Soldier, King, Slave–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The heart is two
It’s yes and no.

    <em>Avraham Halfi on stage</em>
Avraham Halfi on stage
It’s an Avraham Halfi moment. Like an overstimulated actor, I’ve pushed my way to center stage. Slipping between mothers sitting in chairs, climbing over brothers and sisters on stools, I’ve gotten to the edge of the clear spot next to the screen on which we’ve just seen a film of our sons in action. Only then do I see that N’s father is there, ready to speak. I’m such an idiot. Sorry, I mumble, go ahead. No, it’s fine, N’s father says. Really, I didn’t . . . Don’t sweat it. He steps aside.

We’re in the backyard of S’s house, a green corner deep in one of the commuter suburbs that has sprung up between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the last two decades. “We” are the families of the dozen young men in my son’s commando squad, who a week before finished their year and then some of intensive training. In collusion with us, their commander, O, brought them to S’s house, where they discovered their mothers and fathers and sibs waiting. Meat was on the grill, salads abundant. The setup was worthy of a wedding, because H’s parents, who have a company that stages events, brought a truckfull of sleekly-designed tables, chairs, stools, and even four couches to lounge on, not to mention lights, gas heating elements, a screen, a projector, and flowers.

The newly-certified commandos don’t look particularly warlike. They’re dressed in shorts and teeshirts despite the winter chill. Grins on their faces, but beyond that no sign of surprise or emotion. They are the survivors of a grueling selection process that whittled their numbers down from a group twice the current size; one of the main criteria for selection seems to have been the ability to project an air of insouciance. We parents are beside ourselves, want the boys to be surprised and ecstatic. We know nothing about what they do in the army—can’t we know something about what goes on inside them? Apparently that, too, is classified.

Comical in a crown of gloom
The cruel king loudly mocks
His own command as he transmutes into a slave.

There ought to be a poem, I decided the previous night. An event such as this needs a poem, a Hebrew poem. So I culled some classics from our poetry shelf—early Alterman, the volume of Natan Zach I picked up the previous week, the anthology of 66 modern Israeli poets. Each volume is full of turned-down corners or paper clips, marking poems that struck me. I began reading through them. But Alterman seemed too pat, Zach too cynical. As so often happens, I found myself drawn to Avraham Halfi.

Halfi is the sad clown of Hebrew poetry, the versifier of vacillation, the bard of this and that, the lyric voice of maybe, maybe not. Born on Purim close to the beginning of the twentieth century, he came to Palestine in 1925. After a short stint as a socialist worker in the Labor Battalions, relocated to Tel Aviv, got a job as an actor at the Ohel Theater, and began writing poetry in his adopted language.

One might expect a person whose job involved public appearances to be extroverted. One might expect poetry written by a person whose career involved taking on the characters of others to explore the variety of human nature. But Halfi’s verses are intensely personal and internal. More often than not, his voice is located inside a room, looking out the window. He’s alone, but never silent, because his soul is always split. He acts on nothing; he undergoes. Halfi was a man without belief who couldn’t help talking to God, a quiet, unassuming person who waged pitched battles against himself.

On his belly the servant grovels
Before the grandeur of the condemning king
And a tear of disgrace
Falls from his eye
None can fathom his sobs and none can save him.

I see blank stares on the faces of the parents. What, they wonder, is the connection between this image and these strapping young men? Why, I wonder, am I standing here in front of them, reading a depressing poem on a happy occasion? I have exposed myself. I feel like I did in high school, the guy who always seemed to be in the wrong place and say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

On the face of it, it’s a squad of kings, not slaves. The family names are all Ashkenazi or modern Israeli. My own son and a couple others products of interethnic families are the closest the group gets to Mizrahi. My family also stands out just like I’m doing as I recite. We’re the only one of the families who lives in a city, and the only one that lives in an apartment rather than a house. I seriously doubt that now, in Israel’s seventh decade, that this bias is the result of deliberate discrimination. Rather, it’s more likely that these kinds of families, living in well-off suburbs, and in moshavim and kibbutzim, provide their kids with the kinds of upbringing, values, and educational and extracurricular opportunities that motivate and qualify a teenager for being a commando candidate.

Whatever it is, these boys have displayed singleminded devotion to meeting the intense physical and mental demands of their training. They’re forbidden to talk about what they do, and most of them are not constitutionally disposed to telling their parents such things even if they were allowed. So what little information I have I’ve gleaned from a book published a few years ago from a former member of this unit. From that source I know that these soldiers are supposed to be the most physically fit men in the army, that they specialize in navigation in the dark, and that their final test, the one they passed the week before, was an entire week of making their way over huge distances on foot, each one alone, through the desert at night, and hiding out during the day.

And here I am reciting from a book of the archetypical man of two minds. The doublehearted. Yes and no.

And suddenly he is iron, strikes back with a hammer.
His metal fired in a blistering flame.

My kid laughs whenever I try to compare my army service to his. It’s just not the same, he says, and he’s right. I was a combat soldier, but nowhere near this level. I can only imagine his experience, and not very well.

I try to explain myself to my fellow parents. “We’re proud of our sons, of course,” I say. “And we’re happy to see them so devoted, loyal, and motivated. But that joy is inevitably mixed with sadness and trepidation. We fear what might happen to them physically, how their experience may affect them emotionally, and we can’t help but be melancholy when we can know so little about what their lives are like. We are of two hearts, yes and no.”

What I find astounding about the men in the squad is how far they are from the stereotype of
the commando. They are unassuming, they glow with health and fitness but lack all macho swagger, and their favorite pastime, as we see later in the evening when R takes out his guitar, is singing plaintive Hebrew folksongs.

Perhaps they wouldn’t admit it, but I am sure that each one, inside, also feels the yes and no of the soul, the heart that is both the tormenter and the slave. When you have to walk all night in the rain in the winter, cold and wet, all alone, your will may overcome your hesitations, but the other heart incessantly asks: What am I doing here? What do I need this for? Why not just stop?

His flesh aches. But no mercy
Has the king for the slave.

After the film where we saw our sons trudging up mountains, practicing urban warfare, and just lying around, we had a guessing game. We parents each supplied a story about our son, and a photograph of him as a small boy. On the screen, we see three pictures of a boy in a dress. “He always insisted on dressing up as a girl,” says the text. This is O, the commando commander.

I step out of the spotlight. A mother touches my arm. “I’m glad you read that,” she says.

Having finished their training, our sons will go into action. How can we know them if we know so little about them? All we can do is to look into ourselves, says the man in the makeup, the poet who played Rumpelstiltskin on stage by night and fought his soul in the poetry he wrote in his room by day. The boys, in service of their country, will endure many things that we will never fathom. What we will endure, they will not comprehend. They and we. The heart is two. Yes and no.

”Solider, King, Slave” was published in The Jerusalem Report, April 27, 2009

Links to more Necessary Stories columns

For another riff on Halfi by Haim, see Hours Without Mercy on

1 thought on “Soldier, King, Slave–“Necessary Stories” Column from <em>The Jerusalem Report</em>”

  1. I wouldnt bother with Nathan Zach. The Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg was a much better writer. Zach and Rosenberg pretty much have the same opinions of Jews, but Zach is more tortured because he is what he loathes

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