US military enlistment tries to sell armed service as a constant rush of high-risk excitement. The reality, at least in the Israeli army, is anything but. Training to be a frontline combat soldier is a marathon with few edge-of-the-seat joy rides. Courting risk, ironically, comes into play on off-weekends.
Hitchhiking (tremping, in Hebrew slang) to kibbutz late on Friday afternoon was risky business. Less than two hours remained until shabbat began and no one I knew had ever hitched from the capital to our kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. More importantly, I was in uniform. Israeli soldiers are prohibited from tremping to counter the real threat of kidnapping. If a military policeman did not spot me, I ran the risk that a tremp would leave me off in a Palestinian settlement along the road north. While not my first choice, Jerusalem seemed a much better option for shabbat than a Palestinian village.
A hipster girl by the trempiada (hitchhike station) in northeast Jerusalem gave me my first piece of luck when she volunteered to grab a ride for both of us. Her kindness allowed me to take a step back from the curb and avoid any accusations that I was actively seeking a tremp. A long wait finally ended with a ride to the Almog junction. The main road from Jerusalem continued east to the Dead Sea. I needed to turn north on what is known as the Gandhi Road after the assassinated Israeli politician Rehavam Ze'evi. The Gandhi Road, aka Highway 90, runs right up along the Jordanian border to my kibbutz. Straight through the future state of Palestine. "Take your shirt off," advised the young man who had driven me as far as Almog. "You don't want to shout out that you are a soldier on the rest of your ride north."
Sundown was just an hour away when a middle aged Russian immigrant stopped at the lonely turnoff. "I have a few stops to make along the way in Arab villages," he cautioned, "though with some luck we should make it north in time." Giddy-up.
The first stop was for fresh produce at a roadside grocer. Later we made our way to a family style gas station to fill up on gas. And my driver's last errand was through an Arab village and into a field to pick up large squares of manure from two Arab brothers. "Makes good fuel," explained my driver. "Nice and cheap."
The manure was not the only cost effective purchase. The foodstuff was purchased for five times less than what can be found in Israeli territory. And the gas? "I don't pay a thing," claimed my driver. "The Arab owners know me, I know them, and we have an understanding."
While congratulating the driver for his savvy fiscal sense, I reminded him that the sun was sinking. His sympathy was evident when he turned down the manure tradesman's offer to stop and have tea. "My friend and I will come back some other time," my driver assured the courteous manure man. "Now we have to make it home for shabbos." I felt like Big Gedalia Goomber as we sped off toward the date fields that ring my kibbutz home.
We said our goodbyes by the turnoff to my kibbutz, eight kilometers from home. Candle-lighting was in a few minutes. Little more than twenty minutes was left before shabbat descended on the valley. My luck had graced me with no baggage save for a pair of running shoes my commander had insisted everyone take home from base. He had requested we make time for a five kilometer run. He got his wish and I got one of the most thrilling runs of my life, a frantic dash past fish farms and date fields with my army boots clutched in either hand. I bounded past the Tiv meat factory and into kibbutz just in time. Shabbat, and a relaxed weekend at home, had begun.
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