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.

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