Home May 2010 The Cost of Freedom

The Cost of Freedom

“We need a better barbecue,” muttered the younger son.  “This is embarrassing.”

The hideous shame to which he was referring was a small electric grill that I use mostly for preparing peppers and kebabs for shabbos lunches.  We aren’t big outdoor cooks, and I always find the disorder from al fresco dining rivaled only by the overconsumption of meat — both politically incorrect and challenging to my delicate digestive system.

“Why the sudden need for an upgrade?” I asked.

“It’s Yom Ha’atzmaut.  This year we should invite people over and really do Independence Day right.”

The way I love Israel is so darn corny that with the rare exception of a few like-minded Zionist friends, I don’t speak about it.  Perhaps I’m part of a dying breed, letting tears flow while singing “Hatikvah” at political rallies and at the end of right-wing wedding celebrations.  Closing with the refrain Lihyot am chofshi be’artzeinu, Eretz-Tzion v’Yerushalayim – to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem – provides the expected sucker-punch every time.

On March 26 of this year, 31-year old Golani Major Eliraz Peretz was killed in action in the Gaza strip along with Sergeant Ilan Sviatkovsky, age 21.  Ilan had immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan as a young child.   According to Jewish law, he was not Jewish, but at the time of his death he had nearly completed his conversion, through the IDF.  He was given a Jewish burial, and all of the rabbis present celebrated the young man who viewed himself as an integral part of the Jewish people and the land for which he gave his life.

Eliraz left behind a young widow and their four children.  In describing her husband’s sacrifice, Shlomit Peretz said, “He was willing to pay the price.  I am here to be a vessel for all the things that, together, we wanted to do.”

The home of Shlomit and Eliraz Peretz is in danger of imminent demolition, because it sits in the unauthorized outskirts of the town of Eli.  Questioned about her future during the shiva (mourning) period, she calmly answered, “I don’t have any worries for my private home but, rather, for the fate of the nation of Israel.”

What kind of irascible race of people produces ethical individuals of this caliber?  We’ve been called stubborn, stiff-necked, and worse.  The names that garner the most press-ink, whether modern or ancient, are the ones we correctly remember: Roi Klein, Ehud Goldvasser, Nachshon ben Aminadav, Eldad Regev, Nir Poraz, and countless others.  No less important, however, are the names that never reach a morning paper: those stalwart EMT heroes who ride to still-unsecured areas in Magan Dovid Adom ambulances, bagging bodies, stemming blood loss, and offering succor amid horrific chaos.  They work swiftly and carefully before clearing out to make room for the men of ZAKA, the angels who collect human remains in order to better ensure Jewish burials.  To sit across from any of these people at a synagogue board meeting or neighborhood Bar Mitzvah means that one is sitting in the presence of royalty.

I met a young soldier who carried in his pocket an unusual memento in his uniform pocket.  The same size as a playing card, he carried a double sided laminate: one surface held four small photographs of Jews who were exterminated in the concentration camps and on the reverse sat a portrait of his American-born grandfather, captured as a 20-year-old private in his U.S. Army uniform.  Naturally I asked him why he schlepped this odd token around with him.

“I have no idea who these people were, but I can only imagine that at the end of their days, they felt hopeless, as though there was no future for any Jew in the world.  I feel obligated to hold them near and sincerely believe that if there is any way that a departed-soul can connect to those of us still walking the earth, they will know that I remember.  They were not allowed to grow old and realize their potentials.  My campaign for a strong, safe, and independent Israel is their fight!  I owe it to them.”

“But why your grandfather?”

He smiled.  “Poppie was a proud American and was awarded the Purple Heart for bravery.  He served both in Europe and Japan and was badly injured.  He only regretted one thing in his life: that he had not picked up and come to Israel in 1948 when he had the chance to fight for independence.  He died when I was much younger, but I can feel him smiling down on me, every time I put on this uniform and stand guard over the country that he loved with all of his heart.  Whenever I go out on patrol, I have him alongside me . . . .”

I stood alongside my accountant, Aliza, as the sirens wailed, announcing a two-minute silent tribute to those who perished in the Shoah (Holocaust).  While I remained dry-eyed, my thoughts were consumed with those survivors who remain and can’t afford either medicine or food.  Aliza’s face, however, was streaked with tears.  She stepped outside to gain composure, and when she returned, I asked her why she still reacts so strongly.

“My mother is a Jew-by-choice, German-born, and married to my Israeli father.  Her father, my grandfather, had been a Nazi.  He’s gone now, and I’m thinking about him as well.  How much I loved him.  And how much he gave to me.  And how I cannot ever find it inside to forgive him.”

Wiping her eyes, she added, “My happiest day was the day I joined the Israeli Army.  I’m not religious, but I felt God’s hand on my shoulder.  I knew that this had always been my home and that all Jews are my relatives.  Can you imagine?”

Yes, I can imagine.

Ilan Sviatkovsky and Eliraz Peretz did not know me.  To the best of my knowledge, they have never sat at my Shabbos table or stood alongside me at the corner falafel stand.  But they loved me and my children.  They carried us in their respective hearts every time they stepped onto the dunes of the land that we, naively, relinquished for a fantasy-tale called “Peace with Our Neighbors.”

The boy who wants a better barbecue will be inducted into the army in the coming months.  Like me, he loves this country and appreciates the strategic import of our sliver of earth in a way that far exceeds my understanding.  He is the heart of this nation – the glue that ensures a future for the wider community of Jews.  He asks for little but so much is about to be asked of him.

A top-of-the-line grill seems like a bargain when celebrating nationhood, family, and the dream of one day, perhaps, beating our swords into plowshares.

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