alex: Building a life

Alex: Building a Life

The Story of an American Who Fell Defending Israel

(Gefen Publishing House, 1996)

 

A 273 page collection of letters and drawings by Alex Singer that shares the thoughts and art of a young American who died defending Israel.

Free PDF version available:

 

 

  • May be ordered directly from Gefen Publishing here.

  • The book is now available in Hebrew through Rubin Mass Publishers, and can be found here.

  • To arrange discounts for educators and for bulk orders, please contact us.

All author's royalties are directed back to the Alex Singer Project, a non-profit organization.

Two educational resources are available for use in conjunction with Alex: Building a Life: An educator's guide and a 15-minute video presentation on Alex's life, art, and writings.

Excerpts

London, overlooking St. Paul's Cathedral

Year at London School of Economics:

Thinking Ahead to Israel

 

Dear Dad,

... for the first time I am now planning ahead and I like the feeling of thinking that I'll be in Tzahal in a little over a year. I'm waiting with bated breath for the letter which Mat (Lt. Col.) promised me, on how long I must serve and what chances are of getting into what I called an "interesting unit," possibly in active intelligence.

The prospect of going in the army makes me happy in more ways than one. I like the idea of getting away from the hypocrisy of Cornell profs who teach "x" without ever having done "x." If I ever go into a job writing about military issues I feel glad to know that I will have more experience than only reading books. I also like: the idea of being "in" at the same time that Daniel is, the idea of being in the best armed forces for the best country in the world, the shape I should get into, and a zillion other little unmentionable reasons. (It's not "cool" to say you like the idea of going in the IDF because you want to kill people who are trying to destroy your country and your people-even your family.)

I said to my friend Beni on Kissufim that it is much easier to die in a war than of a disease like leukemia, which a boy who was 10 when I left Kissufim has, and which will probably kill him within a year. But I'm not planning on dying soon. Now that I'm on the subject... an Interesting thing about me (maybe lots of people) is that I feel myself almost totally invulnerable, while I tend to worry about other people even if they're doing things about which I wouldn't have second thoughts. And, I am not reckless.

April 27, 1983

From Kibbutz Ein Tzurim:

"No Regrets"

 

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

I'm sitting watching TV at the kibbutz now. It's Saturday night and I go back to the army early tomorrow morning. I'll be going back for the last time in my Basic Training. Next time I have leave I'll be a real paratrooper, with a red beret and parachuting wings. During the two weeks between now and then I have only two tasks to complete: "jump school," which is teaching me to parachute, and the "Beret March" which is the final challenge of basic training--a ninety-kilometer all-night march from a spot near the Mediterranean to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The whole thing is supposed to be as moving as it is difficult.

I want you to know that I have no hesitation telling you about jump school because I know that I'm not giving you something to worry about. By the time you read this the jump training will be over, and it will be too late to worry.

The army is a series of challenges. Some are more difficult than others. Some are physical, some are spiritual, some are irritating, but all are new. I have no regrets about putting myself before all of these challenges; they teach well even if their education is different from that at Cornell.

June 22, 1985

Alex's First Jump

 

I'm on the edge of an airfield "somewhere in Israel" waiting for the plane which will take me to my first jump. My parachute is on my back and the sun is shining on my face from just above the eucalyptus trees.

I'm not scared I don't think. Two planes have already left -immense planes which look like gliding whales which swallow us like Jonah so as to spew us out later. The guys waiting with me are more nervous than I am, but I fear that I will join their jumpiness as soon as the plane arrives. They're joking around and the atmosphere is really quite light.

Next to me Leo is sitting with his hands knit behind his neck. His grandparents from Argentina are here and should meet him on the ground after the jump. (In his words.) I FEEL PROUD TO BE JUMPING AS A PARATROOPER IN THE ISRAELI ARMY. MY DREAM HAS COME TO A REALITY!!

Now I'm in the plane all buckled in. This thing looks like the bowels of a monster machine, with pipes and pads and straps and nets and cables all around. I feel secure, but the tension is building. Now the door’s closed and we’re moving. I really have to put this away now. I jumped! It was amazing, but I have to close as I’ve got a chance to send this.

June 30, 1985

Shouting and Singing in the Air

 

It's late morning now - I've already jumped twice once this morning, at sunrise, and once yesterday morning. Stepping out of an airplane at 1200 feet is like nothing else in the world. It is preceded by a fear which must accompany doing anything as ridiculous as stepping out of a secure place into emptiness. I kept telling myself that I wouldn't jump. Not seriously, because I knew I would jump, but nonetheless the feeling of wanting to turn around is there.

When my turn came (I jumped second) I guess that I jumped like they taught me, but I remember nothing from the second before I left the plane until I found my chute opening behind me. The moment of the jump (or the shove - it may be that the instructors pushed me, but I have no idea) is not in my memory. Today's jump I remember a bit better, but there's still at least a second missing from my recollection.

Once the fear passes - and the fear passes as soon as you're out of the plane - the jump is so much more pleasant than what I had thought, that I really enjoyed all of its sensations. The opening of the chute occurs with a smooth pull on the shoulders, rather than the jolt which we felt on the machines which simulate the jump. The ride is spectacular, and the landing is also softer than the landings we've practiced on the ground. Yesterday my landing was as soft as a jump off a milk crate, and today it was a bit faster - like a jump from a truckbed.

It's odd that I also don't remember much of the view from the air. I paid little attention to it, as I was thinking about checking my canopy, releasing the reserve (not opening it, just moving it out of the way), adjusting my flight path so as to land as close as possible to the target, keeping my legs together, and generally being overwhelmed by flying without an airplane.

The second you're in the air you want to shout and sing, so I did.

July 2, 1985

Falling Sergeants On a Hot Day

 

 

On Thursday I pinned sergeant's stripes to my uniform for the first time. The ceremony which exposed them, a few hours later, took place in the sun on a plain near one of our training areas. I found the whole business a bit comical, both because I find marching in formation to be amusing, and because my platoon-mates kept passing out. Teddy fell first - like a broomstick - flat on his face. After the ceremony I found him with a bandage wrapped around his head like a little boy with a toothache. He'd had six stitches in his chin, but was in a good mood. Levinson, the redhead, fell next, like a giant tree struck by lightning.

Then Yoram began to totter. I grabbed him and someone else rushed to lead him away. Then, as we marched in place before starting to parade, we saw that as we all lifted our feet high, Shifman's toes were glued to the floor and only his heels were being lifted to the drumbeat. We whispered to him, "Shifman, wake up!" but to no avail. He too had to be led away. A hot day.

April 20, 1986

officers' course, 1986

Officers' School: A Sense of Justice

 

 

Dear Katherine,

I will never do without questioning at least in my mind. You have to understand that the army, however, is not a place which demands its members to cease thinking. To a civilian the idea that orders must be followed is blown out of proportion. I want you to know that in my army, and especially where I am now in officers training, thinking is encouraged, especially about questions and dilemmas far more difficult than I think civilians see officers as having to face. Example: If I am sent on a mission and have the capability to deal with only ten prisoners, and my soldiers capture twenty, and freeing the extra ten will possibly mean the discovery, hence annihilation of my force, can I decide to kill ten of the prisoners?

You see, the officer must think, and do his thinking with a sense of justice far less abstract than that of the law professor or the civil judge. His sense of justice must be combined with his responsibility for the lives of his men, and his duty to complete the mission he has been given, to produce a decision usually in minutes, rather than in the years which an academic can take to answer (or declare "unanswerable") the same question. But, the quality of the officer's choice can be measured in terms of blood, while the academic sees his question and answer as largely hypothetical. I know I'm being harsh with academe but I want you to see an army, not as it has been portrayed to you through your whole life, by a generation of media-men who never served in armed forces. The young men I'm with are learning to think and make decisions harder than any in the civilian world and they are not abstract or far away.

We will win the next war, as we've won every war until now, and Israel will not be pushed into the sea.

I don't want to lecture anymore about Zionism and decisionmaking. I'd rather tell you about walking through a wadi in the middle of the night with a million stars over my head, and singing as I walk because I'm so content and so enjoying myself, and climbing mountains and looking over the desert, and seeing eagles and a huge waddling porcupine, and the goodness of the rest which always comes after a night of trekking with so much weight on my shoulders. There are nights which make the weight disappear, and I love those nights.

I'm feeling wonderful and very much at peace with my decision to stay on.

July 5, 1986

"...To Step Forward Myself"

 

 

Once in a while.

As I progress towards the course's end.

I feel a pang of fear.

 

Today I felt such fear.

If the war comes

When the war comes

I will have to lead men to die

But those men were not men a short time ago

Some don't even shave yet

And I will have to have the calm power

 

to yell to them

or to whisper

 

Kadima.

 

And,

I will have to have the calm power

to step forward myself.

August 1986

Reader Feedback

Alex's book invoked in me that our lives can be filled with meaning if we decide to pursue meaning. And that if we do, our sense of aloneness vanishes ... His sense of family, of Israel, of community, of nature, of aloneness are fascinating and beautiful. His writing has simultaneously comforted me and awoke in me all this longing to find a way to act, and to act as myself. It's not simple.

-Sarah Bardin

Alex's book has the potential to change lives. His writings convey powerfully and persuasively, an attitude and tone of voice that seems to be heard less and less. It's a voice that says that life is a gift to be lived fully, joyfully, spontaneously; that Judaism has the power and depth to challenge and enrich every Jew, and through them to improve the world; that doing for others is the most effective--the only--way of fulfilling yourself; and that Israel is the Jewish home and that instead of rejecting it for its faults we should work to correct them. Alex writes beautifully and honestly. His drawings are vivid and personal.

-Daniel Taub

I wish I could tell Alex how much he was able to guide me via his correspondences. Alex has played the role of a friend I have needed for quite some time now. There are very few people with whom one can openly and honestly discuss the issues behind aliya.

-Jason Greene

I attend the University of California at Berkeley, and am currently spending my junior year in Israel at the Hebrew University. ... Once I started Alex: Building a Life, I could not put it down. ... Reading Alex1s thoughts when he was deciding about aliya really helped me. There were so many moments as I was reading when I had to just stop because he had expressed my exact feelings right now. I don't think I have ever been so deeply affected by a book as I was by Alex. I have been spreading the word and all my friends are going to read the book as well.

-Sophy Weintraub

I am a graduate of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville MD, where I first read Alex’s book. I brought the book with me to our senior class trip to Israel, and read it again while traveling the country. I have bought copies for friends of mine who had made aliyah and are serving in the army.

I am currently working for PANIM--The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values in Rockville. We are designing an Israel education/advocacy seminar for high school students; and I am in the process of incorporating Alex’s life and the video/DVD about Alex into the seminar.

Alex inspired me as a high school student to follow my dreams and to act on what I believe. Alex has stayed with me throughout these years. My plan is to make aliyah in the next few years and I know that the book will be with me as I go through that process.

-Jordana Luks

I'm a student at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI in Hod Ha'Sharon). I felt that I ought to write to you and your family to give my thanks and gratitude for what you did in putting together Alex's incredible story. After recently listen to stories from our teachers Yossi Katz and Tuvia Book and seeing the presentation of Alex's letters and drawings that now stands proudly on the wall of our school, I decided to read the book and almost never put it down until reading your heart felt letter at the end. Especially with my group here about to go to Gadna (4-day basic training course), having had my own family fight for and protect Israel, and the great love we have for the country, Alex's story truly touched me and many others of us here.

His memory, may it be blessed, will continue to live on through each of us.

-Lauren Carel
Click here to read Reviews of the book. 
tHE ALEX SINGER PROJECT
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