My brother doesn’t age. He stares back at me from a stamp-sized photo on the poster I have spent the last 10 years avoiding. To his right is a teenage girl lost to an explosion on a seafront promenade, to his left an army reservist whose jeep took a deadly wrong turn. The sixth victim of the second intifada, my brother went missing near Elon Moreh on October 7, 2000, and was found in a cave near Nablus on October eighth. He was 36. Time has sped past him. Now he has three sons-in-law he’s never met, three grandchildren and another two on the way.
The picture of him is almost iconic. His tallit is draped over his head, a beatific smile on his face. As a rabbi’s son in search of his own path, he refused to take the final step to becoming a rabbi, but death conferred that title upon him nonetheless. After one headline declared Rabbi Hillel Lieberman to be dead, the others followed suit.
The designation was meant to express respect, but he was not a rabbi. He was a teacher, a yeshiva student, a settler, and for a time, a shepherd who argued with his wife to allow the sheep into the house. Here she drew the line. He took on as his spiritual work and life-purpose guarding and studying at the controversial seminary at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, attended mostly by those from the cluster of settlements overlooking that city. He didn’t survive the Palestinian rage that sent black smoke from the tomb high into the sky on that October day, a week after the intifada erupted and the Israeli army withdrew from protecting the area. The only explanation conjured by the papers for why he was nearby was that perhaps he was heading to save the Torah scrolls, not knowing that they’d been evacuated. But this we’ll never know.
Where did we begin, my brother and I? On a May night in 1964 when I was eight, my sister seven, and our parents brought him home, chubby, cherubic and red from an as yet undiagnosed allergy to wool. Finally, a boy. My sister and I did not yet apprehend the adulation, the rush of expectations gathering around him. Nor were we at an age to appreciate the meaning, eight days later, of the swelling crowd attempting to enter the house for the bris, the waves of which literally expelled us onto the street.
If it is not easy to be the rabbi’s daughter, it is all the more fraught to be the rabbi’s son. My brother was born at the height of my father’s career, when he served as rabbi of one of Brooklyn’s Syrian shuls, and also as headmaster of a prominent yeshiva high school. With my parents juggling multiple constituencies and my mother needing to be at my father’s side, my brother often came under my care, and I loved him deeply. It would be an exaggeration to say that, until I left for Israel when he was 10, I was his surrogate mother, but it was clear that I was very much his emotional anchor. Later, as he was beginning to chafe beneath the intensifying expectations, my secular music, friends and community were his refuge. He shared my love for rock-and-roll and let his auburn hair grow to reach his shoulders.
When my father had his first heart attack, for several days Hillel didn’t come home. Shortly thereafter he changed direction. Just as I was returning to the States, he moved to Israel, joined the army, and then immediately took on my father’s ultimate unfulfilled dream: he began to build his homestead and a family of nine in a settlement on the West Bank.
From the maelstrom of our very public lives and particular family dynamics, the two of us had scattered with vertiginous force far from Brooklyn. I flew to the outfields of the possibilities, at first living a secular life in Jerusalem, then becoming a writer in Boston, marrying a Latin American musician, embracing an ever more diverse world, and living in Cambridge as though in a safe house. My brother became increasingly more religious, surpassing even my parents in the rigors of kashrut, and living in a trance of settler politics and religion that to him were inseparable.
If I had once taken care of him, he now wanted to take care of me. He saw my choices as filled with peril, and where once I had been his beacon, he hoped to be the one to spring my return to the Orthodox path. He cajoled, he joked, he wrote long letters with parables, he brought me in front of a mystic in Jerusalem who, analyzing a mezuzah scroll that had been in my hand for a minute, shook his head gravely, and said, “Tsk, tsk.” I think we both knew the effort was doomed. But even while our political views and spiritual choices were careening ever farther from one another, we loved each other deeply.
A friend of the family who dabbled in kabbalistic interpretation said to me at one point, “It’s not good that the two of you were named for the same person [our grandfather Hillel Lieberman]. That shouldn’t have happened.” As if somehow we had to split some lifeforce meant for one person alone. As if only one of us could remain. But I refused then, and refuse now, to take on that kind of thinking.
I miss my brother profoundly. His absence has limned a place in me, hollow and forever literate in grief. I would gladly put up with the fraught and unfinished conversation about my soul if I could have him back in body.
For many of the last 10 years, late at night, I have come back to that hour that changed everything — when Hillel heard that Joseph’s Tomb was on fire and left his synagogue, to walk towards it. Night after night, ever the older sister, I’d run a few steps behind him, yelling stop stop. A life can be made of the small stuff, too. Don’t take on this mantle of tragedy. Don’t bequeath it. Other nights I chase after him asking what will likely never be answered. Why?
The decade has not provided answers. But the questions have quieted. We were separate travelers. He would have loved to save me from a life he considered dangerously secular. And I would have loved to save him from his fate. But we were helpless in the face of both tasks.
If some essence of him persists, my sense is that he is no longer tracing the path to the tomb. He is no longer calculating the seconds to his ambush or walking toward the billowing smoke. I imagine him sitting on one of the hills, his eyes turned toward his stone house where his children’s weddings are being planned, their new babies named and feted.
Now when I imagine catching up to him on those rugged, controversial hills, it is a different question that begins to take form. Okay, I say. Okay. Now where do we go from here?
Tehila Lieberman, an award-winning fiction writer, has been published in Salon.com, Nimrod, the Colorado Review and Salamander, among other journals. She is completing a novel entitled The Last Holy Man.