Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Closing the Circle, Wedding Remix

With joy and tears this story has come full circle, closing as it began with weddings that provide the most idyllic of departing memories.

Two years ago my older brother got married. Within a week of his wedding I was off to Israel on aliyah, my feet and hands still tingling from dancing with my family and composing a letter to explain why I was heading so far from home to build a new life and join the military. My first day in Israel felt like a second wedding, with dancing and speeches greeting me as I descended from the plane and formal paperwork awaiting my signature to confirm my new status as a citizen of the state of Israel.

Two months later I met the fifteen lone soldiers that would become my garin, brothers and sisters in building the intimate community that would see us through the duration of our lives as soldiers. On arriving at our new kibbutz home, we were of course promptly invited to a local wedding. That wedding was our communal baptism of sorts. Dancing and feasting together, joy and sweat tying the knots that would bind our garin with each other and with the kibbutz over the next two years. Had I known my adopted kibbutz family at the time, I would have understood that the way in which they opened their home (as the yichud room!) to the young bride and groom was an experience I would come to treasure for myself.

And then I joined the army, an exclusive relationship whose demands often seemed reminiscent of the less appealing sides of married life. While I was in the military there were many weddings I missed as I sweated out lonely nights running and gunning in the southern deserts and the northern hills. Yet even as I skipped weekends back on kibbutz, my garin grew ever closer.

Two garin members in particular became very close, to the point that when I finally made it to kibbutz I became the last one to realize that two members of our garin were forming a relationship whose path would continue far beyond our service in the army.

Two weeks ago my garin concluded our lives as soldiers. No longer a community of lone soldiers, each of us was left scrambling to make a new life in a country that seemed far too strange for the place we had been living in for two years. One by one we made plans to move off kibbutz, some to start college, others yeshiva and a few plucky fellas off to India. Two members of our garin had another idea however. Their love had deepened, and before the garin dispersed they wanted our help in celebrating the new life they had decided to build together.

Tonight, under a chuppah bound by a cloudless sky across the valley from our kibbutz, my garin's two brightest stars became as one. My garin stood by and cried, smiles splashed across our faces as the young bride and beaming groom enlisted in an adventure far grander than any of us had imagined when we came on aliyah, moved to the kibbutz, formed a community and joined the army. The bride and groom represent all that is best about the last two years. Both came to Israel bound by an old-fashioned Zionism, a commitment to explore their growing religious faith while putting their lives on the line for the country. Neither spoke much Hebrew. Neither was an obvious candidate to excel in the army. Yet more than anyone else in our garin, the bride and groom excelled, each of them repeatedly earning acclaim from their peers and superiors. As their Hebrew improved their values never slackened. Not only did they persevere through more than their fair share of military frustrations but the secret weapons they relied upon to do so - laughter and an understated resolve- was always shared in generous supply when the rest of us were facing our own challenges.

Tonight they are married. Beginning the next chapter in a story far more intriguing than anything you may have read through this open journal over the last two years.

As they placed rings on their fingers and shattered the glass there was no reason to restrain the tears of joy I hope to always remember when I reflect on the last two trying years of my life.

The story has come full circle.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Released from the Game

On my final day in uniform, I stole, blackmailed, counterfeited, broke & entered, and otherwise made a mockery of the moral highroad I sought to champion when joining the army. Are the past two years of amoral alienation at fault, or can I pin the blame on endless screenings of The Wire over my last month in green?

I arrived at my brigade's home base near Netanya knowing that getting discharged would not be easy. Every time a soldier's status changes, no matter if the cause is six months of sick leave or six days of specialized training, he must complete exit paperwork known as tofes tiyulim. On paper, that means getting a dozen or so military offices (like medical, armory, logistics) to sign off that you have returned all the gear you were assigned and are no longer their headache. In practice, gathering these signatures is a mega headache, as most of the offices cause problems that make the signature merry-go-round more like a roller coaster.

Nevertheless, when I arrived at nine AM I naively hoped I would be home by lunchtime. Seven hours later I was palming off a stolen fleece to a corrupt warehouse fluky, having previously pillaged the property of the driver whose theft of my red beret forced this last act of depraved larceny.

The warehouse official refused to grant me my final tofes tiyulim signature until I returned my red beret. Regardless of the fact that the army traditionally allows soldiers to keep this one keepsake (memorabilia aside, the army has no use for used berets), I was prepared to hand it over if it meant I could get discharged. Except I had no beret, having gone without since a cowardly driver stole mine when I left active service last month. The official had no sympathy, explaining that if I failed to give him a red beret my only option was to pay a fine for losing military gear. I was not prepared to get punished on my final day in uniform for a crime committed against me. So with less than an hour to go before the warehouse closed for the day, I began searching the entire base for a stray beret.

Twenty minutes into my search, a soldier asked me what I was doing. I have a few spare berets, he casually said when I informed him of my quarry. As overjoyed as I was to reach the end of my hunt (army culture assumes soldiers are generous in such situations), I was even more stunned when the fellow proceeded to ask me for something in exchange for one of his berets. Um, what do you want? My watch? My sandals? A get out of the army early card? You were combat, the soldier told me with the oily ease of a used car salesman. There must be gear hanging around your unit's base you could snatch for me. I could not believe that this skinny desk soldier was really asking me to steal a spare mortar piece in exchange for a bit of red fabric. My desire to be discharged overcame my disbelief, and I raced through what I could salvage from my base to trade with this rascal.

Weeks earlier, when I left my unit's base for what I believed would be the final time, I took a quick stroll through the company commander's living quarters. The man had caused me no end of unnecessary grief over the last few months, and so I was determined to leave some sort of calling card in his property. A fleece on his bed made an easy target. The absence of any onlookers made it easy to dirty the fleece beyond repair. It was not until later that my friends made me second guess my pitiful revenge, when they mocked my failure to simply nab the fleece for myself.

It was not until I stood before the man with many berets that I thanked my lucky stars for the fleece remaining on my commander's bed. The soldier before me quickly agreed to trade a beret for the fleece. For a fleece with the insignia of the Recon Paratroopers, he gushed, I will even give you two berets! As I headed back to the commander's bedroom, the absurdity of the situation forced a detour to the warehouse official waiting for my red beret. My hope that he may agree to ignore my absent beret in light of the absurd bargain I had struck was turned on its head when he proposed an alternative solution: I instead give him my commander's fleece in exchange for him marking down that I had returned a beret, signing my form and releasing me from the army. Since I wanted his signature more than the other man's beret, I agreed to the bizarre proposal. Minutes later, tofes tiyulim complete, my army ID card was sliced in half and I was declared a civilian.

This last Faustian bargain was sadly par for my last day teeing off in uniform. Besides a beret, I was missing a jacket and goggles. It did not matter that I had never been issued the former and had previously returned the latter. If I wanted out, I needed to come up with both items. So I called a friend from my squad, now serving as the sergeant for a squad of trainees. His priceless advice was to root through his soldiers' gear and take what I needed. You are a great friend and a horrible commander, I told him as I followed his advice and soon found what I needed. I did not feel too bad, as every soldier knows in the army there are no thieves, everyone is just getting his stuff back. There also is a long established tradition in the IDF of paying debt forward, with new conscripts giving more veteran soldiers the gear they need in order to complete their release from the army. Of course this means that the army does not have as many jackets and goggles (and guns and...?) as it thinks it does (see the definition of chaf'shash in the tash dictionary).

In between hunting down signatures and missing gear, I was determined to leave the army having at least tried to reclaim the pins that were stolen along with my beret. The drivers that had carried out the vile crime were not on base. But their stuff was. After breaking into their room through a window, I rifled through bags and bedsheets looking for what was mine. The bitterness I had stomached for the last few months, instigated by the way certain commanders had treated me and crowned by the theft of my pins and beret, came out as I fruitlessly looked for my stolen pins. I really do not know which driver nabbed my belongings. But I do know that as I threw one driver's bag on the roof of the building (I am truly curious how long it will stay there-months? years?) and pocketed another's military pin, I was tapping an inner rage I barely recognize.

It is probably for the best that the drivers were absent. When I arrived home, one of the drivers called and asked for his pin back. It was easy to play coy, neither admit nor deny having his pin, and explain that I was prepared to help him as he would help me. He blustered, he threatened and eventually I hung up. For the first time in many months, I was in control. But I did not feel good in rubbing the driver's crime in his face. I just felt dirty.

Two years ago I enlisted with some vague sense that I could be an inspired moral force in the army of the Jewish state. As a college educated, liberally minded, deeply Zionist, believing Jew, I hoped my values would leave an impact on eighteen year old Israeli peers impressed at the sight of an older American volunteer in their ranks. Instead, as they say on The Wire, the game is still the game. As if to cement the fact that the system gamed me, on my last day in uniform I employed every dirty trick in the book.

The way things went down with the thieving drivers really drives all this home. It is not that I believe my response to the thieving drivers was unjustified. As an matter of self-respect, of standing up for what is right, of reminding wrongdoers that there is a price for their actions, I have no concern with how I acted. The price I claimed from them was hardly just. But it was just insofar as it reflects a humble attempt to right a wrong using the rules of the only game in town.


As if yesterday's scheduling did not have enough layered irony, the release of Gilad Schalit the same day I am released from the army brings its own joyful coincidence. Today, let freedom ring!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Changing Stations by the Mount

Fireworks above, flaming letters below, stirring music and laser lights roll across the cliff-sides as forty odd glow-sticks snake their way down Israel's iconic desert fortress. Masada, linchpin of Jewish resistance in Zionist lore, is once again hosting a military commencement ceremony. In March my training culminated with a grand ascent of this desert plateau. Five months later, the young men I started my training with, in the unit I once called my own, are rushing down the mountain to conclude two long years of rigorous training.

Note: This image is not from the ceremony, as no photos taken at the ceremony can be shared in a public forum

I am not by their side. Instead I watch from the side. This morning I was officially released from the army. While I will not process my paperwork until tomorrow morning, the irony is not lost on me: The same day that would have marked the conclusion of two years of training and the start of a lifetime as a lohem in one of Israel's most lethal commando units instead marks my return to civilian life. Instead of saluting with my peers as we peer into the crowd for our proud loved ones and reflect on the past two years of training and the two years to come of military service, I am returning to familiar waters laced with electric uncertainty. Grad school, professional opportunities, where to make a home and build a life in a country that suddenly feels so very new...

My words reflect the conflicting emotions surging within me as I watch the head of the air force salute my proud peers. I am proud as well, proud for the young guys standing at the foot of Masada, for the many kilometers they have crossed, the many kilos they have carried and the many instructors they have impressed to make it here together. I have my share of regrets, knowing I had the opportunity and have the capability to be standing on the stage below. Most of all I am excited, energized as I have not been in far too long at the prospects that await now that I have completed the army and returned to a life of freedom. Whereas once I treasured the word hitga'asti 'I enlisted,' a term I associate with the young men standing before me this evening, my new favorite Hebrew word is hishtacharti 'I was discharged.'


Irony of ironies. As if it is not enough that I was scheduled to leave the army the same day that I would otherwise have finished two years of training, my path to today's ceremony included an unexpected daunting trek. Like the grueling misakem maslul (a week long loop of intense training marches and firefights) my former peers concluded last week in the Golan Heights (count on a unit formed in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War to conclude two years of training the day before Yom Kippur overlooking that war's most dramatic battlefield), I sweated and risked life and limb in order to arrive at tonight's ceremony at the foot of Masada.

My solo-march to Masada occurred when the local bus dropped me off on the wrong side of the desert fortress. In order to arrive at the right location, I had no choice but to circumnavigate Masada. Visiting hours had passed and so simply scampering up one side of the rugged plateau and descending the other was not possible. Instead I climbed up two-thirds distance and then followed the narrowest and steepest of goat paths around the mountain. When the path disappeared, I was left scampering across the cliff-face on hands and knees. When it returned, I raced to make up lost time. Fortune smiled on the whole madcap endeavor and I arrived at the site of the ceremony just in time, covered in perspiration yet delighted to see so many familiar faces and a delicious spread that no visitor enjoyed as much as me.