Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Nitai Stern's Playground

When I was a schoolboy, fallen soldiers were a special kind of grownup. Usual grownups went to work and had meetings, whatever those were, or they drove buses, worked in stores or taught us in school. Fallen soldiers were different. They had lived in a different sort of world, dressed differently, behaved differently, and did exciting, adventurous and rather mysterious things like in the movies. They weren’t alive anymore, but unlike ancient great grandparents who had been very old, fallen soldiers had been heroic, larger than life, but not old at all. The grownups always talked about them in somber tones. They even talked that way about the families of the fallen soldiers, as in “Mr. Rotschild’s son was killed in the war, that’s why he cries each year when he leads us at Ne’ila, at the end of Yom Kippur”.

As I was nearing the end of high school, fallen soldiers were people we’d personally known. Jacob and Sariel, killed on Yom Kippur on the Golan Heights; or Moshe, killed in the Sinai. Yisrael even left a younger brother who was two years behind me in school. That’s the extent to which they were hardly that much older than us. Yet they, too, had that aura of the soldier, the warrior and the hero.

In 1982 it was our friends who were dying. Shlomo had danced at our wedding three weeks before he was killed, and Avi went through school with me. Ram was someone’s kid brother who sometimes hung out with us. The world of the army was no longer mysterious, and frankly, it wasn’t exciting or adventurous, either. We knew from years of our own experience that it was mostly grease and sweat, with interludes of intense exertion among long periods of tedium. Was there heroism? Yes. Sometimes. Much more banality and occasional stupidity, though.

As life lengthens, the perspective on the fallen soldiers keeps changing. Noam, for example, was a student of mine. Unexceptional at school, he was apparently quite exceptional as an intelligence officer. Aviad, killed in 2001, was the son of a friend. At about that time I often found myself sharing bus-rides with Reuven as we commuted home. Our youngest sons, Achikam and Nitai, were at school together, and used to sleep over; they would talk for hours after bedtime. My oldest son, Meir, was approaching his military service and Reuven already had a soldier son. We had long talks about the army in our day and the army of those days, the parents we had unthinkingly left at home and the army-parents we were becoming. I confided with Reuven that the thought of my sons’ enlisting was far more frightening than the thought of my own mobilization had ever been. The young are thoughtless, and ignorant.

Meir saw the skirmishes of the 2nd Intifada. In 2009, however, Achikam want into combat with his tank unit in Gaza. They massed against the fence for a few tense days. Then one afternoon he called to say they were shutting off their phones. It was my task to carry on as if life was somehow as usual. A few days later – it was the ancient day of mourning of the 10th of Tevet – someone called to tell that Nitai had been killed. Later that afternoon I listened to Reuven’s anguished words at his son’s graveside, and that evening posted them on this blog:

Near the end of the ceremony Reuven, Nitai's father, got up to speak. What does a father say on the grave of his son? What can he possibly say?

He read Psalms. The ones about warriors, and the ones about mourning. His voice was strong despairing and clear. Then he said "I'm going to sing now, and you can sing with me"
תהה השעה הזאת
שעת רחמים
ועת רצון

The final prayer of the Yom Kippur service:
May this hour
Be an hour of mercy
And a moment of goodwill
From You

That was more than ten years ago. Two days ago, babysitting for Achkam’s son, we went to a playground near his house. There’s a contraption there that’s designed to look like a pirate ship, with ropes and ladders and slides. He likes the higher slide. At one point I glanced over at a large stone slab near the edge of the playground.

In memory of Nitai Stern
A youth with a glowing smile and infectious laughter
A peace-maker and lover of peace
Studious, inquisitive, knowledgeable
Warrior and commander
True friend, dear brother and beloved son
Fell in battle in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead
And he was 21

My grandson gurgled happily as he rode down the slide on the playground named for a friend of his father whom he’ll know, at most, as a mythical figure.