Saturday, March 21, 2015

Meditation, Mulan, and Kitchen Déjà Moo

My weekend on base began as it generally does: in the kitchen.

Eastern pop music blared as I dance-mopped the dining room floor. My hands were prune-y from washing mountains of dishes and my lower back screamed for a break. But there was no break to be had. There was too much work to do, and I wanted to get out of there before sunset.

Leora, why are you smiling? Do you even realize where you are?!

Nobody seemed to understand my positive attitude during kitchen duty. I told them that it’s the only way to survive – and frankly, enjoy - 4 consecutive days of picking soggy army food out of the sink drain.

I have become the Kitchen Queen, the Mopping Maiden, Dishes Diana, and sometimes they even call me the Master Dessert Chef. Because I’m there so often, the soldiers think I’m one of the permanent cooks. (I don’t generally cook, but sometimes I offer to help make the “dessert”).

People now come to me with questions about the kitchen. I’ve started giving commands and doling out tasks to increase efficiency and maximize worker potential.

Call me “Kitchen Commander”…. I’ll probably reply.

Now, back to my weekend:

By 10:00 in the morning I was released for my post-breakfast break. The Paramedic of my Battalion (and also one of my closest friends) and I decided to go for a “light jog” in the area. 

Little did I know I would be running uphill through feet-deep mud, dodging cows and puddles in my way.  It was the most “combat” I’ve felt in the army. I hopped from rock to rock, over streams and through flower fields as my sneakers grew heavy with mud. 3 Kilometers later, when we finally reached the road, I was heavy breathing, and we weren’t even halfway there.

It was my first time running in months. During the course, I suffered from pretty serious shin splints, so I couldn’t put any pressure on my right leg. Any light jog would send a shooting, sharp pain down my shin.  So after a few months of resting, getting back into cardio exercise felt INCREDIBLE. I even survived the jog back to the base because we took the road instead of the “scenic” route.

I made it back just in time to shower and head to the kitchen. Where else does a Mashakit Chincuh belong at 12:30 in the afternoon on a Friday?

Four hours later, during my second break, I went to the infirmary (my second home on base) to find popcorn, brownies, and the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” ready waiting for me. I plopped my tired self on the couch and reality began to set in – closing on base really isn’t so bad. It’s actually quite fun. And it only got increasingly fun from Shabbat dinner through Saturday night.

Friday dinner on base is an interesting juxtaposition of Jewish tradition and army grunge. For instance, before the Kiddush is said, the soldiers place their turquoise berets on their heads (functioning as yarmulke) and stand tall, embracing the Shabbat tradition. (I can’t imagine what the non-Jewish soldiers must feel at this moment. Perhaps they are used to it, but it still must be uncomfortable. Although the IDF accommodates for all religions, it is a Jewish state, so there is of course a strong emphasis placed on Judaism.) 

Probably more than most on the base, I so appreciate the little things are army does to honor the Sabbath. That being said, I understand why most Israelis take this for granted. They are used to the smell of baking Challah on every street corner. They are used to everyone hurrying Friday mornings to get shopping and cooking done before sundown. They are used to everything looking a bit nicer from Friday night to Saturday night. But this born-and-raised American still gets excited and emotional from the little things. I really hope it stays this way, even when the little things become routine.

After a crazy chant-filled dinner, I journeyed down to “solelah aleph” (platoon א) to schmooze with some of my friends there. I requested that my friend whip out his guitar and of course, after that, the hours flew by signing the Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, and Israeli tunes. When the guitar appears, Leora is happy.

At around midnight, a few soldiers and I somehow got on the topic of Yoga.  One high-ranked officer questioned me rather skeptically: “What’s there to learn in yoga anyway? Isn’t it just sitting and saying OMMMMMMMM…” Of course, I explained that Yoga is more challenging than it appears, and that it is a way of living, not just an isolated “exercise.” 

Five minutes later, the high ranked officer and his two soldiers were in downward dog, asking me to correct their positioning. First, we talked about the importance of the breath, of self-acceptance, of "relishing the process" and relinquishing the ego. I gave about a 30-minute lesson in total; I covered basic sun salutations, some balancing poses, and a bit of theory, too.

They loved it.

In fact, the high-ranked officer asked me to lead a lesson to the platoon sometime soon. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the situation. My imagination ran wild: is my yoga going to turn these soldiers into hippies?  What if they start refusing to use their weapons?

It’s a crazy thought. 

That night I went to bed quite satisfied with how the day turned out, and I felt empowered to mold my army experience into exactly what I want.

The next day I headed back to the kitchen as per routine, but what awaited me there was less predictable. I ended up speaking with a fellow kitchen-worker, and quickly discovered that he and I are on strangely similar spiritual paths. By 9:30 am we had already delved into conversation on Jewish philosophy, religiosity, and Israeli secularism. Turns out we’ve read the same books and seen the same Ted Talks. We both appreciate Chabad but don’t feel that we belong there. We’re both social floaters and care deeply about spirituality. 

Later that afternoon, while sitting on a grassy spot that overlooks the Hermon mountain, my new friend (from above^) and I read excerpts from a book by Rabbi Leybovitch. (I will most certainly buy one of his books soon.) After a few good conversations, I sat and meditated with another friend, who happens to be a commander. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine – two soldiers in uniform, sitting in lotus position, speaking casually about energy. Ironically, right after the meditation, my commander-friend gave me a tour of the Autuomat, a tank-like vehicle that shoots cannons.

Two hours later and I’m back in the kitchen (de ja vu at this point?). By 10:30 pm I’m released and I head back to the Infirmary for another movie. This time it’s Mulan, and I can’t help but identify with her all throughout the Disney classic:
  • "Rebellious" daughter who leaves the house to join the army:  
  • Intense training period involving weapons: 
  • Crush on my commander: ✓ (A girl-crush counts, right?)
  • Motivated and unstoppable: 
  • An awesome pocket-sized fire-breathing dragon friend named Mushu: still working on that one. 
Besides that last point, Mulan and I are basically the same. Let’s just hope I have better luck at the matchmaker. 

Until next time,


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Life as a Mashakit Chinuch (and a bit about how I got there)

I sit drowsily in my team classroom, tapping my foot against the floor to stay awake. Just as my forehead inches toward the ground and my eyelids fall like heavy curtains, a familiar voice perks me out of my doze:  

Leora, boi! (come here).

I twinge—please no…not the Rasap.

The Rasap (n:) the senior soldier responsible for all equipment, cleaning inspections, logistics, and most notably, enforcing discipline.  She maintains a tight, slicked back bun, a stern face, and unparalleled seriousness. She is the one who—on day one of the course—had us all in pushup position until we learned how to make straight lines. She was also the only soldier of all the commanders who never cracked a smile.

She pulls me out of the classroom and a knot twists in the pit of my stomach.

Immediately the Rasap says,
“Leora, you’re the next aleph minhalot. And you have a lot of work to do. Good luck.”

Obviously, my first thought is “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO,” but the words that come out are “oh, emmm…cool.” (All in Hebrew, of course)

So what does the job entail? Essentially, aleph minhalot is the right-hand of the Rasap. For two full weeks, aleph minhalot organizes and assigns guard duty, addresses all logistical needs/problems, fetches and returns the daily snacks (3 times a day), leads activities, switches soldiers’ uniforms, and more. It is one of the most demanding jobs during the course, and thus, the most dreaded.


I ask the Rasap: “Wait. Am I allowed to be both Aleph Actualia (head news) and Aleph Minhalot?”

Though it may not have happened in the past, she said, she thinks I can handle it.

Indeed, the staff’s over-confidence in my abilities combined with their neglect for my sleeping needs resulted in two weeks from hell. Not only did my commanders give me two colossal jobs at once, but they also did it during the week of our final project and final exam.

So, using strength I did not know I had, I finished the two weeks in one piece. And I only broke down once! I may have cried into my mashed-potatoes, but at least I laugh about it now. 

In fact, when I look back on the entire 2-month course experience, I laugh at a lot of things I did and said. I laugh at how much I cared about the little things—what does my commander think of me? What grade did I get on this one paragraph assignment? What if I say something wrong in Hebrew in front of the whole group?

 I laugh at the seemingly intense guard duty, at the impossible assignments, at the absurdly strict discipline, and at the stress we inflicted upon ourselves arbitrarily. I laugh at how delirious and sleep-deprived I was half the time. I laugh at the oily pancakes we loved but also complained about. I laugh at the memory of throwing sacks of potatoes from a truck into the street for two hours one morning. I laugh at the memory of scrubbing mold off the shower walls and thinking: G-d, if this doesn’t prove how much I love this country, I’m not sure what does.

Certainly, the course had some very high highs and some fairly low lows. Some of the high highs included:
  • Ritually singing show tunes in the shower most nights.
  • Friday night dinners on base, which usually ended in Shabbat songs, made-up chants, or a game of some sort.
  • Deep conversations within the curriculum…we had a lot of these.
  • Deep conversations outside of the curriculum…I instigated a lot of these. 
  • Feeling my Hebrew improve each day, and getting A grades as proof of my efforts.
  • The indescribable 5-day Masa (trip/journey) during which I got to explore popular sites in Israel as an Israeli and as an educator. We traveled from the snowy Ramat Hagolan to the mountainous Gamla; from the holy city of Tiberius to the historic Masada; from the lush nature preserve at Ein Ged to the dry, un-settled Negev at Sde Boker. [The last stop in the negev was one of the more meaningful stops. Certainly not because of the attractions of the Negev and not even because of starry sky. The Negev reminds me that Zionism is far from an achieved goal. It reminds of the importance of Aliyah, of settling Israel’s periphery, and of all the work I have to do here. It’s at once inspiring and a bit overwhelming.]

As for the “low lows,” no need to delve too deeply. It’s nothing I haven’t shared here before. I struggled with the language, with my confidence, and in the really challenging moments, I even struggled with my decision to join the army.

But at the end of the day, I have my reasons, and I hold onto them tight. I even keep a little note with them in my dog tag holder—a note I wrote back in America, when the thought of me in uniform was still a distant dream.

Now this "dream" is very much a reality. On February 2nd I began my tafkid as a Mashakit Chinuch of Gdud (Batallion) 402 of Totchanim (Artillery). I’m more than one month into the job and I’m feeling pretty good about it.

Some basic facts:

Location: Machane Yoav in Ramat HaGolan (waaaaaaaaay up north).
Unit Demographics:
-       ~ 300 men (combat, commanders, officers, and non-combat soldiers)
-       ~15 women (social workers, officers, logistics, combat soldiers, and ME!)
Lots of marriage proposals for Leora!

Job Description: I plan lessons, trips, and volunteer opportunities for the soldiers. I am  also responsible for sending the soldiers to courses that the army offers, such as: finishing 12 years of education, finishing Bagruyot (state testing), course nativ (Zionism and Judaism for new immigrants/nonjews), and a Hebrew language course.
Unofficial position: unit psychologist, yoga and meditation instructor, instant coffee-connoisseur, English tutor, and Kitchen cleaner. The last one I didn’t do by choice, but you might see me in Kitchen more than in my office. It’s a part of my job that I’ve just come to accept. (More on the Kitchen duty for another blog!)

After one month, I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of things. I’ve already been through plenty with the unit, for example:

-       1 Dilug (v:) skipping, which in army slang means moving one’s base to a new location. In my second week on the job, we moved the entire base from Eilat (the southern tip) to Ramat HaGolan (The northern border with Syria).
-       1 trekk through knee-high mud.
-       1 trip to Eilat and the Red Canyon.
-       1 semi-successful Purim party (that I planned).
-       1 experience locking a cow out of the dining hall.
-        2 Snowball fights (I was victorious).
-       3 Dance parties (sometimes we have fun in the army!)
-       5,075 cups of coffee in the Ta’agad (infirmary), where I tend to spend my free time. Not because I’m always sick, but because the medics are the cool kids and I’m obviously one of them.

Tomorrow I head back to base for 11 days. I’m excited to create more memories and then share the most random ones with you all. 

Shavua tov!

In the North with my Tzevet on the Masa

Playing in the snow with Tzevet 6

With my host family at my Tekes Siyum (course graduation)

With former Israeli ambassador to America Michael Oren
FIELD TRIP r the Red Canyon 


סגל רחוק :)

Happy Purim <3 Gdud Reshef

Kitchen Duty Crew