The POSTman Knocks Twice: The girl with the face of velvet

Israeli documentary film for children, 'Someone Like Me'. (photo credit: PR)
Israeli documentary film for children, 'Someone Like Me'.
(photo credit: PR)
‘I am sorry I couldn’t take your call last night.” It was the positive happy voice of a granddaughter.
“I was on duty.” She is a very young captain in the IDF.
“On duty.” It sounds mundane, almost boring. In English that is. But in Hebrew the resonances shake me, body and soul.
On duty: “bamishmeret.” Lyrical as the word “mishmeret” sounds, with its liquid “m’s” and “r” and softly sibilant “sh,” its melodious sound takes me to a Zionist song we sang almost 70 years ago. The lyrics were probably written in the 1930s, and tell of two young people on guard duty: in English, the Hebrew key words are limpingly translated as “a comrade–guard, a woman-comrade guarding, and in our hands – rifles” The word for guard duty is “mishmeret.”
The song’s first line is “We are standing on guard.”
In the romantic days of kibbutz camaraderie the idea of a young man and young woman carrying rifles, “standing on mishmeret” was revolutionary and appealing. For us as powerless Diaspora Jews, aware of the Shoah because of the “saving remnant,” the few young boys and girls, men and women who trickled into Toronto from the camps. We felt the horror they conveyed but did not speak of. Clearly we needed a safe haven for Jews. The gates to Palestine, as we called it then, were closed by the British.
What could restore our dignity and pride, if not the image of the young pioneers guarding their kibbutzim against hostile Arab nationalists? Thus when my granddaughter says she was on “mishmeret,” to me it does not mean “on duty,” or “working a shift.” No. “Mishmeret” is something we take for granted today, while when I was her age, it was a thrilling concept.
I could not wait to go on guard duty in the kibbutz, just a few kilometers north of the Gaza strip. (We called it “shmira,” from the same root.) There is a Yiddish song with the same tune of this Hebrew song, “Standing on Mishmeret – Guard Duty.” It tells another story altogether. A girl with a face of velvet is a sniper with the Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis. Was she my granddaughter’s age, maybe younger?
A girl with a face of velvet aims at the enemy convoy Aims, fires, hits = with the first bullet
It sounds kitsch in translation, cold black-on-white English. But in Yiddish it rings compelling and painful: “A meyld mitt a zaydenem ponim, tsiylt dem soynehs karavan.” The very word “meydl” – in old English “a maiden” – is a diminutive, implying “little” – “a little girl with a face of velvet....” One of our young daughters aiming a cold steel rifle in the freezing winter night, lying on the snow, hidden in the trees, as the enemy convoy – “karavan” – drives through the moonlight. And our little girl, whose skin is velvet to the touch, takes aim, fires, hits. With one shot.”
All this in just a split second races through my memory as I hear that word “mishmeret,” today so mundane. And then as I write, further thoughts. “Mishmeret” is a word I know since I was a pre-teen. The three “shifts” the priests took in the Temple are called thus in the Talmud. In the Bible, the word used for this is “ashmoret,” which stems from the same root.
In the Zionist reworked Hebrew “mishmar” – guard duty, and “mishmeret” – also guard duty stressed the root “sh-m-r” – a shomer, a guard. Not just a “guard,” but an armed one.
If all this was triggered by a single word, in a brief call from a maiden with a face of velvet, it immediately brought me into the stark unromantic reality of this young woman’s responsibility. The existence of Israel has made us into a people whose youngsters carry on their shoulders our lives and limb.
When I first donned the khaki uniform of the 1950s, to begin a rather undistinguished military career, I saw myself as the modern version of the pre- State builders guarding their kibbutz. I was making up for the suffering from hunger and cold – and fear – of the girl with the velvet face.
I was sure that my daughters would serve in a peacetime army, that within two decades, war would no longer threaten Israel. How these hopes evaporated.
Now the second generation of my Israel-born offspring is in uniform. Both first- and second-generation women are fully observant religiously and see their military service as a natural part of their Zionist Judaism.
One thing that characterizes them is their love of and knowledge of Hebrew.
For the life of me, I cannot accept the fact that so many immigrants who have come to Israel in the last few decades know so little Hebrew. The essence of Zionism was not just immigrating to Israel – it was also the renewal of a dynamic Hebrew culture. One cannot truly understand any country without knowing its language. Ben-Gurion said, not just to speak but “also to dream” in Hebrew.
Or those observant Jews who come to Israel, pray in Hebrew, but still live in the mental world of their Diaspora language. There are even synagogues that use English in sermons and study sessions.
Since many of these newer immigrants lean towards the Right, let me goad them – including you, dear reader, in case the shoe fits – with the passion of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. He not only saw the Hebrew language as a link to a great past and its literature, but as one of the bases for nation-building. So much so, that he once proposed speaking to newcomers only in Hebrew, so as to force them to acquire the language.
This column was born out of a brief telephone call – in Hebrew – with a girl with a face of velvet, who could not take my call because she was on “mishmeret.”
How this word resonates across the millennia. How it has been reborn and reshaped. What a shame so many do not share in its reverberations.
Avraham Avi-hai is a former senior civil servant and served 10 years as world chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA. His novel A Tale of Two Avrahams (Gefen/Amazon) first appeared in Hebrew under the title Ma’aseh Bishnei Avraham (Carmel Publishing).
He has also published many articles in the Hebrew press.
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