“Sometimes there’s a man . . . I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a man . . . he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there . . . I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there.”
The Stranger, The Big Lebowski (1998)
Footballer Billy Bremner was the captain of Scotland, but, more significantly for me, of my beloved Leeds United. And I still recall exactly where I was – on Yirmeyahu Street, in north Tel Aviv – when I heard news, on the BBC World Service, of his premature passing, in December 1997.
I doubt that it is still an Anglo-Jewish custom – professional footballers’ salaries hardly need supplementing these days – but, growing up in the UK, the very best present that parents could give a bar mitzvah boy was to invite his favourite footballer to the party. And every Friday’s Jewish Chronicle would feature photographs of sheepish looking Gentiles, who clearly (and understandably) would much rather have been in the pub – or anywhere else for that matter – than surrounded by scores of fawning Anglo Jews.
But, however much I may have dreamt of meeting “King” Billy, I knew that my parents had more depth than to cheapen my coming of age with so meaningless a gesture. And I respected them for that.
At a recent family bar mitzvah in London, however, I was saddened to hear even the Rabbi (United Synagogue), in his sermon, appeal to my twin cousins purely in terms of Arsenal FC and cricket. It may come across as pompous – even as hypocritical, from “El Presidente” of the Tel Aviv Whites! – but don’t we Jews have enough of our own, genuine heroes to whom we can point?
Indeed, a close childhood friend, as steeped in Arsenal as the worst of them, chose to name his firstborn after Yonatan Netanyahu (right), the fallen commander of Operation Entebbe. Whilst, at the time, rather tickled by the gesture (considering Graham had never even set foot in Israel), “Yoni” was by far preferable to the always more likely “Thierry”, “Dennis”, or even “Charlie”.
A couple of weeks ago, my new squeeze invited me to the wedding of Binyamin, an old friend of hers from film school. Tali has had quite enough of having to suffer smug, boring and/or miserable (are there any other kind?!) married couples at such dos alone. And, not sharing her fear of The Wedding – what can be bad about a free bar and good scoff? – I accepted.
As we arrived at Sadot, a delightful, rustic venue (no more miserable synagogue halls, tasteless banqueting suites, or airport hotel conference centres for me!) close to Netanya – and before I could even get to the bar for my first bottle of Goldstar – Tali pointed out Binyamin’s father, who, she informed me, is a well-known ex-ish tzava (army man).
Brazen Zionist that I am, I was suddenly excited to be there for reasons other than grub and alcohol (and, of course, you, Tali!) And the feeling was only heightened when Tali told me his nickname: “Pichotka” (“פיחוטקה”). You can’t be a serious ex-IDF man without having a nickname like a teddy bear.
To corroborate Tali’s account, I immediately sms’d another ish tzava, my friend Yuval, to find out whether he knew of “Pichotka”.
“Of course!” came the instant reply.
“I am at his son’s wedding!” I texted back excitedly.
“Forget “Pichotka”,” Yuval responded, clearly unimpressed, “how is it going with Tali?!”
But my feelings of privilege and recharged Zionist zeal were not to be dampened.
Tat Aluf (Brigadier General) Efraim “Pichotka” Hiram was born in Poland in 1933. Ariel Sharon recruited the young Holocaust survivor, now an artillery officer, into his Paratroopers Brigade in 1956. In October of that year, during the Sinai Campaign, “Pichotka” participated in the historic Battle of Mitla – to this day, the only occasion on which IDF paratroopers have parachuted in a combat situation – and, in the following years, in numerous operations against Fatah and the PLO.
One story, shared at our table, was of Sharon, not knowing his officer’s real name, refusing to let “Pichotka” go on a mission, but ordering that Efraim Hiram be sent in his stead!
A confidant of Yitzhak Rabin and friend of former Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, “Pichotka” was influential in the promotions of future IDF Chiefs Dan Shomron and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, as well as of Major General Matan Vilnai. (Less interestingly, to me at least, he went on to become mayor of Ramat Hasharon.)
Sharing “Pichotka”’s simcha (celebration) served as a much-needed reminder for me – at a time when it is all too easy to forget – that this country is not just about high-tech and real estate.
I know nothing about “Pichotka”’s childhood, merely that, before eventually relenting, he forbade Binyamin from setting foot in Poland. And, observing “Pichotka” during dinner, I opined to Tali – though in the knowledge that a Sabra (person born in Israel) would not quite understand – that only we Jews could have gone from the Holocaust to rustic weddings within so short a time frame.
At the end of the evening, I made a point of approaching “Pichotka”, and wished him a warm mazal tov (congratulations). It had been a special simcha – Binyamin had been, like me, a 42-year old bachelor! – and I felt the handshake of a survivor in every sense. In his mid-seventies and white of hair, perhaps . . . but “Pichotka” still has a presence and voice that boom as loudly as any artillery cannon.
At the kiosk on Rothschild, the following morning, I proudly announced to anyone who would listen that I had been at “Pichotka”’s simcha. What did the Sabras understand, however, or care? But I was chuffed, indeed privileged, to have been there. For a diehard Zionist who didn’t grow up here, it was the real deal.
We employ terms such as “hero” and “legend” far too lightly. It is the “Pichotkas” of this world, ordinary people who have made extraordinary sacrifices, who are the real ones for us Jews, not the “Bremners” (whose only merit, if it is one, was being good enough to have earned a living as one of – to quote my former French master – “22 grown men chasing a pig’s bladder”).
And “Pichotkas” live amongst us. They are not just names and stories in some ancient Book. And, on this anniversary of the day on which God is supposed to have given us the Torah, we should appreciate – indeed, tell our bar mitzvah boys about – our living Davids and Gideons.
Happy Shavuot ! חג שבועות שמח