Recently, my youngest daughter and her boyfriend of several years stood in the doorway of my study and announced their engagement. “Abba,” said my 19 year old, hardly able to contain herself, “we decided on a date.”
Tehila works in the children’s ward at Tel Hashomer Hospital. She’s there fulfilling her National Service, which she volunteered for rather than go to the army. She’s also training to become a medical clown with a program called Simchat HaLev, or Joyful Heart. She’s seen suffering and death, and has helped and comforted parents and children. She’s fallen into my arms, exhausted and in tears.
Her 20-year-old boyfriend, Netanel, is completing the first stage of advanced training in an elite combat unit of the Israeli military. He wants to become an officer, which means at least five more years of grueling, dangerous work.
Standing next to her in his rumpled uniform, an off-green yarmulke askew on his head, M-16 slung over his shoulder, he smiled shyly, shifting his weight awkwardly. I knew they wanted me to jump for joy, but stunned for a moment, I couldn’t seem to think.
For a year, Tehila and Netanel had been back and forth, off and on, like any young couple, I guess. This time, though, it was finally it: My youngest was about to get married. I wasn’t surprised, just unsure how to react. Was I ready for this?
I wished them mazal tov, holding them close in an embrace of both awe and anxiety. These kids have grown up, somehow more quickly than I thought. They are just children, and yet they have seen life and death as I never did growing up in my protected cocoon in Detroit.
Eager and idealistic at their age, I was still confused and unprepared for commitments, a first-year college student beginning to test my independence. War was far away, in Korea, in Vietnam. Student movements were the closest thing I got to confrontations. With little training and less taste for Judaism, I wanted to know the world. Israel was important, but not enough for me to give up my conveniences and comforts.
Twenty years later, during a trip to Israel, I began to study Judaism. I met an Israeli widow with three little boys and decided to get married. We had two daughters; finally I was part of a family. It was a dream, but had its pitfalls and after 10 years, we divorced. I learned to be a single father, struggling with little private wars and trying to survive the big ones.
There I stood in my study, these two young people in my arms. One, flesh of my flesh, I raised; the other, a stranger, will be her husband and, hopefully, the father of my grandchildren. This young couple has made a commitment, not just to each other, but to life. Life in the midst of war, war in the midst of life.
I am happy and worried for them. And I need to learn, again, how to let go.
I was against it when Ayelet HaShachar, my 21-year old elder daughter, decided to get married three years ago. I presented all the logical reasons: They’re too young, they didn’t know themselves or each other enough. People, I told them don’t “grow up together.” But she was determined and I, well, I was wrong.
Ayelet HaShachar and her 21-year-old husband, Akiva HaCohen, live in a caravan on a hilltop in the community of Yitzhar. Their home is near the biblical city of Shechem, what is today Nablus. On a clear day, one can see skyscrapers in Tel Aviv.
They have two sons with powerful, biblical, priestly names, Eliyakim Shlomo and Zadok Aryeh. Akiva is planting a crop of wheat nearby, on land the whole world says does not belong to Jews. It’s called Eretz Yisrael, homeland of the Jewish people.
Last year, Palestinians burned part of his fields and his harvesting equipment on Shabbat; he saved part of the field. When not farming, he builds homes for new families moving into the area and plants olive trees in the surrounding hills. Tall, lanky, American-born with long payot and a ready smile, Akiva is rooted in family and community, and a deep love for the land.
Ayelet and her husband struggle with everyday things: raising a family, making a living, drive-by shootings on the road, attacks from nearby Palestinian villages. Akiva is part of the security network for the settlement, and when he has time he learns in a local yeshiva called Od Yosef Hai, or Joseph Still Lives. This winter he took apart a hot-water collector and made a woodburning stove. It almost melted the wall and wasn’t very efficient, but it was a nice try. They tried to raise chickens and goats, but wild dogs killed them.
One evening when she was driving home alone with the kids from visiting a nearby community, Ayelet’s car got stoned. “Abba, I was shaking for an hour,” she told me bravely. I listened, shaking inside.
Last year, a Palestinian terrorist got up to a group of caravans on the other side of the community. He was killed, but many other times during the last decade we weren’t so lucky. I am filled with pride and worry for my children and grandchildren, and for the hundreds of thousands of others who live in “the territories,” “the West Bank” — otherwise known as Yehuda and Shomron.
A young woman Ayelet’s age recently arrived with her nearly 2-year old daughter. My grandson was elated to have a playmate. Maybe they will get married, I wondered, watching as they shared homemade cookies.
Pulling large stones and weeds out of Ayelet and Akiva’s little garden, I sifted the soil in my hands and remembered my parents planting flowers and tomato plants in our backyard in Detroit. Looking up into the cloud-filled sky, I felt their presence here among these new families.
On hilltops throughout Yehuda and Shomron, Jews are planting, building homes and raising families. The struggle over these little communities will inevitably intensify, as soon as the government makes good on its promise to try to uproot them. It’s ironic. Sixty, 70, 80 years ago, Jews were doing the same thing. Then they were called “pioneers.” Today some call them “obstacles to peace,” “outlaws,” “illegals.” And still no peace, not now, not in the foreseeable future.
As I leaned on the shovel for a pause from the garden work, my grandson waved to me from the porch. “Welcome home, Saba,” he seemed to be laughing. I smiled back, eyes filled with the tears of my father.
Moshe Dann, a former assistant professor of history at the City University of New York, is a Jerusalem-based writer and journalist.