Friday, July 31, 2015

Colors of the IDF

Before I joined the IDF, every green-clad, gun bearing, dashing young Israeli man or woman looked to me the same—a bad-ass soldier.

I knew, theoretically, that under each uniform is a unique person: a brother, a sister, a friend, a musician. I even knew some, personally.

But what I did not yet understand were the textures and gradients of the colorful palette that is the Israeli population. I had not met the Russian immigrant, the Ethiopian, the Druze, or the French soldier. I had not heard their stories of acclimating to Israeli society or their families’ plight from their home country. I had not yet met soldiers who wanted desperately to leave the army, to move to America, to become an officer, to master the Hebrew language, to fall in love, to give their all to the country, to become DJ’s, or to just laze through 3 years doing as little work as possible.

But now, after 8 months maneuvering the Israel Defense Forces, I’ve seen some of the shades of this palette. I will be honest – they do not always combine to create a Van Gogh painting. (Probably more akin to Jackson Pollock.) I’ve come to realize it’s a huge mess, but a beautiful one. Let me paint you a picture:

Preface: These stories are in no means representative or stereotypical of specific ethnic groups. They are accurate stories of people I’ve met thus far into my service. Names are changed for anonymity.


So what made you move to Israel, by yourself, at the age of 16?” I ask Alex from Kyrgystan, while he puffs on his hand-rolled cigarette.

“After coming a few times, I just knew I could make a better life here. My parents have never been, but they supported me coming. I moved with a program that helps Russian-speaking immigrants integrate. They are my best friends here. We live together in a cheap apartment in Haifa.”

Impressed by his early-ambition, I ask him about some low-points throughout his Aliyah Journey:

“Well, I remember once, at the end of the 30 kilometer Masa Kumta (final trek of training to receive the unit beret), when everyone’s families came to congratulate and greet them at the end-point...I saw all my friends run into their parents’ arms and I had nobody waiting for me at the end. So I just sort of stood on the side and cried a little. But that was one of the only times I cried since moving here. I don’t usually cry. I’m a man’s man, you know?”

I ask, “How does it feel to not be Jewish in a Jewish state? How’d you like course Nativ?”

(Nativ is a 2-month course for non-Jewish soldiers and/or new immigrants that teaches Judaism, Israeli society, and Zionism. The course offers, in addition, the opportunity to convert to Judaism if the soldier chooses to do so. It is an incredible opportunity because outside of the army, the process is tedious, expensive, and exhausting.)

Alex replies, “I liked the course. It was fun and I learned a lot…but you know, I signed up mainly for the cute girls.”

Alex plans on starting the conversion process in a few months, along with a few friends he made during the course.


Our voices blend together as we sing Lecha Dodi, one of the main prayers for welcoming in Shabbat. I’m strumming my guitar and Avi holds my siddur, reading the prayers with me—though he still remembers most of them by heart.

Right before the sun sets, I finish leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service for about 5 soldiers in my unit. I ask everyone to take a deep breath and on their exhale, acknowledge the new Jewish month. Then, we go around and each say one word we hope will define this Shabbat. One wishes for “quiet,” another for “jokes,” and another hopes for an easy transition to our new base. I draw the connection between the new month and the new base as opportunities to turn over a new leaf.

“The month of Av has a particular energy,” I tell the group. Avi nods his head in agreement, revealing a certain understanding of the Jewish months and their significance.

“Were you religious once?” I ask Avi the following day in the dining hall.

“Can’t you tell?” He replies with half-smile, half-guilty expression.

“So what made you change your ways?” I inquire.   

“I don’t really want to get into it now, but basically, in the army, I saw the fun in secular living, and it sort of pulled me in.”

I wanted to get even deeper into the conversation, but we were in the dining hall, and Avi explained he didn’t want to get too “heavy.” 

“The grinding daily routine is hard on us combat soldiers, so we try to joke around as much as possible. Keep things light, you know?”

Before this conversation, I never thought of my questions as being “heavy.” I’m just a naturally curious person. I thrive off conversations, soak in people’s stories, and am slightly addicted to deep connection. While I have found this connection on base (generally while washing dishes next to someone for over 2 hours), most of my exchanges with my soldiers consist of clowning around: silly handshakes, sarcastic comments, weird faces, “English lessons,” and poking fun at each other’s accents, to name a few.

Indeed, it has become clear to me that many Israelis—to whom rocket-sirens are as mundane as alarm clocks—depend on jokes and sarcasm to lighten their daily lives.


Though she moved to Israel from France 10 years ago with her family, Nathalie still has an accent when she speaks Hebrew. I met her on my first day in the Artillery unit. She greeted me with an enormous smile and a high-five: “No way, dude, you’re from America? All of my friends are American!”

From then on we became quite close. She worked on base as a weapon-technician and on the weekends, a partier.

It wasn’t until a few months later that she shared her story with me. I found out that she grew up in a Chabad family (Charedi, aka ultra orthodox) and after high school, decided to leave the community and join the army. Girls of this community don’t join the army (they study and get married) so she was seen as quite the rebel. As a result, she moved to the Beit Hachayal, a hostel for lone soldiers. Though her parents live in the country, she doesn’t receive support from them, and is thus considered (like me) to be a lone soldier. Nathalie was the first lone soldier I met who isn’t “alone” because of her new immigrant status. It was almost shocking to hear, because I had naively related to term “lone soldier” as an upper-middle class Jew who leaves their comfortable life to fight for the IDF—essentially, the soldier who carries-out the Zionist Dream.

But after hearing Nathalie’s story, I became attuned to the nuance of what it means to be a lone soldier. And ever since, I have met many lone soldiers who don’t live at home because of abuse, abandonment, or at best, financial problems. Often, it’s a combination of the three.

The thought has made me question my “status” entirely, because not once have I felt alone in this country. Sure, my parents are physically 7,000 miles away, and upon arriving here I had to bridge many cultural gaps, get over a significant language barrier, and deal with the feeling of being an outsider. But now, nearly one year into my Aliyah journey, I feel very at home here. I have gained a edge of assertiveness (while still retaining politeness…it’s a delicate balance), have navigated the country, become close to fluent in Hebrew, acquired a taste for Turkish coffee, and made many Israeli friends. 

Ironically and sadly, I’ve met plenty of Israelis who feel like strangers in a strange land.

One of my closest friends (from the beginning of my service) had no place to call home. She was kicked out of her house after high school and lived with her boyfriend, who couldn’t always house her. Her friends abandoned her for reasons I cannot divulge and she had no relatives in Israel. I couldn’t imagine how she felt when I—a very new immigrant—offered to house her with me one weekend at the Absorption Center.

These lone soldiers unfortunately don’t get the attention they deserve. The spotlight is on those who move to Israel to volunteer for the IDF. I’m not even sure these “other” lone soldiers know about lone soldier events, donations, or letters that are offered to them. Though they have the title, they don’t have the community or the recognition that we Garin Tzabar participants are fortunate to have.

Despite these hardships, some of these “other” lone soldiers often end up succeeding the most in the army. Because home life is complicated, they give their all in the army—where they feel most at home.

For example, I’ve met countless soldiers who dropped out of High School, attended juvenile prison, or were heavy drug-users before enlisting. Some just didn’t care to work hard in school. Suddenly, they were forced to put on a uniform. The army crushed their egos, provided them with mandatory education, discipline, and a common goal—defense of the Jewish Nation. Youth who previously had weapons taken from them were then handed an m16 and given responsibility.

Responsibility is the key word here. It’s the thing that helps straighten people out in the army. It’s a pretty simple psychological principle: when people are held accountable, they don’t want to let themselves, or others down. And in the army, they don't really have the option to not do their job. 

And so whether it’s the cook who has to ensure breakfast is ready by 7:15 am, the tech support soldier who has to fix the headquarters’ computer, or the logistic officer who organizes supplies, each soldier holds a responsibility that affects the other. Indeed, some are more passionate about their job than others (and that’s a nice way to put it); but, at the end of the day, the heavy responsibility put on these 18-year-olds matures them in a way that any other system wouldn’t.  

Some thrive in this rigid system and others less. And while I’m genuinely enjoying my service, I decided yesterday that I wouldn’t go to officers course and sign on for another year. I will finish my service in one year and 3 months and then start my civilian IsraeLife.

I’ve already started making travel plans, though everyone says it’s a bit too early for that. With all the Israeliness I’ve gained, my tendency to plan remains. There’s just so much to do in this short life—why not squeeze it all in?