Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lessons From the Blue

January was the watershed in my service in the IDF. Unless a war breaks out before I am released at the end of this year, this past month will be the dividing line when I look back at my service. Before January; After January.

For the first time, I began looking to the end.

For the first time, I lost touch with my ideals.

For the first time, I really came to terms with the remarkable tragicomedy that is the lone soldier.

Now I really understand that this is a terribly lonely, frustrating and unstable life decision with precious little romanticism after the swearing in ceremony one month in. There are few moments that live up to expectation and even less that can genuinely be described as memories that were as pleasurable at the time as they will be in retelling in the years to come.

This month also made me understand how distant nearly every English language portrayal of the lone soldier experience is from the reality. The closest text I know is the letters of Alex Singer, though even those are too haphazard to provide an accurate glimpse of the daily grind that lies at the heart of army life. The real story is also far richer, a tremendous drama in the vein of A Soldier of the Great War, a tragicomedy of epic proportions in the lives of every individual who serves as a volunteer far from home in a land and language he must wrestle to make his own.

As I was muddling through this month in a perpetually sour mood about the army, several friends asked why I do not simply quit. You volunteered, they would say, and quite frankly, you are twenty-five years old and have already served for a year and a half. If your service no longer has meaning, why continue?

My answer is twofold. First, because if I had one tangible goal in my service it was to become a loham, a combat soldier. Until I finish training, a date that is now scheduled for this Pessah, I remain short of my goal. And achieving that goal means enough to me to put up with continued frustrations and the occasional self-doubt.

The second reason for remaining in uniform is that the values that drew me to the IDF, the commitment and sacrifice symbolized by Hannah Senesh and Alex Singer, remain central to my self-understanding. Who I am and who I wish to become have not changed in the army. And so even if I fail to appreciate the value of my service on any given day, I remain deeply attached to the values that compel me to serve.

Near Breaking Point

The abyss beckoned. A phone call was all that stood between thumbing my nose in my commander’s face and stumbling down a road that meant insubordination, jail time and possibly much worse.

The pity was that the last week had provided an engrossing glimpse of what my training is for. For three nights my unit had torn up the desert in hummers, ambushing enemy tanks in nightlong war-games. My squad had been so extraordinary, in fact, that one war-game had been started from scratch after my team wiped out the enemy’s forces far quicker than was desired by the observers. Our pride was put in place, however, when a chance encounter with an enemy tank revealed that the gunner was a military dental care trainee, temporarily assigned to a task for which she had little knowledge or enthusiasm. So much for the competition! Then again, many of the Egyptian tankers who fought Israel in 1956 and 1967 are said to have been at a similar level of skill and motivation as my dental friend. So perhaps she was not chosen so randomly after all!

I stayed on base for our final night of desert warfare, volunteering for the evening sentry shift so I could leave the next day. This weekend was a Garin Shabbat, the thrice a year event when every member of my garin is released from the army in order to allow us to share a rare shabbat together on kibbutz. My commander had assured me I could leave Thursday morning so I could take care of some lone soldier concerns and arrive on kibbutz on time.

As my commander rushed off to the all-night exercise, I hastened to confirm my plans to leave the next morning. “Oh scratch that,” he replied offhand, “You need to return with us to base tomorrow so you cannot leave in the morning. In fact, you may not be getting out of the army this weekend at all.”

Then he rushed off. And I was left with six hours of guard duty to puzzle over this abrupt change of fortune. I had an idea what may be in the works. Last Shabbat I had been caught sitting and reading during an especially asinine sentry assignment. No punishment had yet been doled out. And so despite having received assurances that I would get out to attend this weekend’s seminar, it seemed my commander intended to drop the axe on these plans.

Or perhaps that was just the beginning. Next week my unit was on break for regilah, the once every four months vacation soldiers receive from the army. The dismissive tone in my commander’s voice suggested that the punishment he had in mind threatened not only my Garin Shabbat this weekend but all of next week’s precious vacation.
Staying on base for regilah is one of the more miserable punishments. My recent stretch of shavuz made losing my regilah even more unwelcoming. While the past week of desert warfare, following on the heels of speaking with my samal and Daniel, had done wonders to lift me from my shavuz, I was counting on the regilah to give me a chance to put my recent troubles behind me for good.

With my commander out of contact until noon tomorrow, I could do nothing all night but stew over my predicament. It did not take very long to slip into the tragic embrace of the vicious shavuz cycle: punishment/shavuz/mess-up, repeat. I was not simply miserable. For the first time I was furious, irritated at everything to the point that no matter the consequences, I intended to leave the next morning as originally planned. Bugger all, I figured. I am prepared for whatever penalty that comes my way. Who needs them.

Fortunately for my future in Sayeret Tzanchanim, I spoke with a close friend over the course of the night. My friend had himself volunteered as a lone soldier several years ago. So he knew what he was saying when he reminded me that the temporary satisfaction I may get from leaving base is not worth the long term negative impact. Not only may others think less of me, but my own opinion for what I accomplished as a member of the IDF could be seriously imperiled. “Years from now you won’t remember the frustrations,” he concluded, “as much as what you do—and do not do.”

A few hours later I was outside the base, waiting for the bus to Beersheva. Before boarding, however, I called my company commander and requested his help in resolving my predicament. To my surprise, he proved amenable to my situation and after a few inquiries, gave me the go ahead to leave base and head north for the weekend with my Garin.

As I fought through the massive crowd waiting to board the bus, I reflected on the final piece of advice my friend had offered me in our pre-dawn phone conversation. You are the only one in your company, officers included my friend noted, who knows what life is really like for an independent young adult. The irony is that my friend’s advice is a double edged sword. While his point was that I should take strength from my knowledge of the good life, that familiarity also means I am aware of the life I cannot lead.

Caught in a Vicious Shavuz Circle

Economists love to describe the phenomenon of vicious circles, a self-enforcing series of events that leads to greater and greater instability. Thanks to the subprime mortgage crisis and the ensuing global recession, vicious circles are now a household term. Shavuz soldiers are unfortunately all too familiar with the concept. Like the housing crisis that helped launch the global recession, shavuz soldiers are caught in a particularly nasty vicious cycle. How so?

Shavuz means not caring a whit about the army. Not caring leads to stupidly breaking rules and otherwise falling from the straight and narrow path expected of the perfect soldier. Rule-breaking brings punishments, which only worsens the sense of shavuz leading to further mess-ups, punishments and ever deepening gloom.

My recent army life provides a classic example. While meandering in the abyss of the shavuz in recent weeks I was punished for flagrantly breaching a minor navigation rule. Closing shabbat on base was my punishment. Staying on my base for shabbat is reason enough to feel miserable. Considering I was already pretty shavuz, I did not make it very difficult for an officer to catch me sitting and reading during a particularly mind-numbing three hour sentry shift on shabbat. The punishment to come will likely mean staying on base during future off weekends, as good a bet as any to only deepen my sorry state of shavuz.

Unless I can kick the habit. While my January blues are not completely behind me, two recent incidents give me hope that I can soon lay this extended shavuzness to rest.

The first incident came when my samal (sergeant) pulled me aside and insisted we need to talk. Having never had a private discussion with my squad's much admired junior officer, I was grateful, if a tad leery, to speak with him. As I suspected, his intention was to snap me out of my debilitating state of shavuz. The way he went about doing so, arguing that my bad attitude comes from having failed to get over the differences between my past and present units, was off the mark. But his words forced me to realize that my key mistake is allowing hangups with my life outside the military create a bad attitude that I import into army life. A true professional does not allow personal distractions disrupt his job. While the army may at times seem like more than simply a profession, at heart it is a job I can only respect by engaging at the highest level. Doing so requires that I focus purely on the job at hand and not allow the ebb and flow of outside life impair the work I traveled halfway around the world to accomplish.

This reminder about the professional nature of my service was deeply strengthened by a chance encounter with a young soldier from the Nachal Brigade named Daniel. We got to talking about the relative calm that has prevailed throughout the Israeli army over the last few years. Since the fighting in Gaza in January 2009, military casualties have sunk to record lows. "I had begun to think my service would be untouched by tragedy," Daniel confided. "Until..."

Daniel, it turned out, was best friend's with the Israeli soldier killed two weeks ago in a friendly fire incident on the Gaza border. As Daniel began describing the funeral, my mind was a blur with images of young Israeli soldiers being laid to rest by their distraught peers. The images were the legacy of a young child who compulsively followed the news from Israel in the final years of the twentieth century. The harrowing news-photos of Israeli military funerals I was exposed to as a child shaped my perception of an army I gradually decided I needed to join. Those funerals suggested an army that was about sacrifice and commitment, values personified by the stories of fallen soldiers like Yoni Netanyahu and Alex Singer. The romantic in me clung to those values when I enlisted in the IDF. The realist and cynic, however, has come to terms with the mediocrity and malaise of the mass bureaucracy that is the army. Speaking with Daniel was a sharp reminder that this army, this profession I embraced come what may in the fall of 2009, has values that remain worth fighting for.

Shavuz Blues

Impotent may be the simplest definition. Despair, depression and disinterest are the three Ds that sum up how one feels. Yet to truly understand the term shavuz, you must enter the mind of the disappointed soldier. Like elderly men before Viagra, shavuz soldiers cannot rally any excitement to perform their tasks. Their will is broken. Or as the source of the slang acronym suggests (shavur zayin), it is not only their will that is ailing.

Losing out on course makim dropped me into my own cycle of shavuz. It is not simply the disappointment of not getting selected and losing out on ever serving as a junior officer that threw me for a spin. It is the frustration of being caught in stasis, of feeling that I am not progressing in the army and am now merely counting the days until I can escape from the shackles of life as a military trainee.

Such feelings are not simply in my head. They reflect a reality I naively brought upon myself. In what my peers call the biggest mistake in the history of Sayeret Tzanchanim, I agreed on my first day in the unit to go down a draft class and repeat three months of training. If I had remained with my November 2009 draft class, this week would have marked the end of training and the start of active duty. Instead I joined the March 2010 class, lured by an assurance from a senior officer that dropping from November to March was the way of making sure I would be selected for course makim this February. With makim no longer relevant, I find myself recycling training from my days in the Air Force. Except this time, the same routines are taking place amid a culture of mediocrity and malaise that stems from the negative attitude my peers have towards our training. A negative attitude that is slowly infecting yours truly.

The lack of self-respect in my current unit compounds the shavuz engendered by my sorry life outside the army. I write such harsh words despite having a wonderful host family and caring garin friends on kibbutz. These friends and family have not succeeded in providing me with a sense of progress in my personal life. Maintaining a dynamic social life as a soldier may be nigh impossible. But when both my service and social lives seem to be going nowhere, neither can provide the ray of light to distract me from an ever quicker descent into a severe state of shavuz.

As the lights fade, all the petty annoyances of army life loom larger. The constant exhaustion, the language hang-ups, the maze of illogical routine, the constant arguing with cocky teenage peers, the twenty-two year old officers scrutinizing and recording my every action, and the gulf that remains between me and a company of young men who only seem to grow more misinformed about me by the day.


The background for my January blues were four weeks of navigation exercise. Doing the same exhausting thing one week after the next wore everyone down. This week, finally, I snapped out of my own shavuz funk. Part one of the antidote was a very frank discussion with my commander. Part two was an especially intense krav maga session with my peers. Together I was reminded that my team boasts solid guys, an easy-going and intelligent commander, and, for all our flaws, a respected name as a special forces combat unit deeply involved in the work the IDF does on Israel’s borders and in the Palestinian territories. If I have a problem, it is fundamentally my attitude. Do away with the shavuz and there is what to cherish in the here and now.

So Much for Command

You will not be going to the upcoming course makim. I am not sure what you were told when you arrived in Sayeret Tzanchanim. But as commander of this tzevet [team] I can tell you there was already a list of candidates well before you arrived.

With these words my commander closed the curtain on the goal I had of serving as a junior officer (a NCO, known in the IDF as a MaK or samal). A few days earlier I had brought the issue up with him so he would know of my interest in getting selected for the forthcoming NCO course (known colloquially as course makim). When he replied that others had already been preselected, I came back and gave him my reasons why I was an appropriate candidate for a track designed for soldiers whose precocious maturity and good soldiering skills allows them to skip the final two months of special-forces training.

While course makim is offered three times over a soldier’s service, the first go is often designed for soldiers the higher-ups see as future officer material. In special-forces training (that is, the sayerot/gadsar of each infantry brigade), soldiers who attend the first round of course makim miss the last two months of training. As this includes the especially rigorous final month of the fourteen month training, many of my peers view selection to early makim as extremely desirable. A subset righteously disagrees, insisting that a conscript cannot be considered a complete fighter without having overcome the last few intense weeks of training.

My own interest in this first round is grounded in the simple fact that if I attend a later round of course makim, I will have to add anywhere from six months to a year to my service. Since I am not willing to sign more time to attend the NCO course, my opportunity to attend the course and serve in a leadership position—and potentially to sign more time and continue in the army as a lieutenant – was dependent on doing course makim now. In other words, now that this first round is out of the picture, so is my dream of serving in command.

I did not fight my commander’s decision. I did not request to speak with his superior or try any of a hundred schemes that seasoned soldiers turn to when the army first says no. Why? The answer is that, in the short term, getting selected for course makim was as much about the recognition, about feeling appreciated, than anything else. Fundamentally, I want to serve as a junior officer so I can really influence others while transforming the responsibility I have in the army. I want to be selected, however, for the same reason one wants to be chosen for any task: the message selection sends that my superiors believe in me. Getting selected is empowering, an antidote to the constant feeling of under appreciation shared by many soldiers, especially older and experienced soldiers from overseas.

Terrorism at the Gates

On Sunday January 22 at 9:30 AM, a young man walked over to the payphones by the bus-stop at the the Beit Lid junction. Without warning he collapsed and began moaning in pain. A small crowd of soldiers, among the hundreds waiting for the bus to our nearby base, gathered around the fallen man. As a young soldier asked what was wrong, the man on the ground reached into his bag and set off a tremendous explosion.

An awful silence followed the overwhelming noise. And then the otherworldly quiet was broken by cries of pain, tears of rage and the sirens of approaching medical vehicles. Emergency crews had no sooner begun to tend to the wounded when another man standing at the exact site of the first bomb detonated a second blast.

Twenty-one young men and women, none older than me, were torn from this world in the space of five minutes.

The Beit Lid Massacre, as the attack was called, introduced a new reign of suicide bombings into Israel. A devastated Yitzchak Rabin suspended talks with the Palestinians. A murderous sect known as the Islamic Jihad shot to public attention. And off in distant Minneapolis, a ten-year-old boy read the front page story with little idea how familiar he would one day be with the junction at Beit Lid.

For the fifteenth year since the tragic double terrorist attack in Beit Lid, a memorial ceremony was held on my base. Families of the slain, senior officers and a select number of conscripts from my unit were in attendance. After a brief yet moving ceremony, a few extra videos were shown celebrating the recent accomplishments of the Paratrooper Brigade. While the ceremony failed to instill me with any semblance of brigade pride, I was struck by how much this tragedy is now a part of my life. The past merges with my current Sunday morning commute to transform a previously isolated corner of this land into something of almost sacred significance.

A Baltam?! Not Again

My unit was sent to sleep with instructions that wake-up would be at four AM. Tomorrow would be the first time in four months we visited a shooting range and the plan was to make the most of the daylight hours. So when everyone was woken up less than two hours later with the curt command--five minutes, full gear, two stretchers in the air!--the mood was grim. Aize basa, the guys groaned, another baltam. Here we go again!

Without preparation, sudden suckiness, organized chaos or, as a fellow soldier insists, "surprise stretcher marches in the middle of the night" are all possible translations for the Hebrew word baltam. The slang term is an acronym for bilti metuchnan, a phrase whose casual meaning [unplanned] does little to capture the insidious role it plays in my unit's training.

Despite the implied unpredictability, a week does not pass in my unit without at least one baltam. Whether it is climbing Mount Tabor or lugging a stretcher up Mount Barkan at the end of a draining navigation, every baltam is designed to make us more resilient in the face of unexpected challenges that erupt when our minds and bodies finally seek to rest. The Israeli tendency towards last minute action with minimal planning makes more sense after experiencing the endless array of baltamim that crowd army life.

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And so seasoned soldiers like my peers have worked out their own ways of combating the rash of baltamim. The final navigation exercise this week is a great example. After trekking through miles of farmland near Beersheva--and crossing a valley so thick with trees, thorns and water that the way across came by dancing over the tree tops, ala Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon were sumo wrestlers (per the heavy packs weighing us down) to have taken the role of the ethereal ninja warriors--our commander had surprising news waiting at the finish-line: You have two more checkpoints to collect. Take a quick look at a map and then get going- the bus is leaving in half an hour!

My body was sore and the straps of my heavy pack had all but fallen apart. The idea of running back into the wilds in search of two distant checkpoints was pretty dismal. So be it, I thought with a laugh, this is what they pay me for. Just as I turned away from the bus, however, a hand grabbed my shoulder.

"What checkpoints did you just get?" whispered one of the guys in my squad.

"Whats it to you?" I muttered, "If the commander just gave you the same ones, you can come with me if you want. But I warn you, be ready to run."

"Run?! Neither of us is going anywhere. Listen: I've already been to your checkpoints en route to here. No doubt you did the same for mine. We can just exchange the information encoded at the checkpoints and voila, hunker down out of sight of the bus for the next twenty minutes. Kapiche?"

The culture of baltamim, if not the way my unit at times responds to them, sheds light on a question friends have asked me recently. To wit: Considering the elite level training you came from, how does your current unit training compare? Easier, right?

Harder, actually. My past unit may have walked farther with greater weight on our backs. But everything we did was about creating highly trained soldiers, technically proficient in all manners of military skill. My current unit, with midnight stretcher marches interrupting basic shooting exercises, is designed to create tough warriors. We sleep less, train with worse gear, and often have disorganized logistics to thank for some of our most grueling episodes. The results may not produce soldiers who can shoot straight but at least we will know how to keep going when all hell breaks loose.

Where is Zionism in the Army?

Why do young Americans like myself move to Israel and join the IDF?

I want to feel like I’m part of a cause.
Israel is my country.
I’m really excited to do something that I believe in.
I want to defend the homeland.
Its about serving the country that I love.

My own answer to the question asked of every volunteer IDF soldier appeared in these pages back in the summer of 2009. Last Thanksgiving, I made a go at providing an answer for the rest of my foreign-born peers who serve in green for the blue and white. The latest bunch of inspired immigrant soldiers aired their own answer, transcribed above, in a recent Nefesh B'Nefesh video. While not representative of every volunteer Israeli soldier, the above lines do voice the passionate Zionism that drives Americans to take up arms in defense of the Jewish state.

Zionism, in short, is the reason why. The dream of redeeming a people and building a country at the crossroads of civilization. A vision (delusion, some may say) young idealists like myself nurture from afar until the legacy of fallen heroes like Mickey Marcus and Hannah Senesh compels us to suit up in a new-found home. The army, we are sure, is the ideal vehicle to pursue and fulfill our Zionist ambitions.

Except when it isn't. And the candid reality is that save for the odd ceremony and inspired commander, Zionism is absent from Israeli military life. Or as a former lone soldier told me, the Israeli army is where Zionism goes to die. The IDF is an illogical mix of frustration, hilarity, tedium and exhaustion. Grunts are too worn out to be very idealistic. We leave the myth-making to the stories that follow in our wake.

This cannot be true, the believer might say. What is enlistment but the readiness to put your life on the line for a cause. Days may go by when that cause falls out of sight. But everyday in uniform is an affirmation that when my number is called, I will not falter. This people, my imagined community, is worth the ultimate sacrifice.

Zionism, moreover, has its own historic chord to military service. Transforming the defenseless ghetto Jew into a modern Maccabee was early Zionist creed. And military force, from the pre-state groups like the Palmach and the Irgun to the once-a-decade wars, is largely responsible for Israel's existence. "Judea fell in blood and fire," goes a famous Irgun song, "and in blood and fire Judea will rise again." Herzl and Ben-Gurion wished otherwise. But history required the idealist to take up arms that six decades of struggle have not allowed him to lay aside.

So the believer insists. The problem is that the army deals with mundane reality. The soldier is too tired to dream, too overcome with the necessary and the asinine to consider ultimate sacrifice or strategic threats. A green malaise of sorts colors military service, overwhelming primeval blue and white desires.

No soldier suffers from this dearth of Zionism like foreign volunteers. High-minded ideals largely fueled our arrival in the army. Coming to terms with their absence, engaging the daily drudgery of military life robbed of higher meaning, can be quietly devastating. Some fell back on the baseline assurance that, if nothing else, volunteering to serve is fulfilling a basic responsibility shared by all citizens (save for ultra-orthodox and Arab communities, of course!) of the state of Israel. Many others finish the army on empty, drained of the enthusiasm and ideals that first carried them to these trying shores. It is enough to raise serious doubt as to whether enlistment is the right choice of national service for so many of the energetic young Zionists that move to Israel every year.

Joining the army may very well not have been the right choice for a seasoned young Zionist like myself. But it is a choice I would repeat, and do in fact reaffirm everyday. Not out of a consideration of right and wrong. More from a deep seated curiosity and necessity to learn things about myself and others I may never have appreciated away from the Israeli army.

I enlisted as a Zionist, well informed that much of what I have described above would likely come to pass. While I remain as fired up about my Zionism as the day I landed in this country, a year in the IDF has bled humdrum army greens into the blue and white visions that flew me to these shores.

Legacies of Ben Gurion

When I looked out my window today and saw a tree standing before me, the sight awoke in me a greater sense of beauty and personal satisfaction than all the forests that I have crossed in Switzerland and Scandinavia. For we planted each tree in this place and watered them with the water we provided at the cost of numerous efforts.

Why does a mother love her children so? Because they are her creation. Why does the Jew feel an affinity with Israel? Because everything here must still be accomplished. It depends only on him to participate in this privileged act of creation. The trees at Sde Boker speak to me differently than do the trees planted elsewhere. Not only because I participated in their planting and in their maintenance, but also because they are a gift of man to nature and a gift of the Jews to the compost of their culture.

It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.

David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister and founder of the state of Israel

I met David Ben Gurion for the first and last time when I was fourteen years old. My family had recently made aliyah to Israel. Despite my inability to string together a complete sentence in Hebrew, I had been thrown into the local middle school. One day my class paid a visit to the Tel Aviv residence of Israel’s first prime minister. In the years since he had retired to a small kibbutz in the Negev desert, his house in Tel Aviv had been converted into something of a museum.

My teacher was busy telling us about Ben-Gurion’s accomplishments when the Old Man himself came trundling down from the upstairs library. With a twinkle in his eye, the former Prime Minister asked if he could meet us. When my turn came to introduce myself, I explained I was born in America and had recently moved to Israel. Turning his piercing gaze and twin shocks of white hair in my direction, the founder of the state of Israel bluntly asked, “Where are your countrymen? Where is the great American aliyah? We need them. And we need you.”

I was fourteen, newly arrived in a land whose language and culture were still so foreign. And the charge I received from Ben Gurion that day has been part of me ever since.

Joel Goldman’s tale of meeting David Ben-Gurion in the early seventies (that is, the previous few paragraphs!) was on my mind this week when my unit toured the former prime minister’s desert home in Sde Boker. It was not my first visit. But it was the first time since my aliyah and months of army training that I have visited and reflected on the legacy of Israel’s first and most important prime minister. My first visit, in other words, since I have made the two great unrealized visions of Ben Gurion— development of the Negev and the aliyah of American Jewry—part of my own life.

Sde Boker is where Ben Gurion’s two final goals come to fruition. The kibbutz was founded by young American idealists after the 1948 War of Independence. When Ben Gurion stumbled across the community during his first term as prime minister, he was inspired by the pioneers’ progressive attitude and asked them if he could join their community. Permission granted, the Prime Minister thereafter retired from office and with his American raised wife Paula made Sde Boker home for the next two decades.

The Neveg remains largely undeveloped. And American aliyah is still a largely unfulfilled dream. Returning to Sde Boker after my own aliyah, and following many months of training throughout the Negev, reminds me that I have only just begun working towards the twin unfulfilled visions of Israel’s founding father.


Sde Boker is a deceptively peaceful desert community. Here Israel's visionary founder retreated from public life. Here he dreamed about the great challenge and potential that awaited his nation in the surrounding hills. A hamlet as riddled with legend and intrigue as the doomed prince of Denmark himself.

Add another mystery to the storybooks.

The highlight of a visit to the Ben Gurion's modest dwelling in Sde Boker is the library, a small room with books in half a dozen languages covering dozens of subjects lining the walls and covering all available desk space. On a past visit, I had noticed an unlikely tome prominently situated in the middle of the lone table that dominates the center of the room: an English language history of Yeshiva University. Having attended the New York center of American Modern Orthodoxy as a student, I was intrigued to find the book in the same place on my visit this week.

The guide explained that the books in the library/study have remained where they were since Ben Gurion's death. With one exception, he added quietly. Sometime in the past year, the hardcover history of Yeshiva University disappeared. The curators searched everywhere, trying for months to discover who could have stolen such an inconsequential book. Failing to discover the thief, an even more exhaustive search was made to find another copy of a book that exists in only a handful of private libraries around the world. Several months ago, an anonymous donor contributed his copy and the confused yet grateful curators returned the new copy of the history to its rightful place. To this day, no one knows why the original book was stolen or who could have taken it.

The story has all the mystery of a Dan Brown thriller, replacing the Louvre and the Vatican with an infamously complex autodidact who nearly willed the modern state of Israel into existence over decades of public service. The missing history might very well be a red herring for some other hidden mystery, perhaps a final legacy wrapped up in American lettering down in the depths of the Negev desert.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mud & the Military

I love to run in the rain. This journal was in fact inspired by a run in a Chinese downpour four years ago. Rain, however, does not descend in a vacuum. It falls to the ground, leaving an ocean of mud in its wake. Soldiers have tramped through that mud for time immemorial. Slogging through the mud, weighed down by a heavy pack, whipped and weathered by the unrelenting elements is the quintessential infantry experience. So when I say I spent the week navigating through the mud around Mount Tabor, I am dodging what really happened. The truth is that this week, I became a soldier.

Mud was the theme for every one of this week’s navigation exercises. Our first navigation was dramatically canceled when shooting broke out in the area between several local Arab residents. The muck, we were told, had upended some vehicles, leading to a disagreement that jumped from angry words to shots in the night. The next night I was the one in trouble, forced to wade through two miles of sharp thorns on the north footstep of Mount Tabor. When I finally made it to the end of the navigation at five in the morning, my commander declared that—surprise!—an unexpected ascent (and descent) of the mountain had been added to the exercise. The early morning view from the summit of one of Israel’s most iconic peaks almost made the extra climb worth the effort. Almost, but not quite.

Mount Tabor, aka the hump of the Galilee.

Climbing Mount Tabor came as a surprise to me and my fellow soldiers. The following night, however, was a surprise to everyone, commanders included. An early downpour chewed up the fields, leaving miles of mud to navigate. My commanders never made it to a scheduled midway meeting point in their off-road vehicle. In the trenches the going was no easier. The mud clung to my boots, doubling their size, tripling their weight and making every step akin to keeping afloat with cement bricks tied to my ankles. The only non-surprise of the night was that no one made it to the end on time. My partner and I were one of the first to arrive, a full hour after the deadline. While we did not make it on time, we did get to enjoy a breathtaking view of the dawn light rising over local minarets and the distant height of Mount Tabor.

A random picture I found online. My view was much more impressive.

The final navigation of the week was more of the same: valleys and hills all caked together in endless layers of mud. My commander warned that no one was to arrive late to the finish-line. With only minutes to spare and the end in sight, I was forced to pause for a very inconvenient yet even more necessary bathroom break. The only facilities, of course, were a few smooth stones and endless quantities of mud. After taking care of business, a mad sprint got me to the finish with less than a minute to spare. Finally, I thought as I washed my hands on the bus, a chance to nod off on the long ride back to base. My hands were still covered in soap when the bus came to an unwelcome stop. A quick glance revealed that we were at the base of Mount Barkan, one of the highest peaks in northern Israel.

“Five minutes,” my officer bellowed, “everyone in full gear, two stretchers in the air.”

For two hours my squad wrestled our way up the mountain. Mud and gravity conspired to make the journey frightful. Yet nothing could stop eighteen young men, now fully mudded soldiers, from putting this week to rest.

A Tank for Silvester

A tank, he said. If I was in charge of this country, my exuberant host on New Year’s Eve declared, I would give you a tank to drive home every weekend. Can you imagine, he continued, waving his hands at his brood of Kurdish children, this young man left his home, his family, everything he knows to come defend our country. You, he turned to me, deserve nothing less than a tank.

2010, my year as a soldier, concluded with a mix of the surreal, romantic and tedious -— exactly the ingredients that define my army service. The New Year passed with me in green, having volunteered for the weekend sentry assignment so my non-religious peers could enjoy the year end festivities. The guys on my squad were overjoyed and even surprised at my willingness to stay on base —- New Year's, known as Silvester in Israel (see below for why) is the party night of the year. Soldiers, and Israeli partygoers of all ages, could care less about the Catholic saint or the pogroms that historically marked the start of the European calendar. Silvester in Israel is about booze, dance clubs and, for the young men and women serving their mandatory two to three year’s service, a reminder that they are one year closer to finishing the military.

While my peers were out barhopping, I was looking for my own source of salvation. Rumor had it that the largely Sfardi town outside my base was home to a hospitable Habad rabbi. Finding his shul meant inspired prayers and a warm Shabbat meal. So after wrapping up a dreary guard shift I slipped off to town to find the rumored rebbe. Asking local residents proved hilariously unsuccessful. The Moroccan and Kurdish Jews I spoke with were as surprised as me to hear that someone with the outrageously Polish name of Reb Shmerling even lived in town.

After failing to gather any information from a car of glammed up Syrian girls and an old Tunisian couple who came to the door in matching bathrobes and lit Cubans, I was ready to admit defeat. My Lubavitch rebbe, I concluded sadly, was nothing more than a heady promise. As my feet turned towards base, a fluorescent glass sphere in the distance convinced me to keep exploring. The sphere turned out to be a Sfardi synagogue. And my decision to go in turned out to be the ticket to Shabbat dinner by a lively Kurdish family.

Hours later I was back on base, counting down to midnight. The New Year was far from my thoughts. 2011 meant wrapping up guard duty, setting aside my gun for some much desired rest.


New Year’s Eve, and all the drunken parties that take place come nightfall, is called Silvester in Israel. Why?

The answer lies in Israel’s Ashkenazi, and by extension European, roots. December 31 is the yarzheit (anniversary of a person’s death) and saint-day of Sylvester, a Catholic pope and saint from the fourth century. So the last day of the calendar year was traditionally known as Silvester in many European countries and, by extension, European languages. Since Germans refer to New Year’s Eve as Silvester, Yiddish (Hebraized German and the mother tongue of most European Jews before the Holocaust) follows suit. And since the Jews who built Israel were by and large native Yiddish speakers, my guess is that Silvester entered Israeli lingua franca through the mamaloshen.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Once Again, Delayed Expectations

I failed miserably in my aborted attempt to bring my blog up to speed this week. Dozens of stories await to be told. January 2011 was my most difficult period in the IDF and without explaining why, little of what I have written over the last year and a half can really be understood. So stay tuned for a small flood of updates from this past month, to be posted to this space as time allows.