The Privilege of Tears

Seven sons of Moshav Nahalal were killed within 10 days during the Yom Kippur War. But in Israel's first cooperative settlement, an ethos of self-sacrifice prevented the bereaved from expressing their grief. A new documentary film by Zippi Baider probes the psychological price of this tightly regulated culture of mourning.

Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon

On a wooden shelf in her bedroom, next to two thick volumes of Yizkor (Remembrance ) books that contain photographs and stories of those who fell in Israel's wars, are four framed pictures. "This is my brother, Moshe," says Pnina Ben Barak, pointing to the picture on the left. "He was killed in Safed, in the War of Independence. And this is Shaul, my nephew," she continues. "He was killed in the Six-Day War while commanding a tank unit during a battle in Sinai. My sister lives four houses from me. Shaul was her firstborn," she says, but her hand remains relentlessly in motion, moving to the next picture. "This is Zur, my husband's brother's son. He was killed in a training accident 10 days before the Six-Day War. He crashed with his plane on a night flight. And this is Zohar," she says, her voice now barely audible, then falling silent for a heart-stopping moment, "my son. He was killed in the Yom Kippur War."

Zohar sends forth a smile in black and white. His absence radiates from the photograph, and in the afternoon light permeates every space in the home of his mother in Moshav Nahalal. "Zohar served in Golani, in the 17th Battalion, which was called the 'Lions of the Golan,'" says Ben Barak, seating herself at the dining table. "He was hit and killed on October 8, two days after the Yom Kippur War broke out, in the first assault on Mount Hermon, which had been captured by the Syrians. He had just completed a platoon commanders' course; in fact he was drafted less than a year before, in November 1972. He had another week of education left, in Netanya." She recalls precisely the schedule, so abruptly curtailed. "And then the war started. They were taken immediately. They arrived in Rosh Pina, and from there his unit was sent to Mount Hermon. It was very quick, with no intelligence or anything. In short, they were slaughtered from every side. Those who remained alive came down singly from the mountain. I had four children. Zohar was the firstborn. He was 19."

The inscriptions on tombstones in miltary cemeteries, such as the military section of the cemetery of Nahalal pictured. must conform to standard wording.Credit: Yuval Tebol

A breeze enters through the open windows and furls the long white curtains. "I was working at the time as a secretary for the Kishon regional council," she recalls, hurtling 38 years back in time. The sounds of Nahalal are heard occasionally in the background: a passing tractor, the chirping of birds in the trees, the faint lowing of cows. "When the war started I said, 'We have already paid, nothing will happen to us.' Well, what if I said it? In the end they came to me in the office and told me there. Before that I hadn't heard from Zohar for a long time. Ten days, I think. Nothing. A few days earlier I had contacted Ezer Weizman, a friend of the family." She pauses to take a deep breath. "I called him and said, 'Ezer, please look for Zohar for me, I don't know where he is, I don't hear anything from him.'"

But Weizman (whose arrogant speeches before the war - in which he was called up for reserve duty to serve as the aide to Chief of Staff David Elazar - have not been forgotten by some in Nahalal ) provided no news. Ben Barak learned about her son's fate from the town major and his entourage. "I didn't know how to start to cope with it," she says. "But I knew I didn't want people to see me crying.

"After my brother was killed, I remained alone with my parents at home. My older sister was already married and had left. It wasn't good at home. Mom and Dad were wrapped up in their own grief. They didn't smile. Nothing. I couldn't stand seeing them like that, so I used to leave the house so I would not to have to see their sadness. I was 12, exactly the same age my daughter was when Zohar was killed. I told myself: My children will not go through what I went through. I decided that we would have a regular home, that they would not see me crying, that I would smile and have friends over. That there would be music here."

Is it really possible not to cry?

"It's not possible. You just cry at night, not during the day."

Another funeral

Pnina Ben Barak is one of the bereaved parents who appear in "They Don't Cry in Nahalal," a documentary film by Zippi Baider which will be broadcast on Channel 10 tomorrow evening (October 8; in Hebrew). This deeply moving and jolting film focuses on Nahalal, which has lost more than 40 of its sons in Israel's wars and in the pre-state struggle, but deals especially with the families of the seven who fell in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In addition to the unmediated observation of the bereaved families, the film's great achievement is its disclosure of the restrained culture of mourning that developed in Nahalal, where the members of the legendary settlement grapple with their agony in pride and thunderous silence.

Thirty-eight years after the Yom Kippur War, the families of those who fell are for the first time willing to open the door to their homes - and to their hearts. They talk about the pain from a vulnerable place, consider the weight of the burden of bereavement under which they buckled, examine the steep price they paid and contemplate their harsh reaction to a horrific tragedy that threatened to take over their life routine. The seven members of Nahalal who fell in the course of 10 days in the Yom Kippur War lie buried next to each other in the military section of the moshav cemetery. Gideon Avidav, an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, was killed in an assault against a Syrian commando force on the Golan Heights; Erez Binyamini, a captain in the Armored Corps, was killed in the containment battles south of Qantara, in Egypt; Ze'ev Amit, a major in the Paratroopers' 101st Unit, was killed by Egyptian shelling near the Suez Canal, and was survived by his wife, son and two daughters; Amos Ben David, a battalion commander in the Armored Corps, who fell in the containment battles on the Golan Heights, left a wife and two children and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor; Lt. Moshe Yaffe, for whom Naomi Shemer wrote the iconic song "We are both from the same village," was killed on the Sinai front; Gad Ben Natan, deputy commander of a tank company, fell in the containment battles against the Egyptians near Al-Firdan bridge, and was survived by his wife and daughter and a son who was born after his death; and Zohar Ben Barak.

"They were seven," Ben Barak says, her blue eyes glittering, but not tearing. "It was terrible. People here in the village said, 'Oh, no, he's been killed, too. And him, too. And also him.' They were buried in two joint funerals, one for those who fell on the northern front and the other for those who fell on the southern front. The whole village went to the cemetery twice, behind a convoy of command cars," she recalls. "Afterward, on the first yearly memorial day, each family went on its date. Zohar on the 12th of [the Hebrew month] Tishri, and there is also a memorial ceremony on the 13th, the 21st and the 15th; Ze'evele Amit on the 11th. The whole village went up to the cemetery, again and again, every time for a different memorial.

"By the second year we understood that it was impossible to continue like that. So all seven families met and decided to hold a joint memorial for us all. One day after Yom Kippur."

Following the custom in Nahalal, the memorial ceremonies were held according to strict mourning rules. "Crying was forbidden," says Ofer Avidav, whose brother, Gideon, fell in the 1973 war. "We certainly did not cry at ceremonies, but also not at funerals. We were raised that in Nahalal you don't cry. Everything was restrained. For example, you were not allowed to wear sunglasses in the cemetery, so you wouldn't be able to hide your tears behind them. My wife's father, who lost his son in the Six-Day War, used to say that their generation was the 'generation of steel.' He and his friends were cut from different cloth. But not only them. This is the history that defines us.

"If you go back, most of the people who came to Nahalal during its founding period fled. Those who stayed were a hard core with extraordinary inner resilience. They were part of the Second Aliyah" - referring to one of waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine early in the 20th century - "and they founded the moshav, our grandfathers and grandmothers, and they succeeded despite the difficulties. One of their guiding ideals, which was imparted to all of us, was that you don't cry, that you have to overcome and keep going. To go on holding on to the land, because this is our only land."

On the brink of being swept up by his emotions, Avidav, 64, third generation in Nahalal and father of four, pours himself a glass of cold water from a pitcher. "As children, we grew up into memorial ceremonies, into a way of life in which the whole village goes to the cemetery," he says in the yard of his home. "Fourteen members of Nahalal fell in the War of Independence. Afterward we went through the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, Kippur and the first and second Lebanon wars. The whole security thing, the contribution to the country, volunteering and serving in combat units - all of that was and remains an important element in the life of the Nahalal settlers to this day. As a result, in every war we paid the price time and again. Forty of our sons have fallen. But that is not talked about in Nahalal. We don't count them and we don't talk about them."

That is a brutal statistic.

"It's insane. There is no other place like it in the country, yet I don't think that this exceptional number is burned into the consciousness of the Israelis. I don't know why that is so. Maybe because we are not the kind who create unnecessary halos of glory, or because we said nothing, we saw no reason to announce it, because our dead were first of all family members and close friends. So we had no words. To this day I find it difficult to describe the depth of the blow we suffered. Gideon, my brother, was 21 when he fell. I was 26 at the time. It was a very hard blow. Since then the perspective on life has been different, our criteria changed."

Paying in blood

After decades as a farmer, Avidav, a colonel in the reserves, is currently devoting himself to imparting the magnificent history of Nahalal, the first cooperative workers' settlement (moshav ) in Israel. "We raised calves and turkeys, but in the wake of the crisis in the industry, which also affected me, I decided to focus on tourism," he says. A photograph of Nahalal's founders collecting hay with their bare hands hangs on the wall above him. He adds, "These days I host groups at a historic site, a former arms cache, in our yard. During the British Mandate period it was used by the Haganah," the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces. "Here I impart the heritage, giving groups glimpses of Zionism through the history of the village and of our family. The cache was managed by my grandfather, who came to this country after being captivated by the Zionist idea under the influence of Joseph Trumpeldor" (the Zionist national hero who fell in the defense of a settlement in Galilee in 1920 ).

"He arrived with my grandmother, who was a member of the fifth generation of farmers in Crimea," Avidav continues. "They were both part of the Labor Battalion and among the founders of Kibbutz Ein Harod. They came to Nahalal because Granddad found the kibbutz concept uncongenial."

Like the others in the moshav, which consists of 75 farms, both the pioneering past and the national tragedies are deeply engraved in his family's consciousness. His son, Shaul, a brigade commander in the Armored Corps, is named for his wife's brother, Shaul Elkana, who was killed in Sinai in the Six-Day War. "It was totally clear that we would call our first son Shaul," Avidav says firmly. "We even talked about it; there was no hesitation and not for a minute did we consider any other name. Besides being my wife's brother, Shaul was my best friend. He was a classmate, too. We grew up together from kindergarten. It was through him that I connected with Sara, my wife. But we didn't invent anything. In the previous generation, when my uncle Eitan fell, my brother was given his name and so was another cousin. We believe that this is the most meaningful act of commemoration there is, someone who continues to bear the name of the fallen one. Besides my son, there are four other children in Nahalal who were named for Shaul. The same phenomenon exists for others who fell, too."

For Avidav, the Yom Kippur War is a formative moment in the culture of mourning that characterizes his community. "I think the barrier cracked there, because people started to cry," he says. "The grief of Kippur was so overwhelming that people could no longer block themselves; they allowed themselves the privilege of crying. Until Kippur no one cried, certainly not in public. That is a fact and you can't argue with it. It's a fact that the people of Nahalal kept their pain pent up and did not manage to get it out for decades. You don't have to go far," he says, trying to contain his trembling lips. "I saw it in my grandfather and grandmother, I saw it in my mother and father. In us, too. It was only in recent years that something softened inside us, or maybe something broke inside us."

Your wife is a bereaved sister, but mourning was a closed subject for both of you. In the film you talk about these things for the first time. Can you explain how you were able to keep your emotions locked up and not share them?

"That just shows how deep the wound was and how difficult it was to open it. The grief is so overpowering that you cannot let it out," he says, tears falling from one eye. "We dealt with the technical things, with memorial days and commemorative books. But we never examined deeply the effect on each of us personally. For years we never discussed the deep feelings, and during the filming it suddenly happened. Being closed was the spirit of the time. I also don't think we could have behaved any other way. Those who build a state pay with blood. We grew up here and there is no way that a state that is fighting for its life will not pay. That is why we always said that we went on living. That we went on."

But the wound is always there, and the pain never goes away.

"The wound is always there and there is no day without the pain. All this talk about how time heals is bullshit. The longing and the intensity of the grief are always there. The absence, the awareness that someone no longer exists - that is the hardest part. When we finally opened the wound and entered into our deep feelings, we gave expression to the pain that is always there, to the feeling of absence and to the longing.

"Since then, I have lost control of my crying," he sobs, wiping away a flood of tears. "It's amazing, there was a time when it never happened, when there was no such thing. I don't know how it happened, but today, when I get into that subject - and it sometimes starts from some everyday situation that reminds me of something, without anyone saying anything - I suddenly go back 38 years. Something has turned over inside me."

But why did you suddenly decide to tell your story to the camera, to the public, to take a step that was so contrary to your community's concept of mourning?

"We had stored up so much over the years that we were bound to unload it. I have no other explanation. In the film we were exposed in a way that we had never dared to be exposed before, not even to our close friends. I feel that it's now permissible. We are human beings, not made of iron, and we can behave outwardly the way we feel inwardly. It used to be that people did not behave as they felt, they worried about what others would say. People are now beyond that. The framework is less pressuring, and you see that in the way people mourn, too. Things are exteriorized today as they never were, and I think that is meaningful and important, both in terms of our relations with our families and in terms of being strong for others. It is important for bereaved families to understand that they are not alone."

Sleeping pills

The Yom Kippur War left four widows in Nahalal, and over the years all of them left the moshav. One of them, Roni Sadeh, who lost her husband, Amos Ben David, and afterward remarried, lives in Moshav Sde Yaakov in the Jezreel Valley, not far from her former home. Our conversation took place in her living room, through which an olive grove and a plowed stretch of land are visible. "We met in the Judean Desert," she says. "I was a soldier guiding children of new immigrants from moshavim in the south. Amos was our guard." On the first night, she recalls with a half-smile, when they were on a hill above the Dead Sea, Ben David collected coals from bonfires, placed them in a pit that he covered with sand, and spread his sleeping bag on top. "I saw him," she says. "I stood to the side, watching, and asked, 'What in the world are you doing?' He immediately answered, 'Would you like me to make one for you, too?'"

They were married at the age of 20, after Roni became pregnant. They lived for a time in Safed, then Eilat, before settling in her childhood home in Nahalal. They had two children. Before Amos was mobilized in the war, they were busy planning a new community for young people in Nahalal whose families had grown. "We started to put together the idea of establishing the community of Timrat," she relates. "In the course of applying to the Israel Lands Administration and the regional council, we held a general assembly in which Amos and Gadi Ben Natan were chosen to coordinate the project. They had just got things rolling when the war broke out, from which neither of them returned."

She remembers the time vividly, the urgent phone calls. "I was the one who drove Amos to the highway outside Nahalal. It all seemed like nonsense to me," she recalls. "I didn't believe anything was going to happen. I said to Amos, 'Why are you rushing? You're always being called up and nothing ever happens.' Then he left. His tank was one of the first in his brigade that made the climb to the Golan Heights. I didn't hear from him after that. A week later, I received a postcard from him that I still have. He wrote, 'We screwed the bastards and it's obvious that we have to be here.' I took that as a sign that everything was fine.

"During the war we spent a lot of time in the bomb shelters of Nahalal," she continues, "because the air force base at Ramat David was a target of shelling. I was very busy looking after the children. The boy was six and the girl was a year old. I didn't worry in the slightest about Amos. It was some kind of combination of a lack of awareness and naivete. In fact, after it was announced that there had been a breakthrough to the Heights I said to myself, 'Great, we got through it.' And that was exactly when he was killed. In the breakthrough."

At the end of the war she waited for a phone call from him. She knew that soldiers were already calling home, but there was no call from him. It was then that worry started to gnaw at her. "My father and Amos' father started to drive around, to ask people, to visit hospitals. They also spoke to Musa Peled, a member of Nahalal who commanded a division that broke through into the southern Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War. One day Musa called and I answered. He said, 'Let me speak to your mother.' I realized that something bad had happened. I immediately handed the phone to mother. Musa told her, 'Wait for the worst.'

"I remember that I was reading 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' at the time. I had one chapter left, but I immediately stopped reading it. I was afraid that when I finished the book I would get the news that Amos had been killed. I was suddenly gripped by all kinds of weird superstitions. For example, when the family asked for Amos' serial number so they could look for his name on the lists of killed and wounded, I refused to give it to them. I simply was not ready to receive an announcement that something had happened to him, and I tried to prevent it as much as I could."

But her desperate efforts to ward off fate were unavailing. Two weeks later, the town major's unit arrived. She was "quiet and indifferent," she recalls. "I remember that when I saw hysterical screaming in funerals at the time, I thought it was uncivilized. At Amos' funeral it was important for me to be a heroine, to be strong, not to let anyone place a hand on me in support. I simply moved those hands off me. You know, for a long time, maybe a year, I felt that I was standing on some sort of stage and people were looking at me. I felt that I needed to behave respectably. It's not that I felt that Nahalal expected me to behave like that - it was my expectation from myself. It must be something inbuilt in us, from growing up in that place. My restraint mainly took the form of not screaming and not crying aloud. I kept the tears mainly for moments when I was alone. In the nights."

What did you think about then, when you were alone?

"My thoughts were that if it became too difficult to bear, I would just swallow sleeping pills. That I would finish with everything. That thought calmed me. It was the only way I could fall asleep."

Lost prince

A small memorial corner Sadeh created in her home contains photos of herself and Amos as a young couple. Alongside stones he collected, which she still has, lie the molten remains of his rifle. "After Amos was killed, the feeling gradually developed within me for someone to love me, to fall in love, to be hugged," Sadeh says. "That started to surface in my thoughts, but I had a problem doing something with it, just as I still have a problem with it now. I am not the type to start looking, to meet people, check them out. That whole story is very hard for me, and it was hard then, too. There were a few times when people tried to strike up a relationship with me, but Amos was in my head like a lost prince. He was a handsome, smart man, musical, very charismatic. My feeling was that I would not find anyone like him, so why waste my time."

Four years after Amos' death, she married David. They set up a plant nursery that sold grass and fruit trees. "I have two children from Amos, and from David, who died three years ago, another daughter," she says. She entered her second marriage carrying heavy baggage. "The first time David came to meet me, he of course knew I was a widow with two children," she continues, as her young daughter crosses the kitchen.

"To this day, I am not a hundred percent sure why he did it. After all, he was a bachelor of 30. On the one hand, it was understood that he would accept me as I was - he once even said he liked the idea of entering a ready-made family. On the other hand, I have to admit that David always existed in Amos' shadow. And he accepted that. I was always drawing comparisons. But David was a very strong person and he was busy from morning to night with his work. It didn't trouble him that he was the second. And that is exactly how it was. It took years before the situation changed. It happened after David became sick. When he grew weak, and was in need, we became closer and he received the place he deserved."

In the past few years, Sadeh, the granddaughter of founders of Nahalal, has mustered the courage to speak out against the bereavement rituals of the village on Independence Day and Yom Kippur. "To this day, Nahalal holds the memorial ceremonies for the fallen at 4 P.M.," she notes. "That custom began in the War of Independence and was followed in the land-settlement movement, the moshavim and the kibbutzim. The underlying logic was the inability or unwillingness to forgo a day's work, heaven forbid. So people went to the cemetery only after they finished milking or working in the fields. It is still the same. When the whole country unites in memory of its fallen at 11 in the morning, Nahalal has to be different and visit the cemetery at four in the afternoon."

Three years ago, Sadeh and Ruthie Ben Natan, the widow of Gad Ben Natan, published an unusual public statement in the village's newsletter. "We wrote about how difficult we found the connection between Remembrance Day and Independence Day, especially in Nahalal, where the interval is so short. What happens is that after the memorial ceremony people get home about 6 P.M. and host guests, and then, while hosting them, eight o'clock arrives and you have to do a mental switch and go to a party. That has always been, and remains, very hard. We also wrote that it would be proper to stand silently with the whole country [at 11 A.M., when a siren is sounded]. We wrote that there is something in the act of standing together that Nahalal could also be part of, and not be an exception."

It was to no avail. "People read the letter and then a discussion was held at a general assembly," Sadeh relates. "Afterward, they spoke to the bereaved families. In the end, they persuaded everyone who was in favor of moving the memorial ceremony to the morning that it was best 'to preserve the tradition.' One of the major arguments of the opponents of the change was that they wanted the children, who were at school, to take part in the memorial ceremony. In any event, I was alone - even Ruthie went. So I said, okay, if that is Nahalal's decision, I will make my own decision. Two years ago I did not attend the ceremony; I stayed home. Last year, I contacted the community of Timrat, which has one fallen soldier, who is buried in Nahalal. They hold the ceremony in the morning and I asked if I could join them. They agreed, and with them, along with my family and friends, I held the memorial ceremony for Amos. It was the first time anyone from a family of the Nahalal fallen held a ceremony separate from Nahalal. It wasn't easy. There was a feeling of loneliness at not being with my village. Amos' family would also have preferred to stay with the ceremony in Nahalal."

What are you planning to do on the next Independence Day?

"I am undecided between not going to the memorial ceremonies anymore or continuing with Timrat. I just don't know."

Settling accounts

Zippi Baider, the director of "They Don't Cry in Nahalal," views the people of Nahalal with mixed feelings. "Despite the research I had done, I didn't know what lay in store when I started shooting the film," she admits. "The story took shape as we moved along, in the course of meeting with the people. In the first stages of the work I didn't know how outgoing they would be or what they would say. The frame story that holds the film together only became clear during the conversations, when a very acute gap was suddenly revealed between the reaction of the parents' generation, who lost their sons in the war, and the reaction of the bereaved siblings. I had that with Dov, Gideon Avidav's father; with Yaakov, Gad Ben Natan's father; and with Zahava Binyamini, Erez's mother. When I tried to talk to them about bereavement, they barely understood what I wanted from them. The bereaved siblings did understand. They talked about the deprivation and about the difficulty of not embracing and not talking."

One of Baider's most significant decisions was to stay away from politics and social criticism, about which the residents of Nahalal also have plenty of razor-sharp opinions. In the few powerful minutes the film does devote to these issues - ultimately, they cannot be completely ignored - Amos Yaffe, the brother of Moshe Yaffe, who was killed in Sinai, says, "We don't talk much about the anger, the great anger at Moshe Dayan," who grew up in Nahalal and was defense minister at the time of the Yom Kippur War. Avraham Hammer, a cousin of Erez Binyamini, who was killed on the southern front, goes even further and reveals bluntly one of the points of conflict that divide the community here: "In the Yom Kippur War the village came to a standstill, stopped moving, as though life had come to a stop," he says. "Some of the families closed up like a vegetable. I was only angry with Moshe Dayan. He did not come to Nahalal afterward. He did not come to even one funeral. Not one. When he went to Safed to attend a funeral, people spat at him. And when he was asked questions he said, 'I am a simple farmer from Nahalal.' The son of a bitch. 'I am a simple farmer from Nahalal'?"

"In principle," Baider explains, "in terms of the basic theme, it was clear to me that I was not going in the direction of people in Nahalal settling accounts with Moshe Dayan. That seemed to me more of a political direction, and my documentary work addresses the human aspect and people's feelings. Juicy material about Dayan was left on the cutting-room floor, but I didn't want to put that dirt in. At the same time, I did not ignore the baggage about Dayan that some people in Nahalal carry; it is definitely felt, but not dominant. The direction was to find out what happened to the people of Nahalal after Kippur and how they coped with the burden of bereavement. Because of the interconnected family ties in Nahalal, there is hardly a home there without a personal connection to bereavement."

But Pnina Ben Barak rejects every attempt to paint Nahalal and her family in the dark colors of bereavement. Even if she often walked the circle around which the farms are distributed and pointed to one family after another whose world was destroyed, Ben Barak remains proudly vigilant and unbroken. "It is true that we have a large military section in the cemetery and that we have made sacrifices," she says, as a pendulum clock above her, made of red wood, chimes four times. "Our sacrifice starts at the gravesite of Yosef and Dudi Yaakobi, a father and son who were murdered in 1932 by the Iz al-Din al-Qassam gang, and ends at the Second Lebanon War, when we lost Tzur Zarchi. It's true that many from Nahalal fell in the wars, but we are not a moshav of bereavement. We are a regular moshav. I am a bereaved mother, yes, but I don't want people to look at me as a bereaved mother. I want to be looked at as I am. As Pnina. I don't want stigmas and I don't want pity." W