Three Visitors to Mitzpe Yoav
By Susan Lowinger
How great are Your works, O Lord! You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your riches! . . . All look to You with hope, to give them their food in its time. You give them that they may gather; You open Your hand that they may be sated with goodness. You hide Your countenance and they are troubled; You gather in their spirit and they die and return to their dust. You will send forth Your spirit and they will be created, and You will renew the face of the earth.
— Psalms 104, 24–31
Behind me, the city of Tsfat nestles into the neighboring mountain. The kabbalists say that the Holy One graces the alleyways of Tsfat. I could never believe it. That is, until three months ago, on the last Sunday in July. On that day, three visitors came to the mitzpe, the mountain lookout. These visitors did not know one another; one was an unborn baby, one a young gardener and one an old Hasid. But each one, on his own and all together, brought me back to life.
On that Sunday morning, I was sitting in my usual place on the wooden bench. A family of tourists had approached the mitzpe and turned on the speaker phone. “This mountaintop lookout is called Mitzpe Yoav, in honor of Sergeant Yoav Giladi who was killed by a sniper on the Syrian border on June 9, 2008, while he was on guard duty.”
I turned as far as I could to the right so the inquisitive sightseers would not be in my line of vision. The family might have four or five children, and then I would watch them suspiciously, wondering which one of those little boys would get shot down someday by an unseen enemy. Or perhaps the sightseers were a newly married couple meandering up the mountain, without a clue as to what lay ahead for them further down the road.
The tourists left and the speaker phone was now without an audience. It would continue speaking until the last syllable emptied out into the air, dissipated into nothingness.
“Yoav grew up here, in Nof Golan. He attended the local high school and then joined the tank corps for his army service. Yoav was the son of Annie and Nahum Giladi, descendants of the original settlers in Nof Golan.”
Two years ago, right after our Yoav was killed, Nahum and I went to the Nof Golan municipality, to the Office of the Fallen Sons, and offered substantial sums to fund a memorial site. As Nahum would say, the stars were aligned in our favor.
Of course, the fact that I was a member of the city planning committee of the municipality, as well as the director of the Giladi Historical Museum, was also beneficial. The mayor, interested in promoting tourism, decided that a Giladi family memorial, as an adjunct to the Giladi Museum, would be an honorable way to pay tribute to one of Nof Golan's favorite sons.
The site of Mitzpe Yoav was breathtaking. In the distance, Mount Hermon rose out of the haze like a mirage, towering above the surrounding wheat-colored hillsides. Fields stretched out in all directions, interspersed with red-tiled roofs and the aristocratic spires of forest-green cypress trees. Yoav loved this spot. Sometimes, when he was late coming home from school, I would quickly drive up here—it was two minutes by car from the house—and there he would be, sitting on the ridge, surrounded by a collection of leaves and rocks. I would ask him, “Yoav, why didn’t you come home? Aren’t you hungry?” And he would answer, “Ima, my stomach forgets to be hungry when I’m thinking about important things.”
The memorial itself was unpretentious, like Yoav. A wide path of tiny pebbles circled the edges of the entire site and spiraled into the center. There stood a slab of granite, two meters high, its base planted in the dry earth, its pointed top piercing the sky. Yoav’s name and dates of birth and death were carved into the stone in ominous black letters. As a special tribute, the Ministry of Defense put in a speaker system with a recording that told about Yoav’s short life and untimely death.
I could repeat by heart every one of the two hundred and twenty-three words of the recording. It was not difficult to memorize them, considering I heard them every day, some days ten times. The words had lost all meaning. I hardly registered the nasal voice any more. That day in July, the day the three visitors came to the mitzpe, it was hot, but still preferable to the rainy season. During the winter months, the speaker was quiet. It was too cold on the mitzpe for anyone to venture up there. At those times, I would wrap myself in a dubon, a ski jacket, put a blanket across my knees, and look out at the snow-covered Mount Hermon, near the spot where Yoav had fallen to the ground.
On that Sunday morning, Nahum was plucking slowly at the strings of a crude mandolin. Each sound came a few seconds after the one before it; there was no continuity, no real song. The sounds were just there, each one standing alone, sent out by Nahum's hands into the air. He sat on a backless wooden bench under a large terebinth tree, the span of its thick branches arching over the rock-strewn earth.
I was a few years younger than Nahum. While we were growing up, I followed him everywhere. As children and neighbors, we were always together, walking through the overgrown weeds on the way home from school, or playing hide-and-seek in the Hatzofim youth group. I always thought that if anything happened to Nahum, I would cease to exist as me. Who would I be? Our lives were parallel and so closely intertwined that it would be impossible to untangle the threads. I would unravel, and wouldn’t know who I was. But now it was happening while Nahum sat two meters away. I thought, “I don’t know who he is and he doesn’t know me. But I still know myself. I am Yoav’s mother, and I am empty, a shell.”
The speaker phone disturbed the silence of the mitzpe. There were no other sounds to break the silence, except perhaps for hoopoe birds calling to one another with their distinctive voices. There would never be a time I could hear the hoopoe cries without thinking of Yoav. When the soldiers knocked on my door, two years ago, a hoopoe had echoed the staccato knocking.
Their knock had disrupted us. It was seven-fifteen in the evening. I remember glancing at the clock when they knocked, wondering who could be coming by at that hour.
Nahum and I were in the middle of playing our story game. He had carved out a bunch of six-sided wooden cubes with pictures etched onto each side. The pictures were of simple, everyday objects, like a cat, a house, a ladder. One of us would begin, telling only the first part of the story. Then the other would interrupt, throw one of the cubes, and go on with the story, using the object on the face of the cube to continue the unfinished sentence, until the partner interrupted again. You never knew where the story would end up. Nahum and I would make the stories as fantastic as possible, adding on silly segments, exaggerating, and trying to surprise each other with the twists of the narrative. To make the game interesting, Nahum would carve out new cubes every so often, with new pictures—a baby, a river, a clock.
That evening, Nahum was first.
“Once upon a time, far, far away, there was a man who. . .”
“. . . was walking along and bumped head-on into a ladder. The ladder was standing straight up, but the man couldn’t see the top. So he started to climb. When he reached the fifth step, he. . . .”
“. . . heard the voice of a small child calling from above. Suddenly the child appeared right before him, sitting on the ladder. ‘Hi there! I’m on my way down. I just climbed all the way to the top of this ladder, and guess what I saw?’”
But before I could interrupt again, the knock sounded at the door. The story cube lay face up on the table, the picture of the small child face up, too. Why is it that people can pinpoint the moment of bad news, remembering in minute detail exactly what they were doing that second? “I was just putting the casserole into the oven” or “I was in the middle of taking the winter clothes out of the closet, when. . . .” Maybe because that moment is a marker; from that moment on they become other people, not the ones they were before.
When the soldiers left, my only thought was this: How could it be possible I didn’t know, didn’t feel them coming, had no premonition, like some mothers do?
The day the three visitors came to the mitzpe, as on every other day, I was sitting in my place on a bench made by Nahum. The wooden planks holding up my body were hard and unforgiving. When he turned fifty-five a few years ago, Nahum sold his chain of furniture stores and began to design and build tables. His tables, made of glass, wood and metal, were beautiful, with fine classic lines. But his benches were crude wooden relics, like those in the Nof Golan museum showing the contents of my great-grandfather’s house. After sitting on the bench for a few hours, my legs would be stiff and my back would hurt. I was wearing a gray cloth hat with a brim that came down over my eyes and covered my forehead, and even the back of my neck. A threatening, oversized bee hovered before my eyes and flew away.
The audio recording droned on. “Members of the tank corps say that Yoav was beloved, a person whose qualities inspired all who knew him.” Clichés, diminishing clichés.
At first, after the ceremonies, there were frequent visits from his friends in the army unit, all of them swearing to remember Yoav forever, all of them vociferous in their praises: “Yoav was always ready to help,” “Yoav never complained,” “Yoav was so responsible.” They promised they would be like sons to us, Yoav’s parents. They came by once a week, then once a month the first year. And then they stopped coming, except for Eli, who always arrived on the last Sunday of every month. I would nod to Eli and watch him standing by the side of the memorial, looking out at the scenery. Eli was pensive, introspective, just like Yoav.
The speaker phone was winding down. I could tell when it had almost finished its litany because, right before the final sentence, it would produce an annoying wheezing intake of air. “Yoav was so special (whoosh . . .). He loved his country, his family, his friends. Yoav will always be close to our hearts. May his memory be blessed.”
It was a hot day. The end of July is the middle of the summer. A black insect, its bony skeleton darker than the volcanic rocks strewn around the mitzpe, slowly made its way across the cracked earth. I turned in the direction of the lonely chimes. “Nahum, do you think I made a mistake? We should have insisted. Yoav had just returned from twenty-nine days in the army. He was home barely a day when they sent word that all the platoon members had to regroup on the border.”
“Annie, Annie, how many times do you want to repeat this. . . . ? What good does it do?”
“But if we had not answered the phone . . . not told him they called. . . ”
“It was meant to be . . . it was written in the stars. . . .” His voice was scratchy from lack of use. He didn’t have much to say anymore.
From my vantage point, I could see a bright red car making its way up the winding road to the mitzpe. From the position of the sun high up in the cloudless sky, I knew it was probably Vered arriving with our lunch. Every day she appeared at noon.
Vered maneuvered her body around the steering wheel.
“Hey, Ima. Hey, Abba. I brought you lunch.” Vered was so easygoing, not complex, not like Yoav with his serious nature and philosophical musings. “Who decides what is good and what is bad?” Yoav had demanded as a four-year-old, his eyebrows scrunched together, his mouth puckered. I hadn’t a clue what to answer him.
“Today, I brought tehina sandwiches, and even smuggled in a pickle, despite your doctor’s warnings about not eating too much salt.”
I kept looking straight ahead, staring at the far horizon. Three ancient volcanoes were visible in the distance. They had been sitting quietly on that distant mountain range for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.
“At least drink something. I've brought you a thermos full of ice-cold lemonade. You'll get dehydrated. You’ve been out here for four hours.”
Vered took out a white envelope. In it was an ultrasound picture, all fused grays and blacks and grainy shapes. “Here’s the first picture of my new baby, your first grandchild.” The doctor had circled a tiny line in magic marker and written BOY in big, bold letters. I searched the hazy features for any resemblance to Yoav.
Vered stood next to me, the tiny mound of her stomach beckoning. I could imagine the fetus swimming around there in its natural pond, lifting its arms out towards me. I stepped back. Being so close to this unformed new life, so full of unrealized potential, possible dreams, was too painful.
She poured lemonade into a plastic cup and handed it to me. “I know it’s a little early but I’ve started thinking what to call my baby.”
My voice jumped at her. “Just don’t even consider calling him Yoav. He’d probably be better off not being born at all, not having to deal with all the misery out here in this world. But since he is already on the way, just don’t saddle him with your brother’s memory.”
“Ima, please. Anyway, there are still a good couple of months to decide. Try to sit in the shade. I've got to run. Lucky for me the office is air-conditioned. Bye!”
When I gave birth to Yoav, twenty-five years before, and lay in the hospital bed gazing into his all-knowing eyes, a woman in the adjacent bed had offered a piece of portentous advice: “Is this your first boy? Listen to me, hamuda. Make sure you have another boy: you need to give one to the country, and keep one for yourself.” I was glad my second child was a girl, that I didn’t have another son. Maybe he would also have been taken.
I watched Vered's red car brake its way carefully down the road. And then I noticed a man ambling up the road. He was not a young man. I figured he was Nahum’s age, around sixty. His longish hair was mostly gray, as were the peyot curling down over his ears. At the steep section of the road, till where it flattened out at the mitzpe, he stopped often to catch his breath. Maybe he had walked all the way across the mountain from Tsfat. Whenever he stopped, the man hummed a piece of a song and raised his face towards the sky, arching his neck so that he looked as if he would lose his balance. He carried a drum, the sort used by nomadic tribes, with goatskin pulled across the top and fastened with strips of leather. The drum was tied to a string and hung around his neck, dangling down and bouncing off his stomach every time he took a step.
When he reached the top and saw me sitting there, and Nahum a few meters behind me, strumming listlessly on his mandolin, the man burst into a kind of sing-song greeting: “Da-dee-dada-da, da-dee-dada-da! Shalom aleichem, my friends! How beautiful!! How good God is to us! That he gave us this day! How fortunate we are to be here!”
I stood up, walked over to the monument, and began pulling weeds that had sprouted at its base. The man from Tsfat sat down on a low stone wall near Nahum, and announced, “Let us fill the air with sweet music, da-dee-dadada . . .” thrumming his drum as he sang.
The man’'s slow, dramatic rhythm gave a contour to Nahum’s isolated notes. The music took shape and the mitzpe was bathed in a stirring melody. I was pulled like a magnet towards the sadness in the tune, but Nahum’s face, its pained expression, smoothed out, became relaxed. He sat up straighter, lifted his head so it reached the bottom branches of the terebinth tree. Nahum tentatively began to sing, “Da-dee-dada-da,” while the Tsfat man added a few mystical thoughts to his sing-song chant. “God gives us the power, dad a di-di, to change ugliness into beauty,” and “You and I, lidee-da-da-di, are partners of the Almighty in changing the world.”
The drum joined the mandolin accompanied by the vocal harmony until the late afternoon breeze blew through the mitzpe. And from that moment on, as Nahum and I continued to inhabit the mitzpe together, I knew he had found peace, and I envied him. Would I ever join him there?
When the sun inched its way behind the mountains, pink signs of sunset softened the air, like the ones I remembered behind my grandmother’s cottage when she lit the Sabbath candles on Friday evening. Then Eli arrived at the mitzpe. I think I had been waiting for him.
Eli had been one of the soldiers to hold the coffin and carry Yoav to the burial plot in the Nof Golan cemetery. I could not be comforted by any of those tanned, handsome young men with their wide shoulders and confident gaits. They were able to wrap an arm around a girlfriend's waist, to mull over whether to buy a Tablet or an iPad, to bring their stuffed duffel bags home to their mothers to sort out their laundry.
Eli was fair-haired while Yoav was dark. But even so, he reminded me a lot of Yoav, with his intent expression, with eyes that observed the rocks and the trees as if he could see inside them. Holding a small package wrapped in green tissue paper, he approached and sat down next to me on the bench. He began speaking without any preamble, without any “hello” or “how are you?” “Yoav wouldn’t like it here on the mitzpe . . . His spirit wouldn't visit a place so bare, so dry, without anything growing. I brought something I think might help.”
He unwrapped the package, slowly peeling off layer upon layer of the thin tissue paper. “Yoav would examine every leaf, he would get so excited by the smallest flower, the symmetrical whorl of its petals. Anyway, I brought something from the plant nursery where I work, a petunia to put on the memorial. He would want something alive, growing, so I will plant it here in the earth.” Eli held up a scarlet-colored petunia with wide, velvety petals.
Eli scooped a hole in the earth in front of the memorial, poured in some water from a bottle, and gently placed the flower into its place. He smiled at me and left the mitzpe, and I stood watching the little petunia holding its petals up to the setting sun.
After that Sunday, the three visitors came often. Sweet Vered, of course, came every day, her body carrying its precious cargo. The man from Tsfat would appear twice a week, always singing his tunes, sharing his treasures with Nahum. When Eli arrived a month later, at the end of August, he was hugging a cardboard box filled with tiny white flowers. He spent the next two hours scooping out beds for each of the flowers in concentric circles around the monument. He approached me then, his face shiny and his fawn-colored hair covered with dark brown particles of earth. “Now this place is fitting for Yoav. These flowers get very thirsty, so make sure you water them every day!”
I motioned for him to sit down next to me on the bench, and offered him some of the tea that Vered had brought earlier. “Yoav and I spent many nights talking about things. It gets lonely, day after day doing guard duty. I learned a lot from him,” he said.
Eli ran his fingers along the slats of the bench. “One night, at about two in the morning, Yoav was pointing out the various constellations of stars. Suddenly, I saw a snake-like thing crawling up his arm. I gave a short yelp and figured he would smash it with his boot. Yoav calmly scooped the creature into his hands and set it free a few meters away. ‘Interesting little creeper. God sure did a phenomenal job,’ he said.”
Eli continued. “You should have seen Yoav the night a deer set off the alarm on the barbed-wire border fence.” But I was busy thinking about the ‘interesting little creeper.’ God?? Yoav was not religious. In our home we visited the synagogue once a year, on the night of Yom Kippur. Yoav knew very little about tradition, except for the cultural trappings of honey at Rosh Hashanah and cheesecake on Shavuot.
Eli and I sat together sharing the view, sharing our thoughts of Yoav. After a while, he stood up and waved. “See you in September. Take care.”
Now it is late September and the cloud-filled skies forecast the coming of autumn. Today, the man from Tsfat came by early in the morning and brought a shofar, the ram’s horn. I am thrown back to the days of Rosh Hashana when, as a little girl, I stood next to my grandfather in the synagogue, awed, disturbed by the sounds of the strange instrument. The shofar's cries now pierced my head and pried open a deep fissure inside me.
Elishowed up at the mitzpe a few hours ago. He emptied the back of his car, which was filled with one hundred tiny seedlings. He pointed out the different flowers, naming each one, as if he himself had created its particular design and color.
I looked at the delicate pinks, the vivid crimsons, the animated yellows. The question I had been pondering since Eli’s last visit found its way to my lips. “Tell me,. Eli . . . something you said when you were here last month. . . . I'm puzzled. Did Yoav believe in God?" A magenta creature with shimmering gossamer wings stopped to listen to Eli’s answer.
"He wasn’t what people call religious. He didn’t wear a prayer shawl or wind phylacteries around his arm. But if you ask me, Yoav was probably the biggest believer in God I have ever seen. At night, while we were on guard duty looking out at the dark borders, some of us would play a sort of game to pass the time: what we planned to do if we were shot down by a sniper. Most of the guys mentioned nonsensical things they would like to receive as presents, like, “a million Big Macs and beers” or “two hundred raven-haired virgins.” Yoav said he would take an inter-galaxy grand tour to see all of God's unbelievable creations. When I think about Yoav now, I picture him swooping around the universe on an incredible journey.”
Mothers know a lot about their children. Like how they look when they are sleeping and which foods they like and how grumpy they are when they wake up in the morning. But mothers don’t really know so much. The child is a unique person, an entity of its own, and a mother can only watch in wonder at what has grown up in her home, under her eyes. Suddenly I felt a fusion with Yoav, with his wonder. I pictured Yoav, holding up an iridescent green lizard for my inspection. It was slithering through his fingers and crawling into his shirtsleeves, and he was happy.
Today I helped Eli clear the rocks from the area between the monument and the terebinth tree. Then we planted the flowers, forming a backdrop that infused the mitzpe with light and color. A Garden of Eden.
Eli left, filled with enthusiastic ideas about which plants he could bring next time that might survive the colder winter season.
I approach the bench under the terebinth tree, sitting down next to Nahum, who has taken to wearing a white knitted kipa on his head. I take his hand, and say, “After the holidays we will have a grandchild. Are you ready?”
Nahum squeezes my hand. "God arranges things in his own ways. My friend from Tsfat tells me that if a baby boy is born into a grieving family, it is a sign that the family is healed."
In about a year, when I hear the shofar again, I can show little Yoav how to water the flowers. He will love that “Dee Dee . . . Da . . . Da . . .” tune Nahum is always singing. Nahum holds out a story cube made of rock and etched with pictures. “Where were we? I think it’s my turn.”