It was a little over a year ago that I received a phone call from the Air Force Base in Palmachim. Would I give a lecture for an officers’ gathering? Mr. Gadol, the education officer wanted to know.
I was extremely flattered, and not a little confused. Me, lecture to Air Force pilots and officers? Of course, I told them. It would be a privilege.
And so, after being picked up by an official army vehicle, I found myself in the middle of a room of Israel’s finest. Ahuva Eldar, wife of the base commander welcomed me warmly. A petite, strikingly beautiful woman, mother of four, Ahuva is a teacher in the Katzir School in Rehovot, where I had lectured a few weeks earlier. It was she who suggested I be invited.
So, there I stood at the front of the room, a little religious woman in a hat and long skirt, facing the tall, handsome, taciturn elite of the elite – Israeli pilots and air force officers. A few knitted skullcaps dotted the room, but mostly, I thought, I am in the midst of Israel’s secular, military establishment, that whole world apart that we religious Jews know so little about. They looked back at me with what I think was equal confusion. This was to be their guest lecturer? A religious woman with an American accent?
But somehow, as I spoke, I felt their intense interest in my description of a world they knew so little about. Perhaps too, hopefully, they sensed my deep love and appreciation for every single one of them.
When I had finished, the base commander, Shmuel Eldar, handed me a gift, a bit of ancient pottery found on the base, encased in glass. And since it was also Mother’s Day, the base commander had arranged for lovely bouquets for all the women: officers, pilots’ wives and girlfriends. He handed a bunch to me. “Your husband is in anti-aircraft, is he? ” he said with that wide, infectious smile that lit up the room. “You let me know if he gives you any trouble. The next time he does reserve duty, I’ll take care of him for you.”
A few days later, I flew to the States. When I returned, I learned that Shmuel Eldar z’’l had been killed together with a rookie pilot during a routine training mission, when the helicopter he flew better than anyone plunged into the sea.
I went to pay Ahuva Eldar a shiv’a call. When I walked through door of the modest house on the base, I found among the mourners a woman with her head covered sitting next to a man with a knitted skullcap. Ahuva introduced them as Sara and Mordechai Adler. They were Shmuel Eldar’s parents.
On March 10, 1999, a memorial service was held in Palmachim in memory of its base commander. The Chief of Staff was there, along with President Weizman, in a room packed with the elite of the elite of Israel’s military establishment, gathered to give honor to Shmuel Eldar. During the evening, I learned many things about the man his friends called “Shmulick,” who had been so very charming to me, a little religious woman: that he had worn a kippah all through high school, and had steadfastly refused a car ride to a friend’s party Friday night, walking miles instead. That his parents were survivors who had been interned in Cyprus, founders of a religious-secular moshav Sitriya. I learned of a family man who adored his beautiful wife and children, and yet had gotten up in the middle of the night at a moment’s notice to fly life-threatening secret missions into enemy territory. A man who loved his soldiers and was dedicated to their training and welfare. A man who died at the age of 45, sacrificing all the good years to come, when he could stay home “and prepare sandwiches for the kid’s lunches,” backpack across Asia with Ahuva and watch the children grow and marry and give him grandkids …
Every single minute of every single day, the lives of all of us who live in Israel depend upon those taciturn, intelligent men who leave warm beds in the middle of the night, without a word of complaint, without a moment’s hesitation, in the knowledge that it might cost them everything life holds so dear. It is never their voices that are raised to say: “We are underprivileged. We deserve more. Others are getting more.” No, the Shmuel Eldars of Israel don’t know how to do that. They only know one thing: to give, give, give, and give some more.
Let’s remember that, every day that we live in this, our most precious country, enjoying our freedom, our national identity, our security. Let’s remember that every time we are tempted to say all religious people are parasites. Let’s remember that every time we are tempted to say all secular Israelis are goyim and sinners. Let’s remember Shmuel Eldar z”l, his beautiful widow, Ahuva, his children, his parents Sara and Mordechai.