As her son’s rifle strap, helmet and personal military items rested in front of Evie Steinberg and her husband, Stuart, on the bimah at Stephen S. Wise Temple, Evie, dressed in black, wanted to talk about the time that her son, Max, pretended not to understand Hebrew when his base commander became annoyed that the Golani Brigade soldier was returning to base after curfew.
“With a straight face, he would say that he didn’t understand Hebrew,” Evie said, smiling even as tears welled up in her eyes.
Just two weeks to the day after being informed by an early-morning visit from three Israeli officials that their son was killed on July 20 when his unit was ambushed in Gaza, Max’s parents, his siblings — Jake and Paige — and friends and relatives had a chance to express what it means to lose a son, brother, nephew and friend.
[RELATED EVENT: An evening for Max Steinberg]
The Aug. 3 afternoon service at Stephen S. Wise was, with just over 400 people in attendance, a chance for loved ones to comfort the family just 10 days after more than 30,000 Israelis attended Steinberg’s military funeral at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on July 23.
Ben Gaudioz, a close childhood friend of Max, ascended the podium wearing a white pinstriped Derek Jeter jersey — the baseball star was one of the soldier’s favorite athletes. Gaudioz noted that he found it fitting that both Max and Jeter bid farewell at the same time — Jeter is retiring this year.
Holding back tears, Gaudioz said how he and Max loved to find lookout spots in the San Fernando Valley where they could watch what Max called “cotton candy sunsets.”
“Ever since that day, it seems every sunset has been one of those beautiful cotton candy skies full of color,” Gaudioz said.
Matt Snyder, a close friend, brought with him a portable CD player. As he popped in a disc and a beat picked up, Snyder eulogized his fallen friend, saying that his story is so difficult to comprehend that inventing a Max Steinberg character in a movie would be difficult.
“Few characters exist who could pull it off,” Snyder said. “It just kills me to know that he’s not coming back.”
Describing Max as loving, spontaneous, funny and energetic, many friends and family who eulogized him expressed how difficult it was to accept that he is gone. Arian Ahmadi, another close friend, said that one day, after he and Max bought strawberries at a stand on Pacific Coast Highway, the two went to relax in a Jacuzzi.
There, as Ahmadi reached for the berries, the fruit and his cell phone fell toward the water. Max saved the strawberries as his friend’s phone hit the water. Upset, Ahmadi asked Max why he’d save fruit instead of his phone. Max’s reply: now he can eat fruit to make him feel better about losing his phone.
Jake Steinberg, Max’s 22-year-old brother, told guests that he and Paige talked about how great an uncle their older brother would have been. Dinner tables with Max present, Jake said, would have been filled with his unbelievable stories.
“If 30,000 people are going to come to your funeral,” Jake said, “you’ve got a story that’s going to be told and retold.”
As they spoke to the gathering, Max’s parents, standing side by side, switched off every few lines from the eulogy they had prepared together. Stuart Steinberg said that in 2012, when Jake and Paige reached out to Max to join them on a Birthright trip to Israel, Max had been going through a rough patch.
“He was struggling with his self-identity, his self-esteem,” Stuart said. “He was distancing himself from family and was truly in a lot of pain.”
Visiting Israel, though, for the first time with his brother and sister, put him on a new path. And it was at Mount Herzl where Steinberg became aware of Americans who have given their lives defending the Jewish homeland.
“It was there that he learned of the fallen Lone Soldier from Pennsylvania, Staff Sgt. Michael Levin,” Stuart said.
Levin became an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) paratrooper after immigrating to Israel. He was killed in Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah when his unit was ambushed in southern Lebanon.
Max’s father read aloud a letter he wrote for his son to read on his flight to Israel to join the IDF in September 2012. The letter noted that Max’s decision to “map a new path” meant he had an “opportunity to do a redo” and choose a better life.
Although his son’s life was cut short when Hamas operatives fired anti-tank missiles at his Golani unit’s stalled vehicle in the Shejaiya neighborhood, Stuart said that he was informed by Israeli officials that, because of the location of the attack, Israeli forces were nevertheless able to locate and destroy the tunnel from which the terrorists emerged, potentially saving hundreds more Israeli civilians’ lives.
The decision to bury Max in Israel, Evie said, was an extremely hard one for his parents. One, though, that they now feel, without any regret, was the right decision.
“Max told us that he could not in good conscience consider becoming a citizen of Israel without first serving,” Evie said. Therefore, they believe, “Max needed to remain in Israel. We concluded that the Israeli people would honor him for his sacrifice.”
Evie then read aloud some of the final texts Max had sent her as his unit waited on the Israeli side of the Gaza border.
“Call you soon, not going in today,” one read.
“We need to be prepared in case we will go. We don’t know,” he wrote.
The final text Max sent as his unit was about to enter Gaza, read, “Turning our phones in now. I’ll call you when I can. I love you.”