All That We Have Left

The eulogy David Grossman wrote for his son Uri can be compared to another eulogy, read by Moshe Dayan for Roi Rutenberg. Both are formative, enduring texts.

Nissim Calderon
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Nissim Calderon

The eulogy that David Grossman wrote for his son Uri is a formative text. Israelis, and non-Israelis, will go back and reread it for many years to come. Students will study it. Scholars will analyze it.

I'd like to compare it to another formative eulogy, read by Moshe Dayan over the grave of Roi Rutenberg, on April 19, 1956. "It is not among the Arabs in Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Roi's blood," said Dayan at Nahal Oz. "How did we shut our eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate, and see, in all its brutality, the fate of our generation? ... The young Roi who left Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a wall for us was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword ..."

We remember Dayan's eulogy for its courage to cast a direct, unsentimental gaze upon the war between the Jews and Arabs. Dayan's call isn't for Roi's blood to be avenged among the Arabs, because of the recognition that this is a war that has two legitimate sides, and is brutal for just that reason. That it requires one to become brutal. Many have spotlighted this point in Dayan's words and it has been written about often. But I wish to focus on another point.

The victim is portrayed here as a "youth," not only because of his young age, but also because "the light in his heart blinded his eyes." This phrase clearly implies that the victim didn't know what Dayan knows, which is the reason why his eulogy endured and has been so closely studied. The victim wasn't aware of the encompassing, brutal, emotionally and morally complicated essence of the war. He was innocent. His heart held only light. And the light blinded him.

Versions of casualties

Dayan's eulogy was true and incisive for its time. Today, when we're mourning the recent death of S. Yizhar, the greatest of the War of Independence writers, we ought to remember that he wrote similar things. In "Days of Ziklag," Yizhar's masterpiece about that war, he described in minute detail a small group of soldiers who fight with courage and tremendous effort. Some are killed in the process, in order to conquer one remote hilltop in the Negev. They have no idea what the overall picture of the war is. With them, too, the light in their hearts, and the darkness in their hearts, is all they have. They are the innocence at the heart of a vastly larger event, which they do not understand and for which they are not responsible.

Of course, they are certain of the justice of the war. Of course, they are certain that they must fight. But there is a vast distance between the justice of the war in its broadest dimensions and the lone individual who is fighting in it. Like the distance between one tiny point and a huge circle that is sketched around it. And this reduction, this isolation, of the fighting individual, is what makes him a symbol. He stands out precisely because he is separated from the whole. He radiates youthful innocence precisely because he does not want, nor does he need, to think about politics or ideology or society in any larger sense.

Every Israeli is very familiar with the many versions of the innocent, youthful Israeli casualty whose "eyes were blinded by the light in his heart." Symbols tend to have their import exaggerated. Obviously, not all of the fallen were completely innocent. Obviously, not all of them were blind to the abstract and complicated meanings of the war. But texts become formative because they imprint symbols in our consciousness.

David Grossman, too, remembered this symbol of naivete when he said that he and his wife feared that their son would behave like Eliphelet from the famous Alterman poem. In this powerful poem, Eliphelet is still a youth who is all innocence, and just because of this innocence, he runs to bring ammunition to a position that has been cut off, and is killed. Who can forget the oft-repeated line about how Eliphelet did all this "without why and without how, without where and without how and why, without where and from where, without when and without where and why."

In a time of full agreement on the rightness of the path, in a time of ideological confidence in which all is pervaded by explanations, justifications and all-encompassing ideas - we had to distance the lone human being from this heavy baggage. His innocence was the guarantee that he was not just a walking ideology, but flesh and blood. His innocence was also a way to say that his death was not an obvious consequence of a certain path, and of circumstances, but contained an important dimension of freedom, of a soul that deliberates and decides.

But Uri Grossman, as David Grossman describes him, was no Eliphelet. He was the opposite of Eliphelet. He actually questioned each step and asked why and how and where and how much. Uri Grossman was not a point of innocence in a gigantic circle about which he had no awareness except for overall, certain justice.

Uri Grossman was born in a time when, step by step, he had to come to the not at all self-evident decision - certainly with respect to those of his generation - to apply to be in a tank commanders course, and even to fight for it. And then he also had to clarify for himself how this decision connected for him with the fact that he was "the leftist of the battalion." And he had to connect his two earlier decisions with the decision of what to do at a checkpoint in the West Bank when a child arrived there (he would put him at ease by making him laugh).

"Uri was a very Israeli child," his father wrote. But this Israeliness is no longer self-evident. It did not contain a certain and self-evident place for his love for the theater, or for his dislike of figs, or for his particular sense of humor. The members of Uri's generation do not live, and do not have to live, a theater that is entirely Israeli, or a humor that is entirely Israeli. They have to create their own blends out of the Israeli in them and the human being in them. That is, their personality must color in the space that once, in the days of the eulogies for Roi and Eliphelet, was totally blank. Between the personal and the public, between the psychological and the ideological, between the tank commander and the theater lover - Uri spread a broad network of connecting wires and decisions and preferences.

That's why David Grossman's eulogy was so detailed, so careful to etch a profile in all its varying shades and contradictions and dilemmas. In Dayan's day, no one would have thought to include in a eulogy the jokes the deceased liked to tell. In Grossman's eulogy, there are jokes. In Alterman's day, it wasn't the practice to mention the deceased's political views in the eulogy. In Grossman's eulogy, there are political views. In Dayan's day, there was a strong force that pulled the casualty in the direction of the symbol. Today there is a strong force that pulls the casualty in the direction of biography.

A heavy stone

Uri Grossman died young, heartbreakingly young. But he did not die as "a youth." All that he didn't have time to do in his short life will lie like a heavy stone on the hearts of his parents and siblings. But Uri went and filled in the wide circle of the context surrounding him in the process of what is simply called growing-up. This is why the eulogies of yesteryear depicted a "youth" at the moment that the sword appears before him, while the eulogy of today depicts a process, a biography, a growing-up. This is why David Grossman wrote a lengthy eulogy that speaks of nine-year-old Uri, when his parents are driving in the car and talking about a book, and also speaks of the Uri who grew up alongside his big brother and little sister, and the Uri who as a commander in the army has to decide whether to punish a soldier of his.

David Grossman's eulogy is a formative text because it depicts a person who wasn't killed amid a culture of consensus, but rather among a culture of controversy. Not in a culture of ideological certainty, but rather a culture of fragmented ideologies, from which each person must construct his own combination. Not a culture that can be satisfied with youth, but a culture that requires its children to make many choices and decisions in order to grow up, and sometimes also to decide to risk their lives in the process of growing up. Uri Grossman trod the path that his generation must travel with grace, without ostentation in regard to the decisions he made, and without using the non-self-evident as an excuse to escape responsibility, or humanity.

David Grossman's eulogy is a formative text because, this is how, like the deceased Uri Grossman, the boys and girls who live in our generation are growing up. They can no longer grow up like Eliphelet.

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