From Death Comes Life: Visiting My Lone Soldier Son in Israel
“So, what is the plan for today?” I ask.
“We are going first to Har Herzl, then Yad Vashem, and finish off with a trip to Hevron and Maras Hamichpalah,” said my son, Levi.
“Sounds like a death day tour.”
“No, mom, you will understand. There is much life in what we will see today.”
My husband Natanel and I told Levi from the beginning that the sole purpose of our visit was to see him and that anything else was an added bonus. But he wanted to make the most of our short trip and to share what brought him to Israel and convinced him, at age 18, to sign up for the Israel Defense Forces.
The first stop was Mount Herzl, also known as Har ha-Zikaron, Israel’s military cemetery. Levi proudly explained the layout of the cemetery and gave us a history of the prominent people buried there. We saw the graves of Theodore Herzl, known as the father of modern Zionism (the cemetery is named after him), the prime ministers of Israel, the soldiers who lost their lives at such young ages, and the two graves that meant the most to my son: Michael Levin and Max Steinberg.
While my son spoke about these men, I choked up. I tried not to let my son see my tears. We stood by their graves for a while. There is a lot to see. Every Birthright tour group visits them and many young American Jews leave a trinket at the graves. Usually, they will place bracelets there.
Max Steinberg joined the IDF’s Golani Brigade (an infantry brigade that traditionally protects the northern parts of Israel around the area known as the Golan) after a Birthright trip. He was killed in the Gaza War in 2014 and was from Los Angeles, like my son.
I stood by Max’s grave, looking at his picture for quite a while, trying to keep the negative thoughts away. I didn’t want to think about what his parents went through when they were notified of his death. My son came over and stood next to me. “He gives me so much inspiration,” he said. “He is one of the reasons I am here doing this.”
My son came over and stood next to me. “He gives me so much inspiration,” he said. “He is one of the reasons I am here doing this.”
Like Max, Michael Levin was also an American, but from Philadelphia. He joined the army after he made Aliyah at 18. He was in the Tzanhanim (paratroopers), like my son. He was killed in 2006, in a fight with Hezbollah in the north. He was 22 when he died.
The Lone Soldier Center was created in Michael’s name. It’s a place where lone soldiers (men and women without family or a home in Israel who join the IDF) can receive all sorts of support, from places to live to food, furniture, and financial help. They offer counseling and a chevrah (a group of other lone soldiers) for the recruits.
This center helps those who serve and protect the lives of Jews in Israel. Many young Jews who visit Michael’s grave are inspired to be part of something bigger than themselves – to make a commitment to live a Jewish life, to visit Israel again, to learn more about their heritage, or to make the ultimate decision and join the IDF.
Levi acted as our personal tour guide and enjoyed talking about what he learned in the army about Har Herzl. The cemetery is the first stop for the new recruits, where they are educated about military history. We saw some new recruits on tour, stopping at graves and spending time learning the stories of those buried beneath.
They were clearly gaining inspiration to embark on their future service to the Jewish people. When I first noticed them, at the beginning of their tour, they acted frivolously, but after they stopped at some of the graves, they became much more serious. It was as if they suddenly realized that serving in the IDF could actually be life-threatening.
I know that anytime my phone rings with an Israeli phone number that I am unfamiliar with, my heart leaps in my throat. A few weeks ago, my caller ID listed “Hatzalah Israel,” even though it was just the New York branch of the Israeli ambulance organization. They were only fundraising. I donated but told them not to call in the future. Just send a letter.
I had to admit that I noticed a change in my son as soon as he moved to Israel and joined the army. He was brought to life. He went from being an aimless teenager in Los Angeles to a man of great strength, both internal and external. He gained integrity and a sense of responsibility. Boys and young men always astound me at their ability to stay up all night and sleep half the day. My son was an expert in this. I was worried that he would be disciplined for not getting up on time, or for oversleeping on a weekend that he was off base and not returning on time.
I remember when he first started training, I would call him early in the morning to wake him up. He had a good laugh when I explained my calls. “Sleeping late is not happening here. Besides, I want to be a good soldier, and that means listening to my commander, no matter what!”
Next up on the trip with Levi was a short drive to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. I had been there before, but my husband had not. For years, I’ve been teaching a Holocaust class to high school girls. I knew that if I went into that museum I would leave feeling completely emotionally drained.
Throughout my time as a Holocaust educator, I was never desensitized to the stories of the Jews. In fact, knowing what was coming in the readings or videos would have me tearing up in advance. Sometimes I would get so choked up, I would have to leave the classroom for a few minutes to compose myself.
So, first, we went to the café to eat. When you travel with a soldier, food is everything, because a soldier expends thousands of calories a day in the army and can never get enough food. Eating out with his parents was a huge enjoyment (especially since we were footing the bill), so we did it often on our trip.
Sitting at the outdoor eating area was a chance to people watch, and watch I did. I saw young adults from China, Korea, Sweden, and America. So many people who had no explicit connection with the Jewish people came to see how they lived and died in the Holocaust.
I continued watching as my husband and son went to the children’s memorial. It is sometimes hard to remember, amongst all the anti-Semitism and violence that is reported, there are people who do care what happens to the Jews.
A few minutes later, I found my husband and son by a railing, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem. “This spot is one of the most amazing views of Jerusalem,” Levi said. “To my back was the attempt to annihilate us and in front of me is the land that we built up for ourselves, despite what they tried to do to us.” Again, my son was pointing out that from death comes life.
The next stop was the ancient city of Hevron, the place where our forefathers and mothers are buried in the Maras Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs). I had always heard that tourists travelled there in armored buses with soldiers to guard them. When I mentioned this to my son he laughed. “We are not tourists, and Hevron is our land, so we will go.”
We went in our little red Kia that we had rented. The scenery was riveting on the way to Hevron. There is a huge difference between the landscape of the Arab areas and the Jewish ones. In Israel, the Jews are always building and modernizing. There is a joke that the national bird of Israel is the crane. In contrast, there are many unfinished houses dotting the villages and a few large villas in the Arab neighborhoods.
When we arrived at the security fence, Levi urged my husband to drive fast and not to make eye contact with anyone on the streets. My son took his clip of bullets and inserted it into his gun. He made sure that his gun was visible to anyone looking our direction. I tried not to show that I was panicking. I reminded myself that Jews also live in the area and they travel this road daily.
Finally, we made it to Kiryat Arba, the Jewish village that sits at the base of Hevron. My son saw a Jewish woman who was looking for a ride and asked that we stop and take her. I was amazed at his perception and sensitivity to pick up Jews in need of a ride. I saw him go through a mental checklist each time we picked someone up to assess his or her potential level of danger. I was thankful for this, as the people we would pick up would sit in the back with me.
We finally made it up the hill to Maras Hamachpelah. While my son went to check-in his gun with security, my husband and I stood on the hill right outside the edifice that houses the Kevarim (graves). It was my first visit there and the fact that Avraham and Sara walked the same ground as I was standing on was not lost on me.
Inside, it was clearly Mincha (afternoon prayer) time. As my husband and son went to daven (pray), I visited the graves of those Avos (forefathers and mothers) that are accessible to the Jewish side.
In the room between the graves of Avraham and Sara, I noticed a man with what looked like a medical bag don a white coat. Intrigued, I kept my eye on him as it finally dawned on me that he was a mohel (a man trained to perform a circumcision) and preparing to perform a bris milah (circumcision ceremony). Wow, a bris in front of the Kever of Avraham, during the week of Parsha Lech Lecha!
I looked on as my husband and son joined the men at the bris. I was informed by a Rabbi who lives in Hevron that the father of the baby was born to a Jewish mother and an Arab father, and that the sandak (the person who holds the baby on his lap while the circumcision occurs) was the man who rescued him from the Arab village where he grew up. Here he was, now living as a Jew, married to a Jew, and performing the bris of his son in front of the Kever of Avraham.
My son was right. In Israel, there is much life in the places usually reserved just for death.
Batsheva Isaac is a mother of eight from Los Angeles. She spends most days working in the education field and feeding her family. In her downtime, she writes.