Michael Levin receives a package of Tastykakes, soon after he was drafted into the IDF, on March 20, 2005. (Tami Gross)
Tami Gross: Michael Levin pictured soon after he was drafted into the IDF, on March 20, 2005
Remembrance'The top choice in his life would be to live'

The legend of Michael Levin, and what it tells us about our need for heroes

An idealistic lone soldier from the US, he was killed in Lebanon in 2006, and has become an Israeli icon and inspiration. His friends don’t quite know what to make of it all

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Tami Gross: Michael Levin pictured soon after he was drafted into the IDF, on March 20, 2005

Israel Memorial Day 2009. Davida Kutscher, a young IDF veteran who had grown up in New York, walked through the rows of stone graves at Israel’s military cemetery at Har Herzl in Jerusalem, hoping to participate in a quiet service for her close friend, three years after he fell in southern Lebanon.

But instead of an introspective, intimate gathering of friends, she encountered a very different scene – “hungover Birthright kids in sweatpants and flip flops pouring out of buses and getting in everyone’s way,” as Kutscher recalls.

She realized then that the memory of her friend, Michael Levin, no longer belonged to his friends and family. His memory was now something much larger, a new pillar supporting the edifice that the Jewish people had built in their national mythology – and are continuing to build – around Israel and the IDF.

The stunning and unexpected transformation of a small, cheerful 22-year-old American oleh into a heroic figure, whose life story is known and told by every American who joins the IDF, forces us to confront difficult and complex questions around how Israel memorializes fallen soldiers.

Who is the gatekeeper of their memory? Is it appropriate to use their stories to further national goals? How much resemblance must the image in the national memory bear to the man himself?

The story of Michael – or perhaps the story of his story – raises all of these questions. His life and sacrifice will not be forgotten, but as he has been remembered and mourned, and turned into an object of inspiration, have we turned Michael Levin from an authentic young man – as complicated and flawed as the rest of us – into a cold stone monument erected to serve the needs of others?

Davida Kutscher (L) and Baruch Ganz (R) sit with Michael Levin (second from right) during their military service (courtesy)

Living with ghosts

Since ancient times, societies have come together around memorializing their dead. The earliest known ritual behavior among early hominids is burial of the dead. The first human burial that archaeologists can point to took place here in Israel, at Qafzeh just south of Nazareth. The pyramids, the lasting monuments of ancient Egypt, were built as tombs for the pharaohs.

Over the centuries, diverse cultures in time and space invested considerable communal resources and religious focus on memorializing the dead, especially fallen warriors. In Washington DC, the capital of the most powerful country in world history, the business of government is carried out among the ghosts of the country’s soldiers, immortalized in monuments and interred in neat rows of white graves in Arlington National Cemetery, in full view of the leaders across the river.

These rituals and monuments served an important societal function in ancient times, and still do today. They shape national identity and create solidarity. “The memorialization of the dead profoundly informs the sense of community among the living,” writes Bar Ilan University sociologist Danny Kaplan. “In all kinds of communities, death marks the onset of a complex, often heavily ritualized ceremonial process by which the deceased becomes an ‘ancestor,’ in other words, a meaningful presence for the social identity of the survivor.”

The landscaped grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, DC, July 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“I have exhumed them for a second life….,” wrote 19th century French historian Jules Michelet, reflecting on his history of French revolutionaries. “They live now among us who feel like their parents, their friends. And so a family is formed, a city shared by the living and the dead.”

The Jewish state, born in war, also sought sacrificial heroes. The young country that needed to cobble together a functioning society that could absorb immigrants and defend itself from invading armies had to create solidarity among Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, illiterate Aramaic-speaking Kurdish farmers, Iraqi artisans, and the new Jew of the pre-state Yishuv. Jews who fell “al Kiddush Hamakom” – to sanctify both the land and God – were the perfect symbol.

“The acknowledged ‘hero’ is identified with the values of the collective by having chosen to adhere to such values and defend them, even at the cost of his own life,” writes Mooli Brog in Israel Studies.

A memorial depicting the carving out of the Burma Road in 1948. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

By definition, commemoration of the fallen, in Israel and elsewhere, turns the soldiers from humans into symbols, albeit with the ability to touch far more people. In the process, truth becomes relative, as the memories of a soldier’s close circle – who knew the man and his human flaws – both support and come into conflict with the communal narrative about him. The memorialization serves public purposes, and those elements of the soldiers that serve that goal – and some concocted in that service – are the threads with which the story is woven.

The kid, the legend

Michael Levin is no different. His friends remember Mikey, the complete person, with all the idiosyncracies and quirks that make any idealistic young adult unique.

The myth around Michael Levin, however, is something else entirely.

Michael Levin, for whom the Lone Soldier Center was dedicated, at his IDF swearing-in ceremony (Lone Soldier Center)

“By now the Michael Levin story is legend,” wrote Joel Chasnoff in The Times of Israel: “a 130-pound youth group kid from Philadelphia sneaks into the IDF Induction Center, talks his way into a tryout for the paratroopers, and passes, against all odds. When war breaks out in Lebanon, he finds himself on lone soldier leave in Philly. Determined to fight, he catches the first plane to Israel, joins his unit, and is killed in a firefight on August 1, 2006. Two thousand people attend his funeral on Mount Herzl. They came to salute the lone soldier who has become the face of all lone soldiers.”

Davida Kutscher knows the Mikey story that doesn’t necessarily serve a national purpose. She met him at Camp Ramah in the Poconos in 2002, where he told her he was moving to Israel to join the IDF. “He was this teeny tiny goofy sweet kid, and I basically thought, ‘OK, yeah sure. ‘And then I got to Israel, and within a few months of being there, I had bumped into him multiple times around Jerusalem.”

Michael initially lived at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi near Beit Shean. Dalia Yohanan, a schoolteacher who hosted him for Shabbat meals occasionally, remembers someone “who was not tall, not a brute, who looked much younger than his age. He always looked more like a boy than a soldier.” Michael discussed the quotidian details of life at those meals, she recalled; how he is getting along on kibbutz and in the army. (Full disclosure: The author lived at Tirat Tzvi at the same time as Michael Levin and knew him from that period.)

One particular memory stuck with her. She was walking near the apartments housing the lone soldiers, when “he passed me, he was riding on a skateboard wearing headphones. He looked liked a kid, an American kid, not Israeli, and I remember it amused me,  he so didn’t look like a soldier in the paratroopers… I said to myself, ‘I’m sure that’s his way to feel like a civilian right now. I’m not in the strict military environment, I’ll do the most fun, childish thing.’ I remembered him smiling on that skateboard.”

Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi (photo credit: CC BY Wikipedia)
Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi (photo credit: CC BY-Wikipedia)

“He would just come to our house to chill,” remembered Adina Ehrlich, Michael’s host mother on the kibbutz. “It was a place for him to run away to.”

Ehrlich was struck by his conviction, perhaps borne of young, even naive, idealism, “that he could make a difference, that he could change things, that he was special.”

Michael eventually moved from Tirat Tzvi to Jerusalem, into a spare room in Kutscher’s apartment. “He would come walking through the door on a Friday morning and immediately get changed. I had my sweatshirt from basic training, a white hoodie. And that was his favorite thing to get changed into… His first stop would be Marzipan bakery, where he was basically family. And he’d wander around the [Mahane Yehuda] shuk and everyone was excited to see him.”

“He knew everyone. Everybody loved him. He was so charming, so sweet,  so endearing to everybody. He always had a very vibrant social life, and there’s still a lot of people in my life who I met through Mikey… He was a very sweet, kind, loving, thoughtful boy.”

He was bubbly and friendly, he dealt with heartbreak and love, and he was definitely very human

“They don’t commemorate him as he actually was,” said Tziki Aud, who took care of lone soldiers who weren’t living on kibbutzim while Michael was serving, and founded the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin in 2009. “You could love him and sometimes you couldn’t stand him. He could walk around the city and ask everyone questions, or wear his uniform and walk up to a group of tourists who would take his picture. This might sound pretentious, but inside he was not that way. He could get excited about something small like a little kid.”

“He liked to clown around, he liked to laugh, he was very loyal to his friends.”

IDF-related items in Michael Levin’s bedroom (Joel Chasnoff)

“He was a regular dude,” recalled his friend Baruch Ganz. “He was very outgoing, but was still shy… He was bubbly and friendly, he dealt with heartbreak and love, and he was definitely very human.”

“He was very passionate and stood up for what he believed in,” Ganz continued, “whether or not that went along with official line. He did his own thing.”

Like others that knew him, Kutscher stressed his stature and personality. “There’s something about his age and his personality and how he dressed, it was still very boyish. ”

Michael becomes a monument

That boyish paratrooper, who so loved the Philadelphia Flyers and the Mahane Yehuda market and the fact that he was an IDF soldier, was killed on August 1, 2006, during a firefight with Hezbollah fighters in Ayta a-Shab in southern Lebanon.

His friends didn’t expect thousands of people to show up for the funeral of a lone soldier in the middle of a war

“Never in a million years could I imagine that something happened to Mikey,” Kutscher recalled.

His friends didn’t expect thousands of people to show up for the funeral of a lone soldier in the middle of a war, but Har Herzl was packed with people who knew him and many more who had only heard of him for the first time.

And certainly no one expected his legend to grow. Yohanan, who runs the Memorial Day services at Tirat Tzvi, told the kibbutz Yom Hazikaron team that they must put Michael’s name on the roster of their fallen soldiers.  “Because who knows him? Who will remember him? They won’t commemorate him anywhere,” she thought at the time.

Michael Levin’s grave at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl military cemetery on August 11, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

‘There definitely was no game plan,” Kutscher explained. “It caught most of us by surprise that this should have evolved the way it did. So many people were killed… I certainly didn’t think when he was killed that it would become what it did.“

She knew of the phenomenon that as time goes by, fewer and fewer people come to the grave each year, until finally it’s often just the parents who show up.

“I remember on the first anniversary, I spoke at the grave, and I made a promise to his parents Mark and Harriet that we wouldn’t leave them and we wouldn’t forget them. I meant we, me and five other people, that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt will always be here for you. And then ever after, there were just more and more people at his grave every year.”

Within a few short years, Levin’s grave became a mandatory stop for Birthright groups visiting Har Herzl.

“I never imagined that,” said Yohanan. “When I heard that everyone who participates in Birthright goes to his grave, as a stop within their journey, within Har Herzl, I said ‘Wow. That’s it, he’s on the Israeli memorial map.’”

But that status comes at a cost, especially for those looking for quiet reflection at the grave of a close friend. Birthright participants leave mementos, turning it into something of a spectacle. They leave trinkets like hotel keycards and ticket stubs, and plenty of Philadelphia sports memorabilia.

Michael Levin’s grave at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl military cemetery on August 11, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“Some of the things they leave are ridiculous,” Kutscher said. “I understand it, and I’m annoyed by it, then I talk myself down from being annoyed by it… I am not the gatekeeper, I just feel that some of the very empty gestures annoy me. But that’s fleeting, they’re not hurting anyone.”

“I can’t even blame them for not understanding the significance. How are you supposed to land in Israel, you’re here for ten days, two of them are the most significant days in the national psyche, how on earth are you supposed to have the context to understand that, and what to wear, and how to conduct yourself, and where to stand, and things like that?”

The celebrity that has grown around Michael has also distanced his friends from the public commemorations of his life. “We’ve reached a point where we’re managing our own expectations,” Kutscher explained.

Another of Michael’s very close friends avoids the Memorial Day event altogether. “Nothing that happens in an official capacity speaks to him,” said Kutscher “and he finds it alienating. And so do a lot of us.”

“Personally, I liked it more in the beginning when it was just friends,” said Ganz. “In the beginning, I would be sharing and speaking, but I evolved to be in the background. He had said he wanted a barbecue on his grave if he got killed. I feel like there was more of that energy when it was just friends.”

“Education is important, but passing on his vibes is also important.”

Dozens gather at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl military cemetery for the tenth anniversary of Michael Levin’s death on August 11, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Aud said that some of Levin’s friends were upset with him when he opened the Lone Soldier Center in his memory. “They said that I was turning his name into something public and communal, and the private person has disappeared.”

Levin’s parents were very supportive of the project, and that is what ultimately helped Aud make the decision to move forward.

Part of Michael becoming a national symbol is that the story of his life becomes a mix of fact and legend. One commonly told story is that the IDF did not want to accept Michael because of his slight frame, so he gained access to the recruitment center by climbing in through a window around the back.

“I think that’s more metaphor than history,” said Kutscher, who had never heard him tell that story.

Years after his death, another story appeared, describing how Michael would make the rounds among the homeless in the Old City of Jerusalem on Fridays. “I’ve never heard this in my life, I don’t believe it for a second,” said Kutscher. “It is so over the top.”

“He’s a human being. He can be a wonderful, wonderful human being who has made a fabulous contribution to all of us, emotionally and socially, without being a tzaddik who visited every single homeless person in the Old City every single Friday to give them money. We’re Jews, we don’t believe in saints.”

Harriet Levin, mother of fallen IDF soldier Michael Levin, speaks at a Memorial Day ceremony on Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill on April 17, 2018. (courtesy)

The growth of Levin’s legend has not only blurred myth and fact in the collective memory, but also that of his close friends.

Fifteen years after his death, Kutscher said she often finds it difficult to differentiate between her own memories and the stories that have grown up around him.

He reached everyone who ever thought about making aliyah and becoming a lone soldier

“We tend to deify our national heroes,” she said, “and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the people that did know them to say, ‘Hey, there was this other aspect to it, and it doesn’t necessarily fit in with this ideal that we’ve created.'”

Still, some of Michael’s friends are rather touched by the way he has been remembered.  “On the one hand, he reached everyone who ever thought about making aliyah and becoming a lone soldier,” said Yohanan. “That person encountered Michael Levin. He met him online. On the other hand,  a shopkeeper in Mahane Yehuda market also commemorates him. It’s from every direction.”

When she watches “A Hero in Heaven,” the movie made about Michael’s life, Yohanan thinks about the fact “that every soldier might have the image of the warrior, of the one who sacrificed, of the values, of the Zionism, but he can also ride on a skateboard on kibbutz a little bit too fast. That actually warms my heart, it makes me happy, because a young man is complicated, he can also be mischievous, and he can also be a warrior who gave everything. I don’t see a contradiction.”

Elisa Levin Mindlin, sister of lone soldier Michael Levin who died in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, tells stories about her brother at an English language Memorial Day ceremony at Ammunition Hill on April 30, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Ehrlich, his host mother, focused on the good that is done in Michael’s memory. “He was a simple soldier who did simple things, who was very Zionist. We may have blown him out of proportion, but his image is very relevant and significant to the whole concept of what we should do and how we should help the lone soldiers in this country.”

‘The story speaks to us’

One of the young Americans who was profoundly influenced by Levin’s story was Mimi Berman, who also attended Camp Ramah. She remembers being at camp the day he was killed, and seeing how broken up her counselors – who were Michael’s friends- were upon hearing the terrible news.

“His story stayed with me and kind of guided me through my high school experience and my camp experience and my Jewish identity experience, my experience with Israel,” said Berman. “I don’t think I had ever conceptualized or thought about the army, someone giving up themselves for this country.”

This hometown American Jewish boy goes off and does great things. For a lot of us coming from America and trying to do great things, that story just speaks to us

She began wearing a bracelet with Levin’s name on it, to remind her that “there is something greater than us out there, that can come first. And I was moved by that and inspired by that.”

“I think that memory inspires a lot of people, because this hometown American Jewish boy goes off and does great things. For a lot of us coming from America and trying to do great things, that story just speaks to us.”

With that bracelet on her arm, Berman ended up making aliyah, joining the IDF, and living on the very kibbutz where Levin spent the first year of his army service, Tirat Tzvi. Initially inspired by the Michael Levin legend, she still lives at Tirat Tzvi with her husband and children.

Levin’s story inspired many more young Jews around the world to make aliyah and serve in the IDF. But some followed farther down the path that Levin had blazed than they would have wanted to. Max Steinberg visited Levin’s grave on a Birthright trip, and decided to move to Israel. He joined the Golani Brigade, and fell during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

Friends and family mourn at the funeral of American lone soldier Alex Sasaki, at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on March 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Kutscher recognizes the power and positive impact of the Michael Levin story. “If this is what the country needs, if the country needs heroes, if Birthright participants need inspiring stories, and if parents who’ve lost their child need to see that it wasn’t all for naught, and their child lives on through the articles and the stories and the Birthright trips, and it serves a purpose for them, then I as a friend am the least important person in the whole configuration.”

Still, those who knew him believe Levin would have been somewhat uncomfortable with how he is remembered.

“I know that if I asked him now, ‘What is your opinion on everything that is happening, he would be embarrassed,” said Aud.

The top choice in his life would be to live

“The general consensus seems to be that he would have thought it’s hilarious,” Kutscher mused. “What other reaction can we picture him having?”

“The top choice in his life would be to live,” she stressed. “To have a nice anonymous life where he’d go around and have Marzipan, and have friends and get married and have kids and fight about money, and your life is just like everyone else around you.”

Parents, siblings and friends of IDF lone soldier Max Steinberg, killed in Gaza, follow his coffin to the burial on Mount Herzl on Wednesday morning, July 23, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

The rejection of the heroic death

The uneasy balance between a fallen soldier as he lived his life, and how he exists in the national memory, will never be resolved. This tension is heightened when it is Jews that are memorializing their warriors. The Hebrew Bible rejects the idea of a heroic death on the battlefield, and that idea has never been entirely natural even when later Jewish texts sought to extol the sacrifice of their fallen fighters.

Instead, writes Emory University professor Jacob Wright,  the Bible “affirmed the strategy of name-making through progeny and enduring contributions to family and community… The biblical writings consistently champion an unspectacular, pragmatic survival strategy, extolling the sounds of jubilant wedding parties, grinding millstones, children playing in the streets, and all living long lives.”

For Michael, tragically, his name cannot be built in that way.

“His boyish enthusiasm and charm is infectious and it’s lovely,” said Kutscher, “but it really sharpens the contrast between someone who was cut down in his prime: We never knew what he was going to be like as an adult, who was he going to end up marrying, and how would he raise his kids and where would he live and what would he do professionally. And every year that goes by when his friends gather, and you see that everyone else, their life has progressed, that contrast grows sharper and sharper.”

Michael Levin’s name, then, has been built in the way that fallen warriors in other societies – and IDF soldiers in modern Israel – have been built over the centuries.

His story has become one of inspiration, of instruction, of unity. Even if the story told is imprecise in many places, it still honors that energetic, idealistic kid who dreamed about serving in the IDF.

And it ensures that his sacrifice will never be forgotten.

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