On Wednesday, April 18, the State of Israel will honor its fallen sons and daughters. Those who have been in Israel on Yom Hazikaron know that it is a very special day. All stores, shops, and movie theaters are closed. There are no special sales, and no happy public gatherings. Total silence takes over the nation’s streets. At 11 a.m., all stands still. The entire country freezes as people stand to pay their respects. Traffic stops and passengers stand beside their cars or buses. The pain is real and in many cases, it is personal, sometimes too personal.
I was born in Beer Shevah and lived in a small neighborhood. Our family moved to the neighborhood when I was 6 years old, and I remember running in the backyard with young children who were soon to become my lifelong friends. Our neighborhood, which had the strange name of Schunah Hey (Neighborhood E), had families from all over the world: Germany, France, Morocco, Tunisia, Romania, Argentina, South Africa and more. They were many common grounds — we were all Jews, all of our fathers worked full time, most of our mothers worked part time, and we all attended the same school. Life was simple: we walked to school together, studied, came back home to a warm lunch (many times with a friend or two), did our homework, and then went outside to play until we were called back home to dinner (our moms literally yelled out our names).
When we got older, we played on the same sports teams and chased after the same girls. I had four close friends in middle school and when high school time came, we went to different schools but stayed close. One day, a new teen named Arye (the Hebrew word for “lion”) arrived at our back yard and asked to join our soccer game. He told us that he was from a nearby kibbutz and that his grandparents moved to one of the buildings in our neighborhood. He was a good player and we became friends even though he was a year older than me.
Life as an Israeli teen at the ages of 16 and 17 was also simple; we all knew we wanted to join the IDF, and we all trained hard so we could serve our country in the best possible way. We met on the weekends and ran miles together as we all knew our military service was around the corner.
Arye joined the military in May 1984, enlisted in the 890th Brigade of the Paratrooper Division, and was very proud of his new unit. When he came back to visit us, I listened with admiration to his stories. In August 1985, I followed my older friend’s footsteps and joined the IDF.
In May 1986, we saw each other again as both of us were on a free weekend visiting our families and friends. We rested, enjoyed our moms’ cooking, played with our young siblings, and met, once again, on the soccer field for another “friendly game.” This game was different than all other games — we were both leaders of opposing teams, and each wanted to prove to the other how strong we had become. We clashed, ran as hard as we could, slide tackled one another, and did everything we could to come out as winners.
This game was the last time I saw him. On June 31, 1986, Arye went with his platoon to the Lebanese border near the village of Magdal Zoon and encountered terrorists who were on their way to attack innocent Israeli civilians. Arye, who was an outstanding soldier, the type of soldier every commander wants next to him when hell breaks loose, gave his life defending Israel.
When thinking of Arye, I wish I could go back to our last soccer game, stop the game, smile, give him a hug and tell him that I love him. Knowing the two of us well, I know that we would share a “men’s hug,” look at each other, wipe a tear claiming that it is the sand that went into our eyes, look at each other and say, “Come on, let’s play”.
I went on to lead other soldiers, got married, became an educator, and a father of two amazing young men. And my friend? He remained 20 years old.
I hope you will join our community as we honor our fallen soldiers and victims of terror during a special program Tuesday, April 17 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. The program will begin at 6:30 p.m.
Amir Eden is director of the Weintraub Israel Center. He can be reached at [email protected].