Early in the fall, I visited a high school in Sha’ar HaNegev, not far from Sderot and the Gaza border, to interview some students. A while into the conversation, I asked them two questions. “You’ll be middle aged when Israel’s 100 years old,” I told them. “So tell me. As you imagine the future, what do you dream of? And what are you afraid of?”
These were fifteen highly intelligent, very articulate kids. But interestingly, none of them had anything terribly substantive to say about their dreams. As they sat quietly, trying to think what they could say that might not sound platitudinous, one of the guys spoke up. “Can I tell you,” he asked with a slight hesitation and a cautious glance at his schoolmates, “what I’m afraid of?”
There was a moment of discomfort in the group, and a stifled giggle here and there. Sixteen year old guys, sitting in a group that also includes girls, aren’t supposed to want to talk about what they’re afraid of. But this guy wanted to speak, and within seconds, it was completely silent in the room. Everyone looked at him, and waited.
“I’m afraid,” he said after a pause, “that the future will be just like this.”
That was in November, after the Kassams and Red Dawn sirens had started, but long before the rain of rockets on their town began in earnest. It was before Ariel Sharon’s stroke, before the election of Hamas, before the people who took over the Gaza strip that we’d left in August declared that they would fire so many rockets on Sderot that that they would turn it into a ghost town. And even then, with many fewer rockets falling, this kid was afraid – afraid that the future would look like the present.
My secretary, who has two very young children, was with me at that interview. As soon as he’d said what he did, she looked at me, her eyes wide with shock, as though his hopelessness was unbearable. Because no matter what else may be wrong with Israeli society, and there is plenty, it’s a society in which we take care of our kids. It’s a country filled with parks and playgrounds, a country where strangers will stop for a crying child on the street, hold him by the hand and take him home. It’s a county where young teenagers go camping by themselves, because they’ll be OK. Someone else will be around. And whoever that person is, they will take care of them, if our kids need them to.
And it’s a society which, in those rare moments when we can’t keep our kids safe, memorializes them in a way that I still find chilling. Every year, on the Fast of Gedaliah, I go with a close friend to the cemetery on Mount Herzl. To Rabin’s grave. To Herzl’s. To some of the military sections. And invariably, we find ourselves making our way to the half-underground bunker of graves for people who were killed during the siege on Jerusalem in 1948. There are adults, there, lots of them.
But there are kids, too. These kids were used primarily as runners, to carry messages in or out. A lot of them made it, but some of them didn’t. And now, those who didn’t make it through are memorialized near the soldiers who died in combat, and like the soldiers, have plaques commemorating the price they paid. The plaques list their name, their age, and then the phrase “nafal be-milui tafkido” – “he fell in the performance of his mission.” A boy aged seventeen. And a girl aged fifteen. And, a boy named Nisim Gini, born in Jerusalem, and killed at the age of ten, “in the performance of his mission.”
What does it mean to be sixteen or seventeen and to be afraid that the future will be like the present? What does it mean to be ten years old and to fall in the performance of your mission? What does it do to a society when we ask so much of our kids?
It’s been the week of kids, an unbearably long week since Sunday. I was in Zichron Yaakov, a gentrified city about an hour and a half north of Jerusalem, with our Foundation’s staff for the day. Mid-day, I began to notice a number of people listening attentively to their cell phones, and others trying to get the news on the little screens. So, I called Avi, and asked him to check the Internet. Two Israeli soldiers had been killed, he told me. Another wounded. And worse, one had been kidnapped.
We’re a society that is tragically used to burying our kids in uniform. But we’re not used to their being held captive. The thought of our kids – for that’s what they are – in the hands of “people” like that is simply unbearable. And later that day, when the news released the now ubiquitous photograph of Gilad Shalit (I’ve posted it on the “Photos” page of this my web site in case you haven’t seen it), his thick black glasses making him look younger than his nineteen years, Israelis found themselves despondent. The baby face. In the hands of who knew whom. We imagined his parents and the unbearable uncertainty. And Gilad. Where he might be. How indescribably terrified and alone he must feel.
Did he know we’d come to get him, I wondered? Because it was clear we would. You don’t take care of kids in the parks to let them grow up and be stolen out of sovereign Israeli territory. You just don’t.
My son, Avi, and I talked on the phone a couple of times that day. He’d check the news, and keep me posted. “Nothing new,” he said a few times, his voice no less anguished than any of the adults with whom I was spending the day.
And then he called an hour later. “Are you and Ema still planning to go away next week?” I told him we were. “Why do you ask?” “Because I just got a call from the army,” he said. “They’re moving up my date [for the next phase of his tryout to get into a certain commando unit that he wants to try to get into]. If I go, I can’t watch Micha while you’re gone.” I told him we’d make arrangements for Micha, and that if he wanted to go, he should. And I wondered what it must have felt like to still be just sixteen, to hear news like he’d heard that morning, and then to get a call from the army about his unit. And to still want to go.
I thought of asking him, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
And then a day or two later, the wounded soldier, still in the hospital, began to speak to reporters who visited his room. “When I realized that I was trapped [in the tank],” he said, “I knew that was it.” And, he added, “I started to cry.”
So did the people I saw at work reading the article.
And then, I was driving down Hebron Road, a main drag in our part of town, and I stopped at a red light. It’s been hot this week, so all the cars had their windows closed and the air conditioning on. There was another car in the lane to my left, and one to the right. The newscaster (for who wasn’t tuned to the news?) announced that Gilad’s parents had written him a letter and had made it public. He then read the text (the translation is mine, but the Hebrew original is posted):
“To our dear, sweet Gilad,
Mommy and Daddy, Yoel and Hadas, are terribly worried about you, want to hear you, and hope that you are healthy and that you feel OK, as well as you can in your circumstances. We hope that you will be able to read these words, and we want you to know that all possible steps are being taken so that you can return home to Hila and the Galilee, as quickly as possible, to your family, and to your room that is waiting for you….
Know that we are thinking of you at every moment, [hoping] that you are somehow managing, and that you will make it through these difficult moments. We know and believe that the people holding you also have families, and will know what it is that we are enduring, and will know how to take care of you and [safeguard] your health.
We love you and send you strength.
Mommy and Daddy”
As the newscaster finished reading the letter, I happened to glanced out the windows of my car. Both drivers to my side, one a man in his fifties and one a woman in her late twenties, were wiping tears from their eyes. The windows didn’t need to be open to know what they’d been hearing.
And then, what had been rumors of a second kidnapping proved true. On the West Bank, the PRC claimed to be holding Eliyahu Asheri. An eighteen year old kid, now in the hands of animals, for the crime of hitchhiking. His picture, too, went up on all the websites (and is also posted). Another big child. Wearing a t-shirt, sitting under a tree. With a wide smile. And a numb country didn’t know what to do. (Eliyahu, of course, was shot in the head the day they kidnapped him, and was buried on Thursday June 29. Another reminder of who our neighbors are.)
In the meantime, the IDF was amassing tanks, APC’s and artillery along the border, just minutes away from the high school that I’d visited in November. The enormous array of armor was a relief, at least to people here. Because they can’t steal our kids and think that we’re simply going to let it go on. Then, a few nights ago, the movement into Gaza began. Now, days later, the campaign still goes on. We’ve bombed here and there, have taken out much of their electric power, destroyed some bridges, sealed Gaza tight, buzzed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad summer home with four F-16’s. But still, no Gilad. So the IDF arrested dozens of members of the Hamas government. And still, no Gilad.
The rest of the world thinks we’re looking for a kidnapped soldier, so they don’t really get this massive reaction. The EU’s beginning to express concern. Bombing bridges was OK, but arresting the members of Hamas’ parliament, they think, is a bit over the top. Buzzing Assad’s palace, we’re told, was provocative. Maybe.
The reason they don’t get it is that they think we’re looking for a soldier. But we’re not. We’re looking for Gilad. Everyone I hear talking about it calls him by name. Never “the soldier.” Always Gilad. Our cell phones are buzzing with text messages reminding us to say a Psalm for him. Email in-boxes are filling with the same reminder, and even include the text of the Psalm, so you can say it right when you open the e-mail. And then, you’re supposed to forward it.
For the past several mornings, as our kids have woken up, the very first words out of their mouths have been “Did we find him?” They just have to look at us to know the answer. Not yet. The unbearable week drags on.
The international press is abuzz with the accounts of what Israel’s troops are up to. It’s an interesting word, that term “troops.” One of them (though not one who’s in Gaza) has a bedroom across the hall from ours. She got some mail the other day, but she was away in the army, so I walked upstairs to leave it for her. To the left of her desk was her knapsack, which, for some reason, she hadn’t taken with her back to the base. Draped over the chair behind her desk, a shirt from her uniform. And on her bed, her stuffed animal, Curious George, or “Curious” as we’ve all called him since he joined the family the week she was born nineteen years ago.
The combination of her uniform shirt draped over the chair, and Curious lying there all alone, almost as if he was waiting for her to come home – especially this week – was simply too much. I just needed to get out of her room. So I put the mail on her desk, gave Curious a last glance, left the room and firmly shut the door.
Gilad, I’m sure, has a room something like hers. Probably no stuffed animals, but maybe. Who knows? He is, after all, just a kid. Take a look at his picture, and you see.
In a few hours, Shabbat will begin. Hopefully, we’ll get Gilad back by then, but we may not. And if we haven’t, people all across our neighborhood, with an anguish that words can scarcely capture, will turn off their cell phones, shut down their computers and silence the radios, knowing that on Shabbat, we’re going be cut off from the world. That, of course, is precisely the point of Shabbat, and usually, it’s a great relief.
But on a Friday night like tonight, it’s going to be beyond painful. Not to know. Not to be able to check. Simply to have to wonder, and to wait. And as soon as the sun sets tomorrow night, we’ll make Havdalah, and turn on the TV and the computers. Hoping, and praying. Praying that he’ll have come home, safe. And hoping that we’ll have some plausible reason to give our kids a hug, and to tell them, “You see, the future will be better than this. Really, it will.”
* * *
Full disclosure: A few very brief sections of this “dispatch” are taken from my book, “COMING TOGETHER, COMING APART: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel,” just published by Wiley.
© Daniel Gordis, reprinted with permission of the author. Daniel Gordis is Vice President of the Mandel Foundation – Israel, and the author, most recently, of Coming Together, Coming Apart: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel (John Wiley & Sons, 2006). Visit his website at www.danielgordis.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.