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.
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