Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dealing with Disapointment: Garin Shabbat

Garin Tzabar flexed its connections this weekend, via a deal with the army that released garin members on Thursday morning. The idea is that twice a year all garin members share a shabbat together on kibbutz, a rarity considering our various schedules. While seeing the rest of the garin is great, most garin members would agree that the best part is earning an extra chamshush, the prize every soldier dreams about of starting a leave weekend early on Thursday (rather than Friday morning, per usual). Waking up late Friday morning at home, missing out at the craziness that typifies the four AM wakeups on base on Fridays, is more precious than diamonds. And so my entire garin had an extra kink in their smiles when they got together on kibbutz Thursday evening.

Except me. For reasons that defy understanding, my commander informed me earlier in the week that contrary to instruction, he would release me at the usual hour on Friday morning. I understand, sir, I told him at the time. My inner disappointment, of course, only grew as Thursday evening proceeded and we did nothing of great importance on base. It hardly helped when I made it to kibbutz around one PM the next day and heard that one of the guys in Givati had gotten off on Wednesday afternoon! His commanders had misinterpreted the order to mean he had to be home by ten AM on Thursday and so, wolla, he had a chamshush that knew no bounds.

A friend of mine in a top Paratrooper unit told me before I joined up that after two years in the army, the major lesson he has learned is how to deal with disappointment. I moved closer towards mastering that lesson this weekend, though no doubt there will be many more chances to master its implications in the weeks to come!

Food Amid a Freezing Field Week

Someone in the Nachal scheduling office must have thought it a stroke of genius to hand my battalion shavua sada'ut [field week] right after our swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel. No better way to test our new oath than have us crawl up stony hills and brave freezing rainstorms during the most grueling week of basic training.

My week in the field would have been memorable enough thanks to the crawling and hakpazot [middle of the night wake-ups designed to simulate responding to a sudden emergency] that filled most of our waking, and worst of all sleeping, hours. Days were dominated with numerous crawling drills. Tough is racing on your hands and knees--butt firmly planted on the ground!-- in six inches of mud. Torture came during one particularly intense crawling drill later in the week. With the mud having dried after the rain slackened off in mid-week, my platoon was ordered to crawl up a steep hill covered with stones and thorns. We were told we only had to reach the pile of stones, known as a wuju in IDF slang, some twenty yards up the hill. Little did we know that our commanders had made sure to set up a wuju every twenty yards, each spaced accordingly so that we would only notice yet another wuju awaited us after arriving at each pile of stones.

Tearing up my knees and hands during thrice daily crawling exercises was preferable to the inescapable nightly hakpazot. Waking up to a siren at three AM and rushing to throw on shoes and combat gear is not in itself so bad. The terror lies in the dank cold, the reality of settling back to sleep minutes later, fingers and toes struggling to escape frostbite, in a soggy freezing bag amid a less than reassuring two-man pup tent. Knowing that another hakpaza awaits in a few hours, one that will include packing up and carrying the platoon's incredibly heavy gear on a forced march towards a new campsite, does not lend to a good night's sleep.

The crawling and hakpazot are not the main lessons I took from the week. That honor goes to food, not so much the field rations we survived on as much as the ethic I mastered of quaffing down every morsel of non-luf fare that was available. Luf is the kosher version of spam that famously crowns the rations Israeli soldiers survive on during field exercises. While I avoided the pink blob of canned meat, I joined the rest of my platoon in ensuring that not a shred of the rations--that also include tuna, non-dairy chocolate paste, halva, peanuts and bread--survived the seven minutes we received for meal time. Something about living in the wilderness, or maybe just all the crawling and freezing, made me constantly ravenous. If eating everything in sight is a key rule for wilderness survival than at least I know I left the week having thoroughly mastered one basic skill.

Back on base at the end of the week, our officer informed us that he had just come from awarding a chamshush, an early weekend exit from the army on Thursday night, to a squad of Nachal soldiers in our brigade. The Nachal squad received the coveted prize for coming out on top in the squad competitions that had taken place on our brigade's last day in the field. The competitions consisted of timed events that tested how fast each squad could run with a stretcher, crawl up a hill, set up a two man tent, move across an area without touching the ground (hint: rocks!), properly follow our officer's hand instructions during a hike and, most competitively of all, open and quaff down a can of luf (this last event is know as the "luf aluf"). Needless to say, the two squads in my platoon finished in first and second place (our officers refuse to inform us which squad came out on top!). The award went to the Nachal squad that finished in third place, following a tradition that takes for granted my unit will take the top two spots. All well and good, though not getting an early weekend exit still hurts!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Tekes Hashba'ah: Promised All My Strength

Standing in view of the Kotel, surrounded by so many thousands of years of Jewish history, waiting to receive my gun and bible from my commanding officer, having just promised to devote all my strength and even my life to the freedom of Israel, was an emotional roller-coaster. Yes, some of the emotion was all solemn sense of purpose, a wave of all that I have done to arrive at this point breaking against the sudden reality of where I now stand. Yet there was also joy, laughter and a wide smile I could not erase from my face. Maybe it was the light hearted Israeli music rolling over the Kotel plaza (ironically, the Muslim call to prayer was the Kotel soundtrack as everyone stood at at attention ten minutes before the ceremony began) as one by one the soldiers of Nachal November 2009 skipped forward to receive their gun and bible. Maybe it was the antics of the officers, who took advantage of the moment to show their humorous edge. Or maybe it was simply that joy was the emotion necessary after promising to give my all in defense of this country [see below for the full text of the vow I swore]. My joy is tempered by hope that both sides prove worthy and up to the task that awaits!

IDF rules prohibit placing my photos from the Kotel ceremony online. To recognize what I found as the best part of the ceremony, all the various friends and family members who attended, here's a slice from my past, the swearing-in ceremony of a friend who served in Nachal a few years ago.

Oath of Israeli soldiers
I hereby swear and fully commit myself to be faithful to the State of Israel, to its constitution and its authorities, and to take upon myself without reservation or hesitancy the rules of discipline of the Israel Defense Force, to obey all commands and orders given by authorized commanders, and to devote all my strength, and even sacrifice my life, to the defense of my country and the freedom of Israel.

Har Herzl Before the Oath

The day of my Tekes Hashba'ah, the long awaited swearing in ceremony at the Kotel, was spent entirely in Jerusalem. There were so many moments. Hilarious, like when we arrived at the tayelet outlook in south Jerusalem and I identified the hotels on the skyline to my entire platoon. Annoying, as our non-native bus driver and officers proved completely clueless about how to get to the Kotel. And simply bizarre, when I proceeded to lead a lieutenant and half my company up the snake path and down to the Kotel after the officer had decided I was his best hope at arriving at the Kotel on time for rehearsals!

The heart of the day was given over to touring Har Herzl, the national military cemetery. As we started the tour, my officer asked us to consider what is more heroic: hard work, day in and day out, or the daring act, sacrificing one's life to save the lives of others. With that question on our minds, our officer then led us around the forested grounds of Har Herzl. Following the required stop at Herzl's imposing yet modest tomb, we arrived at the graves from Israel's earliest wars. The lessons to take from the plain tombstones are endless. Yigal Yadin, the chief of staff of the IDF during the War of Independence, is buried alongside a simple sergeant, both graves identical save for a few words about their rank. Israel Meir's tombstone has no parents or birthplace. The reason is simple: Israel fell shortly after arriving in the new state of Israel in 1948. Thrust into battle fresh from the horrors of the Holocaust, when he fell no records from his past could be found. All that was remembered is that he had identified as a member of Israel and such was recorded on his tomb. Yehuda Ken-Dror, the hero of the 1956 Sinai War who sacrificed his life to reveal enemy positions in the Mitla Pass, is revealed to be the younger brother of a soldier buried nearby in a common grave from the War of Independence. Yehuda, my officer noted, did not volunteer for his almost certain suicide mission out of some vain desire to be the hero. He knew the cost of a fallen family member personally.

We stopped by the graves of Hannah Senesh and her fellow group of Jewish heroes who parachuted into Nazi Europe in 1944 to save the Jews of Europe. Hannah's deeds and words have always served as one of my strongest role models. Standing at her grave hours before I would promise to "devote all my strength and even sacrifice my life... for the freedom of Israel," felt as necessary as it was appropriate.

Another visit came to the memorial to the twenty-three Palmach fighters who, like Hannah, lost their lives while fighting against the Nazis in WWII. The men disappeared on a dangerous sea mission in 1941 to blow up oil refineries in Tripoli off the coast of Lebanon. I had never heard of the mission nor the men. Making the story all the more memorable was that one of the soldiers in my platoon was a descendant of one of the men who never returned.

Our visit ended by the newest graves in the cemetery, the soldiers who fell in the 2006 war in Lebanon and the fighting this past January in Gaza. Our commander drew our attention to the graves of Michael Levine and others and then had a neighbor of Roi Klein, again one of the soldiers in my platoon, retell how Roi jumped on a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers in Lebanon. As we stood on a grassy plot near these graves, our officer noted that the ground under our feet would one day be the final resting place of the next Roi Klein and Hannah Senesh, the men and women whose sacrifice would ensure the continued freedom of Israel.

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

When it rains in Israel, religious Jews thank God and secular types get excited about reversing the declining level of the Kinneret. And soldiers? We suffer. Literally. The massive rainstorm in Israel this week made what should have been a pleasant lead up to my Tekes Hashbah [swearing in ceremony] into the two hardest days of basic training (so far!). Rain and wind and cold and mud meant that all my gear was soaked, that my tent became a swamp and that what was supposed to be a mild 14 km masa on Monday night became a demanding slog through the desert mud. Although the rain was mostly absent the next day, Tuesday was easily my hardest twenty hours yet in the army. The reason had more to do with my lack of energy than the exhausting day that saw us working on our gear till nearly three in the morning (needless to say, we did not get our six hours of stipulated rest that night!).

I have been told that reminding myself Gam Ze Ya'avor, this too shall pass, is the best means to overcome such tough times. Others note that it is worth remembering that my fellow soldiers may be suffering just as much. Not sure if either piece of advice does much good when all the muck in the world seems to be building up in your corner and the inner drive that usually plows me throw is calling in sick. I suppose tough days like these will only make me stronger for the even tougher challenges that lie ahead, both those that come from without as well as within.

Haiti and the Fighters of Zion

The tragedies occurring daily in Haiti since the natural disaster are legion. The well documented humanitarian action of my army, the force I formally committed myself to this past week, reminds me--and hopefully the wider world--that when others are in pain, as long as they do not seek to destroy us, we will do whatever we can to bring aid.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Standing Guard, to Paris and Back

"Don't shoot," shouted the man, shaking as he backed away from the civilian jeep with his hands in the air. "We're officers from the base, IDF officers!" I found the claim reasonable, though neither me nor my fellow soldier on guard duty were prepared to allow the two men to continue to load their jeep with crates of ammunition without authorization from headquarters. With gun trained in the glare of the jeep's headlights, my mind was buzzing at finding myself in a potentially live fire incident after a long week of guard duty on base.

Standing guard at last week's Nachal tekes kumta marked the start of shavuat sh'mira, the week of basic training devoted to instilling in soldiers the discipline of guard duty. For three hours every day and night I was stationed around our base, ordered to stand or patrol in full gear, gun at the ready while my body and body tried to stay warm and alert.

Guard duty comes with a long list of forbidden activities, though the bans on snacking, napping and sitting are tolerable in those fortunate positions where soldiers are posted in pairs. Standing guard alone led me to embrace some of the same survival techniques Natan Sharansky employed in his nine years of imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag. I am pretty hesitant to draw too strong a parallel between the challenges of a Prisoner of Zion and a soldier of Zion, though for what its worth converting my tedious walk around my guard position into an imaginary journey to Paris may not have only been inspired by Sharansky's memoir Fear No Evil. Vietnam veterans tell similar tales, or at least fellow Minnesotan Tim O'Brien has in the wacky war story Going After Cacciato. I made blessedly few imaginary hikes to Paris thanks to lucking out and spending most of my three hours shifts alongside other soldiers in my platoon. The upshot, besides avoiding boredom, were hours to improve my Hebrew in conversations--and song--that drew me closer to peers. Shavuat sh'mirah [guard week], I joked to my officer, was more like shavuat ulpan [language class week] thanks to all the talking time.

My final go at guard duty returned me to the lonely outpost by the two dozen ammunition dumps on the outskirts of the base. Known as the "bunker position," at night the vast area seems like foreign territory and it is comforting to have another soldier by one's side during the long patrols. My partner and I had barely begun our shift when a white jeep sped past our position, making a scorching turn toward a distant ammunition position. With ten hours of guard duty at the bunkers under my belt, I knew the area well and quickly informed my fellow guard where the jeep was likely heading. When our efforts to radio in for instruction proved fruitless, my partner set out at a run after the jeep, with me and a backpacked radio bouncing along in hot pursuit.

All soldiers receive clear instructions on what to do with trespassers. To his credit, my fellow guard followed the instructions to the T. While he called out and then cocked his gun to get the jeep's intentions, my mind was whirling, reflecting simultaneously on my run-ins with sentries in foreign countries and on the likelihood that my first "intruders" were fellow Israeli soldiers.

Sure enough, the gun cocking brought shouts from the jeep. Not only were these intruders members of the IDF, but they were officers. And they were none too happy to have a couple of tsa'eerim [youngsters] threatening them as they went about their business. The night ended with one final highlight: As the officers vainly tried to convince us to let them go, the Nachal soldiers serving as the emergency response team arrived, huffing and puffing after our radio call forced them to come running up the long hill from base in full gear.

Parent's Day of Kef

Lone soldiers have the potential to be well looked after in the IDF. I write potential because for all the stipulated rights and aid organizations designed to assist lone soldiers--defined as a soldier whose parents reside overseas--an unsympathetic commander is enough to ruin the whole setup. One of the highlights of Lone Soldierhood is the Yom Kef, that magical day on the calendar when foreign conscripts are packed off on a bus to spend the day at the pool or beach. While all the lone soldiers in Nachal enjoyed their first Yom Kef this week, I remained on base on the advice of my commanding officer. Far from unsympathetic, my officer asked me to stay in order to participate in Parents Day, the army version of parent teacher conference or summer camp's family visiting day.

Missing out on the pool was tough. Yet the real sacrifice was being unable to attend the swearing in ceremonies [tekes hashba'ot] for my garin friends in Golani and the Paratroops. Meeting all the parents, and comparing the guys I know with their fathers, mothers and girlfriends, almost made the sacrifice worth it. The true equalizer was the presence of my kibbutz parents. I showed them around base, introduced them to my various commanders, and, perhaps best of all, started the weekend in style by leaving base with my kibbutz parents Thursday evening.

Getting out of the army on Thursday night may not receive the attention of a Yom Kef or Tekes Hashba'ah. But ask any Israeli soldier and they will agree that nothing beats waking up at home on a Friday morning. The feeling is nearly impossible to describe, a feeling of freedom, of lightness, perhaps akin to skydiving except surrounded by a pillow, warm sheets and a down blanket.

A Tekes of a First Mission and Happy New Year

"This will be your very first operation," my officer instructed my platoon shortly before the tekes kumta [commencement ceremony] for the Nachal soldiers that began their service in March 2009. My platoon was selected to serve as the security force for the evening ceremony near Pardes-Hanna in northern Israel. With no obvious security concerns, our job was mostly to look impressive and vaguely intimidating in our coal-gray berets. My guess is our commanders also hoped that the day would provide my platoon with an initial sense of what it means to be entrusted with a mission defending the people of Israel.

I was posted in full view of the entire ceremony and so I had ample opportunity to look and be impressed by my surroundings. Seeing the soldiers of Nachal March 2009 receive their bright green berets that mark the conclusion of their training allowed me to reflect on how far I have come in such a short time--and how much more lies ahead until the distant day when I too, please G, will stand at the conclusion of my lengthy training with my peers by my side and my family and friends in attendance.

On base in the Negev desert it is easy to forget that all the challenges I face are designed to enable me to defend the citizens of the state of Israel. Watching the Nachal soldiers transition from training to active duty, with their proud loved ones entrusted for the moment to my care, was a healthy reminder of what my training is all about.

A very different reminder of the road that awaits took place later that night. By the time my platoon arrived back on base the hour was late and we were sent right to bed. Within minutes of settling into my unbelievably comfortable sleeping bag, my commander rushed into the tent and ordered that my entire platoon had to be dressed and outside in two minutes. Guys lunged for uniforms in a panic, minds already darting ahead to the trouble our commanders had in mind for us this late at night. Before two minutes had even elapsed, our commander returned and insisted we all exit the tent immediately. With socks and gatkes still flying, we ran out to discover our two squad commanders holding sparkling candles and with a count of 10, 9, 8...announced the start of the New Year, 2010!

Happy New Year!

Age Aint What it Seems

Isn't it hard being six years older than your peers? Being a year older than your commanding officer? Don't the guys come across as little kids?

I get asked such questions fairly often. After all, joining an army of eighteen year-olds at the grand old age of twenty-five means I do have more than a half-dozen years on my fellow soldiers. Not to mention experiences like college, work, living on my own and international travel that my peers simply lack. My commanding officer, all of twenty-four years, is certainly something special to have been appointed an officer for such an elite unit. Yet if anything his life experience pales in relations to my fellow grunts, since our officer has not taken his uniform off for more than a week in the last four years. Imagine missing out on the real world since 2006 and you can begin to understand the way his mind works.

The reality is that my age and experience have not hampered me in any way. The reason is simple: I do not feel, act or look any older than my peers. Plus, serving in an elite unit makes my age even less of an issue since the guys with me were largely selected for their motivation and maturity.

Real age, as it happens, means little in the IDF. Israeli soldiers only care about their pazam (army acronym for perek zman minimali), the time they have served in the army (of course, they only CARE about how much time is left!). In pazam years, I am the same age as my fellow soldiers, all of us only a month young. (um, except the many onetime pilot cadets that crowd my unit!). As long as our conversations and activities revolve around the army, I never seem any older than the other one-monthers. If anything, I come across as even younger than my peers because so much of the culture and language is foreign to me.

Pazam aside, there is another reason I never feel older than my peers: I don't look a day older than the lot of them. My fellow soldiers love asking strangers who they think is the oldest soldier in our platoon. No one ever points to me. When asked to guess my age, answers never slip past twenty. As no one ever told me I have a baby-face before the army, I am at a loss for how to describe my youthful appearance. Teen-age face? No, insists one of the guys in my squad, you simply have an American face.

The last reason I do not feel older has nothing to do with me other than my good fortune to serve in such an elite unit. Motivation and maturity are baselines requirements to have been selected into my unit. As a result, all the guys with me seem far older than their early nineties birth-dates would suggest. Not only do my fellow soldiers think and act more mature, they even look older than the often scrawny and baby-faced Nachwalis (slang term for soldiers of the Nachal Brigade) training alongside.

Benefits of Keeping the Faith

Two guys in my platoon were lying spread-eagled on the ground, nude save for their underwear with blood dripping from needles stuck in their veins. Not the usual sight one sees after returning from mincha prayers. There save for the grace of G-d go I, providing one more reason to appreciate observing my faith in the army of Israel.

Outside of Hesder units, where religious soldiers from yeshiva serve together, staying religious in the army is challenging. Regulations designed to respect religious observance, such as stipulated prayer breaks, do not whitewash a secular and stressful army culture that often slowly poisons vibrant faith.

Nevertheless, after one month in the army I have only had reasons to appreciate life as a religious soldier. Serving in a decidedly secular platoon allows me to learn from my peers while providing them with a very different example of a religious Jew. I am a very different kippa wearer than the settler youth and ultra-orthodox fundamentalists that largely define my fellow soldiers understanding of religious Judaism. While not broadcasting my differences, I have no problem sharing a Judaism whose truths are not overcome by politics.

Prayer rather than politics is why I really value keeping the faith. The three daily breaks religious soldiers receive for prayers are lifesavers, chances to float above the relentless sea of army stress and contemplate timeless questions. Morning prayers are particularly valuable. Wrenched out of bed every morning without a chance to think, the respite to don tefillin and pray is as much about preparing my mind as it is about my spirit for the coming day. I am not the only one who takes advantage of the morning prayer to recharge. The prayer room is also home to electric outlets, a rare commodity on base that allows cellphones to recharge along with body and soul.

The Fear of Fridays

Going home for the weekend is at once the most feared and desired part of basic training. Thanks to the Nachal Brigade's relatively low overhead (Golani and Paratroopers are said to be the two brigades with money), most weekends in basic training are spent at home. Getting home, a goal that soldiers fantasize over all week, means ensuring that all our gear is safely locked away on base. Sounds reasonable. Except for reasons that no grunt could possibly understand, our commanders succeed in transforming packing up our gear into the most dreaded of weekly rituals.

The terror to come begins with the most disarming of gifts. On Thursday evening we are sent to bed before nine o'clock. Army rules require seven hours of sleep before weekend leaves, one hour more than the usual six to ensure that sleep deprived soldiers do not get into driving accidents on their first night back. Everyone goes to sleep with a content smile on their face. Tomorrow we will be at home. And tonight we are already slipping into our sleeping bags, the activity soldiers cherish more than anything else. (When friends ask what I like most about the army, the answer is easy: going to sleep in my thick IDF issue American Army sleeping bag).

Suddenly it is three am. The wake-up cry is sounded. No, insists the terrible cold, the wet darkness and the unrequited love of my sleeping bag. And yet we are already moving, rushing to stand attention in our flimsy green uniforms. Our officers wear their tan dress uniforms, mocking the fact that us grunts have hours of sweaty work before we too switch colors ("switch colors" is Air Force slang for switching from tan dress to green field uniforms, a phrase that plays up the fact that our dress uniforms--unlike the rest of the IDF sans the navy-- are a separate color).

As we stand there shivering in the predawn chill, our commanders facetiously insist that if only we give our all and work with our heads, all our gear can be packed away in under an hour. We know that the work really should only take an hour. Yet we also know that the buses will not arrive until eight AM. And so we know that our commanders will find the necessary excuses to keep us repeating the same senseless tasks for hours. The standard routine is to have us move, say our mattresses, from one point to another in an impossibly limited period of time. If the mattresses are not perfectly lined up at the end of the given time, then boom, the whole routine starts from the beginning. Over and over and over.

Changing into our dress uniforms, after the last storage bin has been emptied and organized for the tenth time, is small reason to rejoice. IDF tradition places some bizarre merit in quickly switching in and out of military uniform. And so the simple act of switching from our field greens to our dress tans is repeated endlessly under crazy time allowances. Few guys can un/dress fast enough, meaning when the allotted time runs out (respecting time, remember, comes before anything else), half the guys are usually standing at attention in socks or with their pants around their legs.

The Friday morning charade is really only so terrible because the wonderland of civilian life is so close we can almost taste it. As Harvey Dent said, the night is always darkest just before the dawn. Watching an endless line of coach buses arrive on base is euphoric. Stepping inside them is bliss. And waving shabbat shalom to my guys as I wade through the swarm of soldiers trying to board buses at the Beer-Sheva bus station is a taste of heaven.

Military Mussar: Accountability in the Ranks

I believe that the greatest danger in the life of a unit is to lapse into self-satisfaction. I would like the men of this battalion always to be a bit worried—perhaps there is something else we might have done, something we might have improved and didn’t.
Yoni Netanyahu, May 14 1975

At the close of Gadna, the pre-military program I attended last September, my mifakedet (female commander) left me with some final words of wisdom. Few soldiers entering the army are capable of asking unpopular questions and raising unconventional ideas. Do not abandon your critical voice, she added, because we need it. Ten years to the day I was born, Yoni shared a similar message with the men under his command. Like the Mussar masters of old, Yoni's message is that introspection and accountability are the tools of improvement. My own training reflects this ethic, with numerous examples from our training regimen.

No one in my unit is allowed to go to sleep at night until they complete an unusual evening ritual. My fellow soldiers and I are under orders to write down in a faded journal our daily errors and how we can make sure they never happen again. Thanks to this exercise, the last thing we do before falling asleep is spend several minutes reflecting on our daily behavior. The timing seems designed to draft our very dreams into our training regimen. Whatever the intent, our commanders take the nightly ritual very seriously. They have no problem calling a guy to task, asking him in front of the entire platoon why he is not displaying more accountability in what he writes.

Public discussions of this sort take place at the end of every week. No matter what we have accomplished, the entire platoon sits down to review the week and voice constructive criticism. While many guys often have little to say, there are always a few brave souls that raise compelling concerns with our commander. After all the grunts have had their say, our senior officer invites his three assistants to speak and then closes the discussion by touching on a few comments and adding some of his own.

These sessions are a highlight of our training, providing a rare open space for sharing with those above us and around us what is on our minds. Of course, the presence of our officers means that few guys really voice their true opinions. Judge not lest ye be judged, with judgment understood as sincere criticism, seems to unfortunately be the mantra among my peers. I myself prefer the words of Yoni to Jesus as a moral guide towards self/group improvement. Never accept results that are less than the best possible, Yoni once said. And even then look for ways to improve and perfect them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Hekfer Neshek: Abandoning Your Best Friend

You never lose the friends you make in the army. Friends forever. For life.

At least that is what they say. I am not quite ready to chime in, though I suppose one month is nothing compared to the fours years I have committed to spend with the guys in my squad.

I have made at least one best friend in the army. We were introduced on my first day of basic training after some heavy eye flirtation. She was lighter than I expected, though having never touched someone like her in my life I was wary of making any quick judgments. Since day one, she never leaves my side (except in the shower - showering with her is strictly prohibited!). We share a bed, even the same sleeping bag when spending nights away from base. By day my hands are always touching her. My commanders do not mind the physical contact. In fact, they encourage me to get as intimate with my M-16 as I can. Your neshek (weapon) is your best friend, my officer says all the time. Treat her well and she will do the same for you.

Treating my gun well means keeping her clean and knowing her inside and out. We spends many hours breaking our M-16s down, cleaning them with brushes and oil. Mastering the name and role of all the rifle's pieces has proven a greater challenge. I had little idea what my commander was saying when he initially explained how the M-16 operates. A chat with a veteran Garin Tzabarnik back on kibbutz did wonders to cut through the Hebrew hedge. My friend explained the inner bolt mechanism, and even made a stab at translating the various parts of the rifle into English (English speaking Israeli soldiers never have any idea what the English equivalent is for the Hebrew army terms they pickup in the IDF).

Cleaning is all well and good. Yet our officer's words were directed at the most critical element of our relationship with our guns: never letting them leave our hands. To hefker neshek, abandon one's weapon, is the most serious (and common!) offense a new soldier can commit. Stepping out of our tent without our gun in hand translates to staying on base on a free weekend. To an outsider it may seem strange how easy it is to forget an assault rifle. Remember, however, that I carry this critter with me all the time and you may understand why my gun seems like a common appliance. Then consider the high pressure timed existence of basic training, and you may understand why kus emek! hefkerti neshek is a common refrain on base.

Hefker neshek is only one of many rules we must follow with our new best friends. The army has no patience for anyone who horses around with guns. Enough soldiers (usually from Golani ;-) have already been killed in games that went horribly awry. Play with your weapon and your days as a combat soldier are over.

In my unit, removing my hand from the grip or letting the gun hang over my back are also forbidden. We only received the slings for our guns in the third week of basic, an award of sorts for completing a 6km night hike in full gear. Like other elite units, we ran around base for the first three week without straps in order to deepen our connection and responsibility to our guns.

As connected as I feel to my M16, I am always getting chewed out for letting the weapon slide onto my back. My problem, I am convinced, stems from using a IDF grade sling to carry my saxophone. Five years ago I bought the sling from an IDF surplus store on a lark. A half decade of walking with my sax on my back has not quite prepared me for the guidelines that now regulate my current life.

Sacred Trinities: Time, Checklists & Gear Tune-ups

Time management, checklists and endlessly fine-tuning our gear are the three fundamental practices drummed into us young recruits every single day. The tremendous emphasis placed on these three disciplines correlates to the three core values of the IDF: discipline (mishmat), responsibility (achryut) and professionalism (mikzo'ute). It is not a coincidence that the two trinities parallel each other, such that time management (checklists/fine-tuning gear) is essentially applying the value of discipline (responsibility/professionalism) in the real world.

The Holiness of Time

Z'man Kadosh - time is holy, is a common refrain of basic training. My commanders routinely order my platoon to repeat wearisome tasks, insisting we chant "z'man lifni miseema - the time has priority over the mission," as we scamper forth under nearly impossible time constrictions. Over and over we are told that are efforts are meaningless if we are not standing at attention when the allotted time to do something has concluded. Even if that means the assigned task remains incomplete. Keeping your head out of the water is how our sergeant describes the lesson. Even in the midst of a chaotic mess, the soldier must remain cognizant of the time restraints under which he is operating. Time management often seems like the only point of basic training. Everything we do--eating, cleaning, shooting, studying, running--is given a limited amount of time. "Tiftach sha'own! - Start your timer" concludes every set of orders. The extent to which I now rely on my stop-watch has allowed me to understand why the wrist watch was a creation (in WWI, as it happens) of military necessity.

The Responsibility of Rashmatz

Israeli soldiers perform a disarmingly simple procedure before every mission: they snap a picture of all their gear neatly organized on their bed (like this fella). The picture comes into play after the mission, when everything is laid out for another inspection. On one level, this procedure--an exercise we perform sans pictures at the close of every week--is simply to make sure that everything is accounted for, that no gear has been overlooked or left behind. Yet the point is also to stress the cardinal ethic of responsibility.

Lowly trainees like myself are introduced to this ethic through the misdar koninut. Designed to test how quickly a unit can be ready for action (and how well a team works together under high levels of stress), a misdar koninut is dropped on soldiers when they least expect it. Everyone runs like fiends to dress for battle, slapping on heavy vests, knee-pads and helmets. While a few guys pass around materials to clean our guns, others race to check that all team equipment is present and accounted for. The checking continues to the final second when someone yells "times up" and we jump into formation. And then breathe.

My platoon never leaves or returns from an exercise without checking that all our gear is present. By exercise I mean pretty much every activity we do save for physical exercise. In other words, anything from a three day sortie in the desert to a ten-minute classroom lecture. Making sure that all the pencils and pistols are safe and secure is far more complex than you can imagine. Given a limited amount of time to prepare or strip apart an exercise site, we must also check that every bit of string, marker, nail and whatever else we brought with us is present. Every item must be visually and physically examined per the mandatory checklist that accompanies every vest and chest that is taken into the field. This includes our personal gear. Every soldier's vest includes a checklist where everything he has--from a watch to the Velcro band added to the rifle--is carefully noted. This checklist, and the act of checking, is known by that most characteristic of army slang acronyms: rashmatz, from the Hebrew phrase rishimat tziud - gear checklist.

Tikkun Olam - Perfecting the World

Discipline and responsibility reach perfection in professionalism just as fine-tuning our gear comes about through effectively managing our time and having a devoted attitude towards our equipment. None of the gear we receive avoids refinement. Everything undergoes shifzurim, (an army acronym from the words shipul tzurah, improving the shape; verb: l’shaptzer), the venerable culture of innovating and improvising to improve our gear through the application of tape and string. The tradition dates from pre-state militias like the Haganah who were forced to improvise their own arms in the difficult early years. Shifzurim also are a child of Jewish tradition. From finding room for innovation within the established tradition to seeking to perfect our world despite the constant wear and tear dreams receive when they engage reality.

History aside, there are very practical reasons to spend hours messing around with tape and string. In the loud chaotic abyss of battle, equipment that is not tied down and taped up can easily be left behind or fail to operate as needed. Shifzurim are time-tested methods to ensure that when things get really hairy, our equipment will take care of itself. This lesson is enforced in basic training by prohibiting carrying anything in our pockets that is not tied down. The culture of fine-tuning our gear is also greatly responsible for the widely cited (Start-Up Nation, anyone?)impact the IDF has on Israel's successful entrepreneurial business culture.

My own squad has already developed a few original shifzurim mashups, combining traditional shifzur technologies into new disciplines. One guy threaded a string through his kippa, ensuring an army buzz cut is no reason to doff the Jewish head covering. I followed his lead and threw some tape and string at a pocket-sized prayer pamphlet, transforming the pamphlet into a battle-ready tool. An even more enterprising fellow added pull-out shelves and back-pack straps to the wooden trunks that hold our team gear. All the stray strings and glossy tape may not look professional. Yet it is these hours spent in arts and craft that will leave us polished and ready in the battles ahead.

Invading my Dreams

The army is having an odd impact on my ability to remember my dreams. Science insists that we dream every night, no matter what we remember the next morning. Most folks, I imagine, have two or three dreams a week that stick in their memory. I have only one, and for my first three weeks in the army it followed the same pattern. Every Friday night, after a long week of lights out snoozing, I would wake Shabbat morning with a vivid dream. All of them were variations on the same theme, documenting in different settings my commitment to be serving in my unit.

All well and good. Until this past week, when my routine was interrupted by a terrifyingly life-like dream that had nothing at all to do with anything. Batman, script rewrites and murderous siblings... The moment I awoke the memories began to fade and it was all I could do to scribble down what I could remember of the drama that had accompanied me through the night. My scribbles threw off my morning schedule and sure enough, I was late for the morning formation. It was difficult not to smile when my commander asked me with a scowl why I was late. Its a long story, I told him, most of which I don't remember.

Isn't She Lovely: Pilates on Base

Conventional wisdom in the IDF is that the more elite units have the prettiest girls filling roles like shooting and fitness instructors. It is a bold claim that one can only hope will one day be comprehensively checked out. For the present, I can only go on what my own eyes tell me.

And my oh my, what they tell me.

As if my charming Buffyesque shooting instructor was not enough, in my second week of training my platoon was introduced to a beautiful woman whose good lucks are only matched by her vast knowledge of everything fitness related. Her knowledge stands her in good stead as she is our unit's lead fitness instructor. Exactly what that means remains unclear but already it has brought one outrageous perk. A month into training, the fitness instructor led my entire platoon in a Pilates workout. The Nachal soldiers in our battalion milled around in shock and awe, torn between staring at the beautiful instructor and the bizarre moves we were engaged in under her instruction.