Letters About Alex

A Letter to Alex by Adina Michaelsohn

I was at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in the summer of 1982, which is where I met Alex z"l. It was a great summer, a great experience, and made for exceptional memories...

The week of Shabbat Pinchas, I, along with Alex and another girl, were asked by Joseph Telushkin [co-director at BCI] to prepare a short lecture. During the course of the week, we had several meetings with Rabbi Telushkin who reviewed our drafts and helped make edits. It was just like being back at school, but in a good way. On Shabbat, we all met in the shul for a rehearsal, and while Alex read his Dvar Torah, I took a picture of him.

That picture of Alex reading his Dvar Torah evoked for me the quintessence of the Brandeis-Bardin experience. I had started the program very torn between my secular life and my spiritual yearnings. Brandeis taught us, through example, that we need not abandon our desire to be of the world while leading a Torah-Jewish life. On Shabbat Pinchas, when we delivered our carefully prepared Divrei Torah, we experienced the high of academic accomplishment along with the beauty of spiritual fulfillment.

As I kept in touch mostly with my California friends, I didn't learn of Alex's death until a few weeks after it happened, and it struck me to my core. I was shocked by the intensity of my feelings, and those feelings have not abated much over the years. And every year, around Shabbat Parshat Pinchas, I remember Alex anew; I think of the smiling, vibrant, happy Alex that I saw that day in the ulam.

Rereading Alex's Dvar Torah, I was struck by the similarities between these two heroes of Israel. Alex writes, "Parshat Pinhas gives a clear message that it is right to do anything to try to save the Jewish people as a whole when its survival is at stake." And he concludes, "Parshat Pinhas is a reminder that the defense of our people is a higher good than those laws which must be broken in order to keep us alive." Alex's life--and death--was an embodiment of the message of Pinchas. It was an honor to know him. I wish I'd known him better.

Adina (Rosenfeld) Michelsohn, Baltimore, Maryland

A Poem About Alex by David Moss
We think of Alex smiling.
That constant smile.
Always engaging,
Always affirming.

At first behind that smile
We met a teenager,
Slightly awkward,
But strangely confident.
Precocious, lightning bright,
The kid with everything:
Talent, intelligence; Values as fine as his looks;
A heart as big as his body.
Oozing future promise,
The world ahead of him; And he sensed it.

Then, as always, Alex's smile
Was for everyone.
Our children were drawn to it
As much as we were.

A few years later, in a new land,
Again we met the smile.
Behind it now
Stood a man.
A man
Who had carefully, thoughtfully,
Made decisions.
Decisions which Alex,
Better than anyone else,
Knew were not the easy ones.
He had committed to
A people and its values.
To a beauteous land and its bountiful problems.
The smile affirmed a man
Proud of doing
What he had come to be convinced was right.

Soon we began to see Alex
Only Friday and Saturday—
For a Shabbat leave.
The unexpected knock at the door,
The bright smile now highlighted by
Dull khaki.

The trials of army life
Could not diminish Alex's smile.
Not even a little.
As always, it radiated warmth
It projected genuine curiosity
It whispered faith.

That smile engaged.
That smile affirmed.
In memory it affirms still
It affirms a soul
Affirmed life.
David Moss is an artist living in Jerusalem who met Alex as his teacher at Brandeis-Bardin Institute. The friendship continued in Jerusalem.

A Poem About Alex by Jeanne Singer
In that heaven where, Sholem Aleichem writes,
Bontye was granted, by rollicking angels
His craved hot roll every morning,
What would Alex ask?
To go on, with his pen and pad,
In these new scenes, more piercing beauties?

To consol us all?

To become acquainted among the angels?
The small, child angels clinging to his knees,
The grand angels of wisdom welcoming,
Handle with him their treasures and trinkets,
Marvelling together.
And heavenly peers, in long teasing talks, take him
Wandering, among questions become answers.

Would he forget, and how find peace without forgetting?
Where there is neither now nor then,
How remember or forget? All
He knew and loved are one with him,
What he's made of,
Need hardly be noted.

And so the angels assigned to design his reward—
How things will work out for him now, as he always
Assumed they would—seeing him so much at home,
And weighing possible prizes, as one,
In triumph agree: Let him be Alex!
Jeanne Singer is Alex's grandmother. She was an artist and writer. She read this poem on September 8, 1988, at the home of Liz and Rafi Magnes. Jeanne died at home in Jerusalem on July 25, 2006. She was 98.

Reading Alex's life by Saul Singer
I just reread a book of writings that were never meant to be public, let alone published as a book. Yet, despite its serendipitous origins, the book probably has more power to affect the reader's life than most self-help texts.

Today I will go to Har Herzl and visit my brother's grave, 15 years after he fell in battle on his 25th birthday, at Har Dov in Lebanon. It is his book, Alex: Building a Life (Gefen), that I read, and that has helped me and many others these long years.

Alex's book is a collection of his letters, diaries and drawings, compiled by his family in the days after his death. The reason for its impact is not the ultimate sacrifice that Alex made, though one must admit that the ending is part of what draws people to the story. The reason is that it is an unfiltered, unplanned, unself-conscious window into a way of living life.

For all his angst over being indecisive, what distinguished Alex was the short distance between decision and action. He decided, having returned to Cornell from a trip to the Soviet Union in the early 80s, that synagogues should organize weekly letter-writing campaigns to Soviet Jews. So he launched one himself.

He decided to make aliya after graduating and to join the IDF, so he showed up at the draft board within days of moving here. He decided he should visit an Arab country before moving here, so he backpacked around Jordan, alone. But what struck me most was not so much these big decisions, but how this pattern permeated his life at the micro level.

Alex wouldn't think about writing letters, he would just write them - from an airplane he was about to jump out of in paratroop training; on a few minutes' break in a grueling hike, while all his colleagues were collapsing with exhaustion; while guarding (when he wasn't supposed to). No window of time was too small to fill with a letter or a drawing.

Reading Alex's letters makes one realize how self-absorbed we all are. Here he was, a 'lone soldier' in basic training with 'kids' (as he rightly called them) four years his junior, struggling with physical challenges, tormented at times by whether he had made the right choice. Yet he would write to each of us about our lives and problems as if he had not a care in the world.

As a writer and editor, I am particularly impressed by how cleanly he expressed himself in a pre-computer era, with simply a pen and paper. Alex wrote like he drew - fast, naturally, and with a sparing use of lines.

This is a powerful combination not just because anyone reading the book feels like they have lost someone they just got to know, but because it is hard not to take lessons for your own life. Its effect is similar to what might happen if one took the High Holy Day liturgy to heart - that is, a push not to just make those new year's resolutions, but to actually carry them out.

The other striking thing about Alex's thoughts from 15 years ago is how much has happened since then, and yet how we have essentially returned to the starker version of the Arab-Israeli conflict that existed in his day. Alex lived in a world without the Internet, before the first intifada, during the final throes of the Cold War; and, of course, before the Oslo Accords, Camp David, the current war and September 11.

And yet a letter to a friend from Cornell shows the same fundamental dilemma we have today: how to fight a war for survival under the scrutiny of the world and our own values.

As Alex explained, '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... 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.'

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

'But I don't want to lecture anymore about Zionism and decision making. 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... I'm feeling wonderful and very much at peace with my decision to stay on.'

I still miss you, Alex.

The Jerusalem Post, Friday, August 30, 2002