We're Both From The Same Village
I spend the night last night with the family I met the day before. The ones I wrote about in an article called Why Israel Fights: Life on the Gaza Border. I met them yesterday and when I see them today I’m greeted not like the stranger who knocked on the wrong door and found the right people, which is what happened yesterday. Today I’m family. Not just family, beloved family. And I’m not alone either. All the soldiers for whom they’ve set up cots in their front yard are family too. The twenty-some odd soldiers they let in to their home to take showers in their bathroom; they’re family too. Today I finally meet the father. We’ll call him Menashe. He’s in his mid fifties, and he still does reserves. He’s a sergeant major.
“Sargent major in the army, “he says, “Sargent major at home.”
And what does a sergeant major in the Israeli army do?
First and foremost he takes care of his guys.
And that’s just what Menashe does. He makes sure they have mattresses, towels, he makes sure they get the care packages that total strangers have made up and simply dropped off at this little farming village ”for the boys.”And now he’s making falafels ….for everybody. Twenty soldiers…twenty-five, thirty. I don’t know. Mama Rachel is making them with him and she calls up her own reserve troops, her sons. The whole family is preparing falafels…for strangers who happen to be wearing uniforms and carrying weapons and would, and well may, lay down their lives for Rachel and Menashe and their family. Because just out there a few hundred meters away was the tunnel exit where the terrorists popped up yesterday. The war is on their front lawn so they’ve opened up their homes and their hearts to these boys who know exactly what they’re fighting for.
They’re fighting for their homes as well…as if all Israel is one family, one home, one village.
“But,”I think to myself, “That’s probably because we’re on the border and the war really is on their front lawn.
One of the sons insists I sleep in his bed.
“No way,” I say, “Not going to happen”.
“Listen,” he says, I sleep in the shelte , the reinforced room anyway, since the whole thing started. So either way the bed is empty. It’s yours.”
I don’t even know his name.
I don’t think he knows mine. I’m just that guy who knocked on the wrong door yesterday and wrote the article his mother didn’t want to be interviewed for because she was making pizza.
And it’s not just Mama Rachel and Abba Menashe who have opened up their homes and hearts. The whole village has. They’re throwing a concert for the troops in their school building. R and R for the “boys and girls” while the sounds of rockets, mortar and machine gun fire filter in from the battle field that is only a few kilometers away.
They’re not fighting in Afghanistan. Israel is fighting on its front lawn.
I’m up early the next morning. I only get a chance to say good-bye to one of the sons , but we hug and part like brothers. Because after all, we’re family now.
There are nostalgic songs on the radio, as I drive North. Songs of my generation and earlier ones. Soldiers' songs. Songs of comrades in arms and mothers waiting to welcome their sons home on Shabbat, promising to be waiting at the door for their return, lover’s songs, promising to be waiting as well, and a song that everyone knows called ”We are Both From The Same Village” though the music of the words is much sweeter in Hebrew. The melody is sweet and sad and the words tell of two friends who grew up in the same village, chased the same girls, made out with them on the village green, went into the army together, came home on Shabbat together, went into battle together and now only one returns…to mourn the other.
I have to leave early because I’m driving “Up North” to the kibbutz where I was partly raised. It’s a small village, a few hundred people, where, as the saying used to go "everyone knows what color underwear you wear.”
Everyone’s nose in in each other’s business, for better and for worse.
It’s where I went to high school fifty years ago, and like the song says, kissed girls on the village green, where I was “adopted” by a family who became as much my parents as my biological family, where I went into the army, and where they welcomed me home each time I came back on leave as one of their sons, where I married, and where my son, Zaki, of blessed memory, was born; a ben meshek, a son of the village.
He was born within a few months of my classmates’ children, because after the Yom Kippur War we all got married, all had kids, all at the same time, a biological response of the species because our friends, from that village, had been killed in battle. The friends of my youth are buried in the cemetery above our village, in the forest where I used to make out with girl friends on full moon nights with a million stars above our heads, and a million plans, noble ideas and stupid ones, fantasies and the what ifs of a village youth.
As is always the case when I come to Ginnegar, the name of the kibbutz where I grew to manhood, I am coming home.
But not with any joy. Not for any planned or impromptu reunion with classmates who have been my best friends for half a century who married when I did, had kids when I did, and now have gone grey as we all have.
I’m coming home for the funeral of Shachar Dauber, staff sergeant, paratrooper…twenty years old.
I don’t know him. Don’t think I ever even saw him. Nor do I know his parents who came to Ginnegar after I had already left to return to LA to become a screenwriter.
But we’re both from the same village.
The funeral is supposed to start at 11:00. I’m running late because I’ve come all the way up north from the border with Gaza and now I’m stuck in traffic. “This is absurd,” I think, “There’s never any traffic on this road and now today of all days, I’m stuck in traffic a few miles away from Ginnegar. Probably a fender-bender. I hope that’s all it is.”
Israelis are notoriously bad drivers. My “adopted brother Ron was killed in a car accident at sixteen. He would be one year shy of his sixtieth birthday if he had lived. He’d be a senior citizen. Instead he is eternally sixteen, just as my boy, who would have been approaching middle age by now, is forever twenty-two.
"What is with this traffic?” And then I realize, the traffic is headed to Ginnegar. The traffic is for the funeral.
But not just traffic. There are thousands of people coming here. Thousands! This boy couldn’t have known all these people. It’s unending. And when I finally make the turn into the kibbutz, they’ve rented busses to take people up to the cemetery because …there are thousands.
How could a twenty year old possibly know so many people?
He couldn’t have known all these people.
I don’t know any of them and this is my village, my home.
We go up to the cemetery. I put stones on the graves of my adopted father, Chanan, my adopted mother Miriam, and my adopted brother, Ron. Over there is the grave of my favorite teacher and high school counselor. Here, the grave of a childhood friend, there the grave an old guy we always made fun of. I know more people below ground than above in this crowd of thousands.
Shachar's classmates eulogize him and they tell stories about him that my classmates and I could have told about each other fifty years ago. Stories about impromptu picnics in the forest, where now he will dwell, forever a youth of twenty years; stories of girls and village greens, of full mooned nights, of a million stars, and a million noble ideas, and stupid ones, fantasies, and the what ifs of a village youth.
Boys and girls, men and women, soldiers cry openly unashamed and comforting each other.
I see two of my best friends in life Chaim and Dani. We’re all grandfathers now. We hug and kiss each other, ask about children and grandkids, but I can’t stay long. I have to drive halfway down to the middle of the country, though we call it “going up” because I’m going up to Jerusalem.
I’m going to pay a condolence call to the family of Max Seinberg, sergeant, Golani Brigade, twenty four years old. Originally from Los Angeles, the other place I grew up.
I’m going because he was a “lone soldier” which is the term for a soldier without any real family in Israel. I was a “lone soldier” I suppose, if a sixty seven year old reservist can qualify for that term. It’s what I am today, a “lone soldier” with no blood relatives, or adopted ones still alive in Israel.
And the Max Steinberg was not just from LA, he lived about fifteen minutes away from where I raised my kids in LA. He went to El Camino High School where my college sweetheart and the great love of my youth was a teacher till she retired a few years ago. I’m thinking, she was probably his teacher as well. I know what it is to lose a son. I want to say a few words of comfort to his parents, who are doing the seven days of mourning at a hotel in Jerusalem.
When word got out that Max Seinberg was a “lone soldier” with no family in Israel, thirty thousand people turned up to his funeral to accompany him on his final journey on this earth and to stand with him and his family. Thirty thousand people for a soldier who was supposedly ”alone.”
It has been several days since the funeral. People have probably already forgotten, moved on and, I think to myself, it will be good to comfort his parents. I know what they must be feeling. Been there. Done that. I get to the hotel and ask what room the Steinberg family is in so I can go up and pay a condolence call while they’re sitting Shiva, in the period of mourning.
“It’s not in their room,” the front desk clerk tells me, ”it’s one floor down, in the ballroom.”
And when I go down stairs there are hundreds of people, perhaps as many as a thousand.
I talk to some of them. They came from all walks of life, and none of them knew him.
There are a lot of young soldiers.
I figure they must be from his unit, his pals, but they’re air borne and from other units, No, none of them knew him either.
They were just from the same village: Israel.
Turns out, as I learned with Rachel and Menashe and the people of their village, as I learned in Ginnegar and in Jerusalem, as the thirty thousand people learned at Max Steinberg’s funeral, there are no “lone soldiers” in Israel.
And as can be the case with the internet today, if you’re a Palestinian from Gaza reading this, I want you to know that no one passed out candy to celebrate either of these boys’ martyrdom. Their parents didn’t celebrate because they had fulfilled the promise of becoming shaheed or martyr. No one expected seventy-two virgins to greet them. There was no joyous trilling of tongues nor shots fired wildly into the air.
And something else as well. In both gatherings, amongst those thousands of people, many of them soldiers, on leave from the battle with Hamas, to which we will all return in a few hours time, I heard not one word of hatred toward you, not one racist expression, not one vow to avenge these deaths, not one, not one.
After the 2009 and 2012 campaigns in response to the rockets launched by Hamas against Israel, the Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyah and Khaled Mashal both talked about the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. Never mind that they brought it about with wars of their making. They talked about the destruction and the “blockade.” Never mind that the “blockade” of Gaza was a nonlethal measure Israel took instead of going to war, hoping it would stem the terrorist attacks against us. Never mind that there was no blockade of Gaza when we turned it over to the Palestinian Authority, whose men Hamas machine gunned to death in the blood thirsty coup that brought them to power. Never mind that the blockade came in response to the terrorist attacks against us, not the other way around.
Khaled Mashal turned to the word’s media and said that Israel had to be made to allow building materials to come into Gaza, cement and steel, to rebuild the buildings Israel had bombed. How could the Zionists object to that? You can’t use cement and steel to make a rocket, they said. You can only use it to rebuild what the Zionists so cruelly destroyed. And so the West opened its pocket book and bought the cement and steel and Israel let it go through.
So let me ask you, if you’re reading this in Gaza, did Hamas use it to build you new schools and hospitals, community centers or parks?
No. We both know now what that cement and steel was used for; it was used to build the terrorist tunnels meant to murder us.
What did you get out of it?
What did you get out of the billions spent on rockets and mortars and homicide tunnels?
I know what we got out of Iron Dome. We got a defense system that saved lives.
What did you get?
I know why our boys died.
They died defending our country, our homes, our village.
But what did your boys die for?
We accepted a ceasefire! It was Hamas that not only turned it down, but then launched a terrorist tunnel attack against Rachel and Menashe’s village and dozens of others along the border.
It was to be Hamas and Khaled Mashal’s shock and awe.
After that, how could we not go in to deal with the terrorist tunnels? How could any country not commit its armed forces to remove that kind of murderous threat from its civilian population?
So what did your boys die for?
It was all so unnecessary. We had agreed to the ceasefire.
We wanted to start a cycle of peace. Hamas initiated a cycle of death.
And what did you get out of it?
Khaled Mashal said yesterday that there would be no ceasefire, that he and the leadership of Hamas would die to lift the siege.
But there was no siege till Khaled and company announced their intentions to kill us all, and launched the rocket attacks to do it.
And Khaled Mashsal made his brave comments from Qatar.
Last time I looked there were no Israeli soldiers in Qatar.
He’s in a five star hotel getting spa treatments, while you eat the dust of Gaza.
I promise you, on the soul of my son Zaki, of blessed memory, and on the souls of all the fallen, we don’t hate you.
We don’t wish you ill.
We want you to live peaceful, long, joyous lives. We want your children not to be martyrs but to marry, have children, give you the joy of grandchildren and wedding feasts, not funerals.
We just want you to stop trying to kill us.
Until then we’ll complete the mission of dealing with the tunnels, degrading Hamas ’s terrorist infrastructure and allowing our people to live the kind of tranquil lives we wish for you.
We know you’re suffering. We know you’re under Hamas’s gun.
And we know we’re, all of us, from the same village.
We pray for the day when you know it as well.
Dan Gordon is a captain in the Israel Defense Forces (Res)