These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] An Unforgettable Evening by Dan Yagudin

Posted on February 2, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media

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First posted on Dan Yagudin’s (Year ’10) Facebook page

Aly Raisman and I at an IDF fundraising event in Baltimore a month ago, on what was one of the most unforgettable evenings of my life

“How the hell did I get myself into this situation?” was the first thought I had when I was sitting in front of a Lieutenant General in the IDF last October, without really knowing why I’ve been summoned. Lieutenant generals don’t summon people for nothing, especially not when the rank difference is so large – in this case, my lowest officer ranking in the IDF, to his third-highest. The military system puts so much power in his hands that he could have sent me to jail on the spot if he wanted to. He looked at the papers in front of him, shuffled them a bit, then looked up at me and asked: “good job. Now what the hell did you do?”

What I did, as it turns out, was write a facebook letter to Aly Raisman. The letter, which I posted on my page, went viral and made its way to the Baltimore Chapter of the Friends of the IDF, who at the time were planning their annual fundraising gala. They decided to invite me to Baltimore to meet and surprise Aly. The request went from Baltimore to Washington to New York, to the Army Spokesperson Unit in Tel Aviv, to my commander, to her commander, to his commander, to his commander, which was the man I found myself sitting in front of. The paper before him was the request to send me to the United States. After hearing the unusual story, he gave his consent. I couldn’t wait. Then I freaked out.

The more I thought of who I was representing, the more worried I became. I wasn’t just representing my unit, or my division, or battalion. I was representing the whole IDF and the state of Israel. When I delved into the letter, and why I wrote it, and what I wanted Aly to know, I realized there were also strong connections to my family history and Judaism in general. How do you do that in a 5 minute speech?

You do it with a little help from your friends. So thank you Michelle Agathstein, Uri Bram, Julie Sugar, Matt Wallach and Hilary Saunders, for helping me put this together, and for FIDF Baltimore for trusting me with this honor. I hope I did the occasion justice. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on the speech.

The best piece of feedback came at the end of the evening. After getting off stage with Aly, my Ima (who flew in to the event from Boston with my sister and her boyfriend) walked up to me with a simple request:

“That was great. Can you help me write a letter to Brad Pitt?”

[expand title=”Speech at FIDF Baltimore Chapter Gala”]
(the text of the letter, which I read to her before this speech, can be found by googling my name. Oh, google!)

It’s an honor to be here tonight. My name is Dan Yagudin, and I am an officer in the Israeli Defense Force.

I was stationed in Gaza during the latest round of fighting three weeks ago, in Operation Pillar of Defense. I was protecting an Israeli village 300 feet from the Gaza border. The village had no military value; it was an agricultural community that grew spices, vegetables and flowers. It was under constant bombardment. But while we were being hit indiscriminately, we were seeing just how much energy the IDF was putting into protecting Palestinian lives. For days, units specializing in civilian protection passed by our village on their ways to different bases. We saw jeeps full of optical equipment whose job was to verify that targets hit by the Israeli air force weren’t close to civilians. A field artillery commander told me about the difficulties of getting to the Hamas missile launchers that were placed in civilian areas and were targeting Tel Aviv. I think the IDF spent more energy in the conflict on avoiding targets than hitting them. I am proud to serve in an army that follows the Jewish commandment of קדושת החיים, respect for the sanctity of human life, no matter which side that life is on.

I want to talk about three Jewish women this evening, who to me signify the community that I joined the IDF to serve. The first is my niece, Maya Lily. She was born three months ago to my sister Talia and her husband Scott in Massachusetts. From the moment Maya opened her beautiful, curious, black eyes she changed the way that I look at the world with mine. I find myself thinking a lot about the world that welcomed Maya on her birth in September of this year. I think about the fighting in Gaza and kids, some of them not much older than Maya, who I saw wave or smile to me as they were being led to bomb shelters.

The second Jewish woman I’d like to speak about is my grandmother, Lily Shazar, after whom my niece Maya Lily is named. She was born in 1923 in Slovakia, and was 17 when she was taken to a place whose name shakes every human soul – Auschwitz – and was liberated after 4 years in captivity. When she realized none of her family survived, she fled to Israel with my grandfather. Growing up, I remember her expressing very few emotions, as if being anything but strong and stoic would break down the walls that contained all the memories from the war, which she never shared. I rarely saw her smile, but when she did, she had a smile that contained all the happy emotions within it – beauty, grace, love, compassion, and charm. That smile largely remained in Slovakia, on the day she was put on the train. Whenever I think of her smile today, four years after her passing, I think about all of her smiles that the war deprived from us. She was a good woman and deserved to smile more.

The third Jewish woman is you, Aly Raisman. When I posted the letter to you, it was a tribute to an 18-year-old Jewish woman who changed the rules, who showed that by embracing who she is, and who we are as Jews – celebratory, rich in culture, proud, and (much to some people’s conception) athletic, she could conquer the world. By standing up to the International Olympic Committee’s decision not to honor the Israeli athletes who were killed in the Munich Olympic, Aly was also standing up against generations of people and institutions who wronged Jews individually and collectively. What Aly stood up for is precisely what we in the IDF are fighting for, the right of Jews to celebrate who we are as Jews, free of intimidation, in peace alongside our neighbors.

Aly, when my niece Maya was born three months ago she turned me into a proud uncle. I can tell you that I spend a lot of time thinking about whether she’ll be a nobel prize winner, an Oscar-winning actress, a world class athlete, or all three. But more than anything, I want her to be a good person and a committed Jew. I also worry. Will her generation have to live in the shadow of conflict? Will the world she grows up in have institutions and entities that seek to put others down? What heroes – or heroines – will stand up to them and show our people the way?

My grandmother, Lily, lived in the Jewish past, full of sadness and despair. Aly represents the Jewish present, unapologetically celebrating Judaism and not compromising with its detractors. Maya Lily is the Jewish future, unknown and full of promise. The shaping of that future isn’t just the story of IDF and American soldiers physically protecting Jews, whether they live in Israel or in the U.S. It’s the story of Jewish role models showing those citizens how to celebrate who they are and stand for what they believe in.

Like a good Jewish uncle, I brought my niece a few presents, but one stands out in particular. When the moment comes, and it will come, when Maya Lily will need to decide to stand up for what’s right as a Jew or take the easy way out, I hope my present will make the decision easier.

That present is a poster of Aly.