Clad in white shirts and blue pants, we filled the gymnasium-cum-auditorium of our Jewish day-school in Cleveland. A sea of Zionism pouring in between the basketball hoops, we took our places in awkward hushed whispers and waited for Israel's Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism (Yom HaZikaron) ceremony to begin. The educational staff of our school – especially the Israeli faculty – took great pains to make the day accessible for us; to connect us to the national feeling of loss that envelopes Israel and crosses borders with ex-pats and emissaries. Our teachers opened up their backpacks of Sabra culture for us, producing the poems of Alterman, letters of Yoni Netanyahu, personal stories of IDF soldiers, and more. As any Israeli would expect, they made sure to incorporate the haunting songs that grace Israeli radio on remembrance days, exposing us to the ever-revolving turntable of tunes tearfully updated after every war and terror attack. Many years after participating in those ceremonies, I joined my friends in Jerusalem for a Yom HaZikaron evening of song. By this point, I was not only the proud owner of a blue Israeli ID, but of an IDF reservist certificate as well. As we delved into the decades-long playlist, it dawned on me that I knew all of the standards. And I began to realize that my own internal turntable had stopped spinning. A year earlier, in the middle of my last operation in the IDF, Noam Levy – our company's chief medic – was killed as he attempted to quell a growing riot in the streets of Bir-Zeit, near Ramallah. Eleven years after that sleepless night, the needle of memory still bumps over the same spot on the record of my soul. The song remains the same. Now an educator myself, I am tasked with the same challenge of connection that once belonged to my teachers. While I too have cultivated a cultural backpack of my own, replete with soul-searing texts and creative ways of discussing The Silver Platter, the bulk of its weight come from one source. Year after year, I shakily recount what happened that night. How we entered Bir-Zeit on a routine operation and were going house to house when the shot went off. How Noam had seen something out of the corner of his eye, and fearing for the safety of his squad, broke away to eliminate the threat of danger. How he crossed next to the M-4 rifle just as a scuffle with a rioter set off an accidental discharge. How we were just becoming friends when he fell, and I was left to learn on my own that our fathers received rabbinical ordination together, that my sixth-grade teacher was his high-school principal, that his cousins were childhood friends from mine, and all of the other connections we never had time to make. Is it an injustice to my audience that I return to the same refrain? Can you really blame me for repeating this melody? After all, Noam's song, like so many others, was a mischievous tune of joy that ended too soon. "Tam velo nishlam," concluded but incomplete, its listeners perpetually waiting in vain for the next verse or solo. A decade ago, the soaring songs of connection I learned as a child became the soundtrack for my early-morning trip to Noam's northern resting place. This year, circumstances dictate that I remember my friend from home, listening to his truncated melody for the first time together with my three-year-old daughter next to me. Like many children of my brothers-in-arm, she too bears Noam's name. The song remains the same. The chorus of singers grows, infusing the well-worn verses with new layers of harmony and meaning.
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Yoni Zierler is the director of strategic tourism at StandWithUs Israel.