…A phone call of the most horrifying sort. I was eating felafel, heaped with hummous and chips when it came. Standing at the bus stop as our bus is pulling up, hearing those words: “Do you remember Yotam?” Of course, Yotam the kibbutznik. Strong, silent, Israeli. Exactly the kind of person you picture when you think “kibbutznik.” Now in the army somewhere in some elite unit, just like we knew he would be. Of course I remember Yotam.
“He was killed today in Southern Lebanon.”
Yotam?!? Not our Yotam!! He’s only 21. 21 like you and me! It can’t be true. It’s not on the news yet, it can’t be true. “I have to go,” and we hung up the phone.
Sobbing–wandering the streets of Jerusalem by myself, no idea where I’m going and no idea why. I know this street–Yaffo Street–like the back of my hand but somehow it looks different through the tears. I can’t explain why I’m so upset, sad, lost. We weren’t that close. I haven’t seen you in two years and we didn’t keep in touch.
But something–something about you, Yotam.
Do you remember, Yotam, when Or and I came to visit your kibbutz? You gave me the best hug ever. You had just started the army that month or maybe a little while before and you were so proud. But modest, always modest. I was terrified of your gun. And we met your girlfriend and looked at pictures.
Do you remember, Yotam, how you used to play guitar on Friday afternoons before Shabbos on our trip, teaching me Israeli songs? I remember one Friday in the Golan–we could see Lebanon and Syria from the hill outside the gate–laying in the grass and laughing with a group of people. Or do you remember how you climbed an entire mountain all over again because Lindsay thought she forgot her cell phone at the top? Everyone laughed when you guys told the story about how, at the very top, she found the phone in her bag.
Do you remember, Yotam, how I thought you could do anything? YOU were “kibbutz” for me.
No one knows anything for sure yet as I continue walking. Jerusalem–Israel–this country that I love, that I know you love–that you died to defend. I wish I could make the people walking past me see what you did for them shake them ask them yell “Are you grateful??? He was only 21 and he died for this country!!”
A wedding car decorated with white and purple ribbons passes and fresh tears stream down my face as I think of all the things you will never do–get married, go to university, have children, hike another mountain. You will never again work with the fish on kibbutz and never again impress us with your barbecuing skills.
Other calls come and its no longer possible to pretend. And no one knows the details but Yotam I don’t want to. I’m scared for you and all of our other friends in the army and I’m so sad for you, Yotam, our kibbutznik. And when your face stares up at me from the front page of the paper the next morning the tears come again and I can’t believe that “Yotam Gilboa z”l” is my Yotam Gilboa.
The second processional: Seeing your coffin drapped with the Israeli flag–seeing your parents and your girlfriend and your brothers and one of them looks so much like you I catch my breath and think maybe it was a mistake.
The second processional is longer and slower and more solemn as we walk towards the kibbutz graveyard. Your parents lean on each other for support and everyone is crying. Again I see more friends I haven’t seen in years, but the hugs are fierce instead of joyous and the silences between us are too heavy to fill.
And there’s an image in my mind that I will never be able to erase for as long as I live: the soldiers, proud in their green uniforms, so official, working in silent unison to shovel dirt on your grave. It was only then that I understood you were gone.
And I can’t remember so much of what people said, except that I wanted everyone in the whole world to know that they weren’t just saying it–that it was TRUE. That you WERE a friend to everyone and you cared so much and you always made sure everything was OK. That you were Yotam.
I’m sitting here now looking at the hills of Israel in the golden afternoon light before Shabbos. The breeze smells sweet and the land has a special biblical beauty to it. I’ve found the tears coming at strange points today when I remember you’re gone. Tears I can’t explain for a loss I can’t fill or understand. To Israel maybe you were just another soldier with your picture in the news, but to me you were a friend.