The Boy I Once Knew


I wrote this August 28, 2003. 14 years later, the sadness has not changed….

I once knew a boy. He was a beautiful boy. Charismatic and charming and a tiny bit naughty, he was very appealing.

So often I find myself saying, “once” and “was”, speaking about people in the past tense. Thinking about people I once knew and liked can be rather pleasant when I can imagine them enjoying themselves and having a good life. It is a different story altogether when I know that the person in my memories isn’t having a good life at all – because they aren’t alive.

While doing a university project I was surfing the net, looking for pictures of a town in Israel where I used to live. The page came up with many pictures including one of a soldier. Something felt familiar about his face so I clicked on the link to see who he was.

“Was”… past tense, again.

צחי מלכה גרינברג1
His face, different yet familiar…

The picture was linked to an IDF announcement about 3 soldiers who had been killed in Lebanon on 31.1.2000. Then I saw his name. The face of the soldier I had seen in the picture, one of the three who had been killed, was a man’s face, not the face of the boy I remember.

Nevertheless, the man who died and the boy I once knew are one and the same.

The boy I had known years ago, the one I had liked, the one I had talked and laughed with and even kissed once or twice… He had grown up and then he had been killed. Murdered by Hezbollah.

My heart sunk. It does every time I hear of another attack, more wounded and maimed, more dead. The pit of sadness inside me seems too deep to be contained in one being but I learn again and again that it can be stretched and deepened, life dictates that it must.

The idea of a “grief process” implies that there is an end to the grief and the sorrow but what do you do when there is no end in sight?

Many Israeli families have experienced one traumatic event after the other – a child killed then a relative maimed then their best friends murdered… The entire country is engulfed in a collective sadness, brought about by our nation’s traumatic history – the Holocaust, the wars, the Intifadas (before them, the pogroms in Europe and the Spanish Inquisition). In our souls, we all hold parts of the trauma from these man-made catastrophes. Every Israeli’s life has been touched at some level.

When there is so much of it, the pain and sorrow becomes almost tangible, a physical presence, just under the skin of day to day life.

Maybe the other countries and nations of the world would take our suffering more seriously if we walked around dressed in black, tearing our hair out and screaming all day long, every day of the year. Maybe.

Israelis learn to live with the never-ending sorrow that has forever been the fate of the Jewish people. In 1968 Yoni Netanyahu wrote about this in words more eloquent than mine:

“A kind of sadness has overtaken me which doesn’t leave me. It does not control me or direct my actions, but it is inside me, it exists, sunk in a well-hidden corner deep in my being. This isn’t exactly an emptiness, but something with a very heavy deposit – a sort of “heavy emptiness”. Perhaps this feeling does not exist only in me. There are times when I sense the cry and the depth of this sadness in others, in all of those friends who came through the war with their bodies intact. I think we all came out of it wounded, changed, more sensitive, more “caring”, and much, much older. That harmony that characterizes a young man’s world is not part of me any more. Although I am still young, still strong and confident of myself and my ability, I can’t ignore the fact that a sense of old age has taken hold of me. I’ve never been old, not in years, and I therefore don’t know whether the feeling I have is the same that comes with advanced age; but it is a form of old age no doubt – an old age particular to young men.

 When I try to understand why this is so, and why this feeling has grown within me, I reach the conclusion that not only the war, the killing, the deaths, the wounds and the disabilities are to blame – these can be overcome. Their imprint may perhaps be dulled by time. The real cause is the sense of helplessness in the face of a war that has no end. For the war has not ended, and it seems that it will go on and on. The June war was only one campaign. It’s continuing right now, today, yesterday and tomorrow. It continues with every mine and killing and murder, with every explosion in Jerusalem and every shot in the north or the south. This is the “quiet” before the next storm. I’ve no doubt the war will come. Nor do I doubt that we will win. But for how long? Until when?”

In 2003, 35 years later, these words seem to be written about current affairs – right now, today, yesterday and tomorrow. The sadness is a part of every Israeli’s life in some way or another from the men and women who look drawn and weary when they are still in their late 40’s and early 50’s, old before their time, to the faces of the children whose expression in repose is that of seriousness beyond their years.

Israelis tend to rush with a sense of urgency out of step with the slow calmness of the Eastern cultures. The need to get things done before it’s too late is always there.

Israelis value family as friends and friends as family with a passion that I don’t believe exists anywhere else. Deep appreciation for those who truly care comes with the understanding that the existence of family and friends is not to be taken for granted – they can be taken away at any moment…

And yet, even with so much seriousness, Israelis are full of laughter and joy – an intense love for life that is the direct result of being highly aware of death.

Each new horror adds weight to the “heavy emptiness” in the depths of our souls. Each attack is engineered to steal from us our loved ones, to maim our bodies and to eliminate all innocence and hope. Israeli widows do not wear mourning black for the rest of their lives and children do not cry all day, still, the grief is there, not just for personal loss but for every loss. Every person, every bit of innocence or hope lost is lost to all of us.

The terrorists do succeed, to a certain extent, in taking all these things away from us but with each bit taken something new is added.

Each death brings more respect and love for life. Cruel actions of our enemies teach us compassion, for our friends and family, for strangers and even for our would-be killers.

The aggression and violence directed towards us pushes us to protect and save all those who have aggression and violence directed at them. This leads Israelis to new heights of heroism, sacrificing their lives for others, interposing themselves between suicide bombers and complete strangers. This leads the Israeli government to send aid to countries in trouble such as: the rescue teams who went to help in Turkey and Greece after they experienced devastating earthquakes or the rescue team that attempted to go to assist in New York after September 11 (they were denied entry in to the US by the American government).

Every attempt to tear our nation apart has only succeeded in bringing us together. We are more serious and we are sadder but we are more compassionate, more talented and much, much stronger.

Over the centuries the Egyptians, the Romans, Christians and the Germans caused the Jewish people great pain and suffering, killing many. Now Muslim terrorists are trying to do the same. Maybe if they comprehended what their murderous acts are actually accomplishing, our neighborhood terrorists would give up. The Jewish people have proved that there is some truth to the old saying: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”.

And the boy I once knew? How does he fit in? His death is far-reaching:

His family will continue living their lives. They will laugh again and go to parties. When his classmates get married his mother will cry for the son who will never marry, for the grandchildren she will never have. When his father experiences some special success, in his enthusiasm, he will imagine describing it to his son and how his eyes will shine back at him in pride, then the brief moment where he could forget will end and nothing will seem special or important at all.

The friends of the boy I once knew will continue their lives, forever feeling a vacancy no one else can fill.

The men who were with him when he and the two other soldiers died will remember witnessing their deaths. They will remember the sound and the smell, the fear, and the horror. Some of them will feel guilty that they survived and their companions didn’t. The day they went back home and their friends didn’t must have been awful for them. How could they help but think of their friends, those who should also have gone home and been lovingly greeted by their families? How could they help but think of the mothers and girlfriends and wives who should have been able to greet their men with a hug and a sigh, relieved that they came home safe and sound? Every time these men go back into the army for reserve duty they will meet their army buddies, everyone will be there except the three they will never see again.

Family, friends, fellow soldiers, paramedics, the soldiers from the Rabbinate called to collect the bodies and prepare them for burial etc were all directly affected and in various ways and intensities, changed by the death of the boy I once knew. The effects on them influence the way they live which changes everything and everyone around them to some extent, the aftershocks rippling into the homes of thousands of people.

The death of the boy I once knew created worry lines on the face of a woman somewhere, a woman who never knew him and may never have heard of him. Maybe she is the mother of the wife of one of his friends. Maybe the worry lines are on the face of a little girl, the daughter of a soldier who helped prepare him for burial, a little girl who doesn’t understand why her father doesn’t smile more, a girl who wasn’t even born at the time of the death.

And me? I never knew the man who was murdered by terrorists in Lebanon but I did know the boy who was with me in grade school. I remember what he looked like standing straight with wild curls all over his head, looking at me with a serious expression and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

With his death Hezbollah succeeded in adding weight to the “heavy emptiness” I feel, sorrow at the pain caused to his family and friends, sadness at the extra burden his loss adds to the Israeli people.

Hezbollah also managed to damage my memories, my past and in a certain way my innocence. Today murder and terrorism do not surprise or shock me but once, when I knew the boy, my biggest concern was if the Israeli kids would accept the new American girl (me) and if I would be able to do well on my next test even though I lacked Hebrew skills. That was a relatively trouble free time, I was still a child then.

Thanks to Hezbollah, memories of that time are sweet and innocent no longer.

Every smile I remember on his face is now tinged with his death and the sorrow it created. Every conversation and action were “last times”… Hezbollah murdered a man, a son, a friend and my memories.

All this shows me the truth in the Jewish idea of if you murder one person you murder the world.

The boy I once knew is not simply a person from my past, someone in my memories. He is not just the baby boy he was, the son and the man he grew to be or the friend or even the “potentials” – the husband and father he could have been etc. The boy I once knew is a part of all of us, our sorrow and our joy, part of our “heavy emptiness” that is not empty at all.

The boy I once knew is one out of thousands who have been killed in Israel’s wars, one out of the millions murdered in Nazi Germany, one out of the untold number killed by our oppressors over the centuries. He is part of the collective life and memory that is lived out by the Israeli people.

The next horror will come but the boy I once knew and everything he was, is and always will be are how I know the Nation of Israel will survive.


2 thoughts on “The Boy I Once Knew

  1. In this day and time; where every thing moves at break neck speed, you are obviously blessed with that often rare and beautiful gift….empathetic regard for your fellow person. Very well written….it resonated with myself. I will drop by again to browse your thoughtful musings.


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