Earlier today I found myself submitting a blog entry in honor of the death of Ingmar Bergman, a man whose work has influenced me greatly but to whom I have had no direct connection throughout my life. While this tends to be a forum for my thoughts on film and other arts, it seems foolish to go without mentioning a good friend of mine who the world lost a year ago, Michael Levin.
Mike was a friend of mine back at Council Rock High School, where we sat next to each other in geometry our Junior. But that, of course, was to be our least exciting aspect of that year. From February to April of 2001, we went on the same trip to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. It was an intense eight-week program in the middle of the school year that followed a rigorous curriculum of Israeli and Jewish history, from the Torah to today. We also had tutors keeping us up to speed with our American studies. Mike and I had the same tutor for Geometry over there, which was just a little bit of a joke for the two of us. We just had too much fun.
We were all greatly moved and changed by that experience in Israel, though anyone that went on the trip could attest to the fact that Mike was affected on a more profound level. When we came back, there were a few of us who remained in yarmulke and tzit-tzit (the fringes that hang from your shirt), but as the weeks strained on back in our trendy, suburban, overwhelmingly Jewish public school, we all fell back into routine. Not Mike though. His mind was made up during the trip about how he would live the rest of his life.
Many of us considered making Aliyah and moving to Israel, serving in the Army, and making a life in the Jewish homeland. But for many of us, the allure of an American college experience won our hearts over. Of course, not Mike. He told us his plans all along, to move there after High School and join the paratroopers, an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. We of course ragged on him, for we weren’t sure yet how serious he was. His Hebrew, like our own, was inadequate for most things let alone taking orders in the army.
Mike was also seemed an awkward fellow at times back then. He was obsessed with dance films, especially those with Julia Stiles that were so popular in high school. He even knew a number of ballet positions. Whenever this subject came up a macho button inside of me would go off, but the joke was always on me. Talking about dance always got him the best girls. Always. For his ability to climb most anything put in front of him, his nickname on the trip was Mogley, which matched perfectly to his curly hair.
After high school we all went our separate ways and tried our best to keep in touch. But with Michael in Israel, at first as a student and then as a citizen, he and I grew far out of touch. I have always regretted this, but I figured once we all settled and the tumult of college and army were through, there would be plenty of time to catch up on those lost years.
While my close friend Kevin, who was like a brother to Michael, was on a trip to New Orleans with his campers last summer, I called him to say hello, taking advantage of precious cell service outside of the camp. He was excited to announce “I’ve got Michael on the other line!” and then connected us via conference call. He was back home in Holland, PA, cutting his leave early to go back and join his unit as war had broken out in Southern Lebanon. He was leaving the next day for Israel. As usual, he was of few words, even though I hadn’t spoken with him in many months. I had to press him for information on his life, for there was nothing glamorous about it to him. It was just his own life. When he told me why he was heading back, I said two things to him: “Be safe. Kick some ass.”
Now, this is about the point where the Michael we all knew ends and the legend begins. I do not mean this as an insult to his memory, for everything that happened in the ensuing weeks is very true. I simply mean to say that a lot has been written on Mike, and much of it focuses on these last two weeks. It is so compelling that it almost seems like a storybook, and not the guy we knew. All I’ll say more on this is that he found a way to force himself back to his unit in Lebanon.
On Monday night, July 31st last year, I spoke with my parents who had just come from an Israel rally at a local synagogue that was packed to the gills with around 1000 people. Rockets were raining down on northern Israel by the hundreds every day, causing major cities along the border to evacuate and send their citizens to bomb shelters. This was war as I had never seen in my lifetime in Israel. This was what the Israeli Defense Forces gear up for. This was why Mike joined the military: not to fight for the sake of fighting, but to defend the Jewish state. And so in the suburbs of Philly, a crowd of a thousand stood and cheered as Michael’s family was announced. The family of a local boy fighting for exactly what we all we wished we could fight for. my parents told me how excited the whole community was for him. That Monday, Michael went into Lebanon.
On Tuesday, August 1st, I opted to shirk my evening responsibilities at the camp I was teaching filmmaking at and head out to the town of Milford, which boasted a single really nice coffeehouse. Toting my New York Times, I ordered a cup of joe and looked forward to relaxing in its aromas before taking that first delicious sip. Then my dad called with the news of Michael’s death. I had almost prepared myself for this terrifying news, but I still could not wrap my head around it. I had spoken to him a few weeks before. We were to catch up and get together later, after the war.
His death was followed by a media frenzy. He was the first American killed in this conflict, and his life story was so compelling that no one could resist it. His parents receive letters by the ton telling of how his story touched so many lives. By the end of the week he was on the front page of every paper in the country. But his friends grieved together, without all that noise. It was almost, even at that dark time, entertaining to see what facts were real and which fabricated in all the stories from around the world, especially the spelling of his name and his age.
This past March I finally went to visit him in Israel, though sadly it was at the Har Herzl Cemetery, Israel’s equivalent of Arlington National. Here is a retelling of a trip there I wrote after returning to the states in March:
Our schedule was incredibly packed, but we wanted to make sure we went to Har Herzl a few times since that was the main reason for our trip. Midway through however, we had only been there once. So Wednesday night, after returning from dinner at a friend’s in Maccabeam, we hopped a cab directly to the cemetery. When our cab driver told us we’re crazy because it’s closed, we told him we have a friend in there. He went on to drop us off by the museum end of the mountain. Did he think our friend was Theodore Herzl himself? There were light showers in Jerusalem all day, but at this time the rain had stopped. The cabbie made a u-turn and dropped us off at the proper point. This had been my second time to Mike’s Grave and Kevin’s third since he was at the funeral. On our first time on this trip, Mike’s friend Baruch led the way to the grave, and Kevin could hardly recognize the place from the funeral as there were so many people around that day. Suffice it to say, we were alone on a damp night with only some clue as to where to find the proper grave. It all felt rather, I don’t know, “Scooby-Doo” I guess, but we managed to retain our composure and keep the solemnity of the place. So we passed through the main gate and made our way to the first stairway. After some discussion, we figured that was the proper way to go. So we both placed a single foot on the first step leading into the cemetery ready to begin our way up the dimly lit stairs, when, suddenly, all of the lights at Har Herzl went out at once with a bright blue flash. Thunder began to rumble from behind the mountain and the rain started again. There we were, in the middle of a cemetery at night in the rain with no lights anywhere. We reacted in the only logical manner, we bolted in the opposite direction for the gate and back out to the street hysterically laughing. We just couldn’t contain ourselves any longer. Thank goodness no other families of soldiers were there to witness this silliness. But we both knew, without saying it, that Mike would certainly join in our laughter were he outside the gates with us. More likely than not, he was laughing at us from within the gates. We finally contained ourselves and made it back to his grave as the rain came down harder. There was much silence between us. When we came with other people, we would share stories about Mike, but not this time. This time was much more personal. We just stood there and thought about him. I took some photos, something I had hesitated to do before making this trip. It felt inappropriate to take pictures of a friend’s grave, until I realized that it is so helpful for those who cannot make this journey to visit him so often. Not to mention Mike had his big SLR strapped around his neck everywhere we went on our trip to Israel in high school. We stood in the rain until we felt we didn’t need to stand there anymore. We returned the next day in sleet and snow for our final visit before leaving Jerusalem. I guess Mike wanted to make sure we would have stories to tell.
I know this is running on and meandering and such, but it’s so hard to organize so many thoughts on one person. To many people, Michael’s story and tragic end make him a hero. But I can honestly say, without pouring on the cheese at all, that he was a hero of mine well before he went to battle, before he joined the Army, before he moved to Israel. We have a song that we sing at the Passover Seder, “Deyeinu”, “It Would Have Been Enough…” during which we recount all the things G-d did for us and how we didn’t even need everything. Mike, as that wiley character I knew and respected and loved and laughed with in high school, would have been enough. But of course, Michael Levin strove for so much more.