To the well-trained eye, the dollar store is a potential treasure trove. I have stumbled upon some real gems among the chazarei. But even I was shocked to discover a cache of coveted Panini soccer albums randomly shelved with the party favors on the eve of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Soccer is entwined with my husband’s multilayered Jewish and national identities. In his youth, he joined his Jewish teammates for the Maccabiah Games in Israel, playing first for Yugoslavia, and after that country’s dissolution, for Croatia. Though he is now a proud American, the World Cup inevitably commands loyalty to his birthplace, as it does for many other immigrants.
Although the World Cup is serious business in our home, I bought the album and stickers on a whim. My husband’s face lit up as he reminisced about trading them with his friends, hooking our teenaged sons who usually play it cool around this sort of thing. My nachas came from watching them bond over their father’s past.
It was summer camp, not soccer, that helped me figure out who I was. It was in that magical, insular world that I rounded out my Jewish observance and solidified Israel’s place in my life. With a nostalgic twinkle in my eye, I started packing my middle son’s belongings for sleep-away camp. Soon after, we heard the breaking news that Eyal, Gilad and Naftali had been kidnapped.
We, like innumerable others, were desperate to do anything that might have helped bring them back. We joined in the recitation of Tehillim. I lit Shabbos candles early on Friday afternoon and tied yellow ribbons to our tree. My sons compulsively checked the Israeli news on their hand-held devices while watching soccer on television, keeping me current on both. Meanwhile, fear crept in as time passed, and I could not bear to watch the camp bus pull away.
My youngest approached me. “What we need is another raid on Entebbe,” he suggested, trying to distract me.
He did. My mind flashed back to a striking camp memory from July 1977, around the first anniversary of the raid. We were in the dining hall when several men burst through the door. With authentic-looking guns and obscured faces, they shouted at us to put our hands up and marched us single file into the woods above the grounds.
My fear abated slightly when I recognized one of our captors as the head lifeguard, who handed us ID cards that labelled us Jewish or non-Jewish passengers. Our flight had been hijacked and we were hostages at Entebbe Airport. The non-Jewish group was released quickly. My group sat on the ground until a corps of Hebrew-speaking staff dressed in military uniform staged our dramatic rescue.
Pedagogically, the camp succeeded, and that simulated experience shook me for a long while. It imprinted our young minds with a stroke of understanding on the most basic level of what so many —too many — have genuinely suffered and sacrificed for their Jewish identity. It also instilled in us enormous pride in the State of Israel and in the IDF.
As we gasped a collective Jewish breath late last month, everything else that had held my family’s summer attention — FIFA soccer, collectible sticker albums and camp — was eclipsed. I carefully watched my sons’ faces, recognizing the indelible impact made by images of the Israeli boys and the raw tragedy of their violent deaths.
Little inspires national pride like a World Cup soccer match, especially as the games draw to a close. Still, my chest swelled most these past few weeks when viewing clips of Israeli kindness to the soldiers who were searching tirelessly for their captured brothers. At the same time I wondered about the message that the crowds in Brazil could have sent if they had looked up from the soccer field for just a moment on the day the boys were taken, if they had shouted in unison to demand their freedom, before we knew the painful truth.
I am no doubt grateful each time my sons burst through the front door at the end of the day. And yet, there is a hole in my heart because Eyal, Gilad and Naftali cannot do the same.
A new tragedy has taken its place in our Tisha b’Av litany as we approach our annual three-week period of mourning. Long-shed tears for ancient pains mingle with fresh ones for our newest loss. I pray that our voices reach Heaven during this dark, unforgettable summer.
Merri Ukraincik is a writer in Edison, N.J., where she lives with her family. She blogs at mypaperedworld.blogspot.com and is at work on a memoir about raising boys.