Sunday, May 2, 2010

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.