- Letters about Alex
- Alex's Grave
"The purpose of my aliya will be a combination of wanting a greater chance to make my Judaism one of joy rather than one of burdens, of wanting to be part of Israel's development both as a state and as a beacon, and of feeling that it is the duty of the individual Jew to help the Jewish people."
Letter to Saul, April 17, 1983
Our son Alex was killed in battle with terrorists in Lebanon in 1987 on his 25th birthday, not quite three years after he had made aliyah. Alex affected many people during his life — by his words, his writing, his art, but most of all by his personal example and action. Alex's joy in life and his integrity in pursuit of his ideals inspired all whom he touched. His mission was to protect Israel, his home, and to help build there a Jewish state able to face the challenges of a modern world, and to demonstrate the light that Judaism can bring to people's lives. The Alex Singer Project works to harness the power, beauty, and joy of Alex's life and art to continue his mission.
While it is a non-profit organization incorporated in Maryland (and approved as a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) entity by the US IRS), we call it a "Project" to emphasize that we are trying to continue the work Alex was doing during his lifetime.
The Project has produced a book, a guide to the use of the book, and a 14-minute video, now in DVD format for use either in the U.S. or in Israel.
The video, "," introduces people to Alex's book by showing who Alex was and what he was like. It includes many examples of his drawings and readings of some of his letters and journal entries.
The book, here., is comprised of Alex's writings and art, from when he was a college student through his maturing as an officer in the Army in Israel. They offer insight into his becoming an adult, his evolving commitment to Judaism, and his fears and struggles through basic training, serving on the northern border, and finally becoming an officer. The book is now available in Hebrew through Mass Publishing, and can be found
"" is intended for teachers in formal and informal settings to help them be most effective with young adults.
The ASP also seeks partnership opportunities with other organizations whose purposes overlap with ours.
Alex was born in White Plains, New York, on September 15, 1962. Three months later we moved to Croton-on-Hudson, farther north in Westchester County. In Croton, we lived on a quiet street with a swimming pond up the hill and acres of woods and a stream behind our house. Alex was our second son. His brother Saul was thirteen months older. Daniel was born three years after Alex, and Benjy the youngest, eighteen months later.
The boys grew up outdoors. They swam in the pond and made plaster foot casts in the beach sand, explored the woods as the seasons changed, raised wild turtles and watched them hibernate in the winter, cared for rabbits and gerbils, tapped maple trees and boiled the sap to make tiny amounts of syrup.
Even as a little boy Alex loved to fix, build, and figure out how things worked. He had enormous energy and buoyant, contagious good spirits; and when he had an idea he immediately tried to make it happen. He began to draw when he was about four or five years old.
As Saul and Alex moved closer to Bar Mitzvah age, Max and I realized that we wanted our sons to know more about Judaism and how to think of themselves as Jews. We decided that a sabbatical year in Israel would be a meaningful Jewish experience for the boys, and in the summer of 1973 we left Croton-on-Hudson to spend a year in Israel.
Max and I and the four boys arrived in Jerusalem on August 22, 1973, about two weeks before the start of school, shortly before Alex's 11th birthday, and only about six weeks before the surprise attack by Egypt that started the Yom Kippur War.
As our year in Jerusalem drew to its end, we were reluctant to leave. We thought that another year would let the boys learn more Hebrew, would allow us to continue the wonderful hikes and explorations of archaeological sites in Israel and would deepen our many new friendships. So when Max was asked to stay on as Managing Director of the World Institute we decided to stay another year.
Because that decision was made twice more, our time in Israel extended to four full years. During three of those years Alex attended Israeli public schools in Jerusalem. Then in 1976-1977 he and Saul went to live and work at Kibbutz Kissufim and to attend the regional kibbutz high school. When school ended in July 1977 we packed the accumulation of our four years in Jerusalem and returned to the States, to Washington, D.C.
Alex began his sophomore year at Bethesda - Chevy Chase High School. In the year before graduation Alex started to learn gymnastics. Feeling he might become a good gymnast, Alex applied to colleges that had gymnastic programs, but by the time he arrived at Cornell University in September 1980, his desire to do gymnastics had disappeared.
Alex spent three out of his four college years at Cornell. He was accepted as a College Scholar which meant that he was not required to choose a major. He could construct his program around subjects which interested him, including Russian studies, Jewish studies, and economics. He was required to write a thesis during his senior year.
During the summers after Alex's sophomore and junior years at Cornell, he attended the Brandeis Camp Institute (BCI) in California. BCI was, and is, an intense experience of Jewish learning and living for young adults. Alex's time spent at BCI convinced him that one of the main purposes of Judaism was tikkun olam, "to repair the world." That discovery fit very well into his determination to use his life to make the world a better place. At BCI he also began to learn how Jewish tradition and practice could enrich a modern life. Alex didn't become observant from the BCI experience but it started him on a path of learning about Judaism and building it into his life.
During Alex's junior year he studied in England at the London School of Economics. Also that year he traveled to Russia, Italy, Spain, and Greece-in every place trying to learn how Jews live today and how they had lived in centuries past. Wherever he went he drew what he saw and wrote his thoughts in a stream of letters to family and friends.
When he returned for his senior year at Cornell, the experience of the year before became the subject of his thesis, Letters from the Diaspora. While writing that thesis Alex was asking himself what he wanted to do with his life. Where did he want to live as a Jew? What could he do that would be worthwhile? His decision was to move to Israel and to do his required army service right away.
After studying Arabic and then traveling by himself in Jordan during the summer following graduation from Cornell, Alex made aliyah to Israel on the last day of 1984. He was drafted into the Israel Defense Force (IDF) six weeks later. He volunteered for the paratroops, passed their tough selection test, and began his 18 month required service in February 1985.
A few months after basic training and jump school were completed Alex's unit was assigned to guard duty on Israel's northern border. After three months on the "front line" Alex was sent to the sergeants' course, and immediately after that was offered a chance to go to officers school. He accepted. This extended his army service by a year. After completion of the officer course in October 1986, Alex was assigned as an infantry instructor in the Air Force. Feeling that he wasn't doing enough in the Air Force, Alex started looking for the opportunity to lead an infantry platoon. In May 1987 he got his chance in the Givati brigade.
In August 1987 he was moved with his new platoon to the Lebanese border next to the security zone in southern Lebanon that is patrolled by Israel. On the 15th of September, Alex's 25th birthday, he and 11 other men were dropped by helicopter onto a very rugged ridge in the foothills of Mt. Hermon, about a mile into Lebanon. They were to set up an ambush to try to intercept terrorists on their way into Israel. Unexpectedly, they landed among a group of about 30 terrorists who had hidden themselves among boulders. Alex's commander, Ronen Weissman, was the first to be hit by their fire. When Alex, who was the second officer on the mission, landed he was told that Ronen was not answering the radio. Alex took a medic and went to help Ronen. When Alex reached Ronen, he too was shot and killed at the same spot. Some time later, not knowing what had happened to the two commanders, another soldier from the platoon, Oren Kamil, was sent to help them. He too was shot and killed at the same spot. Outnumbered, and without their officers, the remainder of the small Israeli force continued to return fire until they were reinforced and the band of terrorists retreated, unable to continue their mission to attack settlements in Israel.
Alex was buried on September 18, 1987 in the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem.
Thirty days later there was a memorial program for Alex at the Embassy of Israel in Washington. Family and friends read from Alex's letters and journals and some spoke of their memories of him. Saul read a letter he had written to his dead brother that expressed one of Alex’s lasting messages to all of us. In it, Saul said: "Your message to me is one word. ‘Do.’ Do as you believe and people will follow you. Do not just know what is right, do what is right. Only then will other people follow you. Only then will you have the power to affect the world."
After Alex died, we gathered his writings - his three army journals, the hundreds of letters that Alex had written to us and to friends, and his senior thesis from Cornell, Letters from the Diaspora. We hope Alex’s words and art will inspire young people as they struggle with some of the same questions that Alex asked himself as he tried to translate idealism into action.
A compelling 15-minute video presentation of Alex's life, art, and writings, including readings of his letters and documentary footage illustrating Alex's army service and other periods of his life. The video was designed to introduce discussions on Alex's life and the questions and challenges he raised, and to stimulate students' interest in reading "Alex: Building a Life."
A Letter to Alex
A Poem About Alex
We think of Alex smiling. That constant smile. Always engaging, Always affirming...
A Poem About Alex
In that heaven where, Sholem Aleichem writes, Bontye was granted, by rollicking angels. His craved hot roll every...
Reading Alex's Life
I just reread a book of writings that were never meant to be public, let alone published as a book. Yet, despite its serendipitous origins, the book probably has more power to affect the reader's life than most self-help texts...
A Letter to Alex
I was at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in the summer of 1982, which is where I met Alex z"l. It was a great summer, a great experience, and made for exceptional memories...
The week of Shabbat Pinchas, I, along with Alex and another girl, were asked by Joseph Telushkin [co-director at BCI] to prepare a short lecture. During the course of the week, we had several meetings with Rabbi Telushkin who reviewed our drafts and helped make edits. It was just like being back at school, but in a good way. On Shabbat, we all met in the shul for a rehearsal, and while Alex read his Dvar Torah, I took a picture of him.
That picture of Alex reading his Dvar Torah evoked for me the quintessence of the Brandeis-Bardin experience. I had started the program very torn between my secular life and my spiritual yearnings. Brandeis taught us, through example, that we need not abandon our desire to be of the world while leading a Torah-Jewish life. On Shabbat Pinchas, when we delivered our carefully prepared Divrei Torah, we experienced the high of academic accomplishment along with the beauty of spiritual fulfillment.
As I kept in touch mostly with my California friends, I didn't learn of Alex's death until a few weeks after it happened, and it struck me to my core. I was shocked by the intensity of my feelings, and those feelings have not abated much over the years. And every year, around Shabbat Parshat Pinchas, I remember Alex anew; I think of the smiling, vibrant, happy Alex that I saw that day in the ulam.
Rereading Alex's Dvar Torah, I was struck by the similarities between these two heroes of Israel. Alex writes, "Parshat Pinhas gives a clear message that it is right to do anything to try to save the Jewish people as a whole when its survival is at stake." And he concludes, "Parshat Pinhas is a reminder that the defense of our people is a higher good than those laws which must be broken in order to keep us alive." Alex's life--and death--was an embodiment of the message of Pinchas. It was an honor to know him. I wish I'd known him better.Adina (Rosenfeld) Michelsohn
A Poem About Alex
by David Moss
We think of Alex smiling. That constant smile. Always engaging, Always affirming. At first behind that smile We met a teenager, Slightly awkward, But strangely confident. Precocious, lightning bright, The kid with everything: Talent, intelligence; Values as fine as his looks; A heart as big as his body. Oozing future promise, The world ahead of him; And he sensed it. Then, as always, Alex's smile Was for everyone. Our children were drawn to it As much as we were. A few years later, in a new land, Again we met the smile. Behind it now Stood a man. A man Who had carefully, thoughtfully, Made decisions. Decisions which Alex, Better than anyone else, Knew were not the easy ones. He had committed to A people and its values. To a beauteous land and its bountiful problems. The smile affirmed a man Proud of doing What he had come to be convinced was right. Soon we began to see Alex Only Friday and Saturday— For a Shabbat leave. The unexpected knock at the door, The bright smile now highlighted by Dull khaki. The trials of army life Could not diminish Alex's smile. Not even a little. As always, it radiated warmth It projected genuine curiosity It whispered faith. That smile engaged. That smile affirmed. In memory it affirms still Alex. It affirms a soul Which Affirmed life.David Moss is an artist living in Jerusalem who met Alex as his teacher at Brandeis-Bardin Institute. The friendship continued in Jerusalem.
A Poem About Alex
by Jeanne Singer
In that heaven where, Sholem Aleichem writes, Bontye was granted, by rollicking angels His craved hot roll every morning, What would Alex ask? To go on, with his pen and pad, In these new scenes, more piercing beauties? To consol us all? To become acquainted among the angels? The small, child angels clinging to his knees, The grand angels of wisdom welcoming, Handle with him their treasures and trinkets, Marvelling together. And heavenly peers, in long teasing talks, take him Wandering, among questions become answers. Would he forget, and how find peace without forgetting? Where there is neither now nor then, How remember or forget? All He knew and loved are one with him, What he's made of, Need hardly be noted. And so the angels assigned to design his reward— How things will work out for him now, as he always Assumed they would—seeing him so much at home, And weighing possible prizes, as one, In triumph agree: Let him be Alex!Jeanne Singer is Alex's grandmother. She was an artist and writer. She read this poem on September 8, 1988, at the home of Liz and Rafi Magnes. Jeanne died at home in Jerusalem on July 25, 2006. She was 98.
Reading Alex's life
by Saul Singer
I just reread a book of writings that were never meant to be public, let alone published as a book. Yet, despite its serendipitous origins, the book probably has more power to affect the reader's life than most self-help texts.
Today I will go to Har Herzl and visit my brother's grave, 15 years after he fell in battle on his 25th birthday, at Har Dov in Lebanon. It is his book, Alex: Building a Life (Gefen), that I read, and that has helped me and many others these long years.
Alex's book is a collection of his letters, diaries and drawings, compiled by his family in the days after his death. The reason for its impact is not the ultimate sacrifice that Alex made, though one must admit that the ending is part of what draws people to the story. The reason is that it is an unfiltered, unplanned, unself-conscious window into a way of living life.
For all his angst over being indecisive, what distinguished Alex was the short distance between decision and action. He decided, having returned to Cornell from a trip to the Soviet Union in the early 80s, that synagogues should organize weekly letter-writing campaigns to Soviet Jews. So he launched one himself.
He decided to make aliya after graduating and to join the IDF, so he showed up at the draft board within days of moving here. He decided he should visit an Arab country before moving here, so he backpacked around Jordan, alone. But what struck me most was not so much these big decisions, but how this pattern permeated his life at the micro level.
Alex wouldn't think about writing letters, he would just write them - from an airplane he was about to jump out of in paratroop training; on a few minutes' break in a grueling hike, while all his colleagues were collapsing with exhaustion; while guarding (when he wasn't supposed to). No window of time was too small to fill with a letter or a drawing.
Reading Alex's letters makes one realize how self-absorbed we all are. Here he was, a 'lone soldier' in basic training with 'kids' (as he rightly called them) four years his junior, struggling with physical challenges, tormented at times by whether he had made the right choice. Yet he would write to each of us about our lives and problems as if he had not a care in the world.
As a writer and editor, I am particularly impressed by how cleanly he expressed himself in a pre-computer era, with simply a pen and paper. Alex wrote like he drew - fast, naturally, and with a sparing use of lines.
This is a powerful combination not just because anyone reading the book feels like they have lost someone they just got to know, but because it is hard not to take lessons for your own life. Its effect is similar to what might happen if one took the High Holy Day liturgy to heart - that is, a push not to just make those new year's resolutions, but to actually carry them out.
The other striking thing about Alex's thoughts from 15 years ago is how much has happened since then, and yet how we have essentially returned to the starker version of the Arab-Israeli conflict that existed in his day. Alex lived in a world without the Internet, before the first intifada, during the final throes of the Cold War; and, of course, before the Oslo Accords, Camp David, the current war and September 11.
And yet a letter to a friend from Cornell shows the same fundamental dilemma we have today: how to fight a war for survival under the scrutiny of the world and our own values.
As Alex explained, 'You see, the officer must think, and do his thinking with a sense of justice far less abstract than that of the law professor or the civil judge... The young men I'm with are learning to think and make decisions harder than any in the civilian world, and they are not abstract or far away.'
Alex continued, 'We will win the next war, as we've won every war until now, and Israel will not be pushed into the sea.
'But I don't want to lecture anymore about Zionism and decision making. I'd rather tell you about walking through a wadi in the middle of the night with a million stars over my head, and singing as I walk because I'm so content and so enjoying myself, and climbing mountains and looking over the desert, and seeing eagles and a huge waddling porcupine, and the goodness of the rest which always comes after a night of trekking with so much weight on my shoulders... I'm feeling wonderful and very much at peace with my decision to stay on.'
I still miss you, Alex.The Jerusalem Post
Friday, August 30, 2002
Alex is buried in the Military Cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem (Area Dalet, Section 10). Inside the main entrance to the Military Cemetery on Herzl Boulevard, walk up the road straight ahead. Follow this road as it forks left up a hill. Continue on the road to go up the stairs to area dalet toward a sign that says (in Hebrew) Area Dalet, Section 10. Go up to this area to the eighth row. Alex's grave is the third from the left. The cemetery is open all the time.
For map of grave at Har Herzl (in Hebrew) click here.
- The Gallery
Alex drew what he saw from the time he was a very little boy. Except for one course in printmaking when he was at Cornell University, he never had an art lesson. If there was nothing in front of him to draw, he would draw himself. So frequently we see drawings that contain his foot or his hand or his drawing pad. The earliest drawing in this group is the one in color of the Temple Mount, done when Alex was in his early teens, living in Jerusalem with the family. Also from this period are the tractors at Kibbutz Kissufim where he lived with his brother Saul in 1976-77.
During the college year Alex spent studying in London he traveled to Spain, Italy, Greece and the Soviet Union. And in each of these places—on trains, in the street, in cathedrals and cafes—he would take out his small spiral bound sketch pad and draw. Sometimes the drawings were only in black pen but often his tiny watercolor set allowed him to add color.
Alex continued to draw all through his army training and while serving as an officer in Givati. Although Alex seldom drew people in his earlier years, during time in the IDF he would sometimes sketch the soldiers. While others would sleep during a break from a strenuous action, Alex would draw—and write. On the rooftop of a Christian hospital in Marjayoun, Lebanon where he was guarding, Alex made his largest drawing: a 360 degree panorama from the Mediterranean to Mt. Hermon on which he wrote the geographical direction of the view in Arabic. Those six linked panels are part of this gallery.
- About the Art Box
- Art Box Gallery
...An art box is a container that is itself part of the art—an intimate way to hold and study small format art. Alex’s art, much of it drawn on small sketch pads while traveling, taking a break as a soldier in the IDF, or at other unplanned moments, is ideal for an art box... (To read “How It Began and How It Was Accomplished,” click.)
Alex's Art Box: How it Began and How it was Accomplished
From time to time, people who had seen Alex’s drawings would say to me, “How can I get a copy of one of them?” I would tuck the question away in my head. A few years ago, it set me to designing a poster set. Max and I chose 8 subjects, pulled out some of Alex’s words that went with them and I wrote short context paragraphs to go with each subject. I spoke to Yair Medina, master scanner of art and a sensitive and responsive soul, whose studio is Jerusalem Fine Art Prints. We discussed the possibility of Yair making poster reproductions of these 8 subjects.
When I opened the file again some time later I realized two things: posters seemed passé as an idea for reproducing Alex’s art but the subjects we had chosen, the Alex writings and the context paragraphs were wonderful. What to do?
In the years of the dormant file, Andi and David Arnovitz, who had moved to the other end of our short street, became friends. And Andi, an artist http://www.andiarnovitz.com who bursts with ideas and sensibilities reflected in her own art, became the person I immediately thought of to help me decide what next.
After reading what had been chosen and written for the poster project, Andi suggested an art box, a container for art that is itself part of the art—an intimate way to hold and study small format art. Thinking about Alex’s art, much of it drawn on small sketch pads while traveling, taking a break as a soldier in the IDF, or at other unplanned moments, the idea of a box with prints of Alex’s art seemed just right. It would sit on a table, waiting to be opened, offering someone the possibility of handling each one up close, of shuffling them in different order, of reading the words with the art.
Each element had to be the best possible: the scanning of the art and printing on fine paper, the simple beautiful box, a silkscreen detail of an Alex drawing on the box cover, and the small booklets containing the captions and telling about Alex and the Alex Singer Project.
The first task was to choose the drawings to be included in the box. We chose 50 subjects and put them all around our living room in Jerusalem, each numbered from 1-50. Max and I, our friend and neighbor Jean-Marc Liling, Yair Medina, Andi Arnovitz, our sons Daniel and Saul, and Saul’s wife Wendy gathered to rate our choices on a good, better, best scale. From this input we ultimately chose 18 subjects--from Alex’s self-portrait at age six, his time in Europe as a junior in college, living in Jerusalem, through his experiences as a soldier and officer.
Yair Medina’s scans, printed on the paper he chose, were startlingly accurate when held against the originals. The pale maple wood box with its delicate detail of Alex’s drawing on its cover is an ideal container for the art.
We decided to produce a limited edition of 36 Alex art boxes. We made 16 to start. The remaining 20 in the edition are now available. There will be no more.
The price of the art box is $500. The total amount is deposited in the Alex Singer Project, covering the cost of making the box, supporting educational projects in Israel and North America connected to Alex’s words and art and to contributing to a documentary film now being produced about Alex.
January 16, 2013
- Story of Alex's Haggadah
- The Haggadah
In August of 1973, the Singer family arrived in Jerusalem - Suzanne and Max with sons Saul, 12; Alex soon to be 11; Daniel almost 8 and Benjy, 6. Although only expecting to be in Israel for one year (one became four years) the boys entered regular public schools, knowing very little Hebrew.
The following spring Alex and his family participated in Mike and Hannah Bargteil's seder and saw the Bargteil's collection of haggadot. Alex's route home from school passed the Bargteil's home and at some point, no one remembers exactly when, Alex decided to make a haggadah to add to Mike's collection. Although he had just learned Hebrew, he wrote every word of the haggadah in Hebrew. The text pages all had his small decorations and drawings, but, in addition, he made full page color drawings of events from the Exodus account, each of which he gave a title and signed with his name. Alex bound the haggadah in red burlap, sewed it together by hand, wrote on the inside cover, "Conceived and Executed by Alex Singer 1975," and gave it to Mike.
Years passed and Mike and Hannah died. After almost 30 years, Mike and Hannah's granddaughter, Dee, phoned Sue and Max at home in Jerusalem just before the seder to tell them that she had found Alex"s haggadah while going through her grandfather's collection. So that day, the haggadah that had been forgotten and "lost" for so many years returned to the Singer table in time for seder. Since then, a full-size facsimile has been made and the fragile original is protected.
Now every page Alex wrote and illustrated can be seen here, the work of a 12-year-old boy who had barely learned Hebrew when he made it.
- About the Book
- Reader Feedback
Alex: Building a Life (Gefen Publishing House, 1996), a 273 page collection of letters and drawings by Alex Singer, shares the thoughts and art of a young American who died defending Israel.
To arrange discounts for educators and for bulk orders, please.
All author's royalties are directed back to the Alex Singer Project, a non-profit organization.
Two educational resources are available for use in conjunction with Alex: Building a Life: Anand a 15-minute on Alex's life, art, and writings.
Here is a column, "", about Alex's book in the Jerusalem Post, written by Alex's brother Saul Singer.
During junior year at London School of Economics
... for the first time I am now planning ahead and I like the feeling of thinking that I'll be in Tzahal in a little over a year. I'm waiting with bated breath for the letter which Mat (Lt. Col.) promised me, on how long I must serve and what chances are of getting into what I called an "interesting unit," possibly in active intelligence.
The prospect of going in the army makes me happy in more ways than one. I like the idea of getting away from the hypocrisy of Cornell profs who teach "x" without ever having done "x." If I ever go into a job writing about military issues I feel glad to know that I will have more experience than only reading books. I also like: the idea of being "in" at the same time that Daniel is, the idea of being in the best armed forces for the best country in the world, the shape I should get into, and a zillion other little unmentionable reasons. (It's not "cool" to say you like the idea of going in the IDF because you want to kill people who are trying to destroy your country and your people-even your family.)
I said to my friend Beni on Kissufim that it is much easier to die in a war than of a disease like leukemia, which a boy who was 10 when I left Kissufim has, and which will probably kill him within a year. But I'm not planning on dying soon. Now that I'm on the subject... an Interesting thing about me (maybe lots of people) is that I feel myself almost totally invulnerable, while I tend to worry about other people even if they're doing things about which I wouldn't have second thoughts. And, I am not reckless.
April 27, 1983
Kibbutz Ein Tzurim
Dear Grandma and Grandpa,
I'm sitting watching TV at the kibbutz now. It's Saturday night and I go back to the army early tomorrow morning. I'll be going back for the last time in my Basic Training. Next time I have leave I'll be a real paratrooper, with a red beret and parachuting wings. During the two weeks between now and then I have only two tasks to complete: "jump school," which is teaching me to parachute, and the "Beret March" which is the final challenge of basic training-a ninety-kilometer all-night march from a spot near the Mediterranean to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The whole thing is supposed to be as moving as it is difficult.
I want you to know that I have no hesitation telling you about jump school because I know that I'm not giving you something to worry about. By the time you read this the jump training will be over, and it will be too late to worry.
The army is a series of challenges. Some are more difficult than others. Some are physical, some are spiritual, some are irritating, but all are new. I have no regrets about putting myself before all of these challenges; they teach well even if their education is different from that at Cornell.
June 22, 1985
I'm on the edge of an airfield "somewhere in Israel" waiting for the plane which will take me to my first jump. My parachute is on my back and the sun is shining on my face from just above the eucalyptus trees.
I'm not scared I don't think. Two planes have already left -immense planes which look like gliding whales which swallow us like Jonah so as to spew us out later. The guys waiting with me are more nervous than I am, but I fear that I will join their jumpiness as soon as the plane arrives. They're joking around and the atmosphere is really quite light.
Next to me Leo is sitting with his hands knit behind his neck. His grandparents from Argentina are here and should meet him on the ground after the jump. (In his words.) I FEEL PROUD TO BE JUMPING AS A PARATROOPER IN THE ISRAELI ARMY MY DREAM HAS COME TO A REALITY!!
Now I'm in the plane all buckled in. This thing looks like the bowels of a monster machine, with pipes and pads and straps and nets and cables all around. I feel secure, but the tension is building. Now the door’s closed and we’re moving. I really have to put this away now. I jumped! It was amazing, but I have to close as I’ve got a chance to send this.
June 30, 1985
From Alex's Journal during basic training
It's late morning now - I've already jumped twice once this morning, at sunrise, and once yesterday morning. Stepping out of an airplane at 1200 feet is like nothing else in the world. It is preceded by a fear which must accompany doing anything as ridiculous as stepping out of a secure place into emptiness. I kept telling myself that I wouldn't jump. Not seriously, because I knew I would jump, but nonetheless the feeling of wanting to turn around is there.
When my turn came (I jumped second) I guess that I jumped like they taught me, but I remember nothing from the second before I left the plane until I found my chute opening behind me. The moment of the jump (or the shove - it may be that the instructors pushed me, but I have no idea) is not in my memory. Today's jump I remember a bit better, but there's still at least a second missing from my recollection.
Once the fear passes - and the fear passes as soon as you're out of the plane - the jump is so much more pleasant than what I had thought, that I really enjoyed all of its sensations. The opening of the chute occurs with a smooth pull on the shoulders, rather than the jolt which we felt on the machines which simulate the jump. The ride is spectacular, and the landing is also softer than the landings we've practiced on the ground. Yesterday my landing was as soft as a jump off a milk crate, and today it was a bit faster - like a jump from a truckbed.
It's odd that I also don't remember much of the view from the air. I paid little attention to it, as I was thinking about checking my canopy, releasing the reserve (not opening it, just moving it out of the way), adjusting my flight path so as to land as close as possible to the target, keeping my legs together, and generally being overwhelmed by flying without an airplane.
The second you're in the air you want to shout and sing, so I did.
July 2, 1985
After completing sergeants course
On Thursday I pinned sergeant's stripes to my uniform for the first time. The ceremony which exposed them, a few hours later, took place in the sun on a plain near one of our training areas. I found the whole business a bit comical, both because I find marching in formation to be amusing, and because my platoon-mates kept passing out. Teddy fell first - like a broomstick - flat on his face. After the ceremony I found him with a bandage wrapped around his head like a little boy with a toothache. He'd had six stitches in his chin, but was in a good mood. Levinson, the redhead, fell next, like a giant tree struck by lightning.
Then Yoram began to totter. I grabbed him and someone else rushed to lead him away. Then, as we marched in place before starting to parade, we saw that as we all lifted our feet high, Shifman's toes were glued to the floor and only his heels were being lifted to the drumbeat. We whispered to him, "Shifman, wake up!" but to no avail. He too had to be led away. A hot day.
April 20, 1986
I will never do without questioning at least in my mind. You have to understand that the army, however, is not a place which demands its members to cease thinking. To a civilian the idea that orders must be followed is blown out of proportion. I want you to know that in my army, and especially where I am now in officers training, thinking is encouraged, especially about questions and dilemmas far more difficult than I think civilians see officers as having to face. Example: If I am sent on a mission and have the capability to deal with only ten prisoners, and my soldiers capture twenty, and freeing the extra ten will possibly mean the discovery, hence annihilation of my force, can I decide to kill ten of the prisoners?
You see, the officer must think, and do his thinking with a sense of justice far less abstract than that of the law professor or the civil judge. His sense of justice must be combined with his responsibility for the lives of his men, and his duty to complete the mission he has been given, to produce a decision usually in minutes, rather than in the years which an academic can take to answer (or declare "unanswerable") the same question. But, the quality of the officer's choice can be measured in terms of blood, while the academic sees his question and answer as largely hypothetical. I know I'm being harsh with academe but I want you to see an army, not as it has been portrayed to you through your whole life, by a generation of media-men who never served in armed forces. The young men I'm with are learning to think and make decisions harder than any in the civilian world and they are not abstract or far away.
We will win the next war, as we've won every war until now, and Israel will not be pushed into the sea.
I don't want to lecture anymore about Zionism and decisionmaking. I'd rather tell you about walking through a wadi in the middle of the night with a million stars over my head, and singing as I walk because I'm so content and so enjoying myself, and climbing mountains and looking over the desert, and seeing eagles and a huge waddling porcupine, and the goodness of the rest which always comes after a night of trekking with so much weight on my shoulders. There are nights which make the weight disappear, and I love those nights.
I'm feeling wonderful and very much at peace with my decision to stay on.
July 5, 1986
Poem: To Step Forward Myself
Once in a while. As I progress towards the course's end. I feel a pang of fear. Today I felt such fear. If the war comes When the war comes I will have to lead men to die But those men were not men a short time ago Some don't even shave yet And I will have to have the calm power to yell to them or to whisper Kadima. And, I will have to have the calm power to step forward myself.
Alex's book invoked in me that our lives can be filled with meaning if we decide to pursue meaning. And that if we do, our sense of aloneness vanishes ... His sense of family, of Israel, of community, of nature, of aloneness are fascinating and beautiful. His writing has simultaneously comforted me and awoke in me all this longing to find a way to act, and to act as myself. It's not simple.
Alex's book has the potential to change lives. His writings convey powerfully and persuasively, an attitude and tone of voice that seems to be heard less and less. It's a voice that says that life is a gift to be lived fully, joyfully, spontaneously; that Judaism has the power and depth to challenge and enrich every Jew, and through them to improve the world; that doing for others is the most effective--the only--way of fulfilling yourself; and that Israel is the Jewish home and that instead of rejecting it for its faults we should work to correct them. Alex writes beautifully and honestly. His drawings are vivid and personal.
I wish I could tell Alex how much he was able to guide me via his correspondences. Alex has played the role of a friend I have needed for quite some time now. There are very few people with whom one can openly and honestly discuss the issues behind aliya.
I attend the University of California at Berkeley, and am currently spending my junior year in Israel at the Hebrew University. ... Once I started Alex: Building a Life, I could not put it down. ... Reading Alex1s thoughts when he was deciding about aliya really helped me. There were so many moments as I was reading when I had to just stop because he had expressed my exact feelings right now. I don't think I have ever been so deeply affected by a book as I was by Alex. I have been spreading the word and all my friends are going to read the book as well.
I am a graduate of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville MD, where I first read Alex’s book. I brought the book with me to our senior class trip to Israel, and read it again while traveling the country. I have bought copies for friends of mine who had made aliyah and are serving in the army.
I am currently working for PANIM--The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values in Rockville. We are designing an Israel education/advocacy seminar for high school students; and I am in the process of incorporating Alex’s life and the video/DVD about Alex into the seminar.
Alex inspired me as a high school student to follow my dreams and to act on what I believe. Alex has stayed with me throughout these years. My plan is to make aliyah in the next few years and I know that the book will be with me as I go through that process.
I'm a student at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI in Hod Ha'Sharon). I felt that I ought to write to you and your family to give my thanks and gratitude for what you did in putting together Alex's incredible story. After recently listen to stories from our teachers Yossi Katz and Tuvia Book and seeing the presentation of Alex's letters and drawings that now stands proudly on the wall of our school, I decided to read the book and almost never put it down until reading your heart felt letter at the end. Especially with my group here about to go to Gadna (4-day basic training course), having had my own family fight for and protect Israel, and the great love we have for the country, Alex's story truly touched me and many others of us here.
His memory, may it be blessed, will continue to live on through each of us.
In Two Days, I Will Be 25
“Makor Rishon” January 10, 2008 - Shmuel Faust
Alex – The Art of Life The Story of a Young Man who Immigrated from America and Fell Defending the Homeland From his Writings, Journals and Drawings Alex Singer z"l Translation: Lilli Stern Rubin Mass Publishers, Jerusalem 2007, 272 pages
Israeli advertising firms have launched a campaign: "A real Israeli does not shirk" is the crude and simplistic slogan chosen to adorn street posters. The issue of evading military service and the question of motivation for enlistment are still on the agenda. Recently, the public has begun to scrutinize the military background of actors and singers, and local councils are setting military service as a threshold condition for their appearance on Independence Day entertainment stages. Newspapers have published IDF research on the rate of enlistment among the graduates of the various high schools and the percentage of those serving in combat units. And again the issue of education has become intertwined with the social issue, which is at the soul of Israeli society. With much naivety, I am a great believer in the power of the spoken and written word to educate, and the power of a book to touch the depths of a person's soul and motivate him toward lofty acts. For me, the book that tells the story of Alex is such a book.
The prime of life
Alex Singer was born in New York on September 15, 1962 and grew up on a quiet street, with woods and a stream flowing behind his parents' home. Alex and his three brothers swam in the pond at the top of the hill, raised turtles and rabbits, and made tiny amounts of syrup from the maple trees. Alex was good-natured and exuded happiness toward everyone around him. He began to draw at the age of four or five. His parents, Suzanne and Max, did not belong to a synagogue and did not maintain any connection with the Jewish community; they did not send their sons to Hebrew school. However, as their older sons approached bar mitzvah age, they wanted their children to know more about their Jewishness and this led to take an unusual and fateful step – a trip to Israel for a sabbatical year. In the summer of 1973, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, the Singers arrived in Jerusalem. At the end of the year, the feeling that they had not absorbed enough of the experience, language and landscape of Israel led them to extend their stay to four full years. During those years, Alex studied in a state school in Jerusalem and then went with his older brother, Saul, to study and work on Kibbutz Kissufim, until the family returned to the U.S. in 1977. After completing high school, Alex was accepted as a College Scholar at prestigious Cornell University, which enabled him to construct an independent program of studies from subjects that interested him. He chose, among other subjects, Jewish studies, Russian studies and economics. Alex preferred to spend his summer vacations at the Brandeis Camp Institute. His experiences there provided him with a name for the feelings he harbored – "tikkun olam" – and placed them in the context of the goals of Judaism. He began to think about the meaning of the Jewish tradition and the commandments of Judaism for modern life, and about the way to integrate them into his own life.
During a year of studies at the London School of Economics, Alex managed to visit the families of refuseniks in Russia, and to travel in Italy, Spain and Greece, studying the lives of Jews in these places, in the past and in the present. During all of his travels, Alex sent many letters to his family and friends, and recorded his thoughts, in words and drawings, on the pages of his journal. His travels in the Jewish communities in Europe became the subject of Alex's thesis, which he called "Letters from the Diaspora." While writing the thesis, Alex asked himself many questions about his future as a Jew, the place he would like to live, and how he could make a valuable contribution to the Jewish people. He came to a decision – he decided to immigrate to Israel and enlist for military service.
On the last day of 1984, Alex immigrated to Israel and lived in a small room in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem, while also spending time at Kibbutz Ein Zurim. Several weeks after "making aliyah," at age 22, Alex enlisted in the IDF and volunteered for the paratroopers. The full gamut of his feelings and emotions, physical and mental difficulties, the pride of achievements, the loneliness and longings, as well as his thoughts about Zionism, self-realization, sacrifice, world politics, and interpersonal relations – Alex put down in writing, in three journals and in hundreds of letters. In a small notepad he always carried, Alex incessantly sketched everything he saw.
Despite the difficulties, and his relatively advanced age, Alex chose to extend his military service by a year and went to infantry officers' course. In May 1987, he became a platoon commander in the Givati Brigade. On September 15th of that year, Alex landed with his platoon in the security zone in Lebanon with the goal of intercepting terrorists on their way to Israel. However, they landed in a counter ambush. During the battle with the terrorists, Alex was shot and killed, on his 25th birthday. In a letter he wrote to a friend and never completed, he writes: "The day after tomorrow I’ll be 25. This is a good age – ‘the prime of life.’"
Thinking about happiness
After Alex fell in battle, his family decided that the best way to memorialize him and to inspire young people who are grappling with the same questions he wrestled with in his life, was to collect his writings and publish them as a book. Alex – Building a Life was published in English in 1996. Eleven years later, the book appeared in Hebrew translation.
In his letters and journal entries, Alex comes across as a brilliant young man, curious and inquisitive, funny, optimistic and full of faith. He was very much occupied with the "big" questions and the right place for him to fulfill the ideals in which he believed:
"The purpose of my aliya will be a combination of wanting a greater chance to make my Judaism one of joy rather than one of burdens, of wanting to be part of Israel’s development both as a state and as a beacon, and of feeling that it is the duty of the individual Jew to help the Jewish people.” (From a letter to Saul, April 17, 1983, on the Alex Singer website, www.alexsinger.org)
His prodigious love and concern for his parents, brothers, grandfather and grandmothers, and for his friends, is evident in each of his many letters. He offers advice to his brothers, heaps affection upon them, and also shares with them his internal conflicts and pains. He is interested in his father's work and enjoys reading his articles in various magazines. On his mother's birthday, he writes:
"Dearest Mother, Happy Birthday… I’m thinking of you, and tears are welling up in my eyes, because when I spend time thinking of you I miss you….I think three things. I think gratitude….I think admiration for how you’ve raised us….I admire the way you have taken your children for what each of them is, and added to each of them. Third, I think joy. Joy is maybe what I feel most when I think of you, because you take the world so well and that makes me happy. Love, Alex”
During basic training, objective difficulties, medical problems, the dilemmas about the ideal fulfillment of his potential, and the feeling that he is not doing anything useful or interesting, lead to internal deliberation that usually culminates in optimism. Alex realizes that the fact he had the option of choosing whether to serve, unlike his Israeli friends, is what leads him to engage in an internal debate over whether he did the right thing, and he is tormented by this uncertainty:
"At the swearing-in ceremony I promised to give my life (even) for this country. That was pretty odd, and saying it really brings into focus what I’ve done. I wouldn’t say I have no regrets, because this is a hard place to be…but when I sit myself down and think rather than just feel, I still know I did the right thing.”
As someone who came from a nearly assimilated family from a perspective of Jewish education, Alex wrestles with the Jewish tradition and observing the commandments. There is something genuine and refreshing in his frank ponderings. He says that the commandments pertaining to one's fellow man are clear to him, and tells how difficult it is for a rationalist like himself to do strange things like putting on tefillin. Yet he is strict about putting them on. In his various letters from the army period, he talks about the importance for him of praying in a minyan, the importance of fasting on Tisha B'Av, and of observing kashrut, and his indecision about wearing a kippa ("it goes from my head to my pocket like a yo-yo…") While at officers' course, he writes:
“I also have to start thinking about my Judaism. I find that I'm not comfortable living with the level of observance that I want for myself and my family. I've always told myself that ‘later’ I'll wear a kippa, observe Shabbat more fully, etc.; but I don't think that later is too close. It's not that I've lost idealism, it's just that I haven't done anything with it in the past year; other than join the Israeli army which isn't enough.”
Also during difficult moments, on long marches and guard duty, Alex does not forget in his letters and journal to be amazed by the landscape around him (which he drew non-stop), and to be sensitive to the people around him. The drawings he left, which he sometimes describes (or the moment of drawing them) in writing, add much to the emotion that arises from his letters. His special sensitivity, like his compassion and humor, are evident in them, and the skill with which he did them, under various and strange conditions, is very impressive. Here and there they provide historical-like documentation, like for example the drawing of the Nada bakery, which is familiar to long-time Jerusalemites and which Alex especially loved.
The era of the Internet, email, cell phones and SMS, which has many advantages of its own, is burying the era in which writing letters was the principal means of communication between people. The handwriting, the shakiness, the erasures, the symbols and notes, communicate personal feelings and describe situations in a way that a huge assortment of computerized icons could never do.
The genre of books that are a collection of journal entries and letters written to real people in real time is a special one. This is primarily due to the realization that the words were not written with an awareness of the audience that would someday read them, and they reflect a type of honesty and authenticity that is difficult to reconstruct. In addition, as Alex himself writes:
"It seems to me that one of the best things about keeping in touch, through letters, with you folks, but with Mon and Dad especially, is that I think we can talk in our letters much more than we would if I were at home.”
There is no experience of voyeurism in reading the book. There is great intimacy, which every reader feels part of, as if he has always known Alex and as if Alex's letters are addressed to him, inviting him to join in his thoughts and internal deliberations, as well as in his joy and in describing his journeys.
When we read in the writings of young people who have died in war about their attitudes toward death, their thoughts about sacrificing their lives or, on the other hand, their long-term plans, these are always poignant sections. While seen in retrospect as premonitions, these thoughts actually sound very logical for any young person, particularly in the context of army combat duty. Personally, I found that one letter he wrote, in a different context, is even more heart-rending than thoughts about death. Alex writes to his family about the experience of reading The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu – the well-known collection of letters from an IDF officer, published after he fell in battle. Alex describes his initial reaction as a sense of guilt that he was not scrutinizing himself in everything as Yoni Netanyahu did, that he was not making the best use of his time, that he did not devote sufficient care to his family and was not sensitive enough. He writes that 'what Yoni's letters did for him “is give me shot in the arm…the letters have revived my usually healthy optimism about all things working out for the best in the future based on the way they have worked out in the past…"
Alex, of course, could not have imagined this, but his letters, which turned into a book, are now part of an exemplary genre of letter collections like The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu. The hope is that reading Alex's letters will give young readers a "shot in the arm" – in thinking about ideals, Judaism, making a contribution and service, and in the healthy optimism he exudes, despite everything. Though the expression is already completely worn-out as a PR cliché – this book is a must. Really. It is a must for young Jews abroad in educational and community frameworks and in projects like "birthright." (After writing this, I glanced at the Web site of the Alex Singer Project and was glad to find that such efforts are indeed being made with the English version of the book.) The Hebrew version is required reading, in my view, for high school teachers and students, for members of youth movements, and for soldiers in military units. The idealistic inspiration and the personal example that emerge from the pages of the book, and the identification with Alex's joyful and vivacious personality, are needed like oxygen for anyone who teaches young people and for all of us during our hours of despair and pessimism. (As this article goes to press, I have learned that the publisher is indeed in contact with schools, seeking to introduce the book to students.)
A handsome smile
Rubin Mass Publishers should be commended for choosing to publish this book. The name of the book in Hebrew – The Art of Living – is fitting, meaningful and loftier than the original. I did not compare the English text to the Hebrew translation, but it seems to be very faithful to the original and is marred by only a few mistakes. It is easy to recognize many linguistic constructions and expressions that are a literal translation from the English and are not used in Hebrew. At first I considered this to be a flaw, but on second thought, there is a certain charm and authenticity in conveying the original language of Alex. Together with this, there are attempts to use the latest lingo, and military slang in particular. Thus, we encounter "arsim" [punks], "chnana" [nerds] and even "jifa" [scum]. In order to improve future editions, I would dare to suggest that the Hebrew edition could easily do without the introduction by (retired) Major General Uzi Dayan, which is a bit inarticulate. In particular, it is not clear what the connection is between the author of the introduction and the book, and it detracts from the familial feeling and lack of pompousness that characterizes the book.
The book could also benefit from a higher level of proofreading. There are unfortunate mistakes in the book's epilogue, for example, where it was not decided – apparently due to differences in pronunciation – whether the name of Alex's commander, who was the first to fall in the same operation, is Ronen Weizman or Weissman, and his position is also mistakenly translated as Alex's "platoon commander" instead of "company commander." There are also other minor mistakes of less importance scattered throughout the entire book, and correcting these mistakes would only enhance it.
Alex was killed in battle about two months after I enlisted in the army. I did not know his story, but I very much identified with his descriptions of life in the army during the same period. When you read the book as is, from beginning to end, and come to know a fine and handsome young man, with the smile from his eyes and lips shining from the cover and from the pictures inside, and also journey into his thoughts and into the depths of his soul – it is impossible not to shed tears of real pain and a sense of great kinship. When you digest what is written, the feeling of sadness is joined by a sense of a missed opportunity – missing the life of an intelligent and talented person, warm and sensitive, loving and idealistic, who faced all of the tests of contribution and sacrifice, including the last and ultimate one. His life was devoted, without a bit of cynicism, to ascending the path toward "perfecting the world under the reign of the Almighty." And together with this, he was so human, so fragile, so real and so alive.
The Alex Singer Project provides educational materials based on the book, including a short video, teacher's guide for use in the school, and more. I highly recommend visiting the Web site (English and Hebrew): www.alexsinger.org
Neither a saint nor a superhero – a real-life person
“Haaretz” May 7, 2008 - Yair Sheleg
Alex Singer was a young Jewish-American who managed to do much in his short life. He was born and grew up in the U.S. in a Jewish family of economic and public prominence: His father was one of the founders of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and his mother is a senior editor at Moment magazine and the Biblical Archaeology Review. (The former is a general Jewish monthly and the latter is a leading magazine for biblical archeology.) As such, all of the doors of the American elite were open to him. And, indeed, he completed his bachelor's degree at the prestigious Cornell University and also spent a year studying at the London School of Economics, one of the world's leading schools of economics.
Since his childhood, he had a deep relationship with Israel. He lived in Israel for four years, and studied at the high school of Kibbutz Kissufim in the Negev toward the end of this period. This was presumably the "Israeli chapter" in his life and not something that would change the American's anticipated future. But he decided at age 21 – following the path of his younger brother Daniel – to immigrate to Israel and enlist for combat service in the Paratroop Brigade. He completed officers' training and was assigned to command a platoon in the Givati Brigade. On September 15, 1987, on his 25th birthday, he was killed with two of his comrades in a battle with terrorists in the "Security Zone" in southern Lebanon.
Singer had two hobbies: drawing and writing. He did not write professionally, and thus expressed his love in writing countless letters – mainly to his family, but also to friends and significant people he met during the course of his life. For this reason, his family decided to memorialize him in a book that presents a selection of his drawings and letters to the general public. The book was published in English in 1996 [as Alex: Building A Life] , nine years after his death, and has now been published in a Hebrew edition.
The letters indeed reveal the writing talent of an acute observer who knows how to express his insights in writing; a loving person, but one who also knows how to immediately identify the weaknesses of people; a curious person with a talent for description, who is able to communicate to the reader in a few sentences the "atmosphere" of the place he is writing about. He could have been an excellent journalist.
The genre of "a collection of letters" as an expression of memorialization is not a simple one. In the Israeli culture of remembrance, there is one salient example of this type of book, which has indeed perpetuated its author in the consciousness of tens of thousands of Israelis – Yoni's Letters [published in English as The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu] of Yoni Netanyahu, who fell in the operation to rescue the hostages in Entebbe in 1976. In one of the letters in the book, Singer actually mentions Yoni's Letters (and reading them made him feel guilty that he was not reaching Yoni Netanyahu's level of sensitivity and ability to selflessly praise others). This raises the question of whether Singer wrote his own letters with an awareness of the possibility that one day someone might read them.
But a rare confluence is expressed in Yoni's Letters: a son of a famous family, a hero of a particularly prominent operation, and texts that also have a very strong ideological dimension – profound fervor of love for the land and state; the stubborn insistence on returning to Israel while his family was living in the U.S.; "rigid" letters by a very committed person, anxious about the future of the state, almost preaching – in short, everything that is supposed to comprise the character of a mythological sabra. Does Singer's collection of letters offer such added value, something that can be meaningful beyond the members of his family and friends? Ostensibly, the answer is no. Most of the letters are very personal, quite short, and even when they describe ideological dilemmas, the things are said succinctly and in a personal style, and not as a lecture that could be quoted for generations by counselors in youth movements. Nonetheless, even if it is difficult to point to a specific letter in the collection that could serve as a model with which many could identify, the totality of the person arising from the letters is what gives the book its importance and also makes its author an exemplary figure.
The figure arising from the letters is an unconventional young person, not someone who can be pegged in the usual categories, for example of religious or secular. He has a deep relationship with Judaism. He regularly prays in the synagogue in London during his studies there; as a soldier in Israel, he lives at Ein Zurim, a religious kibbutz. But he does not meticulously observe mitzvoth [Jewish religious commandments]. He writes on Shabbat, and in one letter he even admits that it was written on Yom Kippur. He loves life and loves people, and makes friends easily. He travels by train from Italy to Spain and already visits a church with a member of a family he met on the train. He reports on a year of "a zillion little relationships which shouldn't be called more than flirtations." In the same breath, he explains that "girlwise … I'm still a wimp at heart."
To the book's credit, it can be said that it does not seek to portray its hero as a saint or superhero. There are quite a few letters in which he tells about depression, doubts about his ability to succeed in studies, and an actual sense of failure in his studies. In the military chapter of his life, he is not only a fervent Zionist, but also complains sometimes about his "childish" comrades. He tells about getting drunk before skiing in France and in another letter he calls himself a "hypocritical bastard" – in short, a real-life person, not a monument. Therefore, the editors of the book rightly chose not to give it a title that expresses some grandiose Zionist rhetoric (though as someone who opted for life in Israel and combat service, he could have been worthy of this), but instead a simple title: Alex – Building a Life [or Alex – The Art of Life]. And, indeed, it is precisely the Jewish and Israeli commitment of a young man like this – who loves life and has a clear universalistic bent – is what makes the book a moving one. This is a story that transforms the commitment to Judaism and Israel from a story of ideological commitment to a story of human commitment.
- About the Guide
- The Guide
- Educators' Experiences
Educators in Jewish schools, summer camps, Hillels, Birthright and other Israel experience programs have come to know Alex and realized the power of his words to engage young Jews. Alex asked himself many of the questions they are asking themselves: What's worth doing in life? How does being Jewish fit into those choices? What does Israel mean to me and what are my responsibilities to Israel as a Jew? Is aliyah an option? Joining the IDF? Other points of contact come from Alex's travels, his studying in Europe, his drawings wherever he went and his stories—often funny, sometimes bizarre—about his encounters with people.
This section provides a place for Educators to share their experiences teaching with Alex—what worked; what failed. Here also you can print the full text of "An Educator's Guide to Using Alex's Book," written by Steve Israel, an accomplished educator and writer. You can also watch the streaming video, "."
To arrange discounts for educators and for bulk orders, please.
The guide and the book
The guide is not meant to be used on its own. Rather, it is to be used together with Alex: Building a Life, the book that tells Alex's story in his own words, through his letters, journal entries and sketches. This program is designed to accompany the book and to translate it directly into educational terms. Our suggestion is that the book should be distributed to the participants after the first prologue activity, and should then become their property, initially physically, and gradually, emotionally and spiritually. Whenever we refer to the book in the text of the guide, we call it the "Alex Book."
Who is the booklet for?
The guide is flexible and has been written with a number of different potential educational settings in mind. The target audience is Jewish youth of high school age and upwards. It can valuably be used by anyone in the fourteen to post-eighteen age group, but its impact will probably be greatest after sixteen or so as students start grappling with their own picture of the world and begin to think about their life choices. It is designed for use in a group framework, one that straddles the line between formal and informal education. It can be used within both contexts, if the formal framework is sufficiently open and flexible and the informal one is sufficiently structured and serious. But the bottom line is that the institution or framework which decides to use it must be serious about values education, the need to con-front youth with issues in the struggle to build a life that is value-centered. The program can be used in a Diaspora school, in an Israel tour or a summer camp. The answers that the participants come to, may be influenced by their environment; the questions remain the same for each situation.
How is the guide designed?
The guide is divided into four main sections: "On Home and Its Leaving" (Israel and aliyah issues), "On the Army and Its Living" (army and leadership issues), "On the Land and Its Loving" (nature, land and land of Israel issues) and "On Life and Its Meaning" (issues of life's meaning). They are preceded by a prologue getting-to-know-Alex section and succeeded by a tying-it-all-together section. The suggestion is to proceed according to the order of the sections.
How should the guide be used?
Apart from the first prologue section, each section has three or four different activities. These are your raw materials. There is absolutely no need to use all the activities. In fact, it is our assumption that no one will use all the activities. Some activities are better suited to one setting than to another.
The activities have been designed to give an extra richness to the issues examined by looking at them from more than one point of view. If several of the activities in a given section are used, it is our hope that they will provide a rich and multi-layered introduction to the questions at hand.
The activities have been deliberately designed in a very structured form. The assumption is that it is far easier to make changes to an existing model than to start to create activities out of nothing. But the implication should be clear. These activities are there to be tinkered and played with, in order to suit the needs of each individual group. The people who know the needs and behavior patterns of the group are you, the group leaders or teachers. The programs can be used as they are or radically transformed on the basis of the suggestions made here.
We have attempted to provide an educational program which uses a wide variety of techniques, including art, music and drama, as well as text study and debate. The program is for use not only in the classroom. All this will become clear as you start working through the booklet.
One more thing to keep in mind. Students will encounter many different sections of the Alex book. They should be provided with a number of "bookmark stickers" to use if and when they encounter a passage of particular significance to them. In one of the last activities (the "Ethically Willing" activity in the section "On Life and Its Meaning"), these selections will be used. But even without that activity, it is valuable to mark particularly significant pieces.
The intention of this Guide is to suggest varied ways for educators—in formal and informal settings—to use the letters and journals Alex wrote about his experiences as triggers for reflection and growth by young adult Jews.
We hope that it will be useful in summer camps, youth groups, day schools, Israel programs, Hillels, synagogue Bar-Bat Mitzvah preparation and teen followups and ways we cannot predict. Most important, we want Alex’s own quest for a useful Jewish life, his joy in living, his love for Israel and family, to become part of the lives of young Jews who will carry his book as one cherishes a friend.
Clarity and Confusion from Alex
The way I talk about Alex Singer at Har Herzl
Alex Singer was killed when I was eight years old. My most vivid memory of Alex had to do with Mom baking a seemingly-endless number of chocolate chip cookies to pack in shoe boxes to mail to Alex in the IDF. To my eight-year-old mind, seeing, smelling, and helping to bake cookies that I could not eat was one of life's great injustices.
Most of the biographical facts about Alex I've picked up since his death. Sure, I knew his family and I remember the devastation felt by the Washington D.C. community after his death, but I don't think the eight-year-old Dina knew that Alex went to Cornell, wrote a thesis called "Letters from the Diaspora," studied at the London School of Economics or even when he joined the Israeli army. I'm not sure that I knew that Alex was a writer, a painter, a poet. In one his letters to his Grandma Jeanne, he quotes my mother, Ellen Epstein, who says that she can't see Alex "running up and down hills since she always pictured me as drawing in the shade of an olive tree." At eight years old, though, I didn't really know any of this. At eight years old, I had not yet read any of Alex's writings.
Alex's impact on me after his death, though, has been immeasurable. If it were not for Alex, I probably would be in law school at this moment, rather than spending the year in Israel leading Birthright groups. If it were not for Alex, I might not lay awake at night, struggling with questions about my relationship to Israel, my to this country, the significance of being here. Through his writings Alex has shared his thought process, his doubts, his fears and his convictions. His writings make me more confused and, at the same time, give me immense clarity.
[I then read these excerpts from "Alex—Building a Life" to the group as we stand around Alex's grave.]
- Letter to Grandma and Grandpa: "Comforting Grandparents" p. 205
- Letter to Katherine: "Things I Hate About Israel" p. 222
- Poem, "To Step Forward Myself" p. 206/207
- "Last Letter (Unfinished)" p. 250
[I think these letters make Alex very real and give great insight into his decision-making and analysis of situations. I especially like the "Things I Hate About Israel." He gives all the reasons not to like Israel (which are great points) but then says:
"...but because I see this place as my home, I don't pile the cons on one side of the scale, and the pros on the other, and come to a conclusion about whether it was "worth" staying here. Home is home and it will take more than irritations to force me to leave. I want to make this place better."
In my closing comments to the group on the final evening I have also quoted this last line: "I want to make this place better".
Some Other Thoughts About the Power of Alex's Words
As I see it, the most compelling part of Alex Singer's writing is not his valorous deeds or selfless actions, although there are many. What impresses me the most is that Alex is no different from you or me, or any of the participants on the Birthright trips that I have led through Har Herzl and with whom I have shared Alex's writings. What students connect to the most is not Alex, the hero, but Alex, the person. Alex, just like almost any 25-year old I have known, was full of questions, self-doubt and confusion about where and how he could make his life meaningful.
What makes Alex exceptional is that he was able to push himself to make bold decisions, to put his thought into action. Alex Singer did not move to Israel, join the army, or lead troops without questioning each and every one of those decisions. He didn't have blind faith or unwavering confidence in his decisions. But, he made bold, thoughtful, decisions and he followed through with conviction.
Students simultaneously connect with and are challenged by Alex Singer. His writings provide insight, his actions provide inspiration.
A Letter to Alex
Phil Alexander from Kibbutz Ein Zurim
Not so long ago I started guiding tours, and soon became involved in the Birthright program. Every group that I took to Mt. Herzl went with me to Alex's grave. I would usually start by reading the letter, "Kippah Like a Yo-Yo" (page 198), describe Alex's background, tell about the final battle and then recite Yizkor for Alex and for all the other fallen soldiers. When we returned to the bus, I showed the film about Alex's life.
The visit to Mt. Herzl usually follows a morning at Yad Vashem. It is the most challenging day of the program. I'm always fighting with myself to maintain a "professional" posture. But I am never sorry that I go to Alex's grave because the participants always reap tremendous insights from the short time we are there.
Alex & The Legacy of Jewish Heroism
I was born and raised in the Philadelphia Jewish community and made aliyah in 1978. I served as a combat reconnaissance soldier in TZAHAL (Israel Defense Forces). Since 1980, after completion of my army service, I have been an educator at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI). One of the most wonderful students I ever taught was a young man named Adam Bier from Bethesda, Maryland. Adam's dad is a prominent DC physician and an ardent Zionist who tried unsuccessfully to get his son to go to Israel on a high school educational program.
Then on September 15, 1987 Alex Singer, an American Jew from the DC area who had moved to Israel and had become an officer in the Israeli army, fell heroically in battle on his 25th birthday, in defense of our people on the rugged foothills of Mt Hermon. According to Israeli Army protocol, a delegation from the Israeli Embassy in Washington was sent to inform Alex's family in DC of the tragic news. The Israeli Military Attache at the Embassy , Gen. Amos Yaron, was entrusted with this sensitive task and brought a physician along in case of any possible emergency. The physician was Dr. Charles Bier, Adam's father. One month later a memorial service was held at the Israeli Embassy in DC and Benjamin Netanyahu, who had lost his brother, Yoni Netanyahu, during the 1976 Entebbe Rescue Mission, gave one of the eulogies for Alex.
Dr. Bier brought his son Adam to the memorial ceremony and Adam was so touched by Alex's story that he chose to come in 1989 to the Alexander Muss High School in Israel where I was his teacher. One of our class debates focused on the question of whether the students would choose to come to Israel if the country was imperiled and needed volunteers. Most of the students said they would not leave college to come help, but Adam said that if Israel ever needed him he would be there. This was not just an emotional promise to impress his teacher.
In 1991 Adam came to Israel during the Gulf War and, after he completed college, he made aliyah and joined an elite commando unit in TZAHAL and served with distinction. He returned to the USA for medical school but left those studies to rejoin his army unit during the Israeli campaign in Jenin in Operation Defensive Shield. Adam's Unit received a Citation from the Israeli Chief of Staff for their heroism in battle. Adam was my student; today he is my hero and inspiration. Adam would never have come to Israel had he not been inspired that night at the memorial ceremony for Alex. His path to Israel was lit by the light of Alex Singer's life and sacrifice.
For many years now I have been using the story of Alex Singer to help inspire my high school students at AMHSI. I show the wonderful video (now also in DVD) and tell his story in class. When we visit the area near Mt Hermon, we read Alex’s letters and are touched by his wisdom and love for Israel. On the final day of our studies we visit his grave at the National Military Cemetary at Mt Herzl in Jerusalem. By then, all of our students feel they are beside the grave of a dear friend. Alex’s letters help me teach several important Jewish values. Among them:
- Love of Family
- Love of Judaism
- Love of Israel
- Defending the Jewish State & People
- Making Tikkun Olam an integral part of one's life
One of the most powerful moments for our students occurs while on "tiyul" (field trip) along the Banias River and falls, that Alex loved so much. As we leave the beautiful nature reserve we face a stunning vista of the Golan Heights, the Nimrod Fortress and majestic Mt Hermon....the very terrain where Alex fell in battle. It is there that I read several of Alex' letters to my students. Alex teaches us so much about the sacrifice and commitment of Israeli soldiers through his words and experience. i usually focus in on 4 of his letters that are all included in the book of Alex’s letters and journals, Alex: Building a Life:
- May 6, 1985 - "Pure Fear" (p. 120): Alex writes about how tough and challenging it is to serve in TZAHA
- May 21, 1985 - Visit to Kibbutz Lochame Haghettaot (pp. 121-122): Alex writes about the moral dlemnas facing TZAHAL and shows the moral side of Israel's soldiers
- August 14, 1986 - "Life is Many Things" (p. 204): Alex writes to a non-Jewish friend about the realities Israel faces in the Middle East
- August 17, 1986 - "To Step Forward Myself" (p. 207): Alex writes about his responsibility to lead his young men in battle by personal example. This poem expresses the ideal that every Israeli Officer is taught and the legacy that Alex left when he fell in battle at the head of his men.
Alex's life and words have touched so many of my students over the years. We try to be better Jews and human beings so as not to let Alex down. Several years ago I was asked to be the keynote speaker a large educational conference in Florida. I chose to speak about Alex and how to use his story to teach important Jewish values. I showcased the Alex video and gave everyone a gift copy of Alex: Building a Life. We studied many of the letters together and categorized them by the values they imparted and discussed how to use them with our students.
During the question and answer period, most of the attendees spoke about how touched they were by Alex's story and legacy. Then a woman, who served as an administrator at a local yeshiva, raised her hand and passionately remarked, "Alex's life was a waste. Every Israeli soldier who has died in Israel's defense is a useless waste of human life! Had Alex studied in a yeshiva he would not have died and his life would not have been a wasted." I was not prepared for such shocking comments from a "Jewish educator." With Alex's picture on the front cover of the book in my hands, I gathered my composure and responded:
"The loss of Alex in battle and the fall of every Israeli soldier is a great tragedy and a sad loss of precious life. Since 1947 over 20,000 young men and women have fallen in Israel's defense. We must remember that 20,000 was also the number of Jewish victims gassed in one day at Auschwitz by the Nazis. Alex and the 20,000 soldiers who heroically fell in Israel's defense died so that NEVER AGAIN would there be another Auschwitz. Their loss was surely not in vain."
I believe it is legitimate to discuss and debate differing forms of Jewish Identity (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Secular-Zionist). After all, Yisrael means to "wrestle with God." But there must be some common denominator that unite all Jews: Love of Israel, love of Torah, and perhaps most importantly, love of our people.