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.


  1. All of your reports are very inspiring. I want to join an elite unit when I graduate from college. Your service was only 2 years?

  2. Thank you for the kind words. Your comment reminds--and inspires--me to get back and post that final few updates from my service so i can 'complete' the story here properly.
    Short answer: yes, my service was 2 years.
    Longer answer: male volunteers serve the full 3 if under 21 at enlistment, generally 2 or less if any older. Garin Tzabar requires all members to serve a minimum of 2 years. Gadsar units like Recon Paratroops formally requires the full 3 years of volunteers. Elite units like Matkal/Shaldag require between 3.5 to the full 4 years (that native israelis in these units do) from volunteers like us. In my case, I started with 2 years (from Garin Tzabar), was boosted to 4 upon enlisting in a elite unit, and when i switched to recon paratroops, i should have been required to commit to 3 but as generally is the case in the disorganized system, was never made to do so (until my last month when they tried to force me, and failed). Many other volunteers have similar exp, of serving in special forces like recon paratroops for less than the stipulated 3 years, tho by no means should a volunteer new enlistee go in presuming this will happen to him. For more:

    Send me your email and I can provide further details and answer any further questions you may have.