On April 13, 1983, Avishay Vahav and his mother, Sarah Vahav, were supposed to attend a bar mitzvah party. As he was getting ready, the phone rang. “Avishay, drop everything and come quickly,” a family member told him. Avishay asked what all the fuss was about. “Asael was killed,” came the answer. That is how he learned that his younger brother was killed while serving in Lebanon.
Since that day, 37 years have passed. Israel withdrew from Lebanon 20 years ago. But for Avishay, “The memory is always the same memory and the sadness is the same sadness.” In an interview with Haaretz, he related that he “cries over him like before,” adding that each year gets harder. “When we, the siblings, see his friends today and think about what it would be like if he too were married and whether he too would have had a family.”
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Asael (Asi) Vahav was 19 when he was killed. He was born on August 28, 1963 in the Mahane Yehuda neighborhood of Petah Tikva, to parents who immigrated from Yemen. The family was religious, and he studied in a yeshiva in Jerusalem before transferring to a religious vocational high school in Tel Aviv, where he studied automotive mechanics. The Lebanon War was at its height when he was conscripted, in August 1982.
He was forced to let go of his dream of serving in the Golani Brigade when the army chose to make use of his technical abilities, sending him to the Technology and Maintenance Corps. After basic training he was assigned to the 55th Artillery Battalion, where he served as a mechanic. He considered the placement in a combat unit fair compensation for not being assigned to Golani. He was deployed to Lebanon with the rest of the battalion. The war ended at the end of September 1982, but the army remained in Lebanon until the complete withdrawal in May 2000.
On April 13, 1983, the convoy in which Asael was traveling was fired on. “He was hit by a single bullet. The last word he cried out was ‘Ima’ [Mom], and then his head dropped,” Avishay says. Their mother kept the bullet that killed him. In a letter to his parents, Asael’s unit commander wrote: “His professional ability, willingness to work in difficult conditions made him the equal of the unit’s best soldiers. His grace, beauty, humility and wonderful capabilities have left us.”
Asael was buried in the military cemetery of Petah Tikva, next to the grave of Sharon Sharabi, his mother’s brother, who was killed in the Yom Kippur War.
“We miss you, the days we sat around the table on Shabbat and holidays, the fascinating stories, the humor, your charming smile and your warm embrace. Your place at the table is empty. We will always miss you,” Avishay wrote on Facebook this week, addressing his brother. Avishay founded a synagogue in Petah Tikva in his brother’s name and named his own son after him. When his son enlisted in the Golani Brigade, family members said he had fulfilled his uncle’s dream.
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A memorial booklet for Asael includes letters that he sent and received. “The entire trip I think only of you and remember what you told me, to take care of myself. So the whole trip I didn’t close my eyes. My first dream at the base was of being with you. Ariella, I end this letter with regards to all the guys and especially, know that I love you very, very, very much,” Asael wrote his girlfriend in one.
The last letter was sent on March 21, 1983, a few weeks before his death. “Everything is as usual, I feel good except for it being a little uncomfortable to be far from home, but you manage. ... I must end my letter with regards to Ariella and the whole family, from me, Asi, who loves you.”
The family’s troubles did not end with Asael’s death. His father, Binyamin, died in 1993, a decade later. His mother, Sarah, is now incapacitated and in need of constant care. Her absence and the restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus make Memorial Day particularly painful this year.
For 36 years, Asael’s friends have gone to the cemetery together on Memorial Day, meeting afterward for a seudat mitzvah, a special meal to mark the occasion, prepared by Sarah Vahav. “Every year the guys come, and [we] talk about him. This year we’ll have to mark the occasion in the living room, everyone with their nuclear families. Mom, because of the danger, will be home alone with her home health aide,” Avishay says.
Avishay is active in the local Yad Lebanim veterans’ center, and it’s important to him to talk about the pain felt by the siblings of the fallen soldier, which often receives less attention than that of the parents. “We are fighting for official recognition as siblings, not only as members of bereaved families,” he says. “We, the siblings, felt the loss twice – first the parents, who entered the chaos of grief, and also the sibling who fell.”