My editor calls. Will I write a piece on one of the grieving families who just lost a soldier? A piece explaining how wartime mourning in Israel is such a public event? How people manage to face the cameras and speak about the loss of sons, brothers and husbands so soon after the dreaded bad-news-breakers in khaki arrive at their door?
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I balk at the idea, say I’ll think about it. I hate funerals. And there are so many other stories to cover in the midst of this war.
But in the morning, the information comes by text message from a friend: The funeral for Ruchama’s son is at 3 p.m at Har Herzl. I only know one Ruchama – my son’s first ganenet, or pre-school teacher – and I hadn’t realized that her son, St.-Sgt. Moshe Davino, was one of the soldiers killed yesterday, apparently while bulldozing tunnels in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. So there it is. Instead of going to a stranger’s funeral, I am going to watch Ruchama, who taught my son some of his first songs, bury her own son.
My sadness for her is laced with exasperation at the failure of leaders on both sides to reach a cease-fire, uncertainty about the future and fear for both Israelis and Palestinians. I know that to friends and colleagues covering Gaza, nothing that happens here will compare to the bloodshed and devastation there. But loss is loss. This war cannot be understood through a simple, gruesome scorecard of who is bleeding more. And a mother I know, a mother who was sweet to my son, has now lost her own youngest son.
I head to Har Herzl, Jerusalem’s military cemetery, with other parents of kids from the nursery school at Kol Haneshama, a Reform-affiliated synagogue. There, I find Nitza, the head of the nursery school program, and her daughter Naama, both of them in tears before the funeral has begun. Moshe had just come home to his parents and four siblings on Friday, given a quick leave to see his family for Shabbat. “Ruchama was so happy to have seen her son,” Nitza says, her voice breaking. “At least they had a kind of farewell with him,” says Naama.
“No, no,” I hear someone whisper, as they look into the tent, “that’s not ours, that’s the last soldier’s funeral.” Indeed, the mourners from the last soldier’s funeral to take place under the big awning which provides a little mercy from an unforgiving July sun are still lingering. A voice over the loudspeaker kindly asks them to make way for the honor guard bringing in the next fallen soldier.
We wait as the soldier’s comrades file in. Two grandparents, both in wheelchairs, also arrive. And then the pallbearers, carrying the coffin draped in an Israeli flag. Many of the women begin to wail, a deep Middle Eastern wail that sounds like it echoes to the mountains of Kurdistan, from whence the Davino clan hails. Back home in America, I never saw anyone wail at a funeral like this. Back home, we never had cause to bury someone at the age of 20, except as a result of an occasional car accident. The voice comes on the loudspeaker again: “This is the Home Front Command. We’d like to remind you that in case of a siren, you are instructed to lie on the floor and put your hands on your head.” I look at the ground, and to the wall-to-wall mourners squeezed in between the graves and wonder, where exactly would we lie?
The men praise Moshe Davino, and they all address him as his dearest friends and family did, as “Moshiko,” even though in the case of Mayor Nir Barkat, he’d never met the young soldier. “With your body you protected our children who live in the outskirts of Gaza and in the south,” says Lt. Col. Gil Rozenman, speaking on behalf of the IDF. “You fought bravely against the terror tunnels and the rockets.” Avi Malka, the principal of the Denmark School from which Moshe graduated just two years ago, recalls a funny, charismatic kid with promising leadership qualities. Barkat underlines the Jerusalem angle, offering a line from Hatikva, the national anthem. “’To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem’ is only possible through you, Moshiko, and your brave comrades. Through your efforts you saved thousands from a great disaster.”
But it is from the women, when they speak, that we learn something more intimate about the Moshiko that a family has lost. Through Aunt Sharon, Ruchama’s sister, we hear about a son who was very much his mother’s child – to call someone a “mamma’s boy” is an endearment rather than a put-down in Hebrew. “You asked us to make kubeh for your friends on Shabbat, and to do it fast because you needed to return to your unit and allow your friends to rotate out,” she says. Tsedek, a younger sister, describes the years of being right behind her big brother in school, and feeling more secure because of it. “How everyone loved you,” she says. “I was sure when you left Saturday that you would be coming back,” she adds, her voice collapsing into tears, “or I would have given you a hundred more kisses.” Adds another sister, Tsvia, “You’re our own private hero.”
The tears flow from every corner, bodies swaying with grief. The tough-looking soldier standing next to me weeps, pretty cadets with long black hair sob beneath their sunglasses. Ruhama and her husband Nissim – whose names mean comfort and miracles – choose not to speak at all, save Nissim reading Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.
The service ends in a three-volley salute, soldiers firing rifles with blank cartridges into the air. The pop of the shots jolts me. Some surround the wreath-covered grave but mourners need to start moving on; another soldier’s funeral is starting soon. The crowds are thick and I can’t get close enough to Ruhama to even make eye contact. For that there are the seven days of shiva at their home in the Katamonim. With wet eyes and lit cigarettes, the soldiers go down the hill and back to the bus. They are expected in or around Gaza by tomorrow.