The rock lay on my desk for many years. About 17 years. A long time by the years of my life, but a brief moment from the time of the infamous and unthinkable terror of the war between Rome and the Jews and the siege at Masada in the year 74. My father gave me the rock in 1977. He wrote on it: “Dad – 1977.” And at the bottom of the rock he wrote “Masada.”
When he sent me the rock, I thought, what does he think this is, a souvenir, a memento, a piece of history? I do not know what he was thinking, but it was, to me, a theft of historic proportion. It was a criminal act; a product of hubris. It was a fundamental disregard for the history of the Jewish people and the sacred memory of men, women, and children who fought one of the most powerful armies in history and, eventually, chose what they believed to be freedom in death over physical survival in slavery.
Millions of people have visited Masada to see the military landscape, Herod’s palace hideaway where the Jews withstood attacks by the Roman army. Millions come to see the fortifications created by the Jews, and evidence of the Roman army’s encampment still evidenced in stones. Who knows how many tourists have stolen a rock as a memento. And now one of those rocks sat on my desk with the encryption, “Dad – 1977.”
Perhaps, I thought, I should put the beige rock in a safe place and hide it from view and the embarrassment of the crime committed by my father. I was now complicit in the crime. I held the property of Israel and the stolen sanctity of the memory of those who fought and feared and died so many years ago. I did not want to lose sight of the reality of this crime. I chose not to keep it secret, and kept it on my desk for 17 years. Looked at it. Kept it in view, and periodically told the story to others who visited my office. Some said things like, ”Oh, just keep it. Why are you making such a big thing of this? It’s a gift from your father.” By such comments, I learned a lot about the people who suffered from a similar kind of disregard for that which is sacred. Others, though, understood and some commiserated with my plight.
When I first received the stone from my father I chastised him. I told him that it was a mistake to take the rock and send it to me as a souvenir. By writing on it I realized that my father was celebrating his theft and not the memory of the Jews of Masada. He was not an archaeologist who discovered some important artifact with great significance to be stored and carefully preserved by some museum or historical society. Nevertheless, I came to the realization that he didn’t know any better. My father was not an arrogant man. His quest, his first trip, alone, on the adventure of his life, ended with him bringing home something that evidenced that he “conquered” Masada. He had hiked to the top and wasn’t leaving without proof. He didn’t merely write the word ”Masada,” he wrote his name on it to celebrate his adventure. Had he thought about the sacredness of the rock he would never have taken it. Indeed, he may have never touched it. He would, instead, have returned home with only his memory of it. He decided instead to take a piece of the place itself with him. I could not forgive his crime, but I did forgive him. It was not my place to judge him. It was for me to remedy the crime by returning the rock to its proper place.
And so it was in October 1994, 17 years after his wrongful taking, that I left Los Angeles with my wife and children bound for Israel. The trip was understood to be a vacation, to tour and experience Israel. Yet for me, the purpose of the trip was also to finally return the rock to its place at the top of Masada. We had planned the trip for a few months and arranged for two of our children to miss school and accomplish an independent study of language, culture, and the economy. Our third child was five months old and traveled on Gail’s back in a baby carrier backpack observing the sights and sounds of a country for Jews.
A day before our departure we received a news report of the Dizengoff Street bus bombing. It was a suicide attack by Hamas on a crowded bus during the morning commute in Tel Aviv. The explosion was so powerful that the top of the bus was torn off. People were ripped apart, body parts and pieces of tissue flew out of the bus and onto people passing by and the adjacent street and a nearby tree.
Gail and I discussed whether we should cancel our trip. The bombing took place a few blocks from the hotel where we intended to stay. We quickly, however, rejected the idea, and on the next day, in our taxi from the airport to the hotel, our taxi driver chose to take Dizengoff Street. We passed the scene of the explosion. At the scene we saw people standing vigil. We saw that a tree had been cut back to permit a search and removal of tiny pieces of tissue, to ensure proper burial. About 50 feet away there was a café filled with people, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, and talking amongst themselves, seemingly without concern for the people standing vigil nearby. Gail told me that life was about honoring the dead and moving on. It was also about retaliation, I told her. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced that Israel would “wage a battle to the bitter end.”
We arrived at the hotel and unpacked in silence. I took the rock from Masada out of my suitcase and thought that this rock had been at the siege of Masada over 1900 years before my father removed it. I also thought that most Israelis might find my sentimentality meaningless and the siege of Masada a myth. Nevertheless, I knew that many Israelis honor the spirit of Masada and would abhor the removal of the rock.
The next day was clear, and the sky a provocative wedgewood blue against the brown loam of the Judean desert. Masada was broken but still standing. My sense was that these broken walls listened to the wind for centuries and continued to do so. It was the same wind that day, I thought, that had mixed with the stories of the deaths that had occurred on Dizengoff Street and breathed past and around the rocks of Masada. Deaths of men, women and children, no different than my family. I felt helpless and weak, unable to imagine it happening to my family. I wanted to cry but could not. I had no tears, only fear and awe and anger.
I walked around the ruins with the stolen rock in hand trying to imagine where I should replace it. What place or crevice was it taken from? Without thinking, I looked at the rock as if to be given some guidance. At that point I also considered whether I should remove the writing, “Dad– 1977” from the rock, but decided that I must not try to hide the history of the rock’s brief absence. That writing was now a part of the rock’s history as well. I picked a place and put the rock into a similarly sized space and backed away. As I backed away I lost sight of the rock. It was now part, once again, of a broken wall at the top of Masada. It was, I thought, the best I could do. I felt relief that the return was over and pleased to think of the 18,000-mile journey the rock had traveled.
After returning home I told my father that the rock was returned. He said, ”okay.” Dad died in 2007 and mom followed in 2013. Their modest town house had to be cleared out and Gail I took the trip. What to toss, what to keep, troubled my time there. Then, we both saw it, in the top drawer of my father’s dresser. Two more rocks.