I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard of Michael Levin—13 or 14, I believe. Our synagogue screened a short documentary about his life and death called Hero in Heaven, created by a local filmmaker who happened to be a family friend. Though this was back when our family went to synagogue far more than we do now, the prospect of spending an evening at Temple Sinai was still less than appealing to me. But Dad wanted me to go with him, and if I remember correctly, I was enticed with a stop at a local pizza place.
The movie wasn’t an easy one to watch, and in that chilly, cavernous auditorium where a small crowd of congregants had gathered, the sounds of sniffles and stifled sobs were amplified to the point of acting as a soundtrack to the movie. Afterward, Michael’s mother thanked us all for coming, to raucous applause. I don’t remember what she said, nor do I recall what Dad and I talked about that night, but I do remember wondering what I was supposed to be feeling.
During the Second Lebanon War, 121 IDF soldiers were killed, and another 1,244 were wounded. Only one of the dead was an American, and his name was Michael Levin. He died during a firefight in Aita al-Shaab. He was 22.
Officially, the 2006 war started when a Hezbollah contingent fired upon Israeli Humvees, killing three soldiers, wounding two, and capturing two more (their bodies wouldn’t be returned for another two years). In reality, tensions had been boiling for years, and with the Lebanese government unable to restrain Hezbollah, it fell to Israel to beat the group back (ultimately, Hezbollah emerged from the war emboldened, largely due to substantial Iranian support). When the war broke out, Michael was on leave in America, agonizing over his unit, which had been deployed to Lebanon. He was antsy at home, and it grated on him when well-meaning neighbors asked him, yet again, why he’d chosen such a difficult life for himself. He’d timed his leave to attend a family friend’s wedding, and his family did their best to keep him busy, but most days, Michael sat in front of the TV, watching Phillies games. (Michael was a devout Phillies fan; once, he and his older sister Elisa sneaked into the site where Veterans Stadium had recently been demolished, running off with pieces of rubber and concrete.) Meanwhile, he obsessively called his friends in Israel for updates on the situation. “He was itchy to get back,” Elisa told me.
The outbreak of the war is probably my earliest Israel-related memory. The summer camp I attended was almost entirely Jewish, but it wasn’t a Jewish camp; the lakeside Kabbalat Shabbat services were more of an occasion to plunder an ample supply of challah and parve cookies than worship. While my friends at Ramah in the Poconos, a conservative Jewish camp, were being educated on the war in their Hebrew lessons, I found out that there was something going on only when a counselor left a copy of Time on his bed, the rubble of Beirut on the cover. I knew I was supposed to be upset, but around me, camp was functioning as usual—everyone seemed OK, and so I was OK.
Michael, who had attended Ramah as a camper and a counselor, went to Ramah’s visiting day that summer, two days before he returned to Israel. He was beloved there. Rabbi Joel Seltzer, now the director of Ramah in the Poconos, was his counselor in 1998, and again in 2000. He recalls how Michael, at about 14, put a hockey puck through a window, stared at Seltzer, “and, surrounded by a puddle of glass, he said, ‘Wasn’t me.’” (More than a few visiting days began with a counselor handing Michael’s parents a behavioral notice.) Once, Michael saw Seltzer kissing another counselor late at night, a counselor whom, unbeknownst to Seltzer at the time, he would later marry. Michael teased Seltzer about the little glimpse he’d gotten the next day, but he assured him, “You’re secret’s safe with me.”
“And the truth is, it was,” Seltzer told me. “He would lie down in traffic for you.”
Michael was from Holland, Pennsylvania, a town about a half-hour north of Philadelphia. If you go to his grave on Har Herzl, you’ll find the plot overrun with Philadelphia sports memorabilia—Phillies hats, baseball cards with little messages scrawled on them, pennants, etc. He was an enthusiastic member of the Hagesher Region USY, joined the cult that is Ramah in the Poconos, and spent a semester at the Alexander Muss High School program. His mother, Harriet, was the daughter of two Auschwitz survivors, and his father, Mark, had seen his own father become a decorated WWII soldier. Michael had been adamant that he would move to Israel since he was 10 years old, so by the time he told his family that he’d be joining the IDF after graduation, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. For Harriet, it was the culmination of a decades-long love of Israel; for Mark, it was a bit tougher, as he wanted to Michael to get his degree before he went to the army. Michael protested and Mark relented, knowing that his protests were powerless to stop his son. Three years later, Michael enlisted as a “lone soldier” (a term for IDF soldiers from abroad without any family in Israel).
Typically, the enlistment process isn’t particularly illuminating when it comes to the strength of someone’s will—it’s supposed to be the boring part. Not so with Michael. The legend goes that in the course of his enlistment, the gears of bureaucracy had gummed up, and Michael was waiting for weeks on several key documents that would allow him to enter basic training. Finally, he decided to go down to the admissions building, where he promptly was turned away from the front door due to his not having those papers. Michael, undeterred, walked in an alley next to the building, pushed a Dumpster up against the wall, climbed into a second story window, found the appropriate office, and got his enlistment sorted out. He was going to be a paratrooper, and one measly “no” wasn’t going to stop him.
When he was first starting to parachute out of planes, Michael, a little on the short side and weighing in at around 120 pounds, had to strap extra weight to himself in order to stabilize his descent (at Ramah, he’d been affectionately nicknamed “Termite”). All of the other men in his unit speak of him in mythical terms, admiring him for his humor, his devotion, and—a very Israeli-specific quality to admire—his refusal to complain. He quickly rose to become a first sergeant, with designs on becoming a career officer.
The last summer he came home, Michael wanted to surprise his parents. He and Elisa had made a yearly tradition of his yearly return to the States, sneaking him in the house to spring him on unwitting friends and family. The last time, in 2006, went down in Levin family lore as “Box Day”—Elisa and Michael conspired to “deliver” him to the house in a giant box, in order to jump out and “scare the crap” out of their parents. Needless to say, the ruse went exactly as planned; Mark and Harriet just about jumped out of their shoes when they saw their son pop out of the box. For the Levins, June 20 remains Box Day.
The day before Michael went back to Israel, Harriet threw an impromptu party at the Levin home. “We had never done that before,” she told me, describing how everyone who was at the party seems to have a picture from that day. The next day, he was on a flight out of JFK.
Michael spoke with his older sister, Elisa, before he went into Lebanon. In Elisa’s telling, their last conversation didn’t last more than a minute; Michael told her that he loved her and that he wanted her to know that if something happened, and Elisa assured him that he’d be fine, and that she loved him, too. Dara, his twin sister, missed his call. The week before he left, his parents had seen footage of a wounded soldier on the news, and they’d been frantically calling Michael. Finally, Elisa got in contact with him, and when he heard about his parents’ worrying, he did what any good Jewish son would do, and assured them that he was fine, and that they were overreacting. Right before he went into Lebanon, he called them again to let them know that he’d be without his phone for the near future. That was the last time they spoke.
Once, soon after I’d gotten my driver’s license, I found myself unfathomably lost. I made one wrong turn onto the highway, and soon I was hurtling towards the unknown, without a clue where I was headed, my phone dead, gas tank nearly empty, and less than a dollar in change. I stopped at a Sunoco in Downington, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles southeast of home, and tried to pay for gas with two quarters on pump #3, please. The man working the counter graciously spotted me two more quarters.
Miraculously, a toll attendant was able to direct me home. When I opened the front door, about two hours later than was expected of me, I found my Dad in his office, pacing, nervous, and, upon seeing me, relieved in a way I’d never seen before. He called my Mom and I heard the panicked “Hi” before he told her I’d made it home. When she pulled up in the driveway, she hugged me tight and told me she loved me, and when I told her that my phone had died and that I’d went through tolls with no cash, she told me I was an idiot, but that she loved me anyway.
The relief on their faces was comforting and frightening; comforting in its acknowledgment of how much I meant to them, but frightening in how revelatory it was of (a) their ultimate inability to protect me from anything, including myself and (b) how much that fact must’ve frightened them, too.
Some reports have Michael dying when an anti-tank missile struck the Aita al-Shaab building his unit had just taken, while others have him going down in a hail of bullets. The answer’s not important enough to ask anyone who knew him, both for its irrelevance to his life and to the crassness of the question. Regardless, he died on August 1, 2006.
Michelle Sugarman was on a trail with a cohort of Ramah campers that day. She’d been Dara’s division head (rosh edah, in Ramah-speak) back in the day, and had gotten to know the Levin brood well. Two administrators drove up to the campsite, calling Michelle over to speak with them, along with one of Michael’s best friends, Kevin Waloff.
The administrators sat them down and said, “We’re gonna tell you something, then we’re gonna give you a moment to collect yourself, and then we’re gonna tell you the plan.” Kevin “immediately lost it,” according to Sugarman. Her mind went to the sizable contingent of Michael’s friends on staff that summer. In between comforting Kevin and rounding up the campers, the camping trip was cut short, and they headed back to home base. Everyone had heard by then. “Camp did what it could in a crisis moment like that,” Sugarman told me, which entailed the camper care team—social workers, counselors, and the like—“meeting with anyone who wanted to,” both campers and counselors. In the dreary days following, a bus was sent to Philadelphia for the memorial service, taking a healthy portion of the staff with it. Sugarman stayed back to make sure camp kept running.
The day before Michael was killed, Mark and Harriet were at an Israel rally attended by the Israeli consul general, and when someone mentioned to him that the parents of a soldier were in the audience, he directed the crowd to give them a standing ovation. The next day, Harriet was at work, and for some reason, she was having trouble concentrating. The consul general walked into the office, along with her rabbi. “I honestly thought the consul general was coming to meet me, because of Michael,” she says. They brought her into an office and broke the news to her. A few floors down, Elisa happened to be working in the same building that day was working on a mural. Harriet often called her up for computer help, and that day, she did the same. “I could’ve been anywhere that day, but I happened to be in the same building,” Elisa told me. “Some people call it coincidence, some people call it other things.” After Elisa was told, they went to pick up Dara from Ramah Day Camp before heading home, where they told Mark. That was a Monday. Two days later, they were in Israel.
Michael had asked to be buried on Har Herzl should anything happen to him, and his wishes were honored. The day of the funeral, the mountain was overrun with soldiers and families. There must be other funerals going on today, Mark thought. And yet, as the service began, it became clear: all of those people, around 2,000, had come for Michael. Though he’d been a lone soldier, he’d touched many during his service, and Michael’s life resonated with Israelis. Today, the Lone Solider Center in Israel is named after him.
A story: each year, Ramah administrators travel to Israel to recruit and train young Israelis to be counselors for that summer—their group is called the mishlachat. One year, just a few after Michael had died, Seltzer was in Israel, interviewing kids and trying to whittle down the staff. One of the candidates was sitting quietly as the others talked amongst themselves. When it was finally his turn to speak with Seltzer, he asked the rabbi, quietly: “Is it true that Ramah Poconos is the camp that Michael Levin went to?”
I think every American Jewish male has entertained the idea of joining the IDF at one point or another. Maybe it’s because we read Exodus; maybe it’s the legends we tell our children about the founding of Israel, full of pale, effete socialists who thought they could put down their books and pick up a gun to protect the homeland. At least, I know I certainly have. It’s pure fantasy, usually—though we’re told from the time we’re young not to romanticize war and death, we do, anyway. Certainly if we’ve never taken part in it, or been affected in any meaningful way.
When I went on the Muss program in Hod Hadsharon, the same one Michael had been on, I hadn’t thought about him in years. And yet, as the jaws of that country grabbed me and held tight, and I had to sit myself down and really, truly ask myself if joining the IDF was something I wanted to do, let alone be able to do, my mind went to him. What had pushed him over the edge? Some of his friends and family seem to think it was his time at Muss, and indeed, in a news segment on Michael, a Muss program head recalls Michael declaring his intention to join the IDF as soon as he was of age (on the first day of the program, no less).
One of the last days of the program involves a trip to Har Herzl, Israel’s Arlington Cemetery with way more tree cover. We trudged up the mountain, around fifty students with a handful of chaperones and teachers, hats on, slathered in sunscreen, toting Nalgenes, the picture of seasoned Americans in Israel. We stood at Michael’s grave as part of the tour. Many of us had gone to Israel together in eighth grade as well, not long after I saw Hero in Heaven. During that trip, as we were turning to leave the grave behind, I couldn’t stand the sight of all those Phillies caps. I left my own ratty hat, only to be admonished for unnecessarily exposing myself to the elements. Sometimes, you can’t win.
On this later program, I sheepishly approached the grave as we were leaving, wondering if my addition to the shrine remained. Instead, Michael was covered in a whole new crop of caps.
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