A few months ago, I received a Facebook message that moved me to tears. A student of mine from 20 years back, 6th grade, tough neighborhood in Salinas, California, so long ago, a different life. She said she was glad she had finally found me because she wanted me to know what a difference I had made in her life, how I had influenced the life she lives today. Turns out that due to my planting the seed and encouraging her to play basketball, learn about history and other cultures, look forward towards college, she not only became the first in her family to graduate high school, she also graduated from college and then, hold on to your hats, law school! But wait, it gets better. She decided to forgo a prestigious for-profit law career to work in the public sector helping low income residents of public housing projects. I cried. A lot. My heart grew 3 sizes that day.
And that got me thinking. Who are the people that influenced and touched MY life in such a way that they made a real difference, affecting life-changing decisions ? Especially those people that don’t even know they made a difference. The thought of someone being out there, having inspired and changed my life and them not knowing about it has been gnawing at me ever since. Who?
And then, it happened. Bang! The Universe worked its mystery once again.
First, let me take you back to the best time of my youth, my army service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Although I had been born in Israel, I spent my childhood years abroad. I graduated from the American School in Lima, Peru, and unlike the rest of my classmates who went straight to college, I decided to fulfill my duty as an Israeli and complete my military service. I had always had an intense love for Israel, its history, its people, and the land.
So in 1980, I left my family back in Peru and headed to Israel to enlist in the IDF as a Lone Soldier (one without close family in Israel). Let me tell you, it was scary, but beyond that, it was exciting and a powerful experience. I became one of the first female Basic Training Instructors for male recruits, carried an M-16 and even got to parachute a few times. Yeah, it was quite amazing.
But the best part of this experience was what Israelis carry with them throughout their lives, the deep, enduring bonds, friendships and connections they make in the military. Serving in the Israeli Army cemented my bond with this land. Forever.
And being an impressionable young woman, one with a weakness for men in uniform (till today, may I add), one of the figures I most admired and remembered from my time as a Basic Training Instructor was the base Chief Sergeant Major, Shimon Deri. He was so proper, so fit, his boots always so spit shining perfect and so gorgeous! Take a look at the photos I took of him as we participated in the 1981 IDF Physical Fitness Competition. Do you blame me for being taken with him?
I think not.
I remember him clearly, how nervous I got around him, how he was the butt of many a joke because he was our commander after all, but we also deeply respected him. And the girls, well, we swooned.
I fulfilled my military service and in 1983 left Israel for the United States in order to study. The plan was to return to Israel after getting my degree, but life happened and I ended up staying in the US for a long time.
Over the years, I would reminisce about my military service days, my deep longing to be in Israel, the friends I left behind. I would pull out my photo album and cry as I looked over the pictures of the happiest time of my life.
And there was Shimon Deri, always front and center with his big smile. He was my father figure from Israel.
Spring forward 13 years, to November 4, 1995, to the day Yitzhak Rabin, one of my heroes, was assassinated in Tel Aviv. I was devastated and decided to watch the funeral live on CNN, from my home in Salinas, California. I stayed up all night as the funeral started at 3 a.m. Pacific Time and cried throughout. I was overwhelmed with grief, I felt such a deep sense of loss. I wanted so much to be there, but alas, here I was, sitting alone on the rug in front of my TV in Salinas, in the middle of the night.
And then, oh my god, I suddenly recognized him. Shimon Deri! There he was for a fleeting moment, in uniform, on the screen, leading the Honor Guard at the Rabin funeral!! I immediately recognized him, jumped up screaming… there he was, representing ME at the funeral, someone I knew was THAT close to Rabin, right there next to him!
Apparently, my favorite IDF Chief Sergeant Major had stayed in the army, rose among the ranks and was now in a position to lead the Honor Guard at this State Funeral. I was overjoyed to see him. And yes, it made me cry even more. What more, seeing him there, at the very place I wanted to be, bonded me with Shimon and with Israel and with Rabin and with my people even more. And he didn’t even know.
It took me a full 28 years to finally come home to Israel. I moved back 6 years ago and my heart is finally at peace. Now I tear up because of the joy I feel at having returned. Yes, I know, I’m a basket case.
Today, I am a tour guide in Israel. I often take my tourists to the very place where Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv. I tell Rabin’s story, my personal connection to the story, how this tragic event affected my people and my country and how we have yet to recover.
And Shimon? He was still in my album. Until a couple of weeks ago, when the Universe spoke to me once again.
Every Independence Day since I moved back to Israel, I have either participated in or attended our kibbutz celebration out on the grass, with songs and speeches and dancing and fireworks. Just lovely. This year, my knee was aching, I was a bit tired and decided that this time I would watch the national festivities on TV.
Every year at this time, as Israel transitions from the somber remembrance of Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror to the joyous celebration of our Independence, we hold the main, national ceremony on top of Mt. Herzl, next to the grave of Theodore Herzl, the visionary who foresaw the creation of this country. This year I felt the need to see the flag-bearing parade, the beautifully executed marching formations, to see some pomp and circumstance which is typically lacking and downplayed in our military. So a few minutes before the opening of the ceremony, I parked myself in front of the television set.
And, at precisely 7:45 p.m., the announcer came on:
” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the opening of our Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem. And this year, in his debut as the new flag-bearing ceremony director, please welcome Lieutenant Colonel Shimon Deri.”
I, of course, jumped out of my skin. ” What?!? OMG, OMG!” And there he was, in full dress uniform, so polished and straight and proper and so gallant, my Shimon, marching towards the VIP box.
I cannot express to you my joy and surprise at how the Universe brought me here, to this very moment, to see Shimon Deri in his debut, right there on national television.
Tears streaming down my face, I immediately picked up the phone and dialed.
Me: Adeena!! (my best friend from the Shimon days, pictured above) What are you doing RIGHT NOW?
Adeena: Cooking (figures… I’m going out of my mind with joy and excitement and she’s cooking)
Me: Turn on your TV! Do you know who is the new director of the flag ceremony at Mt. Herzl???
Adeena: Shimon Deri? (smart cookie she is, this Adeena)
So there you have it. How I ended up sitting on my couch in Israel, in front of the TV to witness as one of the anchors of my life, one of my inspirations, debuted right there on national television in one of the most respected and beloved roles in our military… how, how does that happen?
And he did great! It was a superb parade, precise, elegant and very professionally done. Just like the Shimon I remember. Congratulations, sir. Proud to have served under you. And thank you for all you meant to me. Thank you.
And, he doesn’t even know.