Friday, May 28, 2010

Surprise Birthday Party, by Mail

Gone are the days when soldiers would eagerly await the delivery of the weekly mail, bringing word from their sweethearts and loved ones about the world that continues to spin in their absence. Cellphones, text messages and 3G email access have made the precious letter that a soldier would lovingly guard for weeks on end a relic of another age. Relics have their place, however, especially in a unit where regular cellphone use is forbidden.

Several weeks after my birthday, while resting from a draining day of parachute drills, I received a small package from overseas. My sister's long promised gift had arrived! Inside were the gifts every soldier loves: durable socks and energy bars!

But what was this? Buried within the goodies was a small blue notebook. A journal by the looks of it. Just what I need, I feebly smiled, more paper to fill with one-sided conversations. But then I opened the small booklet and my smile took on a warm glow.

Inside were dozens of letters and photos from family and friends, each writing to me at the request of my sister on my birthday. If I hadn't had my fill of tears two weeks before on my birthday, I may have shed a few more. The words were so full of life, so true to the particular relationship I have with a given family member or friend. Reading the letters and taking in the pictures transported me from the muggy tent full of tired and naked soldiers to a surprise birthday party, attended my all manners of dear friends and family whom, with all the time in the world, spoke to me, revitalizing our ties with an energy I can take back with me to my daily reality.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

For Love of Navigating

I will learn her curves and swells the way a husband learns his wife. I will learn to love this land by walking her every inch, and seeing her every beauty. There will be no secret place I will not see, and there will be no inch I will not tread.

These poetic words are how a friend of mine serving elsewhere in the IDF described the process of learning how to navigate in the Israeli Army (he also ties navigation exercises to the evils of the Obama administration, in an extended rant!). My own experience with army navigation has yet to inspire Pablo Neruda-like levels of romantic allegories. Yet with months of navigation before me, anything could happen!

My unit devotes more time to land navigation exercises than anyone else in the IDF. We cover the entire country, first learning the basics with veterans and then setting out in groups of four, two and eventually, by ourselves. Navigating always takes place at night, with enigmatic ridge lines and dry river beds shrouded in the inky darkness.

The basic idea is similar to any novice of orienteering. Earlier in by day we are given a map and a series of coordinate points in the wilderness. Over the next few hours we design a path that takes in all the points, and then memorize the relevant topography that lies along our route. The navigation itself will take place without a map, testing our recall and grasp of the wilderness. The evening exercises are also a physical test, since there is a limited time provided to arrive at the end point. And as veterans of my unit add with a grimace, the unimaginably heavy weight we eventually carry means the nights are not simply a test of memory and wilderness lore.

To get a good sense of IDF navigational exercises, see here.

Shortly after arriving at our unit's base, a senior officer laid out the ropes as to what we can and cannot share about the remainder of our training. What can we share? Nothing! So what do we tell family and friends? Well, said the officer, since a big chunk of your training involves navigational exercises, from now on that is your answer. If anyone asks what you are doing, reply with just one word: Navigation!

Save Liberal Democracy in Israel!

What if [American Jewish college] students had been told that their generation faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth?
An excerpt from the very necessary essay posted in full below.

I rarely post writings from elsewhere to this site. Mostly because the purpose of this public journal is to share my own reflections and not advertise positions or people I agree with. Nevertheless when I read something (an all too rare phenomenon with my limited time) that speaks to the very path I have chosen and the decisions I wrestle with every day, then I am obligated to share it with you. If you have not yet read the following, I urge you to. Not because you need to agree. But because you need to, as the author says, "watch," to pay attention to reality.

I agree wholeheartedly with Beinart's message that my generation faces a moral imperative to strengthen liberal democracy in Israel. Beinart strikes a false note, however, in arguing that the disinterest of American Jewish college students in Israel is due to the failure of the American Jewish leadership to foster a more liberal Zionism. The reality is that American Jewish students increasingly have little interest in Israel becaue they have increasingly little interest in their Judaism.

Orthodox Jews are not supporters of Israel because they sympathize with a conservative political ethos. They identify with Israel because a Jewish community in the land of Israel is a key tenet of their religious identity. Young Jews do not have to subscribe to orthodox Judaism to care about the Jewish state. But they do need to care and to understand what their Judaism means to them. Lack of support for Israel, sky-rocketing intermarriage, a dearth of young leadership in communal organizations. Each challenge stems from the same crisis within the American Jewish community.

The message is simple: if you do not value your Judaism, you have no reason to care for Jewish values. Beinart errs in identifying the failure to foster liberal Zionism as the key failure of the American Jewish establishment. The overwhelming threat the community faces is the desertion of the next generation, a generation that like the fourth son at the Passover Seder does not even know to ask about his lost heritage.

The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment

By Peter Beinart (from NY Review of Books)

In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel. In response, he unwittingly produced the most damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community that I have ever seen.
Article continues here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Birthday Release

The day after tomorrow I will be twenty-five. This is a good age, the "prime of life." It is once again a time of decision for me, I have decided I would like to be a company commander (mem"pei). The problems are how, where, when, under what conditions...I don’t feel like I am aging, the fact that I will finish my next position at age 26 or 27 is not worrisome. I am pleased that-
From the unfinished, final letter, dated 13 September 1987, of Alex Singer, an American lone soldier who was killed in Lebanon shortly after his 25th birthday.

I cried on my birthday. Cried like I have not cried in years. Cried as if every emotion that has been locked up inside of me for the last year and then some had been converted to water and was pouring down my cheeks like Niagara Falls. And after all that crying? I was horribly dehydrated. But first, some back-story.

Before the back-story, at the end of this post I added the ode a wonderful friend sent me for my birthday. So skip down below if you'd like to read his trippy lyrics and avoid my birthday melodrama.

My twenty-fifth birthday was to occur in my kibbutz home in the company of my garin. Friday May 14 marked a Garin Shabbat, the twice 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. The day before the expected release, my commander asked me if I really wished to attend the garin event, bearing in mind I would miss military activities scheduled for Friday morning and Saturday night. Before reminding me that the decision was mine to make, he added that in his opinion it would be a pity for me to miss the training. Inwardly I was torn between not wanting to miss out on the garin or military activities. While one internal voice reminded me that the military should always take priority over my garin (after all, I joined Garin Tzabar largely for what it could add, not detract, from my military service), my decision had in fact already been made. There was no way I would act contrary to the implied directive of my commander that I stay. And so I assured him I wished to follow what he thought was in my best interest and remain in the army for the weekend.

My decision made, Friday May 14 passed very quickly. Beyond hoping my commander would grant the religious soldiers ample time to use our cellphones before shabbat, I was at ease with spending the dawn of my 25th year in uniform. At ease, that is, until my commander ripped into me shortly before shabbat. For five minutes he personally criticized me for failing to live up to standards in the inspection he had just concluded of our team's gear. I was willing to accept his decision to single me out for criticism, despite the public disappointment he had just voiced with nearly everyone. What really got to me, however, was that he allowed me no space to respond as he tore me apart. As fair as most of his criticisms were, the inability to voice what I thought set off a domino impact within me. When he was finished with me, I turned away filled with anger. The anger was largely irrational, yet it was pure anger all the same.

Following the regular end of the week group discussion, time was finally granted for the religious guys to use their phones. A dozen minutes, yippee ki yay. I slipped a call to my garin coordinator, ending the mournful conversation by confessing how disappointed I was that my officer had not granted me enough time to speak with my parents on my birthday.

And that is when they came. The tears. By the hundreds. Every tear bringing their entire extended family of tears along for the ride. It was as if the irrational anger I had felt earlier had kicked in a door I have kept locked within me through my service. A room where I keep all the frustration that comes with not being understood and being unable to communicate as I would like to with my officers and peers. A room that has never seen the light of day. Until today. Until now.

Minutes before shabbat, my parents suddenly called. I forced myself to get it together and managed a few sentences before telling them I needed a moment. Putting the phone aside, the tears came rushing back. Clearly, they were not done with me, nor was I done with them. When I got back on the phone, my parents could tell something very strange was going on. But time had run out and I had to hang-up, running off to the start of what I hoped would be a restful and reflective shabbat. The ironic coda to the weekend is that I was horribly dehydrated all shabbat afternoon, burdened by a painful headache and general lethargy the likes of which I only remember from the very worst of hangovers. Whether the tears were the release I secretly needed, I cannot say for sure. But they provided me with a link to my quarter-century birthday I will not soon forget.

The following week my commander, per his custom, gave me a book as birthday present. Per my own custom to give gifts to others on my birthday, I had asked a friend to buy a book I intended to give to my fellow soldiers. Ironically, the very book I had intended to give was what I found waiting on my bed from my commander: Alex Singer: Building A Life in the new Hebrew translation! The gift was all the more timely considering what Alex wrote in his final letter (excerpted above), providing an unexpected link between our twenty-fifth birthdays.

A friend's Birthday Ode

Yes, he's the man we all know best,
With Chinese books clutched to his chest,
Now passing yet another test
Of quite a different kind...

This story starts a year ago,
At a marathon, we watched him go
Back and forth until, you know,
He only came in third...

He spent six weeks in Syr-ia,
Eluding capture, this Kshatriya!
Now he rocks the cafeter-ia -
Which has the better hummus?

Undaunted, our man bravely rose
Between the bird and cat he chose,
Neither would give him much repose,
Or even a weekend off...

Far gone is that day, I mutter,
When Sammy lay down in the gutter
His lips gushing wine like water
To Avital's delight...

Yes, now he has gone off to fight
Carrying stretchers late at night;
Unto the nations, he's a light
And to those he left behind...

Like a Swedish heart that sings sad songs
And with the northern lights belongs;
No worries, though, he's still a Chong!
(i.e. he's still got time...)

A man appearances cannot rile:
His Facebook pic - oh, it's been a while!
Marching to his own tough style,
He'll never wash his kippa.

So I suggest we all call out,
On behalf of he that we here tout,
For a mighty, cross-border shout
Of shēngrì kuàilè!

Masa Aliyah: Identity At Last

A giant kingfisher, azure wings and crimson crest strapped on to the hardy chest of a unit veteran, welcomed me to the Israeli Air Force base I will call home for the duration of my military service. After five months of basic training, first with the Nachal Brigade and then in my unit's own version of boot camp, I had arrived. Seventeen months of intensive commando instruction lie ahead. Ninety kilometers of twilight trekking lay behind me. Yet when the costumed kingfisher pulled me into a circle of rave dancing soldiers, I gladly threw my legs in the air and filled the air of my new base with cries of utter joy.

Most Israeli combat soldiers culminate their training with a masa kumta, a beret march designed to test endurance and composure over the course of an exhaustive all night trek. A hundred or more kilometers used to be the norm until the army changed tracks to stress the weight soldiers carry rather than the distance they travel. So today regular combat soldiers face a forty to sixty km hike before receiving the colorful beret- brown for Golani, red for the Paratroopers, bright green for Nachal, purple for Givati, etc- that identify where they serve.

No berets awaited us at the end of our mega-masa. But we started our ninety km trek with an even more desired objective: to finally arrive at our unit's real base, to finally gain a sense of identity and home better than any round French cap. After barely avoiding elimination from the unit the day before, I began what is known as the masa aliyah with an even higher level of motivation. I am so happy to be here, I repeated to myself as we set out in the early afternoon from a sandy bluff in the southern desert.

So happy, so happy, I repeated, as the sun set, as exhaustion and a stubborn knee pain became my only companions, as our steps took us out of the desert and towards the sea. Over the course of the night, two of our guys went down with leg injuries. Both times we responded by opening our stretchers and, until the next rest stop, carrying our peers through the endless night. I was frustrated all night by a searing pain in my left knee, painful enough to neutralize the high energy I usually bring to our masa'ot. The knowledge that I only the day before I had been given a second lease on remaining in the unit kept me going. A brief pep talk from my commander also added to the fire. A few hours before daylight, most of my team had been reduced to a catatonic pace, stumbling along with a glazed look in their eye. My commander responded by calling everyone to his side. Looking into our eyes, he reminded us that there is nothing a locham in our unit cannot overcome. "Raise your heads high," he insisted, "and stay close." Our pace picked up, the sun soon brought the promise of a new day and before we knew it we were only a few kilometers away from the base.

The rest of the masa was crescendoed pandemonium. First a gaggle of teens from Ben Shemen and fathers and older brothers whom also served in the unit emerged from buses and cars to walk by our side for the last few kilometers. Together we arrived at the beach, the sand and sea reminding me all too well of the infamous masa along the coast of Israel. And just like the conclusion to that incredible journey, again all hell broke loose. All of machzor 2008, the soldiers who began our unit's two years of training in November 2008, came bounding down from the dunes, dressed in all manner of bizarre costume and armed with everything from ox horns to rocket launchers. They transformed the last few kilometers into a frenzied dash, calling out random groups of soldiers ("Kol haKibbutznikim, Kadima!" All kibbutzniks to the front! Or: "Kulam eem Chaverot Yafot, Kadima" Everyone with a pretty girlfriend, to the front!) to race to the front of the march. The funniest moment came when a few of the 2008 soldiers realized who I was and with a shout called out, "Kol HaChesterim, Kadima!" All the Chesters, forward! The joke, one that has accompanied me through my training, lying in the bizarre coincidence that the only other lone soldiers serving in my unit is a fellow with the 2008 gang with my same surname.

Propelled by the soldiers of 2008, we arrived by the gates of our base. Yesterday these same gates had stood before me, barred and grim as my future in the unit was decided. Now they were opened wide in welcome. Beyond the entrance, the hundred plus soldiers whom serve my unit in non-combat roles stood in two lines. We ran between them, cheered and clapped like conquering heroes. No tekes kumta [beret ceremony] awaited us in the base. Instead the next hour played host to a mix of rave dancing and silly skits as each division of our unit introduced themselves, from the Krav Maga instructors to the mechanic and medical teams. We were introduced one by one, like a graduation ceremony, and then instructed to close our eyes. With cries of "November 2009 to the pool," unseen soldiers threw us over their shoulders and ran towards what, in my exhausted delirium, seemed to be a desired dunking. Instead they dropped us off at the nearby dining hall for a banquet of sorts that formally inaugurated our aliyah [ascent] to the unit.

Fate & Future at Stake: Va'ada

Backed into a corner, most anyone will fight to protect himself. That instinct served me well the morning of the fifth of May when my fate and future was decided. Following last week's sociometry, I was one of three members of my unit called in for interviews to decide if we would stay on or be sent packing. Known as a va'ada (or va'adot in the plural), the process is trauma incarnate. A senior officer took me apart for twenty minutes, grilling me on my faults and questioning whether I even deserved to remain as a combat soldier in the IDF.

I was the very last soldier to be interviewed. Before entering the sparse room, symbolically situated right outside the base I would never enter if I was kicked out, a few junior officers came by to offer some verbal encouragement. In the grim atmosphere, their passing words echoed scenes from Dante's Inferno, as friends and foes share messages with the wanderer on his journey through hell. My fellow soldiers' response to their interviews did little to dispel the gloom. Both emerged in tears. One was spared, the other told that his service within our special unit was over. Moments later our officer arrived to collect the dismissed boy's gun. The scene reminded me of the infamous sketching of Dreyfus, standing upright as his sword was broken by the gates of French military headquarters.

"Do you know why you are here?" was the first question I was asked. I answered in the affirmative and then for twenty minutes spoke as clearly and confidently as I ever have in Hebrew. I owned up to my failues, and added as well that my inability to communicate with my peers had often frustrated my ability to live up to my potential within the unit. The officer asking the questions was far from friendly, cutting me off and challenging my word throughout the interview. But when I answered the final question, "Why should we keep you on," without a trace of hesitation, I left the room composed. Whatever they would decide, I knew I had finally had my say.

Five minutes later I was called back in to hear their decision. Not guilty, your honor! Not guilty in that I would remain with my unit. However, they spared no words in insisting that I raise my level of soldiery, advising me that verbal challenges aside, I needed to let my actions speak louder than my words.

The next day I rejoined the rest of my unit. Everyone was in shock at the loss of the dismissed soldier (and, to be frank, that of the two of us, I had remained). He was one of the better athletes, best shots, a medic, and a kid as mature as he was sociable. The reason he was kicked out, ultimately, is that he could not own up to the faults the commanders saw in him. My own ability to do so, my desire to improve and my success at communicating that to my officers, is what got me through that harrowing Wednesday morning.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Judging Our Own: First Sociometry!

Our sergeant took leave of us this past week, remarking at the close of an exit discussion that nearly half his unit was dropped over the course of the two year training. "And the first three were dropped at this point in the training." The mood amongst my team could be summed up by one word: oy.

And so the next day, when we were asked to anonymously suggest which three guys least deserved to remain in the unit, the writing was on the wall. The harsh question came as part of the sociometry, a device used within elite military units--and Israeli society at large--to decide who makes it and who does not.

The questions on the sociometry asked us to grade our fellow soldiers on the following categories. I share them because there is no better way to grasp what the Israeli military expects of its top soldiers then by scanning these categories. Most important of all is professionalism. The rest of the categories are as follows: interpersonal success, involvement in group activities, commitment to assigned tasks, command in crisis, personal discipline, personal honesty, motivation, potential for officership, command ability, fitness to be a locham [fighter].

Filling out the sociometry is a harrowing process, all the more so because for the last six months camaraderie and teamwork have been rammed down our throats. Yet suddenly we are being asked to turn on each other, with as critical an eye as possible, and push three of our fellows into the abyss. It could not have been a coincidence that the sky had turned ashen gray with a cold rain, two hours after my peers and I had finished betraying the young men who were our everything for the last half year.

Army Goals Half a Year Later

...My question to you is, first, whether some of your goals have been met so far, and second, if you logically see your other goals being fulfilled in the future. I know these are very loaded questions, and I understand that you have very limited time these days, so don't worry if it takes you a while to respond. Basically, I'm asking the impressions of your first half-year of the army, and any advice that goes with it...
Excerpt from a letter I received several weeks ago

Two months ago, when the stage of training I have just completed was only getting under way, my ma"k (the squad commander who is a soldier's direct superior) asked me in a scheduled discussion about my goals. For someone who finds himself in uniform largely for overarching ideological/personal reasons, I was surprised to find that I did not have a neat list of goals to share with him. What I do have, and what I told him, were about the themes that drew me to this land and compelled me to enlist.

When I sketched out my decision to make aliyah last summer, the words I shared drew upon these same themes. I spoke of wanting to live and serve in Israel in order to tap into my emotional connection to the land, of wanting to contribute to building the Jewish vehicle of social change, that at times benighted communal project known as the Jewish state of Israel. I sought a way of life whose unfamiliar challenges and communal focus would provide me with a renewed personal drive while likewise integrating me into what loomed as a foreign language and culture. Such were my themes, the stars and stripes that have led me to my current training as a commando in the Israeli Air Force.

Most of my fellow volunteer soldiers from overseas enlisted with similar goals. I am convinced that our personalities, more than where we drafted and what we have seen in uniform, would largely inform whether our goals have been fulfilled. Optimist that I am, I see myself as having made headway on all of my goals. My connection to the land and people has deepened and become ever more informed and appreciative. I remain convinced that my service is contributing towards transforming Israel for the better, both in the impact it has on me and the largely symbolic impression it has on society at large. My Hebrew remains a work in progress yet my comfort level in arid deserts and urban dens across Israel is far better than what I could have imagined a year ago.

And what has happened to a renewed drive, the purity of purpose I proposed I would rekindle through aliyah and enlistment? What I have found, must be said, is a new passion within the narrow confines of a soldier's life. A drive to excel in drills and relax on weekends, to burrow ever deeper into the growing abyss that is military life. I have not forgotten that the purpose I sought was tied to loftier goals, ideals I wished to pursue that would make more of an impact than the thud of a bullet into a sodden cardboard target. The hope is that the finely tuned focus I am developing in the army will remain with me, blossoming in more fruitful directions for the day when I can set my uniform aside.

The short answer to the questions I received would be as follows. I remain motivated and on track of my goals within the admittedly pedestrian reality that is life as an Israeli soldier. I have seen enough peers who may answer otherwise, however, to caution that enlisting is not the best solution for every young (male) Zionist. Soak up stories, ask more questions, and of course keep coming back to check out whatever I can share in this space.

Ending Phase Two, Helicopters & Tracers

Late April brought an end to the rigorous phase of training I have been involved in since leaving the Nachal Brigade in early March. Our training concluded with three intense days of little sleep in the wilderness, testing all the skills we had learned over the past two months. While there are many stories from the three days worth telling, the most memorable moments came at the very start and end of the three day exercise.

The exercise began when my team boarded a helicopter for the brief ride into simulated enemy territory. We had spent days preparing for this exercise, not to mention all the training of the last two months. Nonetheless, the almost tangible excitement during the ride was due to the helicopter itself. It was my first time in the military aboard a helicopter. Everything about the way it stepped into the air and took off into the inky night sky caught my attention. The memory that still lingers, however, is the image of the spinning propellers, which struck me as shards of broken glass, dangerous musical notes spinning in the midnight wind.

The exercise ended with a final push at dawn to the peak of the highest hill in our training area. Weighed down by a 90 pound pack, I struggled along with my team to carry our "wounded" peer laid out on a stretcher up the treacherous slope. For much of the ascent I grabbed the hand of one of the guys under the stretcher and tried to keep him moving with my own forward movement. Struggling for every inch of ground, we finally made it to the summit. Set down the stretcher and form a U, a senior officer cried out. And then following orders, everyone fired red tracer bullets into the breaking dawn as our officers boomed out that this two month round of training had come to a close!

Ma"kim Break Distance

The squad commanders, known as a Ma"k in the Israeli army, is the soldier's immediate boss, the most junior officer who is largely responsible for the daily details of the soldier's life during basic training. With my most recent round of training coming to a close, the two Ma"kim that have accompanied my team since my first day in uniform said goodbye to us over the last few weeks. Neither goodbye was a simple manner.

The first farewell began when my team was assembled at the base of a hill in the pre-dawn hours and ordered to reach the top as fast as we could. By crawling. Two hours later everyone had reached the peak after waging countless battles against legions of thorns. Brad, our less than personable Ma"k, was waiting for us on the summit with a pot of steaming tea. Inviting everyone to sit down and take a cup, he then told us about his life, childhood, high school education, hobbies, the works.

A few days later my team was readying for a class by our second, more inspiring of our two Ma"kim, Andy. To our surprise, Andy proceeded to whip out a Ka-Bar knife and explain that cutting a baddie's throat was the most effective means of storming an enemy position. Shock was replaced by smiles when Andy dropped the act and instead told us his own life story. Of the many jokes tossed back and forth, the best stories came from Andy as he revealed the many pranks our Ma"kim had played on their Nachal peers during our basic training.

Jokes aside, my Ma"kim were two of my main role models over the first half year of my service. While Brad was my squad's Ma"k I was most impressed by Andy's sharp intelligence and quick grasp of a situation. I can only hope that my training results in my becoming as finely tuned a warrior as either of them.

Marathon in the Sands

Had I not come on aliyah, I told myself at the start of what would prove to be the most incredible experience (so far!) of my training, I would be in Boston this week, running in the world's most prestigious marathon. Nearly a year ago, I had competed in my first marathon, running a Boston qualifying time fueled by the quixotic idea that my military service would still allow me to run Boston. My dreams have a strange way of coming full circle. While I did not make it to Boston, this week saw me complete my second--and almost third!-marathon. It was a marathon like no other, a 70 km (43.5 miles) masa down the beaches of Israel. Fourteen hours after starting the epic trek south of Haifa by Atlit, my unit raced across the beaches of Herzilya to the north of Tel Aviv. It was a night I will not soon forget.

The masa began with the legacy of Atlit. Boats buried in the sand offered additional reminders about the Holocaust survivors who sought refuge from Europe in pre-state Israel. Many of the immigrants were arrested by the British and interned at a detainee camp located at Atlit. Following a daring raid (led by Yitzhak Rabin!) by the Palmach underground movement, the camp at Atlit was closed and the detainees sent off to Cyprus. As I trekked over the sands, the sun sank into the sea, a burning sphere passing through pink and azure clouds into the endless waves. Framed by the tough green cliffs, I thought about what the scene must have looked like to those survivors, from their first image before their boats were interned to the last images they froze in their memory as the British sent them off to exile in Cyprus.

The trip along the beaches also reminded me of a scene and a tune from the film Chariots of Fire that never fails to inspire me. I hummed the tune for much of the night, a fitting tribute to a song that has accompanied me on long runs across the world.

Pretty sunsets and inspiring tunes had long since been replaced with painful blisters when the sun rose off the coast of Netanya. Twice during the night our commander had led us through the surf and into the water, soaking my feet in salt water and speeding up the painful blisters that accompanied me for the rest of the masa. The sorry state of my feet, the weight on my back, the distance times the masa was one of the most demanding physical experiences of my life, with a friend grabbing my hand to make sure I kept going. Other times a burst of strength saw me pushing other guys who had long since slipped into a Zombie-like stride across the shifting sands.

We arrived at the Herzilya beach with half my unit seemingly near complete physical and mental collapse. My commander looked us over and coolly ordered us to open the stretchers. Somehow I found myself nestled under the extra load. We started off at a light trot. And then all hell broke loose. With mad shouts and cries, dozens of veterans of the unit stormed down on us from the nearby cliffs. They were wearing fake mustaches, covered in Mickey Mouse ears and silly costumes. Jumping on our stretchers, throwing M&Ms in the air, and chanting songs like "chel avir, commando, chel avir!" (trust me, it has a rhythmic flavor in person), the vets revved us up into an adrenaline driven run down the beach. The few seniors out for a morning constitution did not know what to make of the riot, as we ran up and down the beach and finally right into the welcoming water. Exhausted, in pain and pleased beyond belief, most guys stripped down to their skivs and splashed around in the sea. I could only lie back on the sand in a daze, sinking my body into the substance that had carried me along the beaches of Israel through one unforgettable night.

Breakfast with Canada

"You can all laugh for thirty seconds," my sergeant ordered when he, along with the other junior officers, marched up to us one morning with the rank of a lieutenant pinned to his uniform. "But then no laughing. Canadians are coming and we do not want them to meet a crowd of giggling commandos."

For reasons that remain a mystery, a group of Canadian Jewish teenagers, fresh off touring the concentration camps of Easter Europe, had been granted permission to visit our base and fraternize with me and my fellow soldiers over breakfast. Since no lieutenants were on base, the junior officers had donned their superiors stripes in order to impress the visitors. Us soldiers, meanwhile, were ordered to polish our boots and look as impressive as possible for the foreigners.

As my guys scurried to freshen up, everyone was thinking the same thing: foreign girls. I have no doubt that the Canadian girls had the same ideas as they walked into our base twenty minutes later. In case they were not impressed enough, their guide decided to further burnish our credentials and gave a long speech about how lucky the teens were to be meeting with "some of the best soldiers in Tzahal, indeed even in the history of Tzahal, many of whom will one day be senior officers and probably the future commander-in-chief." Eyes watering, the girls and my guys were let loose to socialize over the muffins and bagels generously supplied by the visitors.

Most of the guys I serve with speak passable English. Nonetheless when it came to conversing with the Canadian girls, few of them had the confidence to share more than a "hello, how are you." After pretending to speak in awful English to a few sixteen year olds, I confessed to having grown up near the Canadian border. The most meaningful conversation I had over the next hour took place with a girl who admitted to feeling deeply embarrassed that her lack of Hebrew prevented her from conversing with any soldiers. Her frustration reminded me of myself, the sixteen year old whose failure to connect with Israelis helped supply the motivation for the path I have since followed.

Before leaving the Canadians parceled out dozens of gift baskets, supplying my unit with t-shirts, flags, key-chains--all emblazoned with the Canadian flag or the words "Vancouver 2010!" When shabbat came a few days later, the gifts were out in force as everyone wore their Canadian finery to a shabbat dinner table dressed up with red and white flags and gift bags. The random hiker peering through the tent flaps would have been sure he had stumbled across a secret Canadian commando hideout, training the next generation of Jewish Mounties.

Guns & My Guys

I don't like guns. Blame the stories out of Africa, where easily accessible small arms play a key role in perpetuating endless violence. Blame Middle America, for gracing the week of my Bar Mitzva with two front page stories of students shooting up their schools with automatics (per Jonesboro and Columbine). Or credit one of my favorite teachers, whose attempt to prevent his children from playing with toy guns (video games, toy soldiers, water guns, etc) is a policy I readily admire.

My distaste for guns came up in conversation last week with a fellow soldier. We were chewing up guard duty time, talking about Israel's unusually high number of gun toting civilians. My friend opined that after carrying a weapon for so long as a soldier, he would certainly prefer to continue owning a gun in civilian life. I disagreed, explaining the many reasons why I am opposed to private gun ownership. Without batting an eye, he changed the subject to his family and began telling me about the paintball facility and gun dealership his father owns. Then he went into detail about the many guns, of all shapes and sizes, in his family home. As my eyes widened, he casually added that his father, you know, is a former deputy commander of our unit.

"So," I finally slipped in, "I suppose we don't quite agree on the whole gun issue. Good thing we can still be the best of friends, hey?"

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Yom HaAtzamut, Dilettante Diligence

I left America to the whiz-bang of fireworks, flying from New York two days after American Independence Day. Nearly ten months later, fireworks finally filled the sky once again as Israeli Independence Day, Yom HaAtzamut, followed on the heels of Yom HaZikaron. While most of my unit celebrated the day at home, I remained on base. From a lonely sentry post in the woods I watched the rockets red glare, my first Independence Day as an Israeli citizen passing in uniform with long stretches of guard duty.

Symbolism aside, I remained on base for Yom HaAtzamut as punishment. While the transgression that kept me on base was fairly minor, the penalty brought home the uncomfortably high number of indiscretions attached to my name. A week has not gone in months without me committing a fuk, Israeli military slang for a mess-up.

The last week is as good an example as any of my fukim. On Saturday night, a day removed from our Independence Day break, my commander discovered a bullet in my vest as we prepared to start a "dry exercise," i.e. a drill conducted without any live ammunition for safety reasons. Somehow neither I nor another soldier had noticed the bullet when we had each separately checked my vest shortly before the officer's review. The punishment came swiftly: I was not allowed to participate in any training for the next 24 hours, relegated instead to kitchen and guard duty. So instead of krav maga, shooting and helicopter training, I chopped tomatoes and watched the wind whisper through the trees on guard duty. I was devastated at the idiocy of my error and the consequence of missing out on the training. Of course, more important than the training I missed out on is recognizing that a life could theoretically have been endangered due to my initial error. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I told myself as I went to sleep on Saturday night to the sound of my peers completing the training mission.

I have tried and failed to pinpoint the source of my frequent errors. The best answer I have come to is that whether for personal or cultural reasons, I am simply not as diligent as many of my younger, Israeli peers. Attention to detail has never been an obvious fault of mine in the past and so I am confident this is an issue I can resolve. My peers here often note how impressed they are by my resilience. With some attention to detail, hopefully my diligence can meet with the some praise and avoid spending future holidays on base.

Yom HaZikaron, Traffic Tragedies

For two hours on Sunday evening, the 18th of April, songs and poems of lost innocence replaced my regular regimen of crawling and shooting. The occasion was Yom HaZikaron, the day Israelis mourn their fallen soldiers. Earlier in the day training had ground to a halt as a siren briefly echoed across the country. The tunes we now sang were spun by the likes of Naomi Shemer and Natan Alterman, of the burning fires and clear waters (Al Kol Eleh) and the endless fatigue, the dew of the youth (The Silver Platter).

The ceremony we held was essentially a secular prayer service, a classic case of secular nationalism taking on the guise of traditional religious custom. The most unexpected part of the service, however, came when we were shown a short video of my unit's fallen soldiers. I expected to hear stories of young soldiers killed in the line of fire. Instead, nearly everyone in the film died in civilian car accidents, leaving the world in uniform yet hardly in the manner one imagines of a soldier's death.

The video left me with two lessons. One is that a loss is a loss, with the context of a loved one's death not necessarily providing any consolation to family and friends. And two, we owe it to ourselves and to others to approach traffic tragedies with the same seriousness we pay to national security. On a personal level that means paying the same attention to my driving as my shooting, placing safety belts on the same pedestal as the safety trigger on my gun.