In the Very Heart of Gaza: Soldiers Sing a Prayer for the Hostages’ Release

A prayer dedicated to “our brethren… who remain in distress and captivity”, has accompanied the Jewish nation since the ninth century. It was sung during WWI, at Hasidic music festivals, and just recently at a spontaneous gathering of soldiers in a darkened house in Gaza, after they had lost two of their beloved commanders

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By Daniel Lipson

“Our brethren, the entire House of Israel who remain in distress and captivity, whether on sea or on land, may God have compassion on them, and bring them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from servitude to redemption, at this moment, speedily, very soon; and let us say Amen”

The fighting in Jebaliya was difficult that week. On Thursday, December 26, 2023, the Nahal Brigade’s 931st Battalion lost its beloved company commander, Major Shai Shimriz, as well as his good friend Captain Shauli Greenglick. Other soldiers were wounded.

Four days later, at the end of yet another exhausting day of action against Hamas terrorists, soldiers of the rifle company’s 2nd platoon gathered in one of the houses in the neighborhood.

The soldiers, students of the Shirat Moshe hesder yeshiva and the Hakotel yeshivah in the Old City of Jerusalem, took out what snacks and candy they had left and sat in the dark (electricity is cut off in most of the Gaza Strip) for an improvised Melaveh Malkah – the meal traditionally eaten after the conclusion of Shabbat

In the dark, cramped house, they shared Torah lessons and sang as they always had, in better times back in their yeshivahs. One of the songs, which has become particularly relevant and moving in recent times, was Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael (“Our Brethren, the entire House of Israel”) – a prayer for the release of the captives and the hostages.

Hashta Ba’agala Ubizman Kariv – Venomar Amen

The tune for the song was composed by Abie Rothenberg, one of the great Hasidic composers of the twentieth century, at some point in the late eighties. The song, which Rothenberg originally sung himself, was produced as part of a tape entitled Lev VeNefesh (“Heart and Soul”) in 1990. On his 1997 album, Bitchu Be-Hashem (“Trust in God”), singer Dedi Graucher released a new version of the song. Graucher passed away last September.

The song has since become an incredibly popular hit and has been reworked in many different ways, one of the most recent and most listened to being Lior Narkis’ version from October 2023.

The prayer itself is recited in Ashkenazi communities immediately after the Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays. First the four Yehi ratzon (“May it be His will”) requests are said, followed by Acheinu. Members of Sephardi Jewish communities recite the Yehi ratzon requests as part of the Shabbat blessing of the new month when it falls in that coming week, but without the added Acheinu segment,

The Acheinu prayer originated in the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon. In the ninth century CE, and at the request of the Jewish community of Spain, Rav Amram Gaon of Babylon sent the order of prayers in an edited and organized form for the community’s use. In the siddur, Rav Amram Gaon addresses the saying of Yehi ratzon and Acheinu as part of the Torah reading on the Monday and Thursday of every week, and also on the first of the Hebrew month. The formula there differs slightly from our current version.

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The Acheinu prayer, Sephardic Jewish manuscript, 14-15th century, the British Library

In the Machzor Vitry, an important 12th century book on Jewish law and prayer customs, Acheinu appears in the afternoon Mincha prayer on Shabbat. Professor Aharon Kellerman noted in his article on the development of the custom that printed Ashkenazi siddurim first contained the Acheinu prayer in the Krakow edition of 1578. In 1646, it appeared in a siddur printed in Amsterdam.

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The Acheinu prayer in an Amsterdam siddur, an almost identical version to the one we are familiar with today

The first Sephardic siddur which printed the Yehi ratzon prayers was published in Istanbul in 1739 in the portion containing the prayer for Shabbat when it falls on the first of the month. In this siddur, like all Sephardi siddurs to this day, the Acheinu prayer does not appear.

When a Prayer Becomes Popular Music

For generations, Jews would often be taken captive, by pirates, brigands and others, and sometimes had to be ransomed for huge sums. Jewish communities worked hard to fulfill the commandment of redeeming captives and sometimes managed to return their brothers and sisters to their families. Yet in some cases, there was no trace of the captives and those who had abducted them, and all that remained was to pray for their well-being. The words of the Acheinu prayer have remained painfully relevant over the ages, while also containing a consoling message, and it is therefore only natural that they be turned into a song. One of the first musical compositions for the Acheinu prayer that we know of is a piece of chazannut (Jewish cantorial singing) by the famous Jewish cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933). Two years after his arrival in the US from Europe, the First World War broke out. The war and the suffering of his Jewish brethren affected him and his art. In this period, he put Acheinu and other prayers to music, wishing to express the pain of the Jewish People. This song, along with his other songs, excited the masses who flocked to his concerts – first in New York, then throughout the United States and Europe.

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Advertisement in The Forward for Yossele Rosenblatt’s performance, March 7, 1929, where he sang Acheinu among other prayers

The prayer has since been put to music a few more times, as both pieces for cantors and general Hasidic songs. One of these versions was heard at the Ninth Hasidic Song Festival in 1977, performed by a young singer by the name of Riki Gal, who would later go on achieve fame as an Israeli pop star.

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On a personal note: Sitting amongst the shadows of that darkened house in Gaza was also my own son, a squad commander in the Nahal Brigade. He and his soldiers certainly thought of the relevance of the words, and the reasons why this song has become one of the symbols of the war, after the abduction of some 240 Israelis on October 7.

We all pray that “God have mercy on them,” and may we merit their returning home soon along with the soldiers who give their lives for the People of Israel – hashta ba’agala ibizman kariv (“speedily, very soon”).

Avshalom Feinberg: A Spy With a Poetic Soul

Avshalom Feinberg is known for being among the founders of the "Nili" organization, but as it turns out, even before the Jewish spy ring was established, he was already active in politics and managed to capture the hearts of women, well-known cultural figures and scientists. There is no telling who he could have become were it not for his tragic death at 27

Avshalom Feinberg. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Avshalom Feinberg’s name is known primarily for his heroic involvement with Nili, a spy ring which helped British forces conquer the Land of Israel from the Ottoman Turks. One of the organization’s founders, he was the male counterpart in a famous love triangle with Rivka Aaronsohn (who claimed they were engaged to be married) and her sister Sarah (with whom he had a special relationship). Aaron Aaronsohn described him as “a knight without fear and without reproach,” but as you are about to find out, he was much more than that.

Indeed, if fate had taken a different trajectory, and Feinberg, who was quite an impressive man, had never met Aaron Aaronsohn and not become part of Nili, chances are his career would have gone down a different path. He could perhaps even have become President of the State of Israel, or at the very least, a major figure in its cultural milieu.

Feinberg was born in Gedera in 1889, a descendent of a distinguished line of intellectuals from the early-Zionist Bilu movement, a first-generation native of the Land of Israel. He possessed a gift for languages, a sharp mind, a poetic soul, and a rebellious spirit. Avshalom’s father, who had great expectations for his young offspring and intended for him to study law in Constantinople one day, had him learn Arabic and the Quran under a sheikh in Jaffa. The Arab neighbors knew Avshalom by his Arabic name, Salim. Both in these studies and at school, the young man excelled. In 1904, he graduated with distinction from the Alliance School and was granted a scholarship to the Alliance Teachers’ Seminary in Paris.

Avshalom Feinberg, aged approximately fourteen, studio portrait taken in Paris, France. Photo: Photographie Russe (89 Rue de Renner, Paris), REI-YBZ photographer. Avshalom sent this photograph from Paris to his sister Tsila, née Feinberg. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The years spent in France had a profound impact on Avshalom: enamored with the language and culture, he drank in the ideas of liberty. He joined the intellectual circles of Paris and forged a close friendship with the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and the poet Charles Péguy, who both predicted a great future for him in the realms of French literature and poetry. In addition, their friendship had further-reaching consequences as it sparked new admiration for Jews in France more generally.

Following his time in France, Feinberg went to Switzerland to be treated for a neurological disease from which he was suffering and stayed in the renowned sanatorium of Professor Constantin von Monakow in Zurich. It was there that he met a scientist who would become a central figure in Zionist history. In a letter to his aunt Sonia (from the book Avshalom: Writings and Letters (Hebrew), found in the collections of the National Library of Israel), Avshalom describes a conversation he had with the biochemist Chaim Weizmann, who would later become Israel’s first President. It appears that Weizmann asked Feinberg to become his research assistant:

“And you, listen to me!” – he told me

“Forget America, come to England with me. Have you means?”

 “I do not, but I could get some from my father, or elsewhere.”

“It’s nothing, take them; forget vain arguments, you’ll repay it someday. Property, simple and compound interest, this is what I do myself these days. Do come to England… The choice is yours: Oxford, Cambridge, London, or Manchester. You will be given every possible consideration and opportunity. One year to prepare and four years of study, this is more than you need. Once you are properly equipped, you will be able to go to America or wherever you like, but you must prepare first, you must outfit yourself. Now, do! Promise me. I have been preoccupied with you for a while now. I have taken an interest in you. Now, a stone has fallen off my heart.”

I promised I would give the issue some thought.

The next day, as I was walking him to the station, he asked me in parting to come see him again.

All this took place on the night of the thirtieth of December 1907.

– From the book Avshalom: Writings and Letters (Hebrew), by Avshalom Feinberg (Hebrew), ed. Aaron Amir, published by Haifa Shikmona, 1971, p. 20)

We do not know what happened beyond this meeting; perhaps it was Weizmann that ended up recommending young Avshalom to Aaron Aaronsohn? And what would have happened had he gone to read natural sciences at Oxford? One thing is certain, Avshalom captured the hearts not only of women, but also of cultural figures and scholars.

Once he had returned home, Feinberg took up civic activism and was unafraid to speak his mind publicly. For example, Feinberg was involved in debates between religious and secular groups within the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. In this article in Herut on 5 August, 1910, he is quoted speaking at a conference protesting the Jewish religious ban on farmers working the land during the seventh shmita year. Feinberg hoped the masses would take to the streets, in support of the Jewish farming colonies against the religious authorities:

Avshalom Feinberg of Hadera cries out: “I would not call for war on the rabbis like the previous speakers, but rouse the entire nation[…] They would split Israel into their faction against the faction of youths who wish wholeheartedly to work at reviving the nation. Instead, this assembly ought to decide to call for a greater gathering, of fifty thousand, in Jerusalem…”

Avshalom was not at all religious; he even refused to put on tefillin at his Bar Mitzvah. However, he was well-versed in scripture thanks to his grandfather, who had taught him as a child, and one could argue that Judaism was dear to his heart.

At the age of 22, Avshalom met the agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, his elder by a mere 13 years. This meeting marked the beginning of the best-known period of Avshalom’s life. Aaronsohn ran a facility for agricultural experiments in Atlit and had another branch in Hadera. Highly impressed by young Feinberg, he first placed the young man in charge of the Hadera branch, and then made him into his own secretary and right-hand man, despite his lack of agronomical knowledge.

During their six years of friendship, until Feinberg’s highly mysterious and bewildering death in the desert in 1917, Avshalom was a member of the Aaronsohn household, and this period is well-attested. Aaronsohn expressed his love and appreciation of Feinberg in the best way available to an agronomist—by naming a new species of onion after him, which he discovered on the foothills of Mt. Hermon: Allium feinbergii. Eventually, Avshalom became one of the founding members of the Land of Israel’s first Jewish underground group. The Nili organization dedicated itself, under Aaronsohn’s leadership, to collecting information on Ottoman forces in the Land of Israel, in the hopes of helping the British Army conquer the region during the First World War. This would indeed come to pass.

Thanks to the wealth of written material young Feinberg left behind, readers have been able to discover surprising little-known facets of his exceptional personality. In a 1911 travel journal he kept while working at the agricultural research station in Atlit, he expressed his connection to nature and spirituality:

“I stood stunned, speechless at the beauty of the plants. All I could think was that I could well understand this way of honoring God.”

Feinberg’s love of nature was evident even at the end of his life. He was killed in the desert when he was merely 27 years old. He disappeared in the sand dunes around Rafah in the Sinai Peninsula—then the Turkish-British frontline—on 20 January 1917. All initial attempts at finding his body met with failure. It was only after the Six-Day War, once the IDF captured the area where he was killed, that his remains were identified thanks to a palm tree that had grown there, apparently from seeds that were in Feinberg’s pocket when he fell.

The palm tree that grew from seeds in Avshalom Feinberg’s pocket, near Rafah. Next to it stands Lt. Col. Shlomo Ben-Elkana with some local Arabs. The skeleton Ben-Elkana found was ultimately identified as belonging to Avshalom Feinberg and transferred in a military ceremony to the cemetery at Mt. Herzl. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Long before Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain were even born, Avshalom Feinberg could have been considered the first member of the notorious “27 Club”. Feinberg was an artist: a virtuoso of the written word, talented, clever, courageous, and creative. The poetic soul of this secular man who worked tirelessly for the revival of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel can be observed in many of his writings. We are left to wonder what he could have become and what he could have written and created, had his life not come to such a cruel end, somewhere far off in the desert.

Children of Heroes: The Story of Ma’ale HaHamisha

Is it a good idea to raise children in a place constantly under enemy fire? How much joy can there be for a ten-month-old baby whose father has died for a cause? This is a story of childhood spent in Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha – a story of love, laughter and dedication, alongside constant threat and loss

Yaara, the only surviving offspring of the five murdered men after whom Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha was named. Courtesy of the Ma'ale HaHamisha archives.

“Crowds gathered once again, the same crowds that came to the funeral, but their purpose now was different. Instead of tears of sorrow, their eyes glistened with tears of light and happiness. The joy poured out from their hearts and took hold like a flame, spreading further and further afield. Shoulder to shoulder, hands on each other’s backs, the atmosphere was intoxicating, hands moving, feet pounding the ground in circles. The dance began. Eyes were closed, and the heaviness in our bodies dissipated. Everyone moving together in a circle, everyone trembling, in an ecstatic hora.”

(Description written by Yitzhak, one of the first members of the group, on 20 Tammuz 5699 [July 7, 1939] when the cornerstone was laid)

They didn’t originally call the place Ma’ale HaHamisha (“Ascent of the Five”) because the disaster hadn’t yet happened. They were “just” a group of young pioneers, one of the many from Europe who came to build a new home – for them as individuals and for their nation – in the Land of Israel.

The first core group of pioneers, which called itself BeMa’ale (“in the ascent”), consisted of members of two separate groups of Zionist activists – one from the Vitkinia movement and one from the Gordonia movement – who came together in temporary residences in Kiryat Anavim in the Jerusalem hills, west of the city. They were later joined by people who arrived with the Youth Aliyah organization.

The goal was to establish a new settlement point. The question under debate was whether they should settle in the valley or take on the heroic task of “conquering the mountain” – settling in a strategic elevated position under harsher conditions where it was more difficult to grow crops.

First members of the group at Ma’ale HaHamisha. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library of Israel (IL-MAHM-001-07-063-144)

These were the days of Arab revolt (1936-1939) in Mandatory Palestine, and in the meantime, the group answered the Histadrut’s [the Zionist labor union] call to take over the operation of the stone quarry in Nahalat Yitzhak that had been abandoned by its Arab owners. The work in the stone quarry was difficult and unfamiliar to these group members who had mainly been given agricultural training. The housing conditions were harsh and uncomfortable; they slept in one central hall and had to guard the area in shifts after work. They also worked simultaneously in forestry.

Within this group of pioneers still finding their feet, was a young couple, Yitzhak and Hanna Migdal. During that initial stage characterized by hard manual labor and frequent Arab attacks, with an as yet unclear future, Hanna gave birth to their daughter in the old Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Baby Yaara was the couple’s firstborn, but she was the third child born to the first core group.

Baby Yaara. Photo courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives

Despite differences of opinion and the growing pains of those early days, it was clear to all the members that for the sake of the children and their future, they needed to decide where to settle.

In the end, this difficult decision was made for them.

On November 9, 1937, some members of the community went out to pave a road on Har Haruah (“The Mount of Wind”), just south of where the kibbutz is situated today. They arrived during the early hours of the morning with their tools loaded on a donkey, and walked straight into an Arab ambush. They were shot and murdered almost at point blank. The group that arrived right after them got there just in time to see the murderers flee.

Aharon Olishevsky, Aryeh Mordechovitz, Yehoshua Pochovsky, Moshe Bar Giora (Baumgarten), and Yitzhak Migdal – baby Yaara’s father – were brutally murdered.

The members of the small group were beside themselves, but the decision was made. They decided to settle on the mountain, despite the physical and security-related challenges this would pose. They felt they needed to do this to honor those who were murdered in the past and for the sake of their children’s future.

A page in the members’ book where Yitzhak Migdal’s death is noted, somewhat laconically – met, “dead”. Courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives.

The Ma’ale HaHamisha archives, which have been operating for many years to preserve every piece of history related to the kibbutz, contain writings from this period, which reveal the feelings of the members and which document the pivotal moments of their pioneering days.

These writings are available digitally to the general public through the National Library website as part of the Archive Network Israel project. The project is a collaboration between the archives of different Israeli communities (such as Ma’ale HaHamisha), the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Towards the end of July 1938, the group left their temporary residences at Kiryat Anavim, accompanied by an auxiliary force of Jerusalemites and residents of other nearby towns. They headed uphill to the place where the five were buried and began their ceremony to lay the cornerstone for the new community at the top of the mountain.

The companions helped set up the first lodging arrangements and fortifications, but they ultimately departed, leaving behind the members of the BeMa’ale group, who were carefully chosen to be the first pioneers to prepare the land and buildings for the rest who would follow.

“15 members remained. Around a hard rock, they sat down for their first meal there. Such sublime contentment, such a pleasant feeling came over them when, after such tumult, they could see what they had accomplished with their own hands.

The summer breeze blew and swept away the footprints of the crowd that had been there, noisily blowing around the new shack, surrounding it all around, and when it realized that it could not be subdued, it went off in another direction toward the wilderness.

From this day on, on the high peak, the Ma’ale HaHamisha enterprise will continue to develop, nurtured by a few members who have formed bonds of life and death, eternal bonds, with this place. “

(Yitzhak, Ma’ale HaHamisha, 20 Tammuz, 5669 [July 7, 1939])

“In memory of the “BeMa’ale” members who sanctified the place with their blood” – A report in Davar describing the establishment of Ma’ale HaHamisha, July 22, 1938. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

The first group included a few members who “knew a bit about guarding and security.” The group organized itself with military discipline, in the heart of a hostile area prone to Arab attacks. The place didn’t yet have the character of a proper community. Women hadn’t even arrived yet, except for one young lady who filled a medical position.

They prepared the land around them for agricultural harvesting but mainly they focused on construction – everything from homes to fortifications to henhouses, as well as a water line connecting to nearby Kiryat Anavim.

“Just as they finished the first two [Jewish] agency houses, the children came up, along with their parents. How joyful the toddlers were, who also made the ascent. Their vision of Aliyah [immigration, ascent] was realized and manifested in a deep, childlike joy. And who among us can accurately express the feelings of children; and it is not easy for children, but they are pioneers. And so, step by step, the place was conquered, and it submitted to humans, the masters of nature and the creators of culture.”

(Leah, Ma’ale HaHamisha)

The first children of Ma’ale HaHamisha. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library of Israel ( IL-MAHM-001-07-063-055)

With the arrival of the children, the community transitioned from a semi-military outpost to a home, a place where the members could start families and raise future generations.

One might assume that children growing up next to combat positions, with their parents and all the other adults around them constantly busy with their daily tasks – toiling and working the difficult land while also taking on long and demanding guard duty shifts – would have to accept not being the primary focus of attention.

The opposite actually proved true; the children were a source of joy and hope for all the members – not just their parents or caretakers.

This is how Tzila Cohen-Rotblit described the first day in nursery school for Dalia, the kibbutz’s first newborn:

“This is an important event in our internal lives: Dalia is leaving [baby] care and moving over to nursery school. A new, more interesting, but also more difficult chapter is beginning for her… Despite our best wishes, we are unable to arrange for a nursery school here… At this moment, with the great changes in Dalinka’s young and tender life, we wish for ourselves, that this firstborn daughter won’t disappoint our hopes that we have placed in her, that she may grow and merit praise and renown.”

When Yaara was born to Hannah and the late Yitzhak, the nannies carefully monitored her development and growth. In a journal that was ahead of its time, predating contemporary baby wellness clinics’ records, her weight, what she ate, and any childhood illnesses she suffered were recorded in neat and meticulous handwriting.

Tracking baby Yaara’s development, courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives

By the time she had grown a bit, a nursery school was set up in the kibbutz itself, and Yaara didn’t need to leave her natural environment every day like her older friend Dalia had. The teacher, Bedna, loved the children dearly, and they loved her back.

Their lives were full of songs and stories and they had dolls, games, books and an almost normal routine, just like any child anywhere in the world. It was as if they didn’t live on an exposed mountain opposite enemies who’d take every opportunity to break into their homes and murder them. As if a few dozen meters from the nursery school there wasn’t a guard post equipped with submachine guns and grenades. As if they had never heard the sounds of shells exploding or heavy bursts of gunfire while they were singing their morning songs.

They were almost like typical children, complaining about showers that were too cold, annoying things the adults demanded of them like taking off their shoes when coming inside (paved roads and sidewalks were nowhere to be found, and depending on the season, the shoes could be full of mud or dust), and the long 2-3 kilometer walk to school.

But was this cloak of normalcy enough to cover up the fact that Yaara’s father wasn’t waiting for her every evening at home? That Dalia, Gideon, Eitana and Gila’s parents left home every night for guard duty?

Parents and children on the kibbutz, 1938. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library (IL-MAHM-001-07-063-040)

On November 29, 1947, the parents and nannies tried to choose between maintaining normal routine and recognizing the magnitude of what was happening: The children weren’t allowed to stay up, but were promised that they’d be woken up with the results of the vote on the United Nations Partition Plan. In the end, they were dragged out of their beds to take part in the festivities in the kibbutz’s dining room, when it was announced that the UN had approved the decision to establish a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.

But the jubilation didn’t last long. Their surroundings began to become more and more dangerous. Some men from the Palmach (the elite Haganah fighting force) had come to stay at the kibbutz and assist in defending and training the members for the war that was now underway. The children observed their training and lifestyle with curiosity, and occasionally they’d hear from the nursery schoolteachers that this one had been killed or that one had been injured.

School was cancelled and the children now helped fill sandbags, practiced what to do during episodes of shelling (there was no safe room; usually they just lay down between the bed and the wall in their rooms) and mostly tried not to bother the preoccupied adults.

Children helping at the cow shed, 1946. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library ( IL-MAHM-001-07-013-006)

After the fall of Gush Etzion, the kibbutz received a warning to expect an attack by enemy forces who were no longer tied down in the fighting there. This was just around the time when construction of the first shelter was finished. One night in early May, when heavy shelling began, the children were moved into the shelter, which still contained remnants of construction materials.

“In the shelter, I dressed the children and managed to give them breakfast,” kibbutz member Edna Wexler explained:

“We hadn’t yet managed to organize the children inside the shelter when the order suddenly came to evacuate the place immediately. I have no idea where they came from but the Palmach guys suddenly appeared inside the shelter. They removed the mothers who had arrived so as to streamline the evacuation and speed it up. They didn’t let the mothers intervene and look for their children, but instead put one of the little children in each of the girls’ arms and ordered them to run towards Kiryat Anavim. The older kids ran after us themselves.”

In Kiryat Anavim, buses were already waiting to evacuate them to Jerusalem – first to homes in the Katamon neighborhood and then to the Ratisbonne Monastery, where they remained until the end of the war.

After the war, they returned. And to this day, they fill the lawns, orchards, and pathways of the kibbutz with the sounds of laughter and life.

The Appeal of the Brown Beret: The Story of the IDF’s Golani Brigade

“Every corner of the country is marked with the blood of Golani Brigade soldiers. That is the way of the brigade: to be wherever Golani soldiers are needed, to decide the battle, to bring victory, to give life to the State of Israel.” The words of Yitzhak Rabin describe the feelings of many today in Israel

Golani soldiers form the name of the Golani Brigade. From: “Brown Beret – The Story of the Golani Soldiers” [Hebrew], p. 122

How it all started: farmers protecting their land

The Golani Brigade was founded in February 1948, a few months after the breakout of Israel’s War of Independence. The name, of course, comes from the Golan Heights, which the brigade founders could see at a distance from their moshavim and kibbutzim in the country’s north. In its first few months, the brigade operated sporadically – soldiers would leave work on the farm for a specific mission assigned to the brigade and then go back to their daily routine as farmers.

Golani Brigade soldiers enjoying some downtime during training in the Galilee, 1950. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

In the 1950s, many of the veterans of the War of Independence were discharged, and the ranks of the Golani Brigade were filled with new immigrants from the cities and the transit camps, people unfamiliar with the country’s conditions and customs. Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi, who was commander of the brigade’s 13th “Gideon” Battalion, said of this time:

“We found that our soldiers came from some 30 different countries, and beyond preparing them for the army, there was a need to teach them Hebrew – reading, writing, and speech.”

“Golani,” he said, “was a real melting pot.”

Soldiers of Golani’s 12th Battalion, 1951. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Golani, despite its natural affiliation with Israel’s north, did not limit its operations to that region. Once the brigade completed its missions in its own sector during the War of Independence, it moved south to take part in a number of important operations, including the conquest of what would later become the city of Eilat.

Historic telegraph announcing the conquest of the Eilat area by the Negev and Golani brigades. From “Golani – A Family of Soldiers” [Hebrew], p. 38

Golani’s unique spirit was evident as early as 1956, during the Sinai Campaign that took place that year. The “First Breachers” Battalion (the 51st) contained many new immigrants who arrived in Israel without their families and who had nowhere to return to after the fighting was done. At a party that was held to celebrate their release from service following the war, many expressed fears that they had no home to go to, no job or family to support them. Battalion commander Shlomo Alton heard them and got up to say a few words:

“I am telling you, and I don’t care if this goes against General Staff orders – go out and live your lives, try to build something. Those who can’t make ends meet should know, here at the base, you always have a home. The ‘First Breachers’ Battalion will always take you in.”

A Golani soldier at rest following the end of an exercise, 1972. Photo: IPPA, from the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Even the color of the brigade beret, which was decided in 1976, expressed the connection between Golani soldiers and the land itself. The earthy brown also represented the founders of the brigade, the farmers who carried hoe and rifle to maintain the young State of Israel.

A few examples from among dozens of books on the Golani Brigade kept at the National Library of Israel

Yitzhak Rabin, who was Defense Minister at the time and who served twice as Prime Minister, described this connection nicely, in a speech he gave in memory of the brigade’s fallen in 1989:

“Every corner of the country is marked with the blood of Golani Brigade soldiers. That is the way of the brigade: to be wherever Golani soldiers are needed, to decide the battle, to bring victory, to give life to the State of Israel.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with Golani Brigade Commander, Col. Moshe Kaplinsky, attending an IDF exercise in the Golan Heights, 1995. Photo: Ofira Yochanan, from the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The early Golani Brigade was a parallel Zionist microcosm of the young state, an ingathering of the exiles connecting north and south, native-born workers of the land and new immigrants fleeing the European inferno, sabra city kids and recently-arrived newcomers from the peripheral “development towns”. All felt part of the Golani family. The brigade’s commanders understood over the years that this embracing spirit of unity was what attracted so many new recruits – the idea that Golani was more than just a training ground for soldiers and commanders, but a cohesive social unit bringing together all levels of society.

This spirit of acceptance can explain why so many young Israelis seek to enlist in Golani, to this day:

“A new recruit showed up when we were stationed on the northern border, it was freezing, snow. After two weeks, he came and told me he wanted to leave, that he can’t serve in these conditions,” recalled an officer was the brigade deputy-commander in the 1980s. “I told him: ‘You’re important to me, you are irreplaceable, stay. In Golani, everyone is important.’ He went home. Came back. He told me: ‘My whole life, no-one, anywhere – not at home, not at school – ever told me that I’m important. I always felt unnecessary. And I came here, to Golani, and you, a lieutenant-colonel, tell me I’m important. That’s why I’ll stay.’ And he stayed and went on to complete a squad commander course with honors.” (From: “Golani – A Family of Soldiers”, [Hebrew], p. 15)

Golani Brigade commander Gabi Ashkenazi at a brigade ceremony, late 1980s. From “My Golani” [Hebrew], p. 194

Service in the brigade was etched in the minds of many of its former soldiers as a significant experience. The well-known Israeli author Meir Shalev even wrote about it in the IDF magazine, Bamachaneh, when he came to visit a Golani Reconnaissance Unit base, 20 years after leaving the army. Shalev was wounded in a training accident just before completing his service in the elite unit. His writing, full of characteristic humor and wit, expressed the feelings he was left with after his intense time in the military:

“Jeeps dry my throat. I can’t stand to eat any kind of canned food. I hate when it rains on me. I’m ready to strangle any commander who abuses his soldiers. I hate hunters because I know what it feels like to take a bullet. I love travelling with a topographical map in hand.”

And despite all these ornery complaints, Shalev didn’t forget his service in the unit:

“The unit was an entire world. It was good friends, it was struggle and effort, it was also a first real acquaintance with pain and death. Of friends and enemies. At the time, the days of my youth, serving in the unit was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

From Meir Shalev’s article in Bamachaneh, September 7, 1988. “The equipment is improved, but the face of the unit greenhorn remains the same… that same miserable mixture of an aching, desperate body and a lack of sleep”

The history of the Golani Brigade is strewn with missions which seemed impossible at first but ended in highly significant victories for the State of Israel. At the Tel Mutilla battles north of the Sea of Galilee in 1951, a Golani reserve unit carrying out a training exercise encountered Syrian forces moving through a demilitarized zone. 40 soldiers were killed in difficult battles which took days, at the end of which, the Syrians were pushed back.

In the Six-Day War, Golani forces attacked the fortified position of Tel Faher in the Golan Heights. 34 Golani soldiers were killed, including admired battalion commander Moshe “Musa” Klein, but the outpost was taken by the brown brigade.

Towards the end of the Yom Kippur War, Golani forces stormed the peaks of Mount Hermon. In a long and difficult battle, and after the first effort to take the position failed, the brigade’s soldiers successfully regained control of the snow-capped mountain, which they dubbed – “the eyes of the state”.

In all these cases, and many others, Golani’s sense of pride and heritage stemmed from the belief carried by every soldier in the brigade – their insistence that they could succeed at any mission they were tasked with.

The brigade and its soldiers have paid a heavy price over the years, but nothing has been able to break its spirit. The brigade’s special nature has helped its troops cope with the difficult trials it has faced

The soldiers also frequently make use of dark humor to help deal with the dangers they face:

“One of their habits was to take bets on who wasn’t going to make it back. Sometimes they would sing El Malei Rachamim [prayer for the deceased], meaning me,” recalled Raviv Nir, the Recon unit commander. “I understood that this was a way to release fear and I allowed it. (From: “Night Predators – The Story of Golani Recon” [Hebrew], p. 212).

South we went, to the city among the fields

During the night we entered, crossing the sands,

We sunk to knee-depth, shivering with cold

Then we knew, we had come to the city of strife.


Translation of an excerpt from Gaza – a Hebrew poem by Itamar Oren, who served in the Golani Brigade’s 12th Battalion. Oren took part in the raids on Gaza City in the early 1970s and was killed in the Yom Kippur War. From: “Golani – A Family of Soldiers”” [Hebrew], p. 150


Some 1450 of Golani’s soldiers have fallen in service over the years, and they are commemorated at the memorial site at Golani Junction in northern Israel. 71 of them were killed on October 7, 2023, when they suddenly found themselves on the front lines. Their heroic efforts helped prevent an even higher civilian death toll. Many more Golani soldiers, far too many, have since fallen in the fierce battles in Gaza. The spirit of the Golani soldiers has not fallen, however, and their strong sense of pride continues to accompany them, wherever they go:

“Ask a soldier where he serves and he will tell you: this or that battalion, this or that company, or this or that corps; ask a Golani soldier where he serves, and he’ll only have one answer: ‘I’m from Golani.’” (From: “Golani – A Family of Soldiers”)