My dear son,
It is with a mixture of many feelings that I write this letter.
Today is your birthday. 21 years ago, you were born on a cool, autumn morning in Englewood, New Jersey. What a happy day! Even before you came into the world, I knew where your future would be: In Israel, the land that we dreamed of. Back then, we planned to make Aliyah because we believed that Israel was the best place to raise Jewish children. We believed that, in Israel, you would live in an environment that would support Jewish values and allow you to flourish as a part of a unified nation. And that’s why, just 8 months after your birth, we made the move.
We were blessed to live a very good life here in Israel. Concerns for the safety of our family came up on occasion, but we tried to take practical steps to mitigate the risk. Although we always knew that we couldn’t completely avert danger, we felt that you and your siblings were pretty safe. From a young age, you wandered the streets of our town, especially on Shabbat when there were no cars. You took city busses back and forth in high school. You entered the army and worked hard to excel. Among our six children, you were never one to let your fears rule your life. Instead, you took steps to think rationally, act practically, and be courageous.
And now, here we are, on your 21st birthday. I know that you never imagined that today, you would be celebrating by entering a war zone, a first foray into hostile Hamas territory. I sure didn’t.
On my 21st birthday, I was already a mother of one and soon to be pregnant with you. So, maybe I have a skewed perception of what a 21st birthday should look like. Still, I will always remember my most notable encounter with a 21st birthday celebration during the summer before college. At that time, I worked in Savta’s office, and often interacted with her patients. Savta, as you know, was a neurologist, and on occasion, she had to perform EEGs (electroencephalograms) to study a patient’s brain activity. I’ll never forget one young male patient, who was scheduled to have an EEG early in the morning following his 21st birthday.
“Just so you know, I’m gonna be totally wasted,” he informed my mother.
“Oh, that’s okay,” was Savta’s reply, “It’ll be easier for you to fall asleep.” (a requirement for EEGs)
I was 18 at the time, just back from my year in Israel, and I was both surprised and not surprised. We were living in the United States, a land of freedom and entitlement. There, I surmised, it was perfectly natural that a 21-year-old would want to celebrate his final milestone towards adulthood with copious consumption of alcohol. But obviously, the whole point of establishing an age for the purchase of alcohol is to define the time at which one is responsible enough to make good decisions. With privilege should come responsibility. With his all-night drinking party (and total lack of shame about it, I might add), did that boy (man?) represent the responsibility of adulthood?
You, on the other hand, are living in a very different world. I imagine that many soldiers in Israel end up celebrating their birthdays in the field. But I don’t think anyone would expect to celebrate their 21st birthday as you must.
Still, under the circumstances, I am struck by the contrast between you and that patient. You are marking your milestone of adulthood by enduring extreme discomfort and danger for the sake of a higher ideal. No, you won’t be drinking until you are sick. But you will be standing up and fighting for a long-term goal: the safety of your nation and your people.
As a mother, this situation feels absolutely awful. All I really want is to wrap my arms around you, to snatch you up and take you home so you can be with your family. I want you to laugh and joke around with your siblings. I wish I could make your favorite birthday dinner and the most delicious chocolate cake imaginable and see your sweet smile of contentment.
Also, as a mother, I want to raise unselfish children who live for a higher purpose.
When we moved to Israel to raise our kids, I never imagined I’d be sending you into a battlefield one day. Still, looking back, I believe that our thought process was correct. It was a great place to raise you, a child who learned to selflessly serve a higher purpose. A young adult who overcame his fears, who learned to be comfortable with discomfort. A man who knows that the best things in life come with some sacrifice, who values long term success more than immediate pleasure, and who can endure suffering in service of a greater good.
You are a person who understands and values the people that you are a part of, and you are willing to stand up and fight for them.
I am so, so proud of you and everything about you.
Maybe a “happy” birthday is too much to expect, but from afar, I’ll be having a bittersweet and proud one. I can’t wait for you to return home so that we can celebrate the incredible man you’ve become. And so that I can make you a super delicious birthday cake.
I love you so, so much,