- David M. Weinberg - https://davidmweinberg.com -

Toasting IDF heroes

A meaningful project memorializes fallen Israeli soldiers with personalized barrels and bottles of wine.

Published in The Jerusalem Post [1], February 9, 2024; and Israel Hayom [2], February 11, 2024. Print-friendly copy [3]

The “Wine & Friends” series of wines that commemorate fallen IDF soldiers. (Courtesy: David Peri, wineandfriends.co.il)

Yehonatan Samo, a commander in the paratroopers, was in the final months of his IDF service when he and his soldiers were sent into Gaza. He took a bullet in the head on November 8, 2023 and was declared brain dead two days later. He had signed an Adi donor card testifying to his willingness to donate his organs after death. Yehonatan’s heart, two kidneys, two lungs, and a lobe of his liver gave renewed life to six organ recipients.

Everyone who knew Yehonatan from Elazar and Carmei Zur in Gush Etzion where grew up, from the pluralistic Aderet pre-army gap year mechina program he attended, and from his army unit, remembers him as a motivated, enthusiastic, and happy young man.

“This is why we wanted to memorialize Yehonatan with something that brings joy and happiness in life – like wine,” says his father, Moshe Semo. “Yehonatan fought for the Land of Israel. The good land G-d gave the Jewish People bestows bountiful fruit, especially magnificent grapes. Grapes become wine, and wine brings joy.”

Moshe’ childhood friend David (Dudi) Peri of “Wine & Friends” (https://wineandfriends.co.il [4]) had just the right commemoration formula: A quality red wine blend crafted personally with the Semo family, bottled and labeled with Yehonatan’s name, life story, and photo.

The front label of “Yehonatan” wine made from six varietals from the 2021 harvest also carries the catch phrase: “My brother, they will never be able to diminish your joy” – a line from Ravid Plotnik’s iconic 2013 song “HaSimcha.”

“David Peri’s website sells the wine, and we give bottles to our friends and family to help celebrate every occasion,” says Moshe Semo. “We toast LeChaim to Yehonatan’s memory and to the continuation of life. In fact, for the upcoming Purim and Passover holidays, when we say and sing over a glass of wine ‘In every generation, G-d saves the Jewish People from its enemies,’ we are producing more of Yehonatan’s wine for the broader public.”

Peri’s project for honoring the memory of fallen IDF soldiers through specialty lines of wine began five years ago when he undertook to toast Cpt. Daniel Gomez, a helicopter pilot killed in the Second Lebanon War. The Rhone Valley blend he crafted with the Gomez family at the Gush Etzion Winery was well received and has been reproduced many times.

This was followed by wines named for Karen Tendler, the IAF’s first female Sikorsky helicopter combat mechanic, who fell alongside Gomez; famous undercover commando Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno; venerated war hero Cpt. Roi Klein, who fell on a grenade in Bint Jbeil to save other soldiers in his unit; Cpt. Yohai Klangel, a Givati Brigade soldier who was awarded the President of Israel’s award for excellence on Yom Haatzmaut and killed by a Hezbollah attack on Har Dov in 2015; lone Golani soldier Sean Carmeli (killed in Gaza in 2014); a wine celebrating the life of Ari Weiss of Raanana, a Nachal Brigade commando who fell in battle in Nablus in 2022, and more.

In each case, at least one barrel of wine (which makes for about 300 bottles) is produced for each soldier.

The desire and demand for such personalized, commemorative lines of wine has skyrocketed as a result of the war that Israel is currently fighting with Hamas.

Working with the Gush Etzion and Munitz wineries, “Wine & Friends” has crafted wines for the families of fallen soldiers Cpt. Eitan Neeman, who served a combat doctor in the 669 airborne rescue commando unit after training at Soroka Hospital and Yale University, and who fell fighting in Sderot; and two wines for First Sgt. Ofek Arbiv who saved the lives of two young women from the Nova festival before being gunned down by Hamas marauders.

Just released is a wine named for Laurie Vardi, who was killed at the Nova. Soon to be released are wines named for Gil and Inbar Buyum (father and son), members of the rapid response squad in Kibbutz Beeri who fought bravely against the hordes of “Nuhkba” terrorists who invaded on October 7; Moshe and Eliad Ohayon (father and son) who fought against Hamas invaders in Ofakim; Golani soldier Sgt. Barak Ben David of Dimona; Cpt. Nitai Omer of Kibbutz Alumim; and Hadar Cohen, one of the IDF tazpitaniot (surveillance officers) killed on the Nir Oz base.

The bereaved families bear none of the costs for crafting these wines, and the wines are sold at cost. David Peri profits from other sides of his business: wine bars for special events, private labels for the corporate world, and personal wine concierge services.

Elie Wurtman, founder and owner of Bat Shlomo Winery [5], has released a similar commemorative wine named for Aviv Baram, who fought Hamas as part of the Kfar Azza rapid response squad on “Black Shabbat,” Simchat Torah 5784. Baram was stage manager for pop singer Ivri Lider, and loved sharing Bat Shlomo’s Sauvignon Blanc with everyone in Lider’s troop.

Lider has written a song in memory of his friend and colleague Aviv Baram, and the words are printed on the wine label. (Unlike the wine, the song has not yet been released.)

Like Peri, Wurman emphasizes that the commemorative effort is completely altruistic. “It fills me with hope and pride to help bereaved family and colleagues remember their beloved friend in this way. In the right context, wine of the Land of Israel indeed can be a force for coming together and a source of consolation.”

Wurtman is precise. People turn to myriad sources for consolation and commemoration, from music and poetry to philanthropy and community activism. In Jewish sources, wine too can be an expression of humanity and belief in a better future.

After all, the Bible tells that once upon a time “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan to Beersheba” (Kings I 5:5), and Ezekiel prophesized that the nation of Israel will once again merit such oenological bliss.

King Solomon wrote that the wine banqueting house was a symbol of G-d’s love for the Jewish People (with the wine hall also a metaphor for the gifts of Sinai, meaning Torah; see the Song of Songs 2:2).

Rabbi Abba taught in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) that “There is no greater revealed sign of redemption than the agricultural re-blooming of the Land of Israel.” And Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (Bach on Tur Orach Chaim 208) taught that the Shechina, the Divine Presence, enters the Jewish soul through the consumption of fruits grown in the Land of Israel; with grapes made into wine being the highest expression of this spiritual bounty.

Moreover, Jewish life is meant to be lived through beauty, bounty, and joy. This is what Rabbi Yehuda Halevi explained to the mythological Khazar king in his famous 12th century theological treatise, HaKuzari. Judaism is not ascetic, he wrote. If delight is channeled through the right spiritual principles, this can lead to true cleavage with the Almighty.

As such, tributes to our fallen soldiers and other heroes through wine making and wine partaking can be an elevated form of sharing sympathy and expressing community solidarity, and can propel us to great national heights. LeChaim, to life! And yehi zichram baruch, may the memory of Israel’s fallen heroes be blessed.

The writer studied oenology through the London-based International Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and leads kosher wine tastings and tours. Al-Jazeera has lauded/accused him of being “drunk on Zion” and “wine-washing the occupation.” In his spare time, he is senior managing fellow at the Jerusalem-based Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy.