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Remembering a Fallen Israeli Soldier

October 01, 1998|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-five years ago, on the highest of Judaic holidays, Syria invaded Israel's Golan Heights, sparking the Yom Kippur War. Egypt was not far behind, capturing the east bank of the Suez Canal. Taken by surprise, Israel stumbled but did not fall.

It was a little war as wars go, lasting less than three weeks, but it was costly--11,000 dead or wounded. And the political fallout was tremendous: the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir one year later, a truce that included still-disputed redistribution of land, and a general feeling of uneasiness and mistrust within the young Israeli nation.

As in all wars, what is forgotten is the men--not the generals or the heroes, but the common soldiers, whose deaths become the tallies by which statistics are born. Jacob Rayman, a medic, was one of the men who fell during the first battle of that little war, at an outpost called Tel Saki in the Golan Heights, two kilometers from the Syrian border.

An American-born Israeli, Rayman would have remained one of those statistics (30 men died at Tel Saki) if not for his cousin, Hallie Lerman, who visited him a month before his death and who believed her cousin should be remembered intact, a loss, not a casualty.

"Crying for Imma: Battling for the Soul on the Golan Heights" (Night Vision Press, 255 pages, $25) is as much a loving memorial as it is a document of war. Lerman, a writer and photographer in Los Angeles, interviewed Rayman's family, his commanders and his fellow soldiers, and sifted through photos taken at Tel Saki by his comrades. The vivid accounts of those who survived the desperate battle illuminate the universal horrors of war: Whether you are one of thousands landing on a foreign beach or one of a handful distracting an invading enemy from a tiny hill, the fear and the sorrow are the same. ("Imma" is Hebrew for "mother." The title comes from one soldier's recollection of calling out for his mother during battle.)

The strength of "Crying for Imma" is its intimacy. Lerman spoke only with family and with soldiers who knew Rayman and Menachem Amsbacher, the commander of the five-man unit which first engaged the invading Syrians. The stories, which move chronologically through the fighting and its continuing aftermath, are detailed and emotional. The descriptions of the fear and frenzy of battle, of maiming and death--juxtaposed with photos of the soldiers alive and well, often smiling, just days away from battle--are chilling.

It is clear that the army was arrogant and unprepared and that mistakes were made, and, from the words of those who suffered most, we are forced to experience the direct results of those mistakes. Those words provide the fabric through which Israel's defense policy is filtered, making visible all of its grit and impurities.

In the end, "Crying for Imma" is a universal testament to the indelible effects of war on those who win and those who lose. The stories and the photographs are moving in their starkness, a starkness blurred by some of Lerman's own commentary and the imagined thoughts and feelings she occasionally bestows upon her subjects. These choices are unfortunate; the truth in this case is poetry enough.

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