Friday, November 20, 2015

Army Birthday

Celebrating Sukkot on Base
“Happy one-year anniversary to me,” I said to some friends as I packed all my belongings onto the bus.  It felt rather auspicious; after exactly one year in the army (my army “birthday,” as they say), I was moving bases for the fifth time in my service. We were heading back to Ramat Hagolan, the northernmost tip of Israel, just below the Syrian border. I sighed as I thought about the base to which I was retuning: the place where my toes are perpetually frozen; where my fingers turn ghost white and wrinkly from dish washing; where the bathrooms are a sight straight out of the The Shining.

It’s also the base where cows roam freely and chamomile can be found growing between the bunks; the base with a stunning view of the Hermon mountain and where natural hot springs burst from the ground just a few kilometers away; a base where first snowfall turns the view into a mountainous Swiss backdrop that just happens to be dotted with artillery vehicles.

I sit now in Modiin, mid transition. My office is packed up and we should be leaving in a few hours. I’m thinking about all I have experienced in the past 365 days—I can’t really sum it up. It’s been a roller-coaster of moments; moments of pure joy, connection, doubt, fear, betrayal, frustration, deep sadness, calm, silliness, hilarity, and humility.  This whole journey has been, so far, one big test of my motivation to serve the country with all my heart.

Any preconceptions I had about the army have been erased, that’s for sure. I now understand this system not as a young girl boasting an olive green and yellow “Tzahal” shirt, or a college girls’ “praying for the brave IDF soldiers” Facebook status or as a biased news reporter, but as an insider.

And as an insider, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and everything in between.

In some moments I can’t help but see the army as a soulless machine that doesn’t see beyond its’ mission, let alone consider the feelings or needs of the individual.

Indeed, the individual is so often lost, left begging for a new job, for mental health care, for some peace of mind.

And these aren’t just entitled people.

These aren’t just rich kids who are bored or tired of the army. These are people like my friend, who injured his back during training. He was then thrown out of combat (reasonable) and into a job that exacerbates his back problem (not reasonable). Even after tireless complaining, nagging, bugging officers, and going on harmless strikes, my friend is still in the same job. Why, might you ask?

Because a high-ranking officer doesn’t want him gone. My friend is smart and a hard worker. And in this system, it is understood that only troublemakers—those who make the most noise—get help.

It is a system where tons of untouched food overflows from big green trashcans and becomes home to all the base cats. It is a system that barely recycles, sells cigarettes at the snack-bar, and pours oil and salt on all the vegetables; a system in which the food is processed, the bread is white, the potatoes highlighter yellow, and the meat mass-produced; a system in which the underlying vibe is a recipe of stress, a pinch of anxiety, a ton of tiredness and a few dozen cups of laziness.

Yes, sometimes it’s hard to believe that I willingly put myself here.

And now, one year later, I can easily say that I’ve mopped more floors than ever before in my life. (You were expecting something else, weren’t you?).

But at the same time, I’ve learned the most about human nature. I’ve felt the most lost and the most at home. I’ve picked up more cigarette butts than flowers, slept on more busses than beds, and felt at low points a useless cog in the machine and at high points the most critical lever.

This past year I’ve found myself deep in conversation with people who I wouldn’t have met in a thousand years in civilian life—people with whom I have not one thing in common, other than the fact that we’re both human beings, wearing the same green uniform and serving in the same army.

This has been one of the most rewarding parts of my service—forging these quirky, unpredictable friendships. Through all of these encounters I have learned far more about Israel than I could have in any university course.

Certainly, before the army, I knew about crime and poverty in this country through articles and textbooks. I had learned about Aliyah from Russia and the former Soviet Union. But now, the former gang-member—who’s lost many friends not in war but in criminal attacks—is the guy cooking my eggs in the morning and bonding with me over black coffee during kitchen duty.

I cannot count how many times people have told me that their service was colored, defined, made miserable or meaningful by the people with whom they served. In fact, most people I’ve spoken to remember little about the actual job they did and more the late night heart-to-hearts and the times laughing about their crappy conditions.

Although I'm not going to lie -- I often wake up feeling blue.

It’s strange – I’m a naturally happy person, but mornings in the army can feel like trying to swim through a tub of honey: slow, sticky, and impossible. Then I put on my uniform, shine my shoes, and join my sub-division for morning formation. All it takes is a sympathetic smile from a friend, a “good morning,” or a hug to get me out of my morning mood. Then I head to the rickety trailer-synagogue, immerse myself in prayer, and I’m ready start my day.

I’ve found that Morning Prayer (shacharit) really helps me put the daily army grind in perspective. It reminds me every morning to seek the humor in illogical army decisions; to be compassionate toward my fellow soldier; to see people with a “good eye”; and to be grateful for my health and for my many blessings.

And at the end of the day, when my head is pounding from sleep deprivation and caffeine-overload, my stomach trying to digest the oily, salty food from the day, and my brain fried from working in Hebrew, I go to bed with the reassurance that these irritations are not in vain. I am reminded that at this point in my life, I’m not seeking comfort and ease. I’m seeking the challenge, seeking experiences that will test my creativity and adaptability—experiences that I will not forget in a hundred years. 

And particularly during this wave of terrorism, I am acutely aware of the army's significance. My brave friends are out guarding cities, doing arrests, standing hours at checkpoints and training in the freezing cold night so we can sleep easy at night, so parents can send their children to school by foot, so we can all live normal lives in the country we call home. 

With my Garin at the Paratrooper Beret Ceremony

Army friends :)

Having a blast on kitchen duty

Simchat Torah Celebration

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Untamed Wind

Fingers curled ‘round my mug
Slowly sipping
Sweet Chai
Basking in my pleasant
That cozy corner in my mind
Where solitude is more than enough
Company for me

Eva Cassidy’s velvety voice
Takes me back
To Autumnal scenes

Where leaves rise and fall
Swishing, swirling smoky spirals
On brick sidewalks, dotted
Romantic Red
Burnt Umber
And Crackling Fire Yellow

Where children in knit sweaters
Skip at dusk
Through alleys
Lit only
By the faint flicker
Of streetlamp's glow

This fall dream
So crisp in my mind
It pulses through my heart
And reminds me
Of simpler days 

Of trick-or-treats and
Pumpkin pies
CVS costumes
And huge leaf piles

Of burning wood smell
That lingers on clothes
And the gloomy grey sky
Just before it snows

Of Thanksgiving meals
Filled with stuffing and grace
A dining room table 
To a warm sacred space

Though these fine days are gone
And nostalgia rings true
I’ve given up dwelling
On joys I once knew

Now I’m busy writing pages
Of stories still untold
Turning corners to adventures
Of a life
So Bright and Bold

Eternal Rain

Rain falls on Israel
Nostalgic smell of dew
Crickets singsong
Of the pain that we've been through

Lighting cracks 
Like glass
Piercing through the Big Black Sky 
And with a boom
We shiver, shout
A desperate wanderers' cry

What if rain
Could wash our shores
of blood spilled 

I would pray
For eternal rain

To cleanse this land 
This sacred land 
Of hate and cruelty