(photo credit: Courtesy)
'There should be a law against parents outliving their children," says Efrat resident and pizzeria owner Mordechai Goodman, sitting at his dining table that for the past year has had one fewer place setting.
"It's in God's hands," his wife, Ann, corrects him gently.
"Yes," Mordechai agrees. "But God should have made a rule that children have to outlive their parents."
Ann nods, then reminds her husband that even Adam and Eve had a son die during their lifetime. As did the Goodmans, who made aliya from New York just over two decades ago (where they met as part of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's Lincoln Square Synagogue) with a toddler and a baby in tow.
A year ago, on February 2, 2006, that "baby" - their son, Yosef, by that time 20 years old - was killed in an IDF training accident, while parachuting out of a plane. His death caught the country by storm, due to the particularly tragic circumstances surrounding it and to its having been the result of the young man's heroism.
A member of Maglan, an elite paratroopers' unit, Yosef literally and figuratively "went down" to save the life of his commander, whose leg had gotten entangled in the soldier's parachute. As they plunged to the ground, Yosef - on his 33rd jump, this time in a special sky-divers' parachute - cut himself loose. At this point, it was too late for his emergency chute to open. It was clear to all that he had made a last-minute calculation that had he not acted as he did, both he and his commander would have died.
"There is some comfort in this," Ann acknowledges through her tears. Mordechai agrees. "If you have to lose a child, this way is perhaps less futile than another," he says, adding: "But it doesn't bring him back."
Indeed, the "horror and pain" of their son's really being gone is something the Goodmans say they have to accept and cope with "every minute of every day."
They have been learning to live with their new reality of "joining the club that nobody wants to become a member of," according to Ann, with the help of their belief in God, the impact of Yosef's legacy of vitality and through the moral support of other bereaved families they have met via the Koby (Mandell) Foundation.
The most important lesson Ann says she learned from classes provided by the Koby Foundation is to focus on what she has, rather than what she does not.
"Sometimes, it's really hard on Shabbat. I sit at the table thinking about Yosef and about how he used to sit here, and I picture all that energy radiating from him. And I say to myself, 'Ann, think about the children you have. Thank God for the other children you have to think about and worry about and take care of.'"
According to Mordechai, the remaining eight Goodman children, aged seven to 22, are able to "get on with lives in full blast" as a result of Yosef's having "set the tone for life; religion; family; sports; everything he touched on."
It is this legacy, he says, that enabled three of Yosef's brothers to drive to Mount Hermon the night after their brother's memorial at Mount Herzl cemetery a couple of weeks ago. "They cried at the grave site, and then went skiing, the way they always did with Yosef," he recounts proudly, attributing his family's ability to continue to embrace life to Yosef's spiritual presence, in spite of his physical absence.
Indeed, adds Ann, "He always influenced the other children. Our other boys want to go into elite units as well."
In fact, two months ago, their 20-year-old son, Yehuda, entered Maglan, and their 18-year-old, Naftali, is in the process of getting accepted into the Navy SEALs.
DOES THE fate that befell Yosef make them hesitate about having other sons in combat units?
Mordechai says, "Not at all. It never entered our minds."
Ann answers slightly differently - more maternally, perhaps. "Well, it entered my mind at first," she says. "But my husband reminded me that the army helped Yosef to develop. It really brought out his potential. He loved it. It made him feel good about himself. So, why should we deny our other kids that experience?
"Another thing is that I believe that everything is from God and that what's going to be is going to be, no matter what. So the other boys threw that up to me. They said, 'If something's meant to happen to us, God forbid, it's going to happen in any situation. Our going into a different kind of unit won't make us less vulnerable.' That persuaded me."
The Goodmans stress they are not among a growing number of citizens voicing their disillusionment with the IDF for political or other reasons - whether due to its part in the disengagement from Gaza a year and a half ago, or to the lack of sufficient supplies and training for its ground forces, which became apparent during last summer's war in Lebanon.
Mordechai stresses that his household - "especially because of my wife" - is very careful to avoid lashon hara (malicious utterances) "about the country or about individual people."
To illustrate this, he claims that Yosef was so devoted to this principle that he rarely spoke about his friends, "even good things. We didn't even know what he was doing in Maglan. We had no idea he was parachuting. It was a secret, and he kept the secret."
Ann goes a step further in her explanation of why she has nothing negative to say about the IDF: "After Yosef's accident, the army didn't leave our side. For the entire week of the shiva, they stayed at our house. They pitched a tent in the yard. They told us stories about Yosef. And anything we needed, they were ready to give us. It was so comforting. They've been supportive throughout this year, too. Boys come to visit us before the holidays. They even bring us gifts. It's really, really nice. They are so thoughtful. They invited us to come on a trip with them on Succot. They continue to invite our other kids to parties on the base, and they send a car to pick them up. The kids like spending time with Yosef's friends. It's like keeping the connection alive.
"Yes," Mordechai says, "They didn't just send us a telegram [telling of Yosef's death], like some other army might do."
Indeed, says Mordechai, "Yosef loved the army and the army loved him. This was not only our personal loss, but a tremendous one for the IDF as well."
Here he produces a file of speeches from commanders and comrades-in-arms delivered at his son's funeral and azkara (year memorial). "The sports officer called him the 'lohem hagadol mikulam' [the greatest warrior of all]. And every time a new group from Maglan arrives, he takes them on a run to the place where Yosef died."
Mordechai pauses to compose himself, then continues - now to paint a more personal portrait of the son about whom reminiscing is at once crucial and excruciating. It's a story he told at the memorial service to sum up the sweet nature that accompanied the star athlete and super soldier:
"When Yosef got on the bus to the Paratroopers' Brigade base for the first time, he saw a guy sitting off to the side by himself, looking nervous and uncomfortable, while the other boys were all busily chatting and sitting together. So, Yosef introduced himself to the soldier, whose name was Yossi. Yosef told Yossi: 'You're with me. Wherever I go, you're going. Don't be afraid. I want to see a smile on your face.' The next day, Yosef heard that there were going to be tryouts for the elite Maglan unit. When he ran into Yossi again, he said, 'Get ready. You and I are going to try out for it.' But Yossi said, 'No way. I heard about how hard it is. The paratroopers are good enough for me.' But Yosef pulled him by the shoulders and wouldn't take no for an answer. He said, 'You're going with me. I'll see you on Monday morning.' So, the two tried out together. The next week, at their base, a sign was posted with those who got into Maglan. Yosef and Yossi were Number One and Two."
Ann, again, adds a story of her own to illustrate her son's character, and cling to anything that keeps him alive in some way: "Yosef tried to fix up our neighbors' daughter with a former commander of his, so he gave the guy her phone number and told him to call her. A week or two later, he heard that the guy still hadn't called, so he phoned to reprimand him and persuade him to make the call. A week after that, Yosef died. At the shiva, this former commander arrived and sought the girl out. And they're still dating!"
Inspired by this, a singles organization is going to sponsor an event in Yosef's memory.
Also named after him is the high school league of AFI (American Football in Israel) - established when Yosef persuaded president Steve Leibowitz to create teams for his age group. This was after spending years on the sidelines as a spectator, watching his father, Mordechai, play quarterback for the Pizzeria Efrat team.
ANN AND Mordechai Goodman sigh, weeping intermittently throughout this hour-long interview. Ann sums up her emotions as follows: "Usually in life, when you have a problem, you try to work at solving it or resolving it in some way. But here, there's nothing you can do. It's just there all the time. The only thing you can do is learn to live with the pain. I try to do this by feeling as though he's with me, and by telling myself that I have to accept God's judgement."
Mordechai adds advice to other mothers and fathers, whose children are among the living: "Love and hug and kiss your kids all the time," he says. "Ann and I have no regrets on that score where Yosef is concerned. He knew we loved him unconditionally, so we are left with no guilt."
"You never know what tomorrow holds," Ann joins in. "Don't put off telling your kids things you want to tell them."