If you ask our father why we left Israel, one of the reasons he will give you is that he did not believe that his three daughters should spend some of the best years of their lives in the army. We left when Netta was 12, which was the cutoff age at the time for when kids would not be forced to return and serve.
For years, I struggled with his decision. Serving in the Israeli army is a rite of passage for an Israeli citizen, a shared experience of the community. But, the dutiful daughter of an Iraqi/Israeli patriarch, I also knew that I would never disobey my father’s decision, especially knowing the sacrifice he made for us, leaving behind his parents, brothers, sisters, and their children.
When my husband and I met Akiva Goldstein, we were, and continue to be, awed by him. Here was a kid, born and raised in the United States, with an affluent family and all the conveniences life has to offer, who, instead of partying with his friends at college, chose to enlist in the Israeli army.
Tonight we begin the observance of Israel’s Memorial Day, and tomorrow night, Israel’s Independence Day, so I was honored to speak with Akiva regarding his experience and what led him to decide to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Akiva grew up in the Philadelphia area, in a Zionist household with strong Jewish ties. He attended Jewish day schools and Ramah, and knew from an early age that he would serve in the military, but certainly didn’t decide immediately on the Israeli army. He acknowledges a fellow Ramah alumnus and lone soldier with cementing his decision.
On August 1, 2006, Michael Levin, also from the greater Philadelphia area, was shot and killed by a Hezbollah sniper during the second Lebanon War. Akiva was 13 at the time, but he vowed then that he would finish Michael’s service. He committed the summer before his senior year in High School, and moved to Israel the summer after graduation, in 2011.
Once in Israel, Akiva completed a 9-month preparatory course, known as Mechina, in the Golan, and then, true to his word, embarked on Michael Levin’s path by joining a combat unit with the Tzanhamim (Paratroopers), opting for the only one that required a tryout. Recruits undergo months of rigorous training that includes fitness training, Krav Maga, and marches with heavy equipment. More than a quarter of recruits drop out. At the end of the course, recruits must complete a “Beret March”, marching 75 kilometers in full combat gear through all weather extremes and doing a round of push-ups in full combat gear near the finish line before completing the march and receiving their maroon berets.
Aside from the physical challenges of the experience, Akiva was a lone soldier. Time off from the unit many times meant returning to an empty apartment, not to the arms of family and friends. But there was also an amazing community, and a network of soldiers serving with Akiva from around the world, from places like South Africa, Brazil, France, and Ethiopia, committed to fighting for Israel’s security.
Akiva completed his service and returned to the US. Instead of taking time to readjust to civilian life, he matriculated within two months of his return. Now graduating, he credits his strong local community with supporting him through the adjustment. Most daunting, initially, was incorporating the religious aspects of Judaism back into his life, since his army experience was so secular, but little by little he has simply gained new appreciation for some of the practices.
If you’ve never been to Israel on the eve of Yom Ha’atzmaut, I highly recommend putting it on your bucket list. There is no greater party that I’ve ever attended. That this celebration is preceded by the acknowledgment of the price we have paid, and continue to pay, for the freedom we enjoy is potent. Israel exists due to the dedication of those born into her, and those who have committed their lives to her due to their sense of duty and love for her, like Akiva and Michael. And, for that, we are eternally grateful.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing
Last night, as I sat through our synagogue's Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, I was overcome with emotion. Not surprising, I know. Except, aside from the content presented, and absorbing the enormity of the occasion, I found myself mourning another type of loss. I uncovered it as I listened to an articulate teenager describe his visit to Poland and walking through his Zayde's old town, visiting a synagogue, and the comfort of experiencing some of his history and ancestors' reality. My sisters and I will likely never experience that and never feel that connection. As the daughters of an Iraqi immigrant, we have no option of visiting our father's birthplace, of connecting with the current Jewish community in the country, sitting in the synagogue he prayed in as a child. After Israel became the Jewish state, the Jewish community was ousted, after being stripped of all their worldly possessions. One suitcase per person, of essentials, that was still rummaged and looted. My grandfather's small notebook with all the important dates (birth dates, to be exact) was taken and destroyed. Family photographs were confiscated. None of my grandmother's precious jewelry survived the trip. My father, the proudest and most private man I've ever met, has never been able to discuss those experiences with us. And now, at 87 years of age, barely remembers the details.
As we mourn those who perished in Europe, let's also remember that evil has prevailed elsewhere. And while the majority of people recognize the horrors European Jews suffered at the hand of the Nazis, the genocide the Armenians underwent at the hand of the Turks, and the ethnic cleansing of entire Jewish communities in the Middle East continue to be denied or ignored.
There are many reasons I look forward to Pesach. Well, I should specify that by Pesach I mean the Seder. The Seder conjures up memories of huge family gatherings, loud singing, and a feast of colossal proportions. The Seder for us was not about finding the afikoman but stealing it off the adult who was wearing it on his body. The Seder was about brown hard-boiled eggs that we salivated over for the first two hours we sat at the table, because our Seder (at least seemingly) lasted all night.
And then there was the Charoset. Charoset comes from the Hebrew word for clay. it's one of the foods we put on the Seder plate and is meant to symbolize the mortar used by the slaves in Egypt.
My dad's family had come to Israel from Iraq and as a result we had always celebrated the holidays the Sephardic way. I had grown up eating a Charoset made up of Silan (a date syrup) and walnuts. It's equal parts sweet and nutty and a perfect complement to the tasteless Matzah (did I just say that???). I was probably in college when I realized that most everyone I knew ate a different kind of Charoset that has apples and nuts in it and does not resemble the one I grew up loving.
This year I won't be celebrating Passover with my parents, so I decided to make some Charoset a little early, and I couldn't believe how easy it was!
Dad, you're fired! I just figured out the Charoset I thought was so much work and that you said was "a little bit of this and a little bit of that" takes exactly two ingredients and less than ten minutes to whip up.
So here is the recipe, please let me know what you think after you try it: is it back to the Ashkenazi Charoset or have I been able to convert you?
1 1/4 cup walnuts
1 cup Silan (I was able to find this at a local grocer but it's also available on Amazon and other online retailers)