In March of 1995 my friends and I were drafted to the Israeli army. We had passed some grueling tests and were accepted to the Paratroopers Brigade, the Tzanchanim. Together with so many other Israeli children, the image of the red berets liberating the Western Wall had been fused into our psyches, and more than anything we wanted to serve our country honorably and to the best of our abilities.
Six painful months of basic training were ahead of us. In this period our minds and bodies were converted from civilian use and became the property of the IDF. We learned to push the envelope of our individual capacities, and to harness the great strength inherent in a united group.
All this time we kept our sights on the final day of basic training in which we would hike 86 kilometers, in utter silence with full infantry gear, to Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, where many Tzanchanim perished in 1967 and where we would receive our very own red berets and be inducted into the ranks of the paratroopers.
However, one fine day in May, barely three months after we began basic training, the pit bulllike sergeant major came into our barracks with a large box. We had no clue what its contents were.
The sergeant major proceeded to open the box, and much to our surprise, unveiled red berets for each one of us. “You don’t deserve to be paratroopers yet,” he told us. “But tomorrow you will leave the base and think of yourselves as full-fledged Tzanchanim for one day. You will not get to keep these, but wear them with pride and respect.”
The next day was Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day, and the whole of the brigade, thousands of men, would be released for one day to attend one of the many commemorations of fallen soldiers that take place every year in the cemeteries of this tiny nation. Each of us was given precise directions to the cemetery, and a plot number was also given to us. We were told that the plot number corresponded to a grave of a fallen paratrooper. We were ordered to stand next to that grave and next to the family of a young man who was once just like ourselves, wearing our red beret as he once did, and in a sense to represent his memory and soul.
That day I had luck hitchhiking, the preferred mode of travel when in uniform. Hitchhiking is by no means a precise science, and though I had tweaked my “I’m a helpless soldier” stance to perfection, some days were better than others.
I reached the gates of the cemetery about an hour early, and the place was quiet and serene.
I smoked a cigarette at the gate and then wandered in. The large space echoed with silence, the only sound being the birds chirping in the trees. Nature had overtaken this resting place and many of the walls were covered in ivy. I tried listening to the graves and heard no cries of pain, no last words and no fear of death. The dead, it seemed to me, had made peace with their fate, and were no longer bitter at having fallen so young. Alone among my dead I stood, a bit in a daydream, under the sun.
Soon, people began to arrive and I straightened my stance and made sure my beret was on right.
I was nervous at meeting the family I had been assigned to. Who would they be? How would they react to me? Would they cry next to me? Ask who I was? Most of all my soul wondered: what is it like for a parent to stand on the grave of their child? How would my parents feel if I were that child? How would I feel, if it were my child? I thought about my own mother and her reservations about my army service.
Soon after, I spotted a family of three: father, mother and son, heading in my general direction.
It was my family.
They greeted me kindly, and indeed the father did ask me who I was and where I served. The mother, who had been through this before, brought out some fruits and water to nourish the soldier standing in front of her, and though she looked at me I could see that her mind was far away, and that I was a painful reminder of her longing to nourish her own child.
As the somber ceremony began, once again I eyed my surroundings, and saw families standing by graves all around me. Interspersed among them were other red berets, for only the Paratroopers Brigade has this custom of representing its fallen.
At this moment more than any other, tears welled up, for I realized that this was about more than the personal tragedy of one fallen paratrooper, but was rather the day all of Israel remembered those who had laid down their lives in the attempt to build a home for the Jewish people. The red berets standing at the cemetery that day represented to me that successful effort of rebuilding the home we had lost so long ago. The dead came back to life in the form of a new generation of young soldiers who stood at the graves on the land which God had promised them. While the living cried, the dead now rested eternally in the bosom of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
My adopted family was now in tears and the horns blared and reverberated through the cemetery, signifying the moment of silence and memory that had finally come. “Hhhhhhhmmmmmm,” like a primordial hum or the sound of a shofar; the Jewish soul cannot fight back tears.
In that one moment I felt gratitude: I am so thankful to you, fallen tzanchan, fallen Jew, fallen brother. Without you my parents would have had no place to run to from the choke-hold of the Soviet Union. Without you Jews of the world would never have shelter, and without you I would not be standing here today, wearing this uniform and the red beret that did not yet belong to me.
Then-foreign minister Shimon Peres finished speaking and the ceremony was over. The family thanked me for coming. They looked down onto their son’s grave and God only knows what went through their minds. They walked away slowly, the mother leaning on her husband, noticeably weaker than when she entered. I would probably never see them again.
“Shalom,” I said to myself.
Seven months after this story took place, Tom Kareen, one of the company’s commanders, was killed in a Hezbollah ambush. Also in that altercation, Yoav Be’er, an outstanding soldier in the second platoon, lost an eye and a leg.
Kareen and I did not get along too well throughout most of our service. However, a few weeks before his death, as I stood at an guard post I saw him from a distance leading other soldiers while he carried a radio on his back. He saw me too, and from that distance he waved broadly, with a big smile, as if to say, “Shalom, friend, there is peace between us.” That wave struck me as being uncharacteristic of army behavior and it made me feel human again if only for a bit.
When he was killed, the battalion commander came to speak with us. He shared our sadness but told us not to show it at the funeral. He said: “The enemy should not see you weeping like babies in front of the cameras, we are an army, and death is a part of it.” I knew that he was right.
Tom was buried in the soil of his home kibbutz, Ginosar, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret. It was the most beautiful cemetery I had ever seen. It was hard to fight back tears at the funeral as per orders, especially when Tom’s fiancée eulogized her man with such warm words and tears. Today is the day of memory and the time for those tears.
The writer is the international spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron.
Follow him at @yishaifleisher.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>