Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Day My Daughter Joined The IDF - Showing Up For Duty

And then I'll get that other pup
The guy who wakes the bugler up
And spend the rest of my life in bed
(Alternate lyrics, second refrain, from “Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning, by Irving Berlin, from the score of “Yip-Yip-Yaphank, 1918)

As word spread about Natania’s fledgling military career, people began asking Barbara and me how we felt about her decision. I would always answer that I was proud of her. Was I scared or worried? Not especially. The I.D.F. does not send women in battle unless they specifically volunteer. Natania was not volunteering for a combat unit and would not be sent to Lebanon or any other potential war zone. Nor was I worried about her safety or well-being in other ways.
Many of the concerns I might have had were sufficiently allayed several months ago over a Shabbat lunch. Our hosts’ daughter was in the process of completing her military career. She was now an officer, and her assignment was working with young soldiers from Russia who were in the process of completing a conversion to Judaism. Here was that rare person who truly enjoyed her job. She told us that, while there are on occasion young women who “get themselves in trouble,” sexual harassment is not common in today’s Israeli army, and that the number of religious women who were enlisting (as opposed to doing sherut leumi) was on the increase. Many people have told us the same thing: that joining the I.D.F. was Natania’s ticket to integration into Israeli society – something that her parents would probably never fully achieve.
Our biggest concern was Natania herself, a young woman who, if anyone fit the description of marching to the beat of her own drummer, it would be her. We laughingly remember her experiences only three and a half years ago. As part of a National Council of Synagogue Youth summer program in Israel, the participants spent five days in “Gadna,” designed to replicate the army experience for American teenagers who otherwise wouldn’t have a clue. Who do you think refused to even handle a weapon and who organized a rebellion? And here she was, enlisting for two whole years. There is a monumental difference between that and going away to college in Ithaca or an ulpan on a kibbutz, both of which Natania had done. Simply put, when you are in the Israeli army, or I imagine any army, they own you. Mommy and daddy can’t bail you out; you can’t leave if you don’t like it. You’re there, and you’re stuck! While I have mentioned some of the positives of the I.D.F., there is a cautionary side to it as well. While you can get a position you want or which is interesting, you can also get stuck in a boring job, making coffee or filing papers for two year. Like everywhere else in Israeli society, you have to create your own “protektzia.” (In America, it’s called by a more polite term, “networking.”) That’s not my daughter’s strength, just as it isn’t mine. Barbara has developed an amazing expertise in this endeavor over the years, and she has trained many others how to use their contacts to reach other people. Like many people who are good at something, she doesn’t understand why her own daughter won’t follow her advice!
The biggest obstacle to thriving in the I.D.F. is surviving basic training. What everyone here who is or who has been in the I.D.F. has told us is that these first few months will be the hardest time of your life; once you get past that, you’ll be fine. It’s not easy turning civilians into soldiers, especially soldiers in a real army which is of necessity always prepared for war. I believe most people understand that the I.D. F. is a real army. And it’s safe to say that the continued survival of this beleaguered little nation is due to G-d’s continuing mercy on us, and on the dedication and heroism of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Israeli men and women who somehow survive boot camp and the seemingly insane demands of the mefakedim and mefakedot (male and female officers) whose only function seems to be to torment new recruits. There is, of course, one underlying principle: to take young men and women who, as their parents and teachers can attest, are not very good at following instructions or working together, and who may not be in the best physical condition, and turn them into a cohesive unit of soldiers who will follow orders rapidly, instinctively, and successfully – perhaps enabling them to stay alive if they were ever in danger.
It is, however, difficult to internalize this principle when you are doing pushups in the mud early in the morning or making and remaking your bed at 10:30 at night, when all you want to do is get into it. We have heard some wonderful stories about army life that, in retrospect, are very funny. One involved a real soldier who came back from the trenches covered in mud. He had four minutes to take a shower; when he didn’t quite finish in time, he was ordered to take another shower, this time in three minutes! My favorite story, one which combines military life and the linguistic landmine of learning Hebrew, was told to us a few weeks ago over a Friday night dinner. This then raw recruit, when faced for the first time with a female commanding officer, instead of addressing her, “ken (yes), mefakedit, blurted out, “ken, mefagerit” (yes, crazy lady.) Oh well, what’s a few hundred more pushups………
So with the above as background information, you can imagine our darling daughter in her first two weeks of training on a base near Carmiel, all the way in the north – where it gets cold, and when it rains, it rains. The first day, she was in a unit of nine Russian girls and her. Somebody figured out that this was not a good idea, and now she is in a unit of ….five Russians (plus one other American, a Swiss, a Uruguayan, and an Ethiopian. I feel sorry for the Ethiopian; everyone else speaks either Russian or some degree of English. Amharic is not big as a second language.) However, her most constant companion is her M-16, which goes with her everywhere (to which you may be thinking, it doesn’t go with her to………..; and the answer is, yes, it does go with her even there). Lest you get unduly concerned, the only time these raw recruits are given ammunition is when they are on the firing range, and then, under very careful supervision; the I.D.F. has a decided bias against nine-toed soldiers.

Needless to say, we eagerly awaited the arrival of our fledgling soldier for her first Shabbat back home. Barbara wanted to take a picture of her in her army uniform, but Natania was adamant about getting out of her khakis and taking a shower. I had to take myself off kitchen duty and become the laundry squad while my daughter, weary from a stressful week, collapsed on the couch. We never did get that photo op; the next time Natania put on her uniform was 5AM Sunday morning when she was getting ready to leave and head back to the base. I think that’s when it really hit us – more than the week before when we had first seen her off – that our baby was now in the army.

There are different reasons for which we can be proud of our children. One is for exceptional accomplishment: your child is class valedictorian. Or they did their best; at least they graduated. But there is another reason, perhaps more subtle. My daughter is doing what hundreds of thousands of very ordinary Israelis have already done and will keep doing– for her own reasons, no doubt, but that’s OK. Whether or not she gets her wish to train patrol dogs, or they stick her somewhere else, she has at least shown up for duty in the first Jewish army in almost 2000 years. This is something which my Uncle George and his generation and the many generations before them could scarcely have imagined and never had the opportunity; and it something which many Jewish youths today unfortunately will never have the privilege and the honor.

No comments: