When one Israeli becomes a collective symbol

A friend who is married to a well-known Israeli literary figure phoned me mid-morning on August 13 to ask, in a voice that cracked a bit, if I had heard the news. No, I answered. Who was it? (because between …

A friend who is married to a well-known Israeli literary figure phoned me mid-morning on August 13 to ask, in a voice that cracked a bit, if I had heard the news.

No, I answered. Who was it? (because between July 12 and August 15 every sentence that began with “have you heard?” meant that someone we knew, either directly or by one degree of separation, had been killed). ‘Grossman’s son,’ she answered. ‘It was Uri Grossman. I had to tell you, but please promise you won’t mention it to anyone. His parents haven’t contacted his older brother yet, he’s backpacking in South America, and the news won’t be published until they find him and tell him.’

So I walked around for the next 10 hours with the heavy knowledge that the son of David Grossman, one of Israel’s most famous and beloved authors, had been killed in battle only a few days after his father, together with Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, published in the daily paper Ha’aretz an open letter that called upon the government to negotiate a ceasefire with Hizbullah.

I was in a taxi, on my way to meet my friend Chani, when the news was released at the end of the 8.00 pm news broadcast, as is the custom. In a netural voice the announcer recited the names of all the young men who had been killed that day, ending with, “It is now permitted to announce that the name of the twenty-fourth soldier who was killed yesterday is Uri Grossman, 20, son of the author David Grossman. That is the end of the news, from the Voice of Israel.”

Later I found out that at least five acquaintances who work in the Israeli media had known about Uri’s death all day, but not one of us had mentioned it. I told one friend that I was really touched by this show of respect. He looked at me strangely and said, “It’s basic, no?”

I think it is very difficult for someone who is neither Israeli nor a Hebrew speaker to understand why Israelis mourned Uri Grossman’s death collectively. David Grossman’s son was not a political symbol. His death was not “one of those moments when icons are brought low.” Israelis who didn’t know David Grossman personally joined him in mourning his son’s death because Grossman was the voice that expressed our intimate feelings – about family and about death, for example.

His stories for children are so well known and beloved – stories like the Itamar series, or Uri’s Special Language (‘Uri is almost two years old, and he’s beginning to talk,’ it began. ‘Even Uri’s parents don’t understand what Uri is saying.’), which he wrote when his son was two years old. And his novels, like Someone to Run With (for teenagers) and See Under: Love are such beautifully written expressions of both universal themes and uniquely Israeli experiences.

Although Grossman is usually grouped together with Oz and Yehoshua under the rubric ‘Generation of the State’ – novelists who started to write after Israel’s founding in 1948 – he is in fact the only one of the three who was born after 1948. Yehoshua and Oz rose to prominence in the early 1970s with novels like The Lover) and My Michael respectively, both iconoclastic and individualistic compared to novels by the previous generation of writers, the Palmach Generation, but are still very much concerned with grand themes like the Future of the State and the Situation of the Jews.

Grossman, who became famous in the mid-1980s, is also concerned with these themes, but he approaches them from a gentler, more accessible and human perspective, and he is much more in touch with the current Zeitgeist. It is impossible to imagine Oz or Yehoshua writing the lyrics for a smash hit Hebrew hip hop song, for example (‘The Sticker Song’)

Grossman simply knows how to express what we are feeling. So when his son died, we thought about all the people we knew who had been killed or badly wounded over the last month, and we identified with him because we knew so many grieving families and friends of dead soldiers who were going through the same pain. Because this is a small country, and everyone knew someone who had received an emergency call up notice for combat duty in Lebanon, or someone who had died or been injured, or someone who had lost a loved one. And I knew a lot of people who responded without hesitation to those call up notices, even though they were ambivalent about the way the war was being directed and even though they left behind jobs and small children.

And we knew David Grossman would express our inarticulate thoughts, which is what he did in the eulogy he wrote for Uri that appeared in Yediot Aharonot on August 16.

Uri my dear,

Over the past three days almost every thought has begun with the word ‘no’. No, he won’t come back. No, we won’t talk, and no we won’t laugh. No, there won’t be another boy like that, with the ironic look in his eyes and the fabulous sense of humor. No, there won’t be the young man who was so wise beyond his years, no there won’t be that warm smile and healthy appetite. No, there won’t be that rare combination of determination and gentleness, no there won’t be his straightforwardness and his wise heart. No, there won’t be any more of Uri’s infinite gentleness, and no there won’t be his inner quiet that calms every argument.

And no we won’t watch The Simpsons or Seinfeld together, and no we won’t listen to Johnny Cash. And no we won’t feel your strong hugs. And no we won’t see you talking to Yonatan as you gesticulate wildly, and we won’t see you hug your beloved sister Ruthie.

Uri my love, throughout your short life we all learned from you. From your strength and your insistence on going your own way. For choosing your own path even if there was no chance you would succeed. With astonishment we watched your struggle to be accepted to an officers’ training course.

You knew you would be a good officer, and you were never satisfied with being anything but the very best you were capable of. And when you succeeded I thought, Here is a man who has such a simple, sober understanding of his own abilities. He is completely free of pretension and arrogance. He is completely unaffected by what others say about him. His source of strength lies within himself.

That is the way you were from the time you were a child. You were a child who lived in harmony with himself and his environment. A child who knew he belonged, who knew he was loved, who knew his limitations and understood his uniqueness. And truly, when you forced the army to submit to your will and accept you as an officer, it was clear what kind of an officer and human being you would be. And now we hear from your friends and your soldiers about the officer and the friend, about how you would wake up before everyone else to arrange everything and go to bed only after everyone else had fallen asleep.

And yesterday, at midnight, I looked at the house that was quite a mess after hundreds of people came to visit and comfort us, and I said, Well, now we need Uri to help us tidy up.

You were the leftist of your battalion, and they respected you, because you stood by your beliefs while carrying out all the missions you were assigned.

I remember your telling me about your ‘checkpoint policy,’ because of course you spent a lot of time at the checkpoints. You said that if there was a child in the car you stopped, you always started by trying to calm him down and make him laugh. And you always reminded yourself that the child was about Ruthie’s age, and that he was very afraid of you. And how much he hates you, and that he has reasons to hate, but in spite of that you would do everything in your power to make that terrible experience easier for him, while simultaneously doing your job without compromising.

When you entered Lebanon, Mum said that the thing she feared most was your ‘Eliphelet’s Syndrome.’ [Eliphelet is the hero of a poem by Nathan Alterman, about a naïve soldier who unquestioningly sacrifices himself for others; the poem was set to music and sung by Arik Einstein, amongst other famous Israeli singers. According to the Hebrew bible, Eliphelet was the name of one of King David's sons]. We were very afraid that, like the Eliphelet in the poem, if it was necessary to save a wounded soldier, you would run straight into the line of fire, and you would be the first to volunteer to ‘restock the supply of ammunition when it ran low’ [a line from Alterman's poem]. And that just as you were your whole life, at school and at home and during your army service, just as you always volunteered to give up your furloughs because another soldier needed the break more than you did, or because someone else’s situation was more difficult – so you would behave there, in Lebanon, in the terrible face of war.

You were my son and also my friend, just as you were to your mother. Our souls are connected to yours. You were a person at peace with himself, a person whose company was a pleasure. I cannot express properly the extent to which you were someone to run with [reference to the title of Grossman's novel for teenagers, 'Someone to Run With'].

On each of your furloughs you would say, ‘Dad, let’s go talk.’ And we would go out together, usually to a restaurant, and sit and talk. You told me so many things, Uri, and I was so proud to be the keeper of your secrets. That a man like you chose me as your confidante.

I remember how you deliberated once whether or not to punish one of your soldiers who had committed some disciplinary offense. You really suffered over that decision, because you knew it would enrage your soldiers, and also other officers who were more forgiving than you of certain offences. And you did pay a high price for your decision to punish that soldier, but afterward that event became one of the legends of your battalion – a sort of measuring stick for proper behavior and sticking to the law.

And on your last furlough you told me with bashful pride that your commanding officer held up your decision as an example of correct behavior for an officer.

You lit up our lives, Uri. Mum and I raised you with love. It was so easy to love you with all our hearts, and I know that your short life was a good one. I hope that I was a fitting father for a boy like you. But I know that to be your mother’s son means that you were raised with generosity and kindness and infinite love, and you received all of that in plentitude. And you knew how to appreciate that, to be grateful and not to take any of it for granted.

For now I am not going to say anything about the war in which you were killed. We, your family, have already lost this war. The State of Israel will have to do its own self-examination. We will retreat into our own pain, surrounded by our good friends, enveloped in the enormous love that we feel today from so many people, many of whom we didn’t even know, and I am grateful for their boundless support.

I only wish we all knew how to provide this kind of support and solidarity in different times. This is perhaps our greatest and most treasured national resource. I wish we knew how to be a little gentler with one another. I hope that we succeed in extricating ourselves now, at the very last minute, because even more difficult times are waiting for us.

I would like to say a few more words.

Uri was a very Israeli boy. Even his name was very Israeli, very much a Hebrew name. He was the essence of Israeli-ness as I like to see it. The kind that has been almost forgotten, that is sometimes considered almost a curiosity. Many times I looked at him and thought that he, like Ruthie and Yonatan, was almost an anachronism. Uri with his uncompromising directness and acceptance of complete responsibility for everything that happened around him. Uri who was always the one to take initiative, who was always completely reliable. Uri with his deep sensitivity for suffering, for all emotional pain.

Uri was a man of principle. That word has often been mocked over the past years. Because in our mad, cynical, world it is no longer ‘cool’ to be principled. Or to be a humanist. Or to be truly sensitive to the suffering of others, even if the Other is your enemy on the battlefield.

But I learned from Uri that it is possible to be both principled and cool. That we do need to uphold our values and defend ourselves simultaneously. We have to insist upon upholding our values in the face of temptation to give in to power and simplistic thinking, to give in to the corruption of cynicism and contempt for humanity, which are the true, great curse of those who have lived their whole lives in our disaster-prone region of the world.

Uri simply had the courage to be himself, always, in every situation, and to find his own voice in everything he did and said, and that is what protected him from the destruction, pollution and constricting of his soul.

Uri was also incredibly funny and witty. It is impossible to talk about Uri without mentioning his hilarious brilliance. For example, when he was 13 I once told him: ‘Imagine if you and your children were able to fly to outer space just as people fly today to Europe.’ And he smiled: ‘I’m not so attracted to outer space, you can find everything on planet earth.’

Dear friends, on the night between Saturday and Sunday, at twenty minutes before three in the morning, our doorbell rang. The voice at the intercom said it was from ‘the municipal officer,’ and I went to open the door and I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. Life is over.’

But within five minutes, when Michal [Grossman's wife] and I went into Ruthie’s room and woke her up in order to tell her the horrible news, Ruthie, after her first tears, said: ‘But we will live, right? We will live just as before, and I want to continue to sing in the choir, and that we will continue to laugh as always, and I want to learn to play the guitar.’

And we hugged her, and we told her we would live. And Ruthie also said: ‘What a fantastic threesome we were, Yonatan, Uri and I.’

And you really were a fantastic team. Yonatan, you and Uri were not just brothers, but soul mates, with your own world and your own private language and your own sense of humour. And Ruthie, Uri loved you with all his heart and soul. He always treated you with such gentleness, and I remember how during our last phone conversation, when we were so happy that the UN was about to declare a ceasefire, he insisted on speaking with you. And how you wept afterward. As if you already knew.

Our lives are not over. We have just suffered a very hard blow. We will draw the strength we need to absorb the blow from one another, from our togetherness, from Michal and from me and from our children and also from the grandparents who loved him with all their hearts – ‘neshumeh’ they called him, because he really was all soul – and from your aunts and uncles and cousins and from all your many friends from school and from your comrades in arms who accompany us here with such concern and deep affection.

And we will also draw our strength from Uri. He had such a plentitude of strength that it will serve us for many years. He radiated such strong vitality and vibrancy, such warmth and love, and his light will continue to shine on us forever – even if the star itself is extinguished.

Our beloved one, it was our great privilege to live with you. Thank you for every moment you were ours.

Mom, Dad, Yonatan and Ruthie


Originally appeared in On the Face