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The legacy of ‘Uncle Mickey’ lives on

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NEW YORK (JTA) — Just like “Goodnight Moon” or “The Cat In the Hat,” the story of Mickey Marcus is one I know by heart, one that has reverberated in my head since I was a little girl. Though he died long before I was born, “Uncle Mickey” was still very much a presence in our family, to the point where I sometimes thought of pouring a glass of wine for him instead of Elijah at Passover.

David “Mickey” Marcus was the son of Romanian immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended West Point and served in the U.S. Army, where he was part of a regiment that liberated the concentration camps. Later he earned a law degree and worked in Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s office in New York, helping prosecute mobsters.

In 1947, David Ben-Gurion was looking for someone who could unify and train the various military groups in Israel. That person was Mickey, who went to Israel, despite the fact that serving in another nation’s army was tantamount to treason. He went by the nom de guerre Michael Stone, and was the first aluf, or general, in the Israeli army. Shortly before victory was declared, he was accidentally shot by one of his own men.

It wasn’t until my first visit to Israel – a Birthright trip in December 2003 – that I found out that others knew about Uncle Mickey, too. None of the kids on my program knew who he was, but when our tour guide got wind of the news of my relative, she told everyone the story of Uncle Mickey and how he had been the first machal – a term meaning volunteers — from outside of Israel and had died fighting for Israel.

Coming from a secular background, with no Jewish friends at my school and no formal religious education to speak of, I suddenly had something that gave me cred. No one cared that I hadn’t had a bat mitzvah or that I was illiterate in Hebrew – having trickles of famous blood explained everything away. Carrying around a last name that was engraved into history – and a street in Jerusalem near the president’s house – made it OK.

The only American Jews I encountered who had heard of Mickey were of my parents’ age and older – ones who remembered when "Cast a Giant Shadow" came out. My father remembers the movie – he was just 12 years old and growing up in Los Angeles when his whole family was invited to the film’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Kirk Douglas, who reportedly was upset about losing out on the lead in "Exodus" to Paul Newman, played Mickey, and Angie Dickinson portrayed his wife, Emma. There’s a subplot about Mickey falling in love with the Israeli woman who was assigned to be his secretary, but that was just a way to shoehorn a love story into the movie.

Earlier this year, a friend’s cousin who had become my pen pal, Gil Rotholz, and I drove to Mishmar David, a former kibbutz that went bankrupt and was privatized by the Israeli government. The kibbutz, founded in 1949 on what was then the border, was named for David “Mickey” Marcus.

Like many kibbutzim, Mishmar David failed to turn a profit. At one point it reached nearly 200 residents, including Tevye himself, Chaim Topol. But at the time of my visit it was down to about 65 members, and ground already had been broken for 400 new homes that would radically change the makeup of Mishmar David.

Gil and I met with the kibbutz’s unofficial leader, Gadi Fraiman, a sculptor who works primarily with onyx and bronze. (This kibbutznik’s choice to work with hard, unforgiving materials did not go unnoticed.) Fraiman agreed to meet with me because of my name and family connection, and informed me that I was the first Marcus – of this particular family, at least – he had ever met. He has been living at Mishmar David for more than 30 years.

Like many former kibbutzniks, Fraiman has watched the socialist, communal way of living slowly erode from Israeli society. His fear is that the influx of new families will change Mishmar David forever. He also worries that the new residents won’t know or care about their town’s namesake.

His dream, he tells me, would be to create a little park, with benches and trees and a sculpture or plaque – preferably in bronze or onyx – commemorating David Marcus and explaining why the kibbutz was named for him.

“I am an artist,” he says. “I leave pieces of myself behind me.”

Having a memorial to Mickey Marcus in the town that bears his name would be Fraiman’s largest-scale project yet and a way to bridge the kibbutz of the past to the subdivision of the future.

There already is one memorial to Mickey. It’s in the nearby town of Abu Ghosh, which is known as much for its legendary hummus as it is for being the closest town to the "Big Brother" house. Many of the residents of Abu Ghosh are descended from the Turks who lived in the area during the time of the Ottoman Empire. A mosque shares natural spring water with its next door neighbor, a monastery run by a monk who converted to Catholicism from Judaism.

It was near Abu Ghosh that Mickey was killed. He went out in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Because it was cold, he wrapped himself in a white sheet. The young man assigned as a guard didn’t speak English; Mickey didn’t speak Hebrew.

The phrase “friendly fire” has always sounded hollow to me; the notion of being killed by people who care for you. It’s like saying you were loved to death.

Mickey’s death was an accident, but it was the most tragic kind of accident.

Rotholz has another perspective on Uncle Mickey’s legacy – the West Point military tactics and techniques that he taught the Haganah are still taught today in the Israeli military. Mickey, Rotholz tells me, was the first person who took the diverse, loosely assembled immigrants who wanted their own country and molded them into a military.

Although Mickey and Emma had no children of their own, this visit to Israel reminds me that his children are everywhere – in addition to the dozens of cousins I have named David. When I ask the man in Abu Ghosh for directions to his memorial, he lights up and says he is glad a young person has taken an interest in such a hero. When I snap a picture of the Rehov Marcus street sign, an elderly woman nods approvingly in my direction, even though it is dangerously close to Shabbat.

Gadi Fraiman is right – David “Mickey” Marcus was an important figure in modern Israeli history, and he should be remembered as such.

While Fraiman works in rock, I work in words. But can I memorialize a man I never met? A man whose name makes people treat me differently, although my only tie to him is a fortunate accident of birth?

After returning from Israel, I looked up the address of the office where I needed to drop off my rental cell phone. It was in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, just four blocks away from Colonel David Marcus playground.

Was it me following Mickey again? Or, this time, was he following me?

(Lilit Marcus is the editor in chief of Crushable.com and the author of "Save the Assistants: A Guide for Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace.")

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