Letter from Haifa: Life and Death
Israel is a land of contradictions—bombs and weddings, sorrow and happiness—yet between the extremes exists a country of biblical beauty and heroic young soldiers.
The summer of two processionals: one happy, one sad, tears at both. Tears of joy and tears of pain, and the land of Israel in between—roads and trees and mountains and streams that somehow make everything worth it—living and dying and getting married and fighting a war. a A bright orange sunset reflected in the couple’s eyes as the blessings were read under the huppa erected at the foot of the Jerusalem hills.
The first processional felt joyful and holy as I walked with a group of women behind the bride and her parents to the huppa. I saw friends I had not seen in years; it was the perfect time for a reunion and I cried, simply because I was happy.
And then a few days later the Katyusha rockets started to fall in Haifa. I heard them in the morning on the bus on my way to work. There was a boom that was impossible to pretend was anything else once the air raid siren sounded. We were heading toward the Lev Hamifratz (Heart of the Bay) train and bus station, but the driver pulled into the mall next door and we all ran for the bomb shelter. Only later did I learn of the rockets’ impact—eight railway workers dead, many more injured.
After two hours, the buses started to run again, chaotically. My only thought was to go back to my building so I could be in a shelter with my friends. I couldn’t find my usual bus so I took one that ran through my neighborhood, Kiryat Eliezer. As I walked home from the bus stop, the siren went off again and more rockets fell. The streets were deserted as I ran down the middle of the road. It was like time froze and all sound stopped except for the siren and the boom boom of the rockets. I was running next to a security guard and she was crying and I think I was too but I’m not sure. It was all over in seconds—the bombs stopped, the siren quieted.
My friend who had just been married came to Haifa to take me and her husband’s grandmother to Jerusalem to celebrate the end of her sheva brakhot. Bombs to weddings—I will never get used to this country.
And then, a few days later, a horrifying phone call. I was in Jerusalem, eating a falafel heaped with hummus and chips at a bus stop, when my cell phone rang. “Do you remember Yotam?” Of course, strong, silent Yotam, exactly the kind of person you picture when you think “kibbutznik.” Now in the Army in some elite unit, just like we knew he would be.
“He was killed today in southern Lebanon.”
“Yotam? He’s only 21, like you and me! It’s not on the news yet, it can’t be true.”
I start sobbing, wandering the streets of Jerusalem alone, no idea where I’m going and no idea why. I know this street—Jaffa Street—like the back of my hand, but somehow it looks different through the tears. I can’t explain why I’m so upset, sad, lost. We weren’t that close. I haven’t seen Yotam in two years.
But soon I found myself talking to Yotam as if here were still here…
Do you remember, Yotam, when Or and I visited your kibbutz? You had just entered the army and were so proud—but modest, always modest. And I was terrified of your gun.
Do you remember how you used to play guitar on Friday afternoons before Shabbos, teaching me Israeli songs? And that Friday we spent in the Golan—we could see Lebanon and Syria from the hill outside the gate—lying in the grass and laughing with a group of friends?
Israel—this country that I love, that I know you loved, that you died to defend. I wish I could make the people walking past me on Jaffa Street understand what you did for them, shake them and ask, “Are you grateful? He was only 21 and he died for this country!”
A wedding car decorated with white and purple ribbons passes and fresh tears stream down my face as I think of all the things you will never do: get married, go to university, have children, hike another mountain. You will never again work with the fish on the kibbutz and never again impress us with your barbecuing skills.
And when your face stares up at me from the front page of the paper the next morning, the tears come again. I cannot believe that “Yotam Gilboa z”l” is our Yotam Gilboa.
The second processional: seeing your coffin draped with the Israeli flag—seeing your parents and your girlfriend and your brothers, and one of them looks so much like you I catch my breath and think maybe it was a mistake.
The second processional is longer and slower and more solemn as we walk toward the kibbutz cemetery. Your parents lean on each other; everyone is crying. Again, I spot more friends I haven’t seen in years, but the hugs are fierce instead of joyous and the silence between us is heavy.
There’s an image in my mind that I will never be able to erase: The soldiers, proud in their green uniforms, so official, working in silent unison to shovel dirt on your grave. It was only then that I understood you were gone.
I can’t remember all of what people said, but I wanted everyone to know that what they were saying was more than mere words. You were a friend to us all and cared so much and always made sure everything was O.K.
To Israel, maybe you were just another soldier with your picture in the news, but to me you were a friend.
I haven’t heard a Katyusha since I left Haifa, but the situation is still shaky. I just read about three soldiers who died in a helicopter crash and my heart breaks thinking about the funerals that will come. But also on the front page is a picture of a couple from the north who kept their wedding date, marrying in a bomb shelter.
The summer of two processionals: one happy, one painful, with rockets in between.
Melanie Lidman, a college student at the University of Maryland, spent the summer volunteering in Israel. Staff Sergeant Yotam Gilboa was killed July 19 in the mountains north of Avivim. Staff Sergeant Yonatan Hadassi also died in the attack.