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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Man plans and G-d laughs... A multi-generational story

A young man, who had grown up in one of the more insular of Jerusalem's Hassidic communities, had a plan.  He dreamed of running away; away from the stifling sea of black... away from the rigid religious and cultural formalities... away from the country where he was born.

He ran away to America and started a new life.  He might have run away from Judaism entirely, but by chance he met and married a pretty young woman from a traditional family who fancied him.   So they settled down to start a family in a colorful, south Florida community that couldn't possibly have been more different from the black & white Jerusalem world the young man had abandoned.

This young man and his wife worked hard and raised their children to be modern American Jews... strong on Jewish identity if a little vague on ritual and specific knowledge.  When their son finished high school he did what many American Jews do; he decided to spend a year abroad on a program in Israel.

While in Israel, this boy spent the occasional shabbat in the strange world of his Hassidic grandparents.  But while he loved his grandparents, he was at an age where adventure beckoned, so he left his one-year program and joined the IDF as part of Nahal; an acronym in Hebrew meaning 'fighting, pioneering youth'... a unit that splits its service period between working on a kibbutz and regular military training.  His Nahal unit was an experimental one, made up entirely of new immigrants from religious (or at least traditional) backgrounds. 

His parents back in south Florida weren't particularly thrilled with this new development, but figured it was a phase... an adventure of sorts.  So when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in June of 1982, his parents prayed that the hostilities would be over before their son completed his basic training program.  Having a son fight in a war was certainly not part of their plans.

What they didn't 't know was that their son's unit had just completed its training and was among the first sent into battle.  They found this out in an unpleasant way one evening while watching a television news broadcast about the war.  No journalists had been allowed into Lebanon, so all the networks had camera crews stationed at the border, filming the soldiers and equipment pouring into Lebanon... as well as the evacuation of the dead and wounded into waiting ambulances at the border.

As this couple sat glued to the evening news on a south Florida station, a cameraman happened to pan towards a stretcher bearing a dead Israeli solider... and zoomed in on his face.  Clearly the medics had fought valiantly to save this young soldier, because he was heavily bandaged in many places though the bandages were soaked through with blood. But the soldier's face was relatively clean, and entirely unmistakable.  It was their son.

There is nothing for a parent to do at such a time.  It is a moment of bottomless sorrow and hopelessness when all plans come to an end.  But things had to be done, so slowly they began to make the mental plans for the funeral.

Israel has few hard and fast rules.  Almost anything can be negotiated or finessed given the right level of 'protexia' (preferential treatment based on connectedness).  But one of the rules that is carved in stone here is that when a soldier is killed or wounded, no telegram or phone call will do.   An officer is sent to personally inform the family.  But since this young man's family was in south Florida, it was many hours before the nearest Israeli consulate was informed and could dispatch a Military attache to the family's home to break the news.

When the officer finally arrived on their doorstep, he was surprised to find a family that was already grieving the loss of their son... a confusing scene given that he had been tasked with informing them that their son had 'only' been wounded.  Apparently on television, the subtle difference between dead and unconscious is hard to discern.

The family joined their wounded son in Israel and helped him through his convalescence.  His leg and chest wounds healed so well that, to his mother's horror, he was able to rejoin his unit in Lebanon for many more battles before finally being discharged on schedule.

After completing his service, the young soldier opted to stay in Israel and enrolled at the Hebrew University.  When he arrived at the campus for the first time and began moving his things into his dorm room, he was pleased to find that his roommate - a young man who would one day start an unremarkable Internet journal called 'treppenwitz' - was, like him, a cycling enthusiast, and their two shiny touring bicycles were given a place of honor in their room and used often.

During their time together at Hebrew U, the two roommates took many cycling trips around the country and shared their plans for the future.  But as the time went on, the ex-soldier began spending more and more weekends at his grandparent's home in one of Jerusalem's Hassidic neighborhoods.  He loved his grandparents deeply... and they loved him as every grandparent loves a grandchild; unconditionally.

After a year at Hebrew U, the young ex-soldier from south Florida decided that he wanted to be in a more religious environment and announced his plans to transfer to a well respected technical college where half the day was spent engaged in religious studies.

Fast forward to a wedding in Bnei Brak this week; a sea of long black coats, fur hats and curled side-locks.  Except, that is, for the few former members of a certain IDF Nahal unit, and a former university roommate who stood out in their knitted kippot (yarmulkes).

The Hassidic groom stood swaying rhythmically under the Huppah (marriage canopy) beside his father, waiting nervously for the bride to arrive.  His father, wearing a long graying beard and fancy black Hassidic garb that concealed long-healed battle wounds, looked nervous too... but his nervousness was like that of all parents who have plans and dreams for their children... but know from experience that the future is not theirs to guide or control. 

The groom's grandparents had arrived from south Florida to share in the celebration, and the grandfather, wearing a black hat somewhat self-consciously, joined them under the chupah to recite one of the blessings, while his wife stood off to the side smiling beautifully.

As I stood watching my old roommate and his extended family celebrating this life event, I was struck by many thoughts.  Despite our careful laid plans; for escape, for change, for safety, for a trajectory heading straight off into the future... G-d laughs and does what He wants with our lives. 

We use terms like good and bad to describe momentary events along our live's paths.  But when viewed through the lens of hindsight, I can't help thinking that our plans must be a constant source of amusement to the One who created the world.

Posted by David Bogner on March 19, 2009 | Permalink

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Thank you for that truly touching story. I think it boils down to a Jew is a Jew is a Jew and we are all one family.

Tamar

Posted by: Tamar | Mar 19, 2009 10:44:54 AM

Beautiful story of hope for the future of the Jewish Nation - thanks so much for sharing it with us.

Posted by: Tehillah | Mar 19, 2009 11:54:22 AM

Beautiful story! It just goes to show that the divisions in Israeli society are nowhere near as deep as the media likes to make it seem. As Tamar noted, underneath the trappings, we really are all connected.

Posted by: Mrs. S. | Mar 19, 2009 11:56:45 AM

poignant and moving story - thank you for sharing it with us. we are all one big family/

Posted by: Hadassah | Mar 19, 2009 12:48:22 PM

Awesome. A clear difference between the heart and soul.

Posted by: Rami | Mar 19, 2009 1:40:06 PM

I wonder if you took your camera along-- photos of the characters in this play would be fascinating.

Posted by: Barzilai | Mar 19, 2009 3:05:44 PM

You've shared a beautiful and moving story with us Trepp, thanks.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Mar 19, 2009 9:30:21 PM

The late Paul Harvey had nothing on you as a raconteur, bwah. Toda rabah for sharing yet another beautiful story...

Posted by: Elisson | Mar 19, 2009 9:54:22 PM

Thanks so much, Trep, and beautifully crafted -- I was needing a nudge and a lift, and this made me laugh with pleasure.

Posted by: Pam | Mar 20, 2009 4:38:11 AM

wow, another one hit out of the park. When are you going to publish a book? you have had so many great posts and stories over the years, I'd love to have them all in hard copy.
why not get someone to help you sort through your posts, edit them (if need be) and publish them? even if you do a small run, through a vanity press, and sell off this website, I'd bet you'd easily sell 500-1000 copies if not more.
Please?

Posted by: Eli | Mar 20, 2009 4:53:24 AM

What Eli said.

I loved this story... tugged at my heartstrings in all the right places.

Posted by: Chantal | Mar 20, 2009 6:03:30 AM

This beautiful story reminded me of my son Ariel Chaim O"H who drew his parents toward a deeper frumkeit. It made me miss him so bitterly, yet I'm so heartened by this story. It makes me believe that things happen for a reason. I need to have that trust.

Posted by: Karen Avrech | Mar 20, 2009 7:28:22 AM

Please put me on the "I want to purchase David's first book" list.

Posted by: Noa | Mar 20, 2009 9:55:26 AM

this story also tells us that at some point we have to love our children and then let go and accept that they will be their own people. with lots of prayer and love on our part coupled with a strong grounded upbringing, we hope that they will draw on that experience and their chosen path will ultimately be the best one for them. this family seems to have seen that and the unconditional love shines through. wonderful story.

Posted by: nikki | Mar 20, 2009 1:47:47 PM

a great hashgachah story. thanks..................

Posted by: lynne | Mar 20, 2009 4:51:45 PM

praise G-d

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Mar 21, 2009 7:05:58 AM

Nice story, Trep. Keep em coming..

Posted by: Marsha in Englewood | Mar 22, 2009 2:48:30 AM

Powerful story, poignently written. Y'asher Koach.

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Mar 22, 2009 6:32:58 PM

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