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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mourners of Zion

The traditional words of consolation said to mourners, in the Jewish tradition, are, "may the almighty comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." This was explained, by Rabbi Aron Moss, to convey: "You're not alone. Although the destruction of Jerusalem would have directly affected those who lived there the most, nevertheless it was a national tragedy. All Jews, including those who lived far from Jerusalem, were deeply pained at the loss of their holy city. It gave strength and courage to the Jerusalemites to know that the entire people was feeling their pain. So too, although it is the family that is mourning for their loss, the entire Jewish people share in their sorrow at the passing of one of our own. This is comfort in knowing that your sorrow is being shared by your people.''

As I entered Har Herzl Military Cemetary to attend the memorial (the 3rd Yartzeit) for Michael Levin, an American Oleh from the Philadelphia area killed in action during the Lebanon War in 2006, I saw Sally Mitlas, the director of the documentary about Michael, A Hero in Heaven. Or, rather, she saw me. I was standing alone, wearing a Hebrew Philadelphia Phillies t-shirt, when Mitlas commented on my shirt, (Michael was a big Phillies fan, and Mitlas herself is a Philly native) struck up a conversation and introduced herself. As she led me to michael's memorial, past hundreds of other tombs of Israeli soldiers killed in battle in its 61 year history, and past land reserved for the tombs of future such casualties, Sally saw someone she recognized who was heading our way.

The deeply tanned, sturdy and robust, middle-aged man in green military fatigues - who, I gathered, also knew Michael - greeted Sally warmly. After a brief exchange, Sally mention to him that I was an Oleh Chadash (a new immigrant). His expression upon hearing the news changed ever so slightly. And, though he didn't turn to me, he acknowledged me, and what my immigration to Israel represented to his strong, yet eternally embattled, nation with a few hearty and purposeful pats on my shoulder as we began to walk to our destination. I felt in those few pats, in his warm yet slightly detached manner towards me so much... conveying so much of what he, and his comrades, has seen and endured....that, though we were not equals, I was now, and will now always be, part of the Jewish nation.

Though I didn't personally know Michael Levin or his parents, there was always something about his life, and death, that touched me, in ways that was only hightened by my Aliyah and my presence at Mt. Herzl witnessing the profound grief of his family, friends, and fellow soldiers on that warm July afternoon. When the Mourner's Kaddish was recited, when Michael's father spoke, when Michael's oldest and closest friend spoke...seeing and hearing their pain as they tried to hold back tears, and carry-on as they all must, was...a lot to bear.

At the conclusion of the memorial we all sang Hatikvah with Michael's family, as one family.


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