We'll be celebrating a special Jerusalem Day next week, and I've been playing a new and unusual CD called From Jerusalem - Beyond Words. It particularly suits this season of bittersweet musing, when we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reunification of our eternal city amid the crisis of leadership that dominates our national life.
The lyrics of From Jerusalem - Beyond Words are drawn from the poetry of Jerusalemite David Eller. I'd never heard of David until I received a note from his mother, Lili Eylon. She'd approached a group of young Jerusalem musicians to set the words of her late and beloved son Sec.-Lt. David Eller, to music.
We met for soup on a windy winter day. As Lili recounted her family story, I remember feeling confused as she provided her family chronology. Could she really be talking about a son who died in the IDF nearly 40 years before? The agonizing realization followed immediately: Of course she could. The wound never heals. The pain never goes away. The passage of time doesn't heal.
David Baruch Eller was born in New York in 1950, named after his mother's cousin who was murdered in the Holocaust. She'd brought her sons, David and Ra'anan, to live in Israel when David was nine. He'd fit in easily; his nickname was "Sunshine."
By the time he was in high school, at the elite Gymnasia Rehavia, he'd developed a passion for Middle Eastern studies and excelled in Arabic. He was fluent and became a Middle East specialist in the army's academic reserve. But then suddenly, during the final exercise of his officer's training course, 10 years after he'd moved to Israel, David Eller was gone. Killed "accidentally, in the course of duty."
His mother says she was never able to learn exactly how he'd died. The army was less transparent back then. Files snapped closed.
Soon after his death, she found the notebooks filled with poetry and essays he'd written in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Lili created a memorial album. Still the words lay silent on the page, and over the years the silence increasingly haunted her.
SO JUST this year, Lili Eylon, with the help of David's brother Ra'anan, took David's nearly 40-year-old poems and approached a group of young Jerusalem musicians, mostly graduates of the city's Rubin Academy. Could they set the words to music?
She was delighted that the musicians were so enthusiastic about the poetry. "The poems spoke to us as if written for us, another generation of young people," said musician Noa Shemer, who coordinated the project.
"He was so optimistic, naive not cynical, with an ability to overcome challenges," said Zohar Sharon, 29, himself a graduate of the Armored Corps as well as the music academy, a young man composing songs and symphonies. "We were honored to be able to make his words live through music, to universalize a private memory so others could share it."
Each musician chose a favorite poem and composed the music using his or her own style: jazz, rock, '70s, romantic waltz, Israeli folk. Sometimes the same words were set to music three different ways. And then the young men and women cut a CD for a soldier who had died long before the invention of Web sites or even CDs.
A favorite among poems, ironically, turned out to be Eller's verses on "Life."
"To breathe! To fill your lungs/ with air to hold it/ till you're about to burst and become drunk of it/â€¦ To march with fast sturdy steps/ straight and fearlessly/ towards the sun."
David, the poet/soldier, never got to keep his pledge of marching toward the future. "Sunshine" is inscribed on his grave on Mount Herzl. The album cover photo shows a young man forever frozen in precocious adolescence, his unique talent and potential never fulfilled, like so many other soldiers who, at the start of their lives, have given those lives "in the course of duty."
From Jerusalem - Beyond Words is one mother's modest effort to keep her son's memory alive. Lili is delighted that her son's words could provide inspiration to musicians so many years after his death. She hadn't intended it specifically for the 40th anniversary of Jerusalem Day, but for me the timing is right. The poems were penned shortly before the events of June 1967, a different time in Israel's history. One of the photos in the memorial album shows David, Ra'anan and Lili holding newspapers reporting the arrival of paratroopers at the Western Wall.
SO I'M playing the music as I try to work out how a battle-wearied citizenry such as ours could get itself into such a fix. Suddenly deprived of the prime minister who had shepherded us through the years of the second intifada, were we making the irrational decisions of the grieving?
I'm playing the music in memory of the young men and women who never reached adulthood because of their sacrifice for our country. And I'm playing David Eller's CD because it reminds me of the wellsprings of ingenuity, resourcefulness and goodwill that exist here. How, if we nurture them as we should, we can draw inspiration from them and do better.
We owe the next generation a chance to march with sturdy steps straight and fearlessly towards the sun.
The Web site Davidbarucheller.com features songs from the CD.