By Rafi Sackville
Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, our daughter, Batya, has remained in contact with us through WhatsApp. She works hard and often, training reservists on their way to the front. There have been days when she’s run up to seven courses. She’s an expert on the Merkavah tank’s communication system. She is constantly tired and has lost a few kilos, but she remains upbeat.
It was with surprise that I received a call from her yesterday morning at 10:30. Without her typically cheerful greetings, she asked me if I knew where the cemetery in Kfar Vradim was. “Yes,” I replied.
“I’m coming up today for a funeral. One of the soldiers that passed through our base, a soldier I got to know, was killed in action. Can you pick up my friend and me from Nahariya train station?”
Almost three weeks have passed since the outbreak of hostilities. In that time I have detected a change in Batya. Who would have thought our young Israeli-born and Five Towns-raised daughter would find herself in such an environment? We pray that our children stay out of harm’s way. We pray for peace in their lives. Even as Batya has remained physically safe, the environment in which she works has exposed her to a side of life we hoped she could stave off until she was older and mature enough to deal with. Her experience has accelerated the process.
Batya is a determined young woman whose love of Israel and desire to serve her country in the most meaningful way led her to the army, an intensive training course, and a dedication that—although it doesn’t astonish us, as she has always displayed determination and courage way beyond expectations—has led her into fields of life that many of the young men and women she grew up with will never know or appreciate.
The ride to the train station took 20 minutes. She soon emerged alongside her friend Yehudit. Despite the occasion, it was good to see her. She and Yehudit told me the little they knew about Guy. They told me how full of life he was. How dedicated he was in his job as a tank commander. He had given the girls rides to and from exercises, was courteous to a fault, and had such an intense love of life it was as if he was in rush to get things done.
Twenty-five minutes later, we were at Kfar Vradim, just a few kilometers south of where we live in Ma’alot. Entering Kfar Vradim is misleading. You drive up to a roundabout and see clusters of houses to the left and right. From there, the ride is downhill along a narrow road with houses built close to one another. The further you drive, the more spread out the Kfar becomes. By the time roundabout nine is reached, vast swaths of the Galilean hills and valleys are visible. It’s as though the planning committee finally accepted the topography as a guideline for future construction and spaced the houses more liberally from each other.
The cemetery lies over a hill half a kilometer away from roundabout nine. We joined a caravansary of cars and buses and vans. Policemen lined the streets. Thousands had come out to pay their last respects.
Despite the congestion, the Israeli habit of forging to the front of the line was not on display. The army had blocked off walkways from the main road running through the cemetery in order to allow the funeral procession direct access to the gravesite. It was late afternoon. The weather was reasonably cool, but the afternoon sun was blinding. We waited patiently until the cortege passed before filing down the hill to the cemetery. Batya and I stood at the fence directly overlooking the funeral.
The immense crowd numbered in the thousands. There were people I knew, neighbors who, like me, didn’t know the deceased but had come to pay their respects. This is a unique Israeli characteristic. Guy Levi not only left behind loved ones, but a nation of mourners for the young and brave soldiers it has lost.
For an hour and a half, we stood listening to hespedim. At one point, members of Guy’s platoon got up to speak. They formed a circle around the microphone. They spoke quickly and to the point. One mentioned that whereas the Levis had lost a son, they had now gained a family of sons who would never leave them. Many of them made macho statements, but they soon melted into wells of never-ending tears once they moved away from the grave and gathered together. These towering, muscular young men, who were all dressed in army fatigues and white T-shirts with Guy’s picture on the front, carrying their rifles across their chests, could not hide their grief.
Guy’s mother, Galia, was the last speaker. One might have thought she would not be able to deliver such difficult words. She remained resolute and calm throughout. Her strength of delivery had the opposite effect on the crowd. There were more sobs and tears as she spoke than when those preceding her spoke.
“You taught us how to be a family. It was you who brought us together. We showered you with love. The more we did so, the more you forged towards independence. Maybe we gave you too much. Maybe that’s why you sought so many new and different challenges outside of our home. You surprised us with every decision you took. And with every decision you took you turned me into a better mother.
“You did everything so quickly in life, including the way you left it. You were a child who never took a break. You fulfilled so much in life and it has suddenly stopped. I remain here, sorry that I couldn’t save you to give you one last hug.
“I don’t believe there is a book that can teach a woman how to give birth, or a book how to raise children. And I know there isn’t a book that teaches us how to take leave from our loved ones. This book we’re going to have to write ourselves.
“You have let go of my hand and I have let go of yours against my will, but with the knowledge that this is my path in life. This is the moment to say goodbye and to deal with a new reality. Tomorrow is a new day that does not include the past. We will have to open new doors. Doors that will open without you. We have to take advantage of every moment, of each minute. Guy, you loved life and were loved by everyone. You have left us a circle of love and a new beginning that we must forge without you.”
Batya and I walked towards the car without exchanging words. She stayed the night in the house we moved into last week. We were sitting on the sofa talking when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to two 13-year-old girls who were carrying large baskets of fruit and candy.
“Family Mordechai Kahane?” one of them asked.
“No, they moved out a week ago,” I explained. “Where are you girls from?”
“S’derot, in the South. These are from Mordechai. They’re for his wife and children.”
“Are you here alone?” I asked.
“No, we were driven here by two soldiers.”
I walked outside to give directions to the soldiers. The Kahanes didn’t live far away. It was a three-minute drive. There were a few items Mordechai had not arranged to take with him: a huge birdcage that required a lift was supposed to come sometime this week. Mordechai is a colonel and is currently leading a troop of soldiers in Gaza. The war has come to everyone’s door, including ours. ϖ
Rafi Sackville is a teacher and writer living in Ma’alot in the Western Galilee.