How is it that certain images seem to stick in your mind, even the fleeting expressions that you’ve seen on people’s faces? I suspect that Barbara and I will always remember the looks of shock, bewilderment, and utter exhaustion that tipped us off that Bryna Lee and A.J. were literally right off the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight and had no idea which end was up. We had gone into a local store here in Ma’ale Adumim, one that sells low-end housewares, for something or other, who-remembers-what. There were the two of them, with their mouths open – not knowing what they needed, and even if they did, what it would be called in the local lingo. We were able to help them out, and then the four of us headed off to the main mall for a bite to eat. That was about three years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bryna Lee and A.J. have one son, whose name is Sam. For a while, he was back in The States, having a good time, hanging out with his friends. He finally returned to The Land, helped the family select a new dog, located some female companionship, and worked at the Holy Bagel in the food court at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, all the while waiting for the moment to arrive. Sooner or later, the I.D.F. would get around to calling him in, although the time kept getting put off. Finally, the word came; Sam was given a date – and not with the girl of his dreams.
Despite the fact that it happens in so many families here in The Land, taking several years out of one’s life, subjected to military discipline, is a big event for any young person. At least the families who have been living their lives here know what to expect. By the time the children finish high school, they understand what their options will be; they have an older sibling, a relative, a friend of the family who has been there, done that. But here are A.J. and Bryna Lee, who with a little effort can read the label on a package of soup mix, and Sam, who is skilled at piling lettuce and tomato on a bagel and other related skills – none of which is of much use in planning a military career. So now, Sam was coming home with something for his parents to sign (which of course they can’t read), giving their consent for him to join kravi, a combat unit – in his case, the tank corp.
Talk about mixed emotions! On the one hand (as some of us pointed out), “Hey, you’re the ones who wanted to make Aliyah. It was important to you. Now your son wants to defend The Land you brought him to. That’s important to him. How can you say no? He doesn’t want to be a Jobnik, hanging around in an office for three years, doing diddlysquat.” On the other hand, Sam is their only child and…………… (You know the rest). In the end they signed, perhaps with hands trembling and hearts throbbing.
So off Sam went several weeks ago to the same induction center on Rashi St. that Natania had gone to some four years before, and now it was time for his official swearing in tekes. Bryna Lee sent around an e-mail inviting us (no pressure!) to join them at the ceremony on the Thursday afternoon at Latrun – or more specifically, at Yad Lashiryon, the Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum (on which site occurred a rather important series of battles during the War of Independence in 1948). Of course, they didn’t just invite us; lots of other friends wound up driving or taking a bus to the junction and walking from there. Barbara had signed up for some courses at Nishmat, an institute for women in Jerusalem, so Natania and I were the designated representatives for the family, and we set out for Latrun to help celebrate Sam’s big moment and possibly re-live some of our daughter’s own experiences.
When you’re in the IDF, you get to have two ceremonies: one, like this one, when you’re sworn in and one when you’ve finished basic training several months later. Natania’s swearing-in ceremony was held at a base near Ginosar, by the top of Lake Kinneret, very hard to get to by bus. At the time, Barbara was doing a volunteer stint nearby, so she was able to attend. Both of us were at the second ceremony at Natania’s training base (only three bus rides away), so I had some idea what to expect at Latrun.
All of these ceremonies have a lot in common: soldiers marching, then being given orders to stand at attention and at ease over and over again – as if it were a big deal to do so. Lots of speeches; military sounding music; the works. There were hundreds of people assembled that afternoon, the usual assortment of family and friends, sitting in the big outdoor theater (with concrete seats) trying to ignore the heat of the day. A few announcements were made, meaning it was time to start. A small number of recruits marched onto the stage, then some more, until the entire pluga (whatever that is in English), several hundred men, had lined up in formation on the upper level of the stage. This, no doubt, was someone’s idea of adding drama to the moment. Then a smaller group of men appeared on the lower level, no doubt, the mefkadim, the guys whose job it will be to yell at the recruits for the next three months – even when the recruits are several years older than they are. Nest to appear where the “mem-mem’s,” who are one step up from the mefkadim (they’re certified big shots, so they don’t have to do as much yelling). Assorted and sundry other higher-ups also arrived, but I have no idea who they were. Nobody gave us a program.
Looking from afar at these several hundred raw recruits, I remembered a thought that had crossed my mind any number of times in the last few years. I would be walking through our town or riding a bus into Jerusalem, and I would come across some young kids – they could be eight or fourteen – acting like total jerks. It would have to remind myself that, in a few years, each of these young pseudo-delinquents would be wearing a khaki uniform and would be making a nation proud. How many of their mothers were sitting on these stone slabs, thinking, “Six weeks ago he was driving me crazy; now look at him.” Something amazing happens, as if several hundred caterpillars had suddenly become the butterflies they were always meant to be. And then, “Ani nishba’a. Ani nishba’a. Ani nishba’a” (I swear to defend my country…….) Hundreds of voices responding together, each time louder and with more conviction.
After a short speech by one of the mem-mem’s, himself an oleh from Canada, in which he discussed the entry into The Land in the time of Joshua, each of the new recruits was then given both an M-16 (although, in truth, they had already been using these weapons from day one of training) and a Tanach, the entirety of the Jewish Bible (unless he was a Muslim or a Christian, in which case he would be given a Koran or a “New Testament”). Now you can say that handing each recruit some version of a holy text was a matter of routine, with no real meaning. But I couldn’t help contrasting what I was seeing in front of me to the insanity I had watched on YouTube that same morning, (Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous) a short clip from the previous night’s Democratic convention – that infamous debacle in which a party official was trying to get the assembled faithful to a) suspend the convention rules, and b) revise the party platform (which everyone knows nobody would ever want to read) to return the word “God” to the document and reaffirm that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. To be fair, I assume that the booing and attendant ruckus after the “vote” was due as much to the absurdity of the situation as anything else. Maybe the delegates had just plain forgotten to mention the Creator who had endowed them “with certain unalienable rights?” Perhaps the President and his staff had not noticed the change in the position of Jerusalem that was in the original document? Could it be that we are as stupid as certain people think we are?
The tekes wound to an end with the ceremonial every-one-throws-his-cumta-in-the-air and somehow finds it again out of all the others – no mean feat. The hardest part of the day’s activities was ahead of us: getting back to Jerusalem, standing at a road-side stop along with a milling throng of people, waiting for a bus to arrive that had room for some of us and was allowing anybody to board. But in the days that have passed since that tekes, I keep thinking about the sight and sound of those several hundred young men. “Ani nishba’a. Ani nishba’a. Ani nishba’a!” Do these young men have any idea how alone they are within the world community? How few people would care if they forfeited their lives defending our Land? Or if we all forfeited our lives by remaining here? Let us pray that these raw recruits meant what they said and will serve their nation with honor and distinction – Sam included. And may the day soon come when the booing will stop once and for all and our enemies will be silent.