Thursday, November 17, 2016

Next Stop: Unknown

I waved a final goodbye to the bus packed with my former-soldiers of Battalion 402.

As they headed to a trip that my replacement planned, I couldn’t help but remember that exactly one year prior, I was in that same spot as her, biting my nails over the 4-day Battalion trip that’s weight felt entirely on my shoulders.

Suddenly, all weights lifted, my ID card cut, and my dragged-out goodbye from the Battalion behind me, I felt an uneasy freedom.

That auspicious day had arrived – Nov 9, 2016.

My release from the IDF.

The big day that most soldiers look forward to from the very day they shimmy into their stiff, awkward-fitting green uniform for the first time.

With so much anticipation, nobody said it would be so...anticlimactic.

I suppose nobody actually expects fireworks, but everyone wants it to be special. Everyone wants to feel free.

After all, it’s the day you are no longer property of some big institution that played Mommy-and-Daddy, Evil Boss, Psychotic Girlfriend all at the same time for two or three years of your short life.

You would expect a big freaking sigh of relief, no?

I’m sure many people do feel a special high when their scissors cut through the plastic of their ID card and see their naïve, 18-year-old awkward selves staring back at them.

It’s amazing, the meaning attached to this little card—a card that if lost not only means an army-court hearing, but also a means a little loss of identity—a little loss of belonging.

Only in retrospect do I appreciate how this tiny piece of plastic allowed me free bus and train rides, quick passes through security, discounts in stores and the frequent smiles of brotherly pride, camaraderie, and sympathy when I would (accidentally) try to pay with it instead of my debit card.

Indeed, as much as this system confines, it also provides. On a personal level, the army gave me a deep sense of belonging. And for a new immigrant, this sense of belonging is of utmost importance. Belonging means feeling a part of a community, feeling supported, feeling needed. Even "ordinary" soldiers benefit from this belonging, though most of the time, only really appreciate it once it's gone.

Only afterwards, once they are totally “free” do they understand what chaos is. People don’t talk about the chaos. About the loss of routine, of commanders who care, of having your basic needs met. We are (informally) taught in army to appreciate freedom so badly—to savor every ounce as if it were gold—that when we are handed the whole treasure chest we are overwhelmed and don’t know where to put it all. Our pockets don’t feel big enough.

Only recently has the country began addressing the issue of recently released lone soldiers—how to help them transition, integrate, and mitigate the feeling of loneliness upon their release. Because these lone soldiers are often the most motivated of Israeli society, it is in Israel’s interest to invest in them, too.

So I guess I’m a part of the statistic now—the lone soldiers who choose to stay in Israel, despite the plethora of material and emotional incentives to move back. Though honestly, I don’t understand how people move back to the states after the army. How do they leave Israel after investing so much time, sweat, and tears to the country? 

In many ways, this experience gave me a takeoff platform for entering Israeli civilian society.

In many ways, the army gave me wings.

Of course, looking back, it is more comforting to remember the positive moments; to color the experience brightly, in order to justify to myself and to the world that I made a “good” life choice. Admittedly, I will miss the complexity of the experience—the parts that made me shine along with the parts that broke me down and made room for growth.

I will miss Sunday mornings at the train station, when I would get a little excited to see soldiers with the turquoise beret, my battalion’s tag, and everyone looking a little hungover yet excited to see one another.

I will miss Shabbat in Ramat haGolan, when quiet would suddenly descend upon the artillery base.

I will miss lending my beret to a fellow soldier during Shabbat dinner, when they realized they needed a Kippa (yarmulke) for Kiddush.

I will miss staying up late working on something, and while locking the office at 1:00 am, hearing all the officers tell me: “you’re crazy” and “go to sleep.”

I will miss chatting with nearly every person on the line for food, and getting special treatment to enter because of my popularity amongst the cooks. (Due entirely to the excessive amount of kitchen duty I did).

I will miss the satisfaction of hearing soldiers say, after finishing Taglit or an education course (my work), that it was the best time in their service.

I will miss walks and little adventures around the base, looking out into the “real outside world” like happy prisoners.

I will miss eating pizza with my roommates at ungodly hours of night, laughing at the fact that we have guard duty just a few hours later, understanding that sleep is just not part of the picture.

I will miss spontaneous dance attacks in the office, and how upon hearing a knock on the office door we’d buckle down for serious work.

I will miss how everyone called me “savta” (grandma) for being a few years older, and the ludicrous questions that would follow—mainly about college and whether it’s really like it is portrayed in American Pie.

I will miss following the sound of a guitar strumming at night on base and instantly walking toward it, to what usually would result in a 4-hour jam session that only 4 cups of coffee the next day could remedy.

I will miss visiting people on guard duty with snacks and stories.

I will miss feeling goosebumps every time I’d sing Hatikvah in uniform, and for a brief moment wanting to be an officer while they saluted to the flag. (Good thing the feeling would pass…)

I will miss little kids on the street pointing to me and saying “chayelet!” (soldier) while in uniform.

A part of me will miss the simplicity of wearing the same clothes every day for a week, or two.

I will even miss (yes, everyone in 402 has the right to quote me and make fun of me for eternity) washing dishes next to a complete stranger, and by the end of the tiring day, feeling like we’re childhood friends. 

*            *            *   

The other day, while driving through Ramat Hagolan (where my base used to be) I saw soldiers at the local restaurant and felt so a part of them yet a bit removed. This bit of “removed” feeling is growing with each day, as I become more and more habituated to life outside of the army.

Admittedly, I still hesitate a bit when I open my phone case and intuitively check for my ID card to see that it’s not there. Though with each day the tightness of my gut-reaction lessens, there are still some things that will stay with me, like getting ready in 3 minutes, fearlessly speaking in public in Hebrew, turning any expression into an acronym, faking it until I make it, and laughing at myself when everything seems to be going wrong.  

Now, as I straddle the known and unknown, the adrenaline is in full gear. I have a few hours to pack an oversized backpack for the next three months in Spain, Portugal, all over America and my last stop: India for a yoga-teacher training.

I am returning to Israel in March to no home; just a plan to hike the country for 64 straight days on the Israel National Trail.

I am excited, nervous, and totally overwhelmed. I have no idea what I have signed up for, but I somehow feel held and protected.

I thank G-d that I have made it this far in my Aliyah-adventures, and am grateful for everyone who has been there to teach me, inspire me, and lift me up along the way.

Cutting my Choger! (ID card)

It's official...

Friday, October 28, 2016

Returning Home

*         *          *

1. Clichés
Mural at BCI

“Every blade of grass has an angel beside it, telling it to grow grow grow; every human being has an angel beside him, telling him to trust what he already knows.

We sang this line—with mantra-like repetition—in the majestic woods of the Brandeis-Bardin campus in Southern California. I found myself at this Jewish summer camp for adults, otherwise known as Brandeis Collegiate Institute: a 26-day experience of introspection, (unofficial) group therapy and artistic expression through a pluralistic Jewish lens.

“Jewish rehab,” if you will.

The goal of the program is to help Jewish young adults own their Judaism and make it real, creative, and relevant to their lives.

For most, it was a process of introducing new Jewish rituals and new meaning. For others, it was a process of unlearning the harsh, guilt-driven Judaism with which they were raised.

On a personal level, this program came at a critical junction in my life. It was right before Aliyah—June 2014—the ideal time to reflect. My peers and I sang zmirot until we were hoarse, danced until our bare feet nearly bled, picked fruit under the hot Californian sun, laughed to no end and shared our deepest truths in front of the whole group.  

Most underwent some serious inner-spiritual growth, spurring what is sometimes referred to as a “Jewish Journey.”

It was my first time encountering such an expression.

What does that even mean, I remember thinking. It sounded cliché.

But after extensive journaling, learning Jewish philosophy, exchanging life stories, and marveling at the intersection of Judaism and art, I gained a new perspective on said journey.

I learned that it’s not necessarily a linear path, and nobody said it has to be.

I learned that it’s ok to fall down and get up and try something new just to immediately throw it away. 

And since then, I’ve been captivated by people’s paths—where they started and what choices they’ve made and why. I suppose it’s a source of comfort to know that not everyone has it all figured out—that there’s always a sliver of doubt, or a voice in their heads saying to choose the other path or to pave a new one entirely.

What I can say for certain is that I am blessed to have had many experiences that have guided and inspired me along the way. 

*          *          *

2. Hatikvah

I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America…the words came out robotically from the peers of my 2nd grade class.

At Jewish day school, we started each day with “The Pledge” and immediately after, the Israeli National Anthem “Hatikvah.”

The words to Hatikvah came out naturally, as well, yet there was something different about this daily ritual.

Something deeper.

I felt it in the subtle sadness of the anthem’s melody and the way I felt singing in Hebrew – a foreign language I used primarily in morning prayers.

My 7-year-old self knew that I was singing in the language that makes up the blue-velvet Siddur I received in my 1st grade siddur ceremony. I knew it was the same language in the songs to which I swayed my small body in my favorite class of the day—Israeli dancing with Shmulik.  

I remember feeling that these songs connected me to something bigger than myself; to some faraway place I’ve visited before—a place that’s always hot and smells of flowers and Zaatar and my grandpa’s cologne.

*       *         *
3. Jew-Band

My Mother, Shirona & Her Band 
I sat in the third row, my regular spot at temple Knesset Tiferet Israel. I watched my Mom, the cantor sing “hallelujah,” in awe at how the prayer so effortlessly and beautifully flowed.  

It was one of her Friday night “simcha services,” during which she and her “Jew-band” (a self-assigned name) would play joyous songs to welcome in the Sabbath.  My foot tapped to the rhythm of the psalms as I subconsciously soaked in the melodies and their words.

I did not know that these songs would help form the basis of my deep-seated soul connection to my religion. What I knew was that I was proud of my mom, and I appreciated how much she and her voice lifted the congregation to higher heights.

I spent my after school hours at this temple, waiting in the office for my mom to finish tutoring Bar-Mitzvah lessons, my sponge-like brain absorbing the sounds of the Torah tropes.

Later, this knowledge would become a source of income and connection to Judaism (as a Bar Mitzvah tutor) in the middle of a 4-year period I named, in hindsight: “Public School Exile.”

*      *      *

4. Public School Exile
Rye High School in Westchester, NY

“You’ve never eaten what? But…but…it’s so delicious, just have a bite!”

Though I knew one bite wouldn’t cause the world to implode, I was apprehensive. A small voice told me not to do it.

The voice said: “Leora, it’s not only unkosher, it’s the ultimate unkosher thing to eat. Bacon.

But I was 14 and my most primal desire was to fit in.

I was new to Rye High School and to Public School in general. 13-year-old Jewish Day School Leora faced an intimidating new world of country-club-goers, Irish pubs, football teams and house parties where “cool kids” played beer pong in red cups; a world of Christmas and Easter, with a tiny minority of Hannukah and Passover; a place where someone actually asked me if I “Speak Jewish.”

In said environment, assimilation came naturally. Without even realizing it, my three new best friends were Christian and my first serious boyfriend an Irish-German-Puerto Rican Catholic. I was basically a permanent resident at his house, and jokingly called him my “goy-friend.”

In this adolescent period, I enjoyed the diversity of views, the sharing of customs, and of course, experiencing four consecutive years of Christmas.
Friday night was like any other weekend day—hangouts with friends, meals at the local Japanese restaurant, movies in Port Chester. Saturday entailed shopping in Manhattan, yoga classes, day hikes, the beach, or some other underwhelming suburban adventure.

Certainly nothing Shabbat-related.

To my High School Self, the thought of voluntarily spending my weekend at synagogue felt like some sort of strange punishment. I saw it like going to the dentist for a checkup – it’s something you must do once a year, for a “spiritual cleaning” on Yom Kippur, but other than that, it’s unnecessary and actually quite the burden.

I had this conception of a frummy “good Jew”—one who follows all the rules, is unexposed to diversity, to modernity, to the truly “fun” things that life has to offer.

I remember thinking: they’ve never tried breaded jumbo shrimp or kissed a boy by the lake at camp. They can’t go to the Beyonce concert on Friday night, nor can they drive to the beach on Saturday. They can’t even go to prom because it’s on Shabbat, and well…alcohol and boys.

Though I was not exposed to Orthodox Jews, I knew they existed, somewhere deep in the Shtetls of White Plains and Riverdale.

I “knew” that their lives were duller, their food less tasty, and that they have more kids and less fun.

And I knew that since I had the choice, of course I would choose freedom—freedom from rules and restrictions and things that dampen the joy.

Yet, despite my harsh misconceptions, I felt that my Judaism was a fundamental part of my identity.

I still remember when nearly the whole camp auditorium stood to say Kaddish (the mourners prayer) at my non-Jewish camp--after the sudden death of a counselor--and something in the fabric of my being was shaken and I joined in.

I remember feeling a sense of camaraderie with the handful of Jews marked absent at Rye High because it was the Jewish New Year and we were busy dipping apples in honey instead of fries in our ketchup at lunch.

Although I wasn’t a part of a Jewish community anymore, I always felt Jewish, though perhaps with a bigger emphasis on the ish. Jew-ish.

So when summer 2008 rolled along and I was “too old” to head back to arts camp at French Woods, my internal compass pointed east.

*      *      *

5. Nesiya
Desert Hike on Nesiya

We looked out past the desert crater, swaying rhythmically, singing songs to welcome in

Shabbat. I was hand-in-hand with a group of fifty 16-year-old young adults from America and Israel. It was summertime in Israel, and the golden beams of sun glazed us like the delicious challah bread awaiting us.

Our white clothes reminded us of the purity and unity of Shabbat and a flute’s song added serenity to the already surreal setting.

I was taken afloat.

For the first time I experienced the wonderful paradox of the desert – feeling small and insignificant yet connected and empowered.   

When people talk about experiences and programs in Israel that change lives, I immediately think of Nesiya.

Volunteering at a Bedouin School
Like BCI (the program mentioned in the first essay), Nesiya is a creative journey. On this 7-week program, teenagers not only explore Israel through a creative process, but also explore and enrich themselves. The program helps break down stereotypes of the “other” and expand the definition of “I” and “us.”  Through intense community building activities and artistic workshops, these teenagers learn Israeli culture, volunteer, delve into Jewish texts and hike the land.

After 7 full weeks on Nesiya, I returned to Rye, NY changed. With a wider perspective, I took on challenges with more ease and grace, felt less pressure to fit in, and felt a stronger connection to my Jewish identity, and therefore, to myself. I carried in my back pocket memories of eating fruits of the land, of special Shabbatot, of singing on the beach, of witnessing others’ transformations, of meeting inspiring Bedouin women, and beyond all—of feeling true alignment.

At 16-years-old, I felt mature and invigorated with purpose. I decided to write my college essay on an emotionally charged experience of coexistence from this trip, and I continued to share said story throughout the school year.

I felt that I had a message to relay, and it poured out of me in song.

*      *       *

6. Fruit of the Land

The first bite of a persimmon is the best.

I am always pleasantly surprised by its ripe sweetness, its tomato-like texture, and by the explosion of flavor. Together, they combine to create a full (and messy) sensory experience.

I remember walking down Ben Yair street in Arad in 2010, the August sun hitting my freshly freckled shoulders. I took my first bite of the persimmon given to me (for free!) by the friendly mustached-man at the local marketplace. A grateful smile still plastered to my face, I replayed the scene in my head, feeling a specific calmness that I had not felt before.

I hold this memory as one of my first adult “Zionist” moments, even though most wouldn’t consider it so noteworthy.

There wasn’t an unveiling of some revolutionary idea. I didn’t come up with a solution to anti-Semitism or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or global assimilation.

What it was, in short: a moment of deep love for the land.

For the fruits of the land. For the people who planted the persimmon tree, for the people who harvested the fruits and to the friendly older man who handed me the Persimmon before I could hand him my 2-shekel coin.

Those transient moments of joy and gratitude in Israel are what keep me here.

It’s would be untrue to say that I’m here because I want to be a part of the most incredible national project there ever was, or that I’m here because of the Zionist dream, or even because I connect to the culture, the people, the history, the scenery, and so on.

I suppose those reasons aren’t false.  They are my cognitive, retrospective reasons—the reasons that other people can hold, weigh, and make some sense of. They are the reasons that fit into neat little schemas of the logical mind.

My deep truth, however, is far more sensory. Emotional. Subjective. Tied entirely first person experiences—moments of faith in the old city of Jerusalem, of humility in the desert, of wonder in Tzfat, of conversations with strangers on buses or park benches or even heavenly moments with freshly picked fruit.

No matter where the experience took place and no matter its objective importance, I can divide them all by one common denominator – full presence.

Through being fully present to the sweet and bitter moments of my gap year in 2010, I formed a holistic taste of Israel. Volunteering at a foster home for 3 months taught me that not all of life in Israel is sweet bus drivers and great hummus. I learned about poverty, about racism, about corruption, and in general, about all the work that needs to be done here.                                                                             
Just as Israelis run toward terror attacks and not away, my reasons for staying here are beyond logic. Here, I am inspired to run toward the problems and not away – both on a personal level and societal level. Often, this intensity feels too heavy. It isn’t easy to wake up and be confronted with a mirror of problems every single day.

But it is a way of growth, and that is the path I have chosen.

*      *       *

7. Basic Training for the Soul

I cried on my third day of basic training in the IDF.

On the phone.

To my Mom.

I was 22, a college graduate, and I’d like to think fairly emotionally mature.

I wasn’t crying because the running was hard (it wasn’t), or because an 18-year-old was shouting at me to stand still all day. Those were superficial annoyances compared to the tornado of emotions wreaking havoc inside.

I was deeply frustrated.

Trapped within myself.


The words that came out – in my shaky Hebrew – were as awkward as the baggy off-grey, ripped uniform and forest green 5-shekel baseball cap I was forced to wear.

Like my sentences, like the very droopy rim of my hat, I was broken.

Or at leas my ego was.

All the external “things” that I used to define myself were stripped away – my long hair, my flowy dresses, my nose-ring, my English. My comfort zone. I couldn’t even share what I was feeling because there wasn’t time, and there wasn’t really anyone to vent to in English.

This resulted in a rich inner-world of thoughts, emotions, and ideas. I kept it all inside, in a corner of my mind where I kept my “true” identity.

I was a fly on the wall, a curious observer of the strange, slightly evil entity that is the 18-year-old Israeli girl.

And when I wasn’t observing, I was in one of those dreams in which you try to speak and nothing comes out…then you’re yelling, and it’s urgent, and finally when a sound comes out it’s gibberish and everyone just stares at you as if you have three heads.

IT’S NOT FUNNY I used to think, defensively.  

I felt that they were looking directly at my insecurity under a microscope—the part that differentiated me from others—the most obvious proof of my “Americanness.”

Only once I realized, and really internalized, that they weren’t laughing out of malintent, I was freed me from my insecurity.

And gradually, I mended this brokenness with humor and humility.

Gradually, I began to laugh along with them.

I began to heal.

Healing, for me, is the feeling that the unfinished is finished, like a small gap in a circle filled.

Once we come full circle, we can let go.

I felt this “closing of a circle” in my last leg of the army, which I spent in “Nativ,”a 7-week course for new immigrants (like myself) and for soldiers who aren’t Jewish according to the Israeli Rabbinate. 

The goal of the course is to help these soldiers better integrate into Israeli society. Many get into the course to convert (which entails a longer process after the course itself), others to take a break from the “real” army, and most because it’s considered one of the best courses the IDF has to offer.

It’s a course to which I sent many soldiers (through my job on base), most of whom hail from the former Soviet Union. I was always envious of them, and never felt my time would come.

But when July came around, a few miracles transpired to make it all possible.

I was able to “send myself” to the August course in Jerusalem, knowing that upon my return, I’d have two weeks back in the Battalion before my unofficial release.

So, I trained my replacement for a rather long period – almost three weeks – a process that felt like a small taste of parenting. I taught her everything I knew about the job and about the battalion, with hopes that she would be better prepared for the job than I was two years ago.

Thankfully, August 7th came quick, and after saying some temporary goodbyes, I left for the course wide-eyed and excited. Back in learning mode, back to books, back to classroom energies and teachers and activities. The nerd in me was so excited; I even decorated a notebook and bought expensive pens.

I got placed in a team of almost all native Israelis (as opposed to other groups of new immigrants) because I scored high on the Hebrew placement test, which was a nice re-boost to my disintegrated ego. And while I couldn’t use English as a crutch or relate socially as I would with Americans, I found other ways of connecting, and was forced to really learn in Hebrew for the first time since my post-training course.

There was something immensely satisfying about this.

People even turned to me for answers to questions, for help on the tests and even for Hebrew grammar.

And although I wasn’t the most articulate voice in the class, I was happy to have a voice—a contributing voice.

I was happy to hear and to be heard.

For 7 weeks I was surrounded by inspiring teachers (with whom I’m still in touch) and given content that made me excited to go back to class after each 15-mintue break: Torah, Jewish Thought, Holidays, Identity, Singing, Zionism, and History.

In addition, every Tuesday we traveled to a different part of Israel, each day centered on a different theme. We climbed Masada, visited the Knesset and the Supreme Court, crawled through tunnels, walked the old city of Jerusalem, hiked through forests and cried through a meaningful tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s incredible Holocaust museum.

Surprisingly, people cried a lot in this course. It may be difficult to imagine a group of IDF soldiers in uniform, sitting in a circle and sharing some of their most personal life stories, or crying in discussions on identity, self, purpose, and relationships.

But that was Course Nativ, in a nutshell: basic training for the soul.

Except this time, we cried because we touched on some sensitive truths; because the conversations sparked questions that usually remain unaddressed, dormant in our subconscious; because we encountered subjects that were meant to “break us down” – in the healthiest of ways – in order to make room for growth, for renewal, for the rebuilding of self.

So in the last week of the course, when we were asked to draw a “before and after” picture to represent the effects of the course, I drew a flame in the IDF insignia.  

The flame represented my passion for learning and for creativity, two things that often felt rather dulled by the monotony of the army.

In contrast, throughout the course, I felt inspired every day to create, to sing, to play guitar, to teach. I felt that my spark for Jewish learning was beginning to be fanned once again.

And so at the end of the course I cried, but this time, not the tears of frustration that I felt in basic training.

I cried because I was moved—because a circle felt complete.

At a Jerusalem Lookout point 

At the top of Masada
My Nativ Class - Tzevet 6

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Memorial Day Memory

The siren pierces through the heart of the city. It’s a familiar sound heard twice a year – once on Holocaust Memorial Day, and once on the Memorial Day for Israel’s’ fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

I immediately step out onto the Herzliya hotel balcony to watch the world stop. I look below me and suddenly every car is still, many parked in the middle of the street. People walking their dogs stand like statues in their place, and it seems as if the animals know, too.

I have never seen a city overcome with such an intentional stillness—a bustling city turned monopoly board game. Goosebumps raise the hairs on my arms as I stand and watch in awe.

A salty breeze blows through my still body, sending my hair flying behind me. I look out into the direction of the sea to see a middle-aged man standing perfectly still, waist-deep in the Mediterranean, honoring the fallen.

I will never forget the image of this man. It’s the juxtaposition that get’s to me—that abrupt intersection of joy and pain that so defines this crazy country.

It makes me wonder if we, Israelis, could really appreciate the miracles of Israel without the pain, the loss, and the inevitable hardship. Even more, I wonder if these miracles are contingent upon our losses? Does our destiny will us to fight forever?

Undoubtedly, the siren sparked within me many questions—questions that cause me to toss and turn and night, while native Israelis relate to them as routine elements of society. For instance, all of my army friends talk about the Memorial Day siren as a given—because of course, they grew up with it.

This time of year, every city, army base, school, and small town has a ceremony for Yom haZikaron, a generally teary, somber event in which names of the fallen are read and famous singers perform heartbreaking songs accompanied by piano and violin.

And at sundown the following day, people replace their tissues with streamers and poppers as they prepare to decorate the city in blue and white in honor of Independence Day. 

It seems like a harsh transition. Sometimes, it is harsh.  It’s a 48-hour-rollercoaster of emotions, during which we are jolted up and down and to both sides, left wondering what the heck just happened. Indeed, the holiday hangover is not from alcohol, but from the intensity of the experience itself.

Back on the Herzilya balcony, my eyes close and my thoughts begin to ebb and flow with the waves.

I think about sirens, and how this siren is unlike that which signals Israelis to run for their lives; the surprise, 21-seconds of horror that determine life or death; the unfortunate sound that the people of Ashkelon and Sderot know all too well.

This two-minute Memorial siren, by contrast, tells us to pause. To stop and remember. To acknowledge the price our country pays to be able to enjoy our ice-caffe on the Tel Aviv beach andhike the waterfalls of the Golan Heights. It is the price that Israeli mothers and fathers fear when they send their wide-eyed 18-year-old sons and daughters to the bakkum (enlistment center) and watch their children turn into adult soldiers before their eyes.

And just like that—with a packed sandwich, extra snacks and way too many toiletries in their backpack—these 18-year-olds leave the bakkum dawning the familiar olive green and boasting a new identity number around their necks: a number they will likely remember for the rest of their lives.

I know I will.

Though the army is but a two-to-three year chapter of Israeli life (not including reserves), it is a critical one. And sadly, for some, this chapter becomes the conclusion.

For those lives that were ended too soon—and for those civilians who became innocent victims of the hands of evil—we remember.

We remember their smile and their tears and their jokes and their dreams. We sing songs to reignite the love they once shared and instill it in the hearts of the people of Israel. We stand in the middle of streets and on balconies to watch the country honor them.

And while staring down at a man standing upright in the sea, we feel whole with the truth that pain is an inextricable part of our joy. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Freedom is a Tiny Desert Bird

My feet are sore and raw from walking barefoot in the rocky desert as I brush away some rough stones, making a small clearing for me to sit.  I’m in my festival mode – no worries, no problems, just presence, all love.

The four of us sit under the hot sun, singing familiar songs and exchanging stories.

“I’d rather be a […..] than a snail. Yes I would, if I could, I surely would…” Sings my friend, Adi. I smile, remembering the harmonic Simon and Garfunkel melody that brings me back to long car rides through the suburbs of New York.

“What’s that other word, Leora? I can’t remember.” Adi asks.

I scratch my head, racking my brain for the answer.

“Well I guess we can look it up – Rabbi Google always knows.” I say as I whip out my trusty pocket iPhone friend.

In less than 20 seconds the answers appears before me on a 2 x 4 inch screen:

I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail.

I let out a gentle chuckle, finding beauty in the small gift of being reminded of my late sister, who also went by the name “Sparrow.”

I am transported back to 2008, when in the middle of that same desert (near the large crater at Mizpe Ramon) I lead a memorial ceremony for my sister on the anniversary of her passing. It is nighttime, and thousands of stars sprinkle the ebony sky. Candles flicker in her memory while her voice fills the empty desert with a transcendent beauty. I am there, right there with her eternal spirit, feeling her presence like a warm hug.

Then, almost 8 years later, returning to the same desert—this time, as a permanent resident of Israel—I feel her presence again so close.

I am curious: “How do you say Sparrow in Hebrew?” I ask.

“Dror,” Adi replies, which also means ‘free.’”

How fitting, I think. A free spirit, once chained by gravity and matter and things that hurt, now eternally free.

I guess sometimes things just make sense, in a big way.

Just as it is no coincidence that the word dror is repeated again and again throughout the festival, and just like that tiny sparrow that landed on my sisters’ grave at my grandpas funeral, and how the only plot left for my grandpa in the entire section of the cemetery was right across from my sister—so too is the entire world held up by miracles.

After such experiences, I realize that sometimes the truth sneaks up on you, and sometimes it pursues you. Sometimes it is in the stranger holding a door; in a smile at the checkout line;  in the crystals forming on an icy windowsill or in a baby’s first crawls and falls.

Sometimes it’s that missing song lyric--the one that reminds you of what freedom really is.

And so tonight, as Jews around the world embrace the passover spirit, we shift into "freedom mode."  We sit around a beautiful table--where we recline and drink wine-- to retell a story of our past bondage, relish in our present abundance, and look forward toward a freer world. 

Last year before Passover, I wrote a blog about my “definition” of freedom. My wise, philosophical grandpa said in response to my post, that (I paraphrase), freedom is a vague notion that only makes sense when juxtaposed with something specific, such as  “freedom of speech,” “freedom of expression” or “freedom to vote,” and so the word “freedom” alone lacks inherent meaning.

This is certainly true, and I’ll add one thing. The ultimate freedom—which is our natural right—is the freedom to love and be loved, for love is the source and sustainer of all things.

My blessing to us all is that we experience real love this year; free love, unchained by the shackles of ego, shame, and doubt.

May we first have the courage to fully love ourselves—every blemish, bruise, and bump—and then may we look outward to radiate this love with the world.

!חג כשר ושמח לכולם

Friday, February 19, 2016

That One Time, At a Checkpoint

It is Thursday morning in mid-July, the peak of Israel’s sticky, summer heat. I head out of base especially early—around 6:30 am—to complete an assignment for my officer.

The mission: design a flyer for some “Big Army Event” at the Central Command base in Jerusalem before attending a conference for Education NCO’s (like myself), located conveniently at the same base.

I am thrilled to be getting out of base early, though I predict a long day ahead of me and I’m running on 3 hours of sleep. I bid my friend guarding the front gate goodbye and confidently strut out, my oversized backpack causing me to sway slightly with each stride.

Let’s do this.

The walk down hill is longer than I expected, and the sun is beating persistently on my neck. I’m about halfway down the hill when my phone slips out of my swinging hand and lands in a pile of rocks and sand.

I reach down to see that my phone is in perfect condition, and am relieved until I hear a terrifying ripping sound coming from my pants.

My one pair of army pants.

With a deer-in-the-headlights expression plastered to my face, I assure myself that there’s no way my pants just split down the middle. But as soon as I feel a breeze in a place where there should be no breeze, I realize I am in trouble.

I weigh my options: turn around and borrow someone’s pants, run back to the bus stop and most likely miss my flyer-making appointment, or keep going.

Like a good soldier, I choose the latter. I take a deep yoga-breath and keep on down the hill. No ripped pants are stopping me. Plus, I have a huge bag that covers my butt.

For the first time ever, I am grateful for my colossal backpack.

10 minutes later, I arrive at the bottom of the hill. I scan my surroundings and contemplate my next move. Well, now all I have to do is pass through this huge group of Palestinian men, cross a 6 lane highway, find an unmarked bus stop and make it there in 7 minutes.


While I had been informed that large groups of Palestinians pass through this checkpoint in the morning to get to work in Israel, I am in shock as I approach the group. I reach my hand into my purse and grip onto my weapon: a pocket sized pepper spray.

Though IDF soldiers with real weapons (my friends with m-16’s) guard 50 meters to my right and left at the checkpoint, I feel very exposed. I hear only Arabic and see every Palestinian head turn as I walk by. I don’t really know where to go, or how to cross this damn highway. It is my first time leaving this new base on my own, and I try my hardest to keep my cool.  

I start what looks like a real-life Frogger game as I attempt to cross the highway. When I reach the median successfully, I notice my friend in the guarding booth motioning me to look up, his arms flailing.

He tells me I need to cross over the footbridge. I look up to see hoards of Palestinian workers crossing this bridge. No. Chance.

I realize I don’t have another option, and my time is running out. I get back to the other side of the highway and begin climbing the stairs to the footbridge. I get to the top to see about 50 Palestinian men walking toward me. I feel like a goldfish swimming downstream against 30 sharks. Though I 'm sure these people just want to get to work, are probably completely innocent and don’t want to stab me, I am nervous. My heart races. I keep my head down, walk quickly, and grip my pepper spray as tight as I can. I am shocked that the army allows this to happen, and tell myself that I’m never doing this journey alone EVER again.

I make it to the bottom of the bridge and begin walking into what feels like a mouse-maze cage. This feels wrong. More and more Palestinian workers pass me and stare and whisper at one another. I look up and see a sign that reads: “You are now entering a Palestinian village. Dangerous for Israelis. Do not enter.”

Holy crap. I quickly head back to the bottom of the stairs to find a small opening in the maze-trap. I shimmy through it and continue to head down the side of the highway. No bus stop in sight. I walk back and forth, feeling confused, sweaty, and convinced that all the Palestinians sense my confusion.

I look down the highway, squint, and see my bus pulling out of a small indent on the side of the highway about 200 meters in front of me. Awesome.

At this point, I can’t hold it in. I shed a tear and then laugh at myself because it’s not even 7:00 am and I have already ripped my pants, escaped near-death, crossed a 6-lane highway, walked into a Palestinian village, and now missed my bus.

I feel pretty hopeless until a soldier from a different Battalion approaches. I’m so happy I want to hug him. My hero has arrived! I’m still shaky and teary when he stands next to me. I tell him everything that has happened and he shrugs indifferently, giving me a half smile that seems to say: what’s the big deal.

I wait for about 15 minutes—enough time to calm the eff down. When the bus arrives, I instinctively go to the trunk to throw in my bag. I take my bag off and quickly remember the pants situation. Welp, guess the bags’ coming on the bus with me. I find myself a spot in the back and carefully take a seat.  

Once I begin to calm down, my instincts tell me to take out my phone and text all of my loved ones.  Am I overreacting? I wonder. My pulse is still relatively fast as I realize that for the first time in my service, I had felt “the conflict” up close and personal. I am shaken up, but I am O.K.

The day must go on.

I even manage to crack a smile when the bus pulls in front of the familiar Jerusalem Central Bus Station. I am happy to be in this city, even for a brief moment.

My smile fades when I see my second bus – the last direct bus to the Central Command base – pull out a few meters in front of me. I hopelessly chase the bus, feeling like a luckless character in some sad comedy. I cock my head as if expecting the bus to turn around, like willing a bowling ball (that’s heading straight to the gutter) to perform a miracle and head down the middle. Or at least move a bit to hit one pin.

I just want to hit one pin. Just one thing to go right today, I think, as I feel the throat-knot forming again. 

Ooooooooof, I groan (the Hebrew arghhhhh). I seek a compassionate face to which I can cry. To my right, I see another green-clad woman about my age, also disappointed. She missed the bus, too.

“Don’t worry, there’s another way to get to Central Command. It’s where I serve. Come with me.”

My second angel of the day! Hooray! I want to hug her too, but I remember to keep my cool. I end up telling her about my day, and she is far more compassionate than bus-stop man. This girl is a friend, I think.

On the bus, we get so lost in conversation that we almost miss our stop. We yell at the driver not to close the doors, and we just barely make it out. That is, of course, after the doors close on my body. At that moment I don’t know if I’m lucky that my body helped us make our stop or unlucky that I was almost sliced in half by public transportation. Perhaps a bit of both, I conclude.

I shrug off this minor incident and continue talking to my new friend. We finally make it to the new base and begin trekking up the giant hill to the offices. I am huffing and puffing, remembering how out of shape I am, and wondering where the hell I need to go within this colossal base.

My “friend” suggests we change into my uniform “bet” (the uniform you wear only inside of bases) in her office, where she can also make me a cup of coffee. This time I actually hug her. I quickly find a bathroom, tear off my sweaty, ripped, uniform, and put on my more comfortable uniform. Though I know I’m not allowed to wear my uniform “bet” with sandals (which are allowed with uniform “aleph”) the rules are the last thing on my mind. I’m just happy be in non-ripped pants and safely at my final destination.

I drink a cup of coffee, bid my new friend farewell, and head off to complete my mission. After wandering the base for some time, I find the graphic design office and complete my flyer mission with relatively few obstacles.

Next step: find the Education Conference. I am feeling more optimistic about the Day From Hell. With one mission complete, I feel accomplished. I am getting back to my normal, successful self.

And then I meet Him.

 “Soldier, what do you think you’re doing wearing uniform “bet” and sandals?” asks the short, chubby, scary man in a threatening tone.

I am surprised to see the discipline-commander staring back at me, his brow deeply furrowed. I recognize his army position by the blue-and-white lace around his arm and his overly shined shoes.

“Soldier, what’s your name? Identity number?” He demands.

I am in shock. I stutter in muffled Hebrew “but…pants ripped…going to change shoes soon (I had no other shoes)…conference now…pants…”

“Soldier, you must leave this base,” he interrupts.

I don’t believe he is actually kicking me out of base because of my sandals. I genuinely think he is joking, so I let out a nervous chuckle.

He is not kidding, and apparently does not like being laughed at. 

“Leave at once!!! Or I’ll take you to army court!!!”  He yells right into my face.

I don’t know what to do, so I call my officer. I try not to choke up while the words pour out: “Shir, I ripped my pants and got kicked off base.” She is more confused than helpful, so I start walking toward the base entrance.

As I approach the front gate, the throat-knot forms again. I see the Terrible Man turn around and walk in the opposite direction.  

No. I am not letting this terrible person tell me what to do.

I turn right around and head to my conference, hoping I won’t run into Dr. Evil on the way.

After more wandering, I find the conference. I arrive and tell the officer about my day and ask her about Dr. Evil. She mentions that he is known for being particularly cruel, and that the unit is trying to kick him out of his job. I relax a little, feeling assured that other soldiers having bad days will not suffer his wrath as I did.

And so after 3 slow hours, I leave the conference—after nearly falling asleep on multiple occasions—utterly relieved to be heading home.

On the bus heading home, I send my roommate at text. Can’t wait to see you. Had an awful day.

I get off at Ra’anana, walk sluggishly to the Absorption Center, drop my bag on the floor, and plop on my roommates’ bed. I get a whiff of something delicious and realize that my roommate had made me dinner.

Over white wine, fish, pasta and veggies I tell her about the misadventures of the day.

And although I came home to a shabby apartment in the Raanana Absorption Center, after the worst day of my army career, after crying into cheap wine inside a free plastic wine glass, after eating off plates of past lone soldiers, I felt such joy to come back to the arms of someone who understood me. 

Someone who hugged me, fed me, and told me “yihiyeh b’seder” – it’s going to be O.K— “and maybe one day you’ll even laugh about it.