Friday, October 30, 2009

The Very Best of Garin Tzabar: Finding our Haystack

My very favorite day with my garin began and ended atop Miz'pe Ma'tanya, the lonely spur standing sentry outside the gates of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. At dawn we ran sprints, five guys chasing each other up and down the sandy slopes. A silver dollar in the inky sky was our only illumination hours later, when my garin returned to the hilltop to roast marshmallows, sing songs and celebrate the birthday of one of our own. A sprint and some songs are, of course, only bookends. It is the stories, and this time even the storyteller, that made today so wondrous.

A graveyard played host to my meeting with the storyteller. Framed by row upon row of hundred year old tombstones, with the first chill wind and rain of the season adding to the ominous surroundings, the storyteller proceeded to unravel a tapestry of tales about the people he calls "the founding fathers and mothers of the Jewish state," the young Zionist pioneers (chalutzim) who lived nearby and are today buried along the banks of the Sea of Galilee, in Kineret Cemetery. These chalutzim, the storyteller fervently explained, did not come to the land with realistic expectations. Instead they clung to their dreams and, in doing so, reshaped reality. The will of their generation is captured in the words a contemporary named David Grun wrote in his diary. Years before he changed his last name to Ben-Gurion, young David wrote "I have come to this country to transform the landscape and by doing so I will transform my soul."

The storyteller told us many more tales. He describe the malaria and heat that drove many early Zionists to the edge of madness, leading even a dedicated activist like the future Ben-Gurion to bemoan "this cursed land." He showed us the all too human lives of an early Zionist leader like Berl Katznelson, whose untold dedication to his tomato plants was only exceeded by a truly bizarre love triangle with his wife and her best friend. He sang the songs and shared the tragic life of Rachel, the poetess of the pioneers whose longing for the land and her unfulfilled aspirations are reflected so well in her poem, V'Ulai (And Perhaps):

And perhaps, none of this ever really happened?
And perhaps, I've never woke up with the break of dawn,
and went out to the field,
and never have I broke a sweat working the land?

And maybe never, on long, burning days,
Long, burning hot days of harvest,
Never have I found myself singing
from the top of a wagon loaded with sheaves?

Never have I rinsed myself
in the ever-peaceful and innocent blue
of my Kineret..?
Oh, my Kineret..
Were you real, or was I only dreaming?

The storyteller added a final tale, one whose macabre nature was so out of place by the pure waters of the Kineret that nature itself chased us back to our bus with a bitter wind and rain. Only a few years ago, so the story goes, a similar wind ripped away some bushes to reveal a mysterious gravestone near the center of the Kineret Cemetery.

While the inscription on the stone claimed the grave as the final resting place of a farmer named Nathan whom had taken his own life (an all too common occurrence during those trying early years), the sinister decorations of a devil, sword and pentagrams lead scholars like our storyteller to suspect that Nathan was in fact slaughtered by his devil-worshiping friend. Kibbutz records recount how in the first decade of the twentieth century, a cult of devil worshipers were thrown out of the commune. Rejected by their Zionist peers, the cult moved to the nearby hills. Their fate, like the disturbing gravestone discovered at the heart of the Kineret Cemetery, remains a mystery.

The identity of our storyteller may have remained a mystery as well were it not for the passion in his words that reminded me of another storyteller from my past. Five years ago, an utterly unremarkable looking man visited the sleep-away camp where I was working for the summer. When he left a few days later, the utterly remarkable stories he shared had adopted a vivid place in my memory that would never be relinquished.

Both stories were intensely personal. One described a chance encounter between a wizened David Ben Gurion and the storyteller. All of age fourteen and only weeks removed from moving to Israel with his family, the storyteller was confronted by the sheer personality of Israel's founding father. The meeting changed him forever, erasing his misgivings on moving to a new land and setting him off on his future career as a historian of early Zionism.

A decade later, the storyteller's life was changed once again when he found himself leading three hundred Ethiopian children through the deserts of Sudan. Threatened by wild animals, Sudanese mercenaries and a deadly concoction of hunger, exhaustion and fear, the children's exodus to Israel nearly ground to a halt one night in the deserts of Sudan. After instructing the older boys to carry their younger peers, the storyteller asked everyone to look upon the moon and take strength that this same moon was shining over Jerusalem and that its light would guide them home. Operation Moses would indeed rescue some eight thousand Ethiopians Jews from the famines of East Africa to the promised land of Israel. It makes for a thrilling and moving story, in no small part due to the storyteller's first-hand experience and fervent eloquence.

When I heard the same fervor in the voice of today's cemetery guide, I knew without a doubt that the teller of stories from my past and present were one and the same. Joel Goldman, as the storyteller is called, turns out to be an activist and scholar, working within the Ethiopian community and researching the diaries and records of the early Zionist pioneers. He left us with a final message, charging each of us to find that thing in life that makes "you jump off your haystack in the morning," to tackle your dreams with the same daily enthusiasm the chalutzim displayed despite the nearly overwhelming struggle they encountered in realizing their dreams.

After leaving Joel it would have been easy to call the rest of the day a wash. The rain was unrelenting and the communities around the Kineret offer little in the way of indoor distractions. Or so I falsely presumed. A divine chocolate factory in Deganiah, and a few scoops of some of the best ice-creams this normally chocolate averse sucker has ever tasted, assured the day would only continue to shine.

Within an hour the sun had retaken control of the heavens and we were overlooking the Kineret from the heights of the Galil. Back in 1867, Mark Twain capped his scathing review of the lake area with the words "No ingenuity could make such a picture beautiful to one's actual vision." No doubt, were he alive today, the author of Innocents Abroad would have something very different to say about the view and the ingenuity that created the modern neighborhood. Aside from the sinking water line, today's Kineret is truly a shimmering harp amid the bronzed and burnished heights and the green communities along its banks.

After a last supper of sorts at a splashy restaurant in Tiberias (the supper marks our last time, shabbat excluded, we will all be together before the army), the bus trundled home. A few miles from the kibbutz I slipped off to Maoz Hayim to visit the family of my friend who had fallen in the last war in Lebanon.

I arrived as the youth of the community were honoring the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. While the former Prime Minister lived a life far richer and more heroic than any Leon Uris protagonist, Israelis mainly use the day of his assassination to dwell on the dangers of internal divisions and political extremism. Disunity and misplaced passion have led to human ruin since Cain first struck down his brother Abel. All of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, can be fairly read as nothing more than a Divine search for a community that will not repeat Cain's sin. And although Joseph is the one who ultimately ends the Divine search, Yitzhak is clearly the biblical figure--evident via his camaraderie with his brother Ishmael and his desire to see both his sons, Esav and Yakov, succeed him--who most identifies with the Divine desire for brotherhood. Perhaps another lesson to consider amid the legacy of Rabin's tragic death.

The day ended as it had begun. Atop the lonely hilltop that stands guard over my home of Tirat Zvi. In bygone days the hill was known by a bevy of names. Today Miz'pe Ma'tanya is named for a twenty-one year old who gave his life for his country in 2002. Twenty years earlier, Ma'tanya Robinson's parents had made aliyah, believing that in Israel they would find that which would make them want to "jump off their haystacks every morning." I cannot say whether they found it. All I know is that as my garin sat atop Miz'pe Ma'tanya, roasting s'mores and conversing in the shadows of the birthday boy's favorite hip-hop tunes, I was ready, come every morning from tomorrow to eternity, to jump up and out and tackle this hill with my guys by my side.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tiyul HaGiyus in the Golan

On Tuesday afternoon I visited Kuneitra for a second time this summer. On my first visit I stood amid the destroyed town, in Syrian territory, and with my heart and eyes trained on Israel I was torn at my inability to communicate my true feelings to those around me. This time Kuneitra is only a vision from a hilltop bunker in the Golan Heights, a hundred yards and a thousand negotiations from Syrian territory.

As I stood on the heights of Har Bental, alongside a coffee shop wittily named after the former UN secretary-general (Kofi Annan in Hebrew literally translates to coffee in the clouds!), I again felt torn. The ruins of Kuneitra reminded me of the personality I adopted while I was in Syria. Forced to conceal my faith and attachment to Israel, my withdrawn personality compensated by becoming incredibly sensitive to my surroundings. Sustaining that level of perception was one of the most rewarding experiences I had in Syria. And so while I am grateful to now be in Israel, where I can (and do!) express myself without fear, I do miss that sixth sense.

Seeing Kuneitra was only one of many highlights as my garin toured the Golan Heights this week. While every other group in Garin Tzabar had traveled to Eilat for the three day trip marking the end of pre-army life ( known as the tiyul giyus), Garin Hineini chose the Golan! We enjoyed brilliant views, water hikes in nachal (stream or riverbed) Zevytan and nachal El-Al, tours of a winery and apple factory and a wonderful guide named Dikla.

On Wednesday the rest of Garin Tzabar joined us in the Golan for a program called B'Akavot Lochamim (literally, "on the heels of the warriors"). The program is designed to introduce and get Israeli high school students excited about their mandatory army service. A tank demonstration (cover your ears!) and an "army job fair" (been there, done that) did not impress.

A morning address by Avigdor Kahalani, however, was inspiring. Kahalani spoke to us in the Valley of Tears, the battleground from the 1973 Yom Kippur War where he led a ragtag group of tankers in an epic battle against the invading Syrian army. Some 150 Israeli tanks held off over 1,400 Syrian tanks during the first three days of the war, turning back the invasion. Awarded the Medal of Valor for his courage and leadership, Kahalani was described by his commanding officer as the "true savior of the people of Israel."

"I am ready to return to my tank if Israel is threatened," Kahalani told us, "but my time is past. The responsibility, the security, of our country is now in your hands."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Shimon Peres & Idan Raichel in Jerusalem

Binyanei Ha'Uma, the main convention center in Jerusalem, gave me two very different chances in the last week to be inspired by the creativity and diversity of the Jewish world. Round one came via the President's Conference, the second annual international shindig organized by Shimon Peres to get Jewish leaders and innovators discussing future challenges. Three days later, on Sunday October 18, I was back in town for an Idan Rachel concert sponsored by MASA, the umbrella organization for most gap-year programs in Israel. A double dose of soul and spirit. Hold on and here we go.

"I have learned that out of the greatest crises fascinating opportunities can emerge," Shimon Peres declared at the start of the Presidential Conference. "As we gather again to discuss the tomorrow, we must endeavor to turn this hour of crisis into new beginnings." I have been to enough splashy conferences to be wary of grand opening statements, especially when they are voiced by a politician as weathered as Peres. Nevertheless, the presence of so many innovators and activists at the Presidential Conference made for a dazzling mental delight. Speakers such as Frank Gehry, Michael Walzer, Raymond Kurzweil and Jimmy Wales (plus Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?!) joined local figures like Stanley Fischer, Israel Aumann , Shai Aggasi and Erel Margalit to share incisive insight on a vast range of issues. Topics covered included geopolitical crises in the Middle East, the global economy and the environment, plus hip issues like artificial intelligence, the new media and Jewish peoplehood.

I only arrived for the last day of the conference, after having met a friend at a Jerusalem mixer the night before who provided me with his ID badge so I could attend in his place. Upon arriving I discovered that everyone at the conference was carrying a small card with my friend's name, picture and life story, courtesy of a Jewish Agency promotional campaign featuring my friend. Despite the fact that at any time anyone could have glanced at the ID badge I wore around my neck and immediately realize I was pretending to be someone else, no one bothered me.

The best panel I attended was entitled Israel as a Global Hub. Key figures from some of Israel's most dynamic sectors-- high-tech, digital animation, water, alternative energy and military design--discussed Israel's entrepreneurial success in the nineties and where this success could continue in the future. While high-tech innovations and the aliya of Soviet Jewry famously energized Israel's economy in the nineties, few folks appreciate the decisive role that Israel's security dilemma has played in fostering the state's entrepreneurial spirit. To withstand the isolation and threat of Arab neighbors, Israel has developed a flourishing weapons industry and poured a higher proportion of resources into R&D than any country in the world. Skills and resources developed for security purposes have proven highly transferable in the knowledge and design based economy that emerged in recent years. The panelists touched upon a related idea fleshed out in Start-Up Nation, a new book by Saul Singer and Dan Senor that describes how Israel's adversity-driven culture is responsible for the state's incredible record of entrepreneurial innovation. As Singer and Senor explain (also worth viewing is this interview with Senor on CNBC),

It was natural for Israelis to embrace the Internet, software, computer, and telecommunications arenas. In these industries, borders, distances, and shipping costs are practically irrelevant. As Israeli venture capitalist Orna Berry, formerly the government's chief scientist, told us, "High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us fend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies." Because Israel was forced to export to faraway markets, Israeli entrepreneurs developed an aversion to large, readily identifiable manufactured goods with high shipping costs, and an attraction to small, anonymous components and software. This, in turn, positioned Israel perfectly for the global turn toward knowledge- and innovation-based economies, a trend that continues today.

The most powerful moment of the conference, for me at any rate, came later in the day when a speaker bared his soul to a crowded auditorium. The fact that I was likely the only one in the audience who appreciated the drama did little to detract from its emotional resonance. The grand moment came when Chinese Professor Fu Youde, sitting on a panel alongside leading educators from Israel and the United States, spoke in halting English about his desire to see the Chinese learn from the Jewish community and rekindle "their Chinese souls, a sense of cultural and spiritual Chineseness." Professor Fu is the most influential scholar of Jewish Studies in China, where his approach of applying lessons from the Jewish tradition to contemporary China is unique among the Chinese scholars pressing for a re-adoption of traditional Chinese (generally, Confucian) culture in contemporary society. We first met this summer at the Israel Studies Seminar I attended in Beijing. As wonderful as it was to see him share his unique ambition with a Jewish audience, the true pleasure was being reminded about the key roles that traditional culture and spirituality can and need to play in strengthening a community.

All talk no action is how a friend of mine on kibbutz described the conference I attended in Jerusalem. Maybe he is right. In any case, I appreciate Shimon Peres for providing me with the opportunity to re-engage my intellect and the geopolitical challenges of tomorrow. Attending the President Conference was a dramatic change of pace from kibbutz (and no doubt, army) life. While I have zero regrets about my current endeavor, it was great to rekindle that Washington feeling of getting dressed up, suffering through rounds of cocktail chatter, and feeling stirred by the occasional compelling idea to emerge from panels that, in all honesty, can at times become a pointless exercise in chatter.

Three days later I was back in the same Jerusalem convention center as Idan Raichel and company entertained hundreds of MASA participants with electric mix of Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, Spanish and African tunes. The band leader put it best when he said that his group's eclectic diversity represents the multicultural Israeli street. The Idan Raichel Project includes some seventy contributing artists and so concert goers can never be sure who will perform. In addition to the four lead singers I first saw on stage this past May in Washington, the concert tonight featured two ladies from Peru and Rwanda, both of whom sang songs in their native tongue linking Israel with their birthplace.

Idan and the beautiful lead Ethiopian songstress added to the moment by speaking movingly about their own family journeys to Israel. I closed my eyes, waved my hands and let my soul take wing for the second time in the halls of Binyanei Ha'Uma.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chinese in the Valley: From Kaifeng to Sde Eliyahu

Moments before Shabbat I call my parents to wish them Shabbat Shalom. "Have you heard?" my mother asked. "A group of Jewish Chinese made aliyah to Israel this Tuesday. The newspaper article says they will be living on a religious kibbutz in the north for several months. Maybe they are in your area?"

Fast-forward to shabbat afternoon and I am chatting with the first group of Chinese Jews to move to the land of Israel. The new olim are living and studying Hebrew in Sde Eliyahu, the kibbutz just down road from my own home of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. I spoke Chinese, they tried Hebrew and some English, and together we agreed to keep in touch and help each other out in the weeks and months to come.

Wait...there are Jews in China? Putting aside the expat crowd that has arrived in recent years, the only Jews in China are the assimilated remnant of a community based in the city of Kaifeng. They arrived to the one-time capital of imperial China as traders along the Silk Road a thousand years ago. Intermarriage and Chinese culture eventually proved too daunting and the community largely disappeared. A fortuitous meeting with a Jesuit priest in Beijing in 1605 brought some limelight and a generation of Jewish Sinologists have turned up the heat. Today the community is limping back into the Jewish world, though until now I had no first hand experience of what it is like to spend shabbat with the Jews of Kaifeng.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Addis on the Mind: Operation Solomon from a Veteran

Ethiopia, a country of devastating poverty and unbelievable cultural wealth, is a land that speaks to the imaginary realms most folks leave behind in childhood. Perhaps the country touched me like nowhere else I have ever visited because I have never quite relinquished my childhood imagination. My ten days in Ethiopia last January were filled with all sort of madcap adventures, from the Christmas night I spent with thousand of barefoot pilgrims in the catacombs of Lalibela to nearly getting arrested for espionage in the Chinese Embassy. Yet the Abyssinia that lingers in my mind is the pull of the Blue Nile, the staffs slung over the shoulders of pilgrims en route to hidden shrines, and the wondrous indigo eyes that held my own as I hiked with village children through the mountains.

My memories of Ethiopia came flooding back tonight when a kibbutz member shared his first hand experience from Operation Solomon with my garin. Operation Solomon was the crowning moment of the aliyah of the Beta Israel, the Jewish Ethiopian community. Over thirty-six hours, on May 24 1991, the IDF flew some 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers took part in the complex operation, with some thirty-four military and civilian jets taking part in the airlift. One of the first flights even set a world record for single flight passenger load when 1,122 slim Ethiopians squeezed aboard. If you have ever taken a subway in New York City or Beijing during rush hour, just imagine the car taking flight and you can begin to feel what it must have been like!

Security for the covert operation was provided by Shaldag, the elite Israeli Air Force commando squad. The kibbutz member who spoke to us had been an officer in Shaldag and so his tale of dressing as a student and scoping out the airport the week before the operation had the gritty feel of a true insider's account. I was not surprised at the swell of emotion I felt as he told his story. It is a tale that reminds me of the responsibilities I have adopted by joining a military force whose mandate is to defend Jews around the world.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ancient Beit She'an by Night

Have you ever visited Palmyra, gazed upon the remnants of Queen Zenobia's domain, and reflected on the tragic drama of history? If not then take a gander at the following pic I snapped this summer.

Or come and visit me in the valley and we can stroll through the Roman ruins of ancient Beit She'an. After my garin went for the royal tour of the ancient Jewish town the other night, here is what I know.

Two thousand years ago Palmyra and Beit She'an were among the pearls of the Near East. Today Palmyra is rightly celebrated as Syria's grandest tourist sight. By night the temples and tombs of the ancient oasis stand like eternal sentries in the sparse Syrian desert. Beit She'an provides a very different experience for visitors. Instead of awing guests with windswept ruins, every sound and light extravaganza you can and cannot imagine is on display in the ancient town. Thunder and battle sounds reverberate from hidden speaker systems and fountains and camels dance from projectors across the rocks.

Even a Lady Liberty can be seen every so often across the looming tel.

The amazing bit about ancient Beit She'an is that it works. Somehow all the jazzy extras do not ruin the sight as so often is the case with glammed up historical attractions in China. I would still take an undressed Palmyra over the sound and lights of ancient Beit She'an. But if the day must come when all the Palmyras of the world modernize, the best example they can aspire to is the ancient Jewish town down the road from my home in Kibbutz Tirat Zvi.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Baseless Hatred & Why a Polish Town is so Central to Israel/Asia Ties: Tales from a Jerusalem Shabbat

With the season of holidays over and my father and sister back in the States, the Shabbat of October 17, Parshat Bereishet, promised to be a ho-hum weekend with my mom in Jerusalem. Except that a promise is never more than a novice attempt at prophecy. And Jerusalem is no stranger to false prophecy. Especially when a handful of remarkable women are involved.

My mother proved to be only the first of several ladies I spent significant time with over the weekend. All shared fascinating stories with me, revealing chapters from their pasts that left me with a score of lessons.

The storytelling began by the Kotel on Friday night. Neither my mother nor I were in a rush to leave and so after leaving a few mental notes by the thousand year old stones, I rejoined her for a leisurely stroll through the Old City. On our walk, and the next day over lunch, my mother told me about the difficult choices she had faced in the weeks before getting engaged to my father.

After lunch I joined a friend, Vicky, a Jerusalem resident and Chinese convert to Judaism whom I first met (and wrote about) back in late July. In our previous meeting, Vicky had lightheartedly described her conversion process as the natural consequence of settling in New York City in the late nineties. Today she gave me the more expansive story, describing how the 9/11 attack launched her on a process of self-discovery that culminated with her conversion and aliyah. While the tragedy of 9/11 made her rethink her life, the spark that sent Vicky off in a new directoin were the words "baseless hatred" that Mayor Giuliani used in a speech to describe the rationale for the devastating tragedy. Those words led Vicky to reflect on the baseless hatred and miseducation that motivate antisemitism. After visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Vicky concluded that as a Jew she could serve as a bridge between communities and cultures that so often fail to understand each other.

My walk with Vicky was perhaps a very prosaic example of how she continues to realize the dream that first spurred her conversion. We were off to visit an elderly scholar of Chinese philosophy, a semi-retired Hebrew University professor named Irene Eber. Professor Eber is both friend and mentor to Vicky and the two have been collaborating over the last year as Vicky seeks to produce a Chinese translation of The Choice, Professor Eber's memoir of her grueling survival during the Holocaust.

From the moment we entered the professor's beautiful flat in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bet HaKerem, I was struck by her old world grace and no holds barred humor. When I told Professor Eber how impressed I was with the beauty of the brand new assisted living facility where she resides, she replied "you know what the best part is? Because it is so new, no residents have died yet!" Her smile was contagious and quickly was reflected on my own face as I fended off repeated trays of cookies and eyed the eclectic mix of Asian and Austrian literature and art. Perhaps the best way to convey the professor's charm is through sharing one of the numerous stories she shared, all of which were prefaced with a genteel apology that I would not be bored if she told another tale.

Several years ago Professor Eber was asked to attend a breakfast for trustees of Hebrew University at the King David Hotel. As chair of the East Asian Studies Department, the professor could not refuse the summons despite her aversion to such early morning funding events. So she trundled off to the hotel, catnapped through a few boring lectures and only awoke with a start when she noticed that one of the visiting trustees had a familiar tattoo from the Holocaust on his arm. After the speeches, Professor Eber asked the trustee where he was from. When she heard him say "Mielec, Poland" her surprise was so palpable that, as Professor Eber told me, if King David had suddenly appeared she would not have been more startled. The trustee shared her amazement a second later when he asked the same question and got the same response. Practically every Jew in Mielec was killed during the Holocaust and so both survivors were shocked to hear they shared the same hometown. Professor Eber was perhaps less shocked several weeks later when it was announced that the trustee,
Lou Frieberg, had donated millions of dollars to her department and asked that she receive an endowed chair in his name.

Shortly thereafter, Professor Eber found out from her sister, the only other member of her family to survive the Holocaust, that before the war their cousin had been engaged to one of the Frieberg boys from Mielec. The professor wrote to Mr. Frieberg with this information but never received a response. A few months later, Lou Frieberg returned to Israel to donate millions more towards the establishment of a Center for East Asian Studies at Hebrew University.. When Professor Eber arrived at the ceremony to announce the generous donation, Lou Frieberg was waiting by the door with an elderly man by his side. Pointing to his brother, Frieberg said to the professor in yiddish "this is the chattan (groom)." And so it was that a chance meeting between two Holocaust survivors, two natives of Mielec, led to the establishment of the premiere center of East Asian studies in Israel!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Night in October, 90 Years in the Making

Ever since one of the girls in my garin found a creative way to share her reasons for aliyah and army with the group (see here), I have been itching to match her example. My chance came the night of October 14 when my peers joined me in a conversation some ninety years in the making. Together we read excerpts from Leil HaEsrim, The Night of the Twentieth, a play by Yehoshua Sobol that provides a fascinating window into the origins of Zionism, depicting an October night in 1920 as a small group of young Zionist pioneers grapple with their values and insecurities.

The parallels between the play's Zionist pioneers and my garin are many, not the least that we are both are on the verge of actualizing our Zionist ambitions--be they enlisting in the army or settling the land--even as we both struggle to understand our actions and our personal and communal responsibilities. While I was sure my garin would appreciate the parallels, I also hoped the play would leave my peers with a keener understanding of my own journey towards aliyah and the army.

I have written in the past about the many ways in which Leil HaEsrim and Nesiya, the summer teen program that first introduced me to the script, influenced my decision to make aliyah and serve in the IDF. What I failed to stress in the past, however, is that the play's lasting influence on me is chiefly thanks to the group of friends whom I was with in 2002 on Nesiya. When we read Leil HaEsrim that summer, each of us voiced the lines of a distinct character, bringing to life young men and women with unique dreams and doubts of what the future held in store. The past seven years have begun to reveal the futures of my friends from the summer of 2002, showing me how they have grappled with the questions of responsibility and desire posed by the play. For nearly all of us these questions remain an open challenge. And for the friend we lost, his death only underlies the exigency of living a reflective yet committed life.

My garin's discussion of Leil HaEsrim was really extraordinary, easily one of the most illuminating and gratifying moments of Garin Tzabar. While most of my peers seemed to agree, the highlight was when Dalia, our garin coordinator (rakezet), voiced the same sentiment. An extra bonus came after the discussion, when my kibbutz mom and I spoke about a range of compelling issues for close to two hours. Below are three of the excerpts from Leil HaEsrim that prompted the most discussion tonight when my garin read the script.

We are hiding the truth from ourselves. I took a look today, I saw bare mountains as far as the eye can see. And we're stuck here on a mountain...Great things are happening in Europe, the world's been upended--and we are broken loose from the world drama. Yes, we've inserted ourselves in this empty little patch. This cut off corner of the world!

Akiva, a character from Leil HaEsrim, here voices an age old fear of American volunteers in the IDF: While we slave away in the army, often performing fairly mundane tasks, our peers are engaged in far more meaningful activities overseas. Alex Singer, the American IDF soldier killed in 1987, hit the same note when he wrote to his brother "I think all the time of your work on Capital Hill, work that is making a real difference, especially compared to my daily life in the army."

Akiva speaks in 1920, as Europe is host to the establishment of the Soviet Union and the League of Nations, and a cacophonous chorus of ideas that would result in Fascism and the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic. Meanwhile he stands in the desolate hills of the Galilee, devoting his youth to what? Building a tower and stockade? Dredging a small swamp? What difference does any of this make in the big picture?

Today we look back with the benefit of hindsight and we realize that if not for Akiva's generation, in all likelihood a Jewish state would never have come to be. The sacrifice of the Third Aliyah was critical in realizing the Jewish people's quest for an independent community in the land of Israel. Nonetheless, there are few lone soldiers, few American volunteers in the IDF, who do not echo the doubts of Alex Singer on a daily basis. I probably relate to this more than most Garin Tzabar participants, most of whom are recent high school graduates. Six months ago I was a graduate student in Washington DC, attending classes on Embassy Row alongside classmates readying themselves for influential positions in the intelligence, diplomatic and financial sectors. Today many of those classmates have assumed positions in the CIA, State Department or Wall Street. When I made the decision to come to Israel I was very conscious of this sacrifice and to this day, have never had serious regrets. But doubt lingers.

Perhaps I can and do take heart from the words of a fellow garin member. During our discussion, he commented that what makes our sacrifice viable is that we are realizing a personal desire, manifesting in the most real way a value that is so important to us. The influential positions of our peers overseas may seem impressive but often their jobs, and their very lives, have fallen into a passive pattern, chasing jobs that society suggests will make them feel important but they may not truly feel connected with or truly believe in.

We'll be in danger tomorrow, maybe we'll die. And one day, Miriam, the group will tell your son: climb that mountain and stand guard there. Will you have the strength to go on living here in the group if he doesn't come back? Knowing that the group never really opened itself to him or you? That the people who sent your son to his death hid themselves from you? Or maybe we'll send him in the name of the Agricultural Department? What meaning will life have then?

Moshe, another character from Leil HaEsrim, makes a number of trenchant points here, including a basic message that it is critical to understand why we are here, what is it that motivates us--pioneers ninety years ago and today--to be prepared to sacrifice our lives? Perhaps the best response to this challenge came from a fellow garin member. During our discussion he suggested that our empowering ideology, our Zionism, and the often mundane tasks we will be tasked with in the army can be imagined as two dynamic poles. For most of us, these poles were once quite distant, a separation that leads to the sort of anxiety voiced by Moshe. But if we recognize that these poles are dynamic, and that as we come to better understand ourselves and Israel these poles can and will move closer, then our doubts can be assuaged. Garin Tzabar, my friend concluded, is so important for this very reason, in that it has helped him bring these two realities into greater agreement.

Can we cope with the individual? After all, what are we doing here?

While Leil HaEsrim is ostensibly about the doubts and dreams of the early Zionist pioneers, it is essentially a morality tale without a clear moral on the universal question of individual versus collective needs. The question is captured perfectly when Moshe challenges his group to come to terms with the individual before proceeding onward with their goal of settling the land. The message also came at the right time for my garin. Over the last week we have had several meetings to hash out the dilemma of individual versus collective needs. No doubt every group in Garin Tzabar faces a similar challenge, particularly in late October as the day of enlistment draws near.

Leil HaEsrim does not provide any definitive answers to this dilemma. Instead it demonstrate that the Zionist pioneers we often view as sacrosanct were in fact deeply conflicted individuals. Not too different from people like you and me. People who voiced deep doubts about their actions and yet ultimately pressed forward and acted despite their fears. Acted and created, a legacy that still rings true until today.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I Am Now the Property of the State of Israel

Today was by turns the most hilarious, morbid and tedious day I have had as a soldier in the Israeli army. Granted, today was also my very first day as a soldier. Nevertheless the process of becoming a soldier at Bakum, army shorthand (בסיס קליטה ומיון, Basis Klita UMiyun, lit. Reception and Sorting Base) for the sprawling induction segment of the Tel HaShomer army base outside of Tel Aviv, marks the decisive step in my enlistment in the IDF.

As of today I am a soldiers in the IDF, albeit a non active duty member designated in army slang as having ShaLaT status (Sherut Lilo Tashlum, service without payment). While I do not actually receive a uniform and start training until late November, my two year service commitment starts counting down from today. Plus I now receive a discount on buses and trains, only having to pay ten NIS ($3) when I travel across Israel.

I led with a promise of amusement and melancholy and do not intend to disappoint. The hilarity began when I arrived at Tel HaShomer on Tuesday afternoon with the other two hundred plus members of Garin Tzabar. Four of the guys in my garin, myself included, had decided to salute the significance of the day by dressing to impress. We each wore a white dress shirt and tie, standing out like a pack of waiguoren amid our disheveled peers. We were also thinking it would be cute to have a shirt and tie in the official army portrait we would be taking as part of the induction process. The photo on most soldiers' army ID cards is nothing special so the chance to jazz it up was not something we wanted to miss.

My shirt and tie was reason to smile. The rest of the induction process, if one considered the significance of what we were doing, was far less pleasant. In organized fashion, my teeth and fingerprints were scanned and photographed from every angle. After signing three forms to the effect that I am now the property of the State of Israel and will face prosecution for revealing military secrets, I affirmed that if anything untoward happens I want my family to receive my military life-insurance money. Two quick shots (Tetanus & something else) and a DNA check later and I received my army ID card and the dog-tags that will accompany me around my neck and in my boots for the next two years.

Had I had not almost collapsed during the DNA check, I would probably have failed to appreciate that the whole induction process was devoted to providing the army with a score of ways to identify the remains of fallen soldiers. So I suppose I should be thankful for what happened when a medic cut my left index finger and smeared my blood across two pieces of paper. Despite my attempts to file the experience away in the farthest reaches of my mental cabinet, the world quickly turned upside down. My face and neck covered in sweat, my breath stuck in quicksand, everything around me had a parched yellow hue. The only part of me I still had any semblance of control over was my mind and even that was resisting my efforts to rein things in, insisting instead that retching out who knows what was necessary. Awful. The army medics quickly came to my aid, providing me with a few cups of water and a quiet corner to sit and catch my breath. Everything had happened so fast--and my mental efforts to resist fainting had nearly failed--that my brain suddenly woke up and realized what was really going on. The x-rays and photos may have seemed fun but the implications are anything but.

New soldiers normally come to Bakum the week before they start basic training. In addition to all the fingerprinting, they receive their uniforms and basic gear. As a service to Garin Tzabar, the army allowed garin members to do everything now save for getting uniforms and gear.

We received another, almost unfairly hilarious, service from the army as all two hundred plus members of Garin Tzabar sat around waiting to leave. Someone had screwed up and it would take nearly two hours of waiting before my garin left Bakum. Tedious. And yet also great fun thanks to an endearing base official's awful yet earnest English (no doubt my own comments in Hebrew will be grounds for hilarity in the months to come!). Some excerpts, all of which were said with the most earnest of expressions and zero idea how funny he sounded:

You are now soldiers in the Tzahal (IDF), do you know what this is, this Tzahal?

You are very speaking today, do more whisper talk!

This is Bachbash (logistical mess). You do not know Bachbash? I will example you. Everyone lets say BachBash. Bach. Bash. Now, all girls say Bach, all boys say Bash...

Monday, October 12, 2009

What Garin Tzabar is All About: Garin Hineini Tries Some Maoist Self-Criticism

Preparing for our hachzarat garin --our garin's coming out party to the larger kibbutz community--has not been a pretty process. So when Chovav, one of the garin's kibbutz staff members, mentioned at the tail end of a recap meeting that we had much to learn from all the preshow anxiety (and obnoxiousness!), I was surprised as anyone at the passionate discussion that followed. That meeting and another one the following night saw the floodgates open. For the first time, members of my garin spoke honestly about what their expectations were of our program and what (and even who) has disappointed them over the last two months. These two meetings were more Maoist self-criticism sessions than anything else. And while I mostly listened, the following are some remarks I shared at the meetings that bear repeating.

The simple way to see Garin Tzabar is that it is the most effective program for new immigrants enlisting in the Israeli army. The program takes care of all bureaucratic issues, provides lone soldiers with friends, a host family and a home on kibbutz, and even has the protekzia to ensure nearly everyone gets into the unit of their choice. Plus garin members draft only four months after arriving in the country rather than waiting eight months like most immigrants. What else could one ask for?

If you are like everyone else in Garin Tzabar, the program's ability to assist you with the army is why you first considered going with the Garin. But if that, and that alone, is the reason you eventually decide on Garin Tzabar, then someone has made a major mistake.

Garin Tzabar has a purpose above and beyond supporting lone soldiers in the IDF. Like the Zionists of old, the program expects participants to take advantage of the opportunity to build a garin, a cohesive community of like-minded peers at a critical stage in our lives. In today's world the idea of building a shared community seems quaint, something out of the history books or what the Amish practice in rural Pennsylvania.

But the idea that a small group of idealists can fashion a community that will change the wider world is the very lifeblood of Judaism. One only has to look back to earlier eras in Jewish history, like the Talmudic sages of Yavneh (Ben Zakai knew what he was asking for!), the Kabbalists of Safed, or the Hassidic communities of Eastern Europe. In the nineteenth century, socialist reformers of all stripes understood this organizing credo, including Zionist pioneers to whom the necessity of a stable garin was basic to their ideology. I tapped the same sentiment when I explained the central motivation behind my aliyah as "faith in the vision of crafting a society at the meeting point of western and eastern civilizations. One that strives to fulfill the dream of social justice envisioned by the prophets and sages of Judaism. One tempered by two thousand years of painful yet fruitful cross-cultural exchange."

What members of Garin Tzabar choose do with their community is ultimately up to them. It comes down to a question of prioritizing and assigning value to a commodity that is all the more valuable for its scarcity in today's society. Serving in the army is the challenge of a lifetime and it is the opportunity that receives all the attention. But the chance to fashion a truly vibrant community with one's peers is no less critical to our personal development, not to mention the future of Israeli society.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Last Week, Lost Notes

UPDATE: I have changed the date of this note from October 18 to October 11 in order to allow readers to recognize the many notes that occurred during the week of the 11 but that I only finished writing and posting after this note. Enjoy!

I have fallen behind with me blog, as last week was jam packed with such fun events as:
a) I became a soldier.
b) I bared my soul, er kinda, to my garin.
c) I had my physical for the tryout for Sayeret freakin' Matkal.
d) I met with the Deputy Defense Minister in Israeli Army HQs.
e) And a fascinating, fun filled shabbat in Jerusalem.

These will all be posted shortly, please G-d.

Note that I often post notes weeks past the date they happened, meaning when they appear on the blog they are hidden back on the date when I first began writing the note and hence you will never see them unless you scroll back to check what you may have missed.
As I do not expect anyone to do so, I'll try to post little notes like this to highlight these "Lost Notes" that get posted way late. For a hot off the press example, see this puppy, though note that it is fairly personal and so it is not advised for the fainthearted ;-)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Simha Delivered, Faith on a Limb

Rarely does the week of Sukkot deliver so generously on its promise of zman simhateinu, the season of our joy. On Tuesday morning Israel time, my hometown football squad beat their biggest rival in the most anticipated regular season game in team history. Even better I got to watch the game in the early AM hours with my father, with my brother only a gchat message a continent away. The next day the local baseball team clinched the playoffs in spectacular fashion, winning an extra inning game for the ages a day after the regular season ended. Throw in a visit to Israel by my sister, who joined my folks in the holyland for the week-long Sukkot holiday, and a holiday that began with my successful army tryout proved to be full of simcha all around.

Still not convinced? Then check out this sweet video I stumbled across this week about a most unlikely friendship. Or puzzle over those funny Norwegians and the novel Nobel they gave to an unsuspecting Obama.

The climax of Sukkot, of course, comes with the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the "eighth day festival" tapped onto the seven days of Sukkot. Outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret, like all festivals, becomes two days with the second day known as Simchat Torah. Here in Israel we keep things simpler, and so Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret occur on the same day, allowing for one jam packed holiday of celebrating the completion and renewal of the weekly cycle of public Torah readings.

Most folks associate the holiday with frenzied dancing and singing. I have always been struck by the final verses of the Torah. After following the text from the first day of creation, meeting a kaleidoscope of flawed forefathers, we come to the final verse, a pithy eulogy for a leader whose journey ends on the cusp of the promised land.

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face-to-face, in all the signs and portents the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his entire country, and in all the great might and awesome power he displayed before the eyes of all of Israel.
Deuteronomy 34:10-12

Most of us close then close the book, signing off on the five books of Moses without appreciating a fascinating lesson that the Torah's greatest commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaki, 1040-1105), gleans from the final verse. Thanks to a deceptively straightforward Torah essay by a friend, Yair Rosenberg, I was recently exposed to Rashi's teaching and want to share the inspiring lesson with you. Note that much of the following is quoted verbatim (literally, all the writing is his!) from Yair's compelling essay. Beg, barter and steal to see the original from Harvard Hillel.

The inspiring lesson starts with a classic puzzle: What was bothering Rashi, that is, why does he make such a perplexing comment on the final words of the Torah.

Rashi comments as follows:

“Before the eyes of all of Israel” – [What deed is this?] That his [Moses’s] heart inspired him to break the tablets [received at Sinai] before their eyes, as it says “and I smashed them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:17). And God ultimately agreed with Moses…saying “Yasher koach, well done, that you shattered them.”

And that’s it. Those are literally the great sage’s parting words on the Torah: Moses’s greatest accomplishment was smashing the Ten Commandments when confronted with the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. If ever there was a rhetorical anti-climax, this is it: ending the book of books with a recollection of the initial destruction of its key tenets. It is as though Rashi sees God as reminiscing at story’s end “Oh, and don’t forget Moses’s smashing of the tablets – high fives all around!” It is hard to think of a more unlikely way to conclude a biblical commentary than this.

Such a jarring grace note placed at the close of an otherwise graceful composition must surely have been intended. But what is Rashi attempting to convey? Of all Moses’s propitious deeds, why bring up this off-putting one, specifically on the very last verse of the Torah, where it seems least appropriate?

It helps to reflect here on what it means to come to the last line of the Torah, as we do this holiday: there comes a point when the Torah must end, and man must continue its work in an uncertain world. On Simḥat Torah, we find we have run out of pages, and that we must now write our own. That is the story of the midrash, the Talmud and so much that followed. These writings are the recognition that we Jews must take the values we have learned from our experience with history and conversation with the Divine and make those morals manifest through the ages. But how do we dare tread where God once did? How can we presume to know where the Torah should go and what is the right course for it to take? Is it not hubris to presume to extend and refine God’s word? Where did Jews work up the chutzpah to expand, contextualize and reinterpret over time? What permits us to pick up where the last verse left off?

The answer, says Rashi on that final verse, in found in Moses, and his breaking of the tablets. For in Rashi’s eyes, the shining moment of the man who knew God “face-to-face” was the time he was called upon to act without God there to instruct him. Descending the slopes of Sinai, Moses held in his hands the Ten Commandments, gifted to him by God for the nation of Israel. But there were no directions on the tablets as to what to do when they were summarily violated and rent asunder by human depravity – exactly what Moses found upon reaching the foot of the mountain. They did not have a handy inscription on the back stating “in the event of rampant hedonism, tear here.” Rather, for the first time in his life, Moses had to make a choice without God’s input, one that would determine the fate of the Jewish nation and its Torah.

What if God refused to reconcile himself to Israel after this? What if by breaking the tablets, Moses was breaking the last link left between Him and the Jewish people? The tablets did not come with a warranty entitling the recipient to another contract with God, and discarding them after enduring so much travail on the path to Sinai – Egyptian slavery and desert wandering – was hardly an obvious course to take. Yet Moses chose to break the tablets, realizing this act to be the only way to shock the people into recognizing the gravity of their misdeeds. He trusted both that Israel would repent and that God would judge them deserving of a second chance. This was perhaps the most momentous decision of Moses’s life, and he made it without divine directive. Instead, in Rashi’s phrase, “his heart inspired him.” Moses relied upon his experiences and moral intuitions derived from his encounters with the Divine, in the fervent hope that God would approve of his choice. Rashi’s final remark at Torah’s end reminds us that God did: “Yasher koach she-shibarta. Well done.” Of all Moses’s deeds, it was of this that God was most proud.

In a very real way, our continuations of Torah are like Moses’s shattering of the tablets - exercises in hope: hope in our own judgment, faith in our Torah’s values and trust in our God to understand and bless our best efforts. With that spirit in mind and Jewish texts in hand, we are ready to begin reading and enacting the Torah anew.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

When to Sacrifice: Hachzarat Garin

In the previous note I mentioned the Hachzarat Garin, the song-and-dance show my garin performed on kibbutz to introduce our name (Hineini) and thank our host families. Following the show my entire garin was mobbed by family and friends (including the visiting religious Garin from Kibbutz Lavi), all of whom gushed how impressed they where with our flawless performance. I am sure many in my garin were like me, a smile planted firmly on my face as I thought "If only they knew how close the garin came to imploding during the endless practices. Looks nice now but whew, not sure if all the resentment was worth the final product."

Case in point: Two hours before the show began, the organizers called for one final rehearsal. I was exhausted and not in the least convinced that further practice was necessary. My exhaustion was purely my own fault, of course, as the previous evening I had bused to Jerusalem from kibbutz to watch a 2:30 AM football game with my father. I realized that from the garin's perspective, my dad and I sharing the game detracted from the group's ability to rehearse and hence smacked of selfishness. But I went anyway, leaving several very resentful members of the garin in my wake.

At 6:15 AM the game ended and my father immediately went to asleep. The plan was I would follow suit and then later in the day we would together drive up to kibbutz, arriving shortly after twelve in order to give me a few hours before the 4:00 show to join my garin in the final rehearsals. The garin members that were upset when I peaced out last night would not be any happier at my missing the practices scheduled for the morning. But it seemed terribly irrational as well as unnecessarily exhausting for me to grab an early morning bus back to kibbutz for a few extra practices that most objective observers would define as overkill. We had been rehearsing ad nauseam for days and I had only avoided spending Sunday and Monday with my family out of a desire to join my garin for the first few days of preparation. Or so I reminded myself as I snuggled into bed in Jerusalem.

Three hours later I was back in kibbutz. Why? What prevented me from nodding off in Jerusalem? Why had I returned for hours more of tedious play practice?

I cannot say I returned for my garin. The reason I suddenly decided to bus back to Beit Shean Valley had nearly everything to do with respecting my parents. Granting my father a chance to properly sleep, and preventing my family from arriving three hours before my show (there is precious little to do on kibbutz in the oppressive heat of the afternoon), were my reasons. I was not pleased about annoying my garin with my absence. But family rather than garin is what I was prepared to sacrifice for Tuesday morning.

In the end our garin show went off without a hitch, everyone smiled and I snapped a cute picture with my two sets of parents and sisters. But behind my smile I could not help but ponder the lessons of the sacrifice I had made that morning.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Zman Simhateinu: Sukkot and Hineini

Jews, particularly Jews outside of Israel, appreciate fear and trembling. Or at least that is how most Yidden tend to interpret their Judaism. Blame the exile and the Holocaust. Blame the strum and drang theological influence of austere Christianity. Or take solace in Maimonides's reading of the human condition, which identifies fear as the first step in drawing close to the Divine from joy and love.

Maimonides posits loving rather than fearing God as the essence of Judaism while discussing the concept of teshuva (repentance). One takeaway is that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is really a day of love. Solemn love, sure, but love all the same. It is no coincidence that the Jewish Sages compare the wedding day as another Yom Kippur for the bride and groom. And perhaps it should not be very surprising that following Yom Kippur, our most solemn annual wedding day, comes the seven day festival of Sukkot on which Jews are veritably commanded to be happy and to dwell in temporary dwellings, two customs that anyone familiar with Jewish weddings--or newly married life--is surely familiar with.

The linked message of Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the by turns solemn and joyous rekindling of man's relationship with the Divine, reveberates throughout the many rituals of the two holidays. My favorite example comes from the two very different activities that once played out in the Temple in Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur the high priest alone was allowed into the Temple. There he would represent the entire people, offering a rich array of sacrifices in the presence of the people's most treasured artifacts. Five days later, the same Temple would play host to all of Israel in a week long party known as the Simchat Beit HaShoeva. For five days feasting, dancing and music rang out from the hallowed grounds. "Anyone who has not seen the the Simchat Beit Hashoeva," records the Mishna, "has never experienced real happiness in his life."

The joy of Judaism, the simcha of Sukkot, was never so easy to latch onto in Jewish communities outside of Israel. Jews in Minneapolis, New York and Baltimore appreciate the gravity of our faith and so Yom Kippur they do well (I leave aside the troubling implication of a faith that is mostly called into play strictly at times of tragedy and solemnity). But observing the festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavout outside of Israel is a pale imitation of what can be found in the country.

Sukkot is a national holiday in Israel. Schools close, the buses advertise holiday greetings and green and gold sukkot (the temporary dwellings that give the holiday its name) blossom in the land's urban concrete jungles. As Gil Troy writes in the Jerusalem Post, "with camping trips and mass priestly blessings at the Wall, with Stock Car Races, all day learning fests, and a 70,000-person Jerusalem parade featuring Christian Zionists from all over the world--Succot truly becomes zman simhateinu, the holiday of our joy."

On kibbutz we brought the joy home. In the days before the festival we took a tour through the acres of date fields that surround Tirat Zvi. While we got a chance to sample the fresh dates that are the key non-sausage export, the purpose of the tour was to see how the kibbutz harvests three of the four Arba Minim, the four species central to the symbolism of Sukkot. Besides the aravot, willow branches, the other three items--lulav (a closed date palm), hadassim (myrtle branches), and etrog (citron), are all harvested locally and sold throughout the country.

During Sukkot we tapped our inner Simcha Beit HaShoeva with a song-and-dance extravaganza to entertain our host families on kibbutz and introduce the name we chose for our garin. I was even tapped to sing a song in Chinese, Jay Chou's ShanHu Hai. Last summer I performed the song with the Chinese director of my Beijing based language program and so I approached this latest performance with some pedigree. Nevertheless it was hard to compare singing a song of lost love and longing to 100 Chinese peers and performing the same tune to a crowd of kibbutzniks, none of whom--including the girl who sang by my side--had the slightest idea what the lyrics were about!

Our garin name is Hineini. Here I am. I am ready. The deceptively simple word appears only fourteen times in the Torah. But it is the critical word Avraham uses when answering God's call to sacrifice his dear son Isaac, Yakov uses when deceiving his father for Esav's birthright, and Moses uses when answering the call from the Burning Bush. It is the only word spoken by both God and man in the Torah. And it is what Isaiah says when the voice of God calls out "Whom shall I send forth, and who will go for us?" "Hineini," replies the prophet, "Here I am. Send me."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

It is All in the Mind, Except When It Isn't

Ask an Israeli and they will tell you gibushim, and anything challenging in the army, is all in the mind. Run and work out as you want. But what matters, they keep telling me, is mental strength.


Sprinting up a sand-dune is not easy. But it is easier if you have trained on sandy hills. As much as you want it, no matter the level of motivation and focus, your mind is not the determining factor in how well you do at a gibush. Or at least a gibush like Yom Sayerot.

Anyone who knows me well, and I include myself in that elite group, would agree that my desire and focus to succeed tends to outpace my physical capabilities. That is, by nature I am someone who is going to lean more on the mental than physical in gibush like trials.

Perhaps that explains why I undervalue the role of mental strength in a gibush. I am not blind to the need to remain focused, to ready oneself to sprint back up a hill when the spirit is weak and the mind exhausted. To insist you come in first repeatedly.

But I remain convinced that were I in better shape, the two gibushim I have participated in--particularly Yom Sayerot--would have been all the easier, all the more successful. No doubt my perspective will change as I experience the longer and more intensive gibushim that are to come. In the interim, a recent news article on a Slovenian endurance athlete provides fascinating food for thought. Chew over this excerpt and then see here for the full article.

Fatigue, the researchers argue, is less an objective event than a subjective emotion — the brain’s clever, self-interested attempt to scare you into stopping. The way past fatigue, then, is to return the favor: to fool the brain by lying to it, distracting it or even provoking it. That said, mental gamesmanship can never overcome a basic lack of fitness. As Noakes says, the body always holds veto power.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Yom Sayerot, Gatekeeper to the High Altar of IDFdom

מאתיים תשעים ושלוש, ma'taiim tishiim v'sha'losh, two-hundred and ninety three, two-hundred and... Under the hot sun, sitting in a crowd of over three hundred restless young guys,I whispered the number 293. Once, twice and without end.

The previous afternoon I had been assigned the number 293, and for the last eighteen hours that number, scribbled on both sides of my plain white t-shirt, had become my identity. Now an Israeli officer was reading off a string of numbers, ordering everyone whose number was called to jog over to a nearby tent. The few who made it to the tent, everyone knew, would be heading onto tryouts for the very top units in the IDF. Except, of course, if they failed to hear their number. After sprinting up and down sand-dunes for the past three hours, accurately hearing the number 293 should not have been very hard. Numbers and foreign language never come easy to me, though, and so I was anxious as anyone as the numbers slipped like mercury from the officer's tongue, passing one-hundred, two-hundred, three--wait, did I hear 293? Yes? No? Should I go? Will I stay?


Yom Sayerot is the brief but brutal tryout for the even more intensive tryouts (gibushim) for the most elite units in the IDF. In order to attend the week-long tryouts for Shayetet 13 (IDF "Navy Seals"), Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag, Unit 669 (the elite search and rescue unit) and submarine officer-ship, you must first "pass" Yom Sayerot. At the start of the tryout, you rank the three successor tryouts in order of your preference. Nearly everyone ranks the submarine officer position third, with most folks giving the tryout for Matkal the top spot and a minority preferring Shayetet (note: Shaldag and Unit 669, since the early 2000s, use the tryout as Matkal to select their soldiers. This was done to prevent motivated teens from having to attend more than one intensive tryout. In practice this means that if you want either Matkal, Shaldag or Unit 669, then you request the tryout for Sayeret Matkal).

My Yom Sayerot began at 3:00 PM on Wednesday September 30 at Israel's premier sports facility, the Wingate Institute, located south of Netanya along the Mediterranean coastline. Four hours earlier I made one final check that I had all the necessary belongings--white t-shirt, running shorts, shoes and socks, te'udat zehut [identity card], and a few medical and military forms--and joined the three other guys from my garin who were participating in Yom Sayerot. Six of the guys in my garin were staying behind, two of their own volition and the rest after the army had barred them from the tryout for medical reasons. Wearing glasses or contacts, i.e. anyone with an eye prescription, prevented some of the fittest guys in my garin from participating.

The four of us who made it to Wingate arrived with some idea of what was on deck. After speaking to a variety of folks, we came expecting a Bar-Or test in the afternoon and hours of exhausting sprints the following morning. The Bar-Or is the standard test of physical fitness in the IDF, and it is easy to prepare for as it consists of a 2k meter (1.25 miles) run and as many push-ups and sit-ups one can do without stopping. Faster and stronger means a higher grade, with a perfect score rumored to be a sub-seven minute run, seventy-five push-ups and eighty-five sit-ups. 2k times also decides which squad one is placed in for the all important early morning sprints. The sprints, all of which take place up and down steep sand-dunes, involve carrying sandbags, stretchers and mostly running faster than the next guy when your muscle and mind are both screaming surrender.

With all my knowledge of what to expect, Yom Sayerot still threw a few curveballs. Wednesday brought the biggest surprise. After two hours of registration, the 400 plus guys present were called up in groups of 100 for the 2k race. I did well, finishing in fourth place with a time of 7:10. My time meant even more, however, when we were given an early dinner and sent to bed before 8:00 PM. The food and ridiculously early bedtime meant there would be no sit-ups and push-ups. While I can crunch with the best of them, anything past sixty push-ups is still outside of my range. Limiting the Bar-Or to a brisk run, in short, worked in my favor.

The early bedtime was not all good news. Sleeping in a loaned sleeping bag, scrunched next to 400 nervous guys, is not easy to begin with. Throw in the fact all of us had arrived well rested, none of us have gone to sleep before eight o'clock since pre-school, and at some unknown early hour we would be woken up for hours of all important and infamously exhausting sprints and you can probably imagine why few folks slept much. I slept fairly soundly myself, by virtue of clinging to a calming memory from this past spring, a night with Lawrence of Arabia and friends in Washington DC.

By 4:00 AM nearly everyone was already up and moving, no doubt depriving our instructors of the pleasure of waking us up. Thirty minutes later word came that we actually had to get up, so I joined the tense crowd for a hasty breakfast. After brief remarks from a medical officer (a dozen guys took him up on his offer to quit), we were split into twenty squads of twenty guys each. As I jogged over to squad one, I overheard a guy remark that the intensity of yom sayerot was pretty overrated: a brief run, generous dinner, and early bedtime. Easy, right? Little did he know that the fun was just beginning.

Three instructors appeared, all grizzled veterans of Sayeret Matkal or the IDF's Navy SEAL unit (Shayetet), and ordered us to grab a few shovels and stretchers and follow them. We jogged out of view of our tents and suddenly were on the beach, except the ground was all jagged hills rather than smooth sand. The lead instructor had us drop the equipment and pointed out a steep sandy hill. "Everyone runs to the top and back in thirty seconds. Go!"

For the next three hours we tackled that hill over sixty times. This first round of sprints knocked out two guys, who quit when they realized that Yom Sayerot had suddenly gotten serious. Without giving us a chance to rest, our instructors then announced that the top six finishers of each sprint up and down the hill would now be recorded. Having heard in advance that the first round was not recorded, I now went all out, finishing in the top four every time.

Dozens of sprints later, we were given a few minutes rest. "Everyone drinks four cups of water," ordered the instructor, "and in ten minutes time twenty bags need to be tied up and filled with sand." After helping distribute the water and fill up the bags, I used the last precious minutes of the break to empty my shoes and socks of a Sahara's worth of sand. I also made sure to avoid lining up next to any of the really heavy looking sandbags, and as the instructor explained we would be carrying the bags on our shoulders, I added a few knots to the loose string that was tied around the top of the bag. My preparation paid off some forty minutes later, when the instructors recorded who had made the most loops of our hill. Three guys claimed twenty (one of whom I am pretty sure fudged his total), so my nineteen rounds were good for fourth place.

During our break a flock of goats came trudging along our dune. Led by a grand, shaggy white billy-goat, the animals provided great entertainment, especially when a neighboring squad was forced to sprint between the stubborn beasts. While the goats eventually wandered away, the guys in the next squad over were humiliated once again when some middle aged joggers appeared and provided an even more challenging obstacle. The best part came when the slower guys were passed in their sprints by some of the early hour joggers. Watching a latex clad overweight grandma overtake you on what is supposed to be a sprint cannot be a confidence builder!

Having finished with the sandbag exercise, my squad drank, I dredged my shoes of sand, and everyone was given a small metal shovel and ordered to dig a hole in the sand that was as deep, wide and long as the length of the shovel (about two feet). I dug my hole as far from our running path as possible, both to avoid having to deal with firmly packed sand and so that no one else would be nearby and have to deal with the sand that came flying from my hole. Digging on the sandy beach may have been the most satisfying of our exercises. The sun was up, the water was a deep blue and every morsel of sand brought back childhood memories of building elaborate sandcastles before the relentless ocean tide. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover I can dig with the best of 'em, as my hole met with the full approval of the instructors when they examined our work some twenty minutes later. One of the instructors had also also stopped by to chat while I was busy digging. He asked where I was from, what I had studied in university and, curiously, inquired several times whether I truly felt at home on kibbutz. I made sure to praise the benefits of kibbutz life, even taking the chance to name drop a kibbutz member who served in Sayeret Matkal.

The final exercise followed immediately after everyone had refilled their holes and thrown back some water. We were again sent sprinting up and down our sand-dune-- except this time the first eight folks would shoulder two weighted stretchers for a return jog up the hill. While I was always able to get under a stretcher (alunka), only once did I finish in the top four and hence get written down as carrying the first stretcher. My failure was frustrating, especially when I noticed the instructor looking at me as he announced in the middle of the exercise that the four guys under the first stretcher would get double points.

I had just set down the stretcher for the twentieth time or so when the instructor curtly announced that the physical exercises were over. Before returning to the tents where we had stayed the night, everyone was given a couple minutes to introduce themselves. It was fascinating to discover that the twenty bodies I had spent three exhausting hours with were real people! It was also intriguing how many of them turned out to be religious. Short of the guy whose tzizit had whirled during his sprints up the hill, I had no idea that most of my group were members of yeshivot or religious mechinot (post high-school preparatory schools). Some two-fifths of all 400 guys at the gibush were probably religious, a fact attested to by the large crowds at each of the prayer services.

The guys in my group were genuinely surprised when I divulged that I was twenty-four years old. Several even came up afterwords and insisted I did not look a day older than nineteen or twenty. The instructors, however, were most impressed when I told them of my recent marathon time in response to their question of how I had prepared for the gibush. One of them even whistled in astonishment, reflecting how rare it is to have such a long race under one's belt before the army.

I was most impressed with what one of the guy's divulged during our brief discussion. To the laughter of the instructors, this guy said he not only spoke Chinese like me but that he had even grown up there! Later he told me that his father has been living in Beijing for nearly eighteen years as one of Israel's leading businessman in China. We exchanged numbers and he assured me his dad, whose business involves agri-tech and irrigation, would be happy to talk to me.

Back at our tents, we were given a sheet of paper with everyone's number and ordered to provide our personal ranking of everyone else in the squad. The evaluation is known as a sociometric, and resembles a scene out of Survivor or The Weakest Link more than anything else. Sociometric evaluations are common in elite units and gibushim. But filling one out after only spending three hours with the other guys is kind of silly so I gave minimal thought to the rankings I doled out.

And then we waited. No one was very talkative, as much out of exhaustion as anxiety whether their performance was enough to continue on to the week long tryouts that are awarded to the top finishers from Yom Sayerot. On Wednesday night we had ranked which of the three possible tryouts--for Sayeret Matkal, Shayetet or Naval officers--we most preferred. Since most everyone's top choice was Matkal followed by Shayetet, in practice the best guys from today's tryout would be selected for the rigorous tryouts for Sayeret Matkal. Second honors would be to make it to the tryout for Shayetet, the Navy SEALs of the IDF. Enlisting as a naval officer requires sighing on for seven years. So although it is one of the most rigorous courses in the army, few guys were interested.

I waited, unsure as anyone if my performance was enough to push me over the edge. I had rarely been first in any exercise and four other guys from my squad had been really impressive. So when I heard the number 293, I did not believe. And as I trotted over to where those whose numbers had been called out were told to gather, I could not believe. And when a senior officer walked up and congratulated the fifty guys present for winning an invitation to Gibush Matkal, the tryout for one of the most storied commando units in the world, I was not sure what to believe. My amazement was only slightly tempered by the same officers curt conclusion, "this is only the first step, but take heart, you are on the road to places that no one else can imagine."

En route to Merkaz Canada in Metulla for a "fun day" together with all participants in the last three years of Garin Tzabar, I ran into a large group of Chinese Christian tourists. I figured they were in the country for the Christian Zionist "Feast of Tabernacles," an annual gathering of Christians in search of their Hebraic roots.

The curious bit was that no one in the Chinese group, including their Chinese pastor/tour guide, knew a word of English or Hebrew. They did not even seem to understand why their Israeli driver had chosen to stop at this particular rest-stop, not realizing that one of the restaurants in the mini-mall served Chinese food because its menu was all in Hebrew and English. The poor souls were eating food they had brought from China, not unlike religious Jews who must pack victuals from the home country when traveling abroad! They did have a small supply of halvah, though they admitted to me they had no idea what it was after having received it as a gift from a hotel in Jerusalem.

We chatted about Israel and China for the duration of my stop and before departing, we exchanged emails after their pastor inquired if I could perhaps assist them on the annual trips they intend to start running to Israel in 2010.