Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Three Days in Nissan (Day Three At the Army Base)

We all have memories that are virtually indelible, part of our mental landscape, and more often than not, they involve our children. One of mine goes back to an autumn day several weeks after Natania had started Pre-K at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, which as some of you know is a large, sprawling school with over 700 students. On that particular day, I had to drive Natania to school. I stopped the car at the designated place in the front and watched her get out and walk towards the entrance. Her book bag was almost as big as she was. She knew where she had to go and strode purposefully off, one tiny child in a sea of big kids. I imagine the emotion that overcame me at that moment could be described as a combination of pride and…. fear. She had just finished Day Care, and there she was, starting on the path to a PH.D! I also remember collecting my entire family (my mother, my brother and sister-in-law) and bringing them to her graduation ceremony ten years later. Somehow she and her classmates had grown imperceptibly year by year, and ten years of our lives had stolen by.
And now we were sitting on a bus heading up to Michve Alon, an army base located between Karmiel and Tiberias. Improbable as it would have seemed several years before, our darling Natania was now a chayelit in the I.D.F.. She had completed her tiranoot (basic training) and her kurs Ivrit, and we would be present at a tekas siyum (completion ceremony) for the eighty young women who started with our daughter two months ago, all of whom would be shortly going to their new assignments.
We had not been “up north” since 1980, long before Natania (or Tina, for that matter) was born. That was my first time here, and we had five weeks to tour most of the country. (Flashbacks to a brief stay in Tiberias: eating freshly caught fish at a restaurant so close to the Kinneret that I could have reached over the retaining wall and gotten my hand wet; wading in that same Kinneret at night; a real-life comedy scene at a kiosk at the bus station when the attendant told me they didn’t have orange juice and was absolutely uninterested in selling me anything else; meeting a young American woman who was teaching music in a completely out-of-the-way settlement town in which she was the only non-Moroccan; the pair of sandals made from the rubber of old tires which I purchased there and still have.) Now in 2008 we were traveling on route 6, the new toll road, with signs before each exit that you will be billed for your usage at the end of every month. (I don’t know how this is done: there are no toll booths; no one seems to have a transponder on the windshield. Modern Israel. Now if they could only get the lines at the bank or the post office to function as efficiently.) Route 6 goes north-south, winding past countless Arab villages. Many of these towns are Christian or Druse, so one feels reasonably safe. The bus made one full stop, at Afula, which is not as dreary as I thought it would be. If you need to use the facilities at the terminal, the attendant will collect one shekel, which entitles you to some toilet paper. Definitely Old Israel. The bus started again, and we got off in the most middle-of-nowhere tzomet (junction) you could ever find, where we would wait for another bus to take us to the base. Total travel time? Over three hours. We finally arrived, and followed a number of chayalim and chayalot off the bus and up the hill to the base, which would under normal circumstances be impenetrable, but because of the tekas, we were waved in with a smile.
Here, without the smile, was where our daughter had spent the last two months (except when she was home for Shabbat or when she was assigned to another base for shmirah, guard duty). Here she had been yelled at by mefakdot, argued with Russian recruits, and began to make friends. Here she had done pushups, learned to shoot and maintain an M-16, eaten her meals in less than eighteen minutes, and learned to keep that M16 with her at all times. In short, she had survived the experience, most of the time, wondering why she was doing any of it.
We took a short walk around the base, and then it was time for the ceremony to begin. We stood in a little grandstand area on one side of what passed for a “parade grounds,” along with a small collection of family and friends of the “graduates.” Many of the attendees were also in the military. I assume that they understood more than I what was going on than I did. The eighty young women marched down one side of the field, made a right turn, and made a formation near us. Finding Natania in this mass of women was not difficult: she was in the same unit as a six foot five blonde Russian who towered over everyone like an enormous antenna. My surmise is that the point of the exercise was to demonstrate that the chayalot could collectively follow instructions. There was a lot of “attention,” “at ease,” “left face,” “right face” – all in Hebrew, of course. Whenever I see this kind of stuff, I invariably think of my Mr. Autote, our fifth grade gym teacher at P.S. 80, who had us spend the entire semester marching around the gym, by which time, all of us Jewish kids could do a pretty snappy “left face.” I cannot say that the tekas was in and of itself very stirring to a bystander, but it was certainly meaningful to the participants, all of whom had finished what was probably the hardest two months of their lives. The strangest part of the ceremony was when the soldiers stood at attention in formation and their mefakdot walked through the ranks and, one by one, seemingly at random, went to each girl and cut off the “trainee” ribbon from her uniform, giving each girl a playful punch in the arm. All of a sudden, these same people-in-charge who had spent the last two months yelling at everyone and docking them time for seemingly minor infractions were trying to be friendly. (After the ceremony was over and we were walking around the base, a young woman who reached somewhere on my chest approached us and asked – in decent English – if we were Natania’s parents. She told us that she lived in Kfar Adumim, a small neighboring community. Only afterwards did I find out that she was an M.M. [a rank above a mefakedet.] We realized that all the women-in-charge were girls, younger than Natania and half her size.)
The ceremony was over. A few outstanding chayalot were honored; the obligatory “throw your hat in the air” was performed as well as the “let’s form a big circle and do some pushups.” One by one, we got to meet the young ladies with whom Natania had made friends on the base: a few Americans and others who spoke English as a second language. Each one was apprehensively waiting to hear where and to what she would be assigned. There was one tiny person from California, Shira, who was hoping to get into Search and Rescue. She had relatives here, but her family was back in America. She, like most of the women in the program, was a “bodedet” (lone soldier) who, for whatever reason, had chosen to come and join, as I so often describe it, the first Jewish army since the time of Bar Cochba. Two days earlier, I was helping assemble packages destined for Lone Soldiers, and here they were! Perhaps someday the socks that “Packages from Home” (project coordinator, Shira), sends out weekly will grace the feet of little Shira from California.
We walked around with Natania explaining what happened in each of the buildings on the base. Soon it was time to leave; we had wangled a ride back to the tzomet with a woman who was serving as temporary mom for one of the lone soldiers. We waited there for almost an hour for the bus back to Jerusalem, through Afula and the many Arab villages, now seen in the evening light. Total travel time both ways: over six hours. Total time at Michve Alon: two and a half hours. Amount of satisfaction: more than I could ever measure.

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