Sunday, July 29, 2007

This is War!

I've been waiting to hear Elie say these words for weeks, dreaded hearing them. I know he'll say them soon. All of Israel knows it. Syria and Lebanon know it. Hizbollah and Hamas know it. The only real question is what will trigger it, what will bring the fear to reality and, for me, where Elie will be in his training. Will it be in the north or in Gaza? Does it matter in the end what excuse will be used? Will Elie's training be close enough to completion that with a little help, his unit can be sent into battle? Or will the army decide not to speed up the training and instead to send Elie and his unit to replace other troops guarding Israel's other borders so that they can head into battle?

Elie has been home for the last week, since right after his Tekes Kumta. It has been wonderful. A week together to marvel at how he has developed, to smooth over the normal bickering between siblings, and loving even the sound of their arguing as much as their conversations. Elie has been drawn out by most of us in some way, telling us about his training, the hours he spends learning, and his regular schedule. He's talked about the others in his unit, his commanding officers, the food, the weather, the tents. The weaponry, the rules, the safety mechanisms he is taught and so much more.

We went up north to the Sea of Galilee one day and I watched Elie swim and relax. Temperatures were into the 100 degree range (45 degrees Celsius) and the water was a welcome break. When some teenagers began acting up in the water, Elie called to them and told them to move away, that there were young children around (his sister and brother), and the boys moved. It was the sound of authority, a man telling them to behave. We came back on Thursday and on Friday we all cooked and prepared for the Sabbath. Elie did the shopping, as he started doing not long after he got his driving license and helped cook many of the dishes, though I'm pretty sure he cooked a lot more chicken wings than we ever actually saw arrive at the table.

As always, the candles are lit in the house and peace approaches. It is a restful time when we close the world out, when we are grateful for the time we have with each other. And then, out of no where, late Saturday afternoon, I heard Elie say, "this is war."

I looked up to see him advance to the kitchen and take out a large serving spoon, which he then dipped into the ice cream container he'd been holding. It seems his brother had dared to dip a regular spoon into the cookies and cream flavored ice cream and Elie wanted to horde it to himself. With the larger spoon...Elie quickly scooped up a huge amount and, laughing hysterically, we all set about battling for the ice cream. If only real war could be so silly, so happy, so simple.

Like the moments when we sat by the sea and ate together, and the time we spent shopping in the mall, each moment is precious to me. Part of me wants to freeze each moment and never move on and another part knows that I have to let the moment flow. Elie can never know how much I worry. And yet, he does of course.

Too soon, Elie was packing his army uniforms and preparing to go back to base. The vacation was over, but I can still hear Elie call out, "THIS is war!" in the diabolic sound of a 20-year-old on the warpath! May all our wars be over cookies and cream ice cream, fought with large serving spoons, and end with smiles, laughter, and a promise to buy more.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Changes in a Nation, a Boy, and a Family

Tomorrow begins the Fast of the 9th Day of Av. It is a day of tragedy and sadness for the Jewish people. A day in which we mourn the loss of so much and so many over hundreds of years, even thousands. It is a day that we mourn a change that took place in our status almost two thousand years ago, a change that was only rectified 60 years ago.

In the year 70, the Holy Temple was destroyed by the Romans and the Jewish people were sent into exile. Only in 1948, almost 60 years ago, was the Jewish state finally re-established and Jews able to return. And in the last 59 years, through many wars and waves of immigration, great technological inventions and discoveries, Israel has developed, matured, changed. And still we remember each year, the destruction that helped shape, even today, the path on which we walk.

We will begin the fast with a family meal together. We are lucky to have Elie home with us. At this moment, he is out shopping for the food we will cook. Elie loves to drive - one of the reasons he was so happy he was picked to learn to drive the armored vehicle of his unit. He proudly showed me his new license and explained how the vehicle was driven, how fast it could go during the day and at night. Elie is a better shopper than I am, more like his father in his ability to quickly figure out the best deals.

Today, he went and got his phone fixed. When the service agent returned the repaired phone, Elie gave her a hard time because they had switched the panel for the wrong type, obscuring part of the phone's screen. What annoyed Elie right away was the agent's insisting that Elie was wrong; that the panel was an original one. When Elie took apart his brother's phone to prove his point, the agent then explained that they had no others in stock and that he could come next week to pick up a new one.

Elie explained that next week he would be back in the army. The agent's attempts to find ways for Elie to solve the phone company's lack of inventory left him with little patience. Trying to diffuse the situation and explain why the agent was wrong, I asked, "Do you want him to get up at 4:00 a.m. on his way back to base, instead of 5:00 a.m.? Is that reasonable?" The agent was unmoved and Elie explained again that he was entitled to the proper panel.

In the end, the company agreed to mail us a new panel within the next few days. It was not really a big deal, except that I got to watch Elie and realize that he no longer needs his mother to fight his battles for him. It was a humbling moment for me...and a good one. This is the moment we wait for, the time we realize that the tables have turned somewhat. He was calm and rational and strong in his position. No, he is not responsible for their putting the wrong panel on the phone...and they would find a solution.

On the way home, the car overheated, as it is wont to do (no, I don't recommend buying a Citroen Xsara). Once again, Elie took charge. He put on the yellow vest required for all emergency stops, and checked the engine.

It's time for the parent to step back and let the boy be a man, I thought to myself...and anyway, what do I really know about engines? Elie and his father have worked to change the brakes, the oil and filters, and all manner of other parts on our cars for years. So I sat behind the wheel and watched. I started the engine when he told me to, opened the hood, turned on and off the air-conditioner.

This is how Elie has changed in four months - not so much changed, as developed. He has unleashed the man that was evolving inside and I find that I like the man very much. I'm not sure if I knew that I would or not, but I'm still quite amazed by how fast it all came about.

And there are other changes in the family. Elie's little sister has changed just a little. She clings more to Elie when he is home. She enjoys more being the "baby" sister. She also has a hard time adjusting to things - she's gone through many changes and doesn't seem to like all of them. Her sister got married. While she loves her new brother-in-law, she doesn't like the fact that her sister lives there with him and not here with us. Her oldest brother went off to the army and now she sees him only twice a month, at most. These are two of the people that gave her the most attention in the world.

Our middle son has changed. Suddenly, he is the oldest child. He helps more when no one is around and struggles to have all the rights and rules we apply to Elie. Never mind that he is 2 years younger, that he is still in high school. His world, too, has changed. He talks to Elie about cars and guns in rapid-fire Hebrew that I can't always understand. Elie answers all his questions and tells him about army life, rules, and customs. This is what Elie didn't have when he went in, someone to prepare him; someone to tell him what it was really like on the inside.

Our youngest son is struggling not to change. He was very comfortable being the youngest son, but at 11, he knows he is on the brink of so much more. Life is rushing at him. Soon enough, he will begin preparing for his bar mitzvah. He too wants to have more freedom to be seen as one of the bigger kids in the family. But he wants to accomplish this from the safety of being one of the little ones.

And I have changed too in these past four months. I have always been a news-freak, needing to know what is happening at every given moment. I have always said that with knowledge came a sense of calm, but that is no longer true. I worry less about today and more about tomorrow. I see Elie in every soldier I pass, every soldier I give a ride to...and worse, every soldier I leave behind because my car is full.

In America, I lived in fear. Fear of walking at night; fear of someone taking my children; fear that I or someone I love would become a victim of crime. I moved to Israel and found peace. That sounds so strange to most people living outside Israel, but it is the truth. The crime rate is extremely low here and where there is fear to walk at night, there is fear in the daylight as well. My children are free here to play outside, to live in a world where adults watch over them, even if the children aren't their own. I have lived this way for close to 15 years now, since we moved here when Elie had just turned 6 years old.

And now, I live again with fear. It is not a rational fear, just a slow burning terror deep inside that something might happen to Elie. That war will come and he'll be sent to fight. That there will be some careless accident. That he'll go too close to a border and be kidnapped. Each fear builds to another and settles deep inside of me. I have always believed in fate and destiny. There are ways that we can shape our fate, and perhaps even change our destiny. This might involve hard work or prayer. It might involve compromising or taking an even harder line. All things are possible, I have taught my children, and therein lies the wonders of life. But I don't like all possibilities; they haunt me at night and so I rationalize and tell myself things that are obvious to all.

Relatively, as an artillery soldier, Elie is safer than many. This is something I know because many Israelis, hearing that Elie is in artillery, have offered me this comfort. He would be miles from the action, lobbing artillery shells where the other units need them sent. Safe, back in our territory or close enough to it to keep a buffer of security. That is what the head of the mother says, but the mother's heart doesn't hear. Last summer there were katyusha rockets sent raining down on Haifa and all points north. In another war, Elie would be even closer. Elie has a special job that keeps him in an armored vehicle behind the cannons that fire many kilometers away from the front lines. Again the heart is not convinced. No, Elie explains patiently, his vehicle would not survive a direct hit by a katyusha rocket, but he would be protected from one that exploded in the vicinity because the shrapnel would be like bullets, and the vehicle is bullet-proof. This too is another sign of Elie's maturity.

My fears are not always rational and yet Elie deals with them patiently. He doesn't tell me that I am stupid; he tells me what would happen if my fears came true...and in so doing, assures me that the army does all in its power to protect him. War has no assurances, no promises of safety. Never has the word or thought been more terrifying and yet Elie is being prepared; taught the rules and requirements to go in and get the job done correctly because all that we have built as a nation depends on it. Israel was founded 59 years ago on a dream and a promise, and though Elie has changed, though our family continues to change, that dream has not.

Perhaps change, then, is the wrong word. We as a nation have developed and our family continues to develop as well. Before Elie went to the army, we could just glimpse the man inside the boy and now...now we can just glimpse the boy inside the man.

The boy in Elie grinned at me on Friday when he grabbed a forkful of spaghetti straight from the pot instead of putting it first on a plate. The boy was there waiting for my reaction when Elie took a big bottle of water out of the refrigerator and drank directly from it, knowing he should take a glass.

With God's help and blessing, may we have a long, long, healthy and safe journey ahead of us, this boy and man that is my son, Elie and may this be the last year we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and may this summer be the last we fear war.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Soldier Sets the Rules

Having Elie home for a week reminds me of all the little things that I love about him and all the little (and big) things he does for the family. If there was ever a question that the family had changed somehow while he was away, Elie is quick to put us back in place. All in all, he has been in the army four months now. I am amazed at the changes in him...and in us.


In Elie, I see a man. He will think that he left here a man four months ago, but he didn't. Not really. He is slower to anger now and the anger doesn't peak as high. He has more patience for his younger brother and sister. He demands more of them, disciplines them in my place all together too much, and then he explains why they have to do something...and for the most part, he successfully makes them do it. They should help washing dishes and they should clean their rooms. Never mind that Elie didn't always do these things when he was their age and we certainly won't discuss his room here. Despite that, he is right that these are normal chores and no reason they should be exempt.


He explains things to them and he reads the newspaper more than before. He stays in touch with what is happening and analyzes the political and military situations against what he knows of the army. Will there be a war this summer? No one knows, but if it is to start, it will be soon. Elie explains what that means for him and for his unit. Where they will go, what happened to the same unit in last year's war.

His commanding officer's commanding officer (which is in a way his commanding officer, too), belonged to the unit that fired the most missiles into Lebanon last year...it is an impressive record for any soldier, but even more so when you realize that this officer is only 22 years old.

Elie and I went out to lunch today and spoke of his expectations, his analysis, where he will go in two weeks and three weeks and more. Perhaps, as with his siblings, he is "managing" me too, giving me my marching orders. He will do what he must and, in explaining what is happening to me, perhaps he is telling me what I must do.

I wonder if he sees that I have changed too in these past four months. I have always been a news-freak, needing to know what is happening at every given moment. I have always said that with knowledge came a sense of calm, but that is no longer true. I worry less about today and more about tomorrow. I see Elie in every soldier I pass, every soldier I give a ride to...and worse, every soldier I leave behind because my car is full.

In America, I lived in fear. Fear of walking at night; fear of someone taking my children; fear that I or someone I love would become a victim of crime. I moved to Israel and found peace. That sounds so strange to most people living outside Israel, but it is the truth. The crime rate is extremely low here and where there is fear to walk at night, there is fear in the daylight as well. My children are free here to play outside, to live in a world where adults watch over them, even if the children aren't their own. I have lived this way for close to 15 years now, since we moved here when Elie had just turned 6 years old.

And now, I live again with fear. It is not a rational fear, just a slow burning terror deep inside that something might happen to Elie. That war will come and he'll be sent to fight. Relatively, as an artillery soldier, he is safer than many. That is what the head of the mother says, but the mother's heart doesn't hear. Elie has a special job that keeps him in an armored vehicle behind the cannons that fire many kilometers away from the front lines. Again the heart is not convinced.

And I know that as Elie conquers each challenge the army places before him, I must conquer my worries and my fears so that they don't touch Elie, so they don't worry him or become his burden. These are, in Elie's eyes, probably little things. Someday, perhaps (or perhaps not), he'll understand that for a mother, this is the greatest thing you can ask - to let you son potentiatially put himself him harm's way for the greater good. You know he has to do this...and you know that you have to put your concern's aside.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tekes Kumta

Yesterday, we drove south to Elie's base to attend the Tekes Kumta (a ceremony in which they give each soldier the appropriately colored beret of his division). Elie is in the artillery division, and so his beret is now blue. But more than simply giving the beret, the ceremony is one that marks a major moment in his army service. He is now a soldier, not just a potential soldier in basic training. He is already qualified to go on patrols, as he did recently near Israel's southern border. In his case, because he has a specific task in the artillery division, he will undergo approximately 3 more months of training, though this can be intensified and shortened if the need arises.

The ceremony itself lasts only a few minutes, but what is amazing is what happens before and after. We slept only briefly the night before, getting up around 5:00 a.m. in order to get to Elie's base by 8:30 a.m. When I and Elie's two brothers arrived at the base, we went through a security check and drove onto the base. Soldiers sat at the possible turnoff points - we were told to drive straight to the parking area and never thought to do otherwise.

After we parked, we simply followed other parents - exiting the base and walking into the desert, past the outside fence, and up to the top of a small mountain marked with a flag in the distance. This was the "high" point from which we would soon see our soldiers. Our sons had been walking through the night, heavily outfitted with all their equipment and for part of the night, carrying the stretchers of their "wounded."

This is, despite last summer's disastrous realities, part of Israel. We still believe that we won't leave a soldier behind. The stretchers were filled with equipment; all soldiers would walk. We waited on top of the hill, at one point getting a briefing from a young female soldier who explained that the soldiers were exhausted and dirty, but would be rejuvenated when they came around the next hill and saw us waiting. "Call to them, clap for them, encourage them," she needlessly told us. "Show them you love them and are proud," she added.

A few minutes later, a large group of soldiers came from the base with flags. Unlike the parents, who were asked to wait on top of the hill, these soldiers set off to meet their comrades. They too would cheer them on for the last few kilometers. In many ways, this is Israel. [Only months later would I learn that these were soldiers currently in the Commanders Course, coming out to cheer these new soldiers joining their division. Only months later, Elie would be one of those coming out to greet other new soldiers, as these soldiers here in the picture were coming out to greet Elie.)

Two jeeps came into sight on a hill in the distance and waited. They were the fore-guard of what was to be a long line of soldiers, brigade after brigade, each wearing their unique symbols.

And then suddenly they were there. Streaming quickly over the mountain top in the distance, coming quickly towards us. We could hear them singing and they could hear us cheering.

The flags of the soldiers who had gone to join them merged with the column and we could see in the distance as the soldiers hugged briefly and high-fived the tired group. As one, they turned and quickly moved into the group of waiting families.

The heat was oppressive; the dirt and dust rising into the air as so many people moved through the sandy ground. I saw a few soldiers limping and some being assisted by others.

They were in pain and yet had refused to be evacuated or driven this final step. It was impossible to find Elie at first and we realized somehow he had gotten past us. They are all in green, all wearing hats, all with guns and most were covered in layers of dirt.

We finally caught up with Elie looking tired and dirty, his face painted with camouflage. He looked wonderful and best of all, wasn't limping or injured. My heart settled a little but it was all back to business, back to moving quickly to enter the base and finish this walk that had taken them hours. We handed him cold water to drink and walked with him the final distance.

By contrast, the ceremony was relatively easy. The boys had been given time to change their shirts and undershirts, drink and sit for a few minutes. For some, this was a blessing, for others it was horrible because it gave their bodies time to react, for muscles to contract painfully. Some were helped to waiting ambulances. Elie returned to us looking better, a little more rested. His father and sisters had arrived, and we were once again a family waiting to share this moment with Elie.

The flag was raised, some speeches, awards for some soldiers, including Elie's commanding officer, and then the boys were given their berets. The commanding officers swept the old green ones off their heads, replacing them with new blue ones.

After the ceremony, several groups ran to eight waiting cannons, while a voice over the loudspeaker explained what was to happen. The soldiers sat on the ground, as did many of the spectators. We blocked our ears for the waiting boom, but even so, it was an incredibly loud explosion. Far in the distance, we saw the impact on a mountain. Even prepared, knowing the boom will come in a second, you can't stop your body from jerking at the incredible noise, the power released, the accuracy of the aim. This was their goal - not just to fire, but to aim at a specific target.

The final "show" was watching a rocket shot into the air. It was an amazing site - a ball of fire flying through the air and a whining sound before it fizzled. It was a blank. Too often, these have been fired against Israel causing death and suffering. This new group would dedicate the next few years to working against our enemies and their rockets.

The soldiers were released and threw their new berets in the air, a customary celebration marking that a new phase has arrived. For Elie, this means that he no longer has to call his commanding officer, "Commander" but can call him by his first name. They are, after all, soldiers with a common goal now.

We were able to sit with Elie for just over an hour. This time, more aware of the Israeli custom to bring food, we had packed two coolers. But I could see Elie was nervous about the time. They had to be back by 1:15 - the army wasn't done with them, despite their rigorous training the night before.

After packing away their gear and dismantling tents today, the soldiers are about to be released for a short vacation at home with their families. A week to be what they are deep inside, sons, young men, boys. Elie will hopefully sleep late, meet friends. We'll take some family time, some trips around the country. All too soon, it will be back to the base for some training and then, it seems, training up north as well. Israel never knows where and when the next war will be. Too much for a parent to consider, so for now, I focus on yesterday and memories of waiting for Elie on top of that hill and of the moment he appeared beside me looking healthy and strong.

"What unit is your son in?" I was asked many times. The answer for most parents didn't really matter. We'd all come together in the middle of this barren desert, to stand in the heat for hours, just to spend a brief time with our sons.

Before Elie went into the army, I started this blog almost as therapy. Elie came to Israel at age 5; in many ways, his mother tongue is Hebrew and not English. Though he speaks English fluently, he doesn't love to read it. The more words there are, the greater his hesitation. This blog is my therapy, my way of sharing the experiences of one Israeli family and one Israeli soldier with many. Family here in Israel and in the United States, but also complete strangers around the world read about Elie and understand that there is a human face to each soldier.

"Call to them, clap for them, encourage them. Show them you love them and are proud." This is what we did yesterday. What we will do tomorrow and next week, next month and next year. The soldiers of Israel fought the desert yesterday, and won. Someday soon, they may fight our enemies. They will do so with equal dedication because, as they showed yesterday, to the last man, they will bond together to do what must be done.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Two Days and Counting

Two days and counting to Elie's Tekes Kumpta ("Beret Ceremony"). On Wednesday, we will go south to his base to see him receive his blue beret with the insignia of his division. It is a rite of passage - from basic training to the next stage in his army service.
The day will actually begin the night before, when the units are taken for a long march through the desert at night, in full uniform, on patrol. In reality, the only real danger they will face is exhaustion, but this too is preparation. The army teaches them to march miles and miles because, in the worst of cases, they may need this ability to get themselves out of danger.
Early in the morning, we will leave our home so that we can join Elie in the last 2 kilometers of his walk. It is a gift to the parents, something I want to do. A brief ceremony will mark the actual event and the soldiers will be given their new berets as a sign that they are now officially part of the artillery division.
We had the honor of attending a similar ceremony for our "adopted" son, Yaakov last year while he was serving in the Givati division. We showed up, watched the ceremony, and when it was over, prepared to collect Yaakov and leave. Suddenly, we realized that everyone else wasn't leaving, but were pulling out bags and thermoses and coolers and all around us, families sat and enjoyed time with their sons over an impromptu picnic. Only, it wasn't impromptu, it was carefully planned - only no one had let us in on this great national secret. The Tekes Kumpta is a family event and isn't complete without food...and lots of it.
So much wiser (thanks, Yaakov!), we will bring food and dessert with us on Wednesday, knowing that after the ceremony is over, we will sit with Elie and munch and enjoy his company. Soon enough, he will have to go back to his unit, but we have much to look forward to, as Elie will return home on for an extended vacation, his first real break from the army. He will eat what he wants to, sleep when he wants, wear what he wants, do what he wants, go where he wants. In short, for a brief period of time, he will return to being a 20-year-old...rather than a soldier.
Too quickly, he will have to return, but his daily life will be different. Once again, the rules will be eased in recognition of his new standing. Basic training is over. They have learned how to shoot these massive weapons, how to handle a gun, and how to blend as a unit. Elie and three others in his unit have learned how to drive the massive vehicle that is part of Israel's war machine, part of its ongoing need to defend itself. They have learned that discipline is expected and time is a critical element of this discipline.
For the next four months, Elie's training will intensify and then there will be another ceremony to mark the point in his training when he will be part of the regular army. Elie continues his journey to a new phase in his training and a further expanding of his skills, his knowledge, and his abilities.
As he ends his basic training, a new group of soldiers is about to be inducted, including Elie's cousin, who will serve in the air force. It is the way of our country. Each in his time, each in his way. A new group of soldiers and a new group of soldiers' mothers and a new journey for each.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Good Night, Elie

"Good night, Elie" I heard on the phone tonight as I was talking to my son.

"Do they want to go to sleep?" I asked...as the same voice called out "good night" to another soldier in the unit.


"No, they just get loud the night before they go home," Elie answered.

It's the night before Elie comes home. This time, it was "only" two weeks. Last week, when Elie called Saturday night, he realized he should have spoken to his sister. Her intense welcome week before had effected him as much as it did me. He realized that she "needed" the contact with him and he'd planned to speak to her, but then forgotten in the few minutes before it was time to start the Sabbath here.

Tonight, Elie gets to sleep 7 hours, an extra treat before they come home. Tomorrow he will likely arrive early. As I expected would happen, he has settled into a routine of army life and one of the certainties is uncertainty. The date of his upcoming ceremony marking the end of his basic training hasn't really been finalized (it's one of two days in the coming weeks). The location where he will continue is training on the next level is also not certain. It has been moved to one location and then to another. Greater issues keep the upper military leadership occupied while Elie and his unit continue to train.


For me, I'm just glad that he is coming home tomorrow and anxious to have him spend time with his family. Hearing his friends call out wishing him a good night, even in jest, reminded me of the old Walton's television show of my youth, when each of the members of the Walton family called out "Good night, Jason"; "Good night, Elizabeth"; "Good night, John Boy."

It was a show about a family, of their love for each other and how they met each challenge together as a unit. That's what I wish for Elie when he is not with us - that he be among family, that they learn to care about each other and that they learn to meet each challenge that fate has in store for them.

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