My son recently finished two-and-a-half years of service in the IDF’s Golani Brigade. While I have written several essays about my experience during this time, permit me to share yet one more.
Rewind to his swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall just after completing three months of basic training. Knowing that the families of 800 soldiers were going to be present, my wife, Debbie, and I arrived hours early to ensure a good viewing spot. Not being the only ones with this idea, it was quite competitive early on.
Notwithstanding, Debbie found a perfect position directly behind the barrier next to where Max’s platoon was going to be situated. I was a few feet back but could see just fine. The only catch was, if we moved from those spots, even for a bathroom break, all bets were off.
As we waited with the other families, the man beside me, whose wife was coincidentally next to Debbie, noticed I was American, and was curious about Max. “They are together,” he said in his broken English, referring to our sons. He told me that his family lived in Northern Israel, and proudly added that he had another son who was serving in the Givati Brigade, also an elite combat unit.
About an hour before the ceremony was scheduled to begin, Max came by and told us we were invited to a special dinner at a nearby restaurant for Lone Soldiers (soldiers whose parents do not live in Israel). The problem was, if we left now it would probably be impossible to get back to our spot. Overhearing our discussion about what to do, the woman next to Debbie said, “Your son is a Lone Soldier! Do not worry, I will save your spot.” Her husband, the man beside me, nodded, indicating he would do the same. After the dinner, we somehow managed to work our way through the crowd to our positions that had indeed been reserved. A small gesture perhaps, but one we will never forget.
Fast-forward a little more than two years. We were in Israel for Sukkot, visiting with Max, whose unit had been on the front line during the Gaza war this past summer. How things had changed. My son, whose original plan was to go to McGill University, was now a combat veteran. His battalion had suffered many losses and injuries, and as first sergeant he was forced to take command of his platoon during the battle of Shejaiya after his own commander was seriously wounded. Having lost friends, he shared with me how on Yom Kippur it was hard for him to pray, to utter the words “who shall live and who shall die,” and that the only connection he really felt was during Yizkor for the fallen soldiers. I confided in him that I, too, had found those words difficult, and while I’m thankful he’s OK, I am plagued with guilt for I have done nothing to deserve such grace.
A few nights later Debbie, Max and I were out with friends. Debbie was recounting the story about the woman who saved her place at the ceremony two years earlier, and I commented how the woman’s husband had told me that his other son was in Givati. Max, seemingly stunned, exclaimed, “They must have been Oron’s parents,” referring to Oron Shaul, a close friend of his who was killed on the first day of the ground offensive. Sometime later I saw a picture of Oron’s father in an Israeli periodical — Max had been right.
I will forever be haunted by the memory of my interaction with the man who saved my place. Our boys were together, just as he said. But their fates were different.
My son came home.
Andrew Kane is a clinical psychologist and author, most recently, of the novel “Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale.” He has chronicled his son’s IDF experience in this space.