Thursday, May 1, 2014

Library of the Dead

Next week is our double-whammy Day of Commemoration (Yom Hazikaron) and Day of Independence (Yom Haatzmaut). So I'm putting up a story I once posted elsewhere, on Yom Hazikaron of 2008. It's still just as true.
70 years ago, 50, even merely 30 years ago, youth movements played a significant role in the lives of Israeli teenagers. Somewhere along the way, perhaps in the 1980s or 1990s, most of them disappeared. Here and there you can still find remnants of the phenomenon, but they’re rather few and far between. The single exception of any significance, so far as I can tell, is the Bnei Akiva youth movement of the national religious strand of Israeli society – roughly the Israeli counterpart of Modern Orthodoxy in the US.
A couple of weeks ago I chanced by the building that houses the “Central Jerusalem” branch of the movement, one of the larger branches in the country. When I was a teenager the branch – called “Sneef Merkaz,” or simply the “Sneef” – was downtown, at least half an hour away; the more gung ho of us easily spent more time in the sneef than at home between the ages of 8-18. (I wasn’t gung ho). About the time we enlisted, it moved to a spanking new building near where most of us lived, and dozens of us used it as our meeting point Saturday mornings whenever we got home for a weekend. We would converge there for Shabbat morning services, and afterward we’d hang out for half an hour or more, exchanging yarns and tall tales, and hoping the girls were noticing. Though, truth be told, putting on the airs of combat soldiers in front of the girls wasn’t all that useful, since essentially all the guys were in, and it was hard to appear special. We also didn’t get home often enough to create continuity. But we did keep updated about all the other guys: who’s in which course, who’s been sent where, and so on.

I don’t think I’ve been in there for something like 30 years, though I’ve gone by it thousands of times. One morning a week or so ago, as I walked by, the gate was open and no one was there, so on the spur of the moment I went in.

Decades of teenagers haven’t added to its appearance. None of the doors seemed to close. The walls were covered with colorful murals that must have been an inch deep; if someone could figure out how to remove paint layer by layer it could be a fascinating exercise. It looked just like you’d expect a building to look where nobody’s mother has come to check on the maintenance in living memory: ramshackle, worn, chaotic, but also comfy in a way that would appeal to kids in “their own place”. It has a “lived in” look.

At the end of the corridor there’s a stairwell. I remembered that on the second floor there used to be a reading room dedicated to our friend Zvika, who was killed in a hiking accident in the Judean desert when we were 16; on the wall there was a large and dramatic picture taken from the top of a high cliff and in its corner, as if gazing out over the wide vista, a portrait of Zvika. So I went up to see what had happened to the room.

Zvika’s picture is still there. Apparently the kids, none of whom could possibly have any memory of anything about him, have a healthy respect for commemoration. Then I noticed the far end of the room, where the entire wall was covered with pictures of young men, and a long shelf offered a series of publications – books, pamphlets, albums. I didn’t remember this exhibition, and I approached it with a queasy feeling that turned into something bordering on awe. In this house of teenagers with a memory span that can’t exceed 15 years, someone had collected pictures, information, and publications about 60 years of fallen soldiers who had been active at the Sneef when they were of that age. There were more than 30 pictures, the earliest were of two young men killed in 1948.

I followed the pictures. Here’s a young paratrooper who was killed a few months before I was born. Here’s one killed in the early 1960s, a decade remembered as peaceful. Meir R. was killed in 1968. I came to know his father about that time when we moved into this neighborhood. Every year he would lead our congregation during the Ne’ilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, the single most powerful service in the entire year. He never managed to get through the service without weeping, not in all the years I heard him, and no doubt in the many years thereafter until his death, a little old man walking the streets of Jerusalem with his battered leather briefcase. I’d never seen a picture of his son: he was a strikingly handsome young man.

Yakov F. was killed in the summer of 1970, a week before the Roger’s Plan brought the end of the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt. I hadn’t known him, but I remember how that week our madrich – councilor – told us that maybe Yakov would be the last soldier killed.

Sariel was killed on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur war. He was two or three years older than I, his sister was in my sister’s class. Moshe T. was killed a few weeks later, on the last day of that war. He had been our madrich, and a few months before the war he had married Yaffa, also one of our staff. I remembered them as two exceptionally good looking people; the picture on the wall confirms this.

Moshe K. was a paratrooper, killed a few months after the Yom Kippur war. He was Yaffa’s little brother, so she lost a husband and a brother within six months. The synagogue I go to has a mantle on its podium donated by their parents in Moshe’s memory; his mother passed away last year.

Avi Greenwald was a friend of mine from the moment I joined his school in 6th grade. I wrote about him briefly in Right to Exist. Ram M. was the younger brother of one of my best friends; he used to hang out with us sometimes, and although he was younger than us we welcomed him into the circle for being such a serious kid. Avi and Ram were both killed in 1982 in Lebanon.

Boaz was killed in 1988. Shlomo C. was killed in 1989. I remember his face, but don’t think I knew him.

Here's a picture of Noam, killed in 1992. I taught him history when he was in high school; he was one of those students who fit into the background at school, and then excelled and stood out once they reached the army. He was a highly respected young officer; on occasion I still hear people talking about him with admiration and regret.

Aviad was killed in 2001. I've vaguely known his father since the late 1970s. The past few years we have been studying together in a Talmud study group that convenes every Saturday afternoon.He always comes well prepared, and he never smiles.

Dani C. was killed fighting terrorists in 2002.

Facing the wall was like following an inverted cycle of life, from young men killed before I was born all the way to young men whose parents are my friends. The library, however, is in a building used only by teenagers, who don’t even yet know there is a cycle of life. Somehow, they understand the need to relate to these young men, some of whom were contemporaries of their grandfathers. So in the middle of a building run wholly by teenagers is a dignified section dedicated to young men only marginally older, who never grew old.

1 comment:

David said...

Yaacov wrote:

"It's still just as true."

And just as moving. Thank you, Yaacov.