Max Steinberg loved Bob Marley. I learned that much about him as I stood along with 30,000 others at his funeral two days ago on Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl, where many of Israel’s fallen soldiers are laid to rest.
I want to write about why I went to honor the death of a young man I didn’t know, what his death means in the context of this growing gulf between so many people, one more grave in now over 800 for both sides of this conflict, including fighters, civilians and – tonight – protesters from the West Bank, where the Gaza war is slowly spreading. I want to try and write something about unity – where it’s at and where it’s not, and what an expanded circle of care can actually do to ease and cease this conflict and its aftermath – for all. What each of us can do about it.
It’s 3am in Jerusalem and again, it’s impossible to sleep. Overhead are helicopters, not so far away nonstop ambulance sirens. The violent protests that have been flaming in East Jerusalem every night for the past two weeks (barely reported) have escalated tonight through the West Bank, with already two dead and hundreds wounded.
Tonight is one of the holiest night of Islam – Laylatal–Qadr – the Night of Power, the Night of Revelation. It will be remembered in the history of this time and place as the night on which the Palestinian people came together in unity to defy the geographical divides of the Gaza Strip and West Bank and maybe even the ideological rift between Fatah and Hamas. Already in some media sources there are whispers of a third intifada. As Ramadan ends in the next few days and Eid El Fiter’s celebrations, more modest this year, roll in, the mood here is dramatic. The Night of Power is traditionally the night on which the prophet Muhammed received the revelation of the Koran from the angel Gabriel. It is the night of blessing and the forgiveness of sins. Tonight it is the night of collective rage. I can’t imagine that the religious messaging of higher calling does not inflate the pain, the sense of purpose that bring people together as a nation against a common threat.
You wouldn’t have known this rage tonight deep inside the threat – West Jerusalem – where people, tense and constantly checking phones for updates, try to carry on with life, far from tear gas and fairly safe from rockets that keep falling in the south. At Hansen – a former leper hospital built in the 19th century and recently converted into an arts complex – an avant–garde dance performance is going on. A friend is performing a protest piece about war and conflict and asked me to come. I go for a bit, stunned by the beauty of the building and the grounds, less so by the piece. The audience is sparse. “We may as well learn about transforming leper colonies into artistic hubs,” I half joke with someone, “the way Israel is treated in much of the world’s media will only worsen and we’ll be labeled lepers by more former friends before long.” Nobody smiles.
500 hundred feet from Hansen is the President’s Mansion, where a new occupant moved in today. Rubi Rivlin is replacing Shimon Peres as Israel’s 10th president. Rivlin was sworn in during a very small ceremony and spoke eloquent, stately and unsurprising words that did nothing to ease the anxiety during these days of dread. But who knows, his father translated the Koran into Hebrew, he himself speaks fluent Arabic, and though a right wing nationalist and in favor of a one-state solution speaks powerfully and often for pluralism and democratic values.
In other houses in Jerusalem and all over the country families of fallen soldiers continues to sit Shiva, in hospitals numbers of wounded from Gaza and the West Bank riots continued to rise, along with the grief for the dead. In mosques the following lines from the Koran were recited, though I doubt that anyone tonight used President Rivlin’s father’s Hebrew version:
“We have indeed revealed this Message in the Night of Power:
And what will explain to you what the night of power is?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by Allah‘s permission, on every errand: Peace!…This until the rise of dawn! (Sura 97 (Al-Qadr), āyāt 1-5)
Back to Max:
Mount Herzl is a lush green park divided into two sections. One area is reserved for Zionism’s VIPS – Theodor Herzl’s large black gravestone dominates the main square. This is where state ceremonies take place. I remember coming here as a teen with my father on Independence Day for the official ceremony, eyeing the many soldiers in formal uniform, knowing that one day soon I’ll stand here like them, flanked by flags.
The second area on Mt. Herzl is where soldiers are buried. Here I came as a young paratrooper to bury one friend, and then another. I remember wondering if I too will end up here, next to Boaz and Alex and Shai.
Just three weeks ago, on one of our weekly Saturday morning trips to sites all over the city, I took my kids to Mt. Herzl. We sat under a cedar tree and spoke about why people like my parents came to build Israel and live here. One by one we placed a stone on Herzl’s grave and then had a picnic and played tag on the vast empty lawn. I didn’t take them to the other side, where the soldiers are buried. Too young for that.
And two days ago I found myself back at Mt. Herzl, among 30,000 Israelis from all walks of life who had the same impulse – to stand together with a young man we knew nothing about other than the fact that he died protecting us and our families, far away from his own.
That’s a lot of people, and the sense of togetherness created a somber mood in the cemetery, as people who wouldn’t usually hang out together crowded between tombstones and under trees looking for shade and straining to hear the words of eulogy and prayer. There were soldiers and ultra orthodox men and women, youth movement members in uniforms and elderly couples. Here and there I caught the eye of someone I know – a neighbor, an old school friend, a cousin – we’d nod to each other quietly, with a small muted smile.
Max was 24 when he died in Gaza, a boy from LA who went on a Birthright trip and was smitten with Israel. His parents, here for the first time, barely knew how to say the Kaddish and delivered a eulogy that was centered on the words ‘mission accomplished’. It was a very American speech, almost out of place here, out of tune with the familiar rhetoric of Israeli grief, but looking around the crowd it made perfect sense – many were Americans who moved here for so many different reasons. Max was buried to the left of a soldier who died on the same day and was born in Ethiopia, and to his right a plot was waiting for the next one, scheduled for that afternoon – born in the Ukraine, dead in Gaza, buried in Jerusalem.
From all four corners of the earth we come here to live and to dream and to build and to die. It’s a complex and compelling narrative, bigger than a single life.
Max’s brother mentioned Bob Marley – apparently one of Max’s favorite singers. He repeated this quote to sum up his brother’s life: “Live for yourself and you will live in vain; Live for others and you will live again.”
The American ambassador spoke, and so did the mayor, and Knesset Member Dov Lipman, another American born Israeli who addressed the weeping parents and siblings with the accent that they could fully grasp: “You have raised a Jewish hero. You are now forever part of us.”
The following day a media piece went around in which Birthright was blamed for Max’s death. How does an American kid come on a ten day trip to Israel and end up signing up as a sniper in an infantry unit that costs him his life? The Zionist propaganda machine was blamed for challenging the values of the pursuit of happiness and individualism with a collective call to the greatest sacrifice of all.
The piece was reviled, as expected, by many, and I agree that it was crude – but I don’t think the writer got it wrong, although I disagree with her conclusions.
Yes, perhaps Birthight was his deathright. Max’s Birthright experience gave him the ultimate access to the club of honored dead – up on Mount Herzl, eulogized by Bob Marley, a lover of a very different Zion. it’s a terrible tragedy for his family, a young life taken – but I believe he made a choice that came from deep longing to be part of something greater than the shallow whatever that permeates so much of our modern lives. He made a brave choice and he is honored for it.
I didn’t know Max and so I can’t speak to what moved him, on a visit here during that first trip, to pick up and join the IDF. But I can imagine. I too was here, standing by a lone soldier’s fresh grave and moved to make my life bigger than my own, one with the daunting destiny of my people. We buried Max and I thought of Alex, just three plots away.
in 1987 Alex Singer, a paratrooper who moved on his own to Israel from the US, died while fighting in Lebanon. He left behind a diary with his stunning drawings and poetry. I was months away from my own conscription to the IDF when he died, and though I only met him once before, felt compelled to attend the funeral on Mt. Herzl. A few days later I read his poems that were published in the Jerusalem Post, cut them out to hang over my bed, memorized a few by heart – I know them still. When it was time, I decided to join the paratroopers, following in his footsteps, literally, inspired by his vision, dedication ,death.
We buried Max and I remembered Alex, recited his poem to myself, thought about what he wrote shortly after moving here:
“The purpose of my aliya will be a combination of wanting a greater chance to make my Judaism one of joy rather than one of burdens, of wanting to be part of Israel’s development both as a state and as a beacon, and of feeling that it is the duty of the individual Jew to help the Jewish people.”
(At the former leper colony last night I saw Alex’s older brother Saul and wanted to say something but held back…what’s there to say?)
The 30,000 dispersed quietly, washing our hands at the exit of Mt. Herzl, each to her and his own life, united, briefly, by a common cause. I am aware that the unity that binds us at these moments is seductive and fleeting, fueled by fear and danger, impressive and inspiring – and rare.
What will happen when the fire is ceased and the divides go deeper? Already right and left are more bitterly in dispute on the streets and online than ever before. Already Jews are targeted worldwide for the crimes of Israel – by neighbors and colleagues and friends. It will only get worse and its making it hard for Jews to think of – let alone feel with – Israel and Israelis. Already the gap between Jews in Israel and many Jews in the rest of the world grows bigger.
The Weinberg family may have found itself among Israel’s honored but for most American Jews – many of my friends included – what is going on here is too far and/or too daunting to truly matter in a meaningful way. When it comes to the sense of shared destiny – Alex and Max stand for a powerful and relatively limited reminder that is, I feel, important to recall right now: We are all in this together, and somehow, sometimes, this sense of higher purpose will demand a high heroic price.
“I stand with Israel” events aside: The obscure sense of peoplehood that now permeates the greater numbers of Jews worldwide has many of us grappling with the big questions of affinity and responsibility. There is no point in blaming those for whom what goes on here is too baffling, annoying or remote to get engaged with. We may be global but we still care local. And yet – the task that many of us are taking and more I hope will take on – is how to figure out ways with which to expand the circle of care. How do we get beyond our selfish needs and ‘me’ mentality to be part of a greater ‘we’ that helps nurture better chances for all of us to survive and thrive.
For the Jewish story to continue this sense of we is critical – every small community and congregation as micro of greater care, the larger sense of responsibility between us as a macro of the greater call.
This is the same for the planet – for our very chance to live through climate changes and all else that comes along. But we got to start somewhere – finding ways to find others with which to build a loving, inclusive, supportive sense of ‘we’.
On the way out of the cemetery I spot two handwritten signs: One has Max’s name. The other, a Talmudic quote: “All Jews are responsible for one another.”
Unity has its shadow side, for sure. A mass collective unified around a cause can become a lynching mob of murder – we’ve seen them here, and are fearing the worse. The sense of nationalized togetherness can generate the type of anti-other that can bring about lethal venom over gender, race, religion, sexual preference and political views as bad enough reasons to die. Martyrs for a cause – civilians and soldiers alike, are the price that is paid for the greater cause. There is room for caution here, but there is room to honor this ancient social contract that societies create to continue on.
Many are worried about the day after. When the ceasefire happens – and it will – when the leadership will or will not seize this moment to make bold moves to end the cycle or continue the blame, when the rage and the confusion replace the unified grief with untold violence that will target all ‘other’.
Yesterday I sat in on a fascinating three hour think tank on foreign policy, convened by Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Policy makers, journalists, representatives of Governments and NGO’s from around the world sat analyzing the situation and offering out of the box ideas for how to move beyond this stalemate status quo.
There is a real opportunity here to move from crisis management to crisis resolution, as it is clear that the conflict is not just between Israel and Hamas but reflects a much larger regional tug of war. The only hopes for making this latest war emerge as a real chance for some peace making will happen if it is seen as a regional concern – expanding the sense of stakeholders, of who’s the ‘we’ in this fight. Greater concerns for economic growth, security and prosperity for the people of this greater region will be what gets Egypt, Turkey, Quatar and others to really be part of this process. Can all sides see the bigger picture of wellbeing beyond the familiar narratives of blame? The folks around the table were not overtly optimistic but continue to chart suggestions for a better day.
So meanwhile: What CAN one do? I get this question a lot these days – from friends in Israel and all over the world.
Be better informed – read not just the news source you are used to but find others from across the spectrum to stretch your understanding of what’s going on; There are always more perspectives that reflect the greater truth, even if uncomfortable to our notion of what’s true. Take it all with a grain of salt, but know what’s going on before discussing.
Reach out to others – those you love and know – or not at all. I’ve written this a lot in the past weeks and will keep on saying: Nothing like reaching out to those who are under duress at this time will help repair the rifts and tears of fear and isolation. I am grateful for each and every email and phone call that expresses care, concern and love. Unity? At times of crisis is when it is tested, to continue into calmer days with greater durability and depth.
Reach out beyond your comfort zone to expand the circle of care and what it means to be a we. This may include the ones you fear as others. Reach out to Israelis or French Jews with a virtual hug, to Muslims that you know and wish them Eid Mubarak. Take a minute now to think of anyone at all in your wider network that will just appreciate a call, a kind word, perhaps an apology, perhaps just a smile.
Get off facebook and convene a gathering in your home – just a few friends to talk or share thoughts or pray or play and be there with each other. We need these intimate gatherings – unity in all forms – more than ever. I am grateful for each and every chance to be in such circles and look forward to creating more of these heart circles when I return to NYC (hopefully the flights now back in business in Israel) in a couple of days.
Create a circle this coming Sunday: A remarkable documentary will be on PBS in the US: My So-called Enemy. Created by Lisa Gossles it is a wake up call to what greater unity is all about, nothing less than the words of the prophet Isaiah on film, calling us to make co-existence happen now. Invite friends to watch it, talk about it, argue, hope.
And finally, this is the second Friday on which we are invited to light an additional candle for peace , along with those of us who light Sabbath Candles and those who will break the Ramadan fast. Many of us lit this extra candle this last Friday – and I hope that we continue to add light to the tunnels and bring about the dawn of better days, united by shared hopes.
“Don’t worry, be happy” is another Marley favorite that I’m sure Max loved, satirized by a Yiddish singing drag queen that I love – to accommodate the Jewish mindset as “Don’t be happy, worry.”
Not so easy to be super happy these days, but its also not helpful to worry. Let’s each do what we can to be part of the solution not a part of the problem: Reach out to each other, comfort the bereaved, honor the fallen, help heal the wounded, go out of our way to be kinder and attentive to the needs of others, and create wider circles of care, sacred sanctuaries of dedication to what’s greater than the sum of all our parts.
May there be comfort these days for the bereaved and ill and frightened. May there be better news ahead.