The title is schmaltzy. I know. I apologize. But at 49 I promised myself that I would try to be ever more honest and candid.
Love and pride for my soldier son is exactly what I feel and what I will therefore declare.
Next week our son Mendy will, after months of basic training in the IDF’s special forces, take his army oath of allegiance at the Kotel.
The Kotel or Western Wall is the remains of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and as such is Judaism’s holiest site. But it’s still a ruin, a broken relic of an earlier period of Jewish glory.
For 2,000 years the Jewish people, amid many shining moments, bore traces of a ruined nation, shunted from country to country, denied their dignity, deprived of security, reduced to begging princes for protection, degraded in Europe and other parts, often condemned to squalor, poverty and death.
But my son is part of the most dramatic Jewish renewal imaginable. The first Jewish army in 2,000 years, protecting Jewish life, lending value to Jewish existence, and enabling the creation of the first independent Jewish state in two millennia. It is nothing short of a miracle.
When I see pictures of my son Mendy wearing the olive green uniform of the IDF, my eyes tear and I feel emotionally helpless, unable to fully absorb the enormous commitment he has made or the project in which he is engaged.
I always told my wife, Debbie, that my son would outdo me. That he would be my better in every score, especially in service to the Jewish people. Truth be told I thought it would happen later in life. That it took place while in his ‘20s, along with the other brave soldiers with whom he serves, is an unpredictable marvel.
Strangers often tell me that what I do for the Jewish people is courageous. As a man with insecurities, the compliment is felt deeply. And perhaps there is something a little challenging in debating nasty Israel-haters in front of live TV audiences knowing that if you fail to deliver you have done damage to a noble cause.
But courage? Let’s not be ridiculous.
Courage is my son calling me when the IDF actually gives him his phone back in the field for perhaps 10 minutes at a time and hearing in his voice that his entire body is so broken that he can barely summon the energy to speak. Courage is asking your son why the training has to be so grueling – repeated nights sleeping in the freezing rain in a soaking ditch – and hearing that his unit is being trained to face off against the battle-hardened brutes of Hezbollah and Hamas. There is no room for weakness.
When he spoke to me of the enemies that the IDF regularly faces, it left me with a deep feeling of discomfort.
No one wishes to think of these things. We pray to God always for peace. Even writing them sends shivers down my spine.
But being prepared to stand up to vile, death-cult monsters like Hamas, ISIS and Iran is the price the Jewish people must pay simply for survival. And there are the privileged few who are prepared to assume that responsibility, even as their parents bear the anxiety of their decision.
It is we who must honor them.
But let us not pretend that all agree. Just the other day a close friend, who is devoted to Israel, called me and asked how I had allowed Mendy to leave NYU and join the IDF.
“He had such a promising career. And he didn’t even have to go. He chose to. He could have made a lot of money.”
It broke my heart to hear it. And I concluded that my friend had become, like so many of us Diaspora Jews, so blinded by the endless pursuit of material comfort that he could not spot a hero even when he stared him in the face.
I do not look forward even an iota to my son’s unit ever seeing combat, God forbid. I pray each day that Israel’s enemies leave it in peace. I am utterly weak when it comes to fear for my children’s safety.
But that does not change in the slightest a father’s heart that bursts with pride for having a child who lives a heroic and selfless life, who is dedicated to the safety of the Jewish people, and believes in Israel so much that he is prepared to voluntarily endure significant hardships so that his people might live.
Mendy, you are a hayal boded, a lone soldier, which adds emotional privation to an already isolating life. Other soldiers get the support of their parents and siblings living in Israel. Yours are thousands of miles away, with the notable exception of your sister, Chana, who likewise served heroically in the IDF.
You’re in a combat unit with Israeli soldiers and you have had to learn a new language and culture. It must all be unsettling and deeply lonely.
I’m also aware that a father’s love is, at most, somewhat impotent. At your age you should begin looking for, and finding God willing, the love of a good woman, someone who will comfort and nurture you as you will her. Someone who shares your passion for Israel, is firmly committed to not just the spiritual but the physical survival of the Jewish people, and whose family does not see Israel or the IDF as a burden but a blessing.
It will happen in due course, Mendy. You will find a woman with those qualities and more. But in the meantime, just know this.
You are your father’s pride and joy, my beacon of light even as I despair at the increasing anti-Semitic darkness that once again engulfs my people. You are the living embodiment of the love I have always felt for the Jewish nation, the supreme personification of the miracle I have always believed the State of Israel to be.
And you are never alone. Distance can never separate two people who love each other. Space is a meaningless obstacle to the powerful bonds of affection that tie together the soul of a father and son.
Wherever you go, your father is always with you.
As you walk in the footsteps of Judah the Maccabee, your father trails softly behind you. As you follow the brave path of Bar-Kochba, who visited devastation upon Rome, your father strides quietly in the background. And as you continue in the path of the intrepid heroes of the Warsaw ghetto, your father paces proudly behind.
Unlike you, Mendy, I am no hero. I have never worn the uniform of my people. I have not been prepared to stand between them and their physical adversaries who have sought to harm them so that small Jewish children might live and breath as with every other nation.
But I am possessed of a virtue I have always sought to maintain. I am able to identify and pay homage to heroes.
And you, my son, are a hero.
Please forever remain safe. God watch you, protect you, and be with you.
Your father could not be more proud.