The mothers of two fallen IDF lone soldiers remembered their sons as small of stature but possessing outsize hearts and senses of humor, and the friend of a third described his slain comrade as a brilliant writer and a source of inspiration.
They spoke during an English-language Memorial Day ceremony on Tuesday night on Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill, the site of an infamous battle in the Six Day War.
The Memorial Day — or Yom HaZikaron — ceremony was packed, attended predominantly by American tourists visiting Israel with the Jewish National Fund, along with a smattering of former IDF lone soldiers and their friends.
It was hosted by the JNF and Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, which was created in 2009 to support soldiers whose families either live outside of Israel or do not assist them for another reason.
This year, the memorial focused on the stories of three fallen lone soldiers: Alex Singer, who was killed in Lebanon in 1987; Levin, who was killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War; and Max Steinberg, who was killed in the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
You can watch the entire ceremony here:
Steinberg’s mother, Evelyn, who went by Evy, was the first to speak, beginning her remarks with a deep breath, a kiss of the medal given to all IDF soldier who took part in the war , and a quiet “OK, Max, I can do this.”
“Yes, Max is a hero for sacrificing his life for Israel and the Jewish people… but Max was my hero way before he joined the IDF. He was my hero simply for how he approached life in general,” she said.
Steinberg described her son as a Bob Marley-loving goofball, a laid-back Californian whose shoe collection consisted of flip flops and “two pairs of Vans tennis shoes — regular and fancy. ‘Fancy’ just meaning they were clean.”
“The first thing I think of when I think of Max is his silly, contagious smile,” she said.
Max Steinberg came to Israel for the first time when he was 22 on a Birthright trip with his younger siblings. When he returned to the US, he announced his intention to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.
“Everyone else has to. Why should I be any different?” his mom recalled him saying after he got back to the States.
He made aliyah — immigrated to Israel — shortly thereafter and set out to join the Golani infantry unit, but the army didn’t think that was the right fit because his Hebrew wasn’t good enough, his mom said.
Evelyn Steinberg also recalled her son’s physical limitations. He was short and skinny, but she said that only pushed him to work harder, especially in sports.
“He was tiny, but he played like Goliath. And when he got knocked down — which was often — he’d pop right back up, dust himself off and get right back in the game,” she said.
At the induction center, the officer responsible for placing new recruits into units asked him where else he would want to serve, besides a combat unit. “His response was ‘Nothing.’ They asked him three more times. He replied, ‘Stop asking me the same thing. Send me home or send me to jail,’” she said.
So the army sent him back to California. But when he returned to Israel, the army reversed its decision.
“And a Golani warrior he became,” his mother said.
Steinberg joined the fabled brigade’s 13th Battalion and served as a sharpshooter.
During the 2014 war, his armored personnel carrier collided with another and he was lightly injured. He called his parents at 4 a.m. in California to tell them about the accident and his wounds. His mother recalled trying to convince him to keep out of the fight, by any means necessary.
“When he called me, I said to him, ‘Max, please, I don’t care what you do. Shoot yourself in the foot. Something,’” she said.
His mother refrained from giving his full response, presumably because it involved salty language, but said he told her, “Mom, that’s just not me. I need to go back in with my brothers. They need me.”
A day later, Steinberg was killed when Hamas terrorists attacked his APC with explosives in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City. He was 24 years old, one of 13 soldiers killed on day 13 of the operation.
Harriet Levin, the mother of Michael Levin, was the next to speak. Unlike Evelyn Steinberg, she had no notes — after nearly 12 years of speaking about her son’s life and death, she didn’t need any to move members of the audience to tears.
Michael Levin, another short and skinny American Jew who caught the Zionism bug and joined the IDF, is perhaps the best known lone soldier.
He moved to Israel at the peak of the Second Intifada, sleeping on park benches his first two nights in the country.
“We did not know that,” his mother noted.
He eventually moved to a kibbutz and joined the army, reaching the Paratroopers Brigade’s 890th Battalion.
His mother, looking around at Ammunition Hill, where Israeli paratroopers traditionally receive their signature red berets, recalled the night that Michael earned his.
“Michael always had an infectious smile. That day it was so big I thought his face would break,” she said.
While he was still in the army, frustrated by the lack of assistance he was getting, Levin came up with the idea of starting a lone soldier center.
“Michael would keep saying, ‘When I get out of the army for Shabbat at the end of the week, everything is closed. I don’t know where to make copies of my papers,’” his mother said.
Until Michael fell, the term lone soldier was virtually unheard of. Now it’s a universal term, everyone knows what a lone soldier is
After he died, Tziki Aud, who acted as something of an adoptive father to Levin in Israel, got together with a number of former lone soldiers to start the center that now bears Michael’s name.
“Until Michael fell, the term lone soldier was virtually unheard of,” his mother said. “Now it’s a universal term, everyone knows what a lone soldier is.”
Michael Levin was in the United States on vacation from the army when the Second Lebanon War broke out, but cut his trip short in order to get back to Israel and join his unit in the fighting.
Two weeks later, on August 1, he was shot dead by a Hezbollah sniper during a battle in the southern Lebanese village of Ayta ash-Shab.
Toward the end of her remarks, his mother recalled a question she’d been asked once: If she’d known what was going to happen to Michael, would she have stopped him from going to Israel.
“Even though my heart breaks every single day, and I miss him terribly, the answer is no. Michael’s life is no more important than any other life that was given so that we could have our homeland, our country, to be free,” she said, visibly holding back tears.
Alex Singer’s mother could not attend the event in Jerusalem and so, instead, a friend and comrade, Tuvia Book, spoke about the fallen lieutenant.
Singer grew up in the United States and attended Cornell University. After graduating, he moved to Israel in December 1984 determined to serve in the IDF.
He enlisted in the Paratroopers Brigade in February 1985 for what was supposed to be an 18-month service. But his commanders had other plans for him, sending Singer to a sergeant’s training course and then to the army’s officer’s training school deep in the Negev Desert, requiring him to sign on for additional time.
As a newly minted lieutenant, Singer moved from the Paratroopers Brigade to the purple bereted Givati Brigade, where he served as a platoon commander.
That’s where Book met him.
“It was emotionally, physically, linguistically and psychologically challenging period of time. The knowledge that this smiling, confident American officer had overcome all of these obstacles and risen to a command position in my unit was a tremendous source of comfort and pride for me,” he said.
Book remembered Singer as a gifted writer and artist — his parents later published a book of his works — and a courageous fighter.
Singer was killed on his 25th birthday, September 15, 1987, in an ambush in southern Lebanon.
His unit was supposed to catch terrorists making their way from Lebanon into Israel, but instead a group of several dozen terrorists surrounded them and opened fire.
His commander was the first to be hit. When Singer ran to help, he too was shot and killed, along with another soldier. The remaining troops fought off the ambush.
The final speaker of the evening was Josh Flaster, director of the Lone Soldier Center, who was friends with Michael Levin.
Flaster, an ordinarily smiley giant, was moved to tears as he addressed the family members of Steinberg, Levin and Singer who were in the audience.
“Evy, your son Max was one of the fastest runners who ever served in this army, one of the funniest kids. Out of a group of a big bunch of knuckleheads, he was one of the only guys who stayed the course and finished his training in the Golani 13 and went off to war to keep all of our families, our schools, our children safe,” he said.
Addressing Michael Levin’s twin sister, Dara, Flaster mourned him as the “uncle of [her] children, who will never get to meet, play with and hold [him].”
Alex Singer’s brother Saul attended the ceremony, but did not speak.
“You have an amazing family who has dedicated their lives to coming here after your younger brother was killed. You’ve built amazing things in this nation, despite losing a younger brother who was a mensch, a leader, an artist, a writer, who could have done great things and maybe even led this country at the highest level, from the stories I’ve heard of him,” Flaster said.
The Lone Soldier Center director noted that there was still work for his organization to do. Roughly 7,000 lone soldiers serve in the Israeli army. About half of them are native-born Israelis who are not supported by their families; the other half are like Singer, Levin and Steinberg, immigrants who come to the country without their families.
“There are still lone soldiers today who don’t have a bed, don’t have food, don’t have a home, don’t even have friends in this country,” Flaster said.
The ceremony ended with a recitation of the Hatikva national anthem.