Friday, August 5, 2011

Very Best Day of the Year: Civilian Avatar

August second was the very best day of the year. Having been robbed of my military ambition—prevented from deploying with my fellow combat soldiers—I was ordered to report to my new task as a garbage collector and weed cutter (avodei rasar) on the first Tuesday of August. En route to exile, however, the discouraged soldier had a chance to temporarily live the life of his civilian avatar. The biggest surprise I had in switching from soldier to civilian for a day is that it left me bouncing with positive Zionist energy. My disillusioned army self was recharged thanks to the new vistas I saw waiting for me in my future life as a civilian. A chance, even for a few hours, to engage in the sort of creative and dynamic activities that have been persona non grata in my military service had such a welcoming effect that I arrived at my sorry excuse for a final military assignment bursting with goodwill and misplaced yet appreciated enthusiasm.

This most satisfying of days began at night. Hours before I had fled the army to a friend’s apartment, looking forward to one night of freedom before reporting to my mindless new assignment on the morrow. As the final minutes of August first slipped off into the night sky, my sister and I connected on the phone for the first time in over a month. She had just returned from an extended overseas vacation, and was on the verge of starting medical school. Her anxiety and excitement at turning over a new leaf in her life was contagious. I rode the vibes from our phone conversation into an impromptu four way brainstorm session, convened at my request to discuss plans for a project we intend to spring on two close friends in the near future. When my fellow brainstormers called it a night, I kept going. The creative juices we had unleashed would not let me sleep, and so I hacked away at the ideas we had developed all through the night.

Morning’s glory brought more good news. When my friend finally awoke, he lent me a mad-cool blue shirt and sent me off toward Israel’s take on capitol hill. My business was not at the Knesset but nearby, inside the sparkling headquarters of the Joint Distribution Committee (known colloquially as the Joint, as the JDC). The Joint had asked for a meeting to discuss a project they are developing on which I have unique experience. It was refreshing to have a long and intelligent conversation for perhaps the first time in two years where my creativity and knowledge were called upon and respected.

Too soon I was heading back to the army. But the day’s delights were not over. En route to the central bus station, I overheard two female soldiers debating when to get off. After providing them with directions, it was natural to fall into conversation with one of them, especially when it turned out that all of us needed to take the same long bus ride south. It was even more natural to sit next to the girl I was speaking with, not only because she was strikingly attractive but also because she displayed an intelligence and humor well beyond her years. Most of our conversation turned on what it means to be an observant Jew. She insisted she was completely secular, having never observed Shabbat nor a single Jewish holiday. But when I explained that my Jewish faith is fueled in large part by an attachment to community, she agreed that she shares this faith as well. She in fact turned out to be a passionate advocate for Jewish customs and tradition, values that she eventually agreed suggest that she is not as divorced from Judaism as she had previously supposed. If there was one thing lacking in the previous night’s brainstorming and the morning’s discussion at the Joint, it was a really cute girl to converse with. Granted that favor at last, I boarded the final bus that would take me to my new assignment in an incredibly good mood.

All the creative juices, intelligence conversations, and cute girls over the last twenty-four hours had turned a day that could have marked the nadir of my military service into a day I hope to not soon forget. I was feeling so good that I even convinced myself that the next few weeks of demoralizing work were akin to the volunteer labor of selfless Zionists like Rahm Emanuel, who travel from halfway across the world to do manual labor in programs such as Sar-El. Except unlike those suckers who pay out of pocket to clean moldy gear and paint fences, I would be doing similar work for a wage. Two weeks of blue and white service, was how my recharged Zionist self insisted on looking at the task that lay before me.

I knew I only had two weeks with a shovel and mop in hand because I had already received a go-ahead to attend the next seven week education course on basic Judaism that is offered to all soldiers born overseas. Known as Course Nativ, the only course I could take before discharging from the army in October was the one that began on Thursday August 11. What that meant was that I had until Wednesday the tenth to receive approval from my new superiors for the same meyuhedet vacation I had unfairly been denied by my former superiors. Since the previous company commander had not granted me my requested meyuhedet on the spurious grounds that he lacked enough combat soldiers to let me leave, now there seemed no reason why my new company commander could possibly not approve the meyuhedet. If I could not seal the deal on the meyuhedet by the tenth, then I realized it was worth it to simply get the hell away from the whole battalion, abandon any hope for the meyuhedet I by right deserve, and decamp to Course Nativ for the remainder of my service.

The new company commander never raised any problems with my meyuhedet request. The problem is that he never raised anything at all in failing to meet with me (whether willfully or through plain negligence, I cannot say for sure—army rules order him to meet with me within a single week regardless) for the two weeks I was under his command. The writing was on the wall: it was well past time to put as much distance between me and the battalion as possible. So on Tuesday August 9, the morning of the Jewish fast of Tisha b’Av, I left base to complete the army paperwork that would transfer me to Course Nativ. As the military base faded off into the distance, I was sure I was seeing a forward operating base for the last time as a soldier (outside of reserves one day, of course). The Ninth of Av, a day of mourning marking the destruction of the Jewish Temples and dispersion of the people into exile, seemed to be providing a fitting coda of sorts to my military odyssey.


I had one final reason to celebrate on August 2. Three of the guys that had departed with me from our Air Force squad were starting lieutenants’ school. I felt only happiness for them, especially since two of them were again serving side by side in the same squad, training now to assume command and lead the future young soldiers of the IDF. Mixed up in that happiness, however, was the irony that on the very same day that my peers were commencing the ten-month long lieutenants course, I was starting my own new assignment as a garbage collector and weed cutter. How it came to pass that I ended up here, and they made it there, is a question that lingers as I grit my teeth and look towards finishing the last few meaningless weeks of my military service.

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