Who is a hero?

A former national boxing champion writes about his own idols.

nazareth arabs 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nazareth arabs 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Voice Called
By Yossi Katz
Gefen | 272 pages | $15
Philadelphia-born Yossi Katz made aliya in 1978. After spending 30 years as a Jewish educator, he found himself concerned about contemporary society, both here and in the US.
“For me, Jewish heroes were always my love and passion,” Katz says. “When I was growing up, astronauts and national leaders tended to be our role models. But today, kids identify people like Kim Kardashian or Bar Refaeli as people they admire. That’s a problem. Watching a TV show is fine, but when the lives of celebrities become a national obsession, then society has gone off the track. For more than 4,000 years, individual Jews have lived lives of dedication and heroism, so I set about compiling a book of stories of Jewish heroes whose inspirational lives were worthy of emulation.”
A Voice Called – from the Hannah Szenes poem, “A voice called and I went” – contains 32 bite-size chapters, each chronicling a heroic life in three or four pages. About a third are classic heroes – Theodor Herzl, Sarah Aaronsohn, Hannah Szenes. Another third are more or less contemporary figures – Ilan Ramon, Yoni Netanyahu, Naomi Shemer. The final third includes lesser known individuals such as Aliya Bet hero Murray Greenfield, fellow educator David Sprung and Operation Cast Lead hero Yonatan Ben-Amir.
With such a spread, it’s logical to wonder what constitutes heroism. In partial response, Katz quotes Pirkei Avot, “Who is a hero? He who controls his passion,” although he admits, “I question that. It’s true, controlling your passion is sometimes heroic, but can’t a hero be someone who uses his or her passion to fight for a noble cause?
“For generations, philosophers and historians wrangled with the ‘who is a hero?’ question, and I don’t pretend to answer it for everyone. The heroes I identify are people whose lives inspired me. I hope these stories will touch others, too, but ultimately the goal is that each reader will search for and identify his or her own heroes. There’s plenty out there.”
Katz’s achievements are themselves heroic. Immediately after completing his IDF service in a reconnaissance unit of the Armored Corps, he began his 30-year (so far) career of teaching history at Alexander Muss High School (AMHSI). Given that Katz also won the national boxing championship, it’s not surprising that a few of his heroes are sports figures: Victor “Young” Perez, the world flyweight boxing champion; Barney Ross, three-time world boxing champion; and Tal Brody, the basketball player.
“Yes, they were sports stars,” he says, “but that’s not why they’re heroes. Being a sports star means they’re good at a child’s game on a professional level. I’m a sportsman, I appreciate that, but it’s not heroic. They’re heroes because of what they did outside sports. Perez was in Auschwitz where, among other courageous deeds, he saved scores of lives by supplying stolen food rations to his fellow Jews. Barney Ross was active in the Bergson Group, working to save European Jews during the Holocaust. Tal Brody, a huge sports star, gave up his NBA career in the US, made aliya and dedicated his life to Israel, working with Israeli kids. You shouldn’t be eliminated from being a hero just because you’re involved with sports – it’s what you do with your life that counts.”
What makes Katz’s book especially warm and intimate is that for each of the heroes he offers a personal vignette – where he came across this person, why the story “touched my heart” or how the person figured in his own life. Clearly the most poignant of the stories is that of Michael Levin, the “lone soldier” who fell in battle against Hizbullah terrorists in 2006.
“Michael was not only my student but also my dear friend,” Katz recalls. “Michael came to AMHSI in 2001. It was a cold day and I was wearing my old Philadelphia Flyers sweatshirt. Michael walked in wearing a Flyers hat. ‘Hey, dude. Are you my teacher?’ he said. I was, and so we started talking. We both came from the same Philadelphia neighborhood, were both active in the same youth groups, went to the same camps. We were like the same guy, only one generation apart.
“At the end of the one-year program, the class travels to Yoni Netanyahu’s grave site on Mount Herzl for a very moving ceremony. Michael wept as he spoke. ‘It’s not enough to just honor his memory,’ he said. ‘I have to do something to live up to the example he left, to protect Jews and Israel.’
“So, okay, a lot of kids say that on that last day. They mean it, but they go back to the US. They love Israel, they work to support it, that’s all good. But a year later, Michael came back, made aliya and enlisted as a lone soldier, in Israel without his family. When Israel was attacked by Hizbullah in 2006, Michael happened to be on a 30-day leave in the US. Told to finish his leave, Michael refused, and instead rushed back to his unit.
“Upon learning that he was assigned to guard an equipment storage shed,he fought for reassignment. ‘I didn’t come back to guard equipment. Icame to protect my brothers.’ Shortly after, Michael was hit by asniper bullet and was buried on Tisha Be’av. But his heroism lies notin how he died, but how he lived.”
If there is a weak spot in Katz’s book, it may be that at times it’soverly pedantic. It shouldn’t be necessary to define the word “aliya”each and every time it’s used. For that matter, the constantly repeatedredundancy “he made aliya to Israel” should be dropped. After all,there’s no other place to which one could make aliya.
That said, if to err on the side of overexplanation means that thestories of these great Jewish heroes will become accessible to allkinds of people, all over the world, then the redundancy is well worthit. Katz’s heroes are our heroes. Now we’re called upon to add a fewmore of our own.