Saturday, December 26, 2009

Legacy of the Lamed Hey

In January 2005 I hiked through the hills of Hebron, following in the footsteps of the legendary thirty-five Haganah volunteers who were killed while attempting to resupply the Gush Etzion kibbutzim in the early stages of the 1948 War of Independence. Little did I know as I participated in the annual memorial hike that five years later I would again be following in their footsteps, volunteering in defense of the people of Israel. My connection to the Lamed Hey [literally "35" in Hebrew numerals] proved invaluable this week when my officer asked me to share their story with my fellow soldiers.

Most Israelis know the basic story of the Lamed Hey. How they set off on foot from Jerusalem to resupply the besieged communities of Gush Etzion. How their journey by night was fraught with danger, with enemy Arab villages lurking around every bend in the hills. And most famously of all, how the Jewish fighters encountered an elderly Arab shepherd, in some accounts two Arab women, and after deciding to spare his life, the shepherd roused the nearby villages and in the pitched battle that followed, the thirty-five fought to the very last man.

Rather than simply tell over the well known story, I sought to communicate why the Lamed Hey are so worth remembering. In doing so I was guided by two comments, one by Israel's founding father David Ben Gurion and another by a brother of one of the Lamed Hey. Following the death of the Lamed Hey in 1948, Ben Gurion commented "these men should not be remembered with stone monuments but in the true and ongoing will to be as much like them as possible." Sixty years later, the brother declared at a memorial event "it is hard to find signs any more of the kind of spirit those fighters had."

In looking for the spirit of the Lamed Hey, I found four guidelines. Tohar neshek, purity of arms, is undoubtedly the first of the four. Regardless of whether or not the Lamed Hey ever spared the life of an Arab shepherd (the entire episode is layered in myth), that is the story--and the value--Israeli schoolchildren learn and that the IDF has championed for over sixty years. Fighting to the very end, whether on a desperate battle in the hills of Gush Etzion or in any of the challenges soldiers face during their service, is the second lesson of the Lamed Hey. Arab accounts of the battle describe the Lamed Hey as fighting to the very last, stones in their hands long after using up the last of their ammunition. Another overlooked legacy of the Lamed Hey is that they did not allow diverse religious or political loyalties to besmirch their commitment to their people. Gush Etzion, then as now, was largely a religious community. The Lamed Hey were mostly left-wing and secular. Yet when the community was in danger, the Lamed Hey marched to their rescue. So too, and perhaps for me the most compelling legacy of the fallen fighters, is that the Lamed Hey consciously set aside their academic and professional lives to aid their brethren in distress. Not a man amongst the Lamed Hey was a professional soldier. Each had an alternative career. Most were students at the Hebrew University. Many, like the brilliant young botanist Tuvya Kushnir, had already achieved prominence in their chosen professions. And yet, once again, when their fellow Jews were in danger, when their community demanded their sacrifice, the Lamed Hey did not hesitate to volunteer.

Telling over the lessons of the Lamed Hey was easily my favorite moment yet of basic training. As difficult as it was to convey the full meaning of my remarks in Hebrew, I knew my fellow soldiers caught the gist of my message. The experience reminded me of what Alex Singer wrote, about questioning during basic training whether he should have gone into the education corp in light of his ability and desire to communicate certain values to his peers. Like Alex, I come to the same conclusion that the best place to educate is ultimately from within the ranks of the most demanding combat units.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherpas & Automatic Fire: The Shooting Range

“What is pain, sergeant!”
Smart-aleck response from one of my guys, after the sergeant asked him how his index finger felt following a drill that had us cocking our guns some 100 times as fast as possible, losing any skin on your finger that is not fully callused.

Much of my first month was spent on the shooting range, mastering the art of sending a bullet hurtling towards threatening cardboard cutouts at ever increasing range. Learning how to land five holes on a distant bulls-eye may sound like a fun bar game until you realize what a day of shooting means in the IDF.

For every bullet we fire, we spend thrice the amount of time setting up and breaking down the shooting range. It took me a good week of commanders ordering me to fall and play "wounded" until the realization sunk in that my role was punishment for allowing my gun to ride on my back during the frantic rush to set up the shooting range. The commanders were not impressed when I explained that years of carrying a saxophone on my back has left me with bad habits.

The real ordeal of shooting lies in the journey from base. Under the diktat of our officer's stopwatch, the iron pegs, cardboard targets, metal tables, mesh tents, endless ammunition and so much else is thrown on our backs and schlepped across the desert. Most days I am sure that the goal of our training is to ensure no Israeli will ever need hire a Sherpa on the post-army jaunts around Nepal.

My progress with the supposed goal of the training, becoming a cool-eyed marksman, has had no shortage of drama. Initially my aim was so poor, not to mention my sorry excuse for a shooting stance, that as punishment I had to receive extensive advice from our beautiful shooting instructor. Tough, right? The instruction must have helped because over the last month my shooting results have ranked near the top of the platoon. While the IDF has a few tips and tricks to improve soldiers' aim, my experience so far is that good shooting largely comes down to the intangibles, inner concentration more than maintaining the perfect posture we attempt to master in endless drills.

Minus the right concentration, hitting the target becomes the least of my worries. All my pretty shooting was for naught this week when my finger flipped the safety switch one click too far, past semi-automatic to the forbidden territory of automatic fire. Israeli soldiers are trained never to fire their rifles on automatic. The double boom from my gun shocked everyone. My officer was the first to recover, informing me as he suspended me from the rest of the day's drills that I am very lucky I had only two bullets in the magazine. The rest of the guy's soon turned the incident into another joke on my account, claiming I would now be arrested overseas for breaking international law (the various Geneva Conventions, in my defense, do not quite cover automatic fire!) and bequeathing the name "matzav sammy" to automatic fire.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hanukkah, Light & Honor

If Hanukkah is not the best loved of Jewish holidays (close second to Pesach, I would guess) then it certainly can claim having the most debated of origins. Is the Festival of Lights about religious observance, fundamentalist violence, Jewish self-determination, Chrismanukkah or simply a base human desire to light a flame during the dark winter months? Traveling down the length of the Nile a year ago impressed on me the mixed cultural messages of the holiday. This year my surroundings have left me with two other Hanukkah lessons.

The first lesson is one I shared with no one, a private message brought home by the dawn light spilling across the desert hills, the weathered tree on base whose leaves shone as gold with the setting sun, the ever enchanting shadows of light from the flickering Hanukkah candles. The beauty of reflected light is a lesson I did not need to wait to appreciate anew this Hanukkah in the army. Yet I did, in no small part to a wonderful book, A Soldier of the Great War, that takes the beauty of light and spins it into a grand tale of love, war and family.

The more public lesson came each night this week when I stood surrounded by dozens of tired young Jewish men, descendants of the Maccabees, dirty green uniforms glowing in the light of candles that struggled to stay lit in the desert wind. Songs were sung, bodies drew closer to protect the candles from the wind, and my thoughts turned to my Hanukkah in Cairo. How fitting that a year after I was unable to light my candles in public, a year after I celebrated the first night of Hanukkah by covering anti-Semitic grafitti on a Cairo wall with a giant Magen David and the words Am Yisrael Chai, a year after I punctuated my Cairo visit by traveling by bus to Jerusalem for the eighth night...

A year later and I stand in the uniform of the defense force of the Jewish state, surrounded by young men honoring the one holiday that recalls the necessity to draw arms in defense of Jewish sovereignty. On our final night of Hanukkah in the army, I briefly told the other soldiers about my experiences a year ago. And then I concluded by reminding them what an honor, what a zechut, we have to be commencing our service the very week of the festival of lights.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why They Call us Lonely Soldiers

During Sha'pash, the hour to shower and chill before lights out, most Israeli soldiers have time for a phone call or two to their parents, girlfriend or the like. Even the newest of immigrants probably knows someone he can call. Thanks to Garin Tzabar and my past experience and relatives in the country, I have whom to phone as well.

Or I should.

The reality is that after a long and draining day, there are few folks I want to call. This is not a comment on the remarkable people I know in Israel whom I am fortunate to call my friends and relatives. It is more a comment on myself, and my conviction that the person(s) I am looking to communicate with during these precious few minutes knows me on the level of a parent, sibling or best friend. And like every chayal boded, every lone soldier serving in the IDF far from his family and (most of his) friends, having those people to call is not to be.

From my own brief experience as a chayal boded, the toughest part of the army is not having those lifelines to reach out to and communicate the thoughts that run riot after a long day in the field. For me, this public journal is part of the solution, though I know that the real answer will come in time as I grow ever closer to my fellow soldiers and new community in Israel.

This blog as it happens, was created to be a public journal, a space where I could share even my most private frustrations and aspirations with attentive friends and family members. Military secrecy aside, I have quickly realized that this forum is not the best place to air my more private difficulties with army life, since if I have a problem with an officer or fellow soldier, courtesy demands that he find out about it from me rather than via a public source in a foreign language. So from here on out, please realize that if my experience in the IDF seems uniformly positive, part of the reason may well be that the more frustrating moments are being necessarily shelved rather than publicized online.

A Professional Approach: Week 2

The armed forces of every country can take almost any young male civilian and turn him into a soldier with all the right reflexes and attitudes in only a few weeks. Their recruits usually have no more than twenty years' experience of the world, most of it as children, while the armies have had all of history to practice and perfect their technique.
Gwynne Dyer, War

Professionalism, our officer preaches, must be our relentless goal. I returned for my second week as excited to return to the army as fulfill my officer's ambition. Waiting for me on Monday was the Bar-Or, the standard IDF physical fitness test that consists of push-ups, sit-ups and a 2k run. No one was more surprised than yours truly when I notched the top score on the test, maxing out on the push-ups (75, after which they tell you to stop) and sit-ups (85, same as previous) and running under seven minutes in the 2k.

The next test of the week was no easier. Following a lengthy series of classes on first aid, everyone sat for a written quiz and then was tested with a live demonstration of applying what we had learned. I doubt any of the soldiers had ever paid half as much attention to a teacher as they did to the medic who taught us the first aid course. The Hebrew was overwhelming for me at times but the instructor helped me decode the written test and I finished with a grade only a step behind my peers.

Everyone in my platoon had room to improve on the next challenge of the week, the army obstacle course that we were introduced to early one morning. The course consists of a dozen stages that must be jumped, climbed, crawled or balanced past--all this, no less, with gun, helmet and weighted vest. A onetime commando who has made quite a reputation for himself in politics, Ehud Barak, holds the course record. If I want to challenge his time I am going to have to master the rope climb and balance beam, two of the obstacles that have seen me fall flat on my face more than once.

Fitness and field knowledge like first aid are two of the three foundations for any infantry soldier. The third is shooting, and my officer is adamant that like any professional, we must thoroughly master everything that relates to a bullet hitting its target. I have never been into guns and cannot claim to find the science of ballistics overly fascinating. Yet I appreciate the wisdom of my officer's words and recognize that this is the profession I have chosen to make my own for the foreseeable future. Recognizing does not guarentee success, of course, and after one week my poor results did little except earn extra attention from the shooting instructor. The attention had its vicarious benefit as our instructor is beautiful, a Sarah Michelle Gellar with sniper training. Falling for one's shooting instructor is supposedly part of the IDF experience, though perhaps it is not what my officer had in mind when he instructed us to approach our training with the utmost professionalism.

Last summer I missed a chance to hang in Beijing with Ziggy Marley, one of the legendary reggae star's musical sons, when I passed on a jam session the reggae singer held during the Olympics. This week I missed Ziggy for the second time, when out of nowhere he showed up at our base to acknowledge a donation he made to the Nachal Brigade! My friends were working in the kitchen when Ziggy strolled up in a modified Nachal uniform, outfitted with a tag depicting a roaring Lion of Judah-and I would venture to guess, a marijuana leaf! What a rock-star! And to think, since Beijing one of his songs has been one of my go-to running tunes as I prepped for the IDF.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Gibush is Over: Selflessness Reigns in the Army

Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely. There is the science of the organization of armies in a nutshell.
Ardant du Picq, 19th century French military theorist

On my first day in the army my officer had everyone memorize the names of everyone's parents, siblings, girlfriend, home. The next day he added nicknames and fetishes to the list, adding that what appeared as a challenge now would seem laughable considering how well we would get to know each other over the course of our lengthy training.

The memorization games were a cute way of bringing home perhaps the most critical reality about army life and basic training: group responsibility is the cardinal virtue. As my officer said, "the gibush [tryout] is over. This is no longer about just you." Everything we do, save for technical training, is designed to teach us to work together and take responsibility for each other. It is a refreshing change of pace from the self-obsessed reality of the numerous tryouts I underwent to get to this point.


Another refreshing and entirely unexpected change in the army from prior tryouts is the ability to eat vegetarian. Save for the occasional meals that consist only of tuna-based field rations, a vegetarian option is nearly always available instead of the meat, chicken or fish served for lunch. I was prepared to forgo keeping a strict vegetarian diet as necessary in the army but my commander has insisted that I should not have any problem avoiding eating meat through training. I am prepared to take him at his word. Then again, this is the same officer who brought a plate overflowing with chicken cutlets to our table and said, "Five minutes, this plate is empty. Eat"

Jacob's Ladder: My First Masa

Haya masa, haya kef.
Had a masa, it was cool.
Sergeant's advice on how I should describe the masa to friends.

My very first masa, the long distance hikes with full gear that are the definitive benchmarks for training in the Israeli army, took place on just my second day. Perhaps my commanders thought it was a good chance to introduce us to the piles of old Vietnam War gear we don during the hikes. Whatever the reason, knowing that my training eventually will include a masa some hundred km long made me eagerly anticipate this four km introductory hike.

A brisk desert rain swept down in sudden spurts as we made a loop into the desolate wilderness outside the base. While the rain was a pleasant distraction, the masa was made unforgettable by the brilliant rainbow soaring from a distant dune straight to the heavens. In the Torah, the rainbow is the divine reminder "this too shall pass," that for all our troubles, tomorrow is on the horizon. The rainbow that broke through the rain of my first masa led my thoughts to a different biblical story. I thought of Jacob and his ladder, the incandescent pathway he perceived rising to the heavens at the start of his great journey into the unknown.

At the end of the masa, I raced up a final dune with my unit to receive red tags atop the shoulders of our green field uniforms Israeli soldiers, as an aside, receive two sets of uniforms, green hand-me down field uniforms only worn on base and dress uniforms only worn at ceremonies and on leave. The latter uniforms are tan or white for members of the air force and navy, blue for officers and green for the army. The red color tags I received from my commander identifies which battalion I am attached to in the Nahal Brigade. After our commanders placed a tag on each of our shoulders, the real ceremony began. Everyone formed a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder, and danced and sang to a silly chant that, our commanders confided, is a unit tradition.

Basic Training with the Nahal Brigade

You have been selected as a candidate for one of the most challenging military units in the world. But the unit only trains lohamim (combat soldiers). The next few months will take you from civilian to soldier, and finally, to a loham in Tzava Haganah L'Yisrael [IDF].
My sergeant (samal), on the first night in the army.

On Tuesday December 8 I started my new life as a member of the Israeli Air Force. That night I arrived in the drafty army base, in Israel's southern desert, to begin three months of basic infantry training. Because my unit serve as the reconnaissance force for the air force, our initial training takes place with Nahal, one of the IDF's five infantry brigades. Later we will move to our own base, where the brunt of our nearly two year long training—the longest in the IDF, save for pilot and submarine officers—takes place. And so for the duration of basic training, I am a member of the Nahal Brigade, Granite Battalion. Tay'sha, Shloshim-Shtayim!

Baby Days in the Army

Imagine if a newborn child, blessed with precocious literary ability, kept an online journal. Would it discuss when, what, and why it burped, nursed and napped? (And if it did, would anyone care to read such a record?) Or would the baby confide the tastes, smell and feel of his surroundings, the endless surprises and emotions he feels as he engages a new world?

The infant, of course, would share feelings rather than facts, senses in place of a census. It would be a journal of experiences that left him inspired or depressed, wanting to scream at the sun or harness his juvenile energy and race beyond the moon. And he would tell you of waking up for days on end at all hours of the night, because that is the life he knows.

For security reasons, I intended to argue that my own journalizing approach would mirror that of any newborn child. The funny bit is that after a week and change in the army, I actually feel like a newborn thrust into a very foreign world. A world timed to the second, every minute from five in the morning till eleven at night meticulously tracked by the stopwatch in my commander's hand. A life guided by the strange assortment of Vietnam War era gear that bursts out of the equally aged kit-bags that are of necessity closet, cupboard and clothing rack. A reality I have embraced eyes wide open, alternatively loving and despairing at the linguistic or pedantic demands that leave my mind whirling faster than ever even as it tries to stave off the crippling effect of limited sleep.

Perhaps my childlike like wonder and despair at army life is obvious to my peers. One of them does not let a day pass without looking at me with a grin and insisting, "ooooh, I looove you so much. You are just the cutest thing in the whole world."

Marriage or the Military: Exclusive Relationships

The year after I finish university, I once reassured my mother, I intend to be either married—or in the military! Little did I realize that marriage is perhaps the best metaphor to describe the exclusive relationship I have committed to in becoming a soldier. I am not referring to how this army business impacts my ongoing search for the right missus. That fascinating discussion will no doubt provide material enough for many future write-ups! Instead I refer to the tact I must and will henceforth maintain in not disclosing anything confidential about the Israeli military in this public journal. Much like a marriage, there will be much that transpires in my life as an Israeli soldier that I cannot confide outside of IDF circles.

I do not expect it will be easy at times to maintain such an exclusive relationship. Communication verifies reality, after all. It is the most treasured value I know and one that underlies my attachment to this very journal. And so limiting the full force of that value to a single partner—in this case, the IDF—will be a trying experience. Perhaps it will also be the dry run I need, however, to make a similar success of the other exclusive relationship I once spoke of to my mother that remains unrealized.

Bottom line: Do not expect to find anything in this space that shares confidential information about the IDF.

Bonus: On my very first night in the army, my commanding officer took the religious guys aside and assured us we would always receive the army regulated time for the three daily prayers. "No doubt many of your friends, far more than your secular peers in the unit, will be getting married over the course of training," he added with a sympathetic smile. "Well, don't expect you will be able to attend many of them." Secrecy, it seems, is not the only demand this exclusive relationship will be asking of me!

Friday, December 11, 2009

First Impressions

Stepping off the bus in Jerusalem in my tan uniform, powder granite beret tucked atop my shoulder, ending my first masa with a run through the desert rain and a dazzling rainbow, embracing a life governed by thirty second and two minute timed intervals, coming to terms with the dream that has become a reality...

After only two and a half days in the IDF, I am bursting with stories to share. Time, however, is not on my side and so the pen will necessarily be set aside for one more week. To be continued...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Two Decades till Tomorrow

Twenty-four years...

Jewish history tells of a modest man who lived in the hills of northern Israel. He was a shepherd and unlearned. Until inspired by love and the deceptive power of water to tunnel through stone, Akiva devoted himself to Torah study. He started late and yet the peaks he reached remain a legacy to his community centuries later.

Twenty-four years...

For two decades I have waited for the opportunity that awaits me tomorrow. The chance to serve and defend the Jewish people, vividly and completely...

I often hear doubts about why I am prepared to enlist at such an advanced age. Your commanders will be younger than you, they say. My peers will be immature eighteen year olds, I hear, with none of my educational and overseas experience.

I am very conscious of my age and the unusual path I have taken to arrive where I am today. Conscious-yet grateful. I am grateful for the journey that began in a land my teacher Rabbi Label Dulitz called the frozen fjords of Minnesota and has woven its way across the USA, looping through China, Ethiopia and back and forth across Europe and the Middle East before coming to rest, tomorrow morning, in an induction base outside of Tel Aviv.

I am also truly grateful for the support and encouragement from the one of a kind friends and family I have encountered along my journey. The courage I take into the road ahead is built on the encouragement you give me, the values you have impressed upon me and the stories we share that light the way.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

Who is more responsible than a bird who finds and follows meaning, a higher purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live – to learn, to discover, to be free!
~Jonathan Livingston Seagull

"We ran with sandbags, crawled with sandbags, even dug with weight on our shoulder...Three days straight!" I was listening to a friend describe the infamous tryout for the Golani Brigade's elite units when my phone buzzed with another call. The phone said "restricted," so I knew it was either my parents calling from overseas or the army calling from a concealed number. Apologizing for the interruption, I cut my friend off, switched lines and the following brief conversation (in translation) took place:
"Shalom, This is the Air Force calling. I want to tell you, first of all congratulations, that you made it into the unit"

"Wait, what unit?"

As the voice explained, I grabbed my friend's ankle, needing a reminder of anything tangible as my mind struggled to accept where I will be serving in the IDF. If the above picture and my previous allegory about the cat and the bird is still leaving you mystified, then contact me directly and we can dispense with the animal talk!

Or sing along with me...