By Rafi Sackville
Kobi promised to help me paint the house we were moving into. He told me he loved painting walls. We set a time for the early afternoon. He never showed, which is very strange because his word is as dependable as the rising sun.
We work together in school. He is a young man who has yet to reach his 30th year. He has four young children and one well on the way. He is a homeroom teacher, teaches Tanach too, and is loved by all. He spent the learning periods of his army years in Ma’alot at the hesder yeshiva, and once he completed his military service he decided to stay. We spend quite a lot of time together in school and in shul.
I went ahead and started painting. The job took me the better part of two weeks. At the end of my second day, I went looking for Kobi. He wasn’t in shul or in the playground where I saw his kids playing alone.
“Where’s Abba?” I asked his two-and-a-half-year-old son.
“Abba tzava,” he replied as he continued to play in the dirt. Abba has gone to the army. This was at the start of the outbreak of hostilities. Kobi was able to come home one night last week. He didn’t say much. He certainly wasn’t complaining. “It is what it is. They call me. I go,” he said matter-of-factly.
I saw his wife yesterday. Heavily pregnant, she hopes he’ll be home in time for the birth.
• • •
Sometime before the end of the school year, I was sitting in the teachers’ room with Kobi and Gavriel. Gavriel is my age, teaches Tanach, and is a proud father of seven and grandfather to many. He was holding an open newspaper whose headlines centered on the interception of a merchant vessel with arms and munitions aplenty headed to Gaza. “My son was on that boat yesterday. His unit made the discovery.”
Elyashiv, one of Gavriel’s married sons, serves in Shayetet 13, the Israeli equivalent of the Navy Seals. He’s been involved in quite a bit of action. He was one of the soldiers who boarded the ship trying to break the Gaza blockade a few years ago. There was a news report at the start of the current fighting in which four soldiers from Elyashiv’s unit were injured from shrapnel after successfully blowing up a rocket launcher. The same day, Gavriel and his wife had left Ma’alot for the South. They returned a couple of days later bearing the news that Elyashiv had been one of the soldiers wounded.
“He’s going to be okay. Some of the shrapnel is still in his foot around the Achilles tendon. He begins rehabilitation next week.”
I asked Gavriel what it had been like to drive down South. “It was madness. We saw rockets flying across the sky from the left and more rockets being fired at them from the right. We stopped our car and followed the instructions of what to do in such a scenario. We got out of the car and lay down, placing our hands over our heads. Baruch Hashem, it was soon over without incident.” Someone asked him where they’d slept. “The hospital put us up at a hotel close by.”
• • •
Yisrael and Batya have five sons. Uriel, their fourth, was married four weeks ago in Kiryat Shemoneh. He is a soldier serving in the Golani Brigade but stationed in the North. He has been home once since the wedding. The family built a small apartment under their house, where Uriel and his wife will live until he completes his service. The entrance to the apartment is next to our house, so we have become used to seeing a lot of Yisrael and Batya.
We met last night and sat to talk. It had been a hard day for them, Yisrael said. “My sister-in-law’s brother’s only son was one of the soldiers killed on motzaei Shabbat. Tzvika Kaplan was his name. We went to the funeral this morning in Haifa. There were so many people there, maybe 2,000, that they needed [loud]speakers so everyone could hear the hespedim.” At this point, Yisrael’s eyes welled with tears. “Tzvika’s wife spoke. Rafi, what a pillar of strength she is. The way she spoke, the manner in which she carried herself. Where did she find the strength to speak like that? She thanked Hashem for giving her the opportunity of the time she spent with Tzvika. She spoke lovingly about their two children, ages 5 and 3. I’m sure his loss hasn’t yet hit home. I pray that she has the strength to remain strong and courageous.”
• • •
Here in Israel there are hardly any degrees of separation. Most people in the country know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who is down South.
• • •
Yehuda and Penina have been close friends of ours since the mid-’70s. I send my weekly stories to them. She can be full of positive criticism about the topics and people I write about. My story last week concerned the funeral of one of the fallen soldiers, Guy Levi. Here is Penina’s reply to me: “This story caught me in a web of emotions. I am so tangled in the web that perhaps your story will pull me out. Avi is in the South. Yigal is in the South. Both as soldiers. One a captain; one a sergeant. Dvir and family on the Egyptian border are living sort of normal lives, in and out of their mamad. G‑d give me strength to get past these hard times for us and all Am Yisrael.”
• • •
I have detected a change in Batya’s [my daughter’s] demeanor. It’s as if all vestiges of childhood and playfulness have been sucked out of her. Batya wanted to come to us for Shabbat last week, but had to be back on base early Sunday morning. Because the travel from Ma’alot is so time-consuming, she stayed on her kibbutz, where she is a member of Garin Tzabar, a group of lone soldiers.
Batya’s boyfriend is a wonderful young man. He’s 25, from South Africa, and volunteered for the army as a lone soldier. His name is Aaron and he drives a tank. Aaron is a member of Batya’s garin. It is customary for soldiers to have their phones taken from them before entering a battle zone. Apart from one short phone call, we haven’t heard from Aaron since he entered Gaza.
• • •
There’s not much more to say. We pray. We follow the news. We ask friends how their sons serving down South are. We continue daily routines because that is what we have to do. Today I’m putting up shelves and Keren is cleaning. I’m working extra hard to get Batya’s room looking just right on the chance she comes up this Shabbat. ϖ
Rafi Sackville is a teacher and writer living in Ma’alot in the Western Galilee. His daughter Batya is a training officer in the IDF.