“Mighty” Max Steinberg memoralized at the Saban Theatre last night

Max’s family have had a whirlwind of memorials for their fallen son in the past few weeks. The first was an impromptu social media gathering at a local park in West Hills on Sunday Night when news spread like wildfire of his death in Gaza. The second was in Israel when he was buried with honors as 30,000 Israel’s paid tribute to the Lone Soldier from Woodland Hills. Upon returning from Israel the Steinberg family had a smaller memorial for families and friends. Last night the Los Angeles Jewish community honored Max and his family with a stirring tribute at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.

My wife was lucky enough to have taught Max as a fourth grader at Woodlake Elementary School in Woodland Hills. She would later teach his siblings Jake and Paige when they reached fourth grade, so we had more than the casual parent/teacher relationship. Evie and Stuart were the kind of parents you dream of as teachers, completely supportive, and doing what they could to make sure their children could reach their potential. As such we had been invited several times to their house for various Jewish celebrations. We are Gentiles, but it was always an honor to be included in their celebrations.

When we learned that Max had joined the IDF after a life-changing visit to Israel with his sibling via the birthright initiative, I found it fascinating that a local kid would make such a commitment but never dreamed that his decision would end up having such an impact on our local community and Israel.   It was not an easy journey for Max to become the soldier he became.  Verdell stayed in touch with him via Facebook, and one particular night in Nov of 2012 they spent hours chatting on Facebook as missiles were being tossed from Hamas.  It was an eye-opening chat when Verdell showed it to me the next day. From that moment on, we had Max in our thoughts.  When we found out Max was headed into Gaza after the brutal kidnapping and murder of the Israel teenagers followed by relentless shelling upon the Israel citizens we both knew he would be in harm’s way.

Some things will remain with you forever, but the pain of Verdell’s face, when she was notified by a mutual friend that Max had died in Gaza, will be one of them.

Last night Max’s friends all told stories. I only have one, so I thought I’d share it here.

I was lucky enough to be working from home the year that Verdell taught Max so I may have spent more time in her classroom helping out that year than any other year.  Max stood out despite his diminutive stature because of his dynamic personality that would allow him to make many friends throughout his life.  Max would eventually top out at 5’3 with the heart of all boys/men who have to fight for everything that those of normal height take for granted.  I’m a baseball guy, and so my wife pointed out to me who the baseball players were in class. She said that even though Max was the smallest child in her class, he was the best athlete, and most competitive.

One day I took the class out to play kickball, and while my memory is vague on the details I think I may have erroneously divided the teams into boys and girls, and planted myself on the girls thinking that would make a difference. It did not. Our team was being slaughtered by the other team and the main culprit was Max who seemed to kick a home run every time up. When he did it for about the fourth time I decided enough was enough and as he headed toward 3rd base I simply scooped him up and put him over my shoulders so he couldn’t run until the ball had been retrieved back into the infield.  I don’t know how he felt about that. He was competitive but on the other hand, I was his teacher’s husband so he couldn’t go off on me. As I put him down he smiled his big smile but I think behind that smile was “I’ll get you”. When he came up again he kicked another ball far into the outfield, as he rounded second he looked right at me knowing I was going to attempt to scoop him up again, but this time he used his quickness and agility to evade my futile attempt to keep him from scoring. It may have been my imagination but I’ve felt he enjoyed that much more than simply running around the bases without any impediments.

And that was my only physical interaction with Mighty Max, but I’ll always remember it. To me he’ll always be the nine year old diminutive boy who lit up his fourth grade class with his clowning, and his smile. I did not personally witness this more than a few times, but I can remember Verdell coming home just about every night with a story about her class, and Max was usually in the middle of it somehow.  She enjoyed the free spirited children with a sense of humor and intelligence about them. Max fit that to a tee.

Last night was an amazing experience. Noted Jewish dignitaries from Los Angeles spoke, friends spoke, IDF solders spoke, the family spoke.

I’ll take several things away from that memorial.

“A lone soldier is never alone”

Two weeks ago I did not know what a “Lone Soldier” was.

Israel’s Lone Soldiers are those whose families live abroad and who chose to leave their countries of origin to serve the State of Israel. These soldiers know that as the Jewish State, Israel is their home and thus theirs to protect. Many choose to serve in combat positions, enduring grueling training, exercises, missions and operations, all to ensure it remains safe.

One of the solders who trained with Max explained the Golani’s 13th Battalion symbol which is a tree. He talked about the roots and how all of Israel is connected via these roots. Wiki explained it like thus

The symbol of the brigade is a green olive tree with its roots on a yellow background. It was drawn by the 12th Battalion’s intelligence officer, who came from kibbutz Beit Keshet, home to numerous olive trees.[57] However, other sources claim it’s an oak located in Yavne’el.[58] The colors green and yellow symbolize the green hills of the Galilee, where the brigade was stationed at the time of its creation and the olive tree is known for its strong roots that penetrate and firmly hold the land, reflecting the brigade’s connection with the State of Israel’s heritage. The yellow background on which the tree stands reflects the brigade’s role in the south of the country in the war of 1948, when it captured Umm-Rashrash, now Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city.[

Recently a movie called Guardians of the Galaxy has taken the world by storm. One of the stars of the movie is a tree called Groot whose only line is  “I am Groot”. Until the end when he uses his ability to grow his roots to protect his new-found friends. At that moment he declares “We are Groot”

Last night was very much about “We are Israel”, how every Jew needs to do what they can to protect their homeland, how the roots run 10,000 miles deep.

When Max started his birthright journey he may have been saying “I am Max”

when he concluded his Journey last night I felt like saying

“We are Max”

“We are Groot”

“We are Israel’

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2 Comments

  1. Evie Steinberg

    Hi Phil, Hope all is well by you and Verdell. I read this so long ago, and just happened to come across this wonderful piece you wrote…… As I sit here in my hotel room in New York City during “The big storm”, Stuart and I, along with another couple who lost their beloved son during Operation Protective Edge, had the honor of spending some quality time visiting with Israel’s President Rueben Rivlin and his lovely wife last night in their hotel suite. I wish I had read this article before. You and Verdell really “got” Max. Your article is a perfect characterization of our Max. Is there a printed version? I would love to give it to President Rivlin and others, with your permission. It’s just so perfect……. Tomorrow we will see President Rivlin speak at the United Nations to commemorate the 70 year anniversary of the Liberation of Auchshwitz. I’m sure it will be quite moving. We feel honored that he invited us. I am excited because I have never been to a session at the UN….On another note, we would love get together to catch up and just spend some time. Speak to you soon. xo, Evie

    Like

    • Thanks Evie, you can do anything you want with the story. Be safe during the blizzard.

      Like

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