Author: Dov Indig
Gefen Publishing House, 2012. 189 pages.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yehuda Burdman; edited by Hagi Ben-Arzi.
Reviewed by Carol Novis
During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, 2,800 Israeli soldiers were killed in action. Dov Indig, who was 22, was one of them. Every soldier who was killed in that war (and in all the others) is a tragic loss, but even among so many fine young people, Dov was somebody out of the ordinary. Those who knew him attest to his learning, his kindness, and his high moral standards. As a hesder yeshiva student, he was fervent in his religious and ethical beliefs but not repelled by others who thought differently. He was committed to dialogue and communication.
These qualities are evident in Letters to Talia, a collection of correspondence between him and "Talia" (not her real name) then a high school student from a secular kibbutz. The English translation edition was launched at a gathering in the Knesset in November 2012, which Prime Minister Netanyahu attended some 30 years after the Yom Kippur War.
How did such a book appear in print so many years after the letters were written?
According to Ilan Greenfield, President of Gefen Publishing House, Dov's close friend Hagi Ben-Arzi discovered Talia's letters ten years ago. Talia agreed to make her letters available, on condition that she remain anonymous. The book, published by Yediot Aharonot, did very well selling some 60,000 copies in Hebrew.
"When I read the book, I wanted to publish it in English," said Greenfield, "but I had no success. About a year ago, Dov’s brother unexpectedly came to our offices and asked if we would be interested in publishing it in English. 'Oh my God!' I said. 'Have a seat!' And that was it."
Greenfield describes the book as "sincere, naïve and touching on a hot topic to Jews."
As Hagi Ben-Arzi (editor of the collection and Sara Netanyahu's brother) explains in the book's introduction, Dov met Talia's father during his army service, and a dialogue developed between them on questions of Judaism and Zionism, values and education. Talia was involved in the organization Gesher, which sponsors programs to bridge the gap between religious and secular Israelis, and had questions she wanted to clarify. Her father suggested she correspond with Dov; she agreed. So began an interchange that reveals not only the two different world-views of Dov and Talia, but also illuminates the characters of two exceptionally intelligent, thinking young people.
One example exemplifies the openness of the exchange between them. Talia asks why the Modern Orthodox maintain what she terms the "primitive" separation between men and women. "In this age of women’s equality, it’s humiliating and insulting that this separation is maintained, as if we are impure or dirty and it is forbidden to touch us," she writes. Dov answers from the viewpoint of raised in the Orthodox tradition – that separation preserves stability of the family and is not insulting to women – but it is his tone, not his answer, that impresses. Rather than criticize Talia's opinions, he is warm and open. He emphasizes that he welcomes her candor and it is her right, even her duty, to express what she feels. And he asks her too about her life and beliefs.
Talia is not prepared to take his views at face value. That's not what I asked, she notes. "I asked you about high school students dancing and you wrote about families and divorce rates…At our school we've got a folk dance club, with both boys and girls as members, and you can't imagine what fun it is to dance together. You religious people just don’t know what you're missing!"
Dov replies that he also struggled with this question in Bnei Akiva, but came to the conclusion that the norms of youth affect the norms of adulthood and putting oneself in the path of temptation can lead to falling prey to it.
And so the dialogue goes on. Subjects include God's "strange behavior", whether the Maccabim were heroes or fanatics, whether true love is the most important thing in life, the value of family purity laws (niddah), mikva, Biblical criticism, and contradictions between religion and science.
Of course, Dov has an agenda and is open about it. He wants to convince Talia, as a member of the secular public, of the value of the religious, Zionist lifestyle in which he so deeply believed. But Talia gives him a run for his money.
At times, the dialogue becomes touchy. When Dov says that he is unable to meet with Talia on a regular basis, it's not hard to deduce that she is offended, and perhaps has the beginning of a crush on him. This plays out in their debate about whether moral values can be maintained without belief in God. Dov writes that it can't; Talia indignantly answers that their secular kibbutz is a very moral society, to which Dov replies that the second generation of kibbutznikim are less idealistic than their parents who imbued the values of their religious parents.
Political stance becomes a factor when the decision to leave Sinai is brought up. To Dov, this is part of the redemption. God has returned the Golan, Judea, and Samaria to Israel and its forbidden to concede our homeland. Talia asks "What, have you lost your mind? … Is there something wrong with my thinking about how to reach a state in which the Arabs accept us and live with us in peace?"
And she adds, "I don't understand why you can't be a good Jew and a good Zionist and a good Israeli even without religion."
It is clear she is never going to be totally convinced. Nevertheless, their correspondence has taught her to be tolerant and open about beliefs different from her own. "How I have changed during these two years!" she writes. "How my world has opened up to things I never imagined, even in my wildest dreams."
Dov probably did not convince her to practice mitzvoth. Today, Talia lives on her kibbutz and prefers not to comment.
Did Talia's views make any impression on Dov's world view? We can't know.
Whether religious or secular, there is no doubt that both of them – and indeed all of us – can agree with his deeply felt sentiment: "When all is said and done, we are one people with a shared fate and common enemies."