Monday, December 27, 2010

Americans to the Rescue!

Krav Maga instructors are trained to instill aggression and a quick jab into their military charges. So I was quite bemused on Sunday night when my instructor in the no-holds barred Israeli fighting style fussed with my collar. After asking me to check that his uniform was picture perfect, he announced we were ready. "We are going in on my command," he instructed in a voice of barely concealed menace. "Everyone stay calm and remember, you are paratroopers in the IDF."

I had little idea what I was doing outside an old stone Moroccan style house. Last night my commander had informed me to meet our Krav Maga instructor by the bus station in Jerusalem. I arrived to find the instructor, a twenty-five year old South African lone soldier, waiting with two other American lone soldiers from Sayeret Tzanchanim. The instructor knew why we were here. But he was not very interested in talking, seemingly concerned that his professional mask of grim detachment may slip in the company of fellow native English speakers.

When the instructor gave the word, I entered to find three dozen American Jews gathered to celebrate the Bat-Mitzvah of one of their own. They had wanted to include soldiers, particularly lone soldiers, in the festivities. One call led to another and the special forces of the Paratroopers were assigned this challenging mission. A few drunken uncles and a zesty Sfardi dance number (yes, the Krav Maga instructor got down with it as well!) were the highlights of an evening of unbridled joy I will not soon forget.


Fueled by our commander's words, the guys in my unit have become obsessed with how we can collect contributions to purchase better equipment. I find the ceaseless discussions excessive, especially since there is a limit to what we actually need (flashlights, hiking boots, and some winter wear) and what guys insist we can not do without (Swiss army knives, hiking backpacks, even laptops!). Nevertheless I agreed to serve as the English language go between when one of the guy's told us a wealthy friend of his grandmother would consider providing us with a generous contribution.

Soon I was speaking to this old American lady almost everyday. She was a tough character and was not willing to contribute unless her demands were met. Her final request was to come and speak with my unit. When she explained that she wanted to share with my peers why Americans support Israel, I promised to do everything to ensure her request would be approved. Any attempt at removing the web of myth that clouds Israelis' understanding of the American Jewish community is a good idea.

Or so I thought. I was not sure whether to laugh or cry when the old lady addressed my unit. Speaking in English with the help of a translator, she explained to my credulous peers that American support of Israel is based on the work that her and her fellow post Holocaust donors/lobbyists do to pay off American political leaders. When I tried to ask what she thought about Peter Beinart's recent take on the widening gulf between the present and future leaders of the American Jewish community, she dismissed young Americans Jews as politically naive and hopelessly misguided. After she left, I assured my dumbstruck peers (who were still wrestling with her detailed description of how payoffs work in the US Senate) that her words reflect a particular perspective within the American Jewish community, one whose cold realpolitik is forever shaped by the stunning devastation they experienced in the Holocaust. There are many other narratives, I insisted. After all, yours truly did not leave the go-go life of Washington behind because of any political payoff.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tremp to the Valley

US military enlistment tries to sell armed service as a constant rush of high-risk excitement. The reality, at least in the Israeli army, is anything but. Training to be a frontline combat soldier is a marathon with few edge-of-the-seat joy rides. Courting risk, ironically, comes into play on off-weekends.

Hitchhiking (tremping, in Hebrew slang) to kibbutz late on Friday afternoon was risky business. Less than two hours remained until shabbat began and no one I knew had ever hitched from the capital to our kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. More importantly, I was in uniform. Israeli soldiers are prohibited from tremping to counter the real threat of kidnapping. If a military policeman did not spot me, I ran the risk that a tremp would leave me off in a Palestinian settlement along the road north. While not my first choice, Jerusalem seemed a much better option for shabbat than a Palestinian village.

A hipster girl by the trempiada (hitchhike station) in northeast Jerusalem gave me my first piece of luck when she volunteered to grab a ride for both of us. Her kindness allowed me to take a step back from the curb and avoid any accusations that I was actively seeking a tremp. A long wait finally ended with a ride to the Almog junction. The main road from Jerusalem continued east to the Dead Sea. I needed to turn north on what is known as the Gandhi Road after the assassinated Israeli politician Rehavam Ze'evi. The Gandhi Road, aka Highway 90, runs right up along the Jordanian border to my kibbutz. Straight through the future state of Palestine. "Take your shirt off," advised the young man who had driven me as far as Almog. "You don't want to shout out that you are a soldier on the rest of your ride north."

Sundown was just an hour away when a middle aged Russian immigrant stopped at the lonely turnoff. "I have a few stops to make along the way in Arab villages," he cautioned, "though with some luck we should make it north in time." Giddy-up.

The first stop was for fresh produce at a roadside grocer. Later we made our way to a family style gas station to fill up on gas. And my driver's last errand was through an Arab village and into a field to pick up large squares of manure from two Arab brothers. "Makes good fuel," explained my driver. "Nice and cheap."

The manure was not the only cost effective purchase. The foodstuff was purchased for five times less than what can be found in Israeli territory. And the gas? "I don't pay a thing," claimed my driver. "The Arab owners know me, I know them, and we have an understanding."

While congratulating the driver for his savvy fiscal sense, I reminded him that the sun was sinking. His sympathy was evident when he turned down the manure tradesman's offer to stop and have tea. "My friend and I will come back some other time," my driver assured the courteous manure man. "Now we have to make it home for shabbos." I felt like Big Gedalia Goomber as we sped off toward the date fields that ring my kibbutz home.

We said our goodbyes by the turnoff to my kibbutz, eight kilometers from home. Candle-lighting was in a few minutes. Little more than twenty minutes was left before shabbat descended on the valley. My luck had graced me with no baggage save for a pair of running shoes my commander had insisted everyone take home from base. He had requested we make time for a five kilometer run. He got his wish and I got one of the most thrilling runs of my life, a frantic dash past fish farms and date fields with my army boots clutched in either hand. I bounded past the Tiv meat factory and into kibbutz just in time. Shabbat, and a relaxed weekend at home, had begun.

Tradition of the Tossed

Three guys were tossed from my new team. Lined up and sent away in seven shocking minutes. I wish I could say I felt terrible. Or that I was surprised. The reality is that I am too new and too surprised at the low standards of certain members of my team to be much taken aback at the decision to let some of the worst offenders go. Two of the soldiers binned were simply young men who never should have been in a special forces unit to begin with. A combat unit is ultimately not a charity ward. Get too wet and at some point there is no more room in the lifeboat.

The third soldier tossed, however, caused more heartache. Known to one and all as Chewbacca, he was the most popular kid on the squad. He made up for a lack of size or speed by making himself indispensable to all the little things that tie together a cohesive team. What he lacked above all, however, was the ability to overcome a fear of heights. After three failed tries to complete jump course, the decision went all the way up to the overall commander of the Paratroops. His decision - that a soldier without jump experience could not serve as a paratrooper - brought Chewbacca down.

When I left my former squad there were hugs and handshakes. One guy cried. Here we said goodbye to the departed with a no-holds barred punch-out. Everyone jumped them and for five minutes exchanged blows with the three soldiers leaving our troop for the final time.

The Girls of the Gil

Flirting with young female instructors played a crucial role in teaching me Chinese. For whatever reason, most Chinese teachers in mainland China are young women. I was never very good at memorizing characters or remembering intricate idioms. But I did appreciate that to master the language, I had to practice speaking as much as possible. And so every chance I had, I would chat with the teachers. Or maybe flirt. It never seemed very important as long as the language coming out of my lips was Chinese.

Learning how to shoot one of the IDF's most advanced anti-tank missiles reminded me of my Chinese learning experience. My team spent two weeks with a cadre of young female instructors mastering everything there is to know about the lethal missile. Hours of Hebrew language class time made the course fairly challenging for yours truly. I was saved by the instructors, who made extra time to tutor me one and one on the material. Their efforts paid off when I walked away with the highest mark on the two tests administered at the end of the course.

The extra tutoring was not all that brought my former Chinese instructors to mine. I was struck by the contrast between the two groups of young female instructors. In China, the state employs a cadre of young ladies to teach the language and share the national culture. Here young women of a similar age are engaged in teaching young men like me how to kill.

Call it soft versus hard power. Call it varied security dilemmas. All true. And yet the comparison refused to leave me alone as we studied a weapon without ever touching upon the horrible destruction it causes on impact. Shooting this missile is like playing a video game, staring through a small screen and guiding a missile with pinpoint accuracy. We watched dozens of real life recordings of the weapon in action and rarely did the missile miss its mark. Yet never does the camera dwell on the target after the initial impact. Others are left to pick up the pieces.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Worst Friday in the World

The worst part is that the day began so well.

A huge crowd for the bus to Jerusalem greeted me when I arrived at the Beersheva bus station. It was Friday morning and so the crowd of green uniforms jostling to get home was no surprise. As I walked toward the crowd, I saw the bus everyone was waiting entering the station. Not skipping a beat, I slipped through the crowd and was in the perfect position to be the first on the bus when it glided to a stop alongside the surging crowd (see below, for my tips for conquering the bus crowds).

Good got great when a pretty blond katzina, a female lieutenant, took the adjoining seat. An easy lead-in question led to conversation that lasted till she had to go at Latrun. I had mixed feelings watching this complete stranger slip so quickly out of my life. Little did I know that the day would slide downhill fast.

My bus arrived in Jerusalem. Ten stairs took me to the food court where the grim reality of the day first hit me: today is Asara B'Tevet, the Tenth of Tevet, a minor fast day commemorating the siege (and eventual fall) of Jerusalem by that evil old Babylonian, Nebuchadnezzar. A fast day. A day when food and drink, twin symbols of all that can be enjoyed outside the army, are off-limits. A soldier's day of celebration had been transformed into morning. Sunlight into storm-clouds.

Damn you Nebuchadnezzar, I whispered as the day refused to die. You and your conquests. Ah, history hates me.


If you take inter-city buses in Israel on Thursday evening, Fridays or Sunday mornings, chances are you are familiar with the crowds, nay hordes of travelers seeking one of the precious few seats on any given bus. Most of the travelers are likely uniform wearing soldiers, meaning your competition is a race of teenagers whose desperation to get onto the bus is fueled by the knowledge that missing the bus means incurring the wrath of their commanders for getting to base late.

That said, here are some tips for getting a seat on any bus, no matter the crowd. These tips may not sound like much. All I can say is I follow them and have never failed to get onto a bus, no matter the crowd size.

1) Standing as close as possible to where the door will open is key.

In large bus stations, this is fairly easy to accomplish since there is a designated space where the bus pulls into. Huge crowds often cause havoc, however, and bus drivers sometimes stop before the end of the designated space because foolish souls are standing in the way. One should never stand in the space reserved for the bus. That space, however, is the key to gaining the best position on the curb, right on the edge near the end where the door will be when the bus comes to a stop. To get this prime real estate, make your approach in the space where the bus will come to rest. Then simply hop up on the curb at the right moment.

Street stops are more dynamic and privilege quick reflexes more than subterfuge. The bus may stop before, after or right at the stop. Like a goalie facing a penalty shot, you cannot be sure. So you have to trust your hunch and then when the driver makes his move, have the quickest jump in the direction the bus is heading.

2) In a crowd of soldiers, there is always at least one old civilian granny waiting to board. This is important because soldiers will make room for her, clearing space so she can board first. If granny is absent, chances are a few bozos will make room so a female soldier can get on first. Either way, same tactic applies. Trick here is simply to get behind the old lady and like an ambulance through busy traffic, follow her onto the bus.

3) Do not travel with a large bag. If you must, have a buddy put both your bags under the bus while you get on the bus and save a seat for him. If you are alone and the situation is desperate, then you have no choice but to face the anger of the driver and attempt to board with your large bag. In this case, sling the bag off your back and carry it with one hand, trying it keep it behind your leg and out of the main line of vision of the driver. If he complains, be apologetic, mumble something in a mixture of Hebrew and English, give him the sad puppy face and scoot onwards. As for the bag, the best place to stash it is next to the small trash bin by the rear door.

4) Crowds lead to pushing and shoving. Never sink to this level. Instead, use the jostling of the crowd to your advantage. Let the pushing of the horde ease you into position to board the bus. Think of the shoving as a wave and your body as a creature far more skilled than anyone else in this maritime environment.

5) Believe you will get in. Picture yourself sitting down in that bus. Then make it happen!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Support the Troops!

Money is arguably the key difference between the two military units I have called home. In my former Air Force unit, a generous budget meant we rarely lacked for any sort of gear. Warm winter clothes were provided gratis. Tape and other basic necessities were ours for the taking from a well stocked on-base warehouse.

My current unit is a very different story. A low overhead is reflected in the poor quality of our food and the dismal condition of our rooms. The most critical effect is our dismal lack of gear. Many guys lack thermal underclothes against the cold. Only a few possess a headlamp that is necessary for waging war by night. And our lack of tape and string means we are unable to transform our gear into the battle-ready tools that could decide life and death.

My unit has a simple solution to the chronic lack of funding: donations. As the only American on my team, my peers and even my commander expect that I can find generous supporters to donate monies for all our missing gear. While I am under no false pretense that donating to my army squad is without a doubt the most deserving of charities (the Sabra Hummus haters certainly would not agree!), there is something to be said for supporting young Israelis who themselves have sworn to donate even their lives if necessary to the defense of the Jewish state.

I am seeking to raise funds so that everyone on my team can be provided with a pair of well-made hiking boots. Combat soldiers in elite units are allowed non-regulation boots because the army issued footwear is far from kind to a soldier's feet and legs. Hiking boots costs $150. Providing for my whole team means my fund-raising goal is $4,500.

If you wish to donate any amount, please contact me directly or leave a comment below and I will do my best to follow up as soon as possible. My thanks in advance.

Rahm Emanuel is likely the most famous former participant of Sar-El (acronym for Sheirut L'Yisrael, Service to Israel), the three week program run by the IDF that allows foreigners of any age to volunteer their service to the nation's defense. When Emanuel was cleaning tanks during the 1991 Gulf War, I doubt he ever witnessed a show like that staged by my officers for the Sar-El group working at our base. My team was put through hours of intensive combat training and Krav Maga while the twenty year old American volunteers watched from the sidelines.

Watching them watch me and my guys reminded me how easily I could be in their shoes rather than where I am. Despite the sweat, tears and fear, I raced through the evening's "performance" all the more grateful that I had the chance to perform on stage rather than watch from the wings.

Command or Conquer

I wish I had twenty-two more guys like you in my brigade. We'd just have to name the squad after you.

There was not much I could say after my company commander (mem"pei) began and ended our first meeting with the above words. Two weeks have passed since I joined Sayeret Tzanchanim and my high-energy level and standout performance on recent navigation exercises have obviously left a positive impression. The good vibes extend past my sit-down with the boss. A cursory dental check-up this week wrapped up with the dentist declaring to her staff that I had the best teeth in the Paratroops Brigade! My last dental checkup, a year ago during basic training with the Nachal Brigade, had ended with another dentist making a similar pronouncement about Nachal. Two brigades down, I told this latest dentist, three more to go, all thanks to lucky genes and good brushing!

The positive reception I have received in my new unit leaves me rethinking the two goals I made for myself when I joined Sayeret Tzanchanim. One goal is focused on getting real service experience (serving on kav, in army parlance), regardless of whether the relative peace since January 2009 means there will be few firefights. A second goal is to assume a leadership position, a process that starts by getting selected for the army's NCO course. Known as "Course Makim" since most of those who complete the course serve as squad commanders (Mifaked Kitah, a Mak), the course is the first rung on the command ladder in the IDF.

These two goals are essentially mutually exclusive. Pursuing active duty (kav) means finishing my training in April and serving on kav until I leave the army in October. Becoming a commander means I would start Course Makim sometime in February. When the three month course concludes in late May, I would likely be assigned as a squad commander (mak) for a troop whose training would continue till the end of my service in October. I could be attached as a samal (a sergeant) to troops on kav, and the chance even exists that I would be sent straight onto the army's ten-month long lieutenant course, but past example within Sayeret Tzanchanim suggests I would find myself training rookie soldiers. Going the command route, in other words, would mean serving as something of an instructor for the rest of my army service. Instructing rookie troops is obviously part of the attraction of command. But it would be hard to stomach finishing my army service having never seen active duty.

My dilemma is one that all Israeli combat soldiers face if they are deemed fit for command. Many lieutenants in this army serve four years (the mandatory three plus an extra year lieutenants are required to add) having bounced from one course to another without ever seeing active duty. Those who finish their command as NCOs(mak or samal) rarely face this reality since a full three years service means they will be rotated back onto active duty after serving with a unit in training.

For lone soldiers in special units, the choice between course makim and serving as a mak versus sticking with active duty service is more acute. This is largely a matter of timing: a) special units train for over a year; b) lone soldiers over the age of twenty-one tend to serve less than the full three years; c) course makim is three months and serving as a post-course Mak for rookie troops is usually at the very least another three months. Do the math and it is clear that lone soldiers in special units who serve less than three years and choose to become a NCO will likely never see active duty.

The math is less interesting than the question of motivation. Lone soldiers tend to have fairly distinct reasons for why they enlisted. Ideological reasons aside, most combat soldiers are driven by a desire to experience active duty. While no one wants to get shot, those in front-line units do tend to hope that they will have a chance to put their months of grueling training to use. From the frustrations of a checkpoint to the fear of a predawn ambush, active duty is what a combat soldier enlists for. Serving in the line of fire is the essence of what it means to be a soldier. And active duty encounters are where a soldier truly learns what this conflict is all about.

Serving as a NCO or even a lieutenant draws from another realm of military legend. As a military leader, one is charged with transforming a group of young men into a cohesive squad of soldiers. A commander has an unparalleled opportunity to really influence others during his brief army service. For the lone soldier there is also the challenge of commanding native born Israelis, cementing an acculturation process that began by enlisting as a foreign-born volunteer in the Israeli army.

While I hope to see enough of active duty to know what it is like, my heart lies in serving in a leadership position. Exactly whether I will be selected for Course Makim remains unclear, since despite positive hints from higher ups no announcement will be made for another month. In the meantime I can continue to explore an alternative of sorts: perhaps I can emerge as something of an informal leader for my peers, providing the chance to make an influence without the need for formalized ranks and courses.

Memory Lane on Navigation

You are Moses. Now lead us to the Promised Land!

With these dramatic words, one of the guys on my team called on me to lead him and a few other lost souls to the end of a recent navigation exercise. At home in our surroundings, I could only laugh at his request. Months ago, I had stumbled through these same hills during a traumatic navigation that helped usher me from my former unit. Many months earlier, my army career had begun here as well with the pre-military Gadna program.

Not only were the valleys, pathways and, most importantly, dangerous svach (undergrowth) familiar, I knew the local history. As my small troupe of disorientated navigators walked alongside, I recalled how sixty years ago, a select group of German Jews had trained here as Nazi officers. The group were part of a desperate attempt by the Haganah to ready the Jewish community of Palestine for a Nazi occupation they feared was imminent with Rommel advancing on the Holy Land. As we reflected on the recent past, we followed an ancient walkway whose stones were first laid two thousand years ago by the Roman Empire.

A week later navigation training had relocated to the south. Now we were training in urban settings, learning how to find targets in a smattering of Bedouin towns. Navigating through the Arab towns by night, in full gear with only one soldier by my side, is the closest I have felt to an actual mission. We slipped through courtyards, avoided raging sheep-dogs, and meandered for hours looking for the "color of the door on the third house on the right" or "what tree is planted in front of the white house." One could only hope that colors, trees and address numbers had not changed in recent years.

Our urban navigation training made me feel at home for the second week in a row. This time I could not credit prior experience in the region, although I had paid a brief visit to one of the Arab towns years ago. The familiar feeling came from applying our generally field based navigation training to avenues and driveways, an urban jungle I easily connect to the cities and towns I have lived in my entire life. The army is usually the den of the field mouse. So when the games come to the city, city mice like me can only feel at home.

Breaking Rules, Going Black

Yesh li tzipor katan b'lev, Ani shachor, Ani Orev!
I have a small bird in my heart, I am black, I am Orev*!

* Orev, the nickname for my unit, literally means raven.

I am a rule breaker. By choice, if not by nature. My weakness is my cellphone, and the internet I can access by powering up the little gizmo when my commanders are out of sight. Cellphones have been blacklisted since basic training, when a one-hour grace period every evening was the only time (besides shabbat) my fellow trainees and I could touch our phones. Special units maintain this ban, without the cushy hour break, until the end of training.

With fourteen months of training behind me and a few more to go, I have not succeeded in playing by this rule. In my former unit, I had to keep my sinning from my peers. If they did not report me to our commander, they certainly would make me pay on the next sociometry.

My current unit is a very different animal. Here there is one ironclad rule: never snitch on your fellow soldiers. If you want to break a rule, from checking email to lighting up a cigg, all the power to you - just make sure a commander does not catch you. Our one rule, of course, negates following any other rules. With few exceptions, the eighteen year olds around me are black as sin, an apt idiom if there ever was one as to be black in the army means to not follow rules. Black (shachor) is the opposite of yellow (tzahov). And just as a yellow soldier carries of a whiff of the despised teacher's pet, black often qualifies as cool in army circles.

As the cool label suggests, breaking a minor rule here and there--as long as the commanders do not catch one red-handed--is not a big deal. Orev even has a song (see above) that takes pride in our blackness. Nevertheless, the culture of breaking rules outside the mandate of our officers has pernicious effects. One need look no farther than navigation training to understand why.

Israeli soldiers spend more of their training on navigation exercises than anything else in special forces units. The thinking seems to be that an all night navigation through difficult terrain tests a soldier's stamina and decision making more than hours of shooting or urban combat training. The absence of commanders is a basic element of navigating. Soldiers are expected to get by on their own wits and resourcefulness, turning to their officer for instruction only when they truly are lost. Checking a map, joining up with other soldiers, overusing a flashlight or going so far as to use GPS or ask local Bedouins for directions are all actions that can only be taken with the direct permission of a commander. In short, they form a brief list of prohibitions that if performed without permission make the navigation far easier while defeating the very idea of the exercise.

Outside of a few select units, navigation training in the rest of the army is rife with cheating. Opening a map is simply too attractive an option when the risk of getting caught (and the consequences for that happening) is almost nil. I arrived in my current unit with a purist's attachment to the rules of navigating. What I found was startling. One navigation saw forty soldiers join up only five minutes from the starting position. As a "golem" without an active role in the first round of the exericse, I watched as the mob of "navigators" argued about how to proceed, maps in hand, lit flashlights marking our slow progress to everyone in the neighborhood. Before the night was over, my partner had thrown himself at the mercy of a Bedouin gas station attendant, asking him if the local teen could make sense of my partner's map and the GPS he had downloaded on his internet equipped cellphone.

At no point did my partner even consider asking our commander if, in light of his dire situation, he could use his map. His response is sadly not unusual. Soldiers on navigation are by and large ready to do anything save follow procedure and simply inform their officers that they are lost. It is difficult to understand why. Officers know that a certain number of their men are miserable at navigating. They also know that this hardly matters, since navigating (without a map and GPS device) is a skill few soldiers will ever be called upon to employ.

The "black culture" within my unit is hardly confined to navigation training. Ironically, the one rule I have trouble following - cellphone usage - covers the same ground as the value most victimized by the ubiquitous rule breaking: communication. Communication, of course, is a two-way street, the very act that builds trust, that makes real our internal obsessions. And so when my fellow soldiers and I keep our officers at a distance, we are also distancing ourselves.

A Commander at Last

The essence of the military is that to be a good leader you must truly love your men, and then you must be willing to kill that which you love. The paradox of war is that those leaders who are most willing to endanger that which they love can be the ones who are most liable to win, and therefore protect their men.
David Grossman, On Killing

Your commander and fellow soldiers are the two components that determine a soldier's satisfaction in the army. My former officer was an enigma, a man I wanted to admire despite his obvious lack of interest in me. I left his squad hoping that no matter where I went in the army, I could find a commander to truly admire. The young man leading my new team has exceeded my most ambitious hopes. In two weeks my new commander has provided a more scintillating example of military leadership than anything I was exposed to in the prior twelve months.

The more elite the unit, the more polished and impressive the commanding officer. Or so goes conventional army wisdom that is not ringing true in my case. Whatever I may think of their leadership capabilities, my current commander has served in units that mark him as the equal if not the better of my former officer. Bragging rights aside, the importance of having an officer who has served in the most elite units is that his standards are at the highest level. My current commander arrived in Sayeret Tzanchanim only a month before me, having replaced the officer who trained my new team for the first eight months of their army service. As a new officer trained by the most elite units of the Israeli army, my commander is committed to raising the professionalism of our unit. He is savvy enough to realize that (a) change cannot come all at once and (b) in order to effect real change, he needs allies. Having come from similar units, my commander sees me as a natural ally in importing higher standards. I am of course all too pleased to do my part. Not only do I share the same goal but working closely with him provides me with a first hand look at how a military leader can transform his troops for the better.

My current officer's most striking difference from his predecessor lies in his personal skills and joie de vivre. Unlike my previous boss, my commander genuinely enjoys relating to his soldiers and peers on the personal level. He even embraces the chance to provide his soldiers with time off. In my former unit, speaking to my commander about taking off for a day to in order to take care of necessary non-army needs or attend a close friend's wedding made me feel like I was taking advantage of his and the unit's limited goodwill. Now such requests are met with approval and a smile. My officer's approach seems to be that if he respects his men as people rather than just soldiers, they will prove better at both tasks.

As much as I am enjoying the opportunity to learn from his example, I am also unnerved by the way guys in my new unit perceive their officers. In my former unit, soldiers and commanders were united in a desire to train as well as possible in order to gain recognition as the most capable team of warriors. Commanders were feared yet respected and honesty and communication was at least theoretically maintained between both parties. Contrast that to the environment in Sayeret Tzanchanim where the soldiers view their officers as the opposition, taskmasters committed to making us soldiers suffer in grueling exercises. Ratting on a fellow solider to the boss is seen as the worst offense, especially since guys take every opportunity to break rules when the commanders are not present. The dissimilar attitudes between my past and present units seem almost generational, a matter of maturity between how high school and university students relate to their instructors. For my new peers sake, I hope they can shuck off this sorry approach to our commander and not fail to take advantage of the opportunity to serve under such a remarkable officer.

A Few Good Boys

I had the good fortune to join Sayeret Tzanchanim on the cusp of two weeks of navigation training. While navigation exercises are one of my favorite parts of military training, they also provide a golden opportunity to get to know one's fellow soldiers. Navigation training uses a buddy system, whereby one man navigates while the other tags along as a safety precaution (the two switch roles midway through the night). The extra man, known as the golem (kind of like the legendary Jewish Frankenstein of Prague), has nothing to do save make conversation. I took advantage of this social angle and in no time flat had exchanged life stories with most of the guys on my new team.

My former commander liked to talk about the incredible diversity of our team. With soldiers of Ethiopian, American and Yemenite descent, he was mostly right. Until the day I left the unit along with nearly all the guys who are not Ashkenazim from a kibbutz or the urban elite. Serving in the Paratroopers has returned me to the diversity of modern Israel. My new peers are of every ethnicity: Ethiopian, Russian and a mishmash of Sefardi backgrounds. We have secular kibbutzniks, religious settlers, arrogant arsim, and rich kids from northern Tel Aviv. Nearly everyone has an opinion on Judaism. The only exception may be the Russian immigrant who makes no qualms about having taken advantage of the Law of Return (the immigrant law that allows all Jews to move to Israel) despite his Christian faith.

Our diversity is a fulcrum for a rich cast of characters. There is a short Ethiopian known as Day-Glow whose family has little idea that he is serving in a combat unit. Our Russian Christian has a smoking habit so bad that the second the officers are out of sight a cigarette appears between his lips. And then there is the most popular kid, a lovable runt nicknamed Chewbacca. Unlike his namesake, our Chewbacca is a foul-mouthed little operator whose charm covers up a fear of heights that has prevented him from passing paratrooper jump course. Another team member is known throughout the army for barely surviving jump course. Both his principal and reserve parachutes failed to function until seconds before hitting the ground. Jump course left my new team with one final legacy. The week after wrapping up the course, one of the guys reported to the wrong base on Sunday morning. He never returned and no one has seen him since.

At my swearing in ceremony way back in January, a friend commented that the young men in my former unit looked visibly more mature than your average nineteen year old. Not only are my former teammates physically and emotionally mature for their age, they also share a high level of motivation and commitment to their military service. My current team is much more of a mix. A third of the guys are real stars, with the necessary tools and attitude that would have allowed them to succeed in the most elite units. Another third know their stuff yet lack the full-on commitment to always give their all. Ask them what part of training they most enjoy and "free-time" is the easy answer. The final third have little discipline, no maturity or are just plain lazy. How they remain in a special forces unit would be a mysterious save for the fact that guys are very rarely tossed from our unit. Unlike my former unit, Sayeret Tzanchanim has no culture of weeding out weak links. Commanders are instead challenged to meld what they have into an effective fighting force.

The relative immaturity of my current unit has made me far more conscious of my advanced age. Not only do I have half a decade on most of my peers but having joined a team who enlisted in March 2010, I have four more months of army experience. In my former unit, my advanced age was rarely a factor largely because my entire team was more or less the same age in "pazam years" (how long we had served), the key judge of a soldier's seniority.

Finally feeling older has brought unexpected advantages. Confidence has slowly replaced the insecurity and confusion that characterized the start of my army service. Having always been a late bloomer who only really succeeds after truly mastering the environment, I now feel ready to bring my full personality into play.

Past & Present Units Compared

"After ten months on the lam, you have finally joined the real army. Welcome!"
Friend's response to my description of the differences between my current and former units.

On my first day in the real army of Israel, I was issued a one-piece insulated jumpsuit known as a chermonite. Signing off on the Snuffalufagus outfit is not simply a sign that winter is coming. It also means that I will be spending parts of nearly every night in the chilly months to come on guard duty. Sayeret Tzanchanim (Paratrooper Special Forces), unlike my former Air Force unit, has a lovely custom of insisting that within our very own base a soldier must always stand guard. Hence I can now say with near certainty that a weekday night will not pass in the next half year without my getting woken up mid-slumber to slip into my chermonite and stand guard over an empty courtyard for thirty wretched minutes.

I left the Israeli Air Force knowing that wherever I ended up things would be very different. No longer would I wear a well tailored tan uniform on my weekends off. Nobody would henceforth have reason to mistake me for a pilot. And no explanations on my part would be necessary to clarify that despite my Air Force tans, I am training to be every bit the combat soldier like the boys in green.

Now that I am one of those boys in green, a freshly minted member of Sayeret Tzanchanim, the real differences between my past and present units are all to apparent. If my former outfit was run and funded like a top-flight engineering firm, my current unit resembles an old mechanic shop struggling to make ends meet. Neither the training nor the facilities where I now serve can compare to what I experienced over my first year in the IDF.

Tash is army shorthand for all the good things in military life (food, facilities & fun)) a soldier is entitled to (Tash comes from the phrase t'nai sherut, service conditions). Elites units like my former outfit are known to make up in tash what they sacrifice in grueling exercises. Add to the mix that the Israeli Air Force is uniformly known as having the best food and the prettiest girls in the IDF (If privacy concerns were not a factor, I would provide photos of some of the girls from my former unit. You'll just have to trust me!) and you can imagine how far down the tash slide I have fallen in my new posting.

The food has gone from plentiful and tasty to scarce and barely edible. The pretty girls and former models have sadly disappeared. Money for unit social evenings has ceased to exist. Also gone is top quality and freely available equipment, from combat tools to the basic tape and fabrics used to fix and clean up gear. My new base is a disorganized mess, populated by several competing units, among them a cache of incarcerated soldiers dressed in US Army fatigue as they serve time for violating army rules. The rooming accommodations are even worse, eight guys packed into a room with half a dozen beds and barely any space to organize our belongings. My new junior officer even had me and a few others go scavenging in a maze of broken housing for loose shelves. I have returned to living out of my bag, an experience I thought I had left behind in the tent I called home during basic training.

The only obvious tash upgrade is weekends off. During training in Sayeret Tzanchanim, every weekend (save for the unfortunate bloke who "volunteers" to stay and guard the empty courtyard within the base) is a shabbat at home. Hopefully the extra time off means I can make a stab at forging a real life and a real blog outside of the army!

Training rather than tash is what really defines the dissimilarities between my past and present army homes. On paper, our exercises look more or less the same. A week of navigation training in both units follows the same rules and routes. Yet the commitment, organization, culture and, above all else, pacing are so different between the two units that training similarities are far from apparent. My former unit cherished professionalism and insisted on living up to the highest standards of discipline and performance. This culture is reflected is a frantic pace where rarely a minute is wasted and soldiers are always busy at something. In Sayeret Tzanchanim, the priority seems to be instilling in soldiers the resilience to withstand the grueling reality of warfare. Professionalism is sacrificed on the altar of valor and grit. Yet intense drills are offset by a relaxed culture that welcomes frequent scheduling gaps. So it was that the other day, a grueling twelve km stretcher run and two hour krav maga session were thrown at my team just as we returned to base on the heels of an all night 25 km navigation exercise. What the relentless series of drills lacked in professionalism they offset in hardship and raw aggression. The goal seems to be about creating young lions that throw their all into a fight yet are quick to slide into inactivity when the danger has passed.

Those young lions, one must not forget, are also conditioned to spend hours as shivering sentry Snuffalufagi. The worst part about our sentry assignment is not the long cold nights on my feet in lonely silence. The guard duty itself, in short, does not concern me as much as the reason why. In my former unit, we never interrupted our sleep to stand around and count stars on base because there was no fear of theft. In the rest of the army, by contrast, pilfering is so common that even in the sanctuary of one's own home locking the door is not enough protection. The mantra soldiers live by is that there are no thieves in the army - everyone is simply trying to get his stuff back! Stories like the Golani infantrymen who repainted and then took off with another brigade's storage container make our seemingly senseless sentry duty slightly more palatable. Even if it means many more hours to reflect on the countless differences between what once and now is.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lights in the Darkness

It almost was not necessary to light candles this Hanuka. With a forest fire raging across northern Israel the eternal lesson of light amid the darkness was all too cruelly laid before my eyes. As I navigated through the Galilee woods on the second night of the eight day holiday, the western sky glowed a cheerless orange shade. A more reassuring fire was waiting at the end of the navigation. Tired and cold soldiers huddled around a late night campfire, a very different amber shine radiating off the faces of these modern Maccabees. The reflected light in the Galilean hills reminded me of the legacy of the original Maccabees, and the privilege I have to be serving in the defense force of the first Jewish state since Judah and his brothers took up arms against the Greeks so many centuries ago.

One night later and I was again seeking light amid the darkness. My unit spent the Hanukah weekend on the southern border with Egypt, charged with stopping infiltrators from crossing into Israel. Darkness is the border smugglers only hope for evading our watch and so the cold night hours required careful vigilance. For hours I looked for any sign of light, any indication that a Beduin smuggler may be silently approaching the flimsy border marking.

The light of a thousand distant suns provided a dazzling distraction from the repressive gloom. Another distraction came from a soaring fortress of light, a nighttime apparition formed from the red and green antenna beams of a distant IDF base. The most distracting lights, however, were kindled in my memories by the sight of the stubby Hanukah and shabbat candles, stalwart sentries whose flickering light guarded over us guardsmen. The candles reminded me of family and friends standing by my side on so many holiday and friday nights. My Hanukah on the Egyptian border became part of that continuum, new lights glowing along the dark pathways of my mind.


Theodore Herzl, the prophet and proponent of political Zionism, famously envisioned Arab and Jewish harmony in the future Jewish state. His utopia has yet to come to pass. Thanks to an innovative Arab pastry chef, however, this Hanukah some may get a taste of Herzl's vision by biting into a hummusganiah. The name says it all, a combination of the classic Hanukah sufgania (jelly doughnut) with the region's most famous spread, hummus. I cannot think of a better cross-cultural confection to embrace this holiday.

With thanks to the Yediot Ahronot Hebrew newspaper for bringing the hummusganiah to my attention.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'

For twenty-four hours I was a regular infantry soldier, tasked to a company in the Paratroops in the middle of basic training. Just like that, my uncertainty over whether I would be reassigned to a regular or special forces unit seemed to be settled.

Over the weekend I had come to the decision that I would choose to serve in the regular infantry rather than sign extra time in order to serve in the Paratroop Brigade's special forces battalion. In the last two years, the IDF has begun requiring volunteer soldiers like myself, whose service commitment is less than the standard three years, to add on the full three years in order to serve in any special forces unit. While I had readily signed up for four years in order to serve in my previous elite unit (my former unit was one of a few select positions that require more than the regular three years from conscripts), I am far less eager to add time with only ten months left in my service (after leaving my former unit, my service time returned to the two years I volunteered to do as part of participating in Garin Tzabar). While there are perks to training and serving as a special forces team member rather than a regular infantry soldier, the advantages paled in light of the extra year of army time. I would be ready to add on time to be an officer, I decided over the weekend, but not to train for a few extra months and then perform service not so dissimilar from the regular grunts.

Hence I had no problem in discovering I would continue my army career in the regular infantry. The bit about doing the last slice of basic training over, however, was a nonstarter. A few phone calls to the right people proved that I was not the only one who saw the insanity of my placement. A few more phone calls and the next day I reported as ordered. Instead of arriving for basic, however, I showed up at the HQ of Sayeret Tzanchanim, the special forces battalion of the Paratroop Brigade. My new home, one that I will not be required to remain in a day past October 2011 unless I wish otherwise.

Sayeret Tzanchanim, also known as Gadsar Tzanchanim or Battalion 5135 in formal IDF language, has as illustrious a history as any unit in the IDF. The unit that participated in famous missions in the seventies like Spring of Youth and Entebbe is today a very different animal. A few years back the IDF reorganized the sayerot, the special forces companies attached to each brigade. Soldiers in Sayeret Tzanchanim still train for nearly double the length of regular infantry soldiers. Yet today within the sayeret of every brigade, there are three separate companies known, respectively, as reconnaissance (Palsar, Plugat Siyur), demolitions (Palchan, Plugat Heil Handasa) and anti-tank (Palnat, Plugat Neged Tankim). The companies each focus on their given specialty, while also training to work together and in support of the larger brigade.

The Palnat is universally referred to as Orev after the Israeli name for the main anti-tank missile the unit traditionally uses. Since Orev literally means raven, I am still serving in a unit that uses a bird as its symbol of choice. I am unsure on whether I prefer a raven to a kingfisher. If nothing else, the new bird gives me a good excuse to quote Edgar Allen Poe now and nevermore.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Yellow No More

On what was supposed to be my first day back in active military service, my mind was buzzing with colors. A few days before I had chosen the red of the paratroops over the purple and brown of the Givati and Golani Brigades. By the end of the day, beret colors were an afterthought. Yellow, a color wisely avoided by any unit in the IDF, had become the story of my day. Here is why.

An American soldier would never want to be described as yellow. Call a Marine yellow and you will likely have reason to regret naming him a public coward. Yellow (tzahov) in the Israeli army has another meaning entirely. Rather than cowardly, yellow means a goody two-shoes, a by-the-book trooper who never dips into the gray while scrupulously following every letter of the law. Since most soldiers enjoy nothing better than flouting military doctrine, a yellow soldier is often a social pariah, albeit one granted a certain grudging admiration for his virtuous orthodoxy.

"Don't be yellow," a friend in the Nachal Brigade admonished me during basic when he heard how my commanders were not respecting my rights as a lone soldier. Then I told him exactly where I was serving. "Good Lord," he responded. "You're in that unit? I thought you were in Nachal. Wow, you had better be yellow. Bleed yellow if need be!"

I thought back to that conversation with my Nachwali (slang for a soldier from the Nachal Brigade) friend while waiting for an interview at Paratrooper HQ. I had been ordered to report in the morning for a discussion to determine where I would be posted. Regular infantry, special forces, all would be decided in this interview. And so when the interview was delayed, five minute intervals that soon became five hours with no service, I simply left a message and went home.

Walking out of that office and taking my life into my own hands felt wonderful. So this is what it feels like to be shachor (black- the opposite for yellow in army slang), I figured, as I bounced from the base. A year of kowtowing to superiors and keeping my own opinions in check was finally brought to a necessary end. The best part may have been the knowledge that there is very little the twenty-year-old clerk I am waiting to speak with can do to me. As annoyed as he may be that I walked out on him after a five hour wait, the worst he can do is assign me to the regular infantry. Not much of a punishment, considering I am waiting to speak to him to achieve that very end.

Three hours later, as my bus was crawling up the hills into Jerusalem, the clerk rang me up and informed me he was ready for our interview. That is a shame, I told him, because I am not ready. What do you mean? he asked. Simply that I will not be meeting with you today. What?! You cannot do that, you- I calmly cut him off. I am gone. It happened. Deal.

The clerk harrumphed and folded. Come back tomorrow, he said. And don't be late!


Life provides balance. Witnessing some of the worst of the army in this clerk meant I was sure to see some of the best. I did not have to wait long. The 24-year-old company commander who gave me a ride from the base to a nearby bus stop embodied the sincere warmth that reflects the very best of Israeli culture. If you ever need anything in this country, the officer told me before letting me off, whether it is related to the army or anything else, you must call me. Anytime of the day or night, please never hesitate to call. I would be honored to help you.

Blast From the Past

I have many stories from earlier in my army training that never quite made it online. As I find time, I will complete and post these stories. Look out for a recurrent entry named 'Blast from the Past' to track down these newly published stories from the past.

All from January 2010:

Sacred Trinities

Hekfer Neshek

Military Mussar

The Fear of Fridays

Benefits of Keeping the Faith

Age Ain't What it Seems

5 Kinds of Lone Soldiers

Is the IDF becoming the Diaspora's foreign legion? Has toting an M-16 and patrolling the back roads of the West Bank become more popular for Jewish teenagers than taking a year off before college to go and pick oranges on a kibbutz?
Haaretz, 2 March 2010

The arrival of Thanksgiving later this week means American volunteers in the IDF will be feted and fed at one of several celebratory feasts. These Thanksgiving meals are akin to the Seders organized for lone soldiers every Passover. While considering which of the Thanksgiving meals to attend, I stumbled across an article in Haaretz that depicts a Seder for lone soldiers in March. The article wastes little time describing the meal since the author is really interested in exploring why so many diaspora Jews want to join the IDF. Or at least that is the title of an article that is really about making snide comments and lambasting the militarization of Israeli society.

A bad answer is no reason to ignore a good questions. And so in honor of the many American IDF volunteers that will be gathering together this Thursday night, allow me to provide a brief description of the five typologies of the lone soldier. Few lone soldiers are pure examples of any given type, although an unusual number are far more like one of the following typologies than you may imagine.

1. Nikyim - the pure ones. Those who discovered G-d or Zionism in their teens, thanks to Birthright, Leon Uris or Bar Refaeli. Their return to the faith makes them true believers, granting them a simple purity that more seasoned Zionists can only grasp on Independence Day and visits to the military cemetery at Har Herzl.

2. Ba'ayatiyot - the troubled ones. Drugs, arrests, broken homes or broken hearts, enlisting allows them to escape their past. The Hebrew word for troubled ones nicely captures the way in which the army is designed to be the 'biotica' to heal their troubled past.

3. Fighterim - the Rambos. These guys and gals considered the Marines before deciding that the best way to be a 21st century Maccabee is in the army of the Jewish state. Israel has little attraction to them outside of the IDF, despite the debt they owe to the early Zionist theme of creating a new muscular militant Jew. Brotherhood of Warriors is their bible.

4. Bnei Yordim - the expat kids. The children of Israelis whose parents left the country yet grew up so awash in hummus, visits to Israel and stories of papa's exploits in Israel's wars that not putting on a uniform is almost unthinkable. The irony is that their Israeli cousins often have no intention of serving themselves.

5. Doh'sim - the religious Zionist. The lifers, who grew up in Zionist sleep-away camps and holiday visits to Israel. Learning in yeshiva in Israel is their stepping stone towards enlisting. May have starry eyed ideas of what their service means. Pretty boring. More or less me.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sorry Purple, Paratroops it Will Be

Kol HaZman TzanChan, Kol HaZman MuChan...
Always a paratrooper, always ready...

From the strangely addicting song played at the closing ceremony of the IDF jump course.

A call from the army last night instructed me to report on Sunday to the 35th Brigade, also known as the Paratroopers (Tzanchanim). Givati, I hardly knew ye.

So there it is: After nearly three months on the lam, I have returned as a paratrooper. If that sounds glamorous, it is because the Paratroop Brigade is as misunderstood as the US Marines. Like the Marines, whom foreigners the world over believe to be the most elite American armed force, the Paratroop Brigade is imagined by non-Israelis as an elite corps. The reality is that save for a one day tryout (gibush) and a two week jump course, the Paratroops train and serve just like the other four infantry brigades (Golani, Givati, Nachal & Kfir). The Paratroops are not even the most esteemed infantry force among young Israelis. That honor goes to the Golani Brigade, which routinely is listed as the top choice by draftees (in the November 2009 draft, one in ten conscripts were accepted by Golani. Tzanchanim took one in eight).

The confusion over Tzanchanim's real and imagined reputation is reasonable. In the Israeli army, entrance tryouts (gibushim) and jump course are the hallmarks of an elite unit. Tzanchanim retains both practices because decades ago the brigade did in fact serve as the army's only elite force. In the 1950s, when the morale and professionalism of the IDF was very poor, Ariel Sharon's elite commando squad, Unit 101, was merged with a paratrooper force called Battalion 890 to create the Paratrooper Brigade. The idea was to create an elite infantry brigade that would be capable of carrying out commando raids like Unit 101 while also inspiring other brigades like Golani and Givati to raise their own fighting skills. In these early years, famous officers like Sharon and Rafi Eitan led what was unquestionably the army's most capable and glamorous force. Sayeret Matkal, Israel's elite commando force (essentially, the heir of the long defunct Unit 101) evolved out of the Paratroop Brigade, becoming an elite within an elite force. By the late sixties, however, the Paratroop Brigade had become what it is today, a regular infantry force that does exactly the same training (save for jump course) and service as any other brigade.

While I can see past the false glamor of the Paratroops, I am as susceptible as any other young Zionist who grew up on the writings of former Tzanchanim like Yoni Netanyahu and Alex Singer. Myths aside, serving in the Paratroops means I will now be able to write more openly about my service than I was capable of doing in the past. So stay with me as my second life in the IDF now commences.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Choosing the Purple

Within an hour of returning to Israel, I was back in line at Tel Hashomer. Waiting, or so I thought, to commence a week of interviews that would finally find me a new home in the army. Interview week in mid-November is scheduled every year for anyone who has fallen from an elite unit in the past few months. My trip to America was cut short because I needed to be back for these interviews. Imagine my surprise then, when an officer informed me that the powers that be were sending me to another base (known as Mazi, Mifakedet Zeruat Yabasha) for reassignment.

"So since I am not taking part in interview week," I asked the officer, "I could have stayed in America longer?"

"Sounds about right," he replied.

A few days later a far more efficient lady officer at the new reassignment base was telling me that neither Maglan (a special forces unit akin to my former unit) nor the Paratroop Brigade would take me. Maglan was not a surprise. Despite landing an interview with them a few days earlier, everything I had heard indicated they simply do not take guys from my former unit. Getting rejected by the Paratroopers, however, came as a shock. No different than any other infantry brigade save for their red berets, funny dress uniforms and illustrious history, I could not follow why they would not take me.

"The Paratroops, unlike the other brigades, are allowed to choose their soldiers," explained the lady-officer. "You only have ten months remaining from the two years you initially volunteered. The brigade would rather take a native Israeli with two years left of service time. You simply are not worth their time."

I could not deny the logic to her words. Except that the Paratroops has always taken lone soldiers who only serve a total of 18 months, that is eight months of training and ten months of service. Just like me, I told the officer.

"If you sign an extra year, right now," she countered, "you can go to the Paratroops." Please. Commit to an extra year to serve in the regular infantry? The only suckers who sign extra time are candidates for elite units or officer courses.

"Why are you doing this," I asked the officer. "why are you ending my life?"

"What," she exclaimed, "what are you talking about?!"

"You want me to give up a year of my life," I continued as a smile slowly snuck over my face. "What you are really doing is taking a year off my life, just the same as if you signed a deal with the devil to lifespan a year shorter. Except you are not demanding a year when I am old and frail but even worse, a year in my twenties." Shaking my head sadly, I looked her in the eye and asked how could she do this to me.

There was silence. Then we both laughed for a few minutes. Finally catching her breath, the officer asked me which infantry brigade I want.

Kfir does not have a great reputation, Nachal would feel like I am returning to the ranks where I began my training and the Paratroopers won't take me. That left Givati or Golani.

Give me Givati, please. Why did I choose the brigade known for being home to many minorities and a long history in Gaza? I went with Givati because I like the purple color of their beret, the feisty red fox on their emblem, the diversity and underdog status within the ranks, and the chance I could serve alongside one of the two guys from my garin that are in Givati.

This is not the first time I chose Givati. Last November, as I waited to hear if I had been accepted into my elite unit, I considered my backup options and concluded I would request to serve in Nachal or Givati. Having served in Nachal already, the time has come for Givati. Skol Vikings!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Invisible at Home

When we assumed the soldier we did lay aside the civilian
My take on George Washington's famous decree about the life of a soldier

How is life in Israel? To have made aliyah? To be Israeli?

I am asked these questions all the time. Despite having made aliyah fifteen months ago, I really have no answer. The reason is because I have yet to live in this country. I stepped from my aliyah flight (give or take a bizarre few weeks in Beijing) into a kibbutz devoted to preparing me for the army that has been my life since December 2009. The realities of living, of finding people and places to live, work and play, has never been my task in Israel. Instead I have had the army. Always, the army.

Until this past September. The day I was binned from my former unit, I was also cast out of the only life I knew in this country. In the weeks since, as I drift through army purgatory, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to figure out where I am. Without a home in the army, without a purpose during my hours away from base, I find myself floating through Israel like a ghost. Hello working people. Hello, young students. Do you even see me, soldier folk?

My brief trip to America reminded me of the value of friendship. True friends, who have been through a shared experience or two and are the numbers to call when conversation is required. Too many of my friends are in the States. Too few of those in Israel are out of the army or not engrossed in the realities of work/study to be of much help. Too minus too and I am left with that same feeling, that my path as of late has separated me from the rest of the world.

"I know you're lonely," a wise friend told me while I was in America. "But you're fulfilling your dream, or at least you're on the road. And that's a lonely road indeed." The irony is that I was always aware that pursuing my dreams could lead to periods of loneliness. Except I was sure that China, and not the Jewish homeland, would be the setting and cause for slipping on the guise of the invisible man.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

American Tour

"The battle for the American mind right now is between talk show hosts and comedians," said Alex Foxworthy, a 26-year-old doctoral student from Richmond, Va. "I choose the comedians."

In my daily life as an Israeli soldier, my mind remains more or less American. And so I was relieved to discover that in the battle that is waging in America right now for my mind, one side is represented by the comedians. Because aside from visiting friends and family, my twelve day tour of America was often a theater of the absurd.

The madness began in Washington DC. Returning to a town that still feels like home prevented me from making suitable sleeping arrangements. By the time my mind came around to the reality that I really no longer live a few blocks from Dupont, I had nowhere to stay. The capital was filled to bursting with guests in town for three visitor-heavy events: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity & Fear, Halloween weekend, and the 35th running of the Marine Corps Marathon.

Eventually I found places to stay, among them a five star suite courtesy of some anonymous drug company. The hilarity high point, however, came at the rally, an absurdest take on DC political culture by the comedy duo of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The two stars of TV news-satire had devised a rally (originally planned as two separate rallies) that would send up political extremism while making a sincere call for moderation. Huge crowds (200,000+) made following the action on-stage a non-starter. But the rally was an excellent venue for a shabbat lunch picnic. Together with two friends, I hummed zmirot on the National Mall while admiring rally-goers' many funny signs. A sampling of my favorites:

If your beliefs fit on a sign, think harder
#1 threat to America: Gay Mexican Muslim Bears
My arms are tired
I fear the Washington Monument is turning me gay
Don’t like government? Take your AK-47 and Move to Somalia

"Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the Promised Land," Jon Stewart said at the end of the rally. "Sometimes, its just New Jersey." My own tour took me on a bizarre rendition of Stewart's words, leading me a week later to a black-tie tribute dinner to lone soldiers in New Jersey.

The dinner was organized by Friends of the IDF to honor and raise money for lone soldiers. I arrived disguised as a civilian, having left my uniform in Israel per military orders. A friend from my garin showed up in his dress greens, having received special permission to bring his uniform overseas for this very dinner. Our divergent get-ups led to a humorous run-in with a senior IDF officer. Noticing my buddy, the officer approached for some polite chit-chat. As he parted, he said farewell to my friend. Turning to me, he switched to his best English and slowly said, "Good luck to you as well." Nothing like going undercover at a lone soldier tribute dinner!

A Chinese auction was part of the festivities. My favorite listed item was billed as three weeks full-time participation in basic training. Apparently, Friends of the IDF runs a program that allows high rollers to hang out and get bossed around by teenage punks in the most God-forsaken corners of the Promised Land. Of course I realize that I volunteered for pretty much the same program. But volunteering and shelling out more than $30,000, the listed "suggested bid price" for basic training, are two very different kinds of Zionism!

The dinner had its more serious moments, including a speech by Izzy Ezagui, a lone soldier from Florida whose arm was taken off in the fighting in Gaza in 2009. Yet my main impression from the evening is of the stark difference between the army that is and the army conjured by organizations like Friends of the IDF. The army I know from ten months in an elite unit and two months on the lam is composed of irresponsible and often unmotivated teenagers chewing each other out while carrying out mindless chores. The army I discovered in New Jersey is straight from the pen of Leon Uris, cleft-jawed Ari Ben Canaans who wield lighting bolts as they stand sentinel against the dark hordes of Sauron that await on the horizon.

A Civilian Volcano

In the Israeli army, there is a clear divide between the army bubble and ezrachut (civilianhood), everything outside the bubble. Ezrachut is girlfriends, families and Facebook. TV, movies and guitars. Shorts, t-shirts and pretty much any non-green, non-uniform clothing. Pizza, shwarma and, most of all, home-cooking. Cities, beaches and the mall. Kids, the elderly and any girl not in uniform. It hardly need be said that everything ezrachut is, of course, greatly desired.

So what is it like to be back in America?

America, from the moment I stepped off a bus and into midtown Manhattan, is an explosion of ezrachut. A brigade-size no-earplugs live-fire detonation of civilian sensation. A... Strangelove says it best


Time in the army crawls by so slowly. A day is a month. A week a year. Two weeks a lifetime.

Hence I was surprised to discover how little has changed in peoples lives on my visit to America. Surely, my army time operating mind insisted, in the decade that has passed since I left New York in July 2009, friends have gotten married, birthed children, ran marathons, found jobs, finished grad schools. Nope, friends replied, not much has really changed since you left. Hearing this made me all the more grateful for the NYC High Line. A sign of true development if there ever was one!

Flight of Passage

Many are the hikes across barren hillsides and forbidding forests when the pale glow of the moon, silver sap* embracing withered branches, lifted my spirits, providing a reminder of the wider community that is with me on this lonely road. The opportunity to visit family and friends overseas provides me with a similar glow of encouragement. And so I thank you for illuminating my service with your gracious support.

* Sacred sap, anyone? Yes, this was a shout-out to the unforgettable A Soldier of the Great War. You haven't read it? Shame!

Some generous supporter of Friends of the IDF, the American charity that provides lone soldiers with a one-time overseas flight, will receive the above message in the coming days. My name, rank and smiling face will be tagged alongside. Hopefully the smile will convince my donor that the whimsical words are just another expression of my joy in finally receiving tickets to America. After three weeks of knocking on doors, having fun with a compulsory thank-you card felt like smashing the champagne bottle to inaugurate the launch of my long-awaited overseas visit.

Flying home to see family and friends is a rite of passage for all lone soldiers. A lucky few take full advantage of the thirty days a year that lone soldiers are granted to spend visiting the folks. Most visits are more modest affairs, hedged by training and service requirements into two week hops across the Atlantic. Thanks to the bureaucratic wrangling that chewed up the last three weeks, my own visit is just twelve days. Perhaps I should not complain, considering that I was on a free flight to New York nine hours after finally getting the go-ahead to travel. I suppose that sums up IDF bureaucracy: Ready... delays, Set... more waiting, Light Speed!

As the flight touched down in Kennedy Airport hours later, I had an extra reason to smile. My last five flights concluded with me bailing out the backdoor, parachute at the ready. Returning to earth in the comfort of a couch class seat... Ah, what a treat!


Not everyone flies home on these lone soldier trips. Since the idea is simply to spend quality time with the family, lone soldiers can fly wherever Mom and Dad are hanging out. A friend of mine from my former unit, who is a lone soldier by virtue of his Israeli parents living overseas, met up with his folks in Shanghai!

I might have been jealous to hear how he joined his family for a quick tour of southern China. Any jealousy was erased by amazement, however, when my friend surprised both of us at the Rome airport. I was returning to Israel from NY. He was doing the same from Shanghai. Small word, indeed, when two lone soldiers and onetime Air Force squad-mates can meet up in an airport in Rome and trade stories of their overseas visits en route to Tel Aviv.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Funeral Reunion

An open grave is the very last place I ever wished to be with my fellow soldiers. Standing in a crowd of uniforms, struggling to hold back tears that dim the sight of a family crushed by unimaginable grief. A reminder that the intense pace of our training, the constant physical and mental gymnastics, is no protection against the spectre of death.

Today I stood by that open grave. Yet my visit was riddled with more ambiguities than any military funeral I could have imagined. A father of one of the guys from my former unit, rather than a young soldier, had died the day before. And so when I joined the young men from my former squad to console our grieving friend, I was meeting my mates of the past year for the first time since my abrupt exit from their ranks six weeks ago. Grief made room for joy as my former soldiers swarmed me with hugs and peppered me with questions on my current doings. New and old stories left many of us laughing. Until the ceremony began, our grieving friend arrived, and the grief in his eyes rebounded across our own consciousness.

The funeral was hardly the occasion to finally see my old comrades-in-arms. Then again, a busy training schedule means my former squad-mates will rarely have much time to connect with me. Many have already advised me that staying friends with guys from my former unit is not worth the trouble. Right now you miss each other, I am told, yet as army life picks up both you and them will soon lose track. Better, they say, to focus on the future and the new guys I will hopefully soon call comrades in arms.

I am not ready to accept such advice. Friendship for me has never been a matter of black and white, accept or deny, certainty. I have difficulty letting go, and doubt the wisdom of arbitrarily giving up on a relationship considering the brief and uncertainty of life. The guys I met during my first year in the army may never become the mythologized bunker buddies I call best friends decades from today. Whatever relationship we do maintain, however, will largely reflect my choices. And as long as I can, I will choose friendship.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Passport over Purgatory

I have a story to share that will forever serve as an antidote to bad bureaucratic experiences in Israel.

We start in Afula, that most unassuming of towns in the Jezreel Valley. On Tuesday morning I arrived at eight o'clock sharp at the local government office. In five minutes I had half a dozen passport photos, produced after the store kindly provided a spare t-shirt to wear in place of my military uniform (unbeknownst to me, military insignia cannot appear in passport photos). Ten minutes later I left the office building with a guarantee that a new Israeli passport (why? check out NbN) with my name on it would be ready in five hours, later that afternoon.

Yes, you heard that right: Same day passport service!

The government clerk, a snappy middle-aged lady named Dina, had first told me that a passport would take a few days. Yet when I explained that I am a lone soldier trying to fly overseas as soon as possible, she crisply replied that I could return in the afternoon and my passport would be ready.

The passport was waiting for me on my return. A quick check revealed that everything was spelled correctly. Except...

"I think there has been a mistake," I stammered to Dina. "Under nationality, it says Israeli. I'm-"


Really?! Yes. Israeli. Wow, when did that happen?!

My surprise was probably only a delayed reaction to having received such smart and efficient service. Especially when the rest of my life has become a front row seat to the worst of Israeli bureaucratic purgatory. On paper I while away the hours at Tel Hashomer awaiting reassignment. In practice? Welcome to the Rubber Room, Israeli army style.

What is the Rubber Room? According to past residents,
* It is a system designed by Kafka and carried out by Mussolini.
* Rubber Rooms are like a gulag, the DOE version of Guantanamo.
* They call it the Rubber Room because if you are not crazy to start with, it will drive you crazy if you are there long enough.

Rubber Rooms are a NYC invention, "reassignment centers" designed to house suspended teachers whom receive full salary to sit in empty rooms and do nothing. My own experience bears uncanny similarities, especially with the sentiment one NYC teacher and US Military vet used to describe the rooms: "They can send this old soldier back to Iraq. Anywhere else is better than the rubber room. I would much rather face Al-Qaeda bullets and bombs."

My own plan to escape the Israeli Army's version of the rubber room was protekzia. When my contacts failed to quickly pull me into a new unit, it was time for plan B: Grab a flight and spend the weeks overseas until the formal reassignment wheels get rolling in mid-November.

Trying to persuade the army to grant me a free flight to America, a one-time perk provided to lone soldiers (soldiers whose parents live overseas) by the American charity Friends of the IDF, opened up an even more intimidating Pandora's box. Countless lines had to be waited in, doors knocked on, and excuses swallowed to make even the smallest headway. Part of my problem is I have become the loneliest of lone soldiers, stripped of any unit or command structure that will intercede and manage the bureaucracy on my behalf. Some days my life feels like a scene from The Matrix,
as Neo discovers that everyone save himself exists in pods connected to spiraling energy towers. Despite the apparent logic of using this dead time to fly overseas, hacking through the maze of military obfuscations is proving very trying.


The most mind numbing experiences often are full of funny asides. My time in Tel Hashomer is no exception.

One day I trooped off to a nearby office complex, filled to bursting with nineteen year old army girls. I came hoping to find someone who could fast-forward my flight request. Instead I found a strange world whose every inhabitant seemed to be either plucking facial hairs or munching on chocolate. Some of the female jobniks were even doing both at the same time! I was greeted with unfailing politeness, as girl after girl looked away from her reflection long enough to direct me to yet another unhelpful office. Wisely, I soon fled, fearing that if I stayed any longer I too would join their ranks.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Departed

One of the other guys dropped from my former unit has pretty impressive protekzia. On our first day in Tel Hashomer, my friend was speaking to his father when the IDF's number two (i.e. the deputy chief-of-staff) came on the phone and asked how he could be of service. When a senior general starts making phone calls on your behalf, we are no longer in the realm of protekzia. We are talking command and control. "Yes, sir. We will grant that young man an interview for our special unit. Right away, sir."

Sure enough, the next day my friend interviewed with Maglan, a special forces unit almost everyone in my situation would like to get into. Despite having one of the army's most senior generals on his side, my friend was not accepted. The truth is he never really had a chance. Maglan slipped a poison pill into the interview, asking him a question whose answer could only be no. His negative response was then used as an excuse as to why the unit would not take him.

My friend's experience is one of many anecdotes I have collected in my new position as a past member of an elite unit seeking reassignment. These stories give lie to the myth that someone in my position is assured of making it to a top-flight unit. The reality is that, for a number of reasons, finding a new home in the army is an unpredictable process with the choicer addresses nearly all out of reach.

For starters, there are no shortage of qualified guys. Forget about the sixty odd guys in my position that all have received some degree of special forces training. There are hundreds of others that have never spent a day in the army yet whose performance on tests and tryouts mark them as good material. The second-tier special forces units that my peers and I are seeking to join often prefer to start fresh with new soldiers rather than bring in "veterans" from another club. Just like in baseball, every team wants a good farm system.

Another reason top units are closing their doors is they simply have less room. A few years ago it use to be common in units like Duvdevan for numerous guys to drop out due to injury. Complains grew, however, and the result are stricter safety standards, less injuries and fewer guys dropping out. Duvdevan and other top units no longer have the empty spaces they once looked to fill with guys in my position. Nothing more than econ 101, supply and demand.

A former commander of Maglan introduced me to a third reason why making it to a unit like his is far from assured. "The truth," he sheepishly admitted, "is that Maglan has an unwritten rule not to take guys who once served in your unit. The reason is petty jealousy, a desire to be seen as just as good as the most elite units." No one in my former unit had ever mentioned any rivalry with Maglan, though both units are known to share similar agendas (then again, who at Princeton thinks Penn is their academic rival?). Nonetheless, I had heard enough from outside sources to put into context what the retired commander was telling me. Top army units compete for superiority in many ways since everyone wants to be assigned the key missions when danger strikes. The similar training of Maglan and my former unit only would increase this tension. It does not help that Maglan can argue that anyone who is not right for my former unit would not be the best fit for their similar approach.

This whole reassignment rigmarole is really unfortunate. And, I daresay, avoidable. If I had my way, after dropping from a unit, soldiers would have one week at home and then one week of meetings and interviews. Two weeks would be the maximum break before the soldier would be back in training with a new squad. My alternative of ambiguous limbo, hardly seems preferable.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Avoid Dachash

I quit the army the other day.

That is, earlier this week the army quit on me.

Or at least that is how I felt when I handed in my military ID card and entered suspended service. Known as dachash (shorthand for d'chiyat sherut, suspended service), the status applies to soldiers whose pay and service time are suspended while on extended leave. Dachash means transportation is no longer free (soldiers with military ID cards ride buses and trains for free) and that the time you take off will be added on at the end of your service (i.e. you still serve your full three years, with the time on dachash not counting towards the time).

For a lone soldier like myself, dachash also means that all the perks we receive--like double salary, housing and grocery stipends, a one-time free flight overseas--disappear. In plain terms that meant I would have to pay out of pocket to remain on my kibbutz (since my kibbutz rent is normally covered by the army housing stipend), not to mention hemorrhage all kinds of money for daily living expenses. And so while entering dachash felt like the IDF had given up on me, far worse was realizing I had just signed up for financial purgatory.

The next day I re-enlisted in the IDF, tearing up my dachash form as I did so. Reenlisting has not made my status in the army any clearer. Because all the other guys waiting to be reassigned in mid-November are on dachash, my position is fairly unusual. I am not in any unit and have no commanders or support staff to speak of. The army, in fact, really has nothing to do with me for the next six weeks. And so with nothing else to do, I was tasked to a local cleanup crew.

Like all elite units in these relatively peaceful times, Tel Hashomer's cleaning squad rarely sees action. My first and only assignment was plenty memorable. Tasked with cleaning up a high-security zone nearby the entrance to Bakum, I was shocked to discover a row of jail cells locked within two rows of barbed wire fencing. The small stone rooms were dark, dismal and decaying dungeons. Peering through a two inch window carved into the heavy door, I asked the solitary jailer why these were here. "Tel Hashomer is an old base," he began by way of explanation. "You may know it was a base for the British in the thirties and forties. You probably do not know that even the Roman Legion once camped out here. Anyways, these cell were built by the (Ottoman) Turks. And then used by the Brits. And today, by us." How bizarre, I mused, that rooms once used to lock up Jewish debtors and freedom fighters now host young Jewish soldiers, recalcitrants imprisoned by a Jewish state.

My cleanup crew was disbanded the following day. And so for the foreseeable future, my army service consists of waiting around for hours in order to sign in and head home. Worse than any jobnik, the derogatory army slang for soldiers with desk jobs, I am essentially a kloomnik (kloom, hebrew for nothing), doing nothing at all. The lack of direction and physical drudgery is mentally taxing. The mental angst has even taken a physical manifestation, burdening me with a persistent migraine that nags me day and night. Ironically, for all the free time and long weekends, my current service often seems harder than anything I have yet faced in the army.

Today brought a rare ray of light. While waiting around Tel Hashomer per usual, I spotted this year's Garin Tzabar arriving for their induction. Speaking with them as they navigated their first day in the army, I was reminded of how far I have come since first visiting Tel Hashomer a year ago. And how, despite all the mountains I have climbed, I am back in line at the base where it all begin, waiting for a fresh start in the IDF.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Garin Hineni: A Year Later

Next week marks a year since I began the army. On 13 October 2009 all of Garin Tzabar, including the sixteen strong fellowship of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, marched out of Tel Hashomer as freshly minted property of the state of Israel. And so it was fitting that this weekend was a Garin Shabbat, the thrice a year event when every member of my garin is released from the army in order to allow us to share a rare shabbat together on kibbutz.

If the military can be divided between training and active service, this past year was very much about training. Everyone in my garin underwent some form of basic training in the past year. Most of the girls entered active service in the spring. The guys in the regular infantry trained through July before joining their front-line units. Although their training ended a few months ago, the infantry guys received the pins that mark them as lochamim (fighters) this past week. For those of us whose goal in joining the IDF was to serve as a locham, a trained combat soldier, those pins signify mission accomplished.

No locham pin adorns my own dress uniform. The silver bird that I would have received in a ceremony atop Masada next September will never grace my chest. Instead my service has ground to a halt, stuck in limbo as I await reassignment. While my training has exceeded that of a soldier in the regular infantry, I am not considered a locham until I rejoin a combat unit and meet their own requirements for locham status. In other words, for all that I have done, I have yet to accomplish my baseline goal of becoming a locham in the IDF.

I could not mask something like envy while listening to my peers on kibbutz describe their frontline service. They spent the summer chasing down cross-border drug smugglers and preparing for junior command positions while I trained relentlessly. They continue to defend our country while I now do nothing at all. Of course I realize that much of their active service is pure drudgery, hours spent guarding inane installations and cleaning dishes. Yet even the most numbing of frontline jobs possess a spirit of authentic soldiery that is absent in ceaseless training. Nothing we did in training, no matter how cutting edge, ever escaped the feeling of summer camp. The lack of any real danger, the constant attention and direction from above...whatever the reason, no one wants to be the ultimate trainee. The goal is to be the real deal, to complete the education phase and get where the action is.

My unsettling resentment only disappeared when I shared my grief with one of the guys in my garin. Ron, a medic in the Golani Brigade, insisted I was misreading the garin experience. Sharing our stories with each other is not about wishing we are in each others' shoes. It is about allowing us to have multiple army experiences, to live vicariously through our peers while riding our personal ups and downs.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Commando or Commander?

Nothing looks too different on the outside. The jawline is more defined, shoulders somewhat thicker. But inside, within the ticking tourniquet of the mind, my outlook on military service has undergone a world of change since first lacing on combat boots last December.

Solid Snake, GI Joe. Name your action hero and I once had visions of taking his place. Ideological motivation aside, military service was also an adventure, one where I wanted to be the big-time action hero. Combat, not a foreign policy based intel job, was what I wanted from my service.

Or so I thought when I first enlisted. The star-gazing is long since past. Today my desire is to contribute, to do my time and make a difference rather than star in a Leon Uris novel. I still seek a unique and challenging assignment. Yet the need to be remembered as a John Paul Jones no longer defines me.

I am uncertain how this shift in perspective will influence the remainder of my service. In one sense my action hero attitude had a key impact, driving me towards the elite ranks of the IDF. As I restart my service, I wonder whether that early chase of elite status was a mistake. After all, in many ways my experience and skills as a leader was the contribution I half-expected to make to the army. Commander, not commando, was the ideal I imbibed from the writings of Alex Singer and Yoni Netanyahu.

Commandos and commanders are really not so far apart. For soldiers from overseas, both positions require signing extra time (that is, serving more than two years). Most soldiers in top units are leadership material by virtue of the maturity and motivation that both positions require. Yet in the most elite units, few commandos will serve as officers. Top units simply cannot afford to see too many of their valuable fighters leave and become officers elsewhere. Commando squads like Sayeret Golani are another story. Because these special units are part of the regular infantry (Sayeret Golani is, for instance, part of the Golani Brigade), many of their soldiers are tapped to serve as officers for the regular infantry.

While waiting in line at the Tel Hashomer base, I began speaking to another soldier. A foreign born Garin Tzabarnik like myself, he confided that he was aiming for a top unit. "If I don't make it, I would go to infantry. And there I would most likely sign the extra time and become an officer." Underlying his words was the unsaid motto of lone soldiers, that the motivation that drives us to volunteer for the army also translates to serving at the highest level. I have no problem with the message. My concern is that in all the excitement of testing into elite units, I may have lost track of the element of leadership I hoped to contribute during my service.

A year has passed since that conversation. Again I find myself back at Tel Hashomer, standing in lines and awaiting assignment. My expectations for where I will serve are not quite the same naive heroics that excited the young soldier I once was. Whatever it is that has replaced those illusion, however, I cannot say for sure.