Saturday, August 29, 2009

Gadna III: Lessons Learned

!חמש שניות-- זוזו

Gadna came to a close on Thursday August 27 with a roaring and frankly unsettling fourteen gun salute. The fact that my trigger finger helped bring about the stormy fusillade mattered little. The burning smell, shocking roar and fierce kickback on my 39-inch M16 made it difficult to focus on hitting a two-inch target some fifty yards away. As the smoke cleared and sweet blessed silence finally returned, I could only imagine how much tougher it must be to fire accurately when facing return fire.

The night before I first laid hands on a loaded weapon also had its share of firsts when we formally completed Gadna with a brief ceremony. Military ceremonies bookend the first year of Israeli army service, with the swearing-in ceremony (tekes hash'ba'a) six weeks into basic training and a ceremony (tekes kumtah) marking the end of training some eight months later. While these ceremonies will no doubt be full of pomp and gravity, my very first tekes will always have come at Gadna, surrounded by my garin.

Gadna was full of physical tests, though none of the push-ups, sprints, crawling or even the two hour hike we did in the lead-up to our final ceremony was very taxing. The activities that really challenged me proved to be mostly mental, providing me with at least three key take-away lessons from the week of pre-army training.

The first lesson is how difficult it really is to accurately fire a rifle. As I shared at the start of this article, my first experience with a loaded weapon left me stunned at the gun's ferocious power. Of course, it was my first time and so perhaps my reaction is to be expected. Regardless, so much of basic training is devoted to training me in the art of weapons use that I have little qualms over the difficulty I had my first time around.

A more persistent challenge during Gadna was comprehending the Hebrew instructions of our commanders. I rarely missed the gist of any order. And of course, like everyone else, I will have a hard time forgetting the persistent cry of "Cha'maesh Sh'niut, Zuzu!" (5 second to do __, move!) that accompanied our every action all week. Nevertheless, there were many detailed orders I failed to completely comprehend. And while my difficulties with the language will surely improve and eventually disappear in the army, my behavior at Gadna did demonstrate that I must guard against letting my limited Hebrew cripple my confidence.

A more subtle enemy I encountered in Gadna was a lethargy that sapped me of my desire to contribute at the level I am capable of. Most of my misplaced energy was the result of tiredness, though a good part came from boredom and the frustration of never knowing what we would be doing next. The army will of course be full to bursting with each of these three uglies. And so I have to put up a better fight against allowing the fact that I will generally be uninformed, bored and above all exhausted limit my performance.

When all is said and done, I left Joara, where the Haganah's best and brightest once trained, having learned some key lessons that will aid me on the road ahead. For that, and for the chance to share many light-hearted moments and a few meaningful conversations within my garin, I am thankful and duly impressed by the merit of Gadna.


Our mifakedet was a tough daughter-of-a-gun all week, never smiling and always maintaining her command of sixteen individuals that by and large were older and more educated than she, not to mention far more religious. Her flawless hold on her authority made it easy for me to see her as my commander rather than a nineteen year old Russian immigrant.
It was not until Thursday afternoon, shortly before we left Joara, that our mifakedet cracked a smile, introduced herself as Dina and shared some background info. Dina admitted to feeling unbelievably nervous every time she approached our garin. Despite the fact that we all stood at nervous attention in a chet (in a C formation), she would feel like we were judging her. Before we left she gave each of us a personalized note. On mine she adjured me never to abandon my willingness to ask unpopular questions and raise unconventional ideas that others may initially deride. With our notes in hand, we had time for a quick photo with Dina--and as a special bonus, our pretty platoon commander at Gadna accepted my invitation and joined us in the picture.

Gadna II: הכי בשר שאפשר

!דוד, מלך של שטח, חי חי וקים

Day two of Gadna brought us out of the base and into the field. It also brought our garin, growing closer by the minute thanks to Gadna, a new leader in the person of David, a garin member from Chicago who was named 'Melech HaShetach,' or 'King of the Field,' by our mifakedet (female squad commander). After our mifakedet showed us how to camouflage our faces with mud and our bodies with weeds and thorns, David honed our ability to avoid enemy attack with a relentless (and hilarious) exercise that had our garin throwing ourselves into the weeds to avoid imagined grenades.

Our day in the wild also brought our garin a new nickname and a moment of true glory. At lunchtime all ten garinim were given deli, bread, corn and a few vegetables with orders to design something with the food before our commanders gave us permission to start eating. While every other garin simply laid their food out in a basic, two-dimensional design, Garin Tiryat Zvi obliterated the competition by designing a three-dimensional recreation of what our kibbutz looked like in the 1940s. With bread as our tower and stockade, peppers as our date fields, and even a peeled olive representing a nude Order Wingate, the seniors officers who came to judge each garin's design could do little to disguise their awe out what we had created. It was not long before our company commander announced the winner of the lunch design competition by shouting out the slogan of the Tirat Zvi meat-packing plant: "הכי בשר שאפשר," The Best Meat There Can Be! We had adopted the phrase as our garin chant earlier in the day. After our convincing demonstration of culinary dominance, it became our trademark.

Our second day in Gadna also brought further time for the sort of discussions that had so impressed me the day before. During lunch I posed the following question to several of the guys in my garin: You are out on a mission when suddenly the lives of a nearby civilian and one of your fellow soldiers are placed in jeopardy. You can only try and save one; the other will perish (no Batman Forever heroics here!). Whose life do you save? What duty takes priority? The responsibility to fulfill your unit's military objective, a task that requires your fellow soldier and so makes saving his life the higher priority? Or your immediate responsibility to defend the life of a citizen of Israel, regardless of the strategic risk this may pose to your mission?

I was surprised when most guys came down squarely on the side of saving the soldier. Jeremy, a garin member from Cleveland, explained this decision most persuasively when he argued in wartime, the mission of the group must take priority over the needs of the individual. Well said--to a point. I remain less sure, concerned that my peers are ignoring the raison d'être of military service: to be prepared to sacrifice our lives in defense of the state. True, fulfilling the larger objectives of the state [aka, protecting your fellow soldier to ensure the success of your mission] may sometimes require the occasional individual to be sacrificed. But when individual freedoms are sacrificed so freely, one can only wonder what the sacrifice is for.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Gadna I: Purity of Arms

On Sunday August 23 my garin arrived at the Joara army base for a five day pre-military program known as Gadna. My own arrival was delayed twelve hours courtesy of a wedding in Jerusalem. So when a generous fellow wedding attendee dropped me off outside the base past one in the morning, I missed the 'drop your bags and get into formation' welcome that the rest of my garin received earlier in the day. Instead a laconic guard outside the base let me know that Obama is the new Hitler as he slowly unleashed the gate and welcomed me into my first army base in Israel.

The modern Gadna program has its origins in the pre-state youth battalions (in Hebrew G'dudei No'ar, גדודי נוער, hence the acronym Gadna) that provided home defense during times of war. Our training base provided an extra dose of Israeli history since Joara was established in the 1940s as the training base for officers of the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli Army.

Today Gadna is attended by thousands of Israeli high school students and the occasional overseas Jewish teen tour group. Instead of training youth in the finer points of home defense, the modern program introduces participants to the discipline and ethos of the Israeli Army. The program also hopes to leave young Israelis motivated to serve their two/three years of mandatory military service. While draft dodging is a growing problem in Israel, the two-hundred and ten members of Garin Tzabar that showed up to Gadna hardly needed to be convinced to enlist. Our high motivation actually made it difficult to take the program seriously. Compared to what we will all be facing in three short months, five days of basic weapons training, kitchen duty and some mild indoctrination was mostly a chance for laughs.

Jokes aside, I was really impressed by the five day program, especially by a discussion our garin--renamed tzevet sh'moneh, squadron #8 for the week--held with our no-nonsense nineteen year old female squad commander [mifakedet] on Monday evening. The discussion was rooted in the shameful t-shirts that many Israeli soldiers commission to commemorate their service in the army. Slogans like "The Younger the Target, the More Challenging the Shot" and "One Shot, Two Kills" splayed across images of Palestinian children and pregnant women give an impression of the clothing's dehumanizing theme (see here). Although the t-shirts are designed on the private initiative of soldiers, the cruel messages they impart makes a mockery of Israel's struggle to hold its defense forces to a high moral standard. Coming on the heels of the fighting in Gaza in January (Operation Cast Lead) and the scattered charges of soldiers shooting civilians, the t-shirts highlight the image of any army that has lost its moral bearing.

Our mifakedet started the discussion by asking us to word associate the terms 'tohar' [purity] and 'neshek' [weapon]. Her point quickly emerged as she introduced the concept of purity of arms, tohar neshek, and had us consider how soldiers can maintain this ideal under the most trying of circumstances.

What, for instance, would you do when faced by a stone throwing eleven year old Palestinian? In the split second confrontation, what duties do you have to the safety of yourself and your comrades and to the reputation of the uniform and flag you represent? And yet how do these duties conflict with the responsibility you feel to the child before you? To the enemy who wishes to endanger your life and yet remains a child all the same?

The sixteen members of my garin came to very different conclusions when asked to respond to this and similar challenges that many of us may likely be facing in a year's time. Thanks to Gadna's forthright presentation of tohar neshek and the t-shirt controversy, however, we all had a chance to digest the creeping danger of dehumanizing the enemy. From my studies in university, I am all too familiar with the universal tendency to dehumanize the enemy in a time of war. The practice allows soldiers and civilians to harm the enemy without the necessary reminder that, ultimately, we are all created in the Divine image.

One of my underlying motivations in enlisting in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is to oppose the malignant threat highlighted by the t-shirt controversy. And so I was ever so grateful that my first day in uniform concluded with our discussion on the fundamental role of tohar neshek in defense of Israel. If the IDF is to protect the Jewish state, it can only do so by preserving what is best in Jewish tradition. It can only do so by opposing evil, from without and within. And it can best do so by recalling the words of the contemporary Jewish-American scholar Michael Walzer:

Immorality is commonly expressed in a refusal to recognize in others the moral agency and the creative powers that we claim for ourselves. And immorality passes into evil when the refusal is willful and violent, turning the others, against their will, into beings less than human.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sonic the Hedghehog and Exercise on Kibbutz

6:30 a.m. Alarms ring out from every room on the first floor of the small dormitory our garin calls home. A few minutes later most of the guys slip outside into the morning heat that is already flirting with 90 degrees F. Over the next hour the 2.5 km path around the kibbutz is filled with our running feet. In the evening another round of exercise takes place on the grass in front of our building. Led by Tsvi, the onetime West Point cadet, a few of the guys engage in punishing rounds of push-ups, sit-ups and a whole slew of related exercises that Tsvi was introduced to at West Point. Most nights do not end until each of us has completed over 300 push-ups over the course of the forty minute workout.

Tsvi was also my running partner on our morning runs during our first week on kibbutz. Initially he struggled to keep pace with me, as my month hiatus from running over the summer has hardly diminished the pace I got used to in training for my marathon in the spring. What Tsvi lacks in speed, however, he more than makes up with in persistence. I was the one, in fact, who caused our morning runs to grind to a halt. After a particularly long run the morning of Sunday August 16, my left knee came up sore. For the next two days I had trouble walking let alone running. So Tsvi ran without me, as I relied on the kibbutz swimming pool over the next two weeks. Fifty laps in the pool ensured that my knees would be spared the punishing morning runs and hence be in top shape for the all important army physical (part of our Tzav Rishon) that would take place in Tiberias on Tuesday September 1.

My last run before I aggravated my knee was also my most memorable. Near midnight on Saturday August 15, I set out for a rare nighttime circuit of the kibbutz. I had borrowed a friend's iPod so my ears were humming to raging hip-hop (Young Buck, anybody?) as the lights of nearby Jordan guided me around the kibbutz--once, twice and finally a third time before I called it a night.

And that is when I spotted the hedgehog. Just as I turned back toward my room I noticed this furry ball of arched needles flitting around on the grass. I raced back to my room, zipped back to the little critter and crept as close to him as you are to your screen before taking a dozen shots for the grandkids.

In the year since I first started this blog, I have never seen a hedgehog until that night in kibbutz. But the image of Sonic the Hedgehog, moving so quickly that his velocity makes him impervious to nearby dangers, was what inspired me to gift this blog with one of its two names, SonicInBeijing (the other name, of course, is Kefitzat Haderech). On my best runs I feel like Sonic, protected by my own speed and concentration from any dangers, be they gangs in Baltimore and Washington DC, unsteady bicyclists in Suzhou and Beijing or simply the unknown road that I have pursued from the hills of Western China and Ethiopia to the shifty deserts of Egypt and Syria and now, finally, whatever awaits me in the lands of Israel.

Hebrew, Fitness and The Night of the Twentieth

"You have to stand out. Always. You have to be the best of the best. Always. That’s the reason you all came here. Not for any other reason."

I will admit. I was impressed when a visiting chayal boded, an American volunteer in the Israeli army just like me and my garin, charged us with these words on our second week in kibbutz. What impressed me, however, is that as much as I admire his clarity and passion, my own reasons for moving to Israel and serving in the army cannot be neatly summarized as a desire to be the best, to leave a mark in Israeli society by dint of my performance and convictions during my military service.

I have already written about my reasons for making aliyah and joining the army (see here) and so I will not try and retrace my steps. There are two reasons, however, that escaped my earlier attempt. Neither is so unique and yet both are deeply personal. Both also first engaged my mature mind in the summer of 2002, when I read Yehoshua Sobol's unfairly obscure play, Leil Ha'Esrim, The Night of the Twentieth.

Sobol's play provides a fascinating window into the origins of Zionism, depicting an October night in 1920 as a small group of young Zionist pioneers, halutzim, grapple with their values and insecurities. As Glenda Abramson writes in Drama and Ideology in Modern Israel,

The halutzim [in Leil Ha'Esrim] are young middle-class intellectuals who have left homes and careers in Europe to make their lives in the land of Israel, ostensibly to realize their aspirations of an authentic life of purity within a morally elevated society it is their task to accomplish. The play does not, however, support these assumptions of their ideological motivation, but explores the underlying socio-psychological reasons for their venture into the unknown...The central problem of The Night of the Twentieth is the question of individual opposed to collective needs, the need to love and be loved.

When I first read the play in 2002 while traveling Israel with the Nesiya teen program, I failed to take the text seriously. Michael, one of our counselors, went so far as to criticize my disregard for the text, insisting I was capable of gaining something more profound from the play than simply self-directed jokes about my supposed dearth of masculinity. Initially I failed to heed his words. It was not until our summer program was rocked by the tragic death of Michael's fiance, Marla Bennett z"l in the Hebrew University terrorist attack, that I returned to the play. I ultimately drew heavily from Leil Ha'Esrim and Michael's insight during the final week of the program, when I spoke to the rest of my group about the lessons I had learned about myself over the course of the summer.

My remarks to my peers in the summer of 2002 were the first time I ever publicly voiced to others my determination to make aliyah and serve in the Israeli army. But the underlying theme of my words were about the two basic insecurities that had plagued me all summer and, truth be told, through the first seventeen years of my life. The first is my difficulty in learning Hebrew, though it really encompasses a broader frustration with speaking foreign languages. And the second is my years of inept physical capability, both my lack of any particular skill on the field and, as would become more apparent in the future, my relatively weak physique.

Some people may well read these words and think them absurd. Sammy? He can speak Chinese, probably the hardest language in the world! And weak? He ran a marathon just last May in under three hours. Drop the excessive self-analyzing, they may recommend, and move on.

What they fail to appreciate is that my accomplishments in these two areas come in spite and not because of any natural gifts. My father has reproached me on this score countless times, asking why I devote myself to the very areas in which I lack natural talent rather than play to my strengths. My brother commented on the same issue shortly before his wedding, when he told me that he has always noted that I devote myself to the very challenges at which I am not inherently adept.

Why? Perhaps I am simply a bad case of wanting what we cannot have. Perhaps I am simply addicted to the idea that what is more important is necessarily more challenging. Perhaps, perhaps.

Whatever the reason, my enduring desire to conquer these two weaknesses, to overcome my trials in Hebrew and fitness, are on par with any other explanation as to why I am now in Israel, preparing to enlist this November.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Valley Betwixt Gilad and Gilboa

When you live less than two km away from Jordan, nearly every tiyul (tour) your garin takes from the kibbutz involves passing by the border. On Thursday August 20 one of our staff, Chovav, led us on a bike tour through the fish ponds of Tirat Zvi, along the border and then over to a nearby maa'yan (natural spring). The Valley of Bet She'an, the sauna of Israel (really, that is how locals describe the valley!), is dotted with numerous ma'ayanot and for obvious reasons, they tend to attract even larger crowds than most water-spots in Israel. Which is saying something, because Israelis love their ma'ayanot like nowhere else.

Bet She'an Valley also lies between the hills of

Mt. Gilboa

and Mt. Gilad.

Both hilltops are associated with the bible's most Shakespearean figure, Saul, the Jewish people's first and most tragic king. Saul and his son Jonathan, my namesake, met their end on Mt. Gilboa, falling to the Philistines. And it was the brave men of Jabesh-Gilad, located on the slopes of Mt Gilad that are located just across the border, who rescued the bodies of the king and prince and gave them a proper burial.

Bet She'an Valley also tends to confuse visitors when they hear that the valley, and Tirat Zvi in particular, lies due east of the Palestinian town and refugee camp of Jenin. In April 2002 Jenin saw the fiercest fighting during Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF's response to the score of horrific suicide bombings that culminated in the deadly Park Hotel Passover attack on March 27 2002. The Battle of Jenin proved to be almost as costly, especially when scores of Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush after the army decided to send infantry to minimize civilian casualties.

One of those killed was Ma'tanya Robinson, 21. Born in Tirat Zvi to American parents who immigrated to Israel in 1979, Ma'tanya's name has been bestowed on a small hilltop that overlooks the kibbutz. His family remain active members of Tirat Zvi. On our fourth week on kibbutz, the Robinson family celebrated the wedding of one of their sons. Included in the festivities was a girl in our garin, who has been "adopted" by the Robinson family as part of an effort to make our garin feel at home in Tirat Zvi.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From Hale to Alterman: Coming to Terms with the Final Sacrifice

The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other poor bastard die for his. George Patton, US General (1885-1945)

"Many of the people in our garin don’t see to understand," one of the girls told me as we barbecued outside our staff coordinator's kibbutz home, "that enlisting in the army means they are prepared to give up their life for this country. I am ready. But to them, it seems like just a game."

Less than two weeks on kibbutz, I thought to myself as I stared glumly at the piles of roasted meat, and the Nathan Sacrifice has been brought into play. My earliest memory of someone giving up their life for their country came when I read the stirring words of American patriot Nathan Hale. Captured by the British during the first year of the American war of independence, Hale famously stood before the gallows and declared "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Hales words came back to me a decade later when I stood in the Hall of Independence in Tel Aviv, reading a poem by Israel's first poet laureate, Nathan Alterman. The poem imagines two disheveled and war-torn youth introducing themselves as the "silver platter on which the Jewish state was presented," as the youth whose sacrifice enables the state of Israel to overcome their enemies in the war of independence.

The two Nathan's had two very different audiences in mind, both of which I feel at home in with my mixed American and Israeli identity. So when I consider whether I would be ready to make the Nathan Sacrifice, to give my life for my country, I draw from my attachment to (i.e. my understanding of) both America and Israel in drawing a conclusion.

My attachment to Israel rests in my commitment to realizing the dream of crafting a society that fulfills the ethical and spiritual mandate of Jewish tradition. Whether I like it or not, that dream cannot be realized without an army ready to defeat the enemies who wish to destroy the state of Israel. That dream also requires sacrifice, and so if in defense of that society I need to sacrifice my life, so be it.

I would be doing a disservice to you, my reader, if I did not pause to share some words by the Israeli author Amos Oz that deftly capture my sentiment on this issue. Shortly before I was born, Oz wrote the following in his startling report In The land of Israel:

This is the place to make my first shocking confession—others will follow. I think that the nation-state is a tool, an instrument, that is necessary for a return to Zion, but I am not enamored of this instrument. The idea of the nation-state is, in my eyes, goyim naches—a gentiles’ delight. I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations, each developing in accordance with its own internal rhythm, all cross-pollinating one another, without any one emerging as a nation-state: no flags, no emblems, no passport, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.

But the Jewish people have already staged a long running one-man show of that sort. The international audience sometimes applauded, sometimes threw stones, and occasionally slaughtered the actor. No one joined us; no one copied the model the Jews were forced to sustain for two thousand years, the model of a civilization without the ‘tools of statehood.’ The drama ended with the murder of Europe’s Jews by Hitler. And so I am forced to take it upon myself to play the ‘game of nations,’ with all the tools of statehood, even though it causes me to feel like an old man in a kindergarten. To play the game with an emblem, and a flag and a passport and an army, and even war, provided that such a war is an absolute existential necessity. I accept those rules of the game because existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger, but I accept them only up to this point. To take pride in these tools of statehood? To worship these toys? To crow about them? To convert the state from a means to an end, to an object of ritual and worship? Not I. If we must maintain these tools, including the instruments of death, it must be with wisdom—and with caution.

Oz's words richly capture the hesitation, however slight, that I bear in affirming my readiness to sacrifice whatever is necessary for Israel. My American heritage lends an added note of caution, in particular the Vietnam inflected words of fellow Minnesotan Tim O'Brien. In Chasing After Caciotto, O'Brien suggests an alternative reading for why soldiers give their life for their country.

The lieutenant knew that in war purpose is never paramount, neither purpose nor cause, and that battles are always fought among human beings, not purposes. He could not imagine dying for a purpose. Death was its own purpose.


(I) I can only agree with my friend on her observation that too many foreign volunteers, if not in our garin than elsewhere, do not seem to appreciate the sacrifice implicit in their decision to enlist. There may be any numbers of reasons that explain why. In my book, one reason is simply that 18 years old, straight out of high school, is simply too young for most people to make a decision of such significance. The reality is different in Israel, where serving in the army after high school is a social reality. But for a foreign volunteer to enlist at such a young age asks a lot of their maturity, a challenge that one is far more prepared for after having lived away from home and seen more of the world than most 18 year-olds are exposed to.

(II) While I agree with my friend that it is critical for foreign volunteers in the Israeli army to recognize that we ready to give up our lives, I find it far more challenging that I may be asked to take the life of another--whatever side he or she is on. Of course, much of army training is designed to address this very challenge, teaching recruits to overcome the practical and mental challenges to taking another's life. Nonetheless, I can look deep into myself today and recognize that I would sacrifice my life as necessary. Right now I am unsure if I could sacrifice the life of another.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Bittersweet Wedding Bliss on Kibbutz

People who do not know me as well as I wished they did tend to be surprised when they see me at a wedding. Then again, even my parents asked me if I was drunk at my brother's wedding--apparently, people are simply not supposed to have that amount of energy and excitement at such a formal occasion!

Formality was not such a concern the evening of Thursday August 13 when the entire kibbutz of Tirat Zvi came out for a wedding of two of their children. Although my garin only arrived on the kibbutz a week ago, we were all invited. The couple were married outside in the summer heat, in the center of the community they have called home for their entire lives. Very sweet. And about too get even sweeter.

After the groom smashed the glass and the cries of Mazal Tov filled the air, the newly married couple were led to a waiting van whose back doors had been tied open with streamers and colorful wedding signs. As confetti and soap bubbles filled the air, the couple waved to the crowd as the van slowly made its way to a nearby home. The scene was adorable. But it instantly became unforgettable when a friend pointed to the beaten up van's Palestinian decor and explained that the vehicle was regularly used by the groom's special unit, Duvdevan, in their undercover raids against Palestinian militants in the West Bank. Duvdevan literally means cherry and there was certainly a bittersweet irony in seeing the same van carry the groom into marriage that has doubtless carried him and his men into danger so often in the past.

The rest of the wedding passed in a blur of exhilirating dancing and some of the best desserts I have had since arriving in Israel. There is something about dancing at weddings, a magic in the divinely ordained joy of the moment, that rarely fails to set me off. This wedding was no different. So while I never spoke a word to the groom or his dozen army and kibbutz buddies all night, I'd like to think I communicated my joy in the simcha by keeping my feet moving and my hands waving on the dance floor. The dancing had the added bonus of reminding me of what I am capable of, that with the right concentration I can summon the necessary energy to go at full tilt far past the point of exhaustion. A good trick for the army, if I can only learn to turn it on at will!

As fine as the wedding was, the lack of familiar faces was a stark reminder that I have a ways to go before I really become a part of the kibbutz community. The wedding also reminded me of a warning from a member of the 2007 garin. "Missing the weddings of friends in the States just sucks," Hudi told me shortly after he had earned a rare reprieve from his elite unit in order to attend the wedding on kibbutz. "It is one of the toughest parts of serving so far away from so many close friends."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chayalei Buffalo

On Tuesday August 11, my garin at Kibbutz Tirat Zvi celebrated a birthday by gathering for a kumzitz, an evening campfire. With the help of Michal, the chayelet assigned to our garin, I composed a song for the occasion to the tune of Bob Marley's classic 'Buffalo Soldier.'
See these links for Marley's original tune and lyrics.

Chayelei Buffalo

חיילי בפלו חלוצים ישראלים
היו חיילי בפלו בלב אמיריקה
עזבו את אמריקה ובאו לישראל
נלחמו כדי להגיע נלחמו כדי לשרוד

באמת כשאני חושב על זה
אני יכול להבין למה הם עשו את זה
איך חלוצים ישראלים היו חיילי בפלו
כי הם עזבו את אמריקה ובאו לישראל
נלחמו כדי להגיע נלחמו כדי לשרוד

אמרתי שהם היו חיילי בפלו חלוצים ישראלים
חיילי בפלו בלב אמריקה

אם אתה מכיר ההיסטוריה שלך
אז אתה יודע מאיפה אתה בא
אז אתה לא צריך לשאול אותי
למה אני עכשו בישראל

היינו רק חיילי בפלו בלב אמריקה
עזבנו את אמריקה ובאנו לישראל
אמרתי נלחמו כדי להגיע נלחמו כדי לשרוד
עכשו חיילי בפלו יוכלים לנצח את המלחמה של ישראל

חלוצי --
--woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!

חיילי בפלו מטיילים בארץ
אמרתי כשהם רוצים לרוץ אתה רוצה לעזור
מטיילים בארץ

אמרתי שחיילי בפלו נצחו את המלחמה של ישראל
חיילי בפלו חלוצים ישראלים
נלחמו כדי להגיע נלחמו כדי לשרוד
עזבו את המולדת בשביל הקיבוץ

שרים --
-- woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!

עכשו הם כמו תיירים בישראל
בגלל הגרעין נהיו ישראלים
נלחמו כדי להגיע נלחמו כדי לשרוד
חיילי בפלו חלוצים ישראלים

Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!

In English

Buffalo soldier, Israeli pioneers:
There was a buffalo soldier in the heart of America,
Departed from America, came to Israel,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.

I mean it, when I analyze the stitch -
To me it makes a lot of sense:
How the Israeli pioneers are the buffalo soldiers,
And he departed from America, came to Israel,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.

Said he was a buffalo soldier, Israeli pioneer -
Buffalo soldier in the heart of America.

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,
Then you wouldnt have to ask me,
Why I am now in Israel,

I'm just a buffalo soldier in the heart of america,
Departed from America, came to Israel,
Said he was fighting on arrival, fighting for survival;
Now he's a buffalo soldier, able to win the war for Israel.

pioneers, woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!

Buffalo soldier troddin through the land, wo-ho-ooh!
Said he wanna ran, then you wanna hand,
Troddin through the land, yea-hea, yea-ea.

Said he was a buffalo soldier win the war for Israel;
Buffalo soldier, Israeli pioneer,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival;
Departed the land of their birth for the kibbutz.

Singing, woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!

Now they are like tourists in Israel;
Through the Garin they'll become Israeli
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival:
Buffalo soldier, Israeli pioneers.

Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back in Bet She'an: L'man Achi

It has not taken me very long to feel at home in Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, a modest little community known throughout Israel for year long heat-waves and the local meat-packing plant. Perhaps the reason why I have so quickly grown attached to the community is that the surroundings lack that sense of the familiar I find elsewhere in the country. Or perhaps the very opposite is closer to the truth. Perhaps the one connection I do have to the kibbutzim in the Bet She'an Valley is why I feel at home.

Seven years ago I visited a kibbutz down the road from my current home in Tirat Zvi. One of the Israelis on Nesiya, the American and Israeli teen summer program I attended in 2002, had invited everyone to his home. We did not stay for long and I left without a thought as to whether I would ever return to the Bet She'an Valley.

In January 2007 I was back in the valley, returning to my friend's kibbutz under very different circumstances. For Yotam Gilboa, the friend from Kibbutz Maoz Hayim whose quiet strength and unassuming honesty had so impressed me in Nesiya, was now buried in the fields alongside his childhood home. Yotam was one of the first casualties in the 2006 Lebanon war, falling as he rushed forward to provide medical aid to another soldier.

I was working in Washington DC for the summer when I heard that Yotam had died. My immediate reaction was a spinning sense of loss--the loss to his family, friends and community. And the loss to all those that would now never have the chance to meet Yotam. I also appreciated anew my personal loss, my failure to connect with Yotam and other Israelis on Nesiya due to my lack of confidence with Hebrew and with myself.

Following Yotam's death, his friends from the summer of 2002 created an exhibit of memories--stories, poems and painting--to share with others the remarkable friend we had known and so suddenly lost. The exhibit was hosted at dozens of universities and community centers around the world, taking Yotam's story places where he will never be able to go. Below is one of those stories, the words that I contributed for a friend whose example explains in ways I cannot yet fully appreciate why I now call his former surroundings in Bet She'an Valley my home.

July 20, 2006

Downstairs my summer companions chatter, aflutter at the close of a steamy Washington summer day. Their echoes are all that reminds me that I am not back in Israel, the summer of 2002, resting in the shade of Har Meron, surrounded by my Nesiya companions, Josh, Liron, Michael – and of course, Yotam.

There had never been a question that Yotam would be chosen for the group that split off from our summer program to hike Har Meron. It was not simply his quiet strength and outdoors experience that made the thought of Yotam’s absence unthinkable. It was something more personal, something about the assurance and confidence his presence gave to those around him, a free gift given without the slightest pretensions.

Perhaps it was because Yotam’s mere presence was so giving that I never really succeeded in getting to know him very well. As it was, those six weeks in Israel left me with many memories, quite a few friends, and several moments that I don’t think I will ever forget. Including the following.

The second day’s hike had ended and a dozen of us were huddled around the fire when the conversation turned to identifying with Israel, with the Jewish state. A range of voices were heard and soon Yotam spoke up, briefly and powerfully as was his wont. What he said I’ve never forgotten.

Yotam began by sharing how much he loved hiking the land, spending time with his childhood friends… and yet he then explained that truly, he could not say he felt any deep kinship to the land, state or even people of Israel. Israel for him was a land to cherish on its own merits, a country that had not necessarily convinced him that it held all the answers he was searching for in life. Notwithstanding these doubts, Yotam concluded that before he turned away, he had a responsibility to the past generations to contribute to this land, this people and this state that his parent’s and grandparent’s generations had wrestled from history and presented to him on a silver platter.

I was stunned. Yotam, the warm and resourceful kibbutznik who could boil tea, spot poisonous roots, and cook up the best soup the hills around Meron likely ever witnessed – this same Yotam felt adrift from any raison d’être for the Jewish state! All that night, and for days and years afterwards, I wanted to confront him, challenge Yotam how he could volunteer to place his life on the line for a state and people he failed to appreciate.

We never had the chance to speak. And yet today, after hearing of Yotam’s death in battle in Lebanon, I finally understand. I understand and I weep that the answer I could not appreciate that night is itself a question, and that that question for Yotam remains forever without answer.

That summer of 2002 had never been about finding answers as much about asking questions. Yet it was not the asking so much as the living with questions that really shone through our summer together. Thirty-nine of us from the summer continue to grapple with questions about our ties to Israel, to others, to ourselves, reminding us that our nesiya, our journey, lies unexplored before us. And yet for you, Yotam, your journey has come to a close. And while I do wonder how your questions may have changed since that night by Meron, only now do I appreciate that more than anyone else, you exemplified what it is to live with questions yet never to shrink from life’s responsibilities. I’m reminded of Alex Singer, Yoni Netanyahu and other fallen soldiers of Israel who questioned and lived with equal drive. Most of all, Yotam, I’m reminded of the small gestures and actions, all the little things that I pray no one who ever experienced them will ever cease to recall, to reflect, and to pay credit where credit is due.

So thank you Yotam, thank you for the memories and most of all, for the questions.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Tirat Zvi: From Wingate to Lazar and Levin

Shortly after nine o'clock on Thursday August 6 a bus trundled past the largest kosher meat-packing plant in Israel, coming to a stop near the center of the religious kibbutz of Tirat Zvi. Sixteen young men and women emerged, taking their first steps into the community they will call home for the next year.

For at least one of the new kibbutzniks, however, stepping off the bus was not simply about arriving at a new home. The moment I arrived in Tirat Zvi was the first time I understood what my aliyah really represents. My aliyah is not about arriving at the airport or spending a week in Jerusalem. That is, my aliyah is not about being in Israel. It is all about making a difference in Israel. For better or worse, the army is where I have chosen to start making the difference. And so it is only when I arrived at the kibbutz that I will call home throughout (most if not all of) my army service, I truly felt my aliyah had begun.

My fifteen fellow garin members and I are hardly the first volunteers from abroad to commence our service in defense of the Jewish State from Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. Our garin only exists in Tirat Zvi thanks to Lazar Berman, an American who moved to the kibbutz six years ago as he began his service that would culminate as a lieutenant in the Givati brigade. Lazar's "host mother" on kibbutz enjoyed the experience so much that she invited Garin Tzabar to launch their first religious garin in Tirat Zvi in 2007. Several of the fifteen volunteers that made up that first religious garin remain on the kibbutz, including two members of elite special forces units.

Lazar was joined on Tirat Zvi by another young American volunteer, a nineteen year old from Pennsylvania named Michael Levin. When Michael was killed in the summer of 2006 in the Second Lebanon War, his unassuming courage and love of Israel left a deep impression on many in the Jewish world. A fellow camper of Michael's from Camp Ramah in the Poconos was so inspired by his courage that she decided to follow his example. Today she is a member of my garin, preparing to enlist in the Israeli army in three months. Everyday she joins the rest of our garin for breakfast and dinner in a room known as Mo'adon Michael, named after the fallen soldier by his family in America and friends on the kibbutz.

Lazar and Michael, and in a sense every Israeli soldier for the last sixty odd years, are truly following in the footsteps of the first English speaker to come to Tirat Zvi and volunteer his service in defense of the Jewish state. Seventy years ago, one of the most unusual men of the twentieth century drove up to the gates of the kibbutz. Bearing a trunk full of arms and a biblical passion for the Zionist cause, Orde Wingate immediately revolutionized the fighting style of the Jewish military forces. From his base in Tirat Zvi, Wingate led the boldest kibbutz members on daring raids against marauding Arab gangs. Known as the Special Night Squads, Wingate's original tactics so influenced the fighting philosophy of the incipient Jewish army that Israeli military hero Moshe Dayan later said "Wingate taught us everything we know."

Living in Tirat Zvi, home to Israel's major meat-packing factory and the highest recorded daytime temperature in Asia (53.9ºC; 129.0ºF on June 22 1942), is not always easy for a vegetarian like myself who grew up in the frozen tundra of Minnesota. Bearing the legacy of Wingate, Berman and Levin in mind helps, reminding me that this smoldering kibbutz along the Jordanian border has been the staging ground for others who shared my determination to defend the state of Israel. As Michael Levin said, "You can't fulfill your dream unless you dare to risk it all."

A Traitor Among Us

For the next three months I will be living on kibbutz with fifteen others, nine guys, six girls, half of whom have completed college. Our garin [group] is fairly old by the standards of Garin Tzabar, as the secular groups are largely composed of 18 year olds fresh from American public high school. The extra years translate into a fairly mature vibe in our garin: we josh around with the best of them but also maintain a disciplined approach to preparing our bodies and minds for the army. The extra years and college degrees also add to the diversity of our garin. Several of us speak a second or third language, have lived or traveled across Europe or the Middle East, or bring other unusual experiences to the table. The religious nature of our garin adds yet another element to the group heterogeneity. Within the broad confines of religious Judaism, every member of our Garin has their own spiritual biography. Many are ba'alei teshuva, religious Jews who came to their faith from a secular background. Others were raised within a religious home. Some have even studied, like me, in a yeshiva in Israel.

In short, there are stories a plenty I could share about any of the fifteen characters that make up my garin. Only one, however, is going to earn some words in this brief writeup. The reason is obvious enough, just check out what two bloggers had to say about the decision of this particular member of my garin to move to Israel:

That kid is a traitor and should be stripped of his U.S. citizenship...The loyalties of such people should be known and whenever they seek to advocate on behalf of Israel from the speaking position of an American then it should be stated that they are not Americans are should not lecture us. (see here)

To me, Tzvi is more of a traitor than anything else. And a quitter to boot. He ups and leaves his country to fight for a taliban-like military in Israel (given what most “elite” units are engaged in) without a thought for the people who made the recommendations to get him into West Point (one has too get at least two recommendations to get in – and they have to be convincing). Does it mean he has been lying to his officers and classmates all this time about where his patriotism lies?
(see here)

The enmity is aimed at my new friend Tsvi, who left behind a promising American military career as a West Point cadet to realize his dream of defending the state of Israel. Tsvi did not make the decision lightly and he remains attached to the values and peers he left behind in the US Army's premier officer academy. Anonymous bloggers tend to see the world in black and white. Tsvi's decision to switch his military ties to Israel strikes a few online loudmouths as traitorous, even treasonous. After personally being selected and trained by the US Government for one year, how can this young American simply turn his back on his native country?

I have the dual advantage of knowing Tsvi and of having made a similar decision to seek my fortune in Israel rather than pursue the future in the US security and foreign policy community that is almost expected of graduates of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Like Tsvi, I understand that coming to Israel is about realizing my potential rather than rejecting the land of my birth, a country I continue to admire deeply. It is simply naive to accuse Tsvi, myself and everyone in our garin of traitorous loyalties to the United States. We have mixed identities, like everyone else, and as we unravel our dreams it is asinine to expect us to dance to the tune of some single-minded, self-appointed interpreter of American patriotism.

Seeds of the Sabra: Opening Day of Garin Tzabar

Crazy decisions are supposed to be easier to make, more reasonable to accept, when not made in isolation. A crowd lends support, usually a good thing unless the presence of others allows the sort of groupthink that famously scuttled the planning of Kennedy’s advisers during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. When I arrived at Tel Aviv University’s Smolarsh Hall on Thursday August 6 for the ceremony that would commence my path towards military service, the presence of over 250 other youngsters only made my head spin. It was and remains hard to imagine how so many young Americans are prepared to voluntarily enlist in the Israeli Army. I am impressed, moved and honestly a little unsettled that my decision is really not as singular as I may have supposed.

The ceremony in Tel Aviv marked the start of Garin Tzabar (literally, the “Sabra seeds,” or the “Sabra unit”), the program that is facilitating the process that will lead to my enlistment in the Israeli Army in late November. Garin Tzabar is a program run by Israel’s major youth movement (Tzofim) that places groups of new immigrants on Kibbutzim, where they live together for three months before individually serving in the army for a minimum of two years. The program was initially designed to encourage the children of yordim, Israelis that have moved abroad, to serve in the army and remain in Israel.

Three years ago a religious group was added to Garin Tzabar for the first time, located on the religious kibbutz of Tirat Zvi in the Bet She’an Valley. This year there are two religious groups, both of which largely draw their members from new immigrants rather than the children of former Israelis. Despite the growing number of religious participants, the program remains something of an anomaly in the religious world where many motivated youngsters who choose to serve in the army do so through Machal (a program for non-Israelis oversea volunteers who serve for a year and a half) or on their own after making aliyah.

I chose to enlist in the army through Garin Tzabar rather than independently or via Machal for a number of reasons. Machal was out because that program is specifically designed for non-citizen volunteers and my commitment to serve in the IDF is part and parcel of my desire to make aliyah and live in Israel. Enlisting on my own would have allowed me to choose where I would live for my first year in Israel. Moreover I would not have to participate in the many group activities that make up the Garin Tzabar schedule in the months leading up to the army. I could have lived my own life in Jerusalem, helping to advance China-Jewish ties while improving my Hebrew on my own time.

Independence has its place, especially at age 24 when I have grown used to living on my own in cultural meccas like New York, Beijing and Washington. I chose the Garin, however, because I truly preferred everything it offered to the alternative. I want to live in a kibbutz environment. I want to enter the army three months after making aliyah, rather than waiting the eight months or more regularly required of new immigrants. And I want the challenge and opportunity of living within a group setting. Not simply because it will be nice to have like-minded individuals to come home to after tiring weeks in the army. And not only because learning to live with a group can be so important for success in the army.

Ultimately it comes down to my preference to live within a tight-knit community where my life can be as defined by how I give to the group as much as by my own personal development. It is an outlook on life that I have been grappling with for years and that I am not ready to abandon faith in just yet.

My faith in Israeli ceremonies, meanwhile, remains buoyant after the opening event for Garin Tzabar. After throwing food, drinks and shirts at all 250 of us, the Garin staff filed us into a large auditorium for a few speeches. The highlight of the ceremony, however, were the half dozen patriotic song and dance numbers performed by the Tzofim dance group. The dancers were pretty to look at but most of my fellow starry eyed volunteers followed my lead, grabbing some shut-eye for the long road ahead.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mind or Body in Service to the State

Seven years ago I stood in the shade of Har Meron, in the northern Galilee, torn between two futures. One would test my mind, promising a journey of steady intellectual stimulation. The other course would challenge my body, pushing me to a new level of physical strength. The first path, to my 17 year old mind, meant a future apart from Israel, a future dependent on the restrained crafts of writing and reason. The second path pushed my proto-Zionist thinking one step further, linking a future of physical challenge with dwelling in the land of Israel.

The fact that my indecision seven years ago was prompted by a choice between a three day writing or hiking seminar hardly matters (can you guess which seminar I chose?). And while true, I am not trying to call attention to my dodgy tendency to over-dramatize the simplest of decisions. My intention is only to provide some context for the choice I face with the Israeli army, whether to enlist in an analytical position where my knowledge of China and Chinese could be put to some use or to serve in a more traditional combat role. In short, modiin (military intelligence) or a sayeret (the elite infantry units). Mind or body, body or mind.

A combat unit, in particular the infantry, is a realization of the army service I have envisioned serving in since childhood. The teamwork, the discipline, the exhaustion—all are experiences unique to combat that would challenge me like never before, pushing the limits of my mental and physical strength.

Serving in the secretive realm of military intelligence would, of course, also have its share of inimitable challenging experiences. Moreover the opportunity to utilize my Chinese and China knowledge within the Israeli government would no doubt be of immeasurable benefit for my career after the army. Most importantly, putting my Chinese to use would probably be the more effective use of my skills in service to the state of Israel. While there are countless Israeli eighteen year olds that could leave me in the dust in a sprint, very few enlist with an advanced degree in the language and politics of the world’s next superpower.

In many ways the choice I face is a question that all Israeli immigrants confront when they decide to enlist in the army with a college degree in hand. Can and should I put my advanced knowledge to use? Or will I be cheating myself of the army experience I expect, the experience I arguably need to best integrate into Israeli society? Perhaps the questions ring a shade higher in my mind because the skill-set I am bringing to the army is so unusual. Those same skills, however, led me to the sunny heights of Hebrew University on Wednesday August 5, introducing me to an individual who would finally set my doubts at ease.

Yitzchok Shichor is not simply Israel’s preeminent scholar on China. In a wide-ranging academic career spanning the last forty years, he has also emerged as one of the top Western experts on the Chinese military, as well as China’s policies in the restive Muslim areas of Xinjiang and Sudan. Shichor interest in China began much like my own, drawing off an intellectual curiosity and strategic concern for how the rising Asian power would impact the Middle East.

I met with Shichor on Wednesday afternoon, in his office at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute. We spoke for nearly an hour about why China has recently blacklisted Shichor from visiting the country (the professor contributed to a academic treatment of Chinese policies in Xinjiang, a work someone in Beijing took offense to) and how to blend scholarly and activist impulses in advancing understanding between China and Israel (Shichor’s pithy take, “At 65, I am too old for this activism”).

Finally I posed my questions: (a) Are Chinese intelligence analysts really needed within the Israeli security establishment and (b) Could he put me in contact with the necessary government intel offices. The first question would provide the answer to whether or not I should defer combat for a desk position. As a senior Air Force officer informed me over Shabbat a few days earlier, combat is the most important position in the army but other tasks—such as designing Israel’s advanced weaponry—are more necessary. The question then, is whether Chinese intelligence work is one of those necessary tasks.

Shichor began laughing as I made my request. His mirth, he explained, came because when he was my age, studying in the early 1970s for an advanced degree on Chinese politics at Hebrew University, the Mossad approached him and asked if he could assist them in gathering data on a country that Kissinger and Nixon had just returned to international relevance. Shichor literally founded the country’s intel operation on China. And after returning to academia following two years of government service, his students have filled the ranks of the Defense Ministry, military intelligence and the Mossad’s various needs for analysts of China and East Asia.

So, professor, is the pen mightier than the sword? Will it be mind over body, intel rather than combat, for this young Zionist over the next two years? Nope, answered Shichor. Outside of the Mossad, the professor explained, there really is not much of a need for China analysts. Serve where you wish, advised Shichor, and if you and the Mossad are interested in each other in two years, so be it.

I walked out of the professor’s paper strewn office. It was Tu B’Av, the Jewish Valentine day. The sun was shining on the desert curves of Judea. My heart was no longer torn. I was home.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kibbutz Galuyyot, Live & On-Camera

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are now watching kibbutz galuyyot, live and on camera."

It was difficult to keep from smiling when I heard an official from Nefesh B'Nefesh, the aliyah assistance organization, announce the words in his smooth Australian accent. Less than a month after my own aliyah, I was back in the very hall where Natan Sharanksy and hundreds of others had welcomed me with such warmth. Except this time around I was here to welcome the new immigrants. Apparently word had gotten out that I would be at the airport as Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu had also shown up to greet the new voters. Surrounded by hundreds of my fellow Israelis, I clutched a flag in one hand while my eyes scanned the crowd of new arrivals for the half dozen or so who would be joining me on kibbutz in a few days.

Kibbutz galuyyot, ingathering of the exiles, is one of those magical phrases that strums all the heartstrings in the Jewish repertoire. The first string is plucked from the Bible, from the book of Devarim, where the Divine promise is established that Israel's scattered remnants will be "gathered together," and restored to prosperity in their ancestral homeland. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel add a prophetic urgency and later the sages propounded that the promise of Israel's return "is equal in significance to the day on which heaven and earth were created." For centuries the concept lies dormant in Jewish prayer until it is embraced by Israel's founding fathers and boldly stated in the opening words of Israel's Declaration of Independence. And today, following sixty years of aliyah from the ends of the year, kibbutz galuyyot is happening before my eyes, live and on camera.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Back in Israel...for Good

I left China on Sunday July 19, just as the Jewish Studies seminar moved south to Shandong University for two more weeks of intensive Jew-scholarship. It was time I returned to Israel, time to get myself together and work on my Hebrew before I would report to kibbutz on August 6.

The good news from my two weeks in Jerusalem is that I set up a bank account (Leumi), health insurance (Clallit), phone (Orange, through an extra cheap Garin Tzabar plan) and even got the ball rolling on my Sal Klita, the financial assistance [read: buckets of cash] new immigrants receive from the government.

Even better news came with my running, as the right knee pain that has kept me from running since late May was largely absent on my return to Jerusalem. When my right knee first locked up back in May I was quietly desperate, scared that the very marathon I had run in early May to prepare me for the army would instead destroy my ability to serve in a challenging combat unit. With no one in Syria to advise me how I should heal my knee, I stretched every day, swore off running and prayed. The morning after my brother's wedding the pain returned, reminding me I was still in trouble. Fortunately the same cousin who welcomed me at the airport is one of Israel's most active physical therapists. She provided me with kinesio tape, a new type of adhesive bandage designed to mimic human skin and heal sore muscles. The tape and some new stretching techniques gave me the confidence to run for the first time in Beijing. Back in Jerusalem, I have continued running every morning, pounding the hills as I cross through Rehavia and run circuits in Gan Sachar.

In general though, I have not made much use of my two weeks in Jerusalem. Israeli TV and a few lame efforts at a conversation book are the extent of the disciplined approach I had hoped to take to studying Hebrew. My flagging attention is enough to make me question at times whether I was wise to bounce from China a week early and miss the second part of the conference in Shandong. Those decisions are for the past. For now I have set my eye on the future and look forward to starting my new life on kibbutz the second week of August.

Greeting and Meeting China-Jewish Pioneers

When I left Beijing on July 19th I was under the impression that for the next two years I would no longer be involved in advancing ties between China and the Jewish world. I thanked Seth for giving me the chance to attend the Israel Studies Seminar at Peking University. And then I carefully packed away the business cards from the many Chinese Jewish scholars I had met in Beijing and said goodbye to China.

China, it turns out, is not ready to say goodbye to me! The four weeks since my return to Israel have been chockfull of happenings related to the burgeoning realm of China-Jewish ties. There are the fascinating individuals I have met, from Israel’s top academic on China to a passionate activist filled with ideas for developing the China-Jewish relationship. And then there are the professional opportunities that have come my way, including unexpected invitations from the midst of Iraq and the depths of the Prime Minister’s Office here in Jerusalem.

Before I had even returned from China, the founder and director of PresenTense, a magazine and summer institute devoted to fostering incipient Jewish social entrepreneurs, reached out to tell me I had to meet two young women, both whom were participants in this summer’s institute. I met the first of these remarkable women, Manuela, shortly before she departed Jerusalem for Beijing. Manuela is a Brazilian-American reporter based in China’s capital, where she mostly writes on food and environmental issues for Newsweek and other publications. She came to Israel this summer seeking support for an online information-sharing platform called Agritech that would promote the exchange of agricultural technologies between China and Israel. We spoke of how I could advance the project, settling on a vague role that if nothing else will keep me in touch with Manuela.

The second PresenTense fellow, Rebecca, was far more ready to have me suit up and contribute to her cause. Like Manuela, Rebecca comes at her interest in all things China-Jewish from an international background, having been raised in Liverpool and studied in Japan and China. In October 2008 she helped start the Israel-Asia Center, an advocacy organization providing better understanding and maximization of strategic partnerships and cooperation between Israel, the Jewish people and Asia - with a particular emphasis on China. The Center’s work, most of which currently involves education and the media, is right up my alley. And in Rebecca’s words, “the next two, maybe five, years are when everything will happen.” I have my doubts that in three years time there will be nothing left for me in the dynamic realm of advancing China’s ties with Israel and the Jewish world. Regardless, Rebecca’s offer is another sobering reminder of what I am sacrificing in enlisting in the army for the next two years.

Rebecca’s involvement in the Israel-Asia Center began after she met perhaps the most intriguing individual (quite a title, considering the folks attracted to this line of work!) active in developing ties between China and the Jewish world. Australian born, Israeli by choice, and with academic experience at a slew of universities (Bar-Ilan, Sydney, Cambridge) and yeshivot (Har Etzion in the Gush, Yeshivat Nir in Kiryat Arba, Tomchei Temimim of Lubavitch, a Satmar Hasidic beit midrash, the Hartman Institute—you get the idea, everywhere!), Avrum E. was a pretty intriguing guy before he fell into the China game. And so when he accepted an invitation to teach Jewish mysticism and philosophy at Shandong University in 2005, advancing China-Jewish ties quickly became his new driving passion.

Avrum’s passion was on full display when we spoke until late into the night on July 27. After stating in no uncertain terms that I had to stay in Jerusalem rather than move to kibbutz for the next three months, Avrum spoke with lighting in his eyes about a seemingly endless number of ideas to jumpstart China-Jewish relations. As much as his ideas appealed to my own interests, the most lasting impression I have of our meeting is the man himself. Innovative scholar, pioneering activist, and most of all, a man afire with big plans for the future. Role-model, anybody?

The next person I met with may lack Avrum’s vast academic background. But her incomparable personal history and unusual insight made meeting Vicky W. a highlight of my final week in Jerusalem. Vicky’s story starts in southern China but really got going when she moved to New York from Switzerland ten years ago. “Once I was in New York it didn’t take me long to take the next natural step and become Jewish,” Vicky joked in describing how she become fascinated by Judaism and promptly converted with an Orthodox rabbi seven years ago. Her next decision was equally courageous: Vicky moved to Israel shortly after her conversion, having concluded that there was no better place to live a Jewish life. Over the course of our two hour meeting, Vicky spoke to me at length about how to succeed as a new immigrant to Israel. I found the advice deeply compelling, although eventually I got Vicky to speak about her professional experience over the last few years in the China-Israel scene. Vicky spoke of having to reassure Israelis that was not an illegal immigrant. She also described visiting her parent’s home in Guangzhou when she realized that Israel is now the only place in the world she feels truly at home.

I imagine that my own path down the road of China-Jewish ties will not bring me into conflict with quite the same challenges faced by my new friend Vicky W. Whatever my path is, however, I have no doubt that the folks I met in my last week in Jerusalem will prove integral in the road ahead.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Jerusalem Through Her Eyes

Imagine if you had no memory of the first time you laid eyes on the person with whom you will spend the rest of your life. Friends ask how you met and you have no answer. "Its like she was always by my side" is the best you can offer. Or if you take another second, you may compare the lack of any definitive virgin memory to a child's relationship to his mother. Yet again, she was simply always there.

I do not know whether mother or wife is the more apt metaphor to capture the full flavor of my affinity for Jerusalem and Israel. But I do know that I cannot for the life of me recall my first visit to the land and city I today call home. My family visited Israel regularly during my childhood. The first visit may have even come when I was less than a few months old, as was the case with my three week old younger brother when he traveled to Israel for Chanukah in 1990. Whenever it was, that magical moment when I first laid eyes on the walls of the Old City remains a memory I can only conjure in my imagination.

Fortunately there is a halfway station between reality and desire. And while I have not figured out exactly what that station is, I do know that it is found in friendship. Found, that is, in the emotional trust one creates via sustained communication with friends. The key idea here is that only communication has the power to bring to life our thoughts and dreams. And so only through sharing the ideas that occupy our mental lives do these ideas become real, become true.

On Sunday August 2 I had the chance to engage my lost memory of encountering Jerusalem for the first time when I showed a close friend around the city. There are many ways of communicating outside of speech-- sharing my altneuland, the Old New city of my past and present, with a close friend is certainly among them. As we looked over the city from the tayelet overlook in south Jerusalem, her living experience conjured my own buried memory. Her first sight of the morning light dancing off the Old City walls became my own. Her first ascent to the Temple Mount, first prayer at the Western Wall, first stroll towards Damascus Gate--all were wholly her own experience and yet in my sharing them with her, they also in some sense became my own.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Shabbat Shel Sinim & Heroes for Our Time

I have spent dozens of shabbatot in Jerusalem. Yet August 1, my last Shabbat in Jerusalem before reporting to kibbutz, is the first shabbat that has ever merited the title of 'Shabbat Shel Sinim,' a shabbat of the Chinese.

On Friday night I was on my way back from the Kotel, just past the Tower of David by Jaffa Gate, when I spotted three young Chinese tourists. They were stunned when I asked them, in Chinese, where in China they are from. I was impressed myself when the three visitors from Hong Kong informed me there were traveling the region sans a tour guide, making these the first Chinese backpackers I have ever met in my global travels.

When I pointed to my kippa to explain that I could not accompany them on the morrow to Bethlehem, they asked why my head covering differed from all the Hasids that were passing us on their way home from prayers. For the next thirty minutes we shared a fascinating discussion in Chinese on the peculiarities of Hasidic fashion. The highlight came when one of the Chinese tourists asked me whether Hasidim dress in black furs out of respect for Moses and the other biblical figures that dressed in a similar style in ancient Canaan. No, I regretfully informed them, Moses and friends probably looked like Bedouin. The Hasidim are actually channeling the fashion sense of the Middle Age Polish aristocracy, though in their eyes it is a custom they sustain out of respect for the European rebbes who adopted the dress of their influential neighbors.

I said goodbye to the three tourists and raced westward to the family that had graciously invited me to join them for shabbat dinner. En route I was stopped in my tracks for the second time when I spotted another group of Chinese tourists. They were standing outside the King David Hotel, across from the grand YMCA headquarters in the center of West Jerusalem. Again I asked them in Chinese where they were from. Again they answered Hong Kong with their eyes expressing their shock at the words pouring out of my mouth. I only had time to ask them about their itinerary before I wished them a shabbat shalom and continued my race towards Jabotinsky Street.

Over shabbat I would meet many other fascinating folks. Another guest at my dinner was an elderly Austrian gentleman who father, Dr. Soski, had been a close associate of the pre-state Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. At lunch the next day I set beside an American-Israeli who had served as a senior research scientist for the Israeli Air Force for twenty-two years before retiring to become a high school math teacher this past fall.

It was another lunch guest, however, who turned out to be the most compelling find over shabbat. It too me till dessert to realize that the polite elderly man sitting across from me was none other than Ralph Goldman, the pioneering leader of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Better known around the world as the Joint, it is largely thanks to Ralph that the organization has so successfully aided Jews across the world over the last six decades.

I was first introduced to Ralph's work this past January, when I spent two unforgettable shabbatot in Addis Ababa by the home of Dr. Rick Hodes. Dr. Rick has devoted his life to caring for seriously ill children in Ethiopia. The Joint has supported his work since he first arrived in the East African country in the 1980s. Surrounded by the dozen or so Ethiopian children Dr. Rick has adopted, I read a book over shabbat called "I Seek My Brethen: Ralph Goldman and the 'Joint'." The book provides a sweeping history of the crises faced by world Jewry in the second half of the twentieth century. At the center of this history is a visionary humanitarian and skillful diplomat known as Ralph by heads of state in Washington, Moscow and Tel-Aviv.

Ralph and I spoke briefly about China, and he agreed that there was so much work the Jewish people needed to do in East Asia. I doubt I made the most of my lunchtime encounter with the sort of genuinely inspiring leader that seems all too rare in today's day and age. But I am thankful all the same for the chance I had. Moreover, it gave me renewed excitement for the many shabbatot that await me in Jerusalem and around Israel in the weeks and year ahead.