Naftali Gordon
Naftali GordonCourtesy

Based on a Hebrew Kol Zikaron podcast interview with Pesi Gordon, translated and edited with her permission.

On October 7, Naftali Gordon HY”D, son of a Jerusalem family who immigrated from the United States before his second birthday, the father of two little daughters, and a physical therapist by profession was called to the Armored Corps Reserves and entered Gaza with his crew. On the first night of Hanukkah, a knock at the door brought the news that Naftali's tank had been hit by a missile, killing him.

We wanted to get to know this fallen hero, what he was, what he could have been, and hear about him from his partner and the mother of his children.

Naftali and Pesi Gordon
Naftali and Pesi GordonCourtesy

Naftali was married to Pesi, née Roth, whose family had also made Aliyah from the US and Australia. The couple dated for nine months before marrying, enjoying the beauty of Jerusalem together, and then Naftali arranged a surprise on a pathway of the Abu Tor Promenade overlooking the Old City - candles along both sides of the path and a table laid out - he prepared everything in advance and proposed.

Pesi described Naftali’s love for his daughters, saying: “He devoted himself completely to this stage of his life. In general, he was very family oriented, as if he was born for this. His fatherhood was based on a lot of playfulness and humor and he had patience - the most patient human being I've ever met. And I learned from him that the way to deal with babies and toddlers, the way to get them to cooperate, is through playfulness with humor and he would always do that.”

“Even in the most frustrating of moments, he somehow found the energy to turn it into a kind of game and got their cooperation. He was a very, very present father. He would get home each afternoon by four the latest. Spend the evening with all of us. He would do everything. He got up at nights to go to them and get them to kindergarten in the mornings. Insisted on going to the first parents meeting at our older daughter’s municipal kindergarten right before the war.”

Naftali, one of six siblings, enlisted a few months after graduating high school. Before that, he started working at the Keren Or school for blind and brain damaged children, something he continued years later as well. Even during his military service, when he would get out for weekends - sometimes he would help on Shabbat at the Keren Or residential apartments for older youths with special needs. Then he enlisted in the IDF Armored Corps.

Pesi and Naftali met after he was done with his military service. She says: “I thought how nice it was for me to meet my partner after he was done with that scary phase of life. From what I know, his service was mostly uneventful. He had some exposure to the Gaza Envelope communities (Otef Aza) and he told me about it a little. But it was a really relatively calm period and he had fun with the guys and made friends.”

Pesi described him as serene, radiating calm to those around him. “If anyone complained about this or that pain - and Naftali was a physiotherapist - they would approach him. All sorts of matters, pain, stressful things. Even just a few words from him would calm people. He was a peaceful man, comfortable with himself. With a lot of humility and also a relatively quiet man. A man with real backbone and very clear principles.

I mentioned that he was very, very patient. But together with such tenacity. Very patient and stubborn and persistent, an easygoing person, fun, light, always up for some fun”

“You could trust him with anything, eyes closed. He never disappointed me. That's why it's so out of character that he was killed in a war, that he left me while I was there waiting for him. He had never let me down before, could always be trusted to arrive on time, to be there, to do what was needed. Such a rock. I really felt like he was my safe place, my home, my pillar of strength.”

Naftali was a very talented physiotherapist and enjoyed his work. He worked for Kupat Holim Clalit [an Israeli health provider] at a clinic in Ramat Eshkol and soon took on additional managerial roles there. It seemed they were paving the way for him to move forward and that his career was secure.

A few months before the war, he began dedicating a day a week to work as a physiotherapist in the IDF reserves as a physiotherapist for soldiers and loved it.

The young Gordon family was at home for Simchat Torah, October 7. They danced in synagogue at night and hosted guests for the evening meal. The following day, Pesi recalls, “I got up to wake Naftali for synagogue. As I sat there awake with our little daughter who gets up early, I heard explosions through the window, endlessly, all the time I was sitting there and literally what was going through my head was ‘has a war started?’ As I was waking him, suddenly there was a siren. It was clear to me then that this wasn't a false alarm. I feel bad, because I woke him up in a kind of stress. When we went down to the shelter of our building, there were neighbors there who are not Sabbath observers and who had mobile phones, so we already got a sense of what was happening and realized very bad things were underway.”

Naftali and Pesi's young daughters
Naftali and Pesi's young daughtersCourtesy

“Then we went down the street to my parents because they have a Mamad [safe room] and they live close by. Naftali turned on the cell phone and after a short while the message was ‘Don't wait for the army to call you. Just come.’ He immediately looked at me and asked ‘Can I go?’ Then I asked him: ‘Do you want to go?’ He said yes. I said OK. ‘You can.’ It was clear to us both that this was what needed to be done. At 10:15 am he was already gone. Took the closet apart to retrieve his uniform and drove off. He went north at first.”

“Do I regret it or would I have done something else? On the one hand it's clear that I want him with me and the reality of what happened is unbearable. But really I don't think there was a choice. Obviously that's the thing that needed to be done. Everyone who left their home at that point did it knowing that it was to save the nation.”

Naftali was the tank's gunner. But in the initial period, the first month and a half of reserves, he was what's termed a "spare", not assigned to a specific team or tank - a reserve soldier. There were a lot of "spare" personnel who were asked to simply be there in case replacements were needed in teams or tanks while fixing damaged tanks and various other tasks.

After a week in the north, they were re-assigned down south to the Tze'elim base. From there, he came home twice for one night each time before entering Gaza.

Pesi adds: “And I visited him two and a half times, sort of - once we met at a halfway point. Each time I debated with myself whether to bring our girls with me. When I went to visit him in Tze'elim, we were debating it together. My concerns, and we didn't talk explicitly about them but each of us had them in mind, were: on one hand I wanted to take them, wanted them to see their father, they missed him terribly, he missed them, and who knew if there would be another chance to see him. On the other hand, this was a time when there were still alarms and missiles and I didn't want to put them in a situation where suddenly in the middle of the road you have to get out of the car and lie down on the ground. Not a situation you want little kids to experience. So I drove without them and it was really good, intense, you want to pack it in and everything was so painful, but so good to be together.”

Naftali went into Gaza twice and was able to call home from there as he took his phone with him. His first entry was a Sunday and that day he was supposed to take part in the 'brit' of a new-born, but instead, took part via Zoom. After a week the army released him for a long weekend.

Pesi says: “It was the first time he had come home for Shabbat since October 7. This was the first time we had had more than a few hours together. It was amazing. We ticked off everything on the list of things we wanted to get done. Yes, really good. To breathe the air of home because from October 7 onwards I had been staying at my parents home with the girls. I was too frightened to stay at home with them alone. On the few occasions when he was able to visit, we would go back to our home. So we had this kind of a time period of a few days to be together at home and it was really good for all of us.”

“Then early Monday morning, he drove off again. This time he didn't go straight into Gaza but went back to his base to take care of preparations ahead of the next entry, which was obviously much more dramatic. On Sunday they actually started the mission. The next time we heard from him was on Tuesday, which for me was a long time not to hear from him. When we spoke Tuesday, he really told me very little about what went on – in reality, they had gone through an intense round. Afterwards, from what I heard from the friends who were with him, I understood the picture better. But when Naftali called me on Tuesday, he sounded light, cheerful, uplifting, dissolving all the fears I had in my head about what he was going through. As he told it, everything was fine - except that his tank took a hit from an RPG that put it out of action for a bit. They were able to get out of the tank for a while and communicate.”

“In fact, late Tuesday night was the last time we spoke.”

I returned home with the girls at the start of that week. I saw that we needed to be at home. And also I suddenly felt I was no longer afraid, that I have the strength. It was so weird… Just a few days earlier this situation was terribly scary for me, but now I felt like I could handle it.”

“And I'm glad I had a chance to tell that to Naftali, although I said it with reservations as if we'll see how it goes. I told him that I brought over someone to put in a grille for a window. I'm glad I told him that because I felt like it made him happy, too...”

Pesi is a speech therapist in a hospital. She knew Naftali was in Shejaiya [a district within Gaza City] because he told her he was going to get into that mission. She saw fierce fights in Shejaiya on the news, but somehow, she continued to function.

On Thursday morning, Pesi sent Naftali a package to be delivered to his tank and was in touch with his Rasap [company sergeant major] who said he would make an effort to get it to him. It seems that two minutes after she handed the package to the person who was going to drive it down south, Naftali was killed.

He was in a convoy, operating in a very crowded area of Shejaiya, and came under fire from an anti-tank rocket that struck the tank's weak point. The ammunition on board the tank exploded and a huge fire engulfed it. Soldiers from all around, along with paramedics, made valiant efforts to extract the men from the tank. The driver managed to extricate himself and the loader was rescued in a heroic and swift operation. But they did not manage to pull out Naftali or the tank’s commander, Omri Roth, from the blazing tank. They couldn’t even see them. During the evening hours, while still under fire, the soldiers retrieved the still-burning tank.

That evening was the first candle of Hanukkah. Pesi took the children to Naftali's parents' house where his whole family got together.

Pesi recalls: “We lit candles and then sat down to the meal. A few minutes into it, there was a knock at the door and I didn't think much of it at all. I went to bring something for one of my daughters that she wanted. And then I saw more people standing at the door crying, screaming. At the same time the IDF notification team entered and asked for me. I looked at them - for a fraction of a second I tried to see on their expressions whether he was injured. And immediately I realized that he wasn't.”

“My girls came to me, put their heads under my arms. I feel that even if I talk for hours about these moments and what was going through my head during those fractions of a second, I can't convey it all.”

“I saw my whole future, my whole life with him and now I realize he was, what, a short chapter in my life? A lesson for me? And then I thought: “He left me the girls. So thank the Heavens for that.”

“I remember it crossed my mind that the messages I sent him on WhatsApp those last few days will never get two ticks. On the other hand, it didn’t surprise me. I knew he was perfect. I tried to deny it, but I knew he was perfect and I know that the people who leave early are the perfect ones.”

“And then the psychologist came and told me to just tell the girls what happened. I went straight into command and function. I think it’s a kind of basic instinct that parents have.”

Naftali Gordon's funeral
Naftali Gordon's funeralCourtesy

The funeral was Sunday. The family had to wait for permission from the IDF Rabbinate whose identification process was lengthy because of the fire.

Only the things Naftali didn’t take with him into the tank could be returned to Pesi. Everything else, his personal gun, cell phone, wedding ring, ID tag, was burned.

Pesi explains how life now looks. “Fridays are really hard. Friday was really our day. The girls are at their kindergartens. It's not a work day, it’s a day for doing nice things together. In general, Friday would start with Naftali letting me sleep until late while he would get up with the girls. And then, at some point when he would wake me so that we would still have time to do something, I would find that he had cooked most of the food for Shabbat and was in the midst of cleaning. Then we'd go hang out together and it was really pleasant. We would finish the preparations for Shabbat together. We'd sit together Friday evening as Shabbat comes in. We'd all sit on the sofa, the whole family together, praying. We would do that sometimes, since Corona we would often pray at home Friday evenings. This was the greatest pleasure in the world. Everyone nicely dressed and clean, our home clean, the smell of delicious food. Such peace and calm after hours of preparing.”

“We'd look at each other, eyes filled with love and appreciation. Pure pleasure.”

Every night after I put the girls to bed and walk out of their room, it's so quiet... just this emptiness. There is not the smell of salad freshly cut by Naftali as he'd do when I'd put the girls to sleep. No partner to chill and watch TV with and eat together.

One last thing - something I remember saying to him in life. I thought that the idea of single parenting seemed so hard especially since they don't have a person to share every detail about the children with. No one is going to be as enthusiastic about and interested in the children as the actual parents. I so enjoyed it. I really appreciated that I could share every little detail with Naftali and he'd care about it all as much as I did. Every little thing about the children was really exciting for us. That I really miss.”

Pesi has two messages for those reading this heartbreaking Israeli war story.

In the context of the war I would like to say this. I think it's the last will and testament of everyone killed in the fighting - that we have to complete the mission. They fell, giving up a good life, their families, for a purpose, to make it better here, for the hope that this war will have results, that in the end we will make it easier to live and safer to live here. And I think, with all the difficulty of continuing to persevere and finish the task, that we must, their death mustn't be in vain. So this war doesn't end up being another round among many that needs to be repeated in a year or two. And of course that we must be worthy, that we need to be good enough people to justify so many pure and amazing people who died so early so that we can live here.”

“I also have a message on a personal and relationship kind of level. I find that something that gives me comfort is when I find letters or messages that I wrote to Naftali where I tell him, I gush, say how much I appreciate and love him. I read the letters now and I realize: It's the same as what I said in his eulogy. It's really comforting to me that I told him these things in his life. It might seem a bit of a morbid outlook but I really think we should be telling our loved ones what they are to us, how much we appreciate them and why.”

Israel will always be grateful and appreciate Naftali’s supreme sacrifice for the Jewish people.

We pray for Pesi’s welfare and that of her young daughters, with confidence in her ability to remember, miss her beloved husband, and choose life.