Thursday, May 31, 2007

Beards and Boots

The Israeli army has the responsibility of protecting the Jewish state, the only one of its kind in the world. We are surrounded by more than 20 Arab nations, and the job of protecting Israel isn't an easy one. Today, as has happened every day for the last few weeks, rockets were shot at our civilian cities. Today a young boy died of wounds he received last week in such an attack and again thousands of people went running for shelter when the "Color Red" warning siren sounded. Civilians have all of 15 seconds to run for shelter. The army is trying to defend against these attacks, but it is not a simple matter to find these launch sites.

Soon enough, Elie will be sent out to defend. For now, we are in a "safe" period, where we worry about things like sunburn, dehydration, and perhaps a training accident. Soon enough, we'll have other things on our minds.

Elie is almost finished with basic training. The good news is that he has learned that August will be spent not at the current base deep in the Negev desert, but up north, at another known artillery training camp. August in Israel consists of what seems like endless days of heat, so it will be nice to know he is in the north where it is, relatively, cooler.

In the meantime, Elie has grown a beard. Many religious men grow beards for religious reasons. The army is very considerate when it comes to matters of religion - all religions. At the ceremony where they hand each soldier a copy of the Bible, Muslim volunteers (Druze, Bedouin, for example) are handed the Koran. All food that is served on Elie's base is kosher and Elie's unit, which consists mainly of religious soldiers actually gets the "super" kosher (glatt) food that most would normally eat at home.

During basic training, soldiers must shave every day - unless they are not shaving for religious reasons. So, each soldier goes to the base rabbi and gets a "permit" to grow a beard. Elie hasn't gotten his permit yet, but he has grown a beard. In actuality, another incentive, Elie explained, is that they are given 5 minutes to shave in the morning. By not having to shave, Elie saves those precious 5 minutes.

One thing the army has taught Elie is to be incredibly aware of time. He goes to bed early when he is home (a reflection of his getting only 6 hours of sleep a night - and often those 6 hours start at 10 p.m.). Elie gets exactly 8 minutes to accomplish one task (I don't remember which one), 5 minutes or ten minutes or some other interval, at various times. He has 4 minutes to get into bed after standing at attention so his commanding officer can wish them all a good night. That's after the exactly 60 minutes of "free time" he is given at the end of the day's training. He has 20 minutes to eat breakfast, 40 minutes for the morning prayer service, etc. etc.

Another thing that I've learned about the army is that colors count. You can tell so much about the soldiers simply by examining their uniforms. Elie's boots are black - artillery and several other divisions wear black boots. They sets them apart from the brown boots warn by the paratroopers and several other divisions. I find myself staring at soldiers' feet more and more. Next comes the beret. Each division has a different color; basic training is army green.

Today was Elie's English birthday. He was born on the 3rd day of the Jewish month of Sivan. On this day, I sent him a package (see: Happy Birthday, Elie), which 20 years ago, fell on May 31. Amazingly enough, the army released his unit today (Thurs. May 31) instead of the more typical Friday release. Elie came home in the afternoon and volunteered to do the weekly shopping. While he was out, I quickly baked a birthday cake and dinner, and he came home to a house of balloons and dinner (and dear friends/family came over later to add to the celebration).

Elie spent a week in the center of the country, at a "retreat" where they had classes and took some local trips. They ate above a restaurant and had their choice of meals. In some ways, it gives them a break, just in time for this coming week's adventure. When Elie returns to base on Sunday, he and his unit will be "tested" under close-to-war conditions. He'll get less sleep, be more active. The "supply" lines will be cut so they will eat their army rations and they'll camp out again in the desert. For now, though, that is days away and as we have already learned, with the army, you take it day by day. Today, tonight, Elie is once again home and safe. He'll spend the next two days with his family. It's enough for now.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Don't you trust me?

I wanted to write about Elie coming home with his gun for the first time this week. About how careful he was to place it high, out of reach of his younger siblings. I wanted to write about how he carefully explained to his 11-year-old brother that this isn't a toy and isn't to be touched, about how he carefully showed his gun to his 17-year-old brother. About how he asked his father to fix the lock on his bedroom door because the army requires that any gun left unattended be behind not just one, but two locks.

There were other things I wanted to write about, but they will have to wait because, as often happens, life has a way of intruding and throwing something else at you. And so that will be the topic of this post.

Elie and his unit had a "culture" day today. These are days in which the army takes its soldiers to various historical sites and shows them what might be to some, an unfamiliar part of the country they are serving.

Last time, they took the soldiers to memorial monuments and special sites in Binyamina and Zichron Yaakov. These are the "heart" of the artillery division, the place where they remember the fallen artillery soldiers. Each soldier is remembered there and new soldiers of the division are taken there during basic training and again for the ceremonies that mark the completion of each segment of training. This is fitting because it teaches each soldier that we remember and honor those who came before them, that much of what they learn now, is based on knowledge gained by others who have fought in the past.

This coming Sunday, the army will take the unit to the Holocaust Memorial. This too is fitting because Israel stands between the Jewish people and the next despot who might imagine that he can attempt another Holocaust. It is our soldiers who prevent this, who say to the world that the Jew has changed and will defend his land, his life, his people and his nation.

Today's cultural day was more upbeat than the past or upcoming destinations. Today, they took the soldiers to the Old City in Jerusalem. They met at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Holy Temple that was destroyed approximately 2000 years ago by the Romans. Afterwards, they visited the ruins of our Ir David, the remnants of Jerusalem from the time of King David. Because I had a meeting in the general direction, I drove Elie to meet his unit and agreed to pick him up on my way home.

Later, we did some quick shopping, picked up his sister and his new brother-in-law, and headed home. At this point, I should explain that we live in Maaleh Adumim, a beautiful city just to the east of Jerusalem. There are two roads that lead out of Jerusalem toward Maaleh Adumim. One is a bypass road that was built after the first intifada, when Arabs were throwing stones and rioting in Abu Dis. During that second intifada, the original road that wound its way through several Arab neighborhoods was sealed off to Jewish traffic and we all exit Maaleh Adumim and take a much longer route to avoid trouble.

The second road was opened a few years ago and includes a tunnel that goes below Hebrew University. This road is the more traveled road because during that last intifada, the Arabs began throwing stones (and all sorts of other objects - like a set of couches last week, a washing machine, tires, empty jugs, etc.) down off the cliffs that border the edge of the bypass road. All around, most people prefer the modern, new road, to the older road.

The old road isn't well maintained and takes longer and for no logical reason other than being tired and not wanting to travel inside Jerusalem to pick up the newer road, I drove straight through the French Hill intersection and picked up the old road. Within the first two minutes, I saw we were in trouble and I'd made a bad choice. The road is one lane for most of the distance, with a metal divider and no place to turn around. There was a long line of cars slowly creeping along and I had no choice but to join this slow-moving traffic. This isn't normal on this road and we knew something was happening.

Minutes later, an ambulance passed us and I could see Elie was anxious to get out and help. Understand that we are on a dark road, with a high cliff to our right. On the cliff, several meters above us, are many Arab homes and there were Arabs leaning out and looking at the road to see what was happening.

Rocks have been thrown down from these cliffs, fire bombs as well. At some points, the cliff comes within a few feet of the road...and this was where we almost came to a full stop. From that point on, it was even slower going. Elie decided he should get out and see what was happening ahead and if the ambulance needed any help. I told him to wait so that we could get closer and see if there was even anything he could do. There are often traffic jams when a suspicious object is found on the road...but of course that didn't make sense because they don't call an ambulance for a suspicious object, they call the bomb squad.

As we approached a bend in the road, it was clear that the ambulance was close because we could see the flashing lights. Elie said he was going to go, took his gun, and went jogging off in the direction of whatever was happening. I can't quite describe the feelings I had watching him run off into the distance and go out of my line of vision.

Slowly, so very slowly, I was able to approach and finally arrive and see that what had happened was indeed a car accident, a lone driver probably going too fast crashed his car. Elie later told me that he didn't like the way the ambulance volunteers were securing the accident victim so he got a pair of safety gloves from the ambulance and secured the driver to the board himself. He helped load him into the ambulance shortly after I pulled behind it. Initially, I couldn't see where Elie was, but I also knew that I didn't want to leave him behind. That meant pulling to the side somewhere so cars could get past me on this narrow road.

Behind me, an army vehicle pulled up, so I got out and explained that my son was an ambulance volunteer and had gone to help. The soldiers were prepared to let me stay there and wait, but a policeman came over, yelling that I should move the car. I tried to explain to him as well but he believed my car was in a bad place (it wasn't, and cars were already easily bypassing it), but the policeman wanted the car moved, so I got in, just as Elie came over pulling off the gloves. He got in the car and explained what had happened as we drove past the crashed car and quickly arrived home. On a scale of things that Elie is likely to do in the next few years, tonight's event wasn't spectacular or particularly dangerous.

Earlier, before driving home, he told me about how the soldiers in his unit all had their guns strapped on today during their visit to the Old City. Because these are essentially untried soldiers walking around with loads of ammunition in crowded city streets, they were ordered to make sure there were no bullets in the guns and that the magazines weren't even attached.

Only one commanding officer, as far as Elie could tell, actually had bullets in his gun. When I asked Elie if that wasn't dangerous, given that they were approximately 100 unarmed soldiers and a natural target for a knife-wielding Arab (never mind someone more heavily armed). This has happened numerous times in the Old City and is a real concern.

What good will the gun do if it isn't loaded, I asked him, and he quickly showed me, pivoting the gun to be used as a weapon to first knock the opponent down. This gives the soldier time to load his weapon, "and boom," Elie finished unnecessarily. I could already see what the army had taught my son.

It's a good thing, that he can defend himself, that he is receiving training to handle each threat he might encounter. It's the way it must be, that he can move quickly and be one with the gun. Everywhere we went, to buy him shoes, to shop for groceries, and then at the site of the car accident, Elie is aware of where his gun is. In base, he is taught to sleep with his body connected to the gun. Officers are known to sometimes sneak into the tents and try to "steal" a soldier's gun (and punish them severely if they succeed).

Watching Elie run off into the darkness was a frightening thing for me and made me once again aware of an interesting change in our relationship. In the normal course of events, when you have a baby, you are incredibly connected to that infant. Over time, as the child grows, he gains his independence, and so, in some ways does the mother. The love matures and the child is trusted to stand on his own feet, to feed himself, to learn to ride a bicycle, to go to friends, to sleep over, to spend the weekend away. He grows and gains and the circle of his knowledge becomes separate from his parents. Especially, now - as Elie serves in the army, every day experiencing things beyond all my knowledge, I see the changes.

Tonight, he helped an accident victim, as he has so often in the past when serving on the ambulance squad. He did it, in full uniform, with a gun attached to his back. Coincidentally, he had already arranged to be on call tonight in Maaleh Adumim, having finally gotten permission from the army to continue to volunteer when he is home.

I was more upset about tonight's accident than I should have been. "Do you know how many police were there?" Elie reasoned logically.

I tried to explain to Elie that it was scary for me to watch him run into the darkness and disappear around the bend carrying his M16. He would have done the same thing even if he didn't have the gun, even if he wasn't in uniform, he told me. Not much help, I tried to explain.

He believes that I should find comfort in the fact that he had protection with him. The larger issue, for me, is the way in which I now relate to Elie. The answer is different than before. Perhaps it is because he is out of reach for 23 hours a day (at least). Perhaps it is that I know he is experiencing the new and the unknown.

Whatever the reason, he is constantly in my thoughts in a way that he hasn't been since he was a small boy. I believe all my children are in my heart, all of the time. But I know that while they are in school and I am at work, my brain can focus on whatever tasks I need to accomplish. Now, with Elie in the army, it is as if one part of my brain refuses to disengage, to separate even for a few minutes. This connection was strong tonight, as it has been for the last few months. It isn't something a mother can explain.

Our conversation ended with Elie smiling and asking, "Don't you trust me?"

How do I explain that a mother can fear and trust at the same time? A mother's heart can experience sheer terror at the same time she knows that it is not rational. Elie is one of the most level-headed, thinking, aware people I have ever known. He has much growing to do, but he's on the right path to becoming so much of what I want him to be. He thinks, he contemplates, he acts. Ok, not always - I have the broken vases and windows to prove that sometimes the boy acts before the man can think - but Elie understands that his country trusts him with a weapon, with training it gives to him and ultimately with huge weapons of war that can shell an enemy position dozens of kilometers away. He takes that trust and honors it.

They have trusted him with hours of emergency medical training to handle life and death situations and he handles them with patience and a calm sense of dedication and determination. He is taught to act to help others, without first putting his life in danger. This is, essentially, what he did tonight.

"Don't you trust me?" was his question and the answer is that, of course, I do. I trust him to see to others in need. I trust that he will put safety first, as the ambulance squad taught him. Because a hurt volunteer doesn't help anyone and adds to the burden of the whole, he's explained to me in the past.

But I also trust that fear is not rational; that a mother cannot calmly watch her son run into a situation that might mean danger and that the mother is wrong to do anything that would make him hesitate or make him unsure. I was wrong tonight to give Elie the impression that I doubted him for even a second...and I'll likely be wrong the next time as well. My only consolation is that Elie knows that I am wrong not out of any lack of trust, but because of a deep need to see him safe and a deeper sense of love.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Happy Birthday, Elie

Twenty years old is a milestone. No longer a teenager.

"I'm getting old," Elie joked last night. What will you do on your birthday, I asked him. "I'm lucky," he told me. "My unit has patrol duty for the next two days and it's really hot."

"So why are you lucky?" I asked him.

"Because I got kitchen duty and the kitchens are air conditioned." We finished the conversation and I felt saddened that he was so far away.

Are you enjoying the army, "It's fun," he told me, "like camp." He was joking, but he does enjoy the army, the challenges it brings to him, the knowledge, the sense of direction.

Twenty years since the day I first held him. Twenty years since those startling blue eyes opened and looked at me for the first time. For nineteen years, we have celebrated his birthday as a family. Cakes or parties. There were the early birthday parties with families gathered around, and later the parties with his friends. The most exciting was probably the one where we gave out water guns as a prize, only to realize that wasn't the smartest of gifts. It took me hours to clean the mud from the path between the front door and the kitchen and bathroom sinks that were used to reload.

There are two sides to every effort, every gift. In this case, there is the receiver, my son, Elie, and there is the sender, us. How can I reach him today to wish him a happy birthday, to give him a kiss and tell him he should be well and safe and happy. He should live in health and have only good things, all the days of his life, to 120!

The answer, of course, is that with him so far away and restricted to one hour of communication in the late evening, I can't. Even were I to drive for hours, I wouldn't be allowed on the base. Even the road to the base is restricted. This isn't like a school where you call the principal and they let you bring a cake into the classroom.

On the bright side, Elie called last night and I wished him a happy birthday. There are others who know it is his special day and honestly, he's grown past the age of balloons and birthday cakes and surprises. Or has he?

I remembered the new magnet on our refrigerator. Just last week, Elie explained that his friend had recieved a huge package from his parents. They'd called the number on the magnet, paid a fee, and the package was delivered.

So, I called the number and Meital answered. It takes three days and there it is. You have a choice of shampoos, deodorants and personal items, or a second set which contains snacks and food. But I only just learned about this possibility and haven't had a chance to try to order anything, and today is his birthday. In three days, he'll be home for the holiday of Shavuot and next week he's got a week of "cultural" training (more on that later)...and, I want him to get a package today.

I feel like a child asking for the impossible, insisting it must be today. "It's his birthday today," I explain to the sweet woman who answers the phone. Meital sounds so young on the phone, "We'll do our best, but we can't promise it will be today."

"But if it isn't today, it won't be worth sending. Tomorrow he's in training and the next day he comes home for the holidays. Next week he's not there either. Isn't there any way it can be today."

"I'll try," Meital says earnestly and I know she is trying.

She calls back a few minutes later, "we need his personal number, the number of his gedud, or maybe his pluga." I don't know the names in English for what she is asking, and for the most part, I don't even have that information.

"You see what you can find out," Meital tells me, "and I'll keep checking to see if there is any way it can be sent today."

"I have his identification number," I tell her when she calls back. It is the number he received at the airport the day we moved to Israel, just a few digits above my number.

"No, we need his army number," Meital explains. "Can't you ask him?"

"No, I can't reach him." His phone is turned off during the day. In fact, the only one in the unit that is allowed to carry his phone with him is the young man who lives in Sderot with his wife. Because Sderot is constantly under attack by rockets coming from Gaza, he is allowed to have the phone open and his wife and relatives send him messages telling him that they are unhurt after each barrage. He gets to go home to her every Thursday and return on Sunday. But I don't have his number.

I don't have Elie's commanding officer's number. I try sending Elie a text message, knowing that he won't see it until this evening when he turns on his phone.

It's such a small country, I think to myself. Why does it take three days? While Meital checked if there was anything she could do to ensure Elie would receive a package today, I frantically searched for a bank statement showing a deposit the army had made to his account. Finally something good. I found his army number but Meital wasn't sure it was enough.

The name of the base. "That's like trying to send a package to 'a patient' in Tel HaShomer Hospital," Meital told me.

I started rattling off all the details of where Elie is serving. Artillery. "Everyone on that base is artillery."

"Basic training." He's just started. Ok, explains Meital, there are regular soldiers and those in basic training, but still that doesn't help much.

I know the first name of his commanding officer. Meital didn't even answer that.

I know a two-digit number, but I don't know if it is the number of his unit, his brigade, his platoon. I don't even know what they are called. He's in a special unit, I explained, and gave her the initials of the unit. But there are probably many similar units. "He's working on kitchen duty today, does that help?" I ask, knowing that it won't. Meital took it all down and promised she would get back to me again.

After exhausting all that I know, I realized it wasn't much and began to despair just a little. I'll make him a cake when he gets home, and we'll fill his room with pictures and balloons. It won't be the same as reaching out to him on his birthday, but it'll have to suffice. I'll have to settle for the conversation we had last night and his promise that he would try to call again tonight. It will have to do...and next year, I'll remember to start three days before his birthday, to make sure I can reach him.

A few minutes ago, Meital called. As a one time thing, they would get him the package today. Soon, Elie will receive a large package filled with every Israeli kid's favorite snacks, Bamba, Bisli, chocolate chip cookies and more. Too much for one soldier, his friends will come to see the large package and they'll all wish him a happy birthday.

"Mazel tov," Meital said to me, "I'm so glad that we could do it."

So, my Elie - mazel tov. May you go from strength to strength, this year and every year. May you be blessed with sweet things, happy thoughts, health and success. May we celebrate more birthdays together than apart and may you know, on all the birthdays that we aren't with you, that you are much loved.

And thank you, Meital, for helping one mother feel more connected.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Respecting Knowledge

It's not always easy to sit in one place and listen to a lecturer, when you know that you know the subject better than the person who is talking. It's a growing experience, a learning experience, to handle the situation with grace and patience.

This is the situation Elie found himself in yesterday and, knowing that this would be the case in advance, I was anxious to hear how he would handle it. For years now, Elie has volunteered in the local ambulance squad. For a time, when he studied in the Old City in Jerusalem, there too he volunteered regularly. Elie is a natural because when an ambulance arrives on the scene, the first thing they do is assess the situation and take charge of how the injured are treated.

I have watched Elie several times as he has quickly taken on the role of an ambulance volunteer, seeing to the people who need help, convincing those who needed assistance to actually accept help, and much more.

Many months ago, Elie was the first on scene when an 85-year-old woman collapsed. Elie was just driving by, but quickly stopped, began administering CPR, called the local ambulance and stayed there until they arrived. In the end, the woman died on the scene. There was nothing anyone could have done to help her and the ambulance driver was quick to commend Elie and point this out to him. Still, as I heard about the incident as I was driving home from a meeting, I was frantic to see Elie, to make sure he was ok with what happened.

In the end, the best comment came from my husband, who told his son that had he not been there, forever this woman's family would have wondered - would the outcome have been different if the ambulance had gotten there a minute or two sooner? They would have the comfort of knowing that all that was humanly possible was done. There is comfort in knowing that he helped that family accept that it was this woman's time, even if he couldn't save her life. She didn't die alone and she didn't die because of a lack of medical treatment.

Elie has administered CPR in the past and successfully helped save lives. I've watched him handle children injured at local events. I've seen him handle hysterical mothers, telling them they had to calm down to help their children - and they do, because there is something in Elie's voice that tells them to listen.

Elie was given the option of being a medic in the army, but it would limit his choices and he is still exploring what he wants to do, how far he wants to serve. Commanders and officers must lead and so they cannot be medics. Medics must care for the wounded, and so they cannot lead. Elie must choose a path and so he is not yet ready, only two months into the army, to limit that choice.

Yesterday, as he knew they would, the army gave his unit a crash course in medical training. The course was one day and was intended to teach the basics of handling a medical emergency in the field. All that was taught, and far beyond, Elie has already learned in the numerous courses he has taken. It was Elie's job to listen patiently, knowing all that the medic said, knowing there was so much more that could be taught. He was discouraged that they didn't teach the soldiers CPR. "I've taught 15-year-olds how to do CPR," he told me last night.

For the most part, Elie had to sit and listen. He didn't always agree because where he was taught 5 steps, the instructor only covered 3. "I have to remember to write what he said on the test," Elie told me, "and not the truth." A little harsh, but it was a good way for him to get out his frustration.

Elie's commanding officer saw his impatience at one point and asked Elie if he wanted to take a turn on patrol. Usually, this is a boring task in which you are charged with walking around an enclosed area "protecting" four tents and the possessions of the unit. Because it is so monotonous, each soldier takes a 30-minute turn. Elie gladly took an hour yesterday.

Overall, Elie listened in patience, saving his frustrations for his conversation with me later. After we talked, I thought about his sitting there, yearning to teach the soldiers of his unit what he knows and wondered what would happen in a real situation where there are wounded. I can pray that this will never happen but reality has a way of intruding sometimes.

If the time ever comes when Elie is pulled between his medical training and his technical responsibilities as a soldier, which will he choose? What is expected of him? I have never seen Elie drive past a "situation." We were on vacation in Eilat and Elie and I and his youngest sister were driving to the market to purchase some things. Moments before we arrived at a particular intersection, a young driver had hit a motorcyclist, knocking him down. When we got there, the motorcycle was laying on its side in the middle of the road; the motorcyclist standing on the side with the driver and some others.

Without a word, Elie pulled to the side of the road and took control. He checked the young motorcyclist who said he was fine. Elie decided otherwise, and insisted on calling an ambulance. He checked the boy, spoke to the driver, and waited until the ambulance arrived. He briefed the ambulance driver and only then came back to the car, where I waited with my daughter.

Elie has a medic's vest in the car he regularly drives at home. He carries plastic gloves for safety and some nominal first aid equipment with him; always ready to help, always prepared. At his yeshiva, it was Elie and another medic who climbed down the side of a cliff and treated a student who had fallen down several meters. Elie stayed below and helped prepare the student, physically and mentally, to be evacuated by army helicopter when it became clear that this was the best way to move the boy from his location part way down the cliff. This is Elie.

Elie is being trained to be a soldier. He will learn how to control complex technical devices, the norm in modern warfare. He will join his unit in controlling tons of ammunition, huge artillery batteries. All manned by his unit, his friends. The vast machine that is an army works because everyone has a task, every part has a role.

Yesterday, Elie had to sit by while someone else took the role he is so accustomed to fulfilling. For years, the ability and the willingness and the knowledge of how to help people has been a part of his life. Now he is being given other knowledge, other tools. This time to defend a nation, as much as to help a citizen of that country.

I wonder if the time will ever come when these two skills will pull him in different directions at the same time and if that time should come, what will he do?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Boy into a Man

In about a week, it will be 2 months since Elie entered the army. If you ask a 19 year old if he is a man, whatever that is, he would clearly answer in the positive. The boy is long gone by the age of 19, but I'm not sure that the man has arrived. It is a nebulous time, filled with uncertainties for the boy within the man, the man within the boy, and the family who watches the transition. At this age, the boy is still dependent on the parents, still asking permission when at home as he did when he was young and yet yearning to make his own choices. The man resents the boy's asking, believes in his own decisions and his right to make choices. He is ready to test the boundaries, physical and mental, ahead of him.

Almost two months into the army and several visits back, and each time, I see a difference in the person who returns. He is more confident in himself, quicker to take charge, faster to order the younger children around and more insistent that they listen to him. He's slower to anger, I believe and quieter and calmer overall. He's more definite in his plans during and after the army and the boy who hated to study now plans for things he wants to learn after he finishes his service.

I asked him if he felt that all the exercising and training had made him physically stronger and he answered that he could feel a difference. The army, he explained, starts slowly. The first was a run of 500 meters. "Even I can do that," I responded (though I'd prefer no one ask me to actually do it).

Then it was a run of a kilometer, then 1500 meters, and this week, they will run 3 kilometers (and no, I can't do that). Each week brings new challenges, new knowledge, new tests and, in its way, new triumphs.

I remember the minutes after my children were born. The sheer awe of holding this tiny human being and understanding that God had given us an amazing gift, a beautiful, perfectly formed little body. Well, I'm in a new stage of awe as I watch Elie developing so quickly into the man he will be one day.

On the funnier side of the army, he told us more about the balloon he shot the other day. As before, the unit was taken out of the base to another training area. First they practiced maneuvering in a small unit, advancing on a target. They learned how to shoot in such a way as to prevent harming their fellow soldiers. Who shoots, who advances - in what order.

After that training, the unit practiced a hostage situation, where the red balloon was the head of the hostage and the cardboard to which it was attached was the terrorist. They had to shoot the terrorist and not the hostage. Elie and many others succeeded, but a few popped their balloons.

Apparently, there was a shortage of balloons that day, so if you killed your balloon in this round, you sat the next round out. One young soldier had a problem. His balloon had a tiny hole in it and as the commander was explaining what he expected of the shooters, the soldier's balloon was slowly getting smaller and smaller before their eyes. "I'll try to talk faster," the commanding officer said - and they all laughed.

After the hostage situation practice, the surviving "hostages" became the target and the balloons were tied to sticks with a long string and allowed to blow in the wind. Now the goal was to shoot the balloon. You had 5 shots to take out the balloon. This is what Elie got on the first try.

The soldier who had the shrinking balloon had been able to shoot the terrorist and not the balloon in the first exercise (little wonder since the balloon kept shrinking), but by the time the second round came about, the balloon had shrunk to an impossible size. Trying not to laugh too hard, the commander ordered the soldier to wait and then, when a few of the soldiers did not succeed in shooting their moving balloons in the second round, he ordered the soldier to try to shoot one of their balloons.

I was thinking of donating a case of balloons to the army so they'd have more balloons.

Friday, May 11, 2007

When Things Get Hot...

Apparently the army understands that heat can be dangerous. So, all the while this past week, as I was worrying about Elie being in the desert in the heat, he was enjoying the hot weather. Well, perhaps not the hot weather exactly, but the way the army handles it.

There are, apparently, levels of heat, as interpreted by the army. Normal level means training as usual. The highest level of heat means the soldiers are pulled back into the bases for everything except essential training, patrolling and "real" army work.

The next highest level, as was declared this week, means that soldiers remain in the field...but aren't allowed to train. So, Elie and his unit set up protective cover, and then got to relax and pretty much do nothing. My comment that it might get really hot next week, was met with an "I hope so" from Elie.

Like other weeks, he comes home tired and ready to eat home-cooked food. The army schedule is becoming more and more known to us. This time, he also came home with the Bible given to him by the army and a pin attached to his beret showing the symbol of his unit. A single artillery battery. The Bible is inscribed with the insignia of the army and includes a blessing for the soldiers. For Elie's small unit, a special note was added and personally signed by his commanding officer. The note quotes the section in the Bible where the menorah, the 7-armed candelabra that was in the Holy Temple, is described.

The menorah that adorned the Holy Temple contained two sets of 3 arms branching off in opposite directions. Each arm is attached to a single arm in the center. This center piece is the strongest arm, the backbone of the menorah, and from this center piece all other branches stem.
It is the strength of the menorah, the gold piece that supports all the restd. In the artillery configuration of his brigade, Elie's group will be like this center arm, the backbone and strength of the larger unit. Each unit will depend on the accuracy of what Elie's group does, the information it receives and passes on to them. The gold center, the one that supports and directs. This is the special message his commanding officer gave to Elie's unit. Though Elie's commanding officer said that whatever he told us could be told to others (or he wouldn't be allowed to tell us), I still don't feel comfortable writing all the details, but the analogy is so perfect, so accurate so Biblical.

In the meantime, it's Friday again, Sabbath eve here in Israel and Elie is once again home. He looks wonderful. Strong, tanned, relaxed, happy. My son, the soldier.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

On Patrol

It's very hot in Israel now - we're having one of those "sharav" (heat wave) days where the wind comes from the desert, bringing heat and sand. For most Israelis, it means days where you walk between buildings (to get inside as quickly as possible), where sleeping at night isn't always comfortable, and where the sun just beats down relentlessly until the evening.

For Elie and his group, located "somewhere" in the desert, it's even harder. Not only do they have to deal with the heat and the sun, but they must do it in full military uniforms. They carry guns and equipment and have the added issue of physical exertion on a day where you'd just as soon take a nap in the afternoon and wait for November. Hard to believe it is only May and already so hot. What will happen in July and August?

They are not idle, these soldiers of ours. We can sometimes choose to rest in the hottest moments or find cooler places. They must stand, must patrol, must train and practice. Elie is one of them now and I can't imagine standing out in the desert heat for hours at a time with all that equipment. It shouldn't, but my heart aches for him. It's a silly feeling because truthfully, this is what I want for him. I want him to take pride in knowing he is doing something right, something noble. I want him to always remember that he chose to serve his country when others here - and many around the world, wouldn't choose to follow a similar path. God willing, he will finish his service in health and safety and remember that he gave something to his nation.

During a recent call, Elie told me that his unit has now taken its place in sharing the guarding of the base. At certain times, in certain places, they stand and patrol. They aren't allowed to even sit down for long stretches of time. This is where a mother's head and heart collide. My head says this is good. It strengthens them - there is no pampering in the army. My heart thinks of silly things - he's tired, his feet will hurt, maybe his back will bother him. He's hot and has to wear all that heavy gear. My head wants him where he is; my heart wants him home. I can't imagine the heat and discomfort and yet each conversation with Elie is calm and upbeat.

He is enjoying the bonding that is taking place within his unit. The rigid schedule doesn't seem to bother him and he even finds a good side to the guard duty his unit was supposed to take last night. It was to have been in the middle of the night, but in the end was moved to early morning. It involved standing for hours on his feet - and yet, I can hear in his voice that he is happy. My heart sighs in relief and my head offers a patronizing smile. Of course he is happy. He's 19 years old, has few cares in the world. He's camping out in the desert, gets good and plentiful food and gets to learn new things (like shooting a gun!).

The night before was the national celebration of Lag B'Omer. It is a special once-a-year holiday in which we light bonfires from hill to hill. An announcement of many things - even a call to the world - see us here, on this hill, surrounded by our families. We have come home to Israel. Most often, we go to a community barbecue while we watch a never-ending line of pyromaniacs step up and risk 3rd degree burns.

My middle son decided (once again) to burn his old school notebooks. I believe in allowing children to vent their frustrations at times and truthfully, if I had to deal with what he does, I'd burn my notebooks too!

For the first time since moving to Israel at the age of 6, Elie did not celebrate Lag B'Omer in the traditional way. No bonfires in the desert; no barbecues and chicken wings. I felt lonely for him and imagined him feeling lonely for us. There goes my heart again, aching and missing him and my head once again answers logically - but yes, Elie doesn't need a fire to announce to the world that we are here - he does that every day he serves, every day he wears his uniform.

He called again last night for a few minutes, and he's off again into the desert for several more days and nights of training. This week, he was able to shoot a balloon tied down and floating in the wind - with the first shot. It was something important to him. A milestone that made me smile. Look where we have come to, I thought to myself. It started with the first moment I held him - my first son. Weeks later, another milestone, his first smile. This is our life, I think. I remember when he rolled over, when he crawled and first walked. His first day of school, when he got his first report card, his birthdays, the bar mitzvah celebration where he read the Torah. The moment he grew taller...and stronger...than me. High school graduation and the day he went into the army.

To this ever-growing list of important days, are the days my son learned the basics of being a soldier, the day he first came home in uniform, when he started learning to shoot. And soon come the milestone days the army sets - when he is officially given his gun, when he is officially given his blue beret - a symbol of his division, and when he is finally finished with all levels of training and ready to take his place in the army.

On the downside, for some reason the army seems to have pulled a "fast one" on us as they decided to hold this first ceremony with just the soldiers. Typically, there is a ceremony to which parents are invited. This is when the soldier receives his gun - with pomp and circumstance, he is handed a gun and a Bible. These are, in many ways, the symbols of modern day Israel.

The Bible is what connects us to this land; the gun is what protects us so that we can remain. This week, even though the army is holding the ceremony on the base without parents, Elie will promise his allegiance to the army and receive his gun and Bible and tonight, yet again, he sleeps out in the desert (where it is cool and comfortable).

And for now, my heart and my head will be at peace. This week, my son will receive the essence of what our life in Israel has become - a symbol of our faith (the Bible) and a symbol of our ability to defend ourselves against our enemies (the gun).

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

It's the Silly Things...

So here's a silly thing about having a child go to the army. This past weekend, Elie was home. After the weekend, comes Sunday and that means back to the army. He had to get up very early to catch the 6:00 bus for a 40 minute right that would take him to Jerusalem - from there, he'd catch another bus to Beersheva, about 2 hours away. From there, another bus to a meeting point, where the army runs a shuttle back and forth to the base some 45 minutes to an hour away. All this, by 10:00 in the morning.

He set his radio to go off and as he was leaving, apparently moved the dial to the "Alarm" position, rather than to the "Off" position. So, each morning, I walk down the steps and hear Elie's radio playing, as the alarm/radio continues to go off each morning. It continues for about an hour and I can't bring myself to close it. For me, it's a bit of his presence each day, a few moments to imagine that he's safe in his bed, not already awake for many hours and taking part in some military exercise somewhere far away.

Friends who have been in the army are quick to share their experiences and what knowledge they have of what Elie is experiencing now, basic training for all units, things particular to the artillery division. What the base was like many years ago and how much it has changed and developed.

We've passed a bit of a milestone - Elie is in the second half of basic training and now begins the harder stuff. The army has, almost gently, moved them through the "shock" of being inducted on a course to becoming a unified, cohesive, fighting force. They have learned to shoot, learned that time is not their own and won't be for the next few years. They have learned that discipline is absolute, that a few minutes late has immediate consequences. They've learned about their responsibilities and obligations while carrying a gun and they've learned the land around them.

On many nights, they sleep in the desert. The dark becomes something known to them, the desert wind, the cold air. They've learned to maneuver in the dark, to shoot at night, to march and move quietly.

While he was home, Elie filled up a bottle of water to the very top before bringing it to the table. It was so full, to the brim, that it was guaranteed that the first person who tried to pour water would spill it. When I asked him why he put so much water in the bottle, we realized it was an automatic reaction to what he had been taught. A full bottle won't make noise when you walk, but the water in a bottle that is partially empty will slosh around. It's a new concept for me - but in the army, the need to be quiet can be an issue of life and death. Second nature to a soldier, even one only a few weeks in the army.

Tomorrow morning, I'll walk down the steps and hear Elie's radio. It's a silly thing to leave it playing, a waste of electricity, of course. Elie won't be coming home this weekend, so the radio will play, day after day, as a reminder that this is his home and we are waiting for him. And the water bottles in the refrigerator - they aren't full anymore. Like our home, something is missing - and when Elie comes home to fill the bottles, he'll fill our home with light as well.

Of course, to be honest, he'll probably also argue with his brothers and sisters. He'll agree to do the chores he likes (he loves to help with the cooking - but hates doing dishes; he loves to drive and shop - but hates to take out the garbage) and argue about the ones he doesn't want to do.

And, like the radio each morning, that will be a signal that Elie's here...first in spirit, and soon, in body.

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