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.


  1. Well it's quite obvious that your Hebrew has improved dramatically from just a couple months ago. I look forward to improving my Hebrew speaking to YOU when I'm next in Israel...

  2. I'm taking tzav rishon in 5 days and I just wanted to say that I found this very helpful

  3. I will also be there on the 16th, this too was very helpful! Thanks. Mr. Anonymous, You from kibbutz too?