Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back in Bet She'an: L'man Achi

It has not taken me very long to feel at home in Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, a modest little community known throughout Israel for year long heat-waves and the local meat-packing plant. Perhaps the reason why I have so quickly grown attached to the community is that the surroundings lack that sense of the familiar I find elsewhere in the country. Or perhaps the very opposite is closer to the truth. Perhaps the one connection I do have to the kibbutzim in the Bet She'an Valley is why I feel at home.

Seven years ago I visited a kibbutz down the road from my current home in Tirat Zvi. One of the Israelis on Nesiya, the American and Israeli teen summer program I attended in 2002, had invited everyone to his home. We did not stay for long and I left without a thought as to whether I would ever return to the Bet She'an Valley.

In January 2007 I was back in the valley, returning to my friend's kibbutz under very different circumstances. For Yotam Gilboa, the friend from Kibbutz Maoz Hayim whose quiet strength and unassuming honesty had so impressed me in Nesiya, was now buried in the fields alongside his childhood home. Yotam was one of the first casualties in the 2006 Lebanon war, falling as he rushed forward to provide medical aid to another soldier.

I was working in Washington DC for the summer when I heard that Yotam had died. My immediate reaction was a spinning sense of loss--the loss to his family, friends and community. And the loss to all those that would now never have the chance to meet Yotam. I also appreciated anew my personal loss, my failure to connect with Yotam and other Israelis on Nesiya due to my lack of confidence with Hebrew and with myself.

Following Yotam's death, his friends from the summer of 2002 created an exhibit of memories--stories, poems and painting--to share with others the remarkable friend we had known and so suddenly lost. The exhibit was hosted at dozens of universities and community centers around the world, taking Yotam's story places where he will never be able to go. Below is one of those stories, the words that I contributed for a friend whose example explains in ways I cannot yet fully appreciate why I now call his former surroundings in Bet She'an Valley my home.

July 20, 2006

Downstairs my summer companions chatter, aflutter at the close of a steamy Washington summer day. Their echoes are all that reminds me that I am not back in Israel, the summer of 2002, resting in the shade of Har Meron, surrounded by my Nesiya companions, Josh, Liron, Michael – and of course, Yotam.

There had never been a question that Yotam would be chosen for the group that split off from our summer program to hike Har Meron. It was not simply his quiet strength and outdoors experience that made the thought of Yotam’s absence unthinkable. It was something more personal, something about the assurance and confidence his presence gave to those around him, a free gift given without the slightest pretensions.

Perhaps it was because Yotam’s mere presence was so giving that I never really succeeded in getting to know him very well. As it was, those six weeks in Israel left me with many memories, quite a few friends, and several moments that I don’t think I will ever forget. Including the following.

The second day’s hike had ended and a dozen of us were huddled around the fire when the conversation turned to identifying with Israel, with the Jewish state. A range of voices were heard and soon Yotam spoke up, briefly and powerfully as was his wont. What he said I’ve never forgotten.

Yotam began by sharing how much he loved hiking the land, spending time with his childhood friends… and yet he then explained that truly, he could not say he felt any deep kinship to the land, state or even people of Israel. Israel for him was a land to cherish on its own merits, a country that had not necessarily convinced him that it held all the answers he was searching for in life. Notwithstanding these doubts, Yotam concluded that before he turned away, he had a responsibility to the past generations to contribute to this land, this people and this state that his parent’s and grandparent’s generations had wrestled from history and presented to him on a silver platter.

I was stunned. Yotam, the warm and resourceful kibbutznik who could boil tea, spot poisonous roots, and cook up the best soup the hills around Meron likely ever witnessed – this same Yotam felt adrift from any raison d’être for the Jewish state! All that night, and for days and years afterwards, I wanted to confront him, challenge Yotam how he could volunteer to place his life on the line for a state and people he failed to appreciate.

We never had the chance to speak. And yet today, after hearing of Yotam’s death in battle in Lebanon, I finally understand. I understand and I weep that the answer I could not appreciate that night is itself a question, and that that question for Yotam remains forever without answer.

That summer of 2002 had never been about finding answers as much about asking questions. Yet it was not the asking so much as the living with questions that really shone through our summer together. Thirty-nine of us from the summer continue to grapple with questions about our ties to Israel, to others, to ourselves, reminding us that our nesiya, our journey, lies unexplored before us. And yet for you, Yotam, your journey has come to a close. And while I do wonder how your questions may have changed since that night by Meron, only now do I appreciate that more than anyone else, you exemplified what it is to live with questions yet never to shrink from life’s responsibilities. I’m reminded of Alex Singer, Yoni Netanyahu and other fallen soldiers of Israel who questioned and lived with equal drive. Most of all, Yotam, I’m reminded of the small gestures and actions, all the little things that I pray no one who ever experienced them will ever cease to recall, to reflect, and to pay credit where credit is due.

So thank you Yotam, thank you for the memories and most of all, for the questions.

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