On the Watershed Line / על קו פרשת המים:
In Memory of My Son Niot z"l / לזכר בני נאות ז"ל
Welcome to my newsletter, now on Substack. I’ll write more in my next installment about why I’ve switched to this new platform and what I intend to do here. What’s important today, on the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day, is to send you my annual meditation on grieving for my younger son Niot, whom we lost eleven years ago on the Pesach holiday, while he was a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. Every year, starting just a couple weeks after his death, I’ve written such a piece. They appeared in my Necessary Stories column. Now that the column has ended, I’m publishing it here.
This year I did something new—I wrote the piece in Hebrew. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to place it in a publication on such short notice. So I’m offering the original and an English translation here—please scroll down to see the version you prefer.
I also wanted to flag my participation in a Zoom discussion of Olga Tokarczuk’s epic novel The Books of Jacob. I first read Tokarczuk’s fictional retelling of the story of the false messiah Jacob Frank two year’s ago in Miriam Borenstein’s fine Hebrew translation, and am now rereading it in Jennifer Croft’s no less fine English version. It’s one of the most intriguing novels I’ve read in recent years. As my friend and the event’s organizer, Michael Weingrad of Portland State University, says, the book “brings us into the landscapes of eighteenth-century Poland, Ukraine, and Turkey, and the fears and hopes of dozens of characters that resonate unsettlingly today.” Croft will also be helping to lead the discussion, which will take place on Sunday, May 15, at 11 a.m. Pacific time (9 p.m. Israel time). It’s free but you need to preregister via this link.
On the Watershed Line
In memory of my son Niot z”l
The lupines on the two sides of the barely discernible path are darker than the ones I remember from last year, perhaps because a small cloud his blocking the sun’s rays, or because rain and chill winds prevented us from getting here on recent Saturdays, causing us to miss the blooms at their height. Or perhaps the reason is that the approaching Pesach holiday brings us closer to the season of our inner darkness, the affliction of losing our son.
We halt by four anemones, survivors of the previous wave of blossoms, red spots in a sea of green and purple. When I lift up my eyes, my gazes leaps beyond the grim police station on the road below and over the homes of Jabal Mukaber and East Talpiot, and also beyond the villages that lie on the ridges that tumble down into the eastern wilderness. Decades ago, when I sometimes scaled this hill on my morning run, they were only small clutches of dingy low houses that I could barely make out in the glare of the rising sun. Today they are white and some of them rise to three or four stories, patches glittering in the light of the low sun of late afternoon.
“If you look beyond,” I say to Ilana, “you can still see the primal landscape of the Jordan Valley and the heights on the other side.” We stand for a few moments and take in the pale oval nebula that is the northern extreme of the Dead Sea. Then we tread the path until we reach the lookout point that stands on a shoulder of the hill we have circuited. We stop again, trying to make out the view that once was.
Once we had a younger son. His name was Niot, a name in a grammatical form that demands completion. We chose the name when he was born during the Gulf War. We lived then at Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, during a trial year of leaving the city for that magical oaisis—niot deshe in Hebrew—in the Beit She’an Valley. Our older daughter and son spent their mornings at preschools with junkyard playgrounds that sparked the imagination. There was no better, more welcoming, more supportive place to bring a new baby into the world in the shadow of war and to enjoy our first few months with him. But life at the kibbutz was complicated and, over the course of the year, we reached the conclusion that it was not for us. I, at least, am in every way a city creature, and in Jerusalem we have a very strong and caring community. We returned to Baka, our neighborhood in the city’s south, and I went back to my morning runs along the watershed line between the inhabited land and the desert. Another daughter was born. We found, against all odds, a somewhat larger apartment in this gentrifying area, at a price just a bit beyond the limits of our finances. A regular family with four lively children, each different from the other, regular parents who never got enough sleep.
Niot was especially lively, always on the move, happy, confident. Until he reached school. There he could not sit for long and could not understand the tasks the teachers assigned him. His frustration sometimes broke out into violence. A couple times each week a call would come from the school office, notifying us of another crisis of one sort or another, after which I would have to set aside my work and run over to the school to calm down the staff or take Niot home. We didn’t understand what was happening or why. The teachers were replete with good will but they understood even less than we did. They have us all sorts of advice, some of it off the wall, and we tried one sort of help and another sort of intervention. It all cost a huge amount of money and demanded an enormous amount of our time and did not bring us back the joyful boy we had once had.
The turning point came in seventh grade, when we found a secondary school with teachers that knew that not every child learns the same way, and who understood Niot from the heart. He slowly began to bloom and to succeed. He still needed private tutors and interventions at our expense and requiring our time, but we got back the son we had once had. He sang and laughed and was the glue that held his classmates and neighborhood friends together. He had a special knack for seeing and understanding his friends from the inside and, unlike many teenage boys, had no blocks against displaying his emotions for all the world to see—love and elation, but also anxieties and difficulties. He finished high school, went to a pre-army program, and enlisted in the Golani infantry brigade. He completed the brigade’s long, tough training, and then, just before Pesach, got a few days of sick leave to take care of a few minor medical issues. That meant that he’d be able to spend the Seder with us, which we then celebrated every year with close friends from Zikhron Ya’akov. On the night after the first day of the holiday I drove him to a corner where he caught the bus to Jerusalem. There he and three friends got their gear together and set out to dive in Eilat. Two days later we received a telephone call from the Eilat police notifying us of an accident. Two days after that, on Shabbat, he was pronounced dead. On Saturday night we signed the forms to allow the donation of his organs, and the next day, the day before the holiday that ends the Pesach week, we buried him at the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl. Since then, nothing has been as it was before.
We gaze eastward, on what is, and on what is not. The Jordan Valley itself once was not. Millions of years ago the mountains did not descend to the east and did not climb on the other side of the Jordan. Instead of the Jordan River there were rivers that flowed from way to the east directly into the sea. But that is not the landscape that we see. In our imaginations we gaze at the years of our younger son’s laughter.
A local activist approaches us. She is part of the struggle to save this beautiful lupine hill. The police station below must be evacuated and the plan is to build a new station on this hill, several stories high, that will not only cast the lupines in shadow but also block the eastward view. We take the leaflet she offers us and promise to make a donation. And we again look out at the wilderness. Somewhere out there, on the edge of a cliff, stands the scapegoat, about to fall to his death, our Pesach sacrifice, which connects us to what once was, to the landscape of long ago, which our eyes see instead of the landscape of today.