Friday, September 4, 2009

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."


  1. Show off.

    Joking, I am, of course, impressed and nervous for you.

  2. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. If sometimes miss my spots, might as well come after a smoker like this puppy!

  3. I must say, regardless of the mud, that's the cleanest your hair and face have probably been in several years. Will being in the army mean you're always clean shaven, or are you gonna go beard route?

  4. My plan is to go clean for now, though my peers and time-pressure in the army may lead me to go with the beard. tbc...