BooK Reviews

In Two Days, I Will Be 25. “Makor Rishon” January 10, 2008 - Shmuel Faust
 

    Alex – The Art of Life
    The Story of a Young Man who Immigrated from America and Fell Defending the Homeland
    From his Writings, Journals and Drawings
    Alex Singer z"l
    Translation: Lilli Stern
    Rubin Mass Publishers, Jerusalem 2007, 272 pages

 

Israeli advertising firms have launched a campaign: "A real Israeli does not shirk" is the crude and simplistic slogan chosen to adorn street posters. The issue of evading military service and the question of motivation for enlistment are still on the agenda. Recently, the public has begun to scrutinize the military background of actors and singers, and local councils are setting military service as a threshold condition for their appearance on Independence Day entertainment stages. Newspapers have published IDF research on the rate of enlistment among the graduates of the various high schools and the percentage of those serving in combat units. And again the issue of education has become intertwined with the social issue, which is at the soul of Israeli society. With much naivety, I am a great believer in the power of the spoken and written word to educate, and the power of a book to touch the depths of a person's soul and motivate him toward lofty acts. For me, the book that tells the story of Alex is such a book.

 

The prime of life
Alex Singer was born in New York on September 15, 1962 and grew up on a quiet street, with woods and a stream flowing behind his parents' home. Alex and his three brothers swam in the pond at the top of the hill, raised turtles and rabbits, and made tiny amounts of syrup from the maple trees. Alex was good-natured and exuded happiness toward everyone around him. He began to draw at the age of four or five. His parents, Suzanne and Max, did not belong to a synagogue and did not maintain any connection with the Jewish community; they did not send their sons to Hebrew school. However, as their older sons approached bar mitzvah age, they wanted their children to know more about their Jewishness and this led to take an unusual and fateful step – a trip to Israel for a sabbatical year. In the summer of 1973, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, the Singers arrived in Jerusalem. At the end of the year, the feeling that they had not absorbed enough of the experience, language and landscape of Israel led them to extend their stay to four full years. During those years, Alex studied in a state school in Jerusalem and then went with his older brother, Saul, to study and work on Kibbutz Kissufim, until the family returned to the U.S. in 1977. After completing high school, Alex was accepted as a College Scholar at prestigious Cornell University, which enabled him to construct an independent program of studies from subjects that interested him. He chose, among other subjects, Jewish studies, Russian studies and economics. Alex preferred to spend his summer vacations at the Brandeis Camp Institute. His experiences there provided him with a name for the feelings he harbored – "tikkun olam" – and placed them in the context of the goals of Judaism. He began to think about the meaning of the Jewish tradition and the commandments of Judaism for modern life, and about the way to integrate them into his own life.

During a year of studies at the London School of Economics, Alex managed to visit the families of refuseniks in Russia, and to travel in Italy, Spain and Greece, studying the lives of Jews in these places, in the past and in the present. During all of his travels, Alex sent many letters to his family and friends, and recorded his thoughts, in words and drawings, on the pages of his journal. His travels in the Jewish communities in Europe became the subject of Alex's thesis, which he called "Letters from the Diaspora." While writing the thesis, Alex asked himself many questions about his future as a Jew, the place he would like to live, and how he could make a valuable contribution to the Jewish people. He came to a decision – he decided to immigrate to Israel and enlist for military service.

 

On the last day of 1984, Alex immigrated to Israel and lived in a small room in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem, while also spending time at Kibbutz Ein Zurim. Several weeks after "making aliyah," at age 22, Alex enlisted in the IDF and volunteered for the paratroopers. The full gamut of his feelings and emotions, physical and mental difficulties, the pride of achievements, the loneliness and longings, as well as his thoughts about Zionism, self-realization, sacrifice, world politics, and interpersonal relations – Alex put down in writing, in three journals and in hundreds of letters. In a small notepad he always carried, Alex incessantly sketched everything he saw.

Despite the difficulties, and his relatively advanced age, Alex chose to extend his military service by a year and went to infantry officers' course. In May 1987, he became a platoon commander in the Givati Brigade. On September 15th of that year, Alex landed with his platoon in the security zone in Lebanon with the goal of intercepting terrorists on their way to Israel. However, they landed in a counter ambush. During the battle with the terrorists, Alex was shot and killed, on his 25th birthday. In a letter he wrote to a friend and never completed, he writes: "The day after tomorrow I’ll be 25. This is a good age – ‘the prime of life.’"

 

Thinking about happiness
After Alex fell in battle, his family decided that the best way to memorialize him and to inspire young people who are grappling with the same questions he wrestled with in his life, was to collect his writings and publish them as a book. Alex – Building a Life was published in English in 1996. Eleven years later, the book appeared in Hebrew translation.

In his letters and journal entries, Alex comes across as a brilliant young man, curious and inquisitive, funny, optimistic and full of faith. He was very much occupied with the "big" questions and the right place for him to fulfill the ideals in which he believed:

 

"The purpose of my aliya will be a combination of wanting a greater chance to make my Judaism one of joy rather than one of burdens, of wanting to be part of Israel’s development both as a state and as a beacon, and of feeling that it is the duty of the individual Jew to help the Jewish people.” (From a letter to Saul, April 17, 1983, on the Alex Singer website, www.alexsinger.org)


His prodigious love and concern for his parents, brothers, grandfather and grandmothers, and for his friends, is evident in each of his many letters. He offers advice to his brothers, heaps affection upon them, and also shares with them his internal conflicts and pains. He is interested in his father's work and enjoys reading his articles in various magazines. On his mother's birthday, he writes:

 

"Dearest Mother, Happy Birthday… I’m thinking of you, and tears are welling up in my eyes, because when I spend time thinking of you I miss you….I think three things. I think gratitude….I think admiration for how you’ve raised us….I admire the way you have taken your children for what each of them is, and added to each of them. Third, I think joy. Joy is maybe what I feel most when I think of you, because you take the world so well and that makes me happy. Love, Alex”


During basic training, objective difficulties, medical problems, the dilemmas about the ideal fulfillment of his potential, and the feeling that he is not doing anything useful or interesting, lead to internal deliberation that usually culminates in optimism. Alex realizes that the fact he had the option of choosing whether to serve, unlike his Israeli friends, is what leads him to engage in an internal debate over whether he did the right thing, and he is tormented by this uncertainty:

"At the swearing-in ceremony I promised to give my life (even) for this country. That was pretty odd, and saying it really brings into focus what I’ve done. I wouldn’t say I have no regrets, because this is a hard place to be…but when I sit myself down and think rather than just feel, I still know I did the right thing.”
 

As someone who came from a nearly assimilated family from a perspective of Jewish education, Alex wrestles with the Jewish tradition and observing the commandments. There is something genuine and refreshing in his frank ponderings. He says that the commandments pertaining to one's fellow man are clear to him, and tells how difficult it is for a rationalist like himself to do strange things like putting on tefillin. Yet he is strict about putting them on. In his various letters from the army period, he talks about the importance for him of praying in a minyan, the importance of fasting on Tisha B'Av, and of observing kashrut, and his indecision about wearing a kippa ("it goes from my head to my pocket like a yo-yo…") While at officers' course, he writes:

 

“I also have to start thinking about my Judaism. I find that I'm not comfortable living with the level of observance that I want for myself and my family. I've always told myself that ‘later’ I'll wear a kippa, observe Shabbat more fully, etc.; but I don't think that later is too close. It's not that I've lost idealism, it's just that I haven't done anything with it in the past year; other than join the Israeli army which isn't enough.”


Also during difficult moments, on long marches and guard duty, Alex does not forget in his letters and journal to be amazed by the landscape around him (which he drew non-stop), and to be sensitive to the people around him. The drawings he left, which he sometimes describes (or the moment of drawing them) in writing, add much to the emotion that arises from his letters. His special sensitivity, like his compassion and humor, are evident in them, and the skill with which he did them, under various and strange conditions, is very impressive. Here and there they provide historical-like documentation, like for example the drawing of the Nada bakery, which is familiar to long-time Jerusalemites and which Alex especially loved.

 

Alex's letters

The era of the Internet, email, cell phones and SMS, which has many advantages of its own, is burying the era in which writing letters was the principal means of communication between people. The handwriting, the shakiness, the erasures, the symbols and notes, communicate personal feelings and describe situations in a way that a huge assortment of computerized icons could never do.

The genre of books that are a collection of journal entries and letters written to real people in real time is a special one. This is primarily due to the realization that the words were not written with an awareness of the audience that would someday read them, and they reflect a type of honesty and authenticity that is difficult to reconstruct. In addition, as Alex himself writes:

 

"It seems to me that one of the best things about keeping in touch, through letters, with you folks, but with Mon and Dad especially, is that I think we can talk in our letters much more than we would if I were at home.”


There is no experience of voyeurism in reading the book. There is great intimacy, which every reader feels part of, as if he has always known Alex and as if Alex's letters are addressed to him, inviting him to join in his thoughts and internal deliberations, as well as in his joy and in describing his journeys.

When we read in the writings of young people who have died in war about their attitudes toward death, their thoughts about sacrificing their lives or, on the other hand, their long-term plans, these are always poignant sections. While seen in retrospect as premonitions, these thoughts actually sound very logical for any young person, particularly in the context of army combat duty. Personally, I found that one letter he wrote, in a different context, is even more heart-rending than thoughts about death. Alex writes to his family about the experience of reading The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu – the well-known collection of letters from an IDF officer, published after he fell in battle. Alex describes his initial reaction as a sense of guilt that he was not scrutinizing himself in everything as Yoni Netanyahu did, that he was not making the best use of his time, that he did not devote sufficient care to his family and was not sensitive enough. He writes that 'what Yoni's letters did for him “is give me shot in the arm…the letters have revived my usually healthy optimism about all things working out for the best in the future based on the way they have worked out in the past…"

 

Alex, of course, could not have imagined this, but his letters, which turned into a book, are now part of an exemplary genre of letter collections like The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu. The hope is that reading Alex's letters will give young readers a "shot in the arm" – in thinking about ideals, Judaism, making a contribution and service, and in the healthy optimism he exudes, despite everything. Though the expression is already completely worn-out as a PR cliché – this book is a must. Really. It is a must for young Jews abroad in educational and community frameworks and in projects like "birthright." (After writing this, I glanced at the Web site of the Alex Singer Project and was glad to find that such efforts are indeed being made with the English version of the book.) The Hebrew version is required reading, in my view, for high school teachers and students, for members of youth movements, and for soldiers in military units. The idealistic inspiration and the personal example that emerge from the pages of the book, and the identification with Alex's joyful and vivacious personality, are needed like oxygen for anyone who teaches young people and for all of us during our hours of despair and pessimism. (As this article goes to press, I have learned that the publisher is indeed in contact with schools, seeking to introduce the book to students.)

 

A handsome smile
Rubin Mass Publishers should be commended for choosing to publish this book. The name of the book in Hebrew – The Art of Living – is fitting, meaningful and loftier than the original. I did not compare the English text to the Hebrew translation, but it seems to be very faithful to the original and is marred by only a few mistakes. It is easy to recognize many linguistic constructions and expressions that are a literal translation from the English and are not used in Hebrew. At first I considered this to be a flaw, but on second thought, there is a certain charm and authenticity in conveying the original language of Alex. Together with this, there are attempts to use the latest lingo, and military slang in particular. Thus, we encounter "arsim" [punks], "chnana" [nerds] and even "jifa" [scum]. In order to improve future editions, I would dare to suggest that the Hebrew edition could easily do without the introduction by (retired) Major General Uzi Dayan, which is a bit inarticulate. In particular, it is not clear what the connection is between the author of the introduction and the book, and it detracts from the familial feeling and lack of pompousness that characterizes the book.

 

The book could also benefit from a higher level of proofreading. There are unfortunate mistakes in the book's epilogue, for example, where it was not decided – apparently due to differences in pronunciation – whether the name of Alex's commander, who was the first to fall in the same operation, is Ronen Weizman or Weissman, and his position is also mistakenly translated as Alex's "platoon commander" instead of "company commander." There are also other minor mistakes of less importance scattered throughout the entire book, and correcting these mistakes would only enhance it.

Alex was killed in battle about two months after I enlisted in the army. I did not know his story, but I very much identified with his descriptions of life in the army during the same period. When you read the book as is, from beginning to end, and come to know a fine and handsome young man, with the smile from his eyes and lips shining from the cover and from the pictures inside, and also journey into his thoughts and into the depths of his soul – it is impossible not to shed tears of real pain and a sense of great kinship. When you digest what is written, the feeling of sadness is joined by a sense of a missed opportunity – missing the life of an intelligent and talented person, warm and sensitive, loving and idealistic, who faced all of the tests of contribution and sacrifice, including the last and ultimate one. His life was devoted, without a bit of cynicism, to ascending the path toward "perfecting the world under the reign of the Almighty." And together with this, he was so human, so fragile, so real and so alive.

 

The Alex Singer Project provides educational materials based on the book, including a short video, teacher's guide for use in the school, and more. I highly recommend visiting the Web site (English and Hebrew): www.alexsinger.org

Neither a saint nor a superhero – a real-life person. “Haaretz” May 7, 2008 - Yair Sheleg

 

Alex Singer was a young Jewish-American who managed to do much in his short life. He was born and grew up in the U.S. in a Jewish family of economic and public prominence: His father was one of the founders of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and his mother is a senior editor at Moment magazine and the Biblical Archaeology Review. (The former is a general Jewish monthly and the latter is a leading magazine for biblical archeology.) As such, all of the doors of the American elite were open to him. And, indeed, he completed his bachelor's degree at the prestigious Cornell University and also spent a year studying at the London School of Economics, one of the world's leading schools of economics.

Since his childhood, he had a deep relationship with Israel. He lived in Israel for four years, and studied at the high school of Kibbutz Kissufim in the Negev toward the end of this period. This was presumably the "Israeli chapter" in his life and not something that would change the American's anticipated future. But he decided at age 21 – following the path of his younger brother Daniel – to immigrate to Israel and enlist for combat service in the Paratroop Brigade. He completed officers' training and was assigned to command a platoon in the Givati Brigade. On September 15, 1987, on his 25th birthday, he was killed with two of his comrades in a battle with terrorists in the "Security Zone" in southern Lebanon.

 

Singer had two hobbies: drawing and writing. He did not write professionally, and thus expressed his love in writing countless letters – mainly to his family, but also to friends and significant people he met during the course of his life. For this reason, his family decided to memorialize him in a book that presents a selection of his drawings and letters to the general public. The book was published in English in 1996 [as Alex: Building A Life] , nine years after his death, and has now been published in a Hebrew edition.

The letters indeed reveal the writing talent of an acute observer who knows how to express his insights in writing; a loving person, but one who also knows how to immediately identify the weaknesses of people; a curious person with a talent for description, who is able to communicate to the reader in a few sentences the "atmosphere" of the place he is writing about. He could have been an excellent journalist.

 

The genre of "a collection of letters" as an expression of memorialization is not a simple one. In the Israeli culture of remembrance, there is one salient example of this type of book, which has indeed perpetuated its author in the consciousness of tens of thousands of Israelis – Yoni's Letters [published in English as The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu] of Yoni Netanyahu, who fell in the operation to rescue the hostages in Entebbe in 1976. In one of the letters in the book, Singer actually mentions Yoni's Letters (and reading them made him feel guilty that he was not reaching Yoni Netanyahu's level of sensitivity and ability to selflessly praise others). This raises the question of whether Singer wrote his own letters with an awareness of the possibility that one day someone might read them.

But a rare confluence is expressed in Yoni's Letters: a son of a famous family, a hero of a particularly prominent operation, and texts that also have a very strong ideological dimension – profound fervor of love for the land and state; the stubborn insistence on returning to Israel while his family was living in the U.S.; "rigid" letters by a very committed person, anxious about the future of the state, almost preaching – in short, everything that is supposed to comprise the character of a mythological sabra. Does Singer's collection of letters offer such added value, something that can be meaningful beyond the members of his family and friends? Ostensibly, the answer is no. Most of the letters are very personal, quite short, and even when they describe ideological dilemmas, the things are said succinctly and in a personal style, and not as a lecture that could be quoted for generations by counselors in youth movements. Nonetheless, even if it is difficult to point to a specific letter in the collection that could serve as a model with which many could identify, the totality of the person arising from the letters is what gives the book its importance and also makes its author an exemplary figure.

The figure arising from the letters is an unconventional young person, not someone who can be pegged in the usual categories, for example of religious or secular. He has a deep relationship with Judaism. He regularly prays in the synagogue in London during his studies there; as a soldier in Israel, he lives at Ein Zurim, a religious kibbutz. But he does not meticulously observe mitzvoth [Jewish religious commandments]. He writes on Shabbat, and in one letter he even admits that it was written on Yom Kippur. He loves life and loves people, and makes friends easily. He travels by train from Italy to Spain and already visits a church with a member of a family he met on the train. He reports on a year of "a zillion little relationships which shouldn't be called more than flirtations." In the same breath, he explains that "girlwise … I'm still a wimp at heart."

To the book's credit, it can be said that it does not seek to portray its hero as a saint or superhero. There are quite a few letters in which he tells about depression, doubts about his ability to succeed in studies, and an actual sense of failure in his studies. In the military chapter of his life, he is not only a fervent Zionist, but also complains sometimes about his "childish" comrades. He tells about getting drunk before skiing in France and in another letter he calls himself a "hypocritical bastard" – in short, a real-life person, not a monument. Therefore, the editors of the book rightly chose not to give it a title that expresses some grandiose Zionist rhetoric (though as someone who opted for life in Israel and combat service, he could have been worthy of this), but instead a simple title: Alex – Building a Life [or Alex – The Art of Life]. And, indeed, it is precisely the Jewish and Israeli commitment of a young man like this – who loves life and has a clear universalistic bent – is what makes the book a moving one. This is a story that transforms the commitment to Judaism and Israel from a story of ideological commitment to a story of human commitment.