The Human Spirit: For those who gave their lives

Barbara Sofer spoke at the AACI Memorial Ceremony for Americans and Canadians who gave their lives for Israel.

Barbara Sofer (photo credit: AACI)
Barbara Sofer
(photo credit: AACI)
No part of our statehood was won without sacrifice. Remember our names forever, goes the song. We are here today to do that, to stop and pause in our busy lives, to remember, to weep and to rise to our feet in applause and appreciation. Mostly, we are aware of the sacrifice of all the Isaacs who walked the road, yahad with all of us to the dreaded altar. Lovers, spouses, siblings, friends, parents, grandparents, children, I stand humbly before you to honor our dead.
I remember a time when I was a camp counselor in Connecticut when a plane flew so low overhead that I became terrified that it was an enemy attack. Irrational, I know. No one had fought on Connecticut soil since the British blasted the coast in 1812, and yet I can remember the sound of the plane today and the fear. I was 15. The lake was full of little kids. It was for me a moment like Holden Caulfield’s in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a realization that there was no way to protect them. As an Israeli, I’ve often had that feeling. Everyone we love – afraid. A spouse, a sister, a child is vulnerable. Here in Israel, as the late Steve Averbach used to say, “we’re all moving targets.”
When I was honored to be asked to speak at the memorial ceremony for the more than 300 whose names are listed on the Memorial Wall – North Americans, AACI associate members and their families who have fallen in service to the State of Israel or as terror victims – I couldn’t have imagined that Steve, who died on June 3, would be among those we stand here today to salute. In the seven years since Steve was mortally injured in a bombing, he overcame many health crises. Afterward he would be back, flashing his irresistible Cheshire cat smile, as he inspired a student group or raised funds to assist other victims of terror.
Steve, you ably represent both the soldiers and the civilians who are named on this wall. You served first as a soldier and then on the anti-terror police force. As a civilian, you taught people like me to shoot and defend ourselves. You were injured, gun in hand. For the seven years afterward, facing life as a quadriplegic, you displayed a soldier’s valor.
But Steve, if you were sitting here right now, you’d be on your guard about having me describe you with hyperboles. Stop the balderdash, you might say. Except you’d use another word that starts with B. “Don’t turn me into some kind of saint,” you would say.
Steve, I don’t want to airbrush you. American psychologist Carol Gilligan has warned us that the moment we idealize people, we distance ourselves from them, erase their existence as flesh-and-blood human beings whom we loved for who they were. We must continue to love them for their goodness, but also their faults, their high-mindedness but also their peccadilloes.
So for the record, you were more comfortable with a stein of beer in Mike’s Place than you were in a Talmud class. Your nickname was Steve Guns. Your mother made you apologize to a neighborhood builder because you vandalized his concrete foundation. You were angry that he’d uprooted trees. You told me that you if you hadn’t moved to Israel and channeled your restless energy into the IDF, you would have wound up in jail back in New Jersey.
I met you first on May 18, 2003, in the intensive care unit of Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem I had never seen anyone like you. Rambo was the only word that came to mind. The No. 6 bus driver stopped suddenly for a religious man running after them from the bushes. You noticed the man’s unshaven cheeks and the bulges in his jacket. You drew and cocked your gun, but the terrorist’s finger was already on the bomb trigger. Seven persons were killed immediately, 20 including you were injured.
You’d caused the terrorist, whose mission was to murder tens of men, women and children as the bus filled, to explode prematurely. Many passengers owe you their lives. The concussive wave of the blast savaged your lungs. A single ball bearing lodged between C4 and C5 in your back, the critical vertebrae that control upper and lower body mobility.
SEVERAL DAYS after you were hospitalized, Rebecca Lipkin, the producer of ABC’s Nightline, phoned me with a request to find an Israeli and a Palestinian to talk about the road map. Two women physicians, one from Nablus, one from Efrat, agreed to talk. Both happened to be taking care of you. Yes, they could film you, you agreed, but you wanted to talk. Before millions of viewers, you protected the good name of Israel from an intensive care unit.
At first you wanted to die. Pull the plug, you ordered your parents. But five hard years later, when I asked you at your son Sean’s bar mitzva, you said you were “happy to be here. Totally.” You had become closer to your sons – Tamir, Dvir, Sean, Adam – although you regretted the limitations on what you could do for them, and of course, the burden you had placed on Julie.
You didn’t regret your decision to live in Israel.
For most of us, born in North America, living here, bringing up our children here, exposing them to the dangers of defending this country and confronting the terrorism was a heavy decision. Although we accept ideologically the equal responsibility of all Jews to defend this land, there’s no way to erase the knowledge that it was a choice.
In Building a Life, Alex Singer, whose name is inscribed on this memorial wall, addresses the weight of knowing he volunteered for military service while the sabra soldiers were drafted. “I spend the time thinking whether I made the right choice,” wrote home Alex. And to his Grandma Jean, Alex described the sensual hills with their curves and crevices. “Whenever we enter the hills, we move like marines, snort, pant and sweat, when we should be lying under an olive tree, drawing and sleeping. Oh well.”
Steve, you knew Alex Singer. You always attended his memorial ceremony. It was you who noticed that Alex was buried right next to his buddy Benjamin Levy. When Alex was killed preventing terrorists from penetrating the northern border on September 15, 1987, Paula Rutstein, an American immigrant in Karmiel, was pregnant with her first sabra. She and her husband Hanoch named him Alex. Alex Rutstein is 22, about to go into the army after yeshiva study. I asked Paula why she named her son for Alex Singer. “Because he was a fellow American. Because he came here and served, and he didn’t have to.”
Nor did the famed Mickey Marcus. He had left the military and had a promising law career in the US. He was asked to recruit potential military leadership from among retired generals. When he couldn’t find any, he volunteered himself. I thought of you, Steve, as I read our fellow American Tzippora Porath’s monograph on him. Marcus was boisterous, a kibbitzer, a welterweight champion boxer, a hard drinker. Walter Winchell used to think he was Irish.
Col. David (Mickey) Marcus helped build the Burma Road and was involved in the jeep convoy that broke the siege to Jerusalem. A young woman in the Palmah was his jeep driver. “You know you could get killed in a war like this. What made you come here?”
The American thrust out his wrist and said: See these veins? The blood of Abraham flows through them. That’s what brought me here.” That’s what brought him and a thousand other volunteers to the fight for independence. Brought him and subsequent generations of real men and women, with faults enough, and idiosyncrasies enough. But with the blood of Abraham and Sarah.
On July 11, 1948, Marcus was fatally shot by an Israeli sentry, a new immigrant who had trouble recognizing the Hebrew password.
What was the password?
Haderech shelanu. The road is ours.
Indeed, the road is now ours to shape. With humility, we can only offer you our gratefulness and our pledge to remember you always. May their memories be for a blessing.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people