Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mimi, Michael and the Heroes Among Us

Every one of the sixteen members of my garin has his or her own reason for deciding to move to Israel and join the army. On Wednesday night, September 9, one of the girls shared her reason. Mimi spoke briefly and did not tell many stories. Instead she invited us to watch A Hero in Heaven, a film made about Michael Levin, an American-born volunteer in the Israeli army who was killed three years ago in the fighting in Lebanon at age 22.

Michael was back in the United States, visiting his family in Philadelphia and his friends at Camp Ramah, when the Second Lebanon War began in the summer of 2006. Although his officers insisted he need not return, Michael immediately flew back to Israel to rejoin join his unit shortly before they entered Lebanon. Mimi had only met Michael once or twice during the latter's visit to Camp Ramah. But after Michael was killed in the war, the entire camp mourned his loss. The following summer, Mimi volunteered to organize a day of remembrance for Michael. As she spoke to his closest friends and family, the stories she heard of Michael's courage and love of Israel struck a chord. Back home in Virgina, Mimi informed her parents she wanted to follow in Michael's footsteps. A year later she has made aliyah and is preparing for the army on Tirat Zvi, the same kibbutz Michael called home when he joined the army four years ago.

Michael Levin's death in the Second Lebanon War left a deep impression in the Jewish world. And so while I had never seen the film made about his life, I was familiar with his story. I was especially excited to see the biopic because it reminded me of the exhibit I helped organized in the spring of 2007 about Yotam Gilboa, another young man who was killed defending Israel (see here for my previous note on Yotam). In designing our exhibit to commemorate Yotam, my friends and I sought to convey both our pain and the wonderfully complex friend we lost in the Lebanon War. As I sat down to watch A Hero in Heaven, I was curious to see how the film conveyed the life and loss of Michael Levin.

My conclusion? Disappointing. Not because the movie detracts in any way from my admiration for Michael. God forbid. I was disappointed because, in my opinion, the movie reduces a brave young man who loved Israel into just that and no more. Michael, mutual friends have told me, was as complicated and human as any of us. He often played the joker, and his every decision was not made on the high altar of Zionist reasoning. Michael, in short, was a regular guy. And that is what makes his story so powerful and his example so heroic and inspiring.

After the film I looked around our mo'adon, taking in the many different ages and backgrounds of my garin, and I was inspired to be living together with sixteen Michael. My point is not that any of us should be compared to Michael based purely on our shared decision to move to Israel and join the army. I see sixteen Michaels because, like him, each member of my garin is an individual, as complex as anything. And yet like Michael, we are committed to an uncertain future rife with challenge and sacrifice.

Perhaps my disappointment with the film is in part due to the fact that I am not the intended audience. Towards the end of the film, Michael's mother says that the best way young Jews can honor her son is to embrace their Jewish identity and remain attached to Israel. I could not agree more. But I also cannot say that her words have much of an effect on me, or at least nowhere near the impact they hopefully have on disaffected, young Jewish-American audiences. The reality is that my fellow garin members and I are in a unique place. We have made a decision at odds with most of our peers in America. Watching A Hero in Heaven probably would have been a very different experience two months ago then it is today, as I sit in the very room Michael once occupied, preparing as he did four short years ago to defend the state of Israel.


I found Mimi's choice to share the film and her personal story fascinating and inspiring. Hopefully, her courageous example will lead others to open up about their own unique reasons for coming to live and defend Israel.

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