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Naming Names: Remembering Jews Who Honored Life

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It struck me during the Passover seders this year how impersonal the Jewish master story can be. We seem to jump so quickly to the grand themes. Slavery, freedom, responsibility. The characters are mythical, the drama is epic, the story laden with symbols. It all feels so overwhelming. It's as if God gave us a blockbuster movie that we must turn into an indie.

In this blockbuster, one thing that is clearly impersonal is evil. We're never told which Egyptian pharaoh we're dealing with. It's just a generic Pharaoh. One explanation for this (which I saw on the Seraphic Secret blog) is that, had his name been provided, "Historians and psychologists and novelists would have speculated about him, especially his childhood, suggesting probable reasons for his atrocious behavior." This would "open the door to excuses and thence to the erosion of personal responsibility."

That may be true for evil, but what about the victims of evil? Shall they also remain mythical and nameless?

This year, I found my own answer to that question. While I was going through the haggadah with my family in Montreal, as we were reflecting on a Passover story that overflows with nameless victims, I couldn't stop thinking about victims with real names.

I was haunted by two names in particular: Josh Friedberg and Gail Rubin.

I came across Friedberg's name in the lobby of Herzliah High School, the Jewish day school in Montreal that my niece Rebecca attends. His picture was framed behind a glass case, surrounded by diplomas, trophies, newspaper articles, and other mementos. Friedberg was a star student, captain of the basketball team, and an ardent Zionist. His dream was always to make aliyah.

He moved to Israel right after graduating from high school in 1991, during the first Gulf War. After learning in a Jerusalem yeshiva, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces' Golani Brigade. While on patrol in March 1993, he was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists. It took several days to find his body.

Thousands attended his funeral on Mount Herzl, among them Yaffa Ganz, who wrote on, "Like our father Abraham, Josh had left the familiar to follow his God and to join his people in the Promised Land. ... In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh had buried Jewish infants in the walls and monuments memorializing Egypt's dead. Now, Jewish soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, forming a living wall to protect Jewish children and keep them alive. Josh stood with them.

"He was kidnapped, tortured and killed because of a khaki uniform, a blue and white flag, a Star of David."

Twenty-three years earlier, Gail Rubin, in her early 30s, was an editor at a major publishing house in New York, and she was restless. Zionism and politics had nothing to do with her move to Israel after a visit in 1969. As her cousin, journalist Elinor Brecher, wrote, "She fell in love with the irrepressible people who, with ceaseless labor, were turning a scrap of desert into fertile farmland."

It was in Israel that Rubin began her love affair with photography: "She captured the merry grins of sun-browned kids on the cobbled streets of Israel's ancient cities. Her color close-ups of tree barks rival the most spectacular abstract paintings. She made tender portraits of relaxed young Israeli soldiers. And she found them also as they lay wounded and dying in the Yom Kippur War."

During one spring in the mid-1970s, her photographs of Israeli wildlife went on exhibit in the Jewish Museum in New York.

A year later, on a Saturday in March 1978, Rubin was walking on a beach near Tel Aviv, on her way to photograph wild birds at a nearby kibbutz. She was alone when a group of terrorists landed on the beach.

As Brecher wrote, "One report said the terrorists asked her for directions. She gave them the directions and they shot her. Another report said they asked her nothing. They just killed her."

Rubin was one of 38 victims murdered in that terror rampage, which was in the news recently because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dedicated a memorial to its mastermind.

The mastermind's name is now well known. I'm sure if I do a little research, I can find the names of other terrorists who became local heroes after murdering people like Josh Friedberg.

I doubt very much that I will. Maybe it's for the reason I mentioned earlier that we keep Pharaoh nameless in the haggadah so that we will resist the temptation to rationalize or "explain" evil.

But there's also a simpler reason. The terrorists get enough media fame and glory. We need to honor those who honor life. Josh Friedberg and Gail Rubin loved life. They gave their lives in the service of life. Friedberg gave his to defend his people. Rubin gave hers because she yearned to reinvent herself.

If there's a message to their stories, it's that we need the courage to fight for our cause, and also the wisdom to remember why we're fighting, so that people like Gail Rubin can be free to walk on the beach and photograph wild birds.

To honor these lovers of life, we must absolutely turn our blockbuster into an indie and name names.