This past Shavuot, Yona Baumel, eighty-one, returned his soul to his Creator, without his son Zecharya having been returned to him.
Zecharya and five other soldiers were missing after the chaotic battle in the Lebanese village of Sultan Yakoub, marked by a Syrian ambush of the Israeli forces. It was June 1982, at the beginning of the war that is officially called “Peace for Galilee” but has since become known as “the First Lebanon War.” Israeli soldiers Hezi Shai and Arye Lieberman were returned in controversial prisoner exchanges several years later; Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman, like Zecharya, have not been heard of since then.
Yona left no stone unturned in Israel, meeting with every official in the government who might have any clue about his son. He and his wife, Miriam, traveled the world over, meeting with prime ministers and presidents, members of parliaments and journalists, intelligence sources and clergymen.
I only met Yona once, in a situation that had nothing to do with his missing son. We were selling our apartment in Jerusalem in order to buy a home in Efrat. Yona accompanied a family friend—a widow who was a potential buyer—to advise her. He was kind to her and very polite to us. I remember him as someone larger than life, very down to earth, whose presence filled the room. I realize now that it was a microcosmic example of how he lived his life.
Raye (Rakeffet) Eisen, a close friend of the family, confirms this impression. “I felt like it was a privilege to have known Yona,” she says. “He was a religious man and he just accepted it for what it was. He never questioned Hakadosh Baruch Hu; he never doubted religion. I used to set up appointments for [the couple] in Washington and the Knesset, and sometimes I would accompany them. He was shalem, complete with his faith, and he felt shleimut with the State of Israel. He used to say, ‘Despite all the tragedies, personal and collective, I wouldn’t exchange this country for any other country in the world.’ He was a fine person who always wanted to help [others]. He didn’t wallow in self pity.”
Yona and Miriam and their three children made aliyah in 1970. “Zack” was the youngest. Their daughter, Osna Haberman, was twenty-three years old when Zecharya went missing. “At that point my parents were hopeful that he would come back quickly,” recalls Osna. “There had also been a lot of confusion at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, which my brother Shimon had fought in, and some soldiers were declared missing, and then they showed up later. So the first thing [my parents] tried to do was organize a meeting with the highest-level person they could get to at the time to clarify the situation. That began a long, long journey through meetings with various officials. The first step was to gather information.
“It had been a battle of extreme confusion; pandemonium broke out because there was a Syrian ambush in the dark. Several months later my parents realized that they weren’t making headway. The real turning point came when Hezi Shai came back and Zack didn’t come back with him. Then they realized that . . . something was wrong, and it wasn’t a matter of waiting, but of demanding, and a matter of looking, and not leaving it to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
“I decided at a certain point to drop out of public activity when I realized this would be an ongoing process. I decided to devote my energy to building my family, rather than shaking the hands of prime ministers. I actively pursued my own private life in order to give my parents the joy of seeing our family continue. I returned to dating and to my professional life, as a teacher of Torah, biology and English. I met my husband, and the day that my firstborn came into the world, my parents looked at me and said, ‘Oh, what you did for us.’ They would come to see the grandchildren and have a space for themselves without the angst of the other part of their life. This sustained them over the years. When you’re with a grandchild, you can’t let anything else enter—and they have been such wonderful grandparents. This gave them the strength to continue the search because they had the normalcy of coming to my home, or the grandchildren coming into their home.”
“For years Yona used to say to me that he was the only one in the Middle East who negotiated one for one,” says Raye. “He went to Tunis before the Oslo Accords were signed, with the authority from Rabin to negotiate the exchange of a terrorist held by Israel, who was dying in jail, in return for the body of an Israeli Druze soldier. When he first got there, the Arabs had a lot of demands, and he said that he sat there for hours saying, ‘It will be one for one,’ and that’s what the deal was in the end. I was once in the Knesset with him, at a later date, when a man ran over to hug him, and Yona told me afterwards, ‘That was the brother of the Druze soldier whose body I returned.’”
A Family Man
“My father was the quintessential family man, very involved in his children’s lives,” says Osna. “He took the time to guide us and to give us rules for living. There were tools that he used to do this—the Shabbat table, where he would talk about his value system constantly, what it means to be a Jew, to live in the Land of Israel, to keep Shabbat, to be an upright human being, and to keep mitzvot bein adam lechavero, between people. [The second tool was] his chesed, kindness, [which] was a lifestyle. If he could do something [to help another], he would do it. We had a neighbor whom he looked after when her husband passed away. He took care of her when she went into a nursing home and he found her heirs when she passed away. He used to go to an elderly aunt every Friday to fix her Shabbat clock, and drink coffee with her and do any repairs that she needed. These are just a few examples; I’m sure that many people who read this article will say, ‘Oh yes, he did this for me. . . . ’
“He believed that the Two Tablets of the Covenant were of equal importance, the right side and the left side, and that was the chinuch, the education, that he gave us.”
Helping Others at His Own Expense
One of the most moving stories about Yona, told at the end of the sheloshim, the first thirty days of mourning, was related by his nephew, Abbe Dienstag, an attorney from New York. Yona used to own a company in New York that produced knitwear. He hired a needy widow, as he had been asked to do. A financial slump came along at one point and, in keeping with the time-honored tradition of “last hired, first fired,” he would have had to let go those workers who were hired last. But Yona did not want to fire the widow, and it wasn’t right to fire the more veteran workers, so he ended up not firing any of his employees. He had them produce knitted hats, even though he had no buyers for them, and he covered the losses from his own pocket. One day he received an emergency order for a large number of knitted hats, which, due to his kindness, he just “happened” to have ready.
Abbe said that Yona had a major influence on his life, and on the lives of all who knew him. “He was always the devoted brother and father and uncle and cousin, both before the battle [of Sultan Yakoub] and after it. He ‘adopted’ so many people, always had an open house, filled with guests. . . . But he told me recently, in the hospital, ‘I can no longer be leaned on; now I’ll have to lean on others.’ I think he felt he could not live in that situation, having to depend on others. It was then I felt that the end was near.” Abbe said he finally understood the pasuk, passage, about Rachel: “She refused to be comforted for her children, for they are not” (Jeremiah 31:14).
Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet, a close family friend, described Yona’s determination, and the determination of those around him who tried to help find Zecharya. “There were also many non-Jews who loved him and helped him, heart and soul. I saw in Yona, like it says in Mishlei [Proverbs] 27:19, ‘Kemayim hapanim lapanim, ken lev ha’adam la’adam [As water reflects a face back to a face, so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another].
There was a beautiful poster sold at the sheloshim, with a message about bringing back the missing Israeli soldiers. At the top of the poster was the word “Ashrei”—“Joyful.” And at the bottom of the poster were the words from Psalms [128:2], “Ashrecha vetov lach . . . You will be joyful and it will be well with you.” The psalm continues, “Your children will be like olive plants around your table . . . .” What every parent wishes for—what Yona and Miriam were partly denied.
Miriam, His Life Partner
I met with Miriam Baumel the morning after the sheloshim in her cozy, welcoming apartment in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, filled with books, Judaica and some of Miriam’s own art work. Miriam said her marriage was “a partnership.” Sometimes the couple split up the search for Zecharya to cover more ground. “Yona would have the meetings in the Arab world, because they exclude women, and I tried to help in the diplomatic areas. He said to me, even when he was in the hospital and I had to go somewhere, ‘You run with it.’”
Miriam was surprised that Yona’s death was covered in all the newspapers. “Yona never looked for kavod, honor. He took a special interest in widows and orphans. His pleasure in life was in helping people. I would hear him say on the phone, ‘What can I do to help you?’ My husband was selfless. The mitzvot bein adam lechavero were so important to him. In our home, it was always people before things, and certainly people before anything foolish or vain.”
There were young people, unrelated to the Baumels, who thought of them as “Uncle Yona” and “Aunt Miriam.” “We always had an open house,” says Miriam, “and what we used to call the ‘Baumel tisch’ on Shabbat. I would bring up a controversial subject and suddenly everyone was talking. The kids brought home friends of all persuasions.” She describes Yona as a man who, throughout the years of searching for their son, also remained a loving husband; a man who used to accompany her to museums, which she loved. A veteran arts and crafts teacher, Miriam used to work in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Miriam is continuing the search for Zecharya. She says vehemently, “The Arabs are denigrating themselves as a people when they say that they want us to exchange so many live prisoners for each Israeli soldier. Shame on them.”
Toward the end of the interview, Miriam pulls out an issue of the Congressional Record, and reads from it aloud. “On March 22, 1999 [Vol. 145, No. 8], a law was signed: Legislation to Determine the Fate of Zachary Baumel.” It was signed by former President Bill Clinton and states, she says, that the United States is supposed to conduct talks with any country in the Arab world that can help resolve this issue. Yet, she says, “Clinton didn’t help. Neither did Bush.”
Miriam says that it was a family joke that Yona had wanted written on his gravestone the following words: “Boring it wasn’t.” I ask her, hesitantly, if she actually kept his wish.
Miriam reaches over to a side table and hands me a print out of the Hebrew words that are on the gravestone, about to be erected on a hill in Jerusalem. Following Yona’s name, that of his parents and the years of his birth and death, are ten exquisite lines that speak of Yona’s faith, of his desire to do God’s will, and to walk in the ways of God, of his belief in God’s justice, of hope, of truth and of goodness. Miriam’s eyes sparkle as she tells me to look again and finally she points it out. What emerges is an acrostic. The first letter of the first seven lines, and parts of words embedded in the last three lines, spell out the sentence: “Lo haya li meshamaim—I was not bored.”
Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist, translator and poet. She is the editor of the ATARA Journal, and is the theatrical director of the Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company and other educational theater troupes in Israel.