Saturday, May 28, 2011

Visiting Esther on Har Herzl

Winding my way past the sullen stone slabs and twisting tree trunks on Har Herzl, Israel’s Arlington Cemetery, I searched for a headstone that explains why on the eve of my twenty-sixth birthday I am, gun in hand, dressed in the uniform of a soldier of the Israel Defense Force. Four days ago, on Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day, this hill was overrun with the families and friends of the fallen, come to honor the final sacrifice of their loved ones. I had spent the better part of the day on duty at Ammunition Hill, another landmark to Israel’s fallen in this city of troubled memories. And so when my weekend leave arrived, unfinished business drew me to the stilled ranks atop Har Herzl. A young lady was waiting. Her last words echoed in my mind as I slowly made my way to her final resting place.

Dear mummy and daddy,

I am writing to beg you that whatever may have happened to me, you will make the effort to take it in the spirit I want. We had a difficult fight. I have tasted hell but it has been worthwhile because I am convinced the end will see a Jewish state and all our longings… I want you to remember that we were soldiers and had the greatest and noblest cause to fight for… I have lived my life fully, and very sweet it has been to be here in our land… I hope one day soon you will all come and enjoy the fruits of that for which we are fighting. Be happy and remember me only in happiness.


I discovered Esther Cailingold’s last letter to her parents as a small child. Buried in the pages of O Jerusalem, a dramatic nonfictional account of the fight for Jerusalem in the 1948 War of Independence, Esther’s words became my reference point for Israel’s embryonic struggle for survival. Her values left an equally vivid impression. Two weeks after David Ben Gurion declared the independence of the state of Israel on Friday May 14 1948, Esther fought her final battle in the besieged Old City of Jerusalem. As retold in O Jerusalem,

Racked by a high fever, in terrible agony, Esther Cailingold lay dying this Shabbat eve on the floor of the second story of the Armenian monastery with the rest of the wounded. There was no morphine left to ease her pain, and the wounded man beside her saw one of the orderlies bend over and offer the only sedative he had, a cigarette. She lifted her hand and started to take it. Then her hand fell back.

No, she whispered, Shabbat.

Long after I moved onto other accounts of the 1948 war, I remained attached to the sprightly twenty-two year old English girl whose passion and commitment to her people sustained her right through her final sacrifice. In contrast to well known figures like Hanna Senesh and David ‘Mickey’ Marcus, Esther fell under the radar. My admiration was strengthened by the belief that Esther was a heroine of 1948 I alone treasured.

Or so I thought.* Several months ago, I stumbled across Esther a second time. The Prime Ministers, a newly published political memoir by retired Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner, is devoted to insightful and humorous asides about four of Israel’s most prominent leaders. Except for one chapter, modestly titled Esther, whose pages share the lifelong impression a young English girl had on the author in Jerusalem in 1948. Avner was gracious enough to counsel me several years ago when I wrote to him with questions about pursuing a career in Israeli diplomacy. Discovering his connection (Avner’s relationship with Esther extends past 1948: he later married Esther’s sister) with one of my Zionist role models seemed reason enough to write to him again. Until I discovered that even closer connections to Esther lay at my doorstep.

Despite calling Tirat Zvi home for nearly two years, most of the locals remain strangers. So I was surprised when dropping Esther’s story to a friend on kibbutz resulted in discovering that Esther’s nephew lives on the kibbutz and her elderly brother resides a few blocks from my home away from home in Jerusalem (Asher, her brother, recently published a book about his sister entitled Unlikely Heroine: Esther Cailingold's Fight for Jerusalem). In seconds my Esther, safely ensconced in the mythical realm we build for our heroes, was revealed as a real person. With living family and friends who can talk with me about the challenges faced by the modern state just as they once held similar discussion with Esther.

I had always known, of course, that Esther was all too human. And that given the brief number of years that have passed since Israel’s establishment, many of her peers are alive and well. Discovering Esther’s family, however, bought into sharp relief that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of living Esthers, quiet heroes of Israel’s struggle for survival whose heroism is overlooked in the casual way that we build monuments to our martyrs and forget the tales of the survivors. Esther’s untimely death brought her words to my attention, words that explain why I moved half a world away to enlist in the army of the Jewish state. Had she lived, I almost certainly would not have grown up inspired by her example. Ironically, the recent encounters with her family and friends have left me with a better appreciation for her often overlooked peers, the surviving veterans from Israel’s most demanding days.

Esther Cailingold succumbed to her wounds on May 28 1948, sixty-three years ago today. She was twenty-two years old.

* My belief that Esther's legacy was treasured by me alone could not be farther from reality. As I recently discovered, Kibbutz Lavi near the Sea of Galilee, Yeshivat HaKotel in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, and numerous other libraries and war memorials across Israel and England commemorate the young English Zionist.


I am a fairly goal centered person. Every birthday is a chance to reflect on the objectives I have reached over the past year and draw up a list for the next. One of my most fervent goals has proven difficult to drop my birthday list-making: a serious romance, with the bar for serious set pretty low the longer the goal remains unrealized.

And so I appreciate the irony that the girl I chose to spend time with the day before my birthday is buried beneath the ground. Perhaps, suggested a friend, you are looking in the wrong places. My friend is right, though the lesson Esther left me about appreciating living heroes has insight for my romantic life as well. Because heroic role models are not the only ones I have a tendency to enshrine in a mythic realm of impermeability. Somewhere in that make-believe world is the girl I am looking for, an imaginary girl that real flesh and blood have trouble living up to. Perhaps along with appreciating previously overlooked heroic grandmothers, my experience with Esther is telling me to open my heart to their granddaughters as well.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hamakor - The Beak Shirt

Without appreciating the beak, you cannot understand the pride and joy a soldier has in reaching the ranks of Orev Tzanchanim (my special-forces Paratroopers unit). The beak (in Hebrew, makor) is a distinct t-shirt, generally black in color, with two looping golden eyes and a silver beak on the backside. The eyes and beak have an dangerous yet humorous edge, suggesting this is a raven well aware of its checkered legacy in popular myth and legend.

Every unit in the army has a symbol of some kind. And every unit produces t-shirts celebrating their accomplishments. Yet few units have soldiers who say without a trace of phoniness that the only reason they chose their unit, and the thing that motivated them to persevere through the hardest bouts of training, is a t-shirt. Except Orev Tzanchanim. Except the makor t-shirt.

The makor t-shirt is said to be the best t-shirt in the IDF. Whatever the case, the shirt has its own Facebook group, a bunch of world travelers who send in photos celebrating the shirt's presence at famous sites around the globe. The highpoint of our masa aliyah was undoubtedly arriving in our rooms and finding a black makor shirt neatly folded on each soldiers' bed. We had been forbidden from owning or wearing a makor shirt until this moment. Watching everyone slip into the heralded t-shirt was the ultimate sign that we had arrived.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Arriving and Ascending as a Lohem

Following the 2006 war with Hezbollah, the Israeli army came under a storm of criticism. Besides pointed critiques of the strategic handling of the crisis, there was wide-spread anger at how unprepared the army seemed to be for the actual fighting. Many stories were told of infantry units that were marched deep into Lebanon without proper gear, food and the training to manage such arduous circumstances.

Under Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF chief who took over following the war and recently retired, many of these problems were addressed. Fitness standards were raised, new gear was purchased for the grunts, and tougher training for veteran soldiers was introduced. What this means in practice is that the refresher training each brigade undergoes every few months is now a serious affair. These months of refresher training are part of a rotation that sees three of the four infantry brigades (Paratroops, Golani, Nachal, Givati) manning the borders for a few months while the fourth trains in the Golan Heights. By chance, my team finished our formal training and "graduated" into the ranks of the Paratroops just as the brigade rotated from the Gaza border into refresher training in the Golan. What this means is that despite having just finished fourteen months of arduous training, my team's first task as combat soldiers is to train for two more months.

Our first week of post-training training was eerily reminiscent of the last weeks of our maslul. We were back in the desert foothills near Masada, carrying heavy loads over long nighttime treks. We barely slept, poor logistics saw us run out of food (so much for learning lessons from 2006!) and waiting at the end of the week was a familiar late night stretcher hike.

What made this baltam different than others is that this time there was a reason we hiked twelve kilometers carrying weighted stretchers: this stretcher hike was the Masa Aliyah, an event designed to welcome us to our new home as members of the Orev special-forces paratroopers.

As we approached our base, veteran members of the unit came looping and hollering, barely dressed in all manners of bird-like costumes (Orev, the shorthand name for our unit, is Hebrew for raven). Two rivers of fire bordered the final hundred yard dash home. When the gates of the base were finally swung open, complete pandemonium broke loose. Shaving cream, rainbow colored stick-lights and all manner of circus contraptions were set alight and thrown into the air. Dropping the stretchers, my guys joined the veteran soldiers in a tranced out, blissfully happy rave scene. We partied late into the night, dancing, sitting for a funny skit, and munching down on a sumptuous barbeque feast. It was a riotous yet lovely way to mark a week that began five days earlier with the country remembering the Holocaust and would end in a few days time with two days that honor Israel's veterans and independence (Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzamut). Today's masa aliya had a special resonance of its own. A year ago exactly, on May fifth, I completed a previous masa aliyah to the base of my former unit. Somehow it seems fitting that in this week of national memories, my own celebration recall the long path I have taken to finally find a home in the IDF.


The lack of food was not the only reason my fellow soldiers were grumbling this week. A shortage of funds means that for the foreseeable future my team will not be issued the lightweight and better quality vests and helmets worn by Israeli special forces. As my peers digested the news and came to terms with the run-of-the-mill faulty logistics, many whined that training had been better than our new setup. Behind their complaining lies the grim reality that while in training a soldier could always look forward to things getting better after the maslul, now that we have reached that sought after place and found it is just as poorly run, the only place to look forward to is finishing the army, a destination that lies nearly two years in the future for most of my peers.