The sounds of Melbourne and Jerusalem

When I was a young kid, I would climb onto the toilet seat and peer out toward our backyard from behind the fly-screen, mesmerized and captivated by the sounds of Shabbat wafting over from our neighbours next door. It was Friday night in Caulfield, and my now unfamiliar backyard was illuminated by a sliver of moonlight, transforming it into a shadowy Siberian winter-land punctuated by grey-silver grass and leaves. I could see nothing beyond the fence, but the sounds enchanted me — the harmonies of ancient Jewish melodies imbibed me with wonder. The words, strange and exotic, seemed to take me like a bird to distant Arabian deserts to sit in the company of wise, bearded sages.

I was just a kid. Maybe 9 or 10. My family’s Friday night dinners were dysfunctional — a leitmotif of screaming, arguments and agitated kids. The family dynamic was incorrigible, I thought, every Shabbat dinner ended in tears. And so, after the screaming, the kicking and the fighting, with everybody separated and locked away safely in their rooms with the lights turned off, I would quietly tiptoe across the hallway and into the bathroom, lock the door, and climb onto the vantage point to receive my dose of Shabbat.

As the shadows danced across my face, momentarily hiding the tears in my eyes, I would wistfully stand transfixed by the harmonies, like a diver emerging to the surface to receive his first breath of fresh air. The sounds were beautiful. The tunes arcane. They touched a chord deep inside me; they seemed to nourish my soul. I felt that I needed to keep my ears open, to let in this constant stream of medication, this panacea, before the tunes, so ephemeral, would die down, and the family would start eating their Shabbat evening meal.

I was envious, I wanted that too. I wanted to sit at the table of brotherhood and sing to the heavens. I wanted to feel elevated. I wanted to feel closer.

It is a cry out to the heavens of a man condemned; the joyful tears of a father holding his newborn.

Now fast forward some 10, 12 years, and that same boy, now corrupted by the cynicism of life, the travails of army service and the daily reality of living in Israel, sits on his rented balcony in Jerusalem on a summery Shabbat afternoon. Another breathtaking hilltop sunset flashes warm orange colours onto the cirrus clouds that punctuate the endless, dark blue sky, creating a vertiginous effect.

And then, as if from the echoes of a memory, a stream of melodies from Se’udah Shlishit from a nearby home disperses the twitter of birds and momentarily captures my attention. Like a little kid prodding me with a stick, the harmonies rise and fall in a spiritual climax that immediately strike my very core, and send me back to Friday night all of those years ago. The tunes are heart-wrenching — they come from the depths of despair and longing. They encapsulate the human experience. It is a cry out to the heavens of a man condemned; the joyful tears of a father holding his newborn.

They seem to rebuke me gently. Never forget who you are. The sounds percolate deeper and deeper into my being. Never forget. Perhaps I have indeed strayed, Father? I stand defenseless as the beautiful niggunim filter in, take me once more like a bird and pluck me back into shul on Yom Kippur, swaying, concentrated on the prayers, begging for forgiveness.

The Friday night discos at ulpan. The insouciant teenager playing with his phone on base Saturday morning. Once in awe of rabbis and religious teachers, now supplanted by a contemporary Israeli suspicion of anything dati. How far had I treaded off the path?

The pure voices of Se’udah Shlishit vie for airspace and my attention, but I’m already back in Shechem, in the Balata refugee camp

And suddenly, much like the beautiful tunes that had me entranced — far off in the east, a new sound abruptly assails me. The distant thunder of tortured voices, the muezzin of a million mosques. First a whisper, and then an endless feedback loop of the adhan, the Arabic call to prayer, the howls pull me out of my trance and back into reality. The strange and foreign melodies of the clash of civilizations, reverberating off the walls of my apartment built from Jerusalem stone.

The pure voices of Se’udah Shlishit vie for airspace and my attention, but I’m already back in Shechem, in the Balata refugee camp, weighed down by a heavy helmet and a bulletproof vest, besieged by the pre-dawn muezzin that uncovers me and exposes my location. We’re coming for you, they seem to say, at once haunting and enticing — like the pied piper luring me away from my squad and into the dark, narrow alleyways filled with the posters of dead Palestinian shahids toting their AK-47s before of an image of al-Aqsa.

Amid the booms of stun grenades and fire crackers, Shemah Koleinu becomes increasingly drowned out and sinks further and further into sub-conscious like an irritating headache or a daydream. I am now surrounded an all sides by the incessant cries of Suleiman’s Ayyubid hordes encamped beyond the walls of the Old City, like Joshua bombarding the terrified inhabitants with the ghostly warnings and the trumpets of a foreign land.

Never forget, never forget. Forget what? The innocuous call to prayer from the furthest mosque, reigning in the city’s faithful from a tall minaret illuminated by Mordor green? The pitiful sounds of wailing of Lodz and Theresienstadt that captivated me in my childhood?

But I have strayed too far now, I thought, as the adhan wailed louder and louder like a beating drum demanding clear-cut answers to my ambivalence. My inner disconnect was quite apparent: Never forget had become never more; my talking mouth feigning erudition in scholarly matters such as politics and philosophy, but in reality masking an empty, hollow core, devoid of spirituality, thirsty for a lifeline. A fleeting glance of thoughts — reigned in by the newly audible church bells joining the cacophony of piety like an uninvited guest to a party.

As I listened, bewildered on my porch, to the noise of the three great monotheistic religions — taking in the fresh, cool Judean mountain air — I felt this sudden inner tug-and-pull, lasting no more than a blink of an eye. A brief, transient yearning that all but disappeared as I returned my glance from the sky to the trees, from the idealistic dream-world that I had once inhabited, to the harsh reality of life.

I was no longer a child — but a denuded, featherless bird, savagely soaked by a bucket of ice-cold water, scolded and shivering in the breeze.

This 10-year old boy would not get his chance to fly to distant Arabian deserts, and bask in the company of wise, bearded sages.

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Afterwards

Exhaustion, relief, release…

Here I am lying in a “Datak” (jet-fighter storage/hangar) reviewing the day and night that were…

The late-afternoon sun showers the deep blue sky with a fluorescent tint, making the horizon slightly hazy. An amalgam of mattresses, sleeping bags and equipment lies strewn over the concrete surface, lending the place a hodgepodge post-Hurricane-Katrina kinda’ feel. The after effects of various drugs still afflict my recovering body, giving me this strange tired-yet-awake sensation, wherein I’m unable to fall asleep or take a shit. My quads still ache, and my back is yearning for some affection, yet I feel strangely lucid. My phone hooked up to a charger periodically receives a new text, briefly distracting me. But my thoughts slowly return to last night…

The beauty of the landscape. Indescribable rock formations. Pink stones that gave off a strawberry-banana-milkshake hue. Jagged knife-like mountains sheltering us from the cool wisp of wind that blew above our heads. Shadows that danced off two towering cliff walls, as we silently trudged through the night.

There was no excitement. No pride. No ostentatious historic musings. The specifically tailored training had turned us into rote-learned robotic beings, executing every hand movement, every step, indeed – every breath, as planned. Given our over-preparedness, it was easy to mistake last night for just another exercise.

I think that it’s very simple to glorify a particular act from the outside – or with hindsight, as a historian. When you’re in the moment however, you think of little more than where you will place your foot as you take the next step. Or what awaits you next according to plan. Or running all kinds of dire nightmarish scenarios in your head, such as suddenly waking up and finding yourself here (there) alone, and without the team…

Upon our return, I was hit with a palpable sense of tranquillity, a sense of safety. It was the closest I got to sentimentality the entire night. I had come from chaos and anarchy to a place where law and order reigned. I had come home. I joked with Gilly if I needed to present any documents for a stamp. No nationalistic fervour. No over excitement. Just home. Serene.

Long journey through the night

Inspired by navigating through the Negev desert.

Your first steps are those of trepidation… and excitement. With a solitary hum on your lips you peruse the overbearing darkness and attempt to make sense of the topography that surrounds you. Ominous silhouettes of distant mountains beckon you hither, the chilly breeze urges you on, whilst Polaris – the North Star – ever faithful, guides you with his cheeky twinkle.

As you set off, pre-memorized compass bearings and distances blend into one gooey mesh. Curvaceous hills give way to little streams that in turn zigzag into mighty rivers. You re-imagine the map and try to make sense of it all. There’s supposed to be a mountain in front of me .. am I even in the right place?

Your doubts and speculations kindle a renewed sense of determination to succeed. You begin to climb the rocky, accursed gills of a forgotten desert – whilst the distant howls of a single wolf, so ever poignant, pierce your senses. Only the dreadful lullaby of a lonely wolf could arouse so much sadness, so much emotion.

The weight of the heavy bag takes its toll on your shoulders, but as you tilt you sore neck toward the heavens and greet the canopy of stars that watch your every move, you suddenly feel lighter, more agile.

They say that every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – and as you take that first step, you can only imagine the strange beauty that awaits you on your long journey through the night. The dark caverns of hidden caves, the long spikes of tall thorn bushes, the clean, crispy wisp of the desert air. These and more, lay dormant here in this isolated badland, until perchance, your paths meet and then you pass by, only to part farewell – forever. A prickly thorn embedded in your calf the only reminder of your brief friendship.

And just as everything seems lost – and you feel as if you’re going around in circles, a tiny ray of dark blue is sent forth from the horizon of the darkest part of the night. You scale the highest mountain and hold your breath. Silence. It’s breathtaking. Even the wind – awed by the majesty of the rising sun – quietens downs, and gives way to a powerful solitude that one can only experience alone – in the middle of nowhere.

You raise your compass and begin to descend into the valley below. A tiny figure hobbling in to the abyss and then disappearing from here for eternity. Only the stones on this mountain remain to tell your story.

Introspections

When I look back on the past 9 months of army service, I find it difficult to believe that I have really achieved, accomplished and succeeded the many acts and events that I have undergone over the course of my training. Things like jumping out of a plane and parachuting safely to the ground. Marching 90 km up Israel’s coastal plane to the base. Unleashing my ‘inner animal’ and going insane on the punching bag. Crawling for endless hours on some abandoned desert hill. Or just fitting into a stressful framework without the language or communication skills of my peers.

 

It feels as if I do not have my self to owe for completing these “acts”. It’s like I wasn’t really there – rather that I somehow vicariously watched a movie of myself doing all these things without really having done them myself. After all, a year and a half ago I was sitting at my desk late into the night preparing VCE exams, waking up late, cycling to school and jumping the fence to make it to class on time! How things have changed eh? It’ seems unreal that this once-nerdy kid could be capable of such incredible things.

 

Could it be that I am really the same person? Could it be that the tall guy bursting into a room with an assault rifle, roaring “everybody down” in Hebrew ad searching for imaginary cardboard terrorists is the same geeky bespectacled high school kid, making himself a dolmades and yellow cheese sandwich and then sneaking upstairs to watch The Simpsons whilst Mum teaches a piano lesson?

 

Sometimes I regret that I don’t ‘live in the moment’ – that I’m not fully 100% concentrated in the present: Completely immersed in the task at hand for it to leave an indelible memory on my mind. There are simply too many distractions: The pain of the blisters on my feet, the weight on my shoulders and the constant dread and anticipation of ‘what’s going to happen next’.

 

I often connect the memories of the past 9 months in the army to emotions and feelings. I will remember how I felt when … – maybe not the act itself, but the feeling when X occurred. If an event didn’t inject me with enough dread/fear/worry/anxiety/excitement or enjoyment, then it’s as if it never happened. Every single day and every single week is so jam packed with stressful situations, that when I finally have the time to catch my breath and recount the week that was, I almost don’t remember anything.

 

I remember every moment of Yom Hazikaron this year (Israel’s memorial day) because of the emotional impression it left on me. I hardly remember what I did for Hannukah because there was nothing emotionally extreme enough for my mind to justify keeping that memory.
Funny how the mind works.

 

I had a dream last Thursday night that I was back in Year 12, and Andy and I were making a funny assembly video for the school. I rang him up that Friday and remarked how strange it was for me that (relatively) so little time had passed between then and now – yet these events are worlds apart. Now I am surrounded by completely different people, a different environment, culture, language, climate, country, land and history. I’m serving with guys that I never would have met my entire life had I not left Australia!

 

A few weeks ago, Ronny saw a video we made in the Garin (3 month pre-army preparation course for new immigrants) shortly before we enlisted. She said that she felt a slight pang of regret to see the contrast between who I am now, and the kid I was in the video. It’s not that she doesn’t like what I’ve become – on the contrary – she’s proud of me like a mother is of her son. It’s just that what she saw was ‘the passing of youth’, and that gave her pause to reflect. She saw the transition in me from an energetic young teenager who believes he has the solutions to all the worlds problems – to a slightly more calculated, reserved and sceptical young man who is starting to accumulate earthly experiences. I haven’t “lost my innocence” so to speak – I’ve just grown up. Perhaps slightly less naive. Slightly more mature. Slightly more responsible, and slightly more confident.

 

On the eve of my 20th birthday I feel like I’m not quite a kid, but I’m not quite an adult either. I’m sure that once my army experience is over, the transition will be complete and I will have the tools to cope and succeed in the multitude of challenges that life has to offer. Until then I’m still learning – about myself, about the world and about my place in the world.

 

Until that day comes, I’m trying to concentrate on enjoying the journey as much as possible, and not the heavy backpack weighing down on my shoulders. To quote fallen lone soldier Alex Singer, whose excerpts inspired me to sit down and write this brief anecdote:

 

I don’t want to lecture anymore about Zionism and decisionmaking. I’d rather tell you about walking through a wadi in the middle of the night with a million stars over my head, and singing as I walk because I’m so content and so enjoying myself, and climbing mountains and looking over the desert, and seeing eagles and a huge waddling porcupine, and the goodness of the rest which always comes after a night of trekking with so much weight on my shoulders. There are nights which make the weight disappear, and I love those nights.

 
 

{disclaimer – pseudonyms have been used}

An ode to the Watchman (Shomer)

Dedicated to all the soldiers manning all kinds of outposts in the middle of the desert.

“Even as you approach the gates of hell, there stands guard yet another watchman on guard duty.”

Leaning heavily on one leg, crunched over his gun, he peers at you from behind a wide brim hat – a melancholy glance passing under the rim. The burning desert sun sears his lifeless body from the outside, leaving his soul intact within to whither with boredom. A curious crow flies past, lands beside him, yet takes little notice of this green statue adorned with uniform and kneepads.

Oh Watchman! How many forgotten posts in the desert have you manned? How many grueling hours have you spent trapped in your imagination? How long have you stood mesmerised, watching the shadow of a tree slowly elongate with the setting sun?

Time. Your worst enemy. Smiles slyly back at you from every direction. Embedded on your wristwatch, you try to resist the temptation of calculating the number of hours left until freedom. But that only traps you in a vicious cycle of despair that lends minutes the sensation of hours, and hours the feeling of days.

For how long has you world remained motionless, oh watchman, until a chancing stranger passes by along an abandoned road by the base – to glance briefly at you from the window and then drive off onto greener pastures! Surely your heart skips a beat as you imagine the possibility of switching shoes with this lucky fellow.

Seeing one mans freedom whets your appetite and for the first time in hours you feel lighter – no longer weighed down by your heavy vest and Vietnam era helmet. On the outside, for the stranger, your body remains lifeless. Ont the inside, your mind stirs with a vicarious satisfaction, and a wry smile that nobody will ever see makes its way across your face.

A boy in soldier’s uniform

Do you know the feeling you get when you first walk on stage for the opening act, the lights brighten and hundreds of pairs of expectant eyes stare at you from behind the dazzling haze of the headlamps? Or the feeling you get at the starting line of the 100m sprint, as you measure up your opponents from side to side and swallow the butterflies that tickle your stomach? Or the feeling you get as you step onto a crowded train from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva on Sunday morning, dressed in full IDF uniform – sleeves up, beret on shoulder, polished black boots and your M16 semi-automatic hanging by your side?

The uncertainty of acting the part of the ‘IDF soldier’ is a feeling that accompanied me during basic training and the rare weekends I was let off base. When I first arrived in Israel, I would excitedly stare in awe at every soldier sitting on a bus – looking all badass and professional, at once heroic and glorified, returning from dangerous cross border raids and top secret missions. Now I am that soldier – and yet I don’t feel the part. How would I react if my younger ‘me’ approached me now on a bus, sycophantically asking all kinds of questions in a cute and clumsy manner?

For when I enlisted, I was but a boy in uniform –  hardly out of high school – thrust into the conflict and sent to be trained for the defense of the state. Sure, unlike my Israeli peers, it was a choice that I wholeheartedly made on my own  – to leave behind everything I knew and to enlist in the IDF to protect my homeland. Yet despite my motivation and my desire, nothing could really prepare me for the reality of army life. The army is always over-glorified and romanticized from the outside – yet until you enlist and experience the drain of day-to-day punishments, endless crawling, little sleep and tuna for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s difficult to truly understand the life of a soldier.

Which is precisely why I find myself in a transitionary stage of sorts: almost 5 months into my service, I don’t quite feel like a soldier, yet I’m beginning to get used to the absence of personal freedom that I had as a civilian. I find it mostly expresses itself in the little things: being required to sport that uniform short crew cut, shaving daily, having my mobile phone switched off the entire week, or not being able to speak to my parents in Australia for weeks at a time. Not being able to eat what I want, or when I want to, and of course, having every tiny detail of my life dictated to me: from when I can sleep, to where I can relieve myself, to how I am supposed to look, and where I have to stand and guard.

These are the little trivialities that you don’t see from the outside. Everybody imagines that the life of a combat soldier is essentially that of Rambo: you go out on a mission, get the baddies, return to base – sweaty and uninjured, eat a hearty meal and go to sleep. Of course, nobody sees the countless of hours of mind numbing guard duty in the middle of the night, the hours spent rehearsing getting dressed as quickly as possible (our commanders place high value on being ready and dressed in full uniform under 3 minutes- so you can imagine how many times we practiced and re-practiced this until everybody got it right), the weariness, the hunger and the psychopathic cold of undergoing basic training during the winter – an inhumane freeze that chews away at your bones.

And despite all that I have been through, I still think twice when somebody asks me: “what do you do?”. “I’m a soldier” you may imagine I respond – yet it doesn’t come naturally. It’s almost forced – like a lie, like I try to cover up something that I’m not. And it’s not that I’m ashamed or embarrassed or shy. It’s that I just don’t feel like a fit the part – yet.

An interesting thing happened last Wednesday. We had returned from days of training in the shetach (the desert hillsides) back to our “base” (it’s not much of a base – just a few tents in the middle of the forest), when a few busloads full of teenagers from abroad pulled up beside us in the clearing. It was a group of a ‘Shnatties’ who were here to connect, discuss and debate with us all the burning issues that they had been studying and experiencing thus far (Shnat programs are year long Israel programs before university for Jewish kids that have finished high school). They needed a few representatives with fairly decent English to represent ‘the Israeli solider’ and interact with the diverse gaggle of Australian, South African, English and American kids fresh out of high school.

I approached my group – standing tall, my boots muddy and sandy, my green pants torn from hours of crawling, with sweat and dry blood stains on my shirt, my m-16 slacked over my right shoulder, with my index finger poised – covering the trigger and the cartridge case. I eyed the kids up and down: tight jeans, tank tops, sunglasses and iphones: a mixture of ‘alternative Melbourne’, ‘country USA’ and ‘annoying King David Johannesburgian’. Only 1 year separated us in terms of age, yet as they stared at me in absolute awe, the difference couldn’t be more striking. “I was you, that boy in the corner, sitting cross-legged, baseball-cap nonchalantly off to the side – only half a year ago!” I wanted to blurt out. Yet I remained composed and stoic, my face refusing to reveal the overwhelming emotions that began gurgling inside. The guys began listening attentively and getting involved in the conversation, the girls – completely captivated, as if in a starry eyed trance began leaning in my general direction. On the inside I kinda still felt like one of them – 19, fresh out of high school, getting bussed around Israel on a surreal Zionist summer camp. On the outside, I projected some kind of aura, something that transcended simply looking the part – for them I symbolized “Ha-Hayal Ha-Yisraeli” (the Israeli soldier (and an Australian one at that), together with all the emotional baggage that that represents for certain people.

And with that, for the first time I felt like the soldier sitting on the bus – looking all badass and professional, at once heroic and glorified, returning from dangerous cross border raids and top secret missions. And not just on the outside…

Morning Fog

It was a surreal experience. 25 young, inexperienced soldiers standing underwear-naked in the chilly pre-dawn fog of the wintry Israeli desert. Shivering uncontrollably like a live fish out of water, I stood there amongst them, appreciating the magical cloud blanket that enveloped us whilst attempting to delay the inexorable onset of hypothermia that would kick in – in the coming minutes. The icy pavement thawed my bare feet, and a light breeze sent spasm-like shivers down my shoulders and chest.

“Not quick in enough” our commander mentioned quietly, authoritatively, as he mulled the ludicrous situation. The mesmerising cries of morning birds and the stoic stares we received from trees peeking out from the fog, made me feel like I was in Vietnam on some classified reconnaissance mission.

The commander disapprovingly stared at his watch, prompting the entire squad to reset their timers in anticipation for the next task. ‘3:45am’ my watch glared – emanating an icy cold blue backlight that nicely accompanied the freezing temperatures that seared through bones.

“25 seconds, everyone is asleep in their sleeping bags. Tze!!! (Go – in Hebrew)”

A sudden rush of adrenalin prompted the huddled mass of skinny, pale 18 year olds to sprint back into the tent, dodging rain puddles, kitbags and mattresses – on the way to Ho Chi Min city, I imagined – a rag-tag team of naked commandos conquering the tent and then moving on to greater things.

25 seconds later, an eerie silence enveloped the area, as I quietly listened to the symphony of breathing and panting that permeated the darkness and shadows that played across the nylon roof over our heads. The commander imposingly burst into the tent and scanned the beds from side to side, as 25 pairs of eyes followed his every move in the dark. “3 minutes, everybody is outside in full uniform. Tze!!!!!”

As I switched on the light and jumped out of my sleeping bag, struggling to put on my pants with one hand, and my socks with another, one thought was left hanging on my shoulder: “Welcome to the Israeli army”