When I was a child there was a song that invariably made my mother cry, "Asif" (Harvest), a poem hauntingly set to music by Naomi Shemer. Though written as a eulogy to a young woman killed in a car crash, for my mother its evocative depiction of loss at the end of the Hebrew month of Tishrei would forever mark it as a song about the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
For me, many years later, it became a song I associated with my mother's death in late summer, the mostly desolate Israeli August landscape perfectly mirroring how I felt. My mother was by no means young any more, but her life was certainly cut short just as she seemed to be blossoming and thriving, standing on the cusp of a new phase of her life that offered so much promise.
(words: Itamar Porat, melody: Naomi Shemer)
Gather the deeds
The words and the symbols
Like a harvest too heavy to bear
Gather the blossoms
That ripened into memories
Of summer prematurely passed
Gather all the images of her lovely face
Like the fruit and the grain
The earth is grey beneath the stubble
And has nothing left to give you
And there will no longer be a stalk dreaming of its grain
And no more vows nor prohibitions
Only the promise of the wind that the rain at its appointed time
Will restore the dust at the end of Tishrei
(my rough translation)
Ten years ago Naomi Shemer herself passed away, also no longer young, but certainly not that old by modern standards, she, like my mother, cut down by illness. Eerily enough she had fortold her own death, penning a song about dying in the Hebrew month of Tammuz, the month in which she was also born:
It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz
Just when the peaches are plentiful
When all the fruit is laughing in its basket
And upon your summer and your harvest, hoorays have fallen.
It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz
But in the middle of Tammuz I shall die
Towards the orphaned fruit-gardens
Hooray after hooray will surely fall
And upon your summer - and your harvest - and upon all -
It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz.
(excerpted from Naomi Shemer, "Emtza HaTammuz", 1979 - my rough translation)
These were the words that jumped into my mind tonight as I heard the heartrending news about the three abducted Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil'ad Shaar, 16 and Naftali Frenkel, 16, murdered in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists.
When a mature adult like my mother or Naomi Shemer passes away these words can offer comfort, a life well lived, a life that while cut short was long enough, full enough, to be celebrated. In the context of these teens so brutally slain by the hands of men they only serve to emphasise just how much was lost.
Only last night tens of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square to pray for the boys' safety and show solidarity with their families. In Naftali Frenkel's hometown of Nof Ayalon the fences and public notice boards are still adorned with a confusing mix of banners, some praying for the safe return of the missing boys, others announcing summer camps and special events celebrating the beginning of summer.
This should be one of the most joyous seasons for your average Israeli teen. Today was the last day of the school year in many Israeli schools. For weeks children have been excitedly counting down to summer vacation, enjoying nature's sweet summer treats that fill the markets this time of year, celebrating with end of years plays and parties.
In neighbouring Modi'in this evening I passed teens decked out in formalwear en route to end of year proms.
In the fields around Nof Ayalon the tall cheery wheat and grasses have been harvested, leaving behind stubble.
In my mind's eye I see three stalks cut down before their prime.
אסיף / איתמר פרת
אסוף את המעשים
את המילים והאותות
כמו יבול ברכה כבד משאת.
אסוף את הפריחה
אשר גמלה לזיכרונות
של קיץ שחלף בטרם עת.
אסוף את כל מראות פניה היפים
כמו את הפרי ואת הבר.
האדמה היא אפורה מתחת לשלפים
ואין לה עוד לתת לך דבר.
ואין יותר גבעול חולם על שיבולתו
ואין יותר נדרי ואסרי
רק הבטחת הרוח כי הגשם בעיתו
עוד יחונן את עפרה בתום תשרי.