Saturday, August 22, 2009

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.

1 comment:

  1. This I understand. Why bother studying math for the GREs in my case. I always take the harder path. Always.

    Of course you also need to do what ever you are passionate about. Or at least you should. I know I said I need to marry a rich guy because I will never make a lot of money but I would never marry anyone who does not love their career. It seems rediculous to me that anyone would devote their life, (their LIFE, you only get one!) to something they do not care about just for money. Don't get me wrong, I am not blind, money is important in this society we live in. It is why I will stay in America one more year. But that is just it, you can make it work. Little comprimises and you can have a comfortable life and a meaningful one as well. Of course I am young, and green, but hopefully I will never change my mind about this one.

    Also, many people underestimate the role of skill over talent. There have been numerous books on the subject including "Outliers:The Story of Success" by Malcom Gladwell. If you haven't read it I would highly suggest it. I strongly believe that natural talent is only a miniscule ingredient in success. Confidence, luck, skill and practice are paramount. So I wish you good luck Sammy, the rest is up to you.