Friday, June 15, 2012

תן ראבק, הכל בראש

It occurred to me a little while ago that I never put any kind of formal, concluding cap here on my experiences in Israel - but then I thought right away that maybe that's for the better, because in a way it seems all the more fitting.  There's no way, not a chance I could ever wrap my time in Israel into a box and put it away on a shelf for safekeeping; there's no way I could ever take it down, dust it off, and open it up for a dose of nostalgia - because I'd never, no matter how deliberately I tried, be able to separate myself from this experience and everything it has done to and for me.  I was honorably discharged from the IDF nearly six months ago, but in the most important ways, I know I'll never (nor could I ever) let go.

 So as a sort of quasi-epilogue, I want to share news of my next big chapter: I was admitted yesterday to Harvard Law School, and will be headed there in the fall  - and of course, carrying with me everything the army has taught me, as well as all of the questions it posed and then left unanswered.  One of those questions is the one I focused on in the essay I wrote for my law school application.  And because those questions still present themselves to me on a daily basis, I cannot imagine a more fitting way for me (even six months late) to conclude the blog than by sharing it below.

My most sincere and warmest thanks to all of you who read the blog; I don't think I could express how much of a source of strength you all were during the most challenging, most trying, and above all the most personally meaningful period of my life.







It had been a brief but restful furlough at home, and I was now ready to return to base.  My rifle hung squarely across my back, my chest pins were in place, my beret rested neatly upon my shoulder, and my boots shined a deep polished red. I straightened my collar, gave a glance at the mirror, and headed for the door. After nearly a year of living in this uniform, it feels like a second skin. But its stiff fabric still weighs heavily on my shoulders – it is like a costume with an identity and a life all its own, and the moment I pull the shirt across my shoulders I feel its transformative effect. To don the uniform is not merely to wear it; it is to animate it, to embody it, and to become the face of what it represents. Some look upon the costume and see a superhero suit, while some see a devil's outfit. I know it is neither. It is something far more complicated, but I am still not quite sure what.

My path to the bus stop brought me past a children's playground and the bomb shelter constructed to neighbor it. As I walked by, children halted in their tracks and stared, mesmerized by the sharp uniform, by the sway of the rifle on my back. Excited shouts of "Look! A soldier!" followed me as I passed the playground. In moments like these, I feel thirty feet tall, and need only look at the children, the bomb shelter, and the path in front of me for my chest to swell with pride and renewed purpose.

One month later, I received another short furlough, and donned the same uniform in preparation to travel home from the base. At the transit station, I climbed wearily onto the already-rumbling public bus, and the driver glanced at my military ID and nodded me toward the back of the bus. I settled into the last open window seat, happy to find a place to rest my head, and let my heavy eyelids close as the bus pulled onto the street. I might have made it the full ninety minutes from Tel Aviv to Be'er Sheva without opening them, had I not sensed the boy walk up to me at the very next stop. A small Arab boy stood in the aisle, and as he looked at me intently I noticed there was only one seat left on the bus, next to mine. But the boy stood still, his eyes drifting from the empty seat to the polished M4A1 carbine resting on my lap, then settling heavily on my own eyes. The boy was fragile and young, but his eyes were old, and despite my fatigue I found myself sharply and uneasily awake in their grip. I wanted to welcome him to the seat, to reassure him, but the only four Arabic words I was ever taught in the army are "Stop or I'll shoot." So I sat in strained silence and instead invited him with an anxious smile, but the boy never moved, and his eyes never left mine.

My time in the army has exposed my eyes to many things they would never have otherwise witnessed. They have regularly encountered scenes of tension, of hatred, of desperation, of violence – yet among them all, the images that remain most boldly engraved in my mind are those that scream silently, striking in their simplicity: a group of children gazing admiringly from the jungle gym, or a wide-eyed, skinny boy in a frayed shirt, standing defiantly across the bus aisle. In a parallel fashion, the training I have undergone has prepared me for brutal conditions in the field, for lengthy and lonely deployments, and even for war, but it could never prepare me for the towering emotional force of moments like these. I have been trained to march, to crawl, and to scale walls in my combat boots, but I am still teaching myself to walk in them. This is the challenge I face daily: to embrace the burden of wearing the uniform, to reconcile the veritable identity crisis it often presents, and at day's end to shed my alter ego satisfied that I have represented him faithfully and humbly. It is one that I must confront not as a trained soldier, but as a conscientious human being – and that makes it the most difficult of all.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

בסוף, מתרגלים להכל

On my kibbutz there is a large and colorful central playground, with children running around it, swooping down slides and dangling from monkey bars any time of day you might walk by.  Really, it's just like any other playground, and these kids play just like any others their age would, except that now and then their games of tag are interrupted by a piercing automated alarm that tells them missiles or mortar rounds have been launched across the Gazan border in the direction of the kibbutz.  The children respond straight away, sprinting into the safety of the concrete bomb shelter adjacent to the playground - and after the shells have landed, emerge from the shelter and resume their game where they left off.

The first time I observed this procedure, I was shocked by the extent to which it seemed like just that: a procedure, a programmed response, a routine, rather than a frightening, traumatic event.  And I found myself wondering whether these little kids truly grasped the totality of it.  If in my kindergarten classes we had learned missile drills in addition to fire and earthquake drills, I wasn't sure whether I'd have had the capacity to distinguish between what they actually represented - whether, beyond the trained "stop, drop, and roll" fire response and the "run to the shelter" missile response, I would manage to internalize and grasp a larger distinction between the two threats.  This is the reality into which these children were born, and their run to the shelter seemed just as fluid and natural as the game of tag it interrupted.  Did these children really understand what it was they were running from?

The question stayed with me for a while.  I never had a clear answer to it until the day that, out of simple curiosity, I wandered past the playground into the shelter, and found a bright, beautiful mural running along the length of the interior wall.  Painted messily and with broad, childish strokes, the mural depicted a brilliant sun, and underneath its neon yellow rays a large circle of children of different colors, all holding hands.  I was dumbstruck, and quickly found tears streaming down my cheeks.  I stood frozen in the shelter, hearing the children's faint laughter from outside ringing against its walls, while taking in the mural's every detail, somehow too enchanted to tear myself away from it.

Any doubt that I had over these young kids' capacity to understand was extinguished that day, and the image of that mural has never eased its grip on my mind.  I thought about that mural while interacting with restless Arab children in the West Bank.  I thought about the mural during reconnaissance missions on the Gazan border.  And I thought perhaps most vividly about the mural a few days ago, when I officially was honorably discharged from the army.

I'd known for quite a while that, soon enough, the day would come when I'd say goodbye to fellow soldiers who were still waking up the next morning to load their weapons for patrols, when I'd walk away from a base still encircled in concrete bunkers and barbed wire, when I'd leave a kibbutz still living under the heavy shadow of terrorist missile strikes.  And it was difficult to accept - it was a strangely empty feeling.

The truth is, a few days after being discharged from the IDF, I'm still not so sure how it feels.  But one thing that I do know certainly helps.  In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned that in the army I've learned a lot about love - I was referring partly to the unique brotherly love that soldiers have for each other, but even more so, to the overwhelmingly fierce love that they have for their country.  It's a love that's so inspiring as to be infectious, that still quickens my heart's beat a little every time I see our flag.  In the army, I have been privileged to meet, and then to come to know as brothers, people so genuine and so noble in their love for Israel and their call to protect it that I felt it as the honor of my life to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

As I close this chapter and give up my post in a country still under siege, all of that is what's most comforting to me.  My rifle may already be in a new pair of hands, but it's a pretty sure bet that they're a damn good pair of hands.

There was no reason to expect it to be easy to hang up the boots.  And while it's safe to say that I'm not sure quite what I feel, if nothing else I know to feel blessed - blessed to have had the opportunity, to have carved in my own little piece in the story, and to have been counted among the defenders of the bravest little nation in the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

גם אם יפלו השמיים

I probably owe at least half an apology to those of you who were forced to stumble through my last entry with a butchered online translation.  After learning recently that some of my squadmates follow the blog, I decided to write a letter to them here.  And of course, despite the fact that many of them have good English, it definitely wouldn't have sounded right that way.

In a service full of unpleasant and difficult but ultimately deeply rewarding experiences, one of the most prominent among them was the forced rapid development of conversational skill in Hebrew, a language I'd never spoken prior to arriving in Israel last year.  Basic training was, for me, largely an extended exercise in being screamed at all day in a language I was only beginning to learn, a reality that (especially in unison with my early foot injury) made daily life almost comically difficult but also facilitated rapid Hebrew improvement through the combination of constant exposure and sheer necessity.

Today, I treasure my Hebrew.  I'm proud of it because I learned it the hard way, and I cherish it deeply both for the profound significance it has in my own story and the special beauty I find in the words of the language itself.  I find that Hebrew is a very naturally charged language, that the language has a certain quality of rawness and vividness that animates its words, and lends itself particularly well to visceral expression of emotions.  And I've found that as my skill in Hebrew improves, there are an increasing number of concepts and emotions I feel better equipped to express in Hebrew than in English.


Now, though, I'm going to take off my linguist's hat and instead illustrate things more simply, by means of a beautiful piece of music, my very favorite Israeli song and one that I'll always strongly associate with my time in the army.  I fell in love with this song early in my time in Israel - well before I had any idea what it meant - and it was my lullaby on many a long desert bus ride home from the base.  I don't recall at any point making a conscious effort to translate the song, only a realization somewhere along the way that I understood the words, and a deeper appreciation for a song that grew that much more beautiful as a result.

"Shoshanim Atzuvot" ("Forlorn Roses"), by Idan Raichel, tells the story of a woman abandoned by her lover.  It is radiant in the vividness of its story and the simplicity of its lyrics, and I find in it a rare, stirring beauty that has a way of lingering and haunting long after the song's end.  I wanted to share the song here for two reasons: first, because I associate it so strongly with my time here and it feels like an essential part of my army story, and second, because its lyrics are a powerful illustration of the capacity for emotional force in simple Hebrew words.

Please follow the link below (coincidentally, the best audio version I was able to find on YouTube is a Spanish translation).  I realize something will be lost in translation, but I've provided the lyrics in English below.  If you enjoy the song, look into more of Idan Raichel's music; he's extraordinarily talented.

Shoshanim Atzuvot

שם בהרים שמעל הכפר שלנו
יש שם גן של שושנים
מחר אצא לי השכם בבוקר
עם ציוץ הציפורים
אביא לאהובי משם פרח
משדה האדומים
אדע, אני שלו והוא שלי לעולמים.

ירדתי מההר לכפר שלנו
בשערי שושנים
אך אהובי לא בבית
שקט בין החדרים
שם בנהר שליד הכפר שלנו
אהובי בלילה לא חזר
מצא לו אהובה אחרת וליבי נשבר.

לא, אלוהים תעשה שיבוא
מחכה ביום ובלילה
לא, אין לי כח שעוד יום יבוא
שושנים עצובות, והוא לא פה.


Over in the mountains above our village
There is a garden of roses
Tomorrow I will arise early in the morning
With the chirping of the birds
And will bring to my beloved a flower from there,
From the field of red roses,
And I will know that I am his, and he is mine until eternity.


I came down from the mountain to our village
With roses in my hair,
But my beloved was not at home
Silence between the rooms.
There, at the river by our village
By night my beloved did not return
He found another love, and my heart has broken.


No, Lord, make him come back to me
I wait by day and by night
No, I do not have strength for another day to come
My roses are forlorn, and he is no longer here.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bros Before Hoes, NCOs, and Furloughs

זה ייכתב בשביל אחיי בצבא, שהיה לי הכבוד של החיים שלי לשרת איתם. מי שלא היה איתי בצבא הוא עדיין מוזמן לנסות לקרוא, כל עוד שהוא יידע שהוא כנראה לא יבין.


בואו נגיד שנייה שהייתי אומר לכם שאני כבר מתגעגע לחרא הזה.  הייתם מאמינים לי? הייתם מאמינים שאני מתגעגע לשמירות, למנות קרב, ל 17-4?


אני מניח שהייתם עונים לי שאני סתם דפוק, שהייתם אומרים לי פשוט לטוס בחזרה כבר לחוף בקליפורניה בלי להסתכל אחורה, בלי לחשוב שוב על מארבים או מסדרי בוקר בחיים.


ואני אז הייתי מצטרך להסביר לכם שהעניין הוא לא כזה פשוט, שאני אף פעם לא אהבתי לסבול סתם בצבא - אך שהדבר שתמיד אהבתי היה לסבול ביחד איתכם, ושאני רק עכשיו, בהסתכלות לאחור, מתחיל להבין בדיוק באיזה רמות אהבתי את זה, אפילו בלי לשים לב בתוך הרגע עצמו.


לפני שהגעתי לצבא, הייתי בונה חיבורים עם חברים בעיקר דרך חוויות שנהנינו ביחד. רק מאז שהתגייסתי לצבא התחלתי באמת להעריך את הרעיון של ידידות שנבנתה דרך חוויות שסובלים ביחד, ואין מה להשוות בניהם. שני אנשים שבנו את ידידותם דרך דם וזיעה מכירים ומעריכים אחד את השני ברמות ששני ידידים שפגשו במסיבה ושותים בירות ביחד בחיים לא יצליחו להתקרב אליהן.


אחרי שהייתי מתחיל להסביר לכם פחות או יותר ככה, אולי אז הייתם מתחילים להבין איך זה בכלל אפשרי שפתאום אני מתגעגע לצבא - זה פחות שאני מתגעגע לצבא עצמו ויותר שאני מתגעגע לאנשים שבגללם התקופה הזאת היתה החוויה הכי נהדרת בחיים שלי.


בקיצור, העיקר כאן הוא להגיד לכם תודה על הכל, לא רק שחיפיתם עליי בשטח, אבל בחשיבות עוד יותר גבוהה, שתוך כדי זה וכל השאר החרא שעברנו ביחד, הספקתם גם להראות לי מציאות אחרת, אחווה כזאת, שאי אפשר לגלות בשום דרך אחרת. תודה על האחווה שבנינו ביחד, שתישאר איתי, ותחזק אותי לכל החיים.


בהמשך, אל תשכחו את החשיבות הענקית של תפקידכם - ביום יום, אני בעצמי מכיר שזה יכול לקרות ממש בקלות. כמובן, הכל יותר ברור בהסתכלות אחורה, ואני חייב להודות שאני מרגיש חוסר מסוים. החוסר הזה קשה להגדיר, אבל אני בטוח שהוא קשור לאחריות הזאת שפתאום כבר לא איתי, האחריות הכי כבדה והכי יפה שהיתה לי בחיים שלי: אחריות על החיים של אחיכם בצבא, של המשפחות שלכם בבית, של מדינת ישראל, ושל כל העם היהודי.  האחריות הזאת היא יושבת כבד על כתפיכם, על הגבים שלכם בצורת רובה, והיא נותנת משמעות עמוקה לכל צעד שאתם לוקחים. תעריכו אותה, תכבדו אותה, ותתכבדו כל בוקר שאתם קמים להתלבש במדים של חיילי צה"ל.  


ביום יום, אפשר ממש בקלות לאבד ראייה על המשמעות הגדולה יותר של תפקידכם, אבל תאמינו לי שאני כבר מקנא בכם באופן שאולי לא תבינו לגמרי עד שייצא לכם לחשוב על השירות שלכם בעבר במקום ההווה.


תהיו חזקים, חבר'ה. אני מחכה ליום שתבקרו אותי בחופים של קליפורניה - רק אז, סוף סוף, תבינו למה לא הפסקתי לדבר עליהם כל הזמן הזה. ובינתיים, שתהיו כולכם מוצלחים בכל משימה. תשמרו עלינו, תותחים שלי. אני אוהב אותכם אחד אחד.






בן

Friday, December 9, 2011

פתאום נפתח חלון בחדר חשוך

"Forty years I been asking permission to piss. I can't squeeze a drop without say-so."
  - Red, The Shawshank Redemption

I've never been in prison, but a comparison between life in the army and life in prison is nonetheless tempting.  The first question one guy invariably asks another he meets in the army is "How long you in for?"  We wear distinctive uniforms, eat distinctively mushy food and endure a distinctive lack of female company.   And perhaps most prominently, we experience a similarly distinctive disruption of normal perception of the flow of time.

I'm often asked how the time passes for me in the army: quickly, painfully slowly, or somewhere in between.  I'm never able to find a straightforward answer, and I think that's because army life so thoroughly shuts down one's connection to the outside world.  Time itself, I would say, passes slowly, but because I am oblivious to the outside world it seems as though large chunks of time pass by in it before I open my eyes to notice.

Say a prisoner is locked inside a small, well-lit room with no clocks or windows.  He sets to work on an involved and difficult task - say building a massive tower of cards - and this task consumes his attention for hours, days, and even weeks on end.  Finally, he completes his work on the tower and is released from the room, and upon emerging is struck by how much time he realizes has passed.  Yet it's not quite right to say that time passed quickly for him, because he labored tediously through each hour that passed.  Rather, he was so absorbed with his labor, and so disconnected from anything external to the immediate confines of the room, that the ongoing passage of time hardly occurred to him.

And so it's difficult for me to believe that thirteen months have passed since I joined the army.  Or I should say, it's perfectly easy for me to believe that I've pounded out thirteen months' worth of blood, sweat, sleepless nights, assault drills, guard shifts, and canned tuna, but I have this inscrutable difficulty recognizing that those same thirteen months have also passed in the world and in the lives of my friends and family at home.  Siblings have graduated and moved across the country, friends have married and started new careers, but the army and its curious little time-warp spell are making it hard on me to grasp all of it.

Really, it's just one more thing I'll need to have on my mind in preparing for the end of the year, when if all goes as planned, I'll hang up the boots and slip back into those Birkenstocks I've missed so dearly.

Three more weeks until I finish that tower of cards.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

העולם בהמתנה

I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating at this point: it's not particularly fitting for me to be a soldier.  I have a strong distaste for weapons of all kinds rather than a fascination with them.  I had never touched a gun before joining the army, and hope never to touch one again after hanging up my rifle for good at the end of the year.  I was raised to believe that the violent solution is usually the worst one - but I was not raised to support my dearest causes from an armchair, and that principle carries far more weight than my own personal distaste for violence.

In a somewhat parallel fashion, on a much larger scale, stands something I believed before coming here but am now convinced of beyond any shadow of a doubt: contrary to a regrettably common perception, Israel is not a warlike nation.  It is a nation mired from Day 1 in a constant struggle for existence - and at its core, a peace-loving nation in spite of the blinding hatred inevitably produced by that struggle.

In the past year I've learned a lot about love, but even more about hate.  Many of the thoughts and sights with which I've become familiar represent humankind at some of its ugliest, and there are times I feel crushed by the burden.  There are times I'm convinced that all this time we've come nowhere at all - mastering nature and technology but still turning to each other as infants in the sandbox fighting over toys.  Cain killed his brother with a rock; today brothers kill each other with missiles and tanks and this passes for human advancement.

There's a certain reality to which I've been exposed in the army, one that only grows uglier the more familiar it becomes to me.  And that is the reality of hate without reason, of hate that is fueled and fed so fiercely over such an extended period of time that it becomes entirely self-sustaining, at which point people continue to hate simply because that is all they know.  Hate cannot begin without reason, but hate that is sustained without reason is, I'm finding, a very real phenomenon, and one entrenched in this conflict to a far greater extent than I'd ever be able to understand without serving as a rank-and-file soldier within it.

I know I can't make a career out of going to work in a bulletproof vest every day, but the army has been one enormously instructive lesson after another.  Some of these lessons are new, but some are strikingly familiar - and the one that sits most heavily with me today is, in essence, a vivid remedial lesson on something I first learned 18 years ago on the preschool playground: when my friends skinned their knees on the asphalt, they all bled the same damn color.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

יאללה מסייעת

So, this is the new neighborhood.  The name of our region of deployment, "Kissufim," translates literally to "yearnings" or "longings," which somehow seems oddly appropriate in this tiny metal hole of a base on the Gazan border.  Our base is one of a few satellite bases around the large primary Kissufim base which will serve as the battalion's seat of operations for the duration of this deployment.  Our base has no permanent buildings other than a huge concrete bomb shelter, which doubles (triples?) as both our dining hall and briefing room.  The base lacks cooking facilities and even running water, which necessitates food and water deliveries from the main base, and our power runs on a less-than-perfectly-reliable generator.  In short, if it looks like home, feels like home, and smells like home, then it's probably precisely what I had in mind last month while sipping on that Pinot Noir.

There's one thing that I need to address quite straightforwardly here before I proceed in any form, and that's the significantly heightened security concern on a longterm deployment like this one.  Until this deployment, my company had done multiple short term, situational deployments of less than a week each.  Generally in each of these short deployments, by the time I'd return to my kibbutz to write about the deployment we'd have already concluded it, with the result that I was at much greater liberty to discuss our actions and my experiences.  This of course stands in contrast to the current scenario, in which my company will be sitting on the border for several months.

So, what this means is that despite the fact that, frankly, we're doing some pretty cool shit, I'm regrettably at very limited liberty to discuss it in a wholly public location like this one.  The blog tracks the country of origin of hits it receives, and for a while now, "Iran" and "Palestinian Territories" have been regulars on the list, so this is a concern that has been on my mind for some time, but that is now far more immediately relevant.  Loose lips sink ships, and so the above, very general description of the base is about as detailed as I'm going to be able to get.

Meanwhile, there's a big, beautiful elephant standing in the room: the return of Gilad Shalit.  If you are reading this blog, I assume you are familiar with the Shalit saga, and know that his return constitutes an absolutely epic day in Israeli history.  Consider furthermore that we are currently deployed on the Gazan border quite near the site of his abduction, and for the soldiers on my base there's ample reason for this to strike even closer to home.  On the day of his release, we crammed into our bomb shelter and massed around a small TV screen, connected to one soldier's smartphone, to watch the unfolding story of his return home.  I'd certainly never manage to capture in words the air in that room, so I'll put it simply and say: millions couldn't buy you seats like these.

Sitting in a concrete can and huddling with dozens of sweaty soldiers around a tiny screen, it was quite probably the VIP experience of my life.  Most people worldwide watched or read the story from the comfort of home.  Even most Israelis, tortured for over five years by Shalit's painful story, watched the events from their homes, but I was one of the lucky few, experiencing the day in the most fitting possible location, standing proudly on the Gazan border with my brothers in arms.  To experience an iconic international event like this, and to do so in this context, in this location, and in this company, was so moving and unforgettable that I walked out feeling like it was worth the price of admission all by itself.

כמה טוב שבאת הביתה, גלעד