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.