Saturday, December 26, 2009

Legacy of the Lamed Hey

In January 2005 I hiked through the hills of Hebron, following in the footsteps of the legendary thirty-five Haganah volunteers who were killed while attempting to resupply the Gush Etzion kibbutzim in the early stages of the 1948 War of Independence. Little did I know as I participated in the annual memorial hike that five years later I would again be following in their footsteps, volunteering in defense of the people of Israel. My connection to the Lamed Hey [literally "35" in Hebrew numerals] proved invaluable this week when my officer asked me to share their story with my fellow soldiers.

Most Israelis know the basic story of the Lamed Hey. How they set off on foot from Jerusalem to resupply the besieged communities of Gush Etzion. How their journey by night was fraught with danger, with enemy Arab villages lurking around every bend in the hills. And most famously of all, how the Jewish fighters encountered an elderly Arab shepherd, in some accounts two Arab women, and after deciding to spare his life, the shepherd roused the nearby villages and in the pitched battle that followed, the thirty-five fought to the very last man.

Rather than simply tell over the well known story, I sought to communicate why the Lamed Hey are so worth remembering. In doing so I was guided by two comments, one by Israel's founding father David Ben Gurion and another by a brother of one of the Lamed Hey. Following the death of the Lamed Hey in 1948, Ben Gurion commented "these men should not be remembered with stone monuments but in the true and ongoing will to be as much like them as possible." Sixty years later, the brother declared at a memorial event "it is hard to find signs any more of the kind of spirit those fighters had."

In looking for the spirit of the Lamed Hey, I found four guidelines. Tohar neshek, purity of arms, is undoubtedly the first of the four. Regardless of whether or not the Lamed Hey ever spared the life of an Arab shepherd (the entire episode is layered in myth), that is the story--and the value--Israeli schoolchildren learn and that the IDF has championed for over sixty years. Fighting to the very end, whether on a desperate battle in the hills of Gush Etzion or in any of the challenges soldiers face during their service, is the second lesson of the Lamed Hey. Arab accounts of the battle describe the Lamed Hey as fighting to the very last, stones in their hands long after using up the last of their ammunition. Another overlooked legacy of the Lamed Hey is that they did not allow diverse religious or political loyalties to besmirch their commitment to their people. Gush Etzion, then as now, was largely a religious community. The Lamed Hey were mostly left-wing and secular. Yet when the community was in danger, the Lamed Hey marched to their rescue. So too, and perhaps for me the most compelling legacy of the fallen fighters, is that the Lamed Hey consciously set aside their academic and professional lives to aid their brethren in distress. Not a man amongst the Lamed Hey was a professional soldier. Each had an alternative career. Most were students at the Hebrew University. Many, like the brilliant young botanist Tuvya Kushnir, had already achieved prominence in their chosen professions. And yet, once again, when their fellow Jews were in danger, when their community demanded their sacrifice, the Lamed Hey did not hesitate to volunteer.

Telling over the lessons of the Lamed Hey was easily my favorite moment yet of basic training. As difficult as it was to convey the full meaning of my remarks in Hebrew, I knew my fellow soldiers caught the gist of my message. The experience reminded me of what Alex Singer wrote, about questioning during basic training whether he should have gone into the education corp in light of his ability and desire to communicate certain values to his peers. Like Alex, I come to the same conclusion that the best place to educate is ultimately from within the ranks of the most demanding combat units.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherpas & Automatic Fire: The Shooting Range

“What is pain, sergeant!”
Smart-aleck response from one of my guys, after the sergeant asked him how his index finger felt following a drill that had us cocking our guns some 100 times as fast as possible, losing any skin on your finger that is not fully callused.

Much of my first month was spent on the shooting range, mastering the art of sending a bullet hurtling towards threatening cardboard cutouts at ever increasing range. Learning how to land five holes on a distant bulls-eye may sound like a fun bar game until you realize what a day of shooting means in the IDF.

For every bullet we fire, we spend thrice the amount of time setting up and breaking down the shooting range. It took me a good week of commanders ordering me to fall and play "wounded" until the realization sunk in that my role was punishment for allowing my gun to ride on my back during the frantic rush to set up the shooting range. The commanders were not impressed when I explained that years of carrying a saxophone on my back has left me with bad habits.

The real ordeal of shooting lies in the journey from base. Under the diktat of our officer's stopwatch, the iron pegs, cardboard targets, metal tables, mesh tents, endless ammunition and so much else is thrown on our backs and schlepped across the desert. Most days I am sure that the goal of our training is to ensure no Israeli will ever need hire a Sherpa on the post-army jaunts around Nepal.

My progress with the supposed goal of the training, becoming a cool-eyed marksman, has had no shortage of drama. Initially my aim was so poor, not to mention my sorry excuse for a shooting stance, that as punishment I had to receive extensive advice from our beautiful shooting instructor. Tough, right? The instruction must have helped because over the last month my shooting results have ranked near the top of the platoon. While the IDF has a few tips and tricks to improve soldiers' aim, my experience so far is that good shooting largely comes down to the intangibles, inner concentration more than maintaining the perfect posture we attempt to master in endless drills.

Minus the right concentration, hitting the target becomes the least of my worries. All my pretty shooting was for naught this week when my finger flipped the safety switch one click too far, past semi-automatic to the forbidden territory of automatic fire. Israeli soldiers are trained never to fire their rifles on automatic. The double boom from my gun shocked everyone. My officer was the first to recover, informing me as he suspended me from the rest of the day's drills that I am very lucky I had only two bullets in the magazine. The rest of the guy's soon turned the incident into another joke on my account, claiming I would now be arrested overseas for breaking international law (the various Geneva Conventions, in my defense, do not quite cover automatic fire!) and bequeathing the name "matzav sammy" to automatic fire.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hanukkah, Light & Honor

If Hanukkah is not the best loved of Jewish holidays (close second to Pesach, I would guess) then it certainly can claim having the most debated of origins. Is the Festival of Lights about religious observance, fundamentalist violence, Jewish self-determination, Chrismanukkah or simply a base human desire to light a flame during the dark winter months? Traveling down the length of the Nile a year ago impressed on me the mixed cultural messages of the holiday. This year my surroundings have left me with two other Hanukkah lessons.

The first lesson is one I shared with no one, a private message brought home by the dawn light spilling across the desert hills, the weathered tree on base whose leaves shone as gold with the setting sun, the ever enchanting shadows of light from the flickering Hanukkah candles. The beauty of reflected light is a lesson I did not need to wait to appreciate anew this Hanukkah in the army. Yet I did, in no small part to a wonderful book, A Soldier of the Great War, that takes the beauty of light and spins it into a grand tale of love, war and family.

The more public lesson came each night this week when I stood surrounded by dozens of tired young Jewish men, descendants of the Maccabees, dirty green uniforms glowing in the light of candles that struggled to stay lit in the desert wind. Songs were sung, bodies drew closer to protect the candles from the wind, and my thoughts turned to my Hanukkah in Cairo. How fitting that a year after I was unable to light my candles in public, a year after I celebrated the first night of Hanukkah by covering anti-Semitic grafitti on a Cairo wall with a giant Magen David and the words Am Yisrael Chai, a year after I punctuated my Cairo visit by traveling by bus to Jerusalem for the eighth night...

A year later and I stand in the uniform of the defense force of the Jewish state, surrounded by young men honoring the one holiday that recalls the necessity to draw arms in defense of Jewish sovereignty. On our final night of Hanukkah in the army, I briefly told the other soldiers about my experiences a year ago. And then I concluded by reminding them what an honor, what a zechut, we have to be commencing our service the very week of the festival of lights.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why They Call us Lonely Soldiers

During Sha'pash, the hour to shower and chill before lights out, most Israeli soldiers have time for a phone call or two to their parents, girlfriend or the like. Even the newest of immigrants probably knows someone he can call. Thanks to Garin Tzabar and my past experience and relatives in the country, I have whom to phone as well.

Or I should.

The reality is that after a long and draining day, there are few folks I want to call. This is not a comment on the remarkable people I know in Israel whom I am fortunate to call my friends and relatives. It is more a comment on myself, and my conviction that the person(s) I am looking to communicate with during these precious few minutes knows me on the level of a parent, sibling or best friend. And like every chayal boded, every lone soldier serving in the IDF far from his family and (most of his) friends, having those people to call is not to be.

From my own brief experience as a chayal boded, the toughest part of the army is not having those lifelines to reach out to and communicate the thoughts that run riot after a long day in the field. For me, this public journal is part of the solution, though I know that the real answer will come in time as I grow ever closer to my fellow soldiers and new community in Israel.

This blog as it happens, was created to be a public journal, a space where I could share even my most private frustrations and aspirations with attentive friends and family members. Military secrecy aside, I have quickly realized that this forum is not the best place to air my more private difficulties with army life, since if I have a problem with an officer or fellow soldier, courtesy demands that he find out about it from me rather than via a public source in a foreign language. So from here on out, please realize that if my experience in the IDF seems uniformly positive, part of the reason may well be that the more frustrating moments are being necessarily shelved rather than publicized online.

A Professional Approach: Week 2

The armed forces of every country can take almost any young male civilian and turn him into a soldier with all the right reflexes and attitudes in only a few weeks. Their recruits usually have no more than twenty years' experience of the world, most of it as children, while the armies have had all of history to practice and perfect their technique.
Gwynne Dyer, War

Professionalism, our officer preaches, must be our relentless goal. I returned for my second week as excited to return to the army as fulfill my officer's ambition. Waiting for me on Monday was the Bar-Or, the standard IDF physical fitness test that consists of push-ups, sit-ups and a 2k run. No one was more surprised than yours truly when I notched the top score on the test, maxing out on the push-ups (75, after which they tell you to stop) and sit-ups (85, same as previous) and running under seven minutes in the 2k.

The next test of the week was no easier. Following a lengthy series of classes on first aid, everyone sat for a written quiz and then was tested with a live demonstration of applying what we had learned. I doubt any of the soldiers had ever paid half as much attention to a teacher as they did to the medic who taught us the first aid course. The Hebrew was overwhelming for me at times but the instructor helped me decode the written test and I finished with a grade only a step behind my peers.

Everyone in my platoon had room to improve on the next challenge of the week, the army obstacle course that we were introduced to early one morning. The course consists of a dozen stages that must be jumped, climbed, crawled or balanced past--all this, no less, with gun, helmet and weighted vest. A onetime commando who has made quite a reputation for himself in politics, Ehud Barak, holds the course record. If I want to challenge his time I am going to have to master the rope climb and balance beam, two of the obstacles that have seen me fall flat on my face more than once.

Fitness and field knowledge like first aid are two of the three foundations for any infantry soldier. The third is shooting, and my officer is adamant that like any professional, we must thoroughly master everything that relates to a bullet hitting its target. I have never been into guns and cannot claim to find the science of ballistics overly fascinating. Yet I appreciate the wisdom of my officer's words and recognize that this is the profession I have chosen to make my own for the foreseeable future. Recognizing does not guarentee success, of course, and after one week my poor results did little except earn extra attention from the shooting instructor. The attention had its vicarious benefit as our instructor is beautiful, a Sarah Michelle Gellar with sniper training. Falling for one's shooting instructor is supposedly part of the IDF experience, though perhaps it is not what my officer had in mind when he instructed us to approach our training with the utmost professionalism.

Last summer I missed a chance to hang in Beijing with Ziggy Marley, one of the legendary reggae star's musical sons, when I passed on a jam session the reggae singer held during the Olympics. This week I missed Ziggy for the second time, when out of nowhere he showed up at our base to acknowledge a donation he made to the Nachal Brigade! My friends were working in the kitchen when Ziggy strolled up in a modified Nachal uniform, outfitted with a tag depicting a roaring Lion of Judah-and I would venture to guess, a marijuana leaf! What a rock-star! And to think, since Beijing one of his songs has been one of my go-to running tunes as I prepped for the IDF.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Gibush is Over: Selflessness Reigns in the Army

Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely. There is the science of the organization of armies in a nutshell.
Ardant du Picq, 19th century French military theorist

On my first day in the army my officer had everyone memorize the names of everyone's parents, siblings, girlfriend, home. The next day he added nicknames and fetishes to the list, adding that what appeared as a challenge now would seem laughable considering how well we would get to know each other over the course of our lengthy training.

The memorization games were a cute way of bringing home perhaps the most critical reality about army life and basic training: group responsibility is the cardinal virtue. As my officer said, "the gibush [tryout] is over. This is no longer about just you." Everything we do, save for technical training, is designed to teach us to work together and take responsibility for each other. It is a refreshing change of pace from the self-obsessed reality of the numerous tryouts I underwent to get to this point.


Another refreshing and entirely unexpected change in the army from prior tryouts is the ability to eat vegetarian. Save for the occasional meals that consist only of tuna-based field rations, a vegetarian option is nearly always available instead of the meat, chicken or fish served for lunch. I was prepared to forgo keeping a strict vegetarian diet as necessary in the army but my commander has insisted that I should not have any problem avoiding eating meat through training. I am prepared to take him at his word. Then again, this is the same officer who brought a plate overflowing with chicken cutlets to our table and said, "Five minutes, this plate is empty. Eat"

Jacob's Ladder: My First Masa

Haya masa, haya kef.
Had a masa, it was cool.
Sergeant's advice on how I should describe the masa to friends.

My very first masa, the long distance hikes with full gear that are the definitive benchmarks for training in the Israeli army, took place on just my second day. Perhaps my commanders thought it was a good chance to introduce us to the piles of old Vietnam War gear we don during the hikes. Whatever the reason, knowing that my training eventually will include a masa some hundred km long made me eagerly anticipate this four km introductory hike.

A brisk desert rain swept down in sudden spurts as we made a loop into the desolate wilderness outside the base. While the rain was a pleasant distraction, the masa was made unforgettable by the brilliant rainbow soaring from a distant dune straight to the heavens. In the Torah, the rainbow is the divine reminder "this too shall pass," that for all our troubles, tomorrow is on the horizon. The rainbow that broke through the rain of my first masa led my thoughts to a different biblical story. I thought of Jacob and his ladder, the incandescent pathway he perceived rising to the heavens at the start of his great journey into the unknown.

At the end of the masa, I raced up a final dune with my unit to receive red tags atop the shoulders of our green field uniforms Israeli soldiers, as an aside, receive two sets of uniforms, green hand-me down field uniforms only worn on base and dress uniforms only worn at ceremonies and on leave. The latter uniforms are tan or white for members of the air force and navy, blue for officers and green for the army. The red color tags I received from my commander identifies which battalion I am attached to in the Nahal Brigade. After our commanders placed a tag on each of our shoulders, the real ceremony began. Everyone formed a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder, and danced and sang to a silly chant that, our commanders confided, is a unit tradition.

Basic Training with the Nahal Brigade

You have been selected as a candidate for one of the most challenging military units in the world. But the unit only trains lohamim (combat soldiers). The next few months will take you from civilian to soldier, and finally, to a loham in Tzava Haganah L'Yisrael [IDF].
My sergeant (samal), on the first night in the army.

On Tuesday December 8 I started my new life as a member of the Israeli Air Force. That night I arrived in the drafty army base, in Israel's southern desert, to begin three months of basic infantry training. Because my unit serve as the reconnaissance force for the air force, our initial training takes place with Nahal, one of the IDF's five infantry brigades. Later we will move to our own base, where the brunt of our nearly two year long training—the longest in the IDF, save for pilot and submarine officers—takes place. And so for the duration of basic training, I am a member of the Nahal Brigade, Granite Battalion. Tay'sha, Shloshim-Shtayim!

Baby Days in the Army

Imagine if a newborn child, blessed with precocious literary ability, kept an online journal. Would it discuss when, what, and why it burped, nursed and napped? (And if it did, would anyone care to read such a record?) Or would the baby confide the tastes, smell and feel of his surroundings, the endless surprises and emotions he feels as he engages a new world?

The infant, of course, would share feelings rather than facts, senses in place of a census. It would be a journal of experiences that left him inspired or depressed, wanting to scream at the sun or harness his juvenile energy and race beyond the moon. And he would tell you of waking up for days on end at all hours of the night, because that is the life he knows.

For security reasons, I intended to argue that my own journalizing approach would mirror that of any newborn child. The funny bit is that after a week and change in the army, I actually feel like a newborn thrust into a very foreign world. A world timed to the second, every minute from five in the morning till eleven at night meticulously tracked by the stopwatch in my commander's hand. A life guided by the strange assortment of Vietnam War era gear that bursts out of the equally aged kit-bags that are of necessity closet, cupboard and clothing rack. A reality I have embraced eyes wide open, alternatively loving and despairing at the linguistic or pedantic demands that leave my mind whirling faster than ever even as it tries to stave off the crippling effect of limited sleep.

Perhaps my childlike like wonder and despair at army life is obvious to my peers. One of them does not let a day pass without looking at me with a grin and insisting, "ooooh, I looove you so much. You are just the cutest thing in the whole world."

Marriage or the Military: Exclusive Relationships

The year after I finish university, I once reassured my mother, I intend to be either married—or in the military! Little did I realize that marriage is perhaps the best metaphor to describe the exclusive relationship I have committed to in becoming a soldier. I am not referring to how this army business impacts my ongoing search for the right missus. That fascinating discussion will no doubt provide material enough for many future write-ups! Instead I refer to the tact I must and will henceforth maintain in not disclosing anything confidential about the Israeli military in this public journal. Much like a marriage, there will be much that transpires in my life as an Israeli soldier that I cannot confide outside of IDF circles.

I do not expect it will be easy at times to maintain such an exclusive relationship. Communication verifies reality, after all. It is the most treasured value I know and one that underlies my attachment to this very journal. And so limiting the full force of that value to a single partner—in this case, the IDF—will be a trying experience. Perhaps it will also be the dry run I need, however, to make a similar success of the other exclusive relationship I once spoke of to my mother that remains unrealized.

Bottom line: Do not expect to find anything in this space that shares confidential information about the IDF.

Bonus: On my very first night in the army, my commanding officer took the religious guys aside and assured us we would always receive the army regulated time for the three daily prayers. "No doubt many of your friends, far more than your secular peers in the unit, will be getting married over the course of training," he added with a sympathetic smile. "Well, don't expect you will be able to attend many of them." Secrecy, it seems, is not the only demand this exclusive relationship will be asking of me!

Friday, December 11, 2009

First Impressions

Stepping off the bus in Jerusalem in my tan uniform, powder granite beret tucked atop my shoulder, ending my first masa with a run through the desert rain and a dazzling rainbow, embracing a life governed by thirty second and two minute timed intervals, coming to terms with the dream that has become a reality...

After only two and a half days in the IDF, I am bursting with stories to share. Time, however, is not on my side and so the pen will necessarily be set aside for one more week. To be continued...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Two Decades till Tomorrow

Twenty-four years...

Jewish history tells of a modest man who lived in the hills of northern Israel. He was a shepherd and unlearned. Until inspired by love and the deceptive power of water to tunnel through stone, Akiva devoted himself to Torah study. He started late and yet the peaks he reached remain a legacy to his community centuries later.

Twenty-four years...

For two decades I have waited for the opportunity that awaits me tomorrow. The chance to serve and defend the Jewish people, vividly and completely...

I often hear doubts about why I am prepared to enlist at such an advanced age. Your commanders will be younger than you, they say. My peers will be immature eighteen year olds, I hear, with none of my educational and overseas experience.

I am very conscious of my age and the unusual path I have taken to arrive where I am today. Conscious-yet grateful. I am grateful for the journey that began in a land my teacher Rabbi Label Dulitz called the frozen fjords of Minnesota and has woven its way across the USA, looping through China, Ethiopia and back and forth across Europe and the Middle East before coming to rest, tomorrow morning, in an induction base outside of Tel Aviv.

I am also truly grateful for the support and encouragement from the one of a kind friends and family I have encountered along my journey. The courage I take into the road ahead is built on the encouragement you give me, the values you have impressed upon me and the stories we share that light the way.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

Who is more responsible than a bird who finds and follows meaning, a higher purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live – to learn, to discover, to be free!
~Jonathan Livingston Seagull

"We ran with sandbags, crawled with sandbags, even dug with weight on our shoulder...Three days straight!" I was listening to a friend describe the infamous tryout for the Golani Brigade's elite units when my phone buzzed with another call. The phone said "restricted," so I knew it was either my parents calling from overseas or the army calling from a concealed number. Apologizing for the interruption, I cut my friend off, switched lines and the following brief conversation (in translation) took place:
"Shalom, This is the Air Force calling. I want to tell you, first of all congratulations, that you made it into the unit"

"Wait, what unit?"

As the voice explained, I grabbed my friend's ankle, needing a reminder of anything tangible as my mind struggled to accept where I will be serving in the IDF. If the above picture and my previous allegory about the cat and the bird is still leaving you mystified, then contact me directly and we can dispense with the animal talk!

Or sing along with me...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cat in the Water: Pool Test for Search & Rescue Unit

After persevering through a week of pain with the ocean only a sand-dune away, the IDF granted me the chance to finally get into the water. "Consider this day six of Gibush Matkal," a grizzled veteran of the IDF's elite search and rescue unit instructed me and sixty other survivors of last week's grueling tryout. "Today decides whether you make it to Unit 669. Those who want it better give their all in and out of the water."

Candidates selected for Unit 669, the IDF's elite search and rescue unit, at the conclusion of Gibush Matkal must pass an additional one-day tryout in order to make the unit. Since 669 performs a similar function as the US Coast Guard's elite airborne rescue swimmers (ala The Guardian), the extra tryout is designed to check the water based capabilities of candidates. Contrary to expectations, the extra day involves a lot more than channeling your inner Michael Phelps. With only an hour of frantic physical drills in the water, most of the day consists of mental exercises familiar to any veteran of last week's tryout.

My group of twelve guys had little trouble building a rescue device (not that we ever succeeded in doing so in the impossible time limits assigned by our instructors) and speaking extemporaneously about a range of sociopolitical issues. I was really impressed, in fact, by one guy's sophisticated grasp of the Iranian nuclear crisis and by the arguments raised during a group debate about the merits of capital punishment. I was asked to speak about antisemitism, easy enough except for my disastrous attempts to pronounce the Hebrew term, antismi'oot! I was even worse at two knot-tying exercises, where an instructor would quickly show us how to tie a complicated knot and then see how fast we could do the same. In my case, how fast was not at all, though I was far from the only one without a knot after the exercise came to a blessed end. My interview with the unit psychologist was far more successful. Interviews are the one big advantage that older, foreign born soldiers like myself have in the army. We simply have so much more to speak about, and our sacrifice and hopefully interview skills put us in another league from most eighteen year old Israelis.

My group was the final one to get in the pool. Once we did, the action came fast and furious. The first exercise was the most complicated: As an instructor in full scuba gear watched, I was tasked with swimming a short distance to a weighted belt that lay on the bottom of the pool. The goal was to unlatch the belt and remove as many of the weights before my breath gave out and I returned to the surface with the belt and any weights I had succeeded in removing. I did not have a choice but to keep my eyes open underwater during the whole drill. The hardest part, harder even than unraveling the weights underwater, was ensuring I properly understood the Hebrew instructions. Before I dove in, the instructor asked if I knew what to do. "I sure hope so," I answered with a smile. Unraveling Hebrew instructions, I quickly learned, is much more critical when a drill takes place on your own and underwater rather than amid a crowd on a sand-dune.

Hebrew was also nearly my undoing on the next exercise. With three other guys, I was ordered in the water and told we would be swimming to the far side of the pool and back. So far, so good. But when the instructor barked out "Chazeh, GO!" I was left holding the wall, failing to translate chazeh as 'chest' and use breaststroke like the other guys. The next time around, the instructor looked my way and made a point of waving his arms to demonstrate that front-crawl would be used! Both laps were more akin to an all out sprint than the smooth grace I associate with Olympic swimmers. Although I swam faster than I ever have in my life, my inability to swim in a straight line without goggles left me bouncing off the lane markers during the frantic front-crawl lap.

After two straightforward exercises testing our ability to breathe with a snorkel and to clear the water out of a mask while underwater, one crazy drill remained. Everyone donned heavy rubber orange masks as the instructor explained we would be treading water in a circle, with our hands planted firmly on the shoulders of the guy ahead of us. While I like swimming laps, I am not quite Houdini at holding my breath and taking apart belts underwater. But put me in a group exercise with some random physical challenge and I am in my element. Keeping your head above the water while a pair of hands pull desperately at your shoulders is far messier than it sounds. One by one the guys in my group let go and went under until only half of us were left in the water. I almost let go in the middle, when a pair of thrashing legs opened the ghastly blister Gibush Matkal had bequeathed to my left heel. As legs continued to thrash the now open wound, I reminder myself that quitting was not an option and with a shout of "blood in the water" kept going till time was called.

Maybe the speedos were to blame. Or perhaps fault lies with the awesome guys in my squad, one of whom started rapping "go shawty, its yo birthday" when I was assigned number fifty at the start of the tryout. Or blame the very chill instructors who insisted we call them by their first names. Even the bus driver may have had a hand in making today's "pool tryout" far more relaxed than Gibush Matkal. Before we arrived at the right location in the morning, the bus driver stopped several times to ask members of Moshav Gderot how to get to the swimming pool.

Today was so relaxed, in fact, that it was challenging to take the instructor's opening words to heart and stay focused and give the same level of effort as at Gibush Matkal. Whenever I sensed my own attention drifting, however, I knew I merely had to look around for inspiration at the dozens of cats that, for reasons no one could explain, covered the grounds of the tryout, green orbs focused on the mere mortals that aspired to join their fraternity in Unit 669.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Cat and the Bird

"So you like fish, my friend?"

I was just polishing off a last serving of tuna at the final day of Gibush Matkal when I heard someone ask me about my fondness for fish. After subsisting on little save for canned tuna for the last week, I was in no rush to express my love for the species. So without looking up, I replied "Can't get enough of them. Even did a class project in ninth grade on the Humuhumunukunukuapua."

"The what?"

"The state fish of Hawaii," a second voice purred from the shadows. "The one whose name is longer than the fish. Or so they say. I just know it goes well with creamy coconut milk."

Funny, I thought to myself, I could have sworn that second voice came from the shadowy corner to my right. Except nobody was there save for a slim cat, its black fur all but camouflaged in the darkness save for a pair of emerald eyes.

"My friend, we were speaking of fish. Eating fish to be precise."

This time I looked up to find who was addressing me. No one was around though a colorful bird was fluttering in front of the horizon, its chest a brilliant amber, the wings two dazzling arcs of azure light.

Great, I thought, after not eating fish for five years, I break my vegetarian vows for one week and here I am imagining a bird and cat are taking me to task.

"This isn't a game" the cat purred once more, as it arched its back and bared a handful of sharp claws.

"And your imagination has nothing to do with it," added the fluttering bird.

"I have been observing you all week," the bird continued, "and I like what I see. Us birds know when someone has an eye for spearing fish, and we think you could be a king at it."

"Maybe," purred the cat, "Though perhaps your fish eating skills are best suited to my domain. Sometimes the most satisfactory bits of tuna are those we save from getting wasted, wouldn't you agree?"

A kingfisher to my right, a bewitching cat to my left, what can a poor boy do?

In case you missed the coded reference to the two units I am a candidate for following Gibush Matkal, please note the following wikipedia based information:
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) commando unit is known as Shaldag, Hebrew-speak for a pretty bird known as the kingfisher. The IAF airborne extraction unit is known as Unit 669 and their symbol is a black cat with green eyes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gibush Matkal: Sweat, Sand & Tears

If you are looking for the straight dope on Gibush Matkal, see the last part of this note. For the full story, read on!

Blinded by sweat and tears. Weighed down by a 20-kilo sandbag and two cement blocks that were supposed to be fancy sneakers. Faced with an insanely steep sand-dune some thirty meters high, little-to-zero traction in the meter deep sand. And looming at the crest of the dune is a most intimidating figure straight out of Hollywood lore, with the disheveled mug of Eastwood and the glare and attitude of Bardem's baddie in No Country for Old Men. His eyes bear down on me as I desperately try to ascend the dune, once, twice, fifteen heaven-help-me times, my calves having long since given up, the rest of my body begging to do the same.

In the pale evening glare south of Ashdod, the thirty odd minutes I spent trudging up and down the steepest sand-dune on Netzanim beach was as bad as it got, the peak of pain and punishment during Gibush Matkal, my week-long tryout for three of the most selective units in the IDF. Or maybe the toughest moment was repeating the same exact crippling exercise only ten minutes after the first go around!

To be fair, there were no shortage of insufferable moments during the gibush. Waking up to a siren and the predawn chill of a four AM morning; throwing on a cold and sweaty uniform during the mad dash to grab the cake and hot tea offered for breakfast; questioning why I am even here as I again fail to grab the morning miracle tea; grasping at straws with my all too limited grasp of Hebrew ("wait, what are we supposed to be doing" I soon got down pat!); sitting around for hours on the final day, staving off hunger and waiting for the results; overhearing another guy confess that he is afraid to emerge from his tent in the morning knowing he will have to confront our intimidating instructor--when the IDF preaches that combat soldiers need to develop retzach bi'anigh [murder in your eye], this grizzled Matkal veteran is no doubt whom they have in mind!

Darkness only descends with an appreciation of light, of course, and so the tough streches were well balanced with moments of empowering beauty. Witnessing the rise and retreat of the sun three days in a row inspired me every time I turned heavenward. Meals were another pleasure, despite and perhaps even because we ate nothing but chocolate sandwiches and manot krav (field rations) all week. Manot krav came in cans and consisted of tuna, olives, corn, grape leaves, diced pineapples, halva and a loaf of bread. The guys in my group were nonplussed when I dramatically announced at our first dinner that I would be eating fish for the first time in five years. By the end of the week, having eaten tuna with every condiment available (mustard tuna, ketchup tuna, coffee tuna, chocolate tuna and, yes, sand tuna!), I was very ready to return to my vegetarian ways.

I also found inspiration, or at least a reason to smile, in some of the drills. The one drill I can honestly say I enjoyed was our masa, an hour long jog with jerrycans and weighted stretchers up and around steep sand-dunes. Struggling up the sandy hills as a team, with guys grabbing the hands of those under the stretcher and all of us pulling as one, imbued me with the same surge of inexhaustible energy I have dancing at weddings. Crawling drills were nowhere near as enjoyable. But my uncanny ability at crawling longer and faster than anybody else never ceased to amaze everyone, myself included.

The best part of all the thankless drills is that they reinforced the necessity of always giving my all. Easy advice during an all out sprint. Harder to follow when digging a trench, with my rifle slapping the side of my head and few incentives not to take a rest. My digging impressed at least one guy, who told me after our last trench exercise that I must have worked as an undertaker because he had never seen someone dig with such determination! I have my imagination to thank for my digging ability. After our instructor mentioned in passing that we should keep digging till we reach China, my memories turned to a ditch in western China where I helped Chinese peasants rebuild their homes after the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. During another trench drill, I imagined I was digging for buried treasure, with screeching parrots, one-legged pirates and a three masted schooner beached on the nearby coast.

The guys with me were easily my main source of strength. Religious and secular. Black, white and every shade in between. No doubt the Israelis at the gibush are some of the most motivated, intelligent and physically fit nineteen year old guys in the country. Witnessing their dedication over five intense days not only inspired me. It also left me--and can leave you--assured that with such youth, Israel's future is assured. (The irony is that as a result of my age and background, I was a source of conversation and even admiration for the other guys. "You are my favorite person in this whole country," one guy even told me towards the end of the gibush!)

How did I do? Over 400 guys began the gibush. Close to 250 were left on Thursday evening, when they read the names of the 70 guys getting invites to Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag and Unit 669. Matkal is the top draw and of the eight guys from Garin Tzabar who finished the gibush, three got into Matkal! Twenty guys went to Matkal altogether, with ten more in Shaldag, thirty for Unit 669 and the remaining twenty split between the waiting lists for either Matkal or Shaldag. And me? Check a future update and what can be shared, will be.

The Straight Dope -- Advice Below!

Some of you would no doubt like to know what happens at the gibush, the schedule, the drills, etc. Read on, with the caveat that Gibush Matkal does tend to change some every year so this report is by no means conclusive!

The gibush is really two separate day-and-a-half-long tryouts, with some eighty guys getting sent home in the middle and the remaining folks forming new squads for the second half. In the morning and evening, probably four to nine AM and PM, all the drills take place. The rest of the time it is too hot to drill so depending on the day, ten AM through three PM is filled with a range of non-physical misimot (literally 'missions,' yet at the gibush just the name for non-physical drills). When the evening drills wrap up, there is time for dinner (and a discreet shower!) and everyone is put to sleep by squads in hastily assembled two-man tents.

After arriving at the Netzanim army base on Sunday morning, hours are spent doling out uniforms, M16s and a kit-bag full of decommissioned Vietnam era US Army goods-- canteens, vests, pegs and tent flaps to build half a two-man tent. Those who knew how to assemble the vests quickly got themselves set-up. Those who had no idea, like myself, flapped around a bit and eventually were all suited up. We ate, we waited and by three o'clock we were separated into the twenty-man squads we would be with for the next two days.

Sunday night was the first four hour drill session. Monday brought two more. And the final one with my first squadron (tzevet 16, kavod!) came on Tuesday morning. The rest of Tuesday was a wash. After each guy in my squad completed a sociometry, a form where we rank each other, I sat for an interview with my squad's six instructors and then spent hours waiting to be assigned to a new squad and begin the second half of the gibush.

My goal during the first two days was not to be sent home on Tuesday. Since only five guys are dropped from each squad, my goal was easily achieved and suddenly I was with fifteen new guys, with eight news instructors (including the scary dude) ready to make our final day at the gibush harder than ever. The drills on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning and evening were indeed harder and longer. With the slackers having been sent home on Tuesday, the instructors had us race up much steeper sand-dunes, repeating only the hardest drills we faced at the start of the gibush. Late Wednesday night, after the hardest drill session yet, came a sociometry and interview for my second squad and just like that, the tryout was essentially over. Thursday was devoted to cleaning up the base and then waiting around for six hours to hear results and get bused back to Ashdod.

No two squads did exactly the same drills, since exactly what we did was based on the whim of our particular instructors. That said, everyone did something like the following: sprints, with or without a hill, where instructors would point to some bush or object and say "there and back, line up in order of finishing- Go!"; stretcher sprints where everyone races twice around the path, with the first guys back from the first time around shouldering a stretcher or jerrycan for the second go around; sandbag circuits, circling a path as many times as possible with a heavy sandbag on your shoulders; crawling on all fours, butt down!; digging trenches, a meter long and wide; and a mixture of all of the above, including one gem of a drill where we crawled up and down a steep sand-dune, filled a sandbag and then ran the bag up a hill and emptied the sand in an ever growing row--the goal, of course, to have the most piles of sand at the top of the hill by the end of the exercise.

Some squads were tested on pull-up bars, where the goal was to be the last one to hold on. The strangest physical drills were the fights. The instructors scratched a circle into the sand, told everyone to be careful and not try any fancy judo moves and then said the winner would be the last guy standing in the circle. Sumo wrestling, in short. A variation had everyone stuff an empty sandbag in the back of their pants and, while staying in the circle, try to grab as many bags while preventing anyone from grabbing their own. Kind of like flag football except...flag wrestling? Next comes turkey fighting, same as above except now you must stand on one leg and keep your arms on your chest. No points for squawking like a chicken--wouldn't want to look sissy, right?

Many instructors threw a few geography type trivia questions ("what is the capital of Bangladesh?") at their guys over the course of the physical drills. We also were given articles everyday, covering political or social issues, and hours later would be asked to provide a verbal summary. Another common exercise was asking us to respond, privately and then in a group discussion, to a fictional mission that had gone awry ("a mission to rescue a downed pilot in enemy territory met with resistance, one pilot is missing, one injured and several members of the rescue team are wounded as well...what do you do?"). In the midst of sprints my squad was once stopped and asked to choose three topics and then speak briefly about one of them before the group. Another time we were instructed to individually design a machine of our choosing with the garbage we find in the area (I used bits of string, a candy wrapper and my gun to create a "self-hunting device"). Most squads were asked to sketch a map, of the base or Israel or, in my case, of the Middle East. And then there is the infamous drill where the instructors first demonstrate how to break apart a weapon--usually an Uzi, M16 or AK-47--and then time how quickly we can do so.

Then there are the more complex "team challenges." Many of these involve a log that has to be moved or avoided with various restrictions. Once we were split into two teams, given a limited amount of time and told we needed to get everyone plus a weighted stretcher to the opposite side of a log without walking over or touching the wood. Clearly we had to dig a trench under the log. The tricky part was that whenever anyone touched the log, everyone had to run a punishment sprint and then the exercise would start again from scratch. Plus only one person, chosen by the instructors, was allowed to speak. Another log exercise asked us to use the log as a bridge and get all the guys across an imaginary minefield to some cement blocks ten meters distance. Later we were given a box of random construction equipment--a massive drill, some ropes, planks and some wheels--and told we had to use the stuff to move a log across a nearby dune.

The log exercises were tricky. But the most demanding challenge came late one night when we were told to drag the materials for a massive tent across the base and then set it up. The only thing we did right was avoid smashing anyone with the cumbersome metal poles we dragged around while aimlessly trying to figure out how to set the damn tent up. In the second half of the gibush, my squad even repeated a drill we had all seen earlier. Despite our experience, no one succeeded the second time around in figuring out how to move the entire squad plus a heavy stretcher under a metal frame without touching the frame or, in the case of the stretcher, even the ground.

No one ever completes any of these challenges--the time limitations make it impossible even if one of the guys knows exactly what to do. The point of the exercises is for the instructors to see how you respond to the challenge. Who in the group makes a novel suggestion, who demonstrates leadership, who acts like an ass, etc.

Now for some ADVICE, first mental then practical.

Instructors, from my limited experience, are looking for two things at any gibush: consistent excellence in the physical drills and, in everything, an air of professionalism. That means never getting disappointed, keeping success and failures in perspective and, as soon as a sprint or drill concludes, immediately prepping your mind and body for the next challenge.

During most drills it is impossible to think about anything beyond "keep moving forward." But there are times when it pays to sharpen your focus, be it via imagining one legged pirates or your loved ones cheering you on from the top of the nearest sand-dune.
There are not many times to demonstrate intelligence and creativity. So when they come, by all means grab 'em! If asked to draw a map, add some character. When told that your trench is being attached by rocket fire, add a small fire circle around the trench and explain your reasoning to the instructors. And during an interview, look everyone in the eye, control the conversation and remember that the same tips you use in a job or grad school interview work here as well.
Finally, give your maximum, all the time. Unless the instructors say the first run of the morning is a light run, assume that everything--whether they write it down or not--is being observed and will count toward the impression you leave with them. For the same reason, do not make a habit of grabbing the lightest group equipment when the squad moves around. While the instructors do not always seem to care, they do notice someone who always shoulders something heavy like a jerrycan.

If you can wear shoes that do not flood with sand the second they plunge across a sanddune, then go for it. Nearly everyone wears standard running shoes, few of which do a good job preventing the cement-block like pain that comes from moving in a shoe full of sand.
The more hill-work you can work into your training, the better. And the sandier and steeper those hills are, the more prepared you will be--physically and mentally--for what is waiting at the gibush. Endurance is nice but the capability to sprint up a sandy dune separates the good from the best.
Stretch whenever you can during the gibush. Every break! Before you go to sleep and as soon as you wake up. Beyond the obvious physical help, stretching assists you mentally, keeping you focused even during the breaks from physical activity.
At the start of a sandbag circuit, instructors always say that taking a break to rest or for water is fine. No it is not! Never stop! Ever!
There are few secrets to crawling. Most people burst out quickly and then slow down to snail pace. So the obvious advice is to not slow down. Stick to your pace and on a long crawl you will likely overtake everyone. That said, it is critical to burst out in the beginning because getting stuck behind someone makes it hard to pass them on a narrow path and can lead to their legs or gun accidentally smacking you as you try and pass them.
If given a chance to improve your position in a race/exercise, i.e. the instructors may ask who thinks they can do better in the exercise, always volunteer unless circumstance makes it nearly impossible to keep or improve your position. And even then, consider volunteering. The instructors want to see people who believe in themselves.
The shovels are about half a meter long, a good metric for ensuring your trench is the right size.
Bring a knife, electric tape, linkers, flashlight, socks, underwear, warm clothes to sleep-in, and snack food. All of these items will stay in your pack/tent the whole day so you need not worry about having to drag them around. There is some rule against eating private food. But if the morning cake does not do it for you and a CliffBar is close to hand? Choose wisely and good luck!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Week to Come: Gibush Cometh!

I did not make aliyah or enlist in the IDF only to be where I am today, preparing for the morrow and the start of a six day tryout like none other, the result of which will determine where I will serve as a soldier in the Israeli Army.

But Hineini, as my garin is named, "Here I am and I am ready!"

I plan on bringing everything, all the ideas and energy and focus I know from Hopkins and China and Torah and travels and family and weddings and friendship...Now is the time.

Wish me luck and maybe say a prayer...for the other guys!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jewish and Dark

I was walking around Haifa one day when first an old Ethiopian, and later two more Falasha, called out to me in Amharic. Each time I shook my head no, trying to let them know only English and Hebrew work for me. They thought I was ignoring them and were not happy. When another black guy came my way later, I figured I would head off the problem and called out, wuz happenin'. With a smile and a shout, the guy told me how happy he was to see another Black American. "You wouldn't believe," he confided, "how many Ethiopians have mistaken me for one of them today in Haifa!"

Imagine if Malcolm X had journeyed to Jerusalem as a Jew rather than embrace Islam and the Haj. Or picture Zab Judah without the cartoon Hebrew militancy, Obama's Rabbi without the racist Khazar mythology, or Sammy Davis Jr., glass eye and all. Now throw all those newsreel ideas of Black Jews out the window and get ready for a fascinating true life story, the biography of a modest kibbutznik of Tirat Zvi.

Years before he made aliyah and settled in Tirat Zvi, one of the kibbutz members was born to an unusual African-American family in New York City. The Hebrew Bible had cast such a spell on the young boy's father and grandfather that the two adults had taught themselves to speak in the biblical tongue. Rather than join an isolated black congregations like the Hebrew Israelites, which embrace a Judaism colored by the idea that blacks were the original Hebrews, the adults sought to introduce their son to authentic Judaism. With the okay of the local yeshiva, the future kibbutznik was sent off to cheder in the Bronx. With a Talmud in hand and tzitzit dangling from his shirt, it was not long before the growing boy fully embraced his Jewish identity.

Others were less quick to accept the skinny black kid as Jewish. Black street gangs called him as a traitor. Jewish parents were hesitant to allow their children, and later their daughters, hang out with him. Disbelieving Jews would often ask him to say the word Chanuka, sure that his foreignness would be revealed when he failed to correctly pronounce the Ch sound.

When Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik found out about this black, Bible-loving family, he was incensed that they had masqueraded as Jews for so long without undergoing conversion. It took weeks of persuasion before the Rav would agree to allow them to convert. When the conversion papers were drawn up, the Rav insisted that three of his most respected disciples, Rabbis Norman Lamm, Shlomo Riskin and Aharon Lichtenstein, add their signatures. With those names attesting to my Jewish credentials, the kibbutznik remarked with a smile, I'm probably more Jewish than anyone else!

The most beautiful moments of the kibbutznik's story came near the end, shortly before he showed us a film he made years ago when his father visited Tirat Zvi for the bar mitzvah of his eldest grandson. After struggling with his Jewish and black identities for years, the son had come to terms with both on a visit to Israel shortly before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Years before dark skinned Jews would become a common sight in Israel due to the arrival of the Jews of Ethiopia, the son found that in Israel his skin color did not prejudice his relationship with the Jewish community. And so he stayed, married a girl on kibbutz and has never left.

Despite settling into life on kibbutz, the son remained troubled for years wondering where his family's embrace of Judaism came from. Jewish tradition teaches that all Jews share a pintele yid, a small speck of Jewishness in our soul, no matter who we are or where we came from. Where, he would wonder, did his pintele yid come from? Eventually he found solace in memories of his childhood, in the remarkable grace and charity his grandmother had displayed in providing hospitality to even the shadiest of drifters. Jewish tradition also teaches that so long as we treasure the characteristics of our forefathers, their merit will protect us. And nothing speaks to the legacy of Avraham like unbounded hospitality. Magen Avraham, Shield of Avraham, indeed.

This most ordinary of kibbutzniks left my garin with the reminder that most Jews see their religious faith as a responsibility, a chova. Thanks to his family background, his Judaism is very different, not a responsibility but a zechut, a privilege, he feels grateful to be a part of.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Very Best of Garin Tzabar: Finding our Haystack

My very favorite day with my garin began and ended atop Miz'pe Ma'tanya, the lonely spur standing sentry outside the gates of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. At dawn we ran sprints, five guys chasing each other up and down the sandy slopes. A silver dollar in the inky sky was our only illumination hours later, when my garin returned to the hilltop to roast marshmallows, sing songs and celebrate the birthday of one of our own. A sprint and some songs are, of course, only bookends. It is the stories, and this time even the storyteller, that made today so wondrous.

A graveyard played host to my meeting with the storyteller. Framed by row upon row of hundred year old tombstones, with the first chill wind and rain of the season adding to the ominous surroundings, the storyteller proceeded to unravel a tapestry of tales about the people he calls "the founding fathers and mothers of the Jewish state," the young Zionist pioneers (chalutzim) who lived nearby and are today buried along the banks of the Sea of Galilee, in Kineret Cemetery. These chalutzim, the storyteller fervently explained, did not come to the land with realistic expectations. Instead they clung to their dreams and, in doing so, reshaped reality. The will of their generation is captured in the words a contemporary named David Grun wrote in his diary. Years before he changed his last name to Ben-Gurion, young David wrote "I have come to this country to transform the landscape and by doing so I will transform my soul."

The storyteller told us many more tales. He describe the malaria and heat that drove many early Zionists to the edge of madness, leading even a dedicated activist like the future Ben-Gurion to bemoan "this cursed land." He showed us the all too human lives of an early Zionist leader like Berl Katznelson, whose untold dedication to his tomato plants was only exceeded by a truly bizarre love triangle with his wife and her best friend. He sang the songs and shared the tragic life of Rachel, the poetess of the pioneers whose longing for the land and her unfulfilled aspirations are reflected so well in her poem, V'Ulai (And Perhaps):

And perhaps, none of this ever really happened?
And perhaps, I've never woke up with the break of dawn,
and went out to the field,
and never have I broke a sweat working the land?

And maybe never, on long, burning days,
Long, burning hot days of harvest,
Never have I found myself singing
from the top of a wagon loaded with sheaves?

Never have I rinsed myself
in the ever-peaceful and innocent blue
of my Kineret..?
Oh, my Kineret..
Were you real, or was I only dreaming?

The storyteller added a final tale, one whose macabre nature was so out of place by the pure waters of the Kineret that nature itself chased us back to our bus with a bitter wind and rain. Only a few years ago, so the story goes, a similar wind ripped away some bushes to reveal a mysterious gravestone near the center of the Kineret Cemetery.

While the inscription on the stone claimed the grave as the final resting place of a farmer named Nathan whom had taken his own life (an all too common occurrence during those trying early years), the sinister decorations of a devil, sword and pentagrams lead scholars like our storyteller to suspect that Nathan was in fact slaughtered by his devil-worshiping friend. Kibbutz records recount how in the first decade of the twentieth century, a cult of devil worshipers were thrown out of the commune. Rejected by their Zionist peers, the cult moved to the nearby hills. Their fate, like the disturbing gravestone discovered at the heart of the Kineret Cemetery, remains a mystery.

The identity of our storyteller may have remained a mystery as well were it not for the passion in his words that reminded me of another storyteller from my past. Five years ago, an utterly unremarkable looking man visited the sleep-away camp where I was working for the summer. When he left a few days later, the utterly remarkable stories he shared had adopted a vivid place in my memory that would never be relinquished.

Both stories were intensely personal. One described a chance encounter between a wizened David Ben Gurion and the storyteller. All of age fourteen and only weeks removed from moving to Israel with his family, the storyteller was confronted by the sheer personality of Israel's founding father. The meeting changed him forever, erasing his misgivings on moving to a new land and setting him off on his future career as a historian of early Zionism.

A decade later, the storyteller's life was changed once again when he found himself leading three hundred Ethiopian children through the deserts of Sudan. Threatened by wild animals, Sudanese mercenaries and a deadly concoction of hunger, exhaustion and fear, the children's exodus to Israel nearly ground to a halt one night in the deserts of Sudan. After instructing the older boys to carry their younger peers, the storyteller asked everyone to look upon the moon and take strength that this same moon was shining over Jerusalem and that its light would guide them home. Operation Moses would indeed rescue some eight thousand Ethiopians Jews from the famines of East Africa to the promised land of Israel. It makes for a thrilling and moving story, in no small part due to the storyteller's first-hand experience and fervent eloquence.

When I heard the same fervor in the voice of today's cemetery guide, I knew without a doubt that the teller of stories from my past and present were one and the same. Joel Goldman, as the storyteller is called, turns out to be an activist and scholar, working within the Ethiopian community and researching the diaries and records of the early Zionist pioneers. He left us with a final message, charging each of us to find that thing in life that makes "you jump off your haystack in the morning," to tackle your dreams with the same daily enthusiasm the chalutzim displayed despite the nearly overwhelming struggle they encountered in realizing their dreams.

After leaving Joel it would have been easy to call the rest of the day a wash. The rain was unrelenting and the communities around the Kineret offer little in the way of indoor distractions. Or so I falsely presumed. A divine chocolate factory in Deganiah, and a few scoops of some of the best ice-creams this normally chocolate averse sucker has ever tasted, assured the day would only continue to shine.

Within an hour the sun had retaken control of the heavens and we were overlooking the Kineret from the heights of the Galil. Back in 1867, Mark Twain capped his scathing review of the lake area with the words "No ingenuity could make such a picture beautiful to one's actual vision." No doubt, were he alive today, the author of Innocents Abroad would have something very different to say about the view and the ingenuity that created the modern neighborhood. Aside from the sinking water line, today's Kineret is truly a shimmering harp amid the bronzed and burnished heights and the green communities along its banks.

After a last supper of sorts at a splashy restaurant in Tiberias (the supper marks our last time, shabbat excluded, we will all be together before the army), the bus trundled home. A few miles from the kibbutz I slipped off to Maoz Hayim to visit the family of my friend who had fallen in the last war in Lebanon.

I arrived as the youth of the community were honoring the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. While the former Prime Minister lived a life far richer and more heroic than any Leon Uris protagonist, Israelis mainly use the day of his assassination to dwell on the dangers of internal divisions and political extremism. Disunity and misplaced passion have led to human ruin since Cain first struck down his brother Abel. All of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, can be fairly read as nothing more than a Divine search for a community that will not repeat Cain's sin. And although Joseph is the one who ultimately ends the Divine search, Yitzhak is clearly the biblical figure--evident via his camaraderie with his brother Ishmael and his desire to see both his sons, Esav and Yakov, succeed him--who most identifies with the Divine desire for brotherhood. Perhaps another lesson to consider amid the legacy of Rabin's tragic death.

The day ended as it had begun. Atop the lonely hilltop that stands guard over my home of Tirat Zvi. In bygone days the hill was known by a bevy of names. Today Miz'pe Ma'tanya is named for a twenty-one year old who gave his life for his country in 2002. Twenty years earlier, Ma'tanya Robinson's parents had made aliyah, believing that in Israel they would find that which would make them want to "jump off their haystacks every morning." I cannot say whether they found it. All I know is that as my garin sat atop Miz'pe Ma'tanya, roasting s'mores and conversing in the shadows of the birthday boy's favorite hip-hop tunes, I was ready, come every morning from tomorrow to eternity, to jump up and out and tackle this hill with my guys by my side.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tiyul HaGiyus in the Golan

On Tuesday afternoon I visited Kuneitra for a second time this summer. On my first visit I stood amid the destroyed town, in Syrian territory, and with my heart and eyes trained on Israel I was torn at my inability to communicate my true feelings to those around me. This time Kuneitra is only a vision from a hilltop bunker in the Golan Heights, a hundred yards and a thousand negotiations from Syrian territory.

As I stood on the heights of Har Bental, alongside a coffee shop wittily named after the former UN secretary-general (Kofi Annan in Hebrew literally translates to coffee in the clouds!), I again felt torn. The ruins of Kuneitra reminded me of the personality I adopted while I was in Syria. Forced to conceal my faith and attachment to Israel, my withdrawn personality compensated by becoming incredibly sensitive to my surroundings. Sustaining that level of perception was one of the most rewarding experiences I had in Syria. And so while I am grateful to now be in Israel, where I can (and do!) express myself without fear, I do miss that sixth sense.

Seeing Kuneitra was only one of many highlights as my garin toured the Golan Heights this week. While every other group in Garin Tzabar had traveled to Eilat for the three day trip marking the end of pre-army life ( known as the tiyul giyus), Garin Hineini chose the Golan! We enjoyed brilliant views, water hikes in nachal (stream or riverbed) Zevytan and nachal El-Al, tours of a winery and apple factory and a wonderful guide named Dikla.

On Wednesday the rest of Garin Tzabar joined us in the Golan for a program called B'Akavot Lochamim (literally, "on the heels of the warriors"). The program is designed to introduce and get Israeli high school students excited about their mandatory army service. A tank demonstration (cover your ears!) and an "army job fair" (been there, done that) did not impress.

A morning address by Avigdor Kahalani, however, was inspiring. Kahalani spoke to us in the Valley of Tears, the battleground from the 1973 Yom Kippur War where he led a ragtag group of tankers in an epic battle against the invading Syrian army. Some 150 Israeli tanks held off over 1,400 Syrian tanks during the first three days of the war, turning back the invasion. Awarded the Medal of Valor for his courage and leadership, Kahalani was described by his commanding officer as the "true savior of the people of Israel."

"I am ready to return to my tank if Israel is threatened," Kahalani told us, "but my time is past. The responsibility, the security, of our country is now in your hands."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Shimon Peres & Idan Raichel in Jerusalem

Binyanei Ha'Uma, the main convention center in Jerusalem, gave me two very different chances in the last week to be inspired by the creativity and diversity of the Jewish world. Round one came via the President's Conference, the second annual international shindig organized by Shimon Peres to get Jewish leaders and innovators discussing future challenges. Three days later, on Sunday October 18, I was back in town for an Idan Rachel concert sponsored by MASA, the umbrella organization for most gap-year programs in Israel. A double dose of soul and spirit. Hold on and here we go.

"I have learned that out of the greatest crises fascinating opportunities can emerge," Shimon Peres declared at the start of the Presidential Conference. "As we gather again to discuss the tomorrow, we must endeavor to turn this hour of crisis into new beginnings." I have been to enough splashy conferences to be wary of grand opening statements, especially when they are voiced by a politician as weathered as Peres. Nevertheless, the presence of so many innovators and activists at the Presidential Conference made for a dazzling mental delight. Speakers such as Frank Gehry, Michael Walzer, Raymond Kurzweil and Jimmy Wales (plus Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?!) joined local figures like Stanley Fischer, Israel Aumann , Shai Aggasi and Erel Margalit to share incisive insight on a vast range of issues. Topics covered included geopolitical crises in the Middle East, the global economy and the environment, plus hip issues like artificial intelligence, the new media and Jewish peoplehood.

I only arrived for the last day of the conference, after having met a friend at a Jerusalem mixer the night before who provided me with his ID badge so I could attend in his place. Upon arriving I discovered that everyone at the conference was carrying a small card with my friend's name, picture and life story, courtesy of a Jewish Agency promotional campaign featuring my friend. Despite the fact that at any time anyone could have glanced at the ID badge I wore around my neck and immediately realize I was pretending to be someone else, no one bothered me.

The best panel I attended was entitled Israel as a Global Hub. Key figures from some of Israel's most dynamic sectors-- high-tech, digital animation, water, alternative energy and military design--discussed Israel's entrepreneurial success in the nineties and where this success could continue in the future. While high-tech innovations and the aliya of Soviet Jewry famously energized Israel's economy in the nineties, few folks appreciate the decisive role that Israel's security dilemma has played in fostering the state's entrepreneurial spirit. To withstand the isolation and threat of Arab neighbors, Israel has developed a flourishing weapons industry and poured a higher proportion of resources into R&D than any country in the world. Skills and resources developed for security purposes have proven highly transferable in the knowledge and design based economy that emerged in recent years. The panelists touched upon a related idea fleshed out in Start-Up Nation, a new book by Saul Singer and Dan Senor that describes how Israel's adversity-driven culture is responsible for the state's incredible record of entrepreneurial innovation. As Singer and Senor explain (also worth viewing is this interview with Senor on CNBC),

It was natural for Israelis to embrace the Internet, software, computer, and telecommunications arenas. In these industries, borders, distances, and shipping costs are practically irrelevant. As Israeli venture capitalist Orna Berry, formerly the government's chief scientist, told us, "High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us fend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies." Because Israel was forced to export to faraway markets, Israeli entrepreneurs developed an aversion to large, readily identifiable manufactured goods with high shipping costs, and an attraction to small, anonymous components and software. This, in turn, positioned Israel perfectly for the global turn toward knowledge- and innovation-based economies, a trend that continues today.

The most powerful moment of the conference, for me at any rate, came later in the day when a speaker bared his soul to a crowded auditorium. The fact that I was likely the only one in the audience who appreciated the drama did little to detract from its emotional resonance. The grand moment came when Chinese Professor Fu Youde, sitting on a panel alongside leading educators from Israel and the United States, spoke in halting English about his desire to see the Chinese learn from the Jewish community and rekindle "their Chinese souls, a sense of cultural and spiritual Chineseness." Professor Fu is the most influential scholar of Jewish Studies in China, where his approach of applying lessons from the Jewish tradition to contemporary China is unique among the Chinese scholars pressing for a re-adoption of traditional Chinese (generally, Confucian) culture in contemporary society. We first met this summer at the Israel Studies Seminar I attended in Beijing. As wonderful as it was to see him share his unique ambition with a Jewish audience, the true pleasure was being reminded about the key roles that traditional culture and spirituality can and need to play in strengthening a community.

All talk no action is how a friend of mine on kibbutz described the conference I attended in Jerusalem. Maybe he is right. In any case, I appreciate Shimon Peres for providing me with the opportunity to re-engage my intellect and the geopolitical challenges of tomorrow. Attending the President Conference was a dramatic change of pace from kibbutz (and no doubt, army) life. While I have zero regrets about my current endeavor, it was great to rekindle that Washington feeling of getting dressed up, suffering through rounds of cocktail chatter, and feeling stirred by the occasional compelling idea to emerge from panels that, in all honesty, can at times become a pointless exercise in chatter.

Three days later I was back in the same Jerusalem convention center as Idan Raichel and company entertained hundreds of MASA participants with electric mix of Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, Spanish and African tunes. The band leader put it best when he said that his group's eclectic diversity represents the multicultural Israeli street. The Idan Raichel Project includes some seventy contributing artists and so concert goers can never be sure who will perform. In addition to the four lead singers I first saw on stage this past May in Washington, the concert tonight featured two ladies from Peru and Rwanda, both of whom sang songs in their native tongue linking Israel with their birthplace.

Idan and the beautiful lead Ethiopian songstress added to the moment by speaking movingly about their own family journeys to Israel. I closed my eyes, waved my hands and let my soul take wing for the second time in the halls of Binyanei Ha'Uma.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chinese in the Valley: From Kaifeng to Sde Eliyahu

Moments before Shabbat I call my parents to wish them Shabbat Shalom. "Have you heard?" my mother asked. "A group of Jewish Chinese made aliyah to Israel this Tuesday. The newspaper article says they will be living on a religious kibbutz in the north for several months. Maybe they are in your area?"

Fast-forward to shabbat afternoon and I am chatting with the first group of Chinese Jews to move to the land of Israel. The new olim are living and studying Hebrew in Sde Eliyahu, the kibbutz just down road from my own home of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. I spoke Chinese, they tried Hebrew and some English, and together we agreed to keep in touch and help each other out in the weeks and months to come.

Wait...there are Jews in China? Putting aside the expat crowd that has arrived in recent years, the only Jews in China are the assimilated remnant of a community based in the city of Kaifeng. They arrived to the one-time capital of imperial China as traders along the Silk Road a thousand years ago. Intermarriage and Chinese culture eventually proved too daunting and the community largely disappeared. A fortuitous meeting with a Jesuit priest in Beijing in 1605 brought some limelight and a generation of Jewish Sinologists have turned up the heat. Today the community is limping back into the Jewish world, though until now I had no first hand experience of what it is like to spend shabbat with the Jews of Kaifeng.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Addis on the Mind: Operation Solomon from a Veteran

Ethiopia, a country of devastating poverty and unbelievable cultural wealth, is a land that speaks to the imaginary realms most folks leave behind in childhood. Perhaps the country touched me like nowhere else I have ever visited because I have never quite relinquished my childhood imagination. My ten days in Ethiopia last January were filled with all sort of madcap adventures, from the Christmas night I spent with thousand of barefoot pilgrims in the catacombs of Lalibela to nearly getting arrested for espionage in the Chinese Embassy. Yet the Abyssinia that lingers in my mind is the pull of the Blue Nile, the staffs slung over the shoulders of pilgrims en route to hidden shrines, and the wondrous indigo eyes that held my own as I hiked with village children through the mountains.

My memories of Ethiopia came flooding back tonight when a kibbutz member shared his first hand experience from Operation Solomon with my garin. Operation Solomon was the crowning moment of the aliyah of the Beta Israel, the Jewish Ethiopian community. Over thirty-six hours, on May 24 1991, the IDF flew some 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers took part in the complex operation, with some thirty-four military and civilian jets taking part in the airlift. One of the first flights even set a world record for single flight passenger load when 1,122 slim Ethiopians squeezed aboard. If you have ever taken a subway in New York City or Beijing during rush hour, just imagine the car taking flight and you can begin to feel what it must have been like!

Security for the covert operation was provided by Shaldag, the elite Israeli Air Force commando squad. The kibbutz member who spoke to us had been an officer in Shaldag and so his tale of dressing as a student and scoping out the airport the week before the operation had the gritty feel of a true insider's account. I was not surprised at the swell of emotion I felt as he told his story. It is a tale that reminds me of the responsibilities I have adopted by joining a military force whose mandate is to defend Jews around the world.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ancient Beit She'an by Night

Have you ever visited Palmyra, gazed upon the remnants of Queen Zenobia's domain, and reflected on the tragic drama of history? If not then take a gander at the following pic I snapped this summer.

Or come and visit me in the valley and we can stroll through the Roman ruins of ancient Beit She'an. After my garin went for the royal tour of the ancient Jewish town the other night, here is what I know.

Two thousand years ago Palmyra and Beit She'an were among the pearls of the Near East. Today Palmyra is rightly celebrated as Syria's grandest tourist sight. By night the temples and tombs of the ancient oasis stand like eternal sentries in the sparse Syrian desert. Beit She'an provides a very different experience for visitors. Instead of awing guests with windswept ruins, every sound and light extravaganza you can and cannot imagine is on display in the ancient town. Thunder and battle sounds reverberate from hidden speaker systems and fountains and camels dance from projectors across the rocks.

Even a Lady Liberty can be seen every so often across the looming tel.

The amazing bit about ancient Beit She'an is that it works. Somehow all the jazzy extras do not ruin the sight as so often is the case with glammed up historical attractions in China. I would still take an undressed Palmyra over the sound and lights of ancient Beit She'an. But if the day must come when all the Palmyras of the world modernize, the best example they can aspire to is the ancient Jewish town down the road from my home in Kibbutz Tirat Zvi.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Baseless Hatred & Why a Polish Town is so Central to Israel/Asia Ties: Tales from a Jerusalem Shabbat

With the season of holidays over and my father and sister back in the States, the Shabbat of October 17, Parshat Bereishet, promised to be a ho-hum weekend with my mom in Jerusalem. Except that a promise is never more than a novice attempt at prophecy. And Jerusalem is no stranger to false prophecy. Especially when a handful of remarkable women are involved.

My mother proved to be only the first of several ladies I spent significant time with over the weekend. All shared fascinating stories with me, revealing chapters from their pasts that left me with a score of lessons.

The storytelling began by the Kotel on Friday night. Neither my mother nor I were in a rush to leave and so after leaving a few mental notes by the thousand year old stones, I rejoined her for a leisurely stroll through the Old City. On our walk, and the next day over lunch, my mother told me about the difficult choices she had faced in the weeks before getting engaged to my father.

After lunch I joined a friend, Vicky, a Jerusalem resident and Chinese convert to Judaism whom I first met (and wrote about) back in late July. In our previous meeting, Vicky had lightheartedly described her conversion process as the natural consequence of settling in New York City in the late nineties. Today she gave me the more expansive story, describing how the 9/11 attack launched her on a process of self-discovery that culminated with her conversion and aliyah. While the tragedy of 9/11 made her rethink her life, the spark that sent Vicky off in a new directoin were the words "baseless hatred" that Mayor Giuliani used in a speech to describe the rationale for the devastating tragedy. Those words led Vicky to reflect on the baseless hatred and miseducation that motivate antisemitism. After visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Vicky concluded that as a Jew she could serve as a bridge between communities and cultures that so often fail to understand each other.

My walk with Vicky was perhaps a very prosaic example of how she continues to realize the dream that first spurred her conversion. We were off to visit an elderly scholar of Chinese philosophy, a semi-retired Hebrew University professor named Irene Eber. Professor Eber is both friend and mentor to Vicky and the two have been collaborating over the last year as Vicky seeks to produce a Chinese translation of The Choice, Professor Eber's memoir of her grueling survival during the Holocaust.

From the moment we entered the professor's beautiful flat in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bet HaKerem, I was struck by her old world grace and no holds barred humor. When I told Professor Eber how impressed I was with the beauty of the brand new assisted living facility where she resides, she replied "you know what the best part is? Because it is so new, no residents have died yet!" Her smile was contagious and quickly was reflected on my own face as I fended off repeated trays of cookies and eyed the eclectic mix of Asian and Austrian literature and art. Perhaps the best way to convey the professor's charm is through sharing one of the numerous stories she shared, all of which were prefaced with a genteel apology that I would not be bored if she told another tale.

Several years ago Professor Eber was asked to attend a breakfast for trustees of Hebrew University at the King David Hotel. As chair of the East Asian Studies Department, the professor could not refuse the summons despite her aversion to such early morning funding events. So she trundled off to the hotel, catnapped through a few boring lectures and only awoke with a start when she noticed that one of the visiting trustees had a familiar tattoo from the Holocaust on his arm. After the speeches, Professor Eber asked the trustee where he was from. When she heard him say "Mielec, Poland" her surprise was so palpable that, as Professor Eber told me, if King David had suddenly appeared she would not have been more startled. The trustee shared her amazement a second later when he asked the same question and got the same response. Practically every Jew in Mielec was killed during the Holocaust and so both survivors were shocked to hear they shared the same hometown. Professor Eber was perhaps less shocked several weeks later when it was announced that the trustee,
Lou Frieberg, had donated millions of dollars to her department and asked that she receive an endowed chair in his name.

Shortly thereafter, Professor Eber found out from her sister, the only other member of her family to survive the Holocaust, that before the war their cousin had been engaged to one of the Frieberg boys from Mielec. The professor wrote to Mr. Frieberg with this information but never received a response. A few months later, Lou Frieberg returned to Israel to donate millions more towards the establishment of a Center for East Asian Studies at Hebrew University.. When Professor Eber arrived at the ceremony to announce the generous donation, Lou Frieberg was waiting by the door with an elderly man by his side. Pointing to his brother, Frieberg said to the professor in yiddish "this is the chattan (groom)." And so it was that a chance meeting between two Holocaust survivors, two natives of Mielec, led to the establishment of the premiere center of East Asian studies in Israel!