It’s at this time of year, as Israel commemorates those who have fallen in battle in order to create and sustain the state, that everyone’s attention turns to certain details and moments.
For some, it’s the litany of sorrowful songs that have been written for years by Israeli singers through the country’s more difficult times; for others, it’s the two-minute siren sounded on Memorial Day evening and morning, in which the entire country comes to a stop and stands at attention.
And for a significant portion of the population, Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days are a time to remember who they are named for, and why. There are those who were named for the founders of Zionism, Herzl and Herzliya (for Theodor Herzl), Zeev (for Zeev Jabotinsky), and the more straightforward Zion and Ziona or Yisrael. There are also many who were named for someone who fell in battle, from Israel’s first war in 1948 until more recent wars and battles. It’s a difficult but hopeful step to name a child for a loved one who was killed, and it ensures that person is always remembered.
Here are some of stories of loss and rebirth with a name.
Yair Yaakov, 1956-1982
Yair Oppenheimer, born 1985
Fran Rappaport was an American student spending a year abroad at Hebrew University when she met Yair Yaakov. They fell in love, and he followed her back to New York, where she was finishing her college degree. Their plan was to marry when Rappaport made aliyah after graduating but Yair returned to Israel after being mugged at the gas station where he was working. “I didn’t come here to die,” he told her. “I’m going home.”
They stayed in touch through collect calls, expecting to see each other that summer. Yaakov, a tank commander, was called up and sent to Lebanon in June of 1982, and died in action the third day of the war.
“A fiance doesn’t have any kind of legal status,” explained Fran, who now calls herself Tzippy. “It’s a lot more than awkward.” She arrived in Israel two weeks later, having missed the burial and initial mourning period with the family.
In 1985, Tzippy, now married to Yoel Oppenheimer, gave birth to her first child, whom they named Yair. “It was a simple decision for me,” she said. “And for Yoel too.”
Tzippy has never been involved in the formal ceremonies remembering Yair, but recently renewed contact with his family. As for the younger Yair, he’s married, a new father, and living on a kibbutz in Israel’s south. “Yair recognizes in his name,” said Tzippy, “the chain and the memories.”
Nimrod Gaon 1951-1973
Nimrod Shafran, born 1975
Nimrod Shafran was named for his father’s best friend, Nimrod Gaon, a tank commander who was killed on the second day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
“There are at least four of us [who were named for him],” said Nimrod, relating an-only-in-Israel-story of bumping into another Nimrod Gaon in a Jerusalem cafe this past year. That Nimrod? He’s the son of Nimrod Gaon’s younger brother.
Nimrod’s family was close to his namesake’s family, and “his parents were special guests in my house,” explained Nimrod, who grew up in southern Ashkelon. “Nimrod’s father Rafi gave a special blessing at my tenth birthday. When he spoke it was a big deal, a serious moment, because he was an av shakul, literally a ‘weighted down father,’ a father who had lost a child in a war.”
Nimrod said he was never resentful of the emotional weight of his name. He played guitar because the elder Nimrod, a much revered musician, had as well. When he was 16, he wrote a song, “How does it help me that he died like a hero?”
“I kept comparing what I knew about him and what I know about myself,” he said.
When he was nicknamed Nim while spending three years in Canada with his family during high school, Nimrod felt awful.
“This is a responsibility I have, to carry his name,” he said. “If I change it, I’m not stepping up to the plate. It’s not just a name, it’s a person, it’s a memory.”
Michael Levin, 1984-2006
Mikayla Mindlin, born 2012
Michael Levin, an American who made aliyah on his own and joined the IDF as a paratrooper, was killed in Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon.
“I have always been at peace with the choices he made,” said his older sister, Elisa Levin Mindlin. “Michael knew for a very long time what he wanted to do with his life and he set out to do that from a young age, which is something that I believe is to be admired. He wouldn’t have wanted his life story to end any differently, and he wouldn’t want anyone to want anything else for him.”
Elisa, who recently named her first-born, Mikayla, for Michael, always knew she would name her first child for him, and what name she would use to honor his memory. Her younger sister, Dara, who was Michael’s twin, gave birth two days before Elisa and also named her daughter after Michael and their grandfather, calling her Jordyn Michelle. Other friends of Michael’s in Israel have named their children for their fallen friend, who was a fierce Zionist and a caring, spiritually-minded person.
“I think naming a child to honor someone’s memory is a wonderful tradition, a positive way to carry on someone’s legacy,” said Elissa. “For us, it’s another step on the journey to healing the wounds of his loss for our family.”