Unlikely warrior
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Unlikely warrior

A Roosevelt cousin in the IDF extols FIDF's virtues

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Yitzhak Goldberg, at top, with his mother and siblings.

If you’re imagining a prototypical Israeli soldier, you might well come up with Yitzhak Goldberg.

He’s 25, dark, clean-cut, athletically built, rugged, and handsome; he holds himself with that Israeli upright swagger that lets you pick them out in crowds. He looks exotic in some indefinable way.

He is also a collateral descendant of Theodore Roosevelt and a direct descendant of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the famous architect whose projects included the Capitol in Washington and a huge waterworks project in New Orleans.

The thread that seems to connect the improbable family, from the impeccably WASP progenitors to the proudly Jewish latest generations, seems to be not ethnicity but science.

Goldberg was born in Israel, but both his parents were born in the United States; his father on Long Island, his mother in Philadelphia. His mother’s name at birth was Jill Punnett. Punnett’s mother, Dr. Hope Handler Punnett, is a professor emerita of genetics at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. Hope Punnett “grew up not very Jewish,” the daughter of European refugees, her grandson said. “She remembers her mother lighting the candles,” but not much else. She married Dr. Thomas Roosevelt Punnett, who died in 2008 at 82 as a biochemist and professor emeritus at Temple University. The Roosevelt in his name was honestly come by; he was a fairly distant cousin of the gun-toting exuberant conservationist 26th president.

Hope Handler met Tom Punnett “somehow in academic life,” her grandson said. Their children, of course, technically were Jewish, but “my mother grew up not really Jewish,” Goldberg said. “She knew she was Jewish, but not at all connecting.” She went to England, the homeland of her many-times-great grandfather Benjamin Latrobe, to study civil engineering, which in some ways is the logical extension of his work on Louisiana waterworks.

And then she went to Israel.

Goldberg’s father’s father was a Conservative rabbi at the Plainview Jewish Center, and his son, Mordechai, majored in Jewish studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Next, he went to Israel, where, among other things, he drove a cab.

And there he met his future wife.

It is easy to understand why a rabbi’s son would go to Israel; it is less clear why a half-WASP newly hatched civil engineer would do so. But Jill Punnett went. “It was part of a trend, to go to Israel,” was the way her son explained it. “And she went through quite a journey.”

The two met, they married in 1984, and fairly soon they made aliyah, “They came to the conclusion that that’s the place for Jewish people,” he said.

The Goldbergs “chose religion,” their son said. “We were born and raised religious. I am Orthodox.”

Yitzhak Goldberg is now a lieutenant in the IDF, where he is the commander of the 188th armored brigade. That is a tank platoon, he said. He was in New York to speak at a fundraising dinner for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

He will be out of the IDF in about half a year, and he is not yet sure about what he’ll do next. “It’s a good question,” he said. (When people say that, they mean less that it is a good question than that they do not know the answer.) But he is assuming that he will go to college. If he does, most likely he will study science, which after all is in his blood.

“I got it from my mother,” he said. “When I was little, I would take apart electrical toys and put them back together.”

Goldberg says that he has seen a lot of both the IDF and the FIDF through his work, and he has learned much that he would like to pass on. “Since I’m in a combat position, I get to see all the amazing things the FIDF does,” he said.

“For example, we move bases approximately every four months, and at every base you see a gym or a synagogue or a club sponsored by the organization.

“I had three soldiers who were lone soldiers” – they did not have any close family members in Israel, and so had no place to call home – “and they had all the things, from the flight to visit relatives at home to wherever they live, one from Belgium, one from France, one from the United States. Where they live is partly sponsored by the organization, and so is the furniture.

“I would say to parents of lone soldiers that it’s a very supportive environment for people who come to serve with no family in the immediate area, and that’s largely because of the FIDF. It gives them a lot of opportunity to continue serving, although they don’t have what other people have.

“The emotional support the lone soldiers get comes from us, the commanders, but the FIDF gives us the tools to keep them going.”

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