Monday, November 16, 2009

Cat in the Water: Pool Test for Search & Rescue Unit

After persevering through a week of pain with the ocean only a sand-dune away, the IDF granted me the chance to finally get into the water. "Consider this day six of Gibush Matkal," a grizzled veteran of the IDF's elite search and rescue unit instructed me and sixty other survivors of last week's grueling tryout. "Today decides whether you make it to Unit 669. Those who want it better give their all in and out of the water."

Candidates selected for Unit 669, the IDF's elite search and rescue unit, at the conclusion of Gibush Matkal must pass an additional one-day tryout in order to make the unit. Since 669 performs a similar function as the US Coast Guard's elite airborne rescue swimmers (ala The Guardian), the extra tryout is designed to check the water based capabilities of candidates. Contrary to expectations, the extra day involves a lot more than channeling your inner Michael Phelps. With only an hour of frantic physical drills in the water, most of the day consists of mental exercises familiar to any veteran of last week's tryout.

My group of twelve guys had little trouble building a rescue device (not that we ever succeeded in doing so in the impossible time limits assigned by our instructors) and speaking extemporaneously about a range of sociopolitical issues. I was really impressed, in fact, by one guy's sophisticated grasp of the Iranian nuclear crisis and by the arguments raised during a group debate about the merits of capital punishment. I was asked to speak about antisemitism, easy enough except for my disastrous attempts to pronounce the Hebrew term, antismi'oot! I was even worse at two knot-tying exercises, where an instructor would quickly show us how to tie a complicated knot and then see how fast we could do the same. In my case, how fast was not at all, though I was far from the only one without a knot after the exercise came to a blessed end. My interview with the unit psychologist was far more successful. Interviews are the one big advantage that older, foreign born soldiers like myself have in the army. We simply have so much more to speak about, and our sacrifice and hopefully interview skills put us in another league from most eighteen year old Israelis.

My group was the final one to get in the pool. Once we did, the action came fast and furious. The first exercise was the most complicated: As an instructor in full scuba gear watched, I was tasked with swimming a short distance to a weighted belt that lay on the bottom of the pool. The goal was to unlatch the belt and remove as many of the weights before my breath gave out and I returned to the surface with the belt and any weights I had succeeded in removing. I did not have a choice but to keep my eyes open underwater during the whole drill. The hardest part, harder even than unraveling the weights underwater, was ensuring I properly understood the Hebrew instructions. Before I dove in, the instructor asked if I knew what to do. "I sure hope so," I answered with a smile. Unraveling Hebrew instructions, I quickly learned, is much more critical when a drill takes place on your own and underwater rather than amid a crowd on a sand-dune.

Hebrew was also nearly my undoing on the next exercise. With three other guys, I was ordered in the water and told we would be swimming to the far side of the pool and back. So far, so good. But when the instructor barked out "Chazeh, GO!" I was left holding the wall, failing to translate chazeh as 'chest' and use breaststroke like the other guys. The next time around, the instructor looked my way and made a point of waving his arms to demonstrate that front-crawl would be used! Both laps were more akin to an all out sprint than the smooth grace I associate with Olympic swimmers. Although I swam faster than I ever have in my life, my inability to swim in a straight line without goggles left me bouncing off the lane markers during the frantic front-crawl lap.

After two straightforward exercises testing our ability to breathe with a snorkel and to clear the water out of a mask while underwater, one crazy drill remained. Everyone donned heavy rubber orange masks as the instructor explained we would be treading water in a circle, with our hands planted firmly on the shoulders of the guy ahead of us. While I like swimming laps, I am not quite Houdini at holding my breath and taking apart belts underwater. But put me in a group exercise with some random physical challenge and I am in my element. Keeping your head above the water while a pair of hands pull desperately at your shoulders is far messier than it sounds. One by one the guys in my group let go and went under until only half of us were left in the water. I almost let go in the middle, when a pair of thrashing legs opened the ghastly blister Gibush Matkal had bequeathed to my left heel. As legs continued to thrash the now open wound, I reminder myself that quitting was not an option and with a shout of "blood in the water" kept going till time was called.

Maybe the speedos were to blame. Or perhaps fault lies with the awesome guys in my squad, one of whom started rapping "go shawty, its yo birthday" when I was assigned number fifty at the start of the tryout. Or blame the very chill instructors who insisted we call them by their first names. Even the bus driver may have had a hand in making today's "pool tryout" far more relaxed than Gibush Matkal. Before we arrived at the right location in the morning, the bus driver stopped several times to ask members of Moshav Gderot how to get to the swimming pool.

Today was so relaxed, in fact, that it was challenging to take the instructor's opening words to heart and stay focused and give the same level of effort as at Gibush Matkal. Whenever I sensed my own attention drifting, however, I knew I merely had to look around for inspiration at the dozens of cats that, for reasons no one could explain, covered the grounds of the tryout, green orbs focused on the mere mortals that aspired to join their fraternity in Unit 669.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Cat and the Bird

"So you like fish, my friend?"

I was just polishing off a last serving of tuna at the final day of Gibush Matkal when I heard someone ask me about my fondness for fish. After subsisting on little save for canned tuna for the last week, I was in no rush to express my love for the species. So without looking up, I replied "Can't get enough of them. Even did a class project in ninth grade on the Humuhumunukunukuapua."

"The what?"

"The state fish of Hawaii," a second voice purred from the shadows. "The one whose name is longer than the fish. Or so they say. I just know it goes well with creamy coconut milk."

Funny, I thought to myself, I could have sworn that second voice came from the shadowy corner to my right. Except nobody was there save for a slim cat, its black fur all but camouflaged in the darkness save for a pair of emerald eyes.

"My friend, we were speaking of fish. Eating fish to be precise."

This time I looked up to find who was addressing me. No one was around though a colorful bird was fluttering in front of the horizon, its chest a brilliant amber, the wings two dazzling arcs of azure light.

Great, I thought, after not eating fish for five years, I break my vegetarian vows for one week and here I am imagining a bird and cat are taking me to task.

"This isn't a game" the cat purred once more, as it arched its back and bared a handful of sharp claws.

"And your imagination has nothing to do with it," added the fluttering bird.

"I have been observing you all week," the bird continued, "and I like what I see. Us birds know when someone has an eye for spearing fish, and we think you could be a king at it."

"Maybe," purred the cat, "Though perhaps your fish eating skills are best suited to my domain. Sometimes the most satisfactory bits of tuna are those we save from getting wasted, wouldn't you agree?"

A kingfisher to my right, a bewitching cat to my left, what can a poor boy do?

In case you missed the coded reference to the two units I am a candidate for following Gibush Matkal, please note the following wikipedia based information:
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) commando unit is known as Shaldag, Hebrew-speak for a pretty bird known as the kingfisher. The IAF airborne extraction unit is known as Unit 669 and their symbol is a black cat with green eyes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gibush Matkal: Sweat, Sand & Tears

If you are looking for the straight dope on Gibush Matkal, see the last part of this note. For the full story, read on!

Blinded by sweat and tears. Weighed down by a 20-kilo sandbag and two cement blocks that were supposed to be fancy sneakers. Faced with an insanely steep sand-dune some thirty meters high, little-to-zero traction in the meter deep sand. And looming at the crest of the dune is a most intimidating figure straight out of Hollywood lore, with the disheveled mug of Eastwood and the glare and attitude of Bardem's baddie in No Country for Old Men. His eyes bear down on me as I desperately try to ascend the dune, once, twice, fifteen heaven-help-me times, my calves having long since given up, the rest of my body begging to do the same.

In the pale evening glare south of Ashdod, the thirty odd minutes I spent trudging up and down the steepest sand-dune on Netzanim beach was as bad as it got, the peak of pain and punishment during Gibush Matkal, my week-long tryout for three of the most selective units in the IDF. Or maybe the toughest moment was repeating the same exact crippling exercise only ten minutes after the first go around!

To be fair, there were no shortage of insufferable moments during the gibush. Waking up to a siren and the predawn chill of a four AM morning; throwing on a cold and sweaty uniform during the mad dash to grab the cake and hot tea offered for breakfast; questioning why I am even here as I again fail to grab the morning miracle tea; grasping at straws with my all too limited grasp of Hebrew ("wait, what are we supposed to be doing" I soon got down pat!); sitting around for hours on the final day, staving off hunger and waiting for the results; overhearing another guy confess that he is afraid to emerge from his tent in the morning knowing he will have to confront our intimidating instructor--when the IDF preaches that combat soldiers need to develop retzach bi'anigh [murder in your eye], this grizzled Matkal veteran is no doubt whom they have in mind!

Darkness only descends with an appreciation of light, of course, and so the tough streches were well balanced with moments of empowering beauty. Witnessing the rise and retreat of the sun three days in a row inspired me every time I turned heavenward. Meals were another pleasure, despite and perhaps even because we ate nothing but chocolate sandwiches and manot krav (field rations) all week. Manot krav came in cans and consisted of tuna, olives, corn, grape leaves, diced pineapples, halva and a loaf of bread. The guys in my group were nonplussed when I dramatically announced at our first dinner that I would be eating fish for the first time in five years. By the end of the week, having eaten tuna with every condiment available (mustard tuna, ketchup tuna, coffee tuna, chocolate tuna and, yes, sand tuna!), I was very ready to return to my vegetarian ways.

I also found inspiration, or at least a reason to smile, in some of the drills. The one drill I can honestly say I enjoyed was our masa, an hour long jog with jerrycans and weighted stretchers up and around steep sand-dunes. Struggling up the sandy hills as a team, with guys grabbing the hands of those under the stretcher and all of us pulling as one, imbued me with the same surge of inexhaustible energy I have dancing at weddings. Crawling drills were nowhere near as enjoyable. But my uncanny ability at crawling longer and faster than anybody else never ceased to amaze everyone, myself included.

The best part of all the thankless drills is that they reinforced the necessity of always giving my all. Easy advice during an all out sprint. Harder to follow when digging a trench, with my rifle slapping the side of my head and few incentives not to take a rest. My digging impressed at least one guy, who told me after our last trench exercise that I must have worked as an undertaker because he had never seen someone dig with such determination! I have my imagination to thank for my digging ability. After our instructor mentioned in passing that we should keep digging till we reach China, my memories turned to a ditch in western China where I helped Chinese peasants rebuild their homes after the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. During another trench drill, I imagined I was digging for buried treasure, with screeching parrots, one-legged pirates and a three masted schooner beached on the nearby coast.

The guys with me were easily my main source of strength. Religious and secular. Black, white and every shade in between. No doubt the Israelis at the gibush are some of the most motivated, intelligent and physically fit nineteen year old guys in the country. Witnessing their dedication over five intense days not only inspired me. It also left me--and can leave you--assured that with such youth, Israel's future is assured. (The irony is that as a result of my age and background, I was a source of conversation and even admiration for the other guys. "You are my favorite person in this whole country," one guy even told me towards the end of the gibush!)

How did I do? Over 400 guys began the gibush. Close to 250 were left on Thursday evening, when they read the names of the 70 guys getting invites to Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag and Unit 669. Matkal is the top draw and of the eight guys from Garin Tzabar who finished the gibush, three got into Matkal! Twenty guys went to Matkal altogether, with ten more in Shaldag, thirty for Unit 669 and the remaining twenty split between the waiting lists for either Matkal or Shaldag. And me? Check a future update and what can be shared, will be.

The Straight Dope -- Advice Below!

Some of you would no doubt like to know what happens at the gibush, the schedule, the drills, etc. Read on, with the caveat that Gibush Matkal does tend to change some every year so this report is by no means conclusive!

The gibush is really two separate day-and-a-half-long tryouts, with some eighty guys getting sent home in the middle and the remaining folks forming new squads for the second half. In the morning and evening, probably four to nine AM and PM, all the drills take place. The rest of the time it is too hot to drill so depending on the day, ten AM through three PM is filled with a range of non-physical misimot (literally 'missions,' yet at the gibush just the name for non-physical drills). When the evening drills wrap up, there is time for dinner (and a discreet shower!) and everyone is put to sleep by squads in hastily assembled two-man tents.

After arriving at the Netzanim army base on Sunday morning, hours are spent doling out uniforms, M16s and a kit-bag full of decommissioned Vietnam era US Army goods-- canteens, vests, pegs and tent flaps to build half a two-man tent. Those who knew how to assemble the vests quickly got themselves set-up. Those who had no idea, like myself, flapped around a bit and eventually were all suited up. We ate, we waited and by three o'clock we were separated into the twenty-man squads we would be with for the next two days.

Sunday night was the first four hour drill session. Monday brought two more. And the final one with my first squadron (tzevet 16, kavod!) came on Tuesday morning. The rest of Tuesday was a wash. After each guy in my squad completed a sociometry, a form where we rank each other, I sat for an interview with my squad's six instructors and then spent hours waiting to be assigned to a new squad and begin the second half of the gibush.

My goal during the first two days was not to be sent home on Tuesday. Since only five guys are dropped from each squad, my goal was easily achieved and suddenly I was with fifteen new guys, with eight news instructors (including the scary dude) ready to make our final day at the gibush harder than ever. The drills on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning and evening were indeed harder and longer. With the slackers having been sent home on Tuesday, the instructors had us race up much steeper sand-dunes, repeating only the hardest drills we faced at the start of the gibush. Late Wednesday night, after the hardest drill session yet, came a sociometry and interview for my second squad and just like that, the tryout was essentially over. Thursday was devoted to cleaning up the base and then waiting around for six hours to hear results and get bused back to Ashdod.

No two squads did exactly the same drills, since exactly what we did was based on the whim of our particular instructors. That said, everyone did something like the following: sprints, with or without a hill, where instructors would point to some bush or object and say "there and back, line up in order of finishing- Go!"; stretcher sprints where everyone races twice around the path, with the first guys back from the first time around shouldering a stretcher or jerrycan for the second go around; sandbag circuits, circling a path as many times as possible with a heavy sandbag on your shoulders; crawling on all fours, butt down!; digging trenches, a meter long and wide; and a mixture of all of the above, including one gem of a drill where we crawled up and down a steep sand-dune, filled a sandbag and then ran the bag up a hill and emptied the sand in an ever growing row--the goal, of course, to have the most piles of sand at the top of the hill by the end of the exercise.

Some squads were tested on pull-up bars, where the goal was to be the last one to hold on. The strangest physical drills were the fights. The instructors scratched a circle into the sand, told everyone to be careful and not try any fancy judo moves and then said the winner would be the last guy standing in the circle. Sumo wrestling, in short. A variation had everyone stuff an empty sandbag in the back of their pants and, while staying in the circle, try to grab as many bags while preventing anyone from grabbing their own. Kind of like flag football except...flag wrestling? Next comes turkey fighting, same as above except now you must stand on one leg and keep your arms on your chest. No points for squawking like a chicken--wouldn't want to look sissy, right?

Many instructors threw a few geography type trivia questions ("what is the capital of Bangladesh?") at their guys over the course of the physical drills. We also were given articles everyday, covering political or social issues, and hours later would be asked to provide a verbal summary. Another common exercise was asking us to respond, privately and then in a group discussion, to a fictional mission that had gone awry ("a mission to rescue a downed pilot in enemy territory met with resistance, one pilot is missing, one injured and several members of the rescue team are wounded as well...what do you do?"). In the midst of sprints my squad was once stopped and asked to choose three topics and then speak briefly about one of them before the group. Another time we were instructed to individually design a machine of our choosing with the garbage we find in the area (I used bits of string, a candy wrapper and my gun to create a "self-hunting device"). Most squads were asked to sketch a map, of the base or Israel or, in my case, of the Middle East. And then there is the infamous drill where the instructors first demonstrate how to break apart a weapon--usually an Uzi, M16 or AK-47--and then time how quickly we can do so.

Then there are the more complex "team challenges." Many of these involve a log that has to be moved or avoided with various restrictions. Once we were split into two teams, given a limited amount of time and told we needed to get everyone plus a weighted stretcher to the opposite side of a log without walking over or touching the wood. Clearly we had to dig a trench under the log. The tricky part was that whenever anyone touched the log, everyone had to run a punishment sprint and then the exercise would start again from scratch. Plus only one person, chosen by the instructors, was allowed to speak. Another log exercise asked us to use the log as a bridge and get all the guys across an imaginary minefield to some cement blocks ten meters distance. Later we were given a box of random construction equipment--a massive drill, some ropes, planks and some wheels--and told we had to use the stuff to move a log across a nearby dune.

The log exercises were tricky. But the most demanding challenge came late one night when we were told to drag the materials for a massive tent across the base and then set it up. The only thing we did right was avoid smashing anyone with the cumbersome metal poles we dragged around while aimlessly trying to figure out how to set the damn tent up. In the second half of the gibush, my squad even repeated a drill we had all seen earlier. Despite our experience, no one succeeded the second time around in figuring out how to move the entire squad plus a heavy stretcher under a metal frame without touching the frame or, in the case of the stretcher, even the ground.

No one ever completes any of these challenges--the time limitations make it impossible even if one of the guys knows exactly what to do. The point of the exercises is for the instructors to see how you respond to the challenge. Who in the group makes a novel suggestion, who demonstrates leadership, who acts like an ass, etc.

Now for some ADVICE, first mental then practical.

Instructors, from my limited experience, are looking for two things at any gibush: consistent excellence in the physical drills and, in everything, an air of professionalism. That means never getting disappointed, keeping success and failures in perspective and, as soon as a sprint or drill concludes, immediately prepping your mind and body for the next challenge.

During most drills it is impossible to think about anything beyond "keep moving forward." But there are times when it pays to sharpen your focus, be it via imagining one legged pirates or your loved ones cheering you on from the top of the nearest sand-dune.
There are not many times to demonstrate intelligence and creativity. So when they come, by all means grab 'em! If asked to draw a map, add some character. When told that your trench is being attached by rocket fire, add a small fire circle around the trench and explain your reasoning to the instructors. And during an interview, look everyone in the eye, control the conversation and remember that the same tips you use in a job or grad school interview work here as well.
Finally, give your maximum, all the time. Unless the instructors say the first run of the morning is a light run, assume that everything--whether they write it down or not--is being observed and will count toward the impression you leave with them. For the same reason, do not make a habit of grabbing the lightest group equipment when the squad moves around. While the instructors do not always seem to care, they do notice someone who always shoulders something heavy like a jerrycan.

If you can wear shoes that do not flood with sand the second they plunge across a sanddune, then go for it. Nearly everyone wears standard running shoes, few of which do a good job preventing the cement-block like pain that comes from moving in a shoe full of sand.
The more hill-work you can work into your training, the better. And the sandier and steeper those hills are, the more prepared you will be--physically and mentally--for what is waiting at the gibush. Endurance is nice but the capability to sprint up a sandy dune separates the good from the best.
Stretch whenever you can during the gibush. Every break! Before you go to sleep and as soon as you wake up. Beyond the obvious physical help, stretching assists you mentally, keeping you focused even during the breaks from physical activity.
At the start of a sandbag circuit, instructors always say that taking a break to rest or for water is fine. No it is not! Never stop! Ever!
There are few secrets to crawling. Most people burst out quickly and then slow down to snail pace. So the obvious advice is to not slow down. Stick to your pace and on a long crawl you will likely overtake everyone. That said, it is critical to burst out in the beginning because getting stuck behind someone makes it hard to pass them on a narrow path and can lead to their legs or gun accidentally smacking you as you try and pass them.
If given a chance to improve your position in a race/exercise, i.e. the instructors may ask who thinks they can do better in the exercise, always volunteer unless circumstance makes it nearly impossible to keep or improve your position. And even then, consider volunteering. The instructors want to see people who believe in themselves.
The shovels are about half a meter long, a good metric for ensuring your trench is the right size.
Bring a knife, electric tape, linkers, flashlight, socks, underwear, warm clothes to sleep-in, and snack food. All of these items will stay in your pack/tent the whole day so you need not worry about having to drag them around. There is some rule against eating private food. But if the morning cake does not do it for you and a CliffBar is close to hand? Choose wisely and good luck!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Week to Come: Gibush Cometh!

I did not make aliyah or enlist in the IDF only to be where I am today, preparing for the morrow and the start of a six day tryout like none other, the result of which will determine where I will serve as a soldier in the Israeli Army.

But Hineini, as my garin is named, "Here I am and I am ready!"

I plan on bringing everything, all the ideas and energy and focus I know from Hopkins and China and Torah and travels and family and weddings and friendship...Now is the time.

Wish me luck and maybe say a prayer...for the other guys!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jewish and Dark

I was walking around Haifa one day when first an old Ethiopian, and later two more Falasha, called out to me in Amharic. Each time I shook my head no, trying to let them know only English and Hebrew work for me. They thought I was ignoring them and were not happy. When another black guy came my way later, I figured I would head off the problem and called out, wuz happenin'. With a smile and a shout, the guy told me how happy he was to see another Black American. "You wouldn't believe," he confided, "how many Ethiopians have mistaken me for one of them today in Haifa!"

Imagine if Malcolm X had journeyed to Jerusalem as a Jew rather than embrace Islam and the Haj. Or picture Zab Judah without the cartoon Hebrew militancy, Obama's Rabbi without the racist Khazar mythology, or Sammy Davis Jr., glass eye and all. Now throw all those newsreel ideas of Black Jews out the window and get ready for a fascinating true life story, the biography of a modest kibbutznik of Tirat Zvi.

Years before he made aliyah and settled in Tirat Zvi, one of the kibbutz members was born to an unusual African-American family in New York City. The Hebrew Bible had cast such a spell on the young boy's father and grandfather that the two adults had taught themselves to speak in the biblical tongue. Rather than join an isolated black congregations like the Hebrew Israelites, which embrace a Judaism colored by the idea that blacks were the original Hebrews, the adults sought to introduce their son to authentic Judaism. With the okay of the local yeshiva, the future kibbutznik was sent off to cheder in the Bronx. With a Talmud in hand and tzitzit dangling from his shirt, it was not long before the growing boy fully embraced his Jewish identity.

Others were less quick to accept the skinny black kid as Jewish. Black street gangs called him as a traitor. Jewish parents were hesitant to allow their children, and later their daughters, hang out with him. Disbelieving Jews would often ask him to say the word Chanuka, sure that his foreignness would be revealed when he failed to correctly pronounce the Ch sound.

When Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik found out about this black, Bible-loving family, he was incensed that they had masqueraded as Jews for so long without undergoing conversion. It took weeks of persuasion before the Rav would agree to allow them to convert. When the conversion papers were drawn up, the Rav insisted that three of his most respected disciples, Rabbis Norman Lamm, Shlomo Riskin and Aharon Lichtenstein, add their signatures. With those names attesting to my Jewish credentials, the kibbutznik remarked with a smile, I'm probably more Jewish than anyone else!

The most beautiful moments of the kibbutznik's story came near the end, shortly before he showed us a film he made years ago when his father visited Tirat Zvi for the bar mitzvah of his eldest grandson. After struggling with his Jewish and black identities for years, the son had come to terms with both on a visit to Israel shortly before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Years before dark skinned Jews would become a common sight in Israel due to the arrival of the Jews of Ethiopia, the son found that in Israel his skin color did not prejudice his relationship with the Jewish community. And so he stayed, married a girl on kibbutz and has never left.

Despite settling into life on kibbutz, the son remained troubled for years wondering where his family's embrace of Judaism came from. Jewish tradition teaches that all Jews share a pintele yid, a small speck of Jewishness in our soul, no matter who we are or where we came from. Where, he would wonder, did his pintele yid come from? Eventually he found solace in memories of his childhood, in the remarkable grace and charity his grandmother had displayed in providing hospitality to even the shadiest of drifters. Jewish tradition also teaches that so long as we treasure the characteristics of our forefathers, their merit will protect us. And nothing speaks to the legacy of Avraham like unbounded hospitality. Magen Avraham, Shield of Avraham, indeed.

This most ordinary of kibbutzniks left my garin with the reminder that most Jews see their religious faith as a responsibility, a chova. Thanks to his family background, his Judaism is very different, not a responsibility but a zechut, a privilege, he feels grateful to be a part of.