Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yom HaDin HaSheni

Tomorrow is Yom Sayerot, the gatekeeper to all the gibushim [field tests] for the most elite units (Matkal, Shaldag, Shayetet, Unit 669, etc) in the IDF. The last week, with the flurry of holidays, fast days and late night slichot prayers, may not have been the most ideal way to prepare for the six hours of physical tests--think sprints and sandbag runs--that await me tomorrow evening. Or perhaps the week of spiritual overdosing, with the grand finale of Yom Kippur, is exactly what I will need come tomorrow.

Either way, Yom HaDin II awaits in less than twenty-four hours.

K'ish Echad, B'lev Echad: Yom Kippur on Kibbutz

How was Yom Kippur by Kibbutz Tirat Zvi?

Spirited and soulful. And yet also down to earth. To wit, the schedule allotted five minutes for the community rabbi to speak to the congregation before the concluding prayer of Ne'ilah. When the previous mincha prayer ran a few minutes late, the rabbi knew his marching orders and kept his remarks to a sparse two minutes!

The highlight of the day came at the end, moments before the final shofar blast. After standing by my lonesome since seven am, I was suddenly surrounded by a horde of squawking, smiling children. The kids were all over the bimah, excited to be in synagogue after spending most of the day away from their parents. As the chazzan led us in a rhythmic cry of 'ה' הוא אלו-ים' my eyes traveled around the crowded hall, taking in the laundry-ladies, lifeguard, date farmers, meat plant staff...in short, the entire population of the kibbutz. And for the first time in my life, I truly appreciated the words from the U'netaneh Tokef prayer "And all mankind will pass before You like members of the flock."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Day Cometh

Some folks love Thanksgiving. Many Jewish friends of mine swear by Pesach. My favorite holiday?

Yom Kippur.

I was not always a Yom Kippur Jew. It took the awesome surroundings of Yeshivat Har Etzion, praying alongside hundreds of my peers, teachers and roshei yeshiva, to open my eyes to the beauty of Judaism's most sacred day. One of my key concerns when I left Israel for university in Baltimore was whether I would find a community, a prayer service, where I could sustain my connection with Yom Kippur.

Yeshivat Ner Yisroel my first year was good but not quite me. Luckily the next year I found my Yom Kippur home. For the last three years I have prayed with the NYU Student Minyan, relying on the mesmerizing service led by Rabbis Sarna and Korn to provide me with the once a year experience I could not do without.

Now I am back in Israel for the first time since I fell in love with what it means to devote an entire day to stepping outside and within, twenty-four hours given over to contemplating past, present and future, an entire day to embrace Judaism's core value of teshuva.

A lot has changed in my life since I wrote to many of you in September 2008. After a year in Washington, I have taken dual citizenship and returned to Israel. My current home is a modest kibbutz along the Jordanian border, full of date trees, a meat-packing plant and a roving band of peacocks. Two weeks ago I was drafted into the Israel Defense Force. In two short months, I will don a green uniform and report for basic training. The times, as a fellow Minnesotan once sang, are a changin'

After November it will become increasingly more difficult to keep in touch. Please help me out and write as you can. I will do my best to quickly respond, via this blog and of course through personal correspondence.

On my ride into kibbutz this morning, a beautiful rendition of Untaneh Tokef, the one prayer of the High Holidays that no listener ever forgets, was playing on the radio. The strange bit was that the station had no religious affiliation. Later my kibbutz mother explained that the tune playing on the radio was composed on a nearby kibbutz after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when dozens of young men fell in the terrible fighting. The tune has became part of Israeli culture, and so every year, as Israelis prepare for Yom Kippur and recall the harrowing days of October 1973.

Finally, to those who missed Leonard Cohen's final public performance, in front of 50,000 admiring fans in Tel Aviv, David Horovitz's article in the Jerusalem Post does as much as anything to capture the poignancy of the performance. Read here.

Where are All the Girls at?

Why have you not dated, Sammy? I'm sure [there have been some girls] who were charmed by you. Was there just no one good enough?

I like to think I can provide friends with answers to anything they ask of me, especially when the request is of a personal nature. This question, received from a dear friend shortly before Yom Kippur, had me stumped. And it was of little consolation that I have asked myself the same question on Yom Kippur for the last several years.

Some emendations are in order. I have dated, if only once (a three week romance by telephone, for all its magic, does not count). And I have wanted to date a half-dozen other times. So I am fairly well versed in learning to live with rejection.

But the question is what it is. And despite the best of intentions, here I am: On the brink of Yom Kippur, with the past year good for little more than memories, and not only will I again be asking myself this question, now even my friends are expecting a response!

This note is not dedicated to my parents. Nevertheless they surely are awaiting an answer with far more anticipation than anyone else. So when it comes, I will make sure to dedicate that note to them!

Shabbat in Safed

Obama sucks, the Druze will stab you in the back and though army service is for sinners, it is a crying shame the IDF does not get rid of all the Arabs. So I was told by the Jewish family who shared their shabbat lunch with me this past weekend in Zfat. Putting up with their racist harangue was not easy, especially as it tarnished what otherwise was a commendable display of shabbat hospitality. I did my best to keep silent out of respect for that very hospitality, reminding myself that I have held my tongue in the face of more abusive diatribes in Egypt and Syria. At least this time around, my hosts’ political extremism brought home a lesson I hope to never transgress: no politics at the Shabbat table!

The conversation over lunch in Zfat was pretty rotten. But there were many wonderful, even marvelous, take-aways from my weekend sojourn in the azure alleyways of Zfat.

Shortly before sundown on Friday eve I dipped in the mikva of the Ari, the natural spring and ritual bath named after the great mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria. Friday night prayers took place in a small yeshiva overlooking Mount Meron, the view that gives Zfat its name and identity (the village of Meron is the burial place of Simon Bar Yochai, the second century legendary author of the key mystical work, the Zohar; Zfat literally means ‘view’). The prayers were filled with song and soul, never more so than at the end when a visiting group of secular air-force soldiers slipped in to join the largely breslov/carlebach crowd of worshipers.

For dinner I joined a family who have fashioned a home from the stone remnant of the town’s mountaintop crusader ruins. We ate by candlelight, drinking home-made wine and exchanging Torah as I marveled at the host’s reflexive tendency to whisper "l'kavod shabbos" (in honor of the shabbat) before consuming every bite of food. After dinner my host took me to the home of a visiting Hasidic rebbe. The old man’s hands melted in my own when he took my hand. But his blessing for my welfare and safety in the year ahead was firm and clear.

My visit to Zfat left me with its own blessing, a timely reminder of the spiritual axis that is critical to my Judaism and that I cannot afford to relinquish in the army. Serving in the army will no doubt strengthen my commitment to my people. And returning to kibbutz on weekends will provides me with accessible meals, laundry and friends. But neither the army nor kibbutz is likely to provide what I found in Zfat, that corner of my spiritual faith that not only teaches me how to improve the world but also leaves me with a clearer understanding of myself and my surroundings.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Benefit of a Small Audience

My mother is worried. If her concern was due only to my impending army service, there is little I could do besides offer reassurance and leave it at that. Such is the unenviable fate for the families of Israel! Fortunately my mother's worry has proximate cause, one that can be readily resolved with a little assistance from readers of this blog.

First, some back story:

Over the long afternoons of Rosh Hashanah, I reread the letters of Yoni Netanyahu and Alex Singer, two of the all too many soldiers that have fallen in defense of Israel. Yoni is a national hero, known to one generation as the courageous commander of the daring hostage-rescue mission in 1976 in Entebbe, and to the contemporary era as the older brother and role-model of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Alex is not quite as famous, though to overseas volunteers like myself his story has a special poignancy since Alex was also an American born volunteer in the IDF (Yoni actually was also a chayal boded [a foreign volunteer in the IDF whose family is overseas], as his family moved to the USA in his first year of high school).

Both families responded to the death of their son and brother by publishing the letters he composed while preparing and then serving as a soldier in the IDF. And so today readers can open the pages of The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu (later published under the name Self Portrait of a Hero) and Alex: Building a Life and explore the heart and soul of two remarkable individuals who gave their lives for a people and a cause they sincerely believed in.

I have read both books dozens of times. Since discovering Yoni's Letters at age ten, I have returned to the book repeatedly, each time discovering new insight from a young man who lived a life of startling integrity. Two years ago, in my third year of university, I chanced upon the story of Alex. The words and sketches that fill his letters are the modest twin to the more celebrated written legacy of Yoni. Alex did not command Sayeret Matkal nor was he a recipient of one of Israel's highest military honors. Yet his insights and tribulations as a soldier and officer in the paratroops speak volumes about his courage and humanity.

One can learn a lot from either young man. The lesson my mother took from observing my reading the memoirs of two of Israel's fallen soldiers was worry. And so when she called me a few days after Rosh Hashanah, my mother urged me to look for a publisher of this blog. Now. Today. That is, before anything untoward possibly happens in the future.

The problem, of course, is that with rare exceptions (and I have read the English language exceptions, like Lonely Soldier, Brotherhood of Warriors and Company C!), few folks are excited to read about anybody until something dramatic, usually tragic, occurs. Shock and awe win readers, even if they do not always win wars.

And so, I explained to me mum, the fact that so few people read my blog (and hence make the idea of publishing a book fairly silly) is just as well. I have zero interest in suffering harm to increase readership. If fewer readers means I am safe and sound, then so be it!

Hence, a new policy: If you refrain from becoming a regular reader, I will not be in the least disappointed. Instead I will understand that you are acting out of a sincere desire to keep readership low and hence assure my loved ones that all is well with yours truly!

Friday, September 18, 2009

My Lost Spark: Self-Sacrific Lost and Desired

There are two kinds of people in life, especially in the army: those who look out for their own needs and then consider their work done and those who look to assist the community after their personal needs are satisfied. You have to know, to decide, which kind of person you will be.

Failure taught me these words. I had disappointed Dalia, the volunteer coordinator of my garin, brushing off her unspoken request to sweep the common room after I finished cleaning my own space. She saw me a few minutes later and the look in her eyes conveyed whatever disappointment was absent from her verbal reprimand.

Perhaps the disappointment I saw was merely a reflection of my own inner turmoil. After all, the eyes are the windows to the soul. A few days earlier, on Rosh Hashana afternoon, I had reread the Letters of Yoni Netanyahu. Yoni's final letter, addressed to his girlfriend shortly before his death in the daring hostage rescue operation in Entebbe, describes an inner crisis that I have grappled with for the last few years. On June 29 1976 Yoni writes,

I find myself at a critical stage in my life, facing a profound inner crisis that has been disturbing my whole frame of reference for a long time…I am tired most of the time, but that’s only part of the problem—I have lost the spark that is so vital for any achievement, the spark of creative joy, of self-renewal, of reawakening.

My own spark slipped from my grasp in my second year in university, after a series of experiences cracked the drive and vigor that had become second nature in high school and yeshiva in Israel. The Sammy that started university in 2005 would never have failed to look out for communal needs. Years of exposure and hands-on leadership experience at summer camps, Jewish high school and yeshiva in Israel had provided me with the background, confidence and sense of responsibility to better my Jewish community at university. I was a whirlwind of sensitivity and drive during my first two years in college, organizing, promoting, problem-solving...there was no end. Most nights I turned-in after two AM, having only put aside community tasks at ten o'clock for several hours of arduous Chinese and other homework assignments.

I never cracked. There was no magical morning, no moment when I walked into the Hillel building and announced I was done putting others ahead of myself. I lost my spark from a convergence of events, some so beautiful that I still feel a tug at my throat when the memories come to mind. Most of these events, of course, were far from pretty, and the tar they left on my activist soul has been difficult to remove till today.

When I stepped away from a leadership position in the Jewish community in my final year of university, my friends and family figured stress, frustration and alienation had pushed me over the edge. They were not too far off the mark. The longer and the more I gave to the community, the less I felt that my work was either appreciated or, more critically, inspiring my peers to elevate our community. What I did feel was growing alienation, a reality captured by a fellow student who described my role in the Jewish community as a jukebox, the robotic programmer who ensured there was always music but never joined the gang dancing to the tunes. Leadership can be a very lonely place, especially when the sense of responsibility one feels so deeply is shared by few of your peers. The responsibility I felt and my activities in response led me to form very few human relationships during my first two years in university. Few friends and disappointment with my work make for a potent brew, particularly in the stressful academic environment that is Johns Hopkins. And so the charge that I retreated from the Jewish community due to frustration is fair. Up to a point.

My disenchantment culminated at the end of my sophomore year when I organized an exhibit in memory of a friend who was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War. Thanks to the selfless contributions of friends and volunteers, the exhibit was displayed to great effect at some two dozen campuses and community centers around the world. I hoped that my fellow student leaders at Hopkins would assist me in hosting the exhibit on campus. At the very least I looked forward to my own student community displaying a similar level of interest to the impressive response audiences around the world had showed in the exhibit. In the end neither my hopes nor expectations were fulfilled. With a few laudable exceptions, no one in the community made the slightest effort to assist or even view the exhibit. Instead the message was sent, all the louder by the communal absence, that no one cared.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. That same spring term also saw me grappling with the teachings of two scholars, two giants of twentieth century Judaism, Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Soloveitchik's philosophical writings are consumed by the existential loneliness that religious man confronts in modern society. Loneliness is also a motif in Heschel's discussion of the prophetic individual, although the key characteristic of Heschel's ideal figure is an overwhelming concern with God's concern for mankind. "The world," Heschel writes, "is at ease and asleep [and only] the prophet feels the blast from heaven… [his] word is a scream in the night."

The ideal figures described so beautifully by Soloveitchik and Heschel left me inspired. But I was also shaken, stunned by how closely their words captured my travails on behalf of my student community. However flattering it may have been to find my predicament akin to the challenges faced by Soloveitchik's man of faith and Heschel's prophet, the respite both figures find in either companionship or divine faith was beyond my ken.

When the spring semester ended I returned home to put my interpretation of Soloveitchik and Heschel to paper. In July a close friend was to marry and I wished to include an essay on the two scholars in the journal of Jewish thought his friends were creating (surprise!) for his wedding. For five nights I was a ghost in my home, spending the nights wrestling with the words of Soloveitchik and Heschel as my reflection gazed back at me from the luminous computer screen. I thought. I stared. And when my paper, "In Search of Man: The Ideal Jew of Rabbis A.J. Heschel and J.B. Soloveitchik," was finished I departed for China, flying to the other side of the world for the very first time with a score of questions still ringing in my head.

My summer in China provided few answers. But it did leave me with a different attitude, no longer driven to marshal the same level of enthusiasm and creativity for communal work. Ironically the impetuous for my new attitude came through the close friendship I developed with An Kaxin, another student on my summer language program. My relationship with An Kaxin upset my previous prioritizing of communal needs ahead of personal desires.

An Kaxin's influence was also central in my growing sympathy for the Chinese school of thought that suggests man must subsume his self within nature, accepting and embracing the flow of life. This philosophy was one among many that I had studied over the past spring term in a course on ancient Chinese thought. Initially Confucianism, with its hallowed injunctions on the merits of responsibility and self-sacrifice, appealed to me more than the selfish themes I found in Daoism. I grew more attuned to Daoist themes, however, over the summer in China. The following story, one of my favorite stories from the Daoist sage Zhuangzi, richly captures the challenge Daoist themes pose to my prior attachment to tenets of self-sacrifice and communal responsibility.

Zhuangzi was angling by the River Pu when two officials from the Kingdom of Chu approached. "Our Lord invites you to become his high official and run the kingdom," the men told Zhuangzi. Without looking up from his pole, Zhuangzi remarked, "I have heard that in the Kingdom of Chu there is a sacred turtle. It has been dead three thousand years and the king of Chu keeps it in a silken box, stored in the ancestral hall. Now would that turtle rather have its bones treasured in death or be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?" "It would rather be alive and drag its tail in the mud," replied the officials. "Go then," intoned Zhuangzi, "And leave me to drag my tail in the mud as well."

When Dalia looked me in the eye and asked what kind of person I am, self-centered or self-sacrificing, I blinked and thought of the last few years and the lessons from Johns Hopkins, Soloveitchik, Heschel, An Kaxin, Zhuangzi and Yoni Netanyahu. And then I opened my eyes and told her the truth: I want to rekindle the drive and sensitivity from my past. I need to believe that I can balance that energy with the sobering lessons I learned in university. I want and I need. But who am I today? Perhaps that is another question I expect my army service to help resolve.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Destiny in a Date Box: Sweetest Start to the New Year!

"We have to go outside now," Leah Gilboa told me when I stopped by her house on Thursday September 17, shortly before I headed down to Jerusalem to spend the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, with my parents. "We need to pick some fresh dates so you can give them to your mother for Rosh Hashana."

My mind racing, I stared in shock at the mother of Yotam, my friend who fell in the Second Lebanon War (see here).

"Leah," I finally mumbled, "prophecy has returned to the people of Israel, right here in the secular kibbutz of Maoz Hayim. How else could you have possibly known that I have spent all week searching in vain for fresh dates to bring to my mother for the holiday?"

Leah just smiled. And then she grabbed me by the hand and hustled me outside to assist her and her son with the very rewarding work of collecting two cartons worth of unbelievably luscious dates.

As sweet as the dates are (wow, wow, wow wow...land of milk and HONEY indeed), they cannot compare to the genuine warmth of Leah, her husband Yosi and their two surviving sons. Not only did they insist I see their family as my own, but they made me feel so at home during my visit that all I could think of as my bus drove south to Jerusalem was how quickly I could get a bike that would allow me make the twenty minute trip between our kibbutzim a regular occurrence.

Yossi Gilboa laughed away my suggestion that perhaps there is a touch of destiny in my living so close to the childhood home of a friend whose life set an example that helps explains why I am here. And his wife only smiled when she unknowingly provided me with the very dates that my mother desired.

Normally I would not insist on reading hidden meaning into everyday life. But in a few hours, Jews around the world will gather to ring in the new year with special prayers and ritual foods reserved for the holiday of Rosh Hashana. All the prayers and foods, all the shofar blasts and readings from the Torah, are designed to remind us that there is a creator and a purpose to our lives. Nothing happens purely by accident. Not dates. Not aliyah. And certainly not the enduring influence our friends and family leave on our lives.

There is a beautiful line from the prayers of Rosh Hashana that reads, "And when the great shofar is blown, a silent voice is heard." Dema'mah, the silent voice, also means quiet. And so our Sages understand the great shofar to be the day of Shabbat, the beautiful silence of Jewish life that accompanies us throughout the year. This year the first day of Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat and so we will not blow one hundred blasts on the shofar. Instead we will wield the great shofar, and if we are fortunate, be reminded of the gift of Shabbat.

Two Ramons and a Samurai

The Jewish year 5769 closed with the bizarre and the tragic.

On Tuesday September 15 a Johns Hopkins University student killed an intruder in his off-campus Baltimore home. As a recent Hopkins graduate all too aware of the Baltimore crime scene, the incident quickly grabbed my attention. The otherwise pedestrian death of a repeat offender soon grabbed everyone's attention, however, because the student killed the intruder with a five foot long samurai sword.

Bizarre. Bizarre enough, in fact, to inspire reams of silly one-liners and even a sarcastic website.

And yet tragic. A man's life cut short, the horror and pain a stark reality no matter how many petty robberies he had on his rap sheet. And a student's life forever altered. With his own hands, in his own home, he cut a man to pieces. Not the easiest memory to forget from his college years.

Two days earlier, Sunday September 13, Israelis began their week with the news that a young air-force pilot had died when his F16 crashed during a routine training exercise. The tragic death of a 19 year old was deepened by the unfairly bizarre identity of the fallen cadet: Assaf Ramon.

Six years earlier, Assaf's father, Ilan Ramon, Israel's first and only astronaut, died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Shortly after the tragedy, Assaf indicated that he intended to follow in his father's footsteps. Assaf made good on his pledge, winning acceptance to Israel's elite fighter-pilots course and, like his father, graduating as the valedictorian last fall. When he was recognized as the outstanding cadet, his commanders spoke about his courage and humility, two traits characteristic of his father. And now, like his father, Assaf's mission was cut short. Downed in flight.

Rarely is a soldier's death in training cause for national mourning. Yet Israelis of all stripes mourned the double tragedy of the Ramon family. Many questioned the merit of permitting sons to serve in dangerous units if their family has already suffered the death of a father or elder brother in uniform. Yet Assaf's youth and Ilan's heroism only partly explain the national trauma. With growing fear over Iran's nuclear capabilities, a death in the Ramon family reminds Israelis of Ilan's participation in Israel's daring destruction of the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Politics aside, Israelis mourned with the Ramons because in a society that so often feels like a bickering family, a country where nearly everyone has a son or daughter in the army, no family ever mourns alone.

David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, rightly called attention to the same sentiment when he wrote:

Nobody beyond these borders, however familiar with Israel, can have quite understood the extent of the grief here at the loss of the stellar son of our meteoric astronaut....Assaf Ramon was the scion of a national hero, Ilan Ramon, who was an exemplar of courage and skill, morality and humility--our highest aspirations. Assaf had begun to inherit that mantle. And now he has been downed and shattered

Two deaths this week, one in my old home the other in the new. Although there is little reason to associate the two tragedies, the year 5769 concluded with the two events entwined in my mind. Lives cut short. Forever.

Space Age Socks

Enlisting in the army demands a great deal of sacrifice. For volunteers like myself, the sacrifice is part of the ordeal and may even be desired. But for our families, the sacrifice is involuntary and even unexpected. They do not choose to worry. Nor, for that matter, to invest in twenty-dollar space age commando socks.

Granted, soldiers have survived without slipping their feet into a snazzy pair of synthetic, extra padded, knee-high combat socks. The Maccabees, far as I know, got by sans socks with leather strap sandals. Then again, if the choice is between two years of bloody blisters and a pricey pair of socks, my vote is for the comfy stocking.

Comfort is actually only the second reason most Israeli combat soldiers invest in socks. The main reason is that the IDF simply does not provide enough. And so when the half dozen cotton socks the army provides fall apart in basic training, everyone scrambles for replacements. Some folks go for more cotton temps. But the gold standard is a jacked up, cushy pair of knee-length Thorlos. Only problem is they cost upwards of $18. Hence the sacrifice.

Haim Watzman, author of Company C and A Crack in the Earth, captured the enduring sacrifice of army socks on the blog South Jerusalem. Watzman wrote in May 2008:

When I reached reserve retirement age I thought I had done my part for my country and that I, and my bank account, could rest on our laurels. Surely, I reasoned, by the time my children reach military age someone in the quartermaster corps will have realized that a pair of socks does not last for six months...Instead, the opposite happened. The army cut back further on supplies, and technology advanced. We are now in the age of the laser rifle sight, the smart bomb, and the $23 commando sock… I’m proud to have a boy who has chosen such a difficult and demanding way of serving his country. But must I pay through the nose for the naches?

I came across Watzman's comments--and the endearing response his comments received from another blog--while searching for the right pair of socks. My sister had offered to bring a high class pair of army socks when she visited Israel in September for Sukkot. As we both quickly discovered, there are a blizzard of high class socks, designed for hikers and sportsmen of every persuasion. So in order to quickly find what I needed, I went right to the source, making a skype call to far off North Carolina to speak to the family owned company that is the world's premier designer of high-end stockings.

Between the trans-Atlantic static and a heavy southern accent, every word I could make out from North Carolina was precious. So it was a relief when the words "go for the moderate cushion Anti-Fatigue Socks" came through seconds before the line cut off. A week later and I will be the proud owner of three black pairs of space age socks. No doubt the first of many sacrifices to come.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Time to Answer the Question

"Nu, where will you be serving in the Israel army? What unit do you want to be in?"

Everyone in Israel asks me this question after hearing that I am enlisting this November. The easy answer is that I am heading for an infantry unit. But the easy answer ducks what they want to hear. Each of the five infantry brigades has its own character, its own legends, and so the easy answer fails to explain whether I will be adopting the persona of Golani, Givati, Kfir, Nachal or Tzanchanim (paratroops). The easy answer also masks my motivation, failing to clarify whether I have my sights set on the army's elite units or a regular brigade.

The reality is that I have a pretty good sense of where I want to serve in the army. And so as long as my body and mind do not fail me in gibushim, I see myself enlisting in an elite unit. From my very uninformed perch, elite combat units in the IDF consist of the following: At the top of the ladder are the air force and navy commando units, Shaldag and Shayetet, and most of all Sayeret Matkal, the elite squad that reports directly to the General Staff. The second rung includes a range of elite units like Egoz, the anti-guerrilla force affiliated with Golani, and the top two units affiliated with the paratroops, Maglan and Duvdevan. And the third rung consists of the three sayarot, reconnaissance squads, drawn directly from each infantry brigade.

Although my ambition is to serve within one of these elite units, I rarely say so. Instead my response to the constant inquiry of where I will be enlisting is that my goal is to serve in the most challenging combat position I am capable of. Part of my muted response stems from a mish-match of ignorance and modesty about whether I am really the right candidate for an elite unit. The heart of my response, however, lies in my aversion to allowing the idea of where I am going outpace the reality of where I am. Put another way, I am a believer in the Confucian ethic of not allowing words to eclipse deeds. The same ethos led me to defer informing others of my aliyah and army plans until this summer, when I was finally prepared to realize the dual dreams I have nurtured for a decade.

On Monday September 14 I was finally forced to provide a more definitive answer to the question of where I wish to serve in the army when a team of army officers arrived on kibbutz to collect the manila I had received the previous Wednesday. The manila had come with a list of army units (artillery, tanks, engineer, the various infantry brigades) and instructions to rank my preferences, one to five, on where I want to enlist. My ranking was no trivial manner. Garin Tzabar all but guarantees that its members will receive their top choice. In other words, any Garin member who wants Golani, gets Golani. While Garin members still have to pass the rigorous gibushim required for the paratroops (tzanchanim) and elite units, the ability to end up where we want in the army is a privilege rarely accorded to anyone else (i.e. Israelis and foreign volunteers) who enlists in the IDF.

Ranking my choice units was the easy part. Slots three through five went to Golani, Givati and Nachal, with my second choice Tzanchanim (paratroops) as much as for the elite units (Maglan, Duvdevan) that one tests into through the paratroops than for the brigades’ storied history. My top spot was reserved for Yom Sayerot, indicating that I want the chance to attend the two day gibush that screens which candidates will be invited to the five day field tests for the most elite units (Matkal, Shaldag, Shayetet & the elite rescue unit known as Unit 669).

The tough bit came when I was called out for the first of three successive interviews with the IDF officers. In each interview I was asked to give an abridged life story before the officers asked the question: where do I want to serve? This time my answer was for keeps so I bucked routine and told them that while I wanted the opportunity to field test for the very top units in the IDF, my goal was that I would prove capable of Duvdevan or Maglan.

The second officer I spoke with carefully marked down my response before coming back at me with a full broadside. What if I proved incapable of passing any gibush? Why did I want to serve in Golani ahead of the more foreigner friendly environs of the Nachal brigade? And why did I persist in seeking a unit that would provide a physical rather than mental challenge—was I prepared to waste the skill-set I had laboriously cultivated over four years of college and graduate school?

None of the questions caught me off balance. Failing a gibush, I explained to the officer, will leave me with valuable lessons and only further motivation to press forward in the regular unit to which I am assigned. Nachal does not attract me because the brigade is known for having a heavy contingent of foreign volunteers, especially Americans, and one of the key reasons I am enlisting is to integrate with the full sweep of Israel society. And yes, I am searching for a mainly physical challenge in my army service. Not because I do not value what I have learned in university. I see the next two years as a chance to round out my experience, confronting me with challenges the like of which I have never encountered. Unlike most draftees, I am not heading to the army with little sense of what I want to do after the army. My future aspirations do not lie in forever fine-tuning the martial disciplines I will learn in the army. Instead I expect to tap the whole of my experience, and especially my years in university, and thus the next two years offer me a chance to engage something that would otherwise remain forever foreign.

The questions posed in my interviews were only a small part of the barrage of queries the officers meted out in a thirty page written questionnaire. Although the officers assured us that the questionnaire could only assist us—and despite the fact we all completed the two hour plus exam in English—the intensely personal nature of the questions called for a great degree of attention.

Some questions were absurd, like when I was asked to list my two least favorite classes over the last few years and I had trouble deciding which of my all too many economic courses merited inclusion.

The most intriguing questions came in the first section, which consisted of sixty sentences we had to complete in twenty minutes. The section began with easy lobs like “A good father is one who ____” yet also included many variations of “When I fail I ____.” I am really not quite sure whether I religiously followed the instructions to simply write down the first thought that came to mind when reading the start of each sentence. Be that as it may, I ended two-thirds of my sentences with some variation of (a) I dislike when I am misunderstood and (b) I am deeply motivated to give my all.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Manilas and the Army Job Fair at Tel HaShomer

Do you remember when your college acceptance letter came in the mail? Imagine if the same letter, folded into a small, manila envelope, had also included your SAT/ACT grades, informing you not only where you would be going but also the grades that had determined your fate. Such a letter is perhaps the closest approximation of the infamous manila that Israeli students receive in their last year of high school. Just like the letter young Americans found in their mailboxes before the draft was rescinded in 1973, the manila informs Israeli students of their draft date and lists what positions they can have in the IDF based on their performance at tzav rishon. In popular culture, the day the manila arrives is akin to when Americans head off to college. Childhood is left behind as eighteen year olds prepare to live away from home with unfamiliar faces in an environment that is like nothing they have encountered in the past.

One of the key scenes in Turn Left at the End of the World, an all too sexy Israeli movie we watched in ulpan on Wednesday September 9, takes place when the main characters receive their manilas, signaling their exit from the dysfunctional world of their new immigrant families. When my own manila arrived later in the day, the reality was not quite as exciting. Perhaps my mundane reaction reflects the fact that not only have I been living away from my family since age 14 but the day I decided to put an ocean in between my immediate family occurred many months ago. Or perhaps my response reflects the modest reality of my actual manila, a single slip of paper handed over by my madricha Michal with the celebrated manila envelope nowhere in sight.

After giving everyone in my garin the piece of paper listing what they can do in the army, Michal confirmed that all the guys had received profiles of 97. And then she dropped the real bomb: Save for the four garin members whose draft status remains in limbo (due to a variety of physical and background issues), none of us would be heading to Mikve Alon, the dreaded army ulpan for new conscripts whose Hebrew is not up to snuff.

The next day all 210 members of Garin Tzabar met in Tel HaShomer, the same army base on the outskirts of Tel Aviv we will be returning to in late November when we start the IDF. This time we were there for an army job fair, the Israeli military’s chance to introduce us to the many positions we can choose in the army. The manilas we had received the day before had not closed any doors, meaning that Garin Tzabar members could go anywhere in the IDF they desired. As most of the guys are only familiar with the famous infantry brigades like Tzanchanim (Paratroopers) and Golani, the Tel HaShomer fairground was designed to widen our horizons.

Widen our horizons is another way of saying that all the units in the army that rarely receive highly motivated, foreign volunteers were on display. Chayil HaAvir (Air Force), Modiin (intelligence), and the more respected infantry brigades (Givati, Golani ,Nachal, Tzanchanim) were noticeably absent. In their place were snappy presentations by Pikud Ha’Oref (Home Front Command, essentially search and rescue), Mishmar HaGvul, colloquially known as Magav (Border Police), Shir'yon (Tank Brigade), Totchanim (artillery), Modiin Sadeh (field intelligence), and Kfir, the newest and frankly the least respected of the army’s infantry units.

Magav probably had the most impressive presentation, including a heart pounding and inspiring five minute film comparable to anything coming out of Hollywood (the opening sequence in the Magav movie was even hilariously ripped straight from the shining searchlight scene used by 20th Century Fox). While the Border Police have four special units (Matilan, intelligence gathering; Yamag, rapid deployment anti-crime and terror team; Yamas, undercover anti-terror; and above all, Yamam, Israel’s most elite hostage rescue unit) that are on par with the most elite combat teams in the regular army, the general consensus is that most positions in Magav are far from challenging or rewarding. Hence the all out PR blitz, which seemed to do the job because even those that failed to express interest in joining Magav were openly admiring the unit’s PR staff.

I was only too happy to leave Tel HaShomer when the job fair mercifully ended four hours after it began. The most impressive thing I had seen was a massive D9 armored bulldozer. The most impressive thing I heard was a moving speech by former Israeli general Yosi Eldar, who fought off the Syrians alongside Avigdor Kahalani as a tank commander during the harrowing days of the Yom Kippur War. Eldar ended his remarks by standing in front of all 210 members of Garin Tzabar with an Israeli flag. He looked directly at the crowd and with tears in his eyes, asked our generation to promise to defend the country as ably as our predecessors.

Shabbat in Jerusalem & a Burkey Tekes Hashba'a

Shabbat in Jerusalem in September. Simply writing those words, or better yet speaking them out loud, feels marvelous. Experiencing such a shabbat, with the cool wind, the coming holidays, and crowds of peach fuzzed rookie soldiers and students, never gets old. Especially when you have a chance to spend the Shabbat with your parents, as I did on September 12.

Shabbat passed quickly. We enjoyed a divine carrot cake, broke bread with neighbors who have named each of their children after fallen soldiers or terror victims (like Alex Singer), and even found time to practice yoga courtesy of my mother's recent obsession with the meditative practice.

Saturday night was time for the first selichot prayer, a nightly ritual of special penitential prayers recited in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom HaKippur. With my attention focused on gibushim and my enlistment in November, I have not given as much thought to the core holidays of Jewish tradition like I would prefer. Selichot are designed to change that, though during late night selichot in the HaNasi Synagogue in Jerusalem, my thoughts drifted back to my college years and the small group of guys and girls that would gather every night during the most difficult stretch of school for the hour of extra evening prayer.

Before returning to kibbutz early on Monday morning, I watched Adrian Peterson stomp all over the Browns in the opening day of the NFL season. I also took a lovely walk through the breezy byways of the Arab shuk, with every face bringing back vivid memories of Egypt and Syria. The faces and memories reminded me how fond I am of Arab society, an affection I never really shared twelve months ago.

The reason I stayed an extra day in Jerusalem, however, was to attend the tekes hashba'a of Nechemya Burkey. Nechemya's family left such a compelling example of whole hearted hospitality on me that from my first (and second, third, forth...) visit five years ago, I decided there and then I needed to make aliyah so I too could create a home where I could practice the same degree of hospitality. I am not there yet. But with the new year on the horizon, I am certainly closer than ever before.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hello Midrasim, Goodbye Sandals

Enlisting in a modern army like the IDF does not come cheap. There are laundry lists of extra items--from Under-Armour apparel to the latest in Swiss army knife kits-- that sly salesmen and sensible veterans insist are critical for the modern soldier. I am a few months away from deciding what if any of these pricey items I will purchase. But I made my first investment shortly after returning to Israel from Beijing in late July. Today they arrived, a personalized pair of orthotics (midrasim), custom molded to the shape of my feet by a friendly American-Israeli physical therapist named Lisa who doubles as a fellow garin member's distant relative.

Wearing orthotics , Lisa informed me, is a lot like glasses. After my feet get used to them, I will never have a reason to remove them and worsen the posture and leg strength I have developed through wearing them. I was never a big fan of being chained to a pair of specs. But my sore knees need whatever help they can get. So if that means adding a slice of plastic and foam to my feet for the rest of my life, so be it.

The real challenge came later when I discovered that the orthotic do not fit into my pair of Columbia hiking sandals. These sandals have accompanied me on my travels over the last five years, trekking across the temples of Tibet, earthquake ravaged western China, and more ruins and vistas in Ethiopia and the Middle East than I can remember. They have also been my constant companions in more relaxed settings, serving as my go to shoes in Washington and on kibbutz.

Suddenly I was asked to place them aside. To reject two of the most steadfast companions one could ever ask for. They had never failed me. I had failed them.

Friday, September 11, 2009

China Journalizing from a Pillbox in Jabel Juhar

I arrived on kibbutz in early August having dodged a friend's request to stay in Jerusalem and help him open a new chapter in China's relations with Israel and the Jewish world. Sacrifice is part of the reason I will be joining the army come November so I never wavered in my decision to turn him down. My dodge was not, however, a total rejection. From my small room in the Valley of Bet She'an, I have remained a partner in a variety of projects to advance Sino-Israeli ties.

My initial activity was on behalf of the Israel Asia Center, the new advocacy headquarter for all things Asia in Israel (see here for prior note on the Center). The I/A Center had an ambitious plan to throw a grand coming out party in October. Speakers, locations, investors and even a catchy theme--celebrating China and Israel's 60 anniversaries--were all on the drawing board when the event came apart in late August due to differences of opinion amongst the founders of the center. Fortunately, before the sky fell in, I had yet to start working on the written program I was asked to create. So I escaped from the failed initiative with some lessons learned at little cost.

When the event came apart, one of the founders of the I/A Center quickly asked me to assist him in establishing the world's first international journal on the relationship between Asia and the Middle East. In order to give the journal a fighting chance of making it big, it is necessary to persuade a top-flight publishing house like Routledge to get behind the project. And in order to persuade them, a journal needs a killer proposal. Which is how I find myself writing a ten page proposal for an internationally refereed journal with the working title of The Inter Disciplinary Journal of Asian-Middle Eastern Studies, (nicely summarized as JAMES). With the help of friends in Washington and Nanjing--and with one very late night--the proposal was completed a full week before my deadline of Rosh Hashana.

What happens next is up to the publisher. I am confident they will embrace the project, though even if they do not I have already gained a great deal through conversations I had while writing the proposal with critical thinkers on the Sino-Middle East nexus like Ben Simpfendorfer, John Calabrese, John Chen and Aurora Carlson.

I am less sure how my involvement in the journal or other China related initiatives will evolve as my enlistment date approaches. A close friend captured the implausibility of my situation when he wrote "I can't wait to witness you managing the publication of an academic journal from a pillbox in Jabel Juhar....The fact that I can't picture it right now only increases the likelihood that it will happen, given that we are talking about you-know-who! ;)"

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mimi, Michael and the Heroes Among Us

Every one of the sixteen members of my garin has his or her own reason for deciding to move to Israel and join the army. On Wednesday night, September 9, one of the girls shared her reason. Mimi spoke briefly and did not tell many stories. Instead she invited us to watch A Hero in Heaven, a film made about Michael Levin, an American-born volunteer in the Israeli army who was killed three years ago in the fighting in Lebanon at age 22.

Michael was back in the United States, visiting his family in Philadelphia and his friends at Camp Ramah, when the Second Lebanon War began in the summer of 2006. Although his officers insisted he need not return, Michael immediately flew back to Israel to rejoin join his unit shortly before they entered Lebanon. Mimi had only met Michael once or twice during the latter's visit to Camp Ramah. But after Michael was killed in the war, the entire camp mourned his loss. The following summer, Mimi volunteered to organize a day of remembrance for Michael. As she spoke to his closest friends and family, the stories she heard of Michael's courage and love of Israel struck a chord. Back home in Virgina, Mimi informed her parents she wanted to follow in Michael's footsteps. A year later she has made aliyah and is preparing for the army on Tirat Zvi, the same kibbutz Michael called home when he joined the army four years ago.

Michael Levin's death in the Second Lebanon War left a deep impression in the Jewish world. And so while I had never seen the film made about his life, I was familiar with his story. I was especially excited to see the biopic because it reminded me of the exhibit I helped organized in the spring of 2007 about Yotam Gilboa, another young man who was killed defending Israel (see here for my previous note on Yotam). In designing our exhibit to commemorate Yotam, my friends and I sought to convey both our pain and the wonderfully complex friend we lost in the Lebanon War. As I sat down to watch A Hero in Heaven, I was curious to see how the film conveyed the life and loss of Michael Levin.

My conclusion? Disappointing. Not because the movie detracts in any way from my admiration for Michael. God forbid. I was disappointed because, in my opinion, the movie reduces a brave young man who loved Israel into just that and no more. Michael, mutual friends have told me, was as complicated and human as any of us. He often played the joker, and his every decision was not made on the high altar of Zionist reasoning. Michael, in short, was a regular guy. And that is what makes his story so powerful and his example so heroic and inspiring.

After the film I looked around our mo'adon, taking in the many different ages and backgrounds of my garin, and I was inspired to be living together with sixteen Michael. My point is not that any of us should be compared to Michael based purely on our shared decision to move to Israel and join the army. I see sixteen Michaels because, like him, each member of my garin is an individual, as complex as anything. And yet like Michael, we are committed to an uncertain future rife with challenge and sacrifice.

Perhaps my disappointment with the film is in part due to the fact that I am not the intended audience. Towards the end of the film, Michael's mother says that the best way young Jews can honor her son is to embrace their Jewish identity and remain attached to Israel. I could not agree more. But I also cannot say that her words have much of an effect on me, or at least nowhere near the impact they hopefully have on disaffected, young Jewish-American audiences. The reality is that my fellow garin members and I are in a unique place. We have made a decision at odds with most of our peers in America. Watching A Hero in Heaven probably would have been a very different experience two months ago then it is today, as I sit in the very room Michael once occupied, preparing as he did four short years ago to defend the state of Israel.


I found Mimi's choice to share the film and her personal story fascinating and inspiring. Hopefully, her courageous example will lead others to open up about their own unique reasons for coming to live and defend Israel.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Meeting the Meat: Tiv Factory Tour

On Wednesday September 9 I finally came face to face with my supposed nemesis on kibbutz, the Tiv meat-packing plant. Established by the same German pioneers who founded Tirat Zvi in 1937, the meat plant is today the largest such factory in Israel. Because I usually criticize the meat industry when asked to explain why I am a vegetarian, most people had laughed and cringed when I told them Tirat Zvi would be my home for the next year. Enjoy the sausages, folks laughed, imagining me spending long afternoons working on a hot dog assembly line.

The reality is that no one in my garin will be working in the meat plant anytime soon. On September 9 we did, however, stand by the hot dog assembly line, part of a two hour tour of the facility. Tiv is not a slaughterhouse, only a packing plant, so the closest we got to the raw product was a vat of pink, toothpaste meat sauce. The smell from the vat was powerful. But the best part was watching them pour the pink goo into a machine that converted the meat into six inch tubes that were then sliced into supermarket salami.

I have been meaning to write a concise statement explaining my reasons for refraining from eating meat and fish. Perhaps this will be the space to do so. So check back later, when time and patience lead me to post said explanation in this column.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

All in the Family for a Chayal Boded on Kibbutz

My parents visited kibbutz this past Shabbat, the fifth of September. We ate by my other parents, the kibbutz couple that have "adopted" me as part of a local effort to make my garin members and I feel more at home. Most folks do not sit down with two sets of parents unless a wedding is involved. But as everyone in Israel likes to tell me, when you are a chayal boded, a lone soldier (actually, the term literally translate to lonely soldier!), well, you're special.

Lone Soldiers have a long tradition in the Israeli military. In the modern army, all soldiers whose immediate family are overseas are designated as a chayal boded, bringing a host of minor benefits like increased pay, several weeks off a year to visit family overseas, and the suspicion of your Israeli army peers that you must be plum crazy to have walked away from the good life for the danger and drudgery of army service. What most folks forget is that before the state of Israel was established in 1948, most members of the Haganah, the precursor of the modern Israeli army, were essentially Lone Soldiers. Having left his comfortable life and loving family for an uncertain future in British Mandate Palestine, the typical Haganah member lived on kibbutz while struggling to master the language and customs of his new home. Sounds almost familiar, no?

My own status as a chayal boded is somewhat unusual as my parents spend several months a year living in Israel. Since they are not citizens, their extended visits do not impact my formal classification as a chayal boded. Yet I cannot quite claim to feel the pangs of loneliness from my family when my mother and father are hanging out in an elegant apartment in Jerusalem. Considering that I have lived on my own since age fourteen, when I was first separated from my family in order to attend a Jewish high school in New York, I was probably never going to be a typical chayal boded to begin with. Though perhaps my bodedness, my loneliness factor, refers to my siblings and close friends, most of whom remain firmly planted in the exile, far from the small strip of land I now call home.


My host family on kibbutz, Ruti and Moshe, are a lovely couple, parents to four children, the youngest of whom is my age though he now lives in the Golan Heights. Their eldest daughter is a Tirat Zvi local as well, and her three-now four young children ensure that I have oodles of little 'uns in my family tree. After just two weeks with the family, I already have two more little nephews to get to know following the birth of baby boys in successive weeks to two of my 'siblings.' I am not sure if I can claim credit for the flood of familial mazal, we may have to see what lies in store in week number three!

Sharing a shabbat table with my respective parents made for an interesting culture clash. Outside of the obvious difficulty in communicating (both my mothers are multilingual but neither of my fathers are quite expert in the other's native tongue), there was the more subtle different expectation that my parents have for me versus what my adoptive parents have for their twenty-four year old son. I do not mean to suggest, in any way, that my parents expectations for me are better or worse than what may be expected of a young man on kibbutz. Just different. Just one observation, at any rate, from observing city mice and country mice come together over a shabbat table in eastern Israel.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Shmuel b'Shabbat

Shmuel b'Shabbat started the night I arrived on kibbutz. Each member of my garin--the sixteen folks I will be living with on kibbutz as we prepare to enlist in the Israeli army-- was introducing themselves, sharing their name, age and other background bits with the four folks that serve as our staff.

There is Dalia, the overall coordinator whose no-nonsense organizational chops cannot conceal how much she cares for all of us.

Dyna, the grandma with the soul of a child and a scattered story-telling style to rival my own.

Chovav, our ever smiling master of logistics whose four rowdy boys are never far from sight.

And finally, there is Michal, our twenty-one year old soldier-lady (chayelet), tasked with teaching Hebrew and otherwise ensuring that the sixteen members of my garin are ready to enlist come November.

To return to the first night of kibbutz and the bit about my name. So the girl to my left introduces herself as Yael, three months removed from high school in San Diego and ready to defend the state her mother once called home.

And then it was my turn.

Everyone's eyes turn to me. Save for the staff, everyone in the room already knows me from a past seminar or the day they arrived at the airport. Nevertheless, this is the first time I will formally introduce myself to the entire group. And while I have my age and hometown down pat, I do not want to introduce myself as Sammy and forfeit the opportunity to be known by my proper Hebrew name, Shmuel, now that I live in Israel. Sammy is what I have always been called by family and friends. But in the Middle East, Sami is also a popular Arab name. More to the point, I have waited twenty-four years to hear others call me Shmuel, the name my parents gave me when I was eight days old. Now I am in Israel, Hebrew is no longer confined to the synagogue, and my name can become what it was meant to be.

"My name is Shmuel," I said, "and yet also is Sammy."


"That is, both mean something and yet..."

Stop, I told myself, and keep things simple.

"That is, my name is Sammy during the week and Shmuel on Shabbat (Shmuel b'Shabbat)."

Everyone laughed that first time.

And the next time, when we were at attention at Gadna--a five day military preparation program--and I introduced myself to a senior officer as Shmuel b'Shabbat.

And the most recent time, when the guys in my group reviewed what had happened at a simulated gibush (the intensive day/week long tests that screen for admittance into elite units) that the kibbutz organized for us the night of Thursday September 3. We met with the gibush organizers shortly before shabbat. And so to the laughter of my peers, I introduced myself to the two men that had had run us ragged over the previous night as "Shmuel b'od sha'ah v'chetzi" (Shmuel in an hour and a half.) Even Avi, the tougher of the two gibush organizers, cracked a smile.

Silly name games aside, my first shabbat (August 7-8) at Tirat Zvi confirmed my decision to prepare for the army by living together on kibbutz with fifteen of my peers. The benefit of living with a group of similarly motivated volunteers was something I expected. But the strong individuality within our garin comes as a pleasant surprise. There are people I can and do turn to for different needs. Plus, there are opinions I will and do hear that force me to defend and reconsider my own views. And then there are the domesticated peacocks, a story for another time.

Painting the Night White: My First Gibush

"Aliyah!" shouts our commander. "Krav!" I cry back, heaving a 250-pound stretcher into the air with the help of the nine other guys in my garin. "Aliyah!" "Krav!" we shout back. Aliyah! Krav! So ended my first gibush, with my garin voicing our determination to the early morning to "rise to the fight" and overcome whatever challenges await us in the army.

Gibush translates to crystallization, though in Israeli society the term refers to an ideal sense of cohesion viewed as critical to the effectiveness of individuals and groups. The top units in the Israeli army strive for this sense of cohesion and hence gibush has also become the name of the field trials, generally two to five days of intensive physical and mental tests, that decide who is accepted into elite combat units.

On Thursday night, September 3, our staff on kibbutz ran a simulated gibush for the ten guys in my garin. The gibush lasted through the night and hence was titled לילה לבן, or white night. The catchy nickname had an extra dose of irony since all ten guys started the night in spotless white t-shirts. Nine hours later, everyone finished, covered in mud, sweat and cuts and bruises in places we did not know even existed.

The night began simply enough with a few sprints and an awkward exercise that split us into two lines and had us crawling over each other to reach the end of a rock and thorn covered path. Everyone was winded and a little sore when our commander informed us that wild pigs had been spotted near the kibbutz, ambushes had been set in the field, and so we would have to postpone the gibush for another night. Some guys were relieved. Most were convinced that the news was a hoax. Sure enough, when we were twenty yards from our dorm, another commander came out of nowhere and yelled at us to grab our sleeping bags and sprint back to the entrance to the kibbutz! As Tsvi, our West Point trained garin member, later said, the "all night smoker" had only just begun!

For the next six hours we ran and crawled through a thorny and stony field some three miles west of Tirat Zvi. The endless sprints were only interrupted by exhausting periods in matzav sh'tayim (second position), with everyone planted on their fists in push-up position. "!התחיל פאמפינג" (start push-ups!) our commander would shout, "!על אגרופים," and with gritted teeth twenty arms would slowly rise and fall in the dark of the night. "?מי רוצה בירה ,מי רוצה לנוח" our commander repeatedly asked, imploring us to take a break, grab a beer-in a word, quit and end the pain. Twice during the night we were in fact given, what our commander termed, a chance to rest. Ordered not to speak, we were instructed to form a tight circle and sit down on the knees of the person behind us. Not very relaxing, though there was something to wrapping my arms and resting my neck on the sweaty guy in front of me. A moment of cohesion, if nothing else.

Throughout the night, seemingly at random, the commanders would record the top three finishers in a sprint or crawl. I usually finished among the top three in the runs, though my true skill lay in crawling. One guy was even calling me Sammy the Seal by the end of the night. I really cannot quite explain why I move so fast over rocks and thorns, shifting and shuffling my arms and legs over the uneven ground. My only trick is to imagine myself sliding down a waterside, a mental skill that became second nature as the night wore on.
The running and crawling was quickly forgotten when, after a brief rest, we loaded up a stretcher [alunka] with 250 pounds of sandbags and jerrycans. As the early morning call to prayer rang out from a distant mosque, we set off on a brutal six km jog back to kibbutz. Without speaking we quickly paired up and every fifteen seconds, the four guys shouldering the stretcher would rotate out. Thirty seconds under the stretcher quickly became a crushing responsibility. Our commanders made the jog even harder by relentlessly playing with our heads, turning us around in circles and making us climb an especially steep hill several times. We finally reached Tirat Zvi an hour and a half later, only to turn back at the gate and run with the stretcher for another thirty minutes.

And suddenly, we were back in front of our dorm, the sun was up, and with a final shout of Aliyah! Krav! the gibush was over.

Later in the day, after a morning of showers and sleep, we met with the gibush commanders to learn about our performance. After introducing themselves as two local fathers (Amir and Avi) who run actual gibushim for Nachal during their milium (military reserve duty), the commanders applauded all of us on our effort and shared the following advice for future gibushim.

The goal of every gibush, Amir explained, is to quickly push everyone to physical exhaustion so the commanders can then see what the candidates are made of and how they remain focused under constant pressure. The key is to give one-hundred percent all the time, not simply when a commander is looking (especially since at real gibushim, there is always a commander watching!). Amir gave an example from our gibush, when we repeatedly ran an exercise where the commanders kept track of the four people who outran everyone else to a distant stretcher. Two of the strongest guys in our garin finished among the top four every other time. Only I finished amongst the top four every time (actually, every time but the first time when I misunderstood the Hebrew instructions). Amir pointed out that while the two guys were showing some smarts in conserving their strength, that is not what the commanders are looking for. They want a candidate who lays it all on the line. Always.

Amir also used me as an example to make the point that gibush commanders are looking for candidates who להגדיל ראש, who have a 'heads up' attitude, acting above and beyond what is expected based on what they observe taking place. The example came from the first hour of the gibush, when the commander had ordered us to stand on the road and then immediately find a nearby hiding place when any cars passed by. My hiding spot--under a nearby truck--was not what earned the commander's admiration! Instead it was my instinctive move to signal to the other guys that the coast was clear and it was safe to return to the road.

Avi added two final tips for gibushim. Most people, he explained, give up during a gibush out of mental rather than physical exhaustion. They quit at night, during the brief rest periods when their peers will not see them and, more importantly, when
despair overwhelms their determination to continue. While Avi had no surefire suggestion to avoid sharing this fate, Amir recalled that during the most difficult stretches of his army service, he would look at the moon and, like King David in Tehillim, draw strength from its unwavering position in the heavens. Avi's second tip is that in order to maintain mental strength, it is important not to have expectations in the midst of the gibush. One of the purposes of a gibush is to rob candidates of their control, to make them feel unbalanced and stressed. The best response to this pressure is to focus on the present challenge. When ordered to run, just run. When crawling, focus on crawling. A gibush is not the time for daydreams, even if the pain and the darkness began to resemble something out of your worst nightmares.

The commanders did not tell us who would have been selected for an elite unit based on our one night gibush. I came away from the night, however, most impressed with one garin member in particular. Not because of his speed in the sprints or his strength with push-ups. Dan is my man of the match because of his perseverance. He has no interest in elite units and so had little reason to push himself to the breaking point in our simulated gibush. Nevertheless, Dan stayed strong through the night, refusing to quit during one brutal stretch when the commander kept us in matzav shtayim for some twenty minutes and with his eyes on Dan, urged someone, anyone, to quit.

The commanders repeated reference to my good behavior validated my confidence that I am capable of anything the army throws at me. Others may be more physically or linguistically suited for the army. But if the good feeling I had during the final stretcher hike is any indication, there is a mentality--perhaps 'energy level' is the more apt term--I have honed over years of weddings, chagigot and extra-curricular activities that translates well into the team challenge and physical endurance required in the army. Quite a few members of my garin have voiced the opinion that my inquiring mind and comic personality will be my downfall, preventing me from succeeding in the army. They fail to appreciate that, like most folks, I can and do bring a very different mindset depending on the challenge. As Whitman put it, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Torah b'Avodah? Work on Kibbutz

"Must be tough working in the field in that summer heat," a friend told a few weeks into my arrival at Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. "Though I cannot imagine you, a vegetarian, enjoy working inside the kibbutz's huge refrigerated meat-packing factory."

As tough or unenjoyable as it may be to work in the fields or the factory assembly line, neither is really my concern. The unglamorous reality is that in my first month on kibbutz, I have only had a single opportunity to labor like a kibbutznik of old. And after three hours of folding cardboard boxes in the kibbutz date factory, I was more than ready to hang up my kova tembel.

Oddly enough, the kova tembel, the stereotypical Israeli kibbutz hat, is said to come from the hats worn by the German Templers, a Christian movement active in settling Palestine in the end of the 19th century. As Arabs could not pronounce the letter P, the German hats became known as the Tembel hats, or kova tembel!

Part of the reason I have not bee asked to get my hands dirty is that Tirat Zvi, like most kibbutzim in Israel, no longer resembles the socialist utopias of the past. When Tirat Zvi was established in 1937 as the first member of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, the German and Polish founders envisioned a community that would simultaneously combine and reject the passivity of the European Orthodox Jewish world they had grown up in and the radical secular socialism of the majority of the Zionist pioneers in Palestine. Seventy-two years later, Tirat Zvi still proudly identities as a religous Zionist community. But as of Tuesday September 1, kibbutz members no longer pool their salaries (the new system is akin to the revenue sharing practiced in the NFL), one more step in the gradual privatization of the community.

As the kibbutz privatizes, many of the customs associated with kibbutz life have disappeared (needless to say, kids no longer live separate from their parents as in bygone days). So while a minority of the residents still cultivate Tirat Zvi's date trees and wheat fields, many have outside jobs. Even in the fields and in the famous meat-packing plant, kibbutz members tend to have senior positions, leaving Thai workers or city folk from nearby Bet She'an the labor intensive positions.

The other reason my fellow garin members and I have not been recruited for kibbutz work is that our days are (somewhat) filled with other pursuits. Although my roommate insists that our life on kibbutz resembles lazy days at summer camp, the daily schedule includes four hours of ulpan and frequent activities in the afternoon. Life is not too strenuous, though I find myself quite busy with the extra hours of workouts and various China-related projects I have accepted.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tzav Rishon into the New Month of September

The end of August closed a chapter in my life. Visiting friends left the country with the end of summer vacation, friends from university tied the knot in distant Long Island, and I remained on my new kibbutz home in Israel. August also signaled the end of my lifelong status as a civilian. Although I do not enlist until November, and will not obtain the free bus rides and other perks of a soldier until late September, on September 1 I signed a raft of forms committing myself to serve in the Israeli army.

The forms were a small part of my tzav rishon, the ‘first orders’ Israeli youth undergo in high school to commence the path to enlistment. Tzav rishon is when future soldiers take the battery of physical and intellectual tests that determine their ka’ba, the all important composite grade that determines what one can do in the military. Ka’ba grades runs from 41 to 56 and to be considered for pilot or officers school, one must score over 52. Rumor has it that a university degree is an automatic five to ten point bonus on the ka’ba, though since the score is never released I may never know what effect if any my BA and nearly completed MA degrees have on my score.

Two other key grades are also decided at tzav rishon. The first is based on a brief Hebrew test administered to Israelis and foreigners alike. For Israelis, the tricky part of the Hebrew exam is when they are asked to explain a series of obscure or advanced terms beyond the ken of the average high school student (like the Hebrew equivalent of ‘soporific’ and other words most of us first encountered in the SATs!). For folks like myself, the Hebrew test is far more significant. A low score dooms one to spend anywhere from three weeks to three months at army ulpan (Hebrew class) in the dreaded confines of Mikve Alon. While I was also asked some tricky terminology, most of my test simply checked my oral ability by asking me to relate a story, talk about my family, etc.

The most famous grade decided at tzav rishon is the profile, the number that indicates whether I have a clean bill of health to proceed to the more physically demanding ranks of the army. Infantry soldiers must earn an 82 or 97, the top two scores on the physical. Tankers can get by with the next score down, a 73. And anyone receiving below a 21 is excused from military service altogether. A high score does not mean one is in great health. As I was to discover after my tzav rishon, a 97 does not even mean one has no physical ailments. All it really means is that the army does not know of any serious problems soldiers may have. In other words, a 97 means that as far as the army is concerned, they can do with me what they want.

Why the profile system assigns such arbitrary numbers as 97, 82 and 21 is the subject of endless rumor. The most reliable story I have heard is that the numbers are based on the old British army. Circumcision, so the story says, took three points off a British soldier’s physical profile. In other words, every Jew who suited up with the British to police Mandate Palestine or to fight the Nazi enemy could at best score a 97. When these veterans established the Israel Defense Force in 1948, 97 remained the top score. Whether this was done in jest or to honor those who served in the Mandate Police force and the Jewish Bridge remains lost in the shroud of time. In any case, the story reminds me of the policy in my high school psychology class that the best grade one could receive was a 97. According to our illustrious instructor, 100 is for God, 99 for the teacher, and 98 was set aside to remind us we could always improve!

My tzav rishon took place at the lis’chat gius [draft office] in Tiberias. After a quick registration, my name was called and I sat down across from a young chayalet [female soldier] to review my basic information and test my oral Hebrew. Our Hebrew teacher and all purpose in-house chayelet, Michal, had prepped us back on kibbutz by sharing a brief list of tricky Hebrew words that tend to appear on the real test. Sure enough, an obscure term for ‘urbanization’ popped up in one of the sentences I was asked to read and explain. When my examiner asked me to provide a real-life example of the term, I shot back with a brief history of the last two decades of Chinese socio-political reform!

Later in the oral exam, I was asked to describe the plot of a book or movie. Back in kibbutz the members of my garin had been informed that we would be asked to share a story about a challenging experience and so everyone had duly prepped some choice anecdotes. My plan was to describe my teddy-bear distributing escapades in earthquake ravaged western China (see here). But when my examiner insisted I stick to her book or movie script, I turned to my tried and true fave and regaled the chayelet with Jim Sheridan’s wonderful 1993 film In the Name of the Father. A true life tale about a young man falsely accused of terrorism and wrongfully incarcerated for decades may not have been the most politic of stories considering the uncomfortable parallels to Israel. But my description impressed the examiner enough that she promised to see the movie by the time I was done. That, and the fact I told the whole tale in Hebrew with nary a stutter, made the loss of my teddy-bear story all worth it.

The toughest part of my tzav rishon came after the Hebrew test when a curt chayelet took my height and weight, handed me a small plastic container and ordered me to come back in a few minutes with a urine sample. Easier said than done. A regrettable visit to the bathroom on my way out of the Hebrew exam left me running on empty. The only solution: knock back four liters of water in five minutes. The deluge helped but what finally pushed me over the edge was the maddening cry of ‘יעלה, צריך פיפי!’ from the nearby Israelis.

I spent the rest of the day making frequent trips to the bathroom. Another fellow in my garin nearly suffered an even more debilitating after effect of our water guzzling when he received an 82 rather than a 97 on his physical profile because he weighed too much. “How much is too much?” my friend asked the Russian doctor charged with determining our profile numbers. “Viz your height, iz two kilos over limit,” answered in the doctor in the nonexistent accent I have assigned him. Two kilos translates to just four pounds. So my friend did what any reasonably motivated individual would do in this harrowing situation. He made a half dozen emergency trips to the restroom, set aside his wallet and phone and timidly returned to the doctor’s scale five minutes later. The needle wavered and then came down exactly two kilos lower than before. 97, baby!

Before I received my own profile, I would have to undergo what my Israeli cousin had warned me was the most terrifying part of the tzav rishon: when a nineteen year old chayelet snaps on a plastic glove, has you drop trousers and roughly checks to see all is where it should be downstairs. I suffered the double misfortune of having a taciturn Russian MD do the job instead of the promised female soldier. And although it was mercifully short, it was not pleasant.

“I no give you profile,” the Russian doctor told me moments later. “You eyes need checkup. Go do checkup.” Just my luck, I could only grumble, to be assigned a random eye exam just as I was on the verge of discovering my profile. My luck took another nosedive when at the glasses store five blocks away, a lady took a quick glance at my eyes and said I likely needed specs. My patience was thinning so I said as I simply as I could that no, she is absolutely wrong. A top optometrist, I continued, had affirmed that I have above average vision (20/15) shortly before my aliyah this summer. After acing the eye chart (made up of numbers rather than the alphabet like in the States), the shopkeeper apologized. I ran back to the draft office, handed in my eye exam, and got the good news that I am 97.

When I was not randomly selected for a two-hour interview, my tzav rishon came to a close with a brief IQ test. While a few of the girls in my garin got ambushed into taking the two hour Hebrew version IQ test, my own test was a tidy thirty minute affair in English. At least, it was supposed to be in English. The reality is that unlike the Hebrew test, which includes sections on math and reading comprehension, the supposedly equivalent English test consists of two straightforward sections testing our spatial reasoning with rotating figures (ala, A is to B as C is to what). Since taking the IQ test in English has no negative effect on the all important ka’ba, any foreign would be well advised to do so. Then again, unless a guy has his heart set on pilot or officer school, the IQ test is rarely critical to cracking even the most elite units in the army.

Six hours after arriving at the lis’chat gius in Tiberias, I was homeward bound. While the day had its moments, the main lesson I took away is that it was largely unnecessary to prepare for the day. The tzav rishon, in short, was a breeze on an otherwise steamy day on the coast of Lake Kinneret.