The last day of the tour, and it was back to Mount Herzl, this time for to see the tomb of Herzl himself, the guy who started the ball rolling toward what is now the State of Israel. We also toured the military cemetery there, which included the graves of many of the Prime Ministers.
Herzl’s tomb was a square black marble slab sitting in a circular plaza, itself surrounded by enough wide open space to accommodate the annual Israeli Independence Day festivities held there. Herzl never actually lived in Israel, as it wasn’t founded until after his death. So at his tomb the irreverent thought came to me that here, he was a square peg in a round hole:
The military cemetery was very different from Arlington. Instead of wide open fields of green covered with acres of white crosses, this was terraced into a hill and thick with trees. The graves, identical for all ranks, look like beds: cream colored brick biers about half a meter high with a blanket of rosemary, and a headstone that looks like a pillow. Five star generals rest between privates, corporals, and the current Prime Minister’s brother. In death, all are equal.
Some of the newer graves were a little more personalized with things like flowers and flags. Turns out the military authorities understood the need to accommodate mourners’ needs.
We headed for the memorial for Ethiopian Jews who died on the way to Israel. Much of the group took a longer, more circuitous route in order to avoid a rather steep flight of stairs. But our guide led me and several other more hardy souls up the more direct route. At the last tier of graves, we stopped for a moment. To our right were three soldiers who had died the same day in the 2006 war with Lebanon. I gasped.
The one on the left was plain. The one on the right was unusual in that it had a picture of the soldier, which was what the guide wanted to show us. A young Ethiopian kid, his machine gun slung over his shoulder. So young. But the one in the middle…
I’d had a vague recollection of a kid from Philly who had made Aliyah [moved to Israel] and died while serving in the Army, but I never would have dreamed of asking to try and find his grave. But here it was. Michael Levin, from Bucks County, PA. At the head were two Israeli flags. Covering the stone were patches and medals and dogtags. Off to the left was a pile of baseball caps, mostly Phillies. There was a bar rigged up that held lanyards and kerchiefs and more flags. The bed was piled high with stones, bracelets, knick-knacks, cards; library cards, college IDs, drivers licenses, all kinds of things. It’s the custom on visiting a Jewish grave to leave a small stone or pebble atop the marker, but this was staggering.
My Dearest Darling Spouse nudged me and pointed something out. Near the bottom, under a Temple University guest pass and an ID bracelet, sat a yellow and red Wawa gift card. The same as the one we’d left for the Jock (almost exactly four years younger than Michael) to use while he was house sitting for us. That’s when I lost it. Laughing, crying, I couldn’t tell the difference, but neither could I stop the tears.
DDS was silent. He was thinking about his previous visit to Israel when he was 17, in 1968. At the time, he told me, he’d considered staying. He did the math. He would have been 22 in 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur war, the same age as Michael when he was killed.
That could have been him.
Without a word, DDS slipped the lanyard with his ID for the tour off his neck, and added it to the dozens of others swaying in the gentle breeze of Mount Herzl.
Michael Levin (2/17/84 – 8/1/06)