EFRAT, West Bank — The dozens of Efrat residents who filed into their mayor’s home on Sunday evening to memorialize fallen soldiers knew the drill.
How long to catch up with friends, when to take their seats, how to appropriately engage with the bereaved family members’ stories.
The duo on guitar and piano knew exactly when to begin singing at pauses in memories shared.
But while everyone seemed wholly familiar with the rhythm and decorum of the Memorial Day event, there was still a clear gap between audience and speaker that not even the close proximity of the seating arrangement was able to offset.
But that didn’t stop Tali Muskal from trying to do just that.
“I can’t stand Yom Hazikaron,” she told the crowd, whose members had each taken time from their own schedules to begin marking Memorial Day 48 hours early.
The salon conversation in the living room of Efrat Local Council chairman Oded Revivi and his wife Lisa was one of some 250 taking place across the country Sunday, featuring a sibling of a fallen soldier.
Given that this was her first time sharing her brother Refanel’s story in such a setting since he was killed 12 years ago in the Second Lebanon War, it seemed Muskal wasn’t comfortable being the center of the room’s attention.
During a week in which the eyes of the entire country sympathetically fall on bereaved families, her unease with Memorial Day was understandable.
But Muskal explained she hadn’t agreed to drive over an hour to the West Bank settlement southeast of Jerusalem for her own sake.
“Bereaved families don’t need Memorial Day. For us, every day is Memorial Day. But I recognize that it helps remind us all why we are here.”
Muskal spoke solemnly, but warned the crowd early on that she would be spattering some “dark humor” throughout the retelling of her younger brother’s story, “so please don’t be offended.”
Refanel was born very ill and his parents chose to name him after a biblical verse asking God to heal the sick, Muskal explained.
“After he was killed, we joked that apparently it didn’t work,” she said smiling to the crowd, which laughed cautiously.
She then pulled out a framed photo of Refanel and held it on her lap as she spoke.
The bereaved sister described a brother who was a talented impressionist, a competitive basketball player (“who never made any bogus calls during pickup”), and a dedicated friend.
She looked down at his picture as she spoke.
“We hung out more often a year or two before he was killed because he started becoming an adult,” Muskal said of Refanel, who was six years younger than his sister.
She recalled how the two of them had gone to a concert of the Israeli rockstar Ehud Banai.
“It was there I learned that he smoked,” Muskal piped, as members of the largely younger audience smiled sheepishly.
Appropriately for the day, which Israelis commemorate with hundreds of poignant songs, she highlighted her brother’s love of music.
Refanel had taught himself how to play guitar in high school and began writing his own songs by the time he was in the army.
“During the shiva [mourning period], I found a notebook of all the songs he had written,” she said, pulling out a book from the tote bag at her feet.
Muskal shared how her family, with assistance from Refanel’s friends, published a book containing his songs along with his favorite hikes around the country — another hobby of the fallen soldier.
She held up the cover for everyone to see. It featured Refanel standing in front of a pastoral backdrop with the apt title: “Singing and Traveling for Refanel.”
The 21-year-old on the cover wore a black pullover with the logo of his IDF unit along with olive green army pants.
The older sister went on to discuss that last stage of her brother’s life, in which he had become deeply invested.
Refanel served in the elite Egoz Reconnaissance Unit and was responsible for operating the heavy Negev machine gun at the frontlines.
“He was athletic, musical, a military man, and loved to travel,” she reviewed, making sure she hadn’t missed anything.
“He was a great brother,” she summarized.
She then took a pause, which was filled by a moving rendition of Shai Gabso’s popular song, “I’ll raise my head.”
As local musicians Ori and Arieh played, members of the audience began to softly sing along. Muskal, for her part, stared blankly at the floor.
After the song ended, Muskal was asked to recall the day of her brother’s death.
Refanel was killed along with four other Egoz soldiers after coming under heavy Hezbollah fire during an operation in Maroun al-Ras, Lebanon on July 21, 2006.
The older sister said she didn’t fully comprehend the news when her father woke her up to share it. “It took 12 hours until it truly hit me,” she said.
“It still feels like it happened yesterday. The time lapse hasn’t changed much.”
“When people ask how many siblings we are, I say four minus one,” Muskal continued. “For me, he still exists.”
After another song, Muskal read a letter that Refanel had written at the end of commander’s course.
Mulling the possibility of losing his own life in battle, the young soldier wondered how he might be remembered.
“Did I really fall in order to defend the homeland, or am I actually a pawn in the hands of politicians who care only about remaining in power?”
The bereaved sister explained that Refanel had written what appeared to have been a journal entry around the time of Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which had been an impactful period for her brother.
But the then 20-year-old concluded the letter on a positive note.
“The fact that I am a soldier in the IDF…tells me that I am here so that the citizens of the country will be safe… I would not replace that with anything else in the world.”
Folding the letter back up, Muskal went on to share that her brother “had managed to do so much in his short life. It encourages me to do the same,” she said.
At which point, an older woman from the crowd piped in.
“My name is Rivka Peled. My brother Rami Mizrahi killed in the First Lebanon War. I just wanted to say that I identified with every word you said.”
The longtime Efrat resident got up from her chair and embraced Muskal.
As another song began to play, Peled sat next to her new friend and pulled out her own book from her purse.
Like Muskal, Peled’s family had also published a paperback commemorating her fallen brother. The two sat for a few minutes flipping through its pages.
For most of the evening, a young man in his late 20s sat at the front of the room with his arms crossed staring painfully at the floor.
When the music stopped, he introduced himself as Shlomo Dickstein, whose father Yosef, mother Hanna, and 9-year-old brother Shuv’el were gunned down in a terrorist attack outside the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba in 2002.
Too emotional to speak off cuff, Dickstein read a short letter addressed to his brother.
“You would’ve been 25 today. I wonder if you would have been married, or would have been learning in yeshiva, or a student in university,” he read as he held back tears.
To conclude the program, the group rose to their feet and sang Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem.
As guests began filing out of the Revivi home, one of the attendees could be overheard calling her mother to tell her about the event.
“For a short moment, I felt like I could understand them,” she said. “But then, the program ended and I realized that my life was still whole while theirs is not.”