Jonathan Mark - Associate Editor
New York Jewish Week, 7-20-2007
The Jewish summer is haunted and insiders know it. The 21 days of the Hebrew calendar, falling this year between July 3 and July 24, contain the looping anniversaries of misjudgment, from the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Ten Commandments to the Nazi liquidation of the Kovno Ghetto; from Babylonians and later Romans destroying Jerusalem, to the twin burnings of the Temple, to the triple kidnappings of Israeli soldiers in the summer of '06.
The new moon of Av is a bad moon rising. Lock the barn and don't scare the horses. These are the days when children, despite the heat, are kept out of swimming pools; men stop shaving, cheeks go prickly, eyes seem bleary; travelers are advised against traveling; musical instruments are unplayed, lovers don't marry, meat is uneaten and wine unsipped (except on Shabbat). Sages link the Zodiac sign, the lion, to a verse in Lamentations, "He is a lurking bear, a lion in hiding." Wild animals wait in ambush.
If Passover's rituals evoke liberation, the Jewish midsummer evokes irritation, siege, abandonment by God, man, weather and luck.
On the first day of Av, July 16, at the rally across the street from the United Nations to demand the soldier’s release, there were those in the crowd of 3,000 who shrugged and said the soldiers - Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser, and Eldad Regev — were probably dead. Other rumors had them alive, alone in a private Auschwitz.
Speakers on both podium and sidewalk spoke of them as "kidnapped," helpless as the Lindbergh baby, as if Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev weren’t captured right out of their military units while fully armed and on duty. But if the Six-Day War made messiahs out of Israel’s military men, failure infantilizes. Or maybe, the grace of Jewish unity allows us to imagine these boys as our own, loved simply for being ours as an infant is loved for the most primal reasons, for being our blood, if only spiritually, from the very dawn of their lives.
"When I hear the names of these soldiers in shul," when their names are read aloud with their mothers’ names in the traditional phrasing for a Jew needing mercy, "I hear these very names, (Ehud, son of) Malka, (Eldad, son of) Tova, (Gilad, son of) Aviva, such traditional, iconic motherly names," said Sarah, a West Side mother.
"And the names of the sons, Gilad, Ehud, Eldad, such Israeli names," said Sarah's friend, a woman sleeveless in the heat, who asked that we not use her own Jewish name.
"We were young when Israel was young," said Sarah's friend. "Back then, the soldiers were our age. We looked at them in awe. Now we’re the age of these soldiers' parents, and we have children as old as these soldiers. No matter which way you look at it, our hearts are with them, with their parents and their wives, and their siblings."
We look at the soldiers and say, "I know that guy." A delegation from Conservative Judaism’s United Synagogue held a placard that said, "Gilad Shalit: bar mitzvah at Masorti Kehilla Kfar Vradim."
There were hundreds of young people - campers bussed in for several hours from the Berkshires, the Poconos, the Catskills - more than a few of whom wanted to not only move to Israel but to risk their lives for her. Who among them was bar mitzvahed and would be someday be lost behind enemy lines?
Teenagers came from the Conservative movement's Camp Ramah, the Reform movement's Camp Kutz and Camp Harlam and from the Orthodox Camp Moshava, along with several others. They rode on busses for as much as a six-hour round trip to a rally in Manhattan because that is what Jews do when another Jew is in trouble.
Jesse Gruber, 14, a Moshava camper, said, "I don't even know if they're still alive." But he didn’t mind giving up a day of camp for this “because this is what it’s all about, caring for the Jewish people.”
Irwin Kula, the president of CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wearing a T-shirt in the noon heat, said, "The story here is the young people. We always worry about young people. We're obsessed with continuity. What this rally proves, whether you're on the right or the left, is be real, be genuine about the issue. Don't obsess about continuity; just put out what you deep down and genuinely believe, what you are passionate about, and your passion, your genuineness will generate connection. This is a midday Monday, middle of summer, no one is around, and meanwhile these kids are proud to be here, even if they had to ride for hours, because this is genuine. This isn't some program about Jewish identity; this is real 'Jewing.' This is what Jews do."
Jews came by chartered busses from distant cities, and they came by subway and public bus from the boroughs. "More people came to this rally by public transportation than we usually see," observed David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, one of the rally organizers, along with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, United Jewish Communities, UJA-Federation, the American Zionist Movement, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. David Sable, a lay leader at UJA-Federation, planned, at the rally's end, to go across the street to the secretary general’s office, or as far as he could get, with "110,000 signatures on a petition," said Sable. Many of the signatures were gathered at Freethesoldiers.org, a Web site dedicated to news and activity regarding the captives.
The crowd applauded Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel when he said, "Those who kidnapped [the soldiers] are cowards and criminals ... What they are doing is an insult not only to Jews but to all civilized people ... In choosing kidnapping, Hezbollah and Hamas have excluded themselves from the code of the family of nations, and they deserve universal disdain, condemnation and punishment."
If Hamas ought be punished, few in the crowd knew quite how. Israel has decided to send Hamas fuel, food and electricity, for humanitarian reasons, without demanding Shalit's release.
Ehud Goldwasser’s mother Malka told the rally, the conditions of her son’s captivity "is a humanitarian issue," too. "As a mother," not to be given any "sign of life, it is misery."
And next week, on the last haunted night of the 21 days, in Jewish camps across the distant hills and hollows, the young ones will march in the dark with flashlights and torches to mountain lakes, as if the waters of Babylon, to read Lamentations as they sit cross-legged in the grass. They'll listen to voices, coming through the crickets and shadows: "Her children have gone into captivity...."
It must have been hell for their mothers, too.