All the Little Things: The Land

15 Oct

Almost from my first day in the Army, I got to experience Israel in new ways that I never could have expected. While some were just extensions or magnifications of earlier experiences, others brought me into arenas that were completely new. From both a religious and less-religious perspective, becoming more in touch with the land itself, continues to represent a significant part of my army service. For example, my very first base was, and still is, located in the mountains and steep hills of the upper Galilee. Although I had been to the Galilee before, never had I had the opportunity to look out over the region from a guard post, with the lights of the sacred city of Tzfat resting just a couple of hill tops to the East.

IMG_1356[1]Southern Israel. The desert, another place that I had visited before, but had never spent any significant time, save for a couple days of hiking here or there. Most of my army service has been in the Northern Negev. When I arrived there a year ago next week everything, like it is now, was burnt by months of summer sun save for a few of the hearty desert plants which are able to extract enough moisture from the morning dew to allow for their survival. Not needing any dew were the scorpions, spiders, and snakes that can be found under the infinite rocks and boulders. Before using them, we were instructed to shake out sleeping bags, shoes, socks, gloves, and anything else that might be a good hiding place for any stinging or biting desert creature. One of the many pleasures that army life provides.

Eventually the rains arrived, modest as they were, and washed out some of the bugs. There was that huge freak storm in December which brought snow to other parts of the country. Inside our tents, it also rained, for which I had much less appreciation than watching the desert attempt to absorb the fat raindrops that pelted the parched sand. Little by little, the desert began to bloom, new shoots sprouted out of the ground, and the hills surrounding our base took on a greenish hue. By the time we had our dreaded eleven consecutive days in the field in mid-January, there was green aplenty, and of course equal amounts of thick mud caked to our boots. Finally the camels had what to graze on, and some were so brazen as to approach the front gates of the base in the middle of the night, snorting, chewing, and thankfully, not spitting. They diligently mowed down large patches of the new grass. So there we were, in the middle of the night chasing camels away from the base, not sure I would have ever expected that.

Until now I have been mostly concerned with the ground, but the desert skies also provided an new opportunity. Certainly well documented is the fact that the Jewish calendar is based, at least in part, on the cycle of the Moon. And while I had gazed at the moon in the past, never have I spent a year monitoring so closely the Moon and the stars surrounding. Thanks to the army, I was also able to use those same starts as extraterrestrial landmarks for rudimentary navigation. Whether it was some of the seemingly torturous military activities or just a good opportunity, I found myself using the moon to mark the passage of time, from one month, one holiday, and even one night to the next. When my watch was taken away during the aforementioned dreaded days in the field, using the sun and moon to mark the times of day and night proved to be extremely helpful, and even comforting. I imagined what it must have been like for Jews at varying points in history to use these solar and lunar demarcations while traveling to Jerusalem before pilgrimage festivals. Furthermore, the changing of the seasons from late fall to winter, spring, summer, and back again, as indicated by the hour of sunrise and sunset continues to draw my interest. One day on guard duty, I built a rudimentary sundial to mark the passage of that guard shift,

Although it represents a relatively small fraction of my service at this point, my time in the Galilee and Golan Heights has brought new perspectives as well, even as the sun and moon remain constants. I traded the sand for rich black soil, which when wet forms an extremely squishy mud that is much more difficult to remove from my boots than that of the desert, imagine library paste with a touch of cow manure. As the rains are just now beginning, the shadows created by the high clouds are magnificent. The holes in the clouds allow the sun to break through casting bright splotches of sunlight on the top of the Hermon or surrounding hills, while leaving us in the sometimes chilly shade. Rain in one place, sun visible just a few hundred meters to the North or South. Rainbows. Hot and sometimes a little steamy during the day, windy and fairly chilly at night, the dramatic shift requires a quick donning of a fleece jacket.

I suppose that any experienced hiker has made similar observations, although the hiker is not simultaneously charged with defending the land that he or she is traversing. Perhaps, after committing all of these thoughts to writing, that is the significance of all the little things that have made up my service to this point. While I could continue almost indefinitely with anecdotes and details, I think that the point has been made. The army brought me, and continues to bring me face to face, sometimes literally, with the land that I have sworn to protect, even with all of its thorns and rocks. And there, in all the little things, lies the beauty.

Roller Coasters

6 May

Over the last two days the State of Israel has endured, as it does annually, a roller coaster of emotion. Setting aside an entire day to mourn, recall, and reflect on the sacrifices on which The State stands. Followed immediately by unparalleled revelry and celebrations of survival and appreciation of the independence of a vibrant and thriving Israel is never easy, but always meaningful. This particular cycle was especially powerful personally, as it was my first while serving in the army. The Nahal brigade has been adopted by the City of Jerusalem, and as such we were selected to participate in a number of ceremonies throughout the city.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to be in the honor guard in three ceremonies. We drilled all day Sunday in the heat, practicing maneuvers that would become part of the ceremony that evening and the next day. Late in the afternoon, the mood began to shift as the sun neared the horizon. Despite the personal discomfort from the repeated rehearsals, I began to recognize that the role that I was playing in the ceremony was extremely important to the community members who would be attending. Finally we marched in and assumed our positions. Seconds before the siren, we stood at attention. With the first wail of the siren, those assembled instantly mirrored us, standing at attention. From that point on, I stopped attempting to maintain a steely stare, and began looking at faces. Each set of eyes stared back, sharing pain and appreciation for the other. As the ceremony progressed and my knees grew weaker, I noticed the children. As I gazed out over them, all I could hope was that they would never have to stand where I was standing. Tears

Two more ceremonies on Monday. The first was the Jerusalem municipal ceremony next to city hall. Standing on the stage behind Mayor Barkat looking out at the large plaza, assembled soldiers with whom I serve, and Israeli flags flying at half mast, I was overcome with emotion. The Army cantor intoned the memorial prayer and tears flowed from my eyes. As he reached the words, “soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces,” a chill went down my spine. Wrapped in my own thoughts, I maintained a stoic face even as those tears continued. What was I doing there? An immigrant, a soldier without immediate family in the country, knowingly putting myself in danger for a state where I was not born. Honoring the sacrifice of the soldiers before me whose lives were lain upon the alter of the State of Israel, whose lives allow me to live in a thriving Israel, that is what I was doing. The final ceremony was significantly smaller, and equally more personal. Once concluded a woman approached us, asked us to keep her safe, and to tell us that she is praying for our safe return to our families. Tears.

I concluded the day with a trip to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem. Despite the heat, I rolled down my sleeves and put on my beret. I knew that I needed this experience for me, I had helped others in honoring the fallen, and I needed to do the same. As I passed grave after grave, I read names, ages, places of birth and death. Each one became extremely personal. Each soldier has a story, a family, a personality, he is not just a headstone with a name and an army identification number.  All of the young men with whom I serve have a story, a family, and a personality, they are much more than an army identification number, how would I, if necessary memorialized them? I then began to consider how I would want to be remembered should something, God forbid, happen to me. What stories would I want told? Who would tell them? Tears.

Last evening, after returning from Har Herzl and removing my uniform, I attended a celebratory t’fillat arvit (evening service) before taking to the streets of Jerusalem. A day of delicious food, friends, and relaxation was the prefect way to celebrate. Thus concludes this forty-eight hour roller coaster ride. The sheer contrast of emotions leads me, and I imagine greater Israel, to appreciate the State, the price necessary for it to exist, as well as the effort needed to make it perfect.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers