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.

 

Embarrassed Hero

13 Apr

Soldiers in the IDF are brothers, sons, husbands, daughters, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, and any other conceivable relationship. As a result soldiers hold a special place in the hearts of the public. Greeted with open arms, given vouchers for shoes, discounts on felafel, idolized by tourists and little boys. I am not entirely comfortable with the attention, and aside from the first week in uniform, I generally do not think about my role as “hero” or “role model” when I am traveling from place to place in uniform. Usually my focus is on arriving home from base to begin laundry, or returning to base to begin the next couple weeks of training. Over the past two weeks, a number of small moments made me reconsider and appreciate my current place in Israeli society, even as I am embarrassed when they happen.

Two weeks ago, I stopped in the market on my way home from base, even though I was not looking for anything in particular, I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere of Jerusalem in the hours before Shabbat. Ignoring the aching shoulders from my bag of laundry, I stopped at a fruit stand to admire some of the incredible colors that this vendor had displayed. He gave me an orange. I told him that I was just looking, and I had no intention of buying. He said not to worry, and filled a bag of fruit for me. I did not like the idea of taking fruit from a vendor for whom this is his means of earning a living. He told me it was a gift of thanks. Knowing he would be insulted, I took the bag. He blessed me, my family, and my fellow soldiers, while tourists looked on and photographed.

My unit and I had a tour of Jerusalem and Latrun recently. So as we toured those two locations, we were the subjects of candid and posed photographs. While we were waiting for our buses, an Israeli school group passed by. One asked me how I felt to be a soldier, others asked me if I get scared or if I am always brave, and a third asked if I had ever killed anybody. Between the questions and among the screeching of nine year old girls, I spotted one boy off on his own. I went to talk to him, put my beret on his head, he puffed out his chest and saluted. He wanted to keep my beret, which had I had a spare, would happily have given to him. Shaking off my embarrassment, I realized how much this little gesture meant to him, he told me how excited he is to become a soldier. The next day at Latrun, which features a large display of tanks onto which visitors are welcome to climb, it happened again. Although I have been there a number of times, I never can resist the temptation to climb on top of these massive war machines. I grabbed a buddy and we started to climb. On the tank next to ours was an Israeli family of five. The two boys stopped to watch us, they asked their mother if she would request a picture with us. Of course we obliged, the boys were delighted, the parents thanked us, and we, besides some giggles, hardly gave it a second thought.

These three interactions highlighted for me the importance of my role as a soldier to the citizens I protect. My discomfort with the attention remains, but in the last several weeks I have tried to be more aware of how I am presenting myself to others when in uniform. Whether or not they are looking to me for an example I will never be sure, and I would prefer that they look elsewhere, but just in case I try to go above and beyond when asked for directions or a photo opportunity. One of the values of the IDF is that of being an emissary, so no matter my discomfort as the subject of photos and blessings, I hope to remain conscious of the fact that the wearers of green play a critical and multifaceted role in the State of Israel, even if it makes me blush.

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