5. Jonah, So beautifully written. I,too have watched you grow from a little boy,the Creator of the Jonah Liben Food Foundation,to a thoughtful and caring adult. I have always believed in you--Be safe.

  6. Heavy and beautiful at the same time. I believe in you man. Be safe and keep it real.

    -David harary