Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Day My Daughter Joined The IDF Part 1

Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning
[Original 1918 version:]

[1st VERSE:]
The other day I chanced to meet a soldier friend of mine
He'd been in camp for sev'ral weeks and he was looking fine
His muscles had developed and his cheeks were rosy red
I asked him how he liked the life and this is what he said:

Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning
Oh! How I'd love to remain in bed

For the hardest blow of all
Is to hear the bugler call
You've got to get up
You've got to get up
You've got to get up this morning

Someday I'm going to murder the bugler
Someday they're going to find him dead

I'll amputate his reveille
And step upon it heavily
And spend the rest of my life in bed
(from the score of the musical Yip-Yip-Yaphank by Irving Berlin)

One of the troubling paradoxes of life: by the time you are old enough or wise enough to ask a question, there may be no one left to give the answer. I’m not one of those enthusiasts with a passion for genealogy who creates elaborate family trees (my motto being, “Let distant cousins lie”). But I have always been interested in the circumstances of how my grandparents’ made it to America and what life was like for them back in the 1880’s. When I was younger, I thought I had a clear picture; but the older I got, the less sense some of the information seemed to make, and the fewer people there were around to set the record straight. In fact, at this point in time, there is nobody left who has any first hand or even second hand information.
Part of the difficulty was the glacial speed at which my family reproduced itself. My father was born in 1900; my mother in 1903. My father’s mother, Fannie (after whom Frank and I were named and whom Natania and I resemble) died in 1933, eight years before my brother and I were born. A few months after our birth, my father’s father died. About four years after that, my mother’s father died. The only grandparent with whom I had any relationship was my mother’s mother, known to the family as Tante Masha (one of the sweetest people to ever grace this planet), who died at the ripe old age of 95 in 1962.
Part of the difficulty was that the stories I heard about both sides of my family seemed remarkably similar, and I’m sure I have mixed up some of the detail of their lives. Both of my grandfathers, I was told, arrived here in 1885 to escape being drafted into the Czarist army. One of them, I’m not sure which, sent a brother who had tuberculosis (and would obviously be rejected) in his place, and then fled in the dead of night. My paternal grandfather, who was from Minsk came into this world as something like Elkanah Kashdan, but by the time he arrived in The Lower East Side he was Henry Cohen. (My father changed his and most of his siblings’ names back to ‘Casden’ in 1920 when he began law school.) Whoever he was, he – and this might be a romanticized version – slept on the carpenter’s bench in his shop and saved his money to bring his wife and their only child at the time, my aunt Mae, to America.
My maternal grandfather came into this world and left it as Samuel Jacobson, the first cousin and later the husband of Tante Mashe. But here’s what doesn’t make any sense. They were definitely and unequivocally German speaking Jews – not a syllable of Yiddish, and yet they were supposed to be from Riga, in Latvia. During the 1930’s, many of their cousins made it over here – from Germany. So what were they doing in Latvia, where the Jews spoke Yiddish? I’ll never know. Of course, if they actually were in Riga, which was then under Russian rule, it would make sense that Samuel Jacobson was also fleeing the Czar’s army.
One thing I thought I could rely on was when they actually arrived in American: 1885, which meant that they were here before Ellis Island became the immigration center for the New York Harbor. Recently, all the records for Castle Garden (which was the Ellis Island before Ellis Island, and which is still a tourist site in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan) became available in searchable form on The Web. And guess what? I couldn’t find any record of any of them arriving at anytime!
So I’m not positive when they came here, where they came from, or even what their names were! All I’m left with is that at least one or maybe both of my grandfathers fled the Old World (and I’m certainly glad they did) in the dead of night to avoid long years of service in a hostile army. Military service was rarely on the radar for the Casden or Jacobson families. Except for my Uncle George who served in WW I (I have a photograph from 1918 of him in his military uniform with the family dog, a little fox terrier named Teddy), I have no knowledge of any one else related to me serving in the American Armed Forces (although conceivably uncles and cousins might have). My father was too young for WW I and too old for WW II. Neither my brother nor I served during the Vietnam War, and we’ll leave it at that.
As many of you know, I’m a big picture guy; I try to see the world as a large globe rather than a trillion blades of grass, a zillion grains of sand, and a kazillion drops of water. One of the grand themes that ran through my head as we were planning our aliyah was this delicious bit of irony: that my grandparents came to America to flee Czarist conscription, and here we were returning Home to a Jewish state with a Jewish army. At that point, though, this was still an abstract idea. However, when we arrived here, this issue, as well as many others, became a lot more tangible.
We arrived here in Maale Adumim the end of July; if we had waited another six weeks, Natania would have been 20, and pretty much exempt from any military obligation. As it is, the I.D.F. wouldn’t have bothered her for at least a year because all new olim have that grace period. And if she then asked to be exempted to do sherut leumi (alternative national service as a religious woman), they wouldn’t have needed her for that service either because she would have been too old.
So Natania’s decision to request induction into the Israeli army was completely voluntary on her part. She marched herself into the I.D.F. office on Rashi St. in Jerusalem and asked to sign up. They called her back several times for various tests, the funniest one being the eye test. It seems they needed to make sure she didn’t have or need a seeing eye dog (too expensive to train or feed.) Natania inherited my great eyesight (joke), but she still managed to pass. After weeks of waiting, Natania finally got her induction notice: she was to report for duty on Feb. 10. Well, it was still October, and February seemed a long way off. So our little household maintained its same routine: we all got up at the crack of dawn to go to ulpan, trudging up the hill to catch the same bus, and generally returning together in the afternoon. Natania helped me with the shopping and cooking and assisted Barbara with housecleaning, while maintaining her positions as chief tech support person for all computer and gadget related activities and as chief household critic. (Barbara does all the fixing and worrying and handles all matters involving telephones.) And one by one, the weeks went by, as they always do, until it was time to start worrying about packing: “Natania, are you sure you have everything you need?”
And then it was our last pre-induction Shabbat, a special occasion, because we had no idea how often Natania would be able to come home. Tina came in from Tel Aviv (bringing with her two bottles of Single Malt she had picked up for me at the Duty-Free on one of her business trips) , and June and Jeff (“never a dull moment”) Glazer joined us. We were invited out, and we had people in, we talked a lot, we ate a lot, we sampled some of the Scotch, and ultimately Shabbat was over. Tina returned to Tel Aviv, the Glazers to Jerusalem. For our “last meal,” We ordered a pie from Pizza Roni (better than any Jerusalem 2 in America.)
Natania’s induction notice told us to arrive at 7:30 AM. While we have learned to be very, very skeptical about most Israeli starting times, we figured this is the army, so we should get there on time. In fact, on Sunday, Feb. 10, we arrived at the induction center at 7:20AM. First we waited outside in the cold, and then we were ushered inside to wait where it was warm. If this were back in The States, we might have been able to figure out what was going on around us by signs and voices, but here we just sat and watched the activity, trying to figure out by context what was going on. First the “jobniks” (male and female soldiers with office jobs, whose greatest safety risk might be getting paper cuts) arrived for work and began walking around the office with the studied efficiency of postal workers. Then all manner of civilians began arriving. Some of them were there for the same pre-induction examinations that Natania had taken. Some of them were yeshiva “bochers” coming to get their exemptions. You could tell the difference.
I especially noticed one young hassid, with an especially pallid complexion, stooped shoulders, long side locks and knickers, having no clue where to go. Exemption?!! This kid probably couldn’t even lift a rifle! Although I did read recently of one man who was blind and another who was seriously disabled who fought and fought until they were accepted into the I.D.F. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. No will, no way.
I thought back to that previous Friday night. Our large contingent was invited to one of our neighbors for dinner. It was a very large table because all of their children were home including their soldier son, Yoni, who is not only a paratrooper but is now training others to be paratroopers. We sat for a very long time, and soon the Schumaker home became Grand Central Station. Each of the children had their friends over. At one point, about ten of Yoni’s friends, boys he had known since childhood, all of whom were now in the military, came in together. I looked at these young men sitting together on the chairs in the far side of the room and, being the “visionary” that I am, saw these young men as poster children for our future: that of the religious Zionist community, of our beleaguered but potentially magnificent nation, of the Jewish people – and, yes, we all have a glorious future. Here were young men who were religiously knowledgeable and firm in their beliefs. None of them was particularly imposing physically, but they were in good condition and were trained soldiers. I had the sense that each of these young men could be learning from a Gemara held in one hand and could lob a hand grenade to take out an enemy tank with the other hand. OK, I am probably overstating my case, but you get the idea. As far as the hareidi and hassidic men and their exemptions are concerned, while some of them are indifferent or even hostile to our Zionist entity, many others sincerely believe that their learning is the highest form of service to the nation of Israel – and they may be right. Of course, they all understand that if terrorists were, G-d forbid, to attack their yeshiva, the Hand of G-d that would save them, would come wearing the uniform of the I.D. F.
More and more men and women entered the induction center. Some of them had backpacks or knapsacks; clearly they were there for their induction. A few came with parents; some were on their own. Finally at 9:30, after waiting and watching for two hours, someone came into the waiting room and made an announcement: it was time to go. That was it: no muss, no fuss; no ceremony; no words of wisdom. We all went outside where a van big enough to hold the dozen or so recruits was parked. We hugged Natania and watched as she climbed into the van, headed for who knows where. Suddenly, Barbara and I were standing by ourselves on a street corner, both of us feeling that part of our life was now missing. We were desperately in need of breakfast, and so we walked back to Mahane Yehuda, to a little café which Barbara and Natania had found several weeks before. There we had some coffee and pastry, and then it was time for Barbara to head off to ulpan, and for me to take the bus back home and to sort out my thoughts, which will be presented, patient readers, in the next installment, coming soon to a computer screen near you.

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