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.

The rebirth of the Jewish People

The rebirth of the Jewish people didn’t occur in the dour, moist halls of the UN buildings amid eager lobbyists and budding ambassadors in NY in 1947.

It didn’t occur either in the cramped salon of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, where all the esteemed dignitaries of the pre-state Yishuv had gathered in 1948 to hear Ben-Gurion’s ominous announcement.

It didn’t occur during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and it didn’t occur in ’67, or in ’73 or in ’82.

No, the rebirth of the Jewish people occurred on the streets of Jerusalem, on a Friday afternoon in early 2015, amid the sounds of heavy psychedelic trance music, dancers, onlookers, shoppers, screaming vendors and the long expected winter snow – acquiescing to the pleas of the holy city’s hopeful kids and falling around like confetti at a rock concert.

The rebirth of the Jewish people wasn’t an auspicious occasion. Perhaps it was never destined to be. Amid a long, onerous history of pogroms and exile, major events and specific dates – be it 522 BCE, 70 AD, 1492, Sep 1, 1939 – this ancient people’s rebirth seemed to crawl upon them slowly and completely unnoticed. No brouhaha or announcement, in fact, there wasn’t even a news story, and suffice to say that the moment – like the crowd of onlookers that quickly dissipated as the music died down – will be quickly forgotten, as if it passed by like the blink of an eye.

But I noticed.

I noticed the group of American Birthright kids dressed head to toe in leather jackets and North Face gear starting their impromptu dance beside a wine shop in the market that was blasting agitated trance beats.

I noticed the hippies – recently returned from their post army trip in India – joining in and grooving to the unrelenting bass – their long, wavy dreadlocks and colourful wrist bands accumulating snow like mosquitoes attracted to a light.

I noticed the security guard, still on duty, jumping in to the middle of the circle to show off his skills – his concealed pistol all but invisible to the untrained eye.

I saw the old rabbi – a shtetl caricature straight out of a Bashevis-Singer novel – look on with a hearty smile – seemingly escaping, but for a fleeting moment, ponderous and pious thoughts that still weighed him down; the burden of mitzvoth and heavy bags of chicken breast and challah rolls.

I noticed the swelling crowd of bystanders – some locals, some tourists, some out-of-towners, some shop-keepers and some other kids from the birthright group – too self conscious to join in the festivities, but happy to document it from the side with their I-phones.

I noticed the two giggling teenage girls dressed in long, tight jeans and not-quite-high heels, tentatively ‘throwing themselves out there’ in the centre of the circle to do a few twirls.

I noticed an old couple, grey hair and woollen scarves, grooving along with a child – neither of them sticking to the beat, but still looking as if they were having a lot of fun.

I noticed a young couple, 25 at most, throwing a little toddler – wrapped in layers and layers of pink – into the air like a defiant sign to the gods; or to destiny; or to whoever happened to witness the scene unfold: ‘Look, we are here. We’re alive. We’re not going anywhere. And we’re having a great time!’

And, as I was noticing the revival of the Jewish people, in Jerusalem’s ‘Mahane Yehuda Market’ – by now covered in a layer of white snow to grace the tranquillity of the oncoming Shabbat – I asked myself: Could the half-dead skeletons of Buchenwald imagine such a scene, as they were being liberated by Allied troops – or was it beyond their wildest dreams?

What about the mothers who cowered underneath their beds, smothering the mouths of their newborn babies so as to stifle any sounds, while Chmielnicki and his men raped, pillaged and murdered on the streets outside; could they believe such a scene was possible?

How about the Jewish community of York as they sought refuge from their fellow Britons in the royal castle above the city in 1190. As they barricaded themselves in the keep from the bloodthirsty mob outside, could they have believed that one day Jews will walk around without fear and dance in the markets?

What about the Jews of Babylon, who after months of forced marches collapsed by the banks of the Euphrates to weep over their beloved city’s former splendour: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.’ Could they believe in such a future?

Or even the Jews of Hebron, who lived in an uneasy peace with their neighbours, until their community was decimated in the riots of 1929. Could they have imagined such a genuine, simple, impromptu outburst of joy – predicated upon nothing at all?

The cries, anguish and torment of the past seemed to melt away with the pit-patter of snowflakes obscuring the dirt on the street below with a blanket of cleanliness, together with the harsh, lurid juxtaposition of random shoppers coming together and breaking out into spontaneous dance.

The rebirth of the Jewish People will not be recorded in the books of history.
It was not a seminal event.

But it did not go by unnoticed.

Yom Kippur 5775

The smell of sweat, bad breath, dancing, grey beards, ironed shirts, dust and siddurim (prayer books). The “aye-aye-aye’s,” the cries, the pondering of the Oneness of God, the introspection, sunset over Har Meron (Mt. Meron), raucous children screaming in the stairwell. A bed too short, a Machzor (special prayer book for Yom Kippur) too heavy, the honey-cake used to break the fast too sweet, the thought of drinking water too tempting.

The Israelis, the Americans, the rabbis, the Ba’alei Teshuva (newly religious), the secular, the curious, Chabad, Hasidic, Haredi, the French, the ‘Tel-Avivim’, the kids-with-peyos (sidelocks), the kids without, the teenagers in tank-tops, the Mizrachim (Sephardic Jews), the lone-soldiers, the Shabbos-goy.

2 days in Tzfat, a 25 hour fast, 12 hours of sleep, 5-and-a-half hours of Shacharit (morning prayers), 5 hours of thinking about things other than Shacharit, 30 minutes of enjoying the scenery, 32 times getting up, 31 times sitting down. 12 introductions, 4 interesting conversations, 5 meals, 7 new people met, 2 breathtaking sunsets, 1 coffee spill, 11 handshakes, 4 impromptu line-dances breaking out in the synagogue, 3 phone numbers exchanged.

Yom Kippur 5775. The box ticked. The respects paid, the prayers offered, and presence noted. Every year, once a year, I find myself in this same position, resolving to take on the same new-years resolutions as last time. Perhaps, as another Yom Kippur passes me by, I can resolve to bring myself next year to a different place, spiritually and emotionally? Perhaps a place where the sweat, bad breath and dancing will be my own as well …?

Rain over the Negev

Inspired by a bus ride in the Negev desert.

The first thing I feel is the heat. Heat that reverberates off the windows as the sun beats down on all things unlucky enough to catch it’s glare. The cars before us kick up the dust that innocently lies along the windy road, leaving a thin pane of brown residue on the window along with a misty haze. I stare out to the water-starved fields, but all I gather is my own reflection. Hues of yellow and orange as far as the eye can see are occasionally punctured by the withering carcasses of trees, seemingly outstretched in pain and begging for mollification. Sleep-deprived soldiers nod along with every bump in the road, basking in the warm glow that surrounds them – their ‘plasticized’ ears blasting all manners of ungodly music – or perhaps not. The sky offers nothing but ocean-blue.

But dark, heavy clouds in the distance engorged with millions of tiny rain droplets loom over the tiny bus, overwhelming it with their sheer mass and size. We move ever closer to this inevitable storm, marking the end of the summer season. A big grey one blocks off the sun, so that it shall not bear witness to the fury and wrath that we invite upon ourselves by tempting this monster. The lone trees and desert weeds humbly bow to this higher force, helplessly obsequious with nobody to come to their aid. The bus awakens like a tingling sixth-sense visualizing an impending doom. And we move closer and closer…

The first one is faint, like a whimper, a Trojan-horse sent before the entire army. It splashes onto the window beside me, sending tiny-water droplets streaming down like comets drawn to a star. The next one comes in harder and quicker – a foreboding messenger of what awaits us. Startled passengers awaken from their slumber, look around in awe and shift their bodies for a better view. A light crack of thunder, perhaps a figment of my imagination, sounds in the distance. The low hum of the engine slowly fades out; just four wheels lightly gliding along the bitumen. And then nothing…

The conductor readies his orchestra of the sky; the clouds await their orders and move into position. The bus continues unhindered into this ‘ambush,’ its movements drowned out by a deafening quiet, a majestic silence – the calm before the storm. I take a breath. The ‘plasticized’ soldier setting beside me turns in his sleep.

And then it comes. The rain. Not just rain. But the rain. Rain that is the cry of an old, wrinkled Arab fellah, squinting at the sun and cursing the heavens. Rain that is the sweat and tears of Thai labourers tilling the harsh soil beneath the unforgiving sun, with their torn gloves and balaclavas, whilst dreaming of a better life for their children. These first drops are not just rain, but a sudden shriek of horror, the high pierced shrill of murder. Rain that dilutes and unsettles the farmland that has been drenched and soaked with Jewish and Arab blood. Farmland etched with the imprints of tank tracks and mortar holes, fragments of Qassam rockets and bullet casings. Unpicked grapefruits withering and rotting in the dust, a shovel discarded and waiting to be picked up by an owner that will never return. An echo of gunfire, a cry, a body falls to the dirt.

The rain keeps coming, and the sheer volume of it quickly overwhelms all the grief, injustice and despair – bringing with it another winter that cares not for different types of blood or hardship – because they are all the same to it. The mangled leper retrieves his deformed, arthritic hand in indignation. It is now soaked only with water and will not heal his wounds.

The initial rain quickly gives way to normal rain. Regular, voluptuous droplets that irrigate the fields and enrich the farmlands. Gaza in the distance and before it, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, politely tip their hats to the grey sky in appreciation for next summer’s food. It’s all business as usual, another well-timed performance. The bus driver turns on the windscreen wipers, somebody returns their attention to a novel they stopped reading mid-sentence, a phone rings and is promptly answered. I sit mesmerized, listening intently, hoping to receive another clue. But all I hear is simply the sound of rain, beautifully conjoining and falling like millions of tears unshed, lightly tapping on the window as I look out – my reflection now clearer than ever.

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…

Lone soldiers in the IDF

Olim Hadashim, new immigrants in Israel, make for an interesting bunch, having left behind family, loved ones and their lives back ‘home’ to come and fulfill a higher duty – a calling you could say: To answer their inner Zionist spirit and become pioneers against the backdrop of a 21st century landscape where apathy and narcissism reigns supreme. The reason that I crawled out of my can’t-be-bothered-writing-anymore cave and finally put pen to paper in order to write this post, is because it has dawned on me that in a couple of weeks I will no longer count myself amongst the Olim Hadashim crowd, but rather I will soon sport a green uniform and shiny red boots as soldier #39832732 – an Israeli in every sense of the word. Which got me thinking about these immigrants – from the way the native population relates to them, to how they are absorbed in Israeli society, and what their motivations are for coming here –  in other words, I realized that Olim Hadashim are in a very really sense sui generis, and they deserve a few words.

But lets put all the la-di-da aside for a moment and get to the point: Who are these new immigrants, why do they leave their comfortable middle-class homes to join the Israeli army, and where the hell does this writer (i.e. yours truly) fit in within this balagan (scrambling mess in hebrew slang)?

Firstly let me make this clear: Israel is a country that has been built upon the very important human resource know as immigration. Indeed, the country’s Jewish population went from 600,000 in 1948 to nearly 2 million overnight, and it has been growing ever since – with immigrants forming a substantial portion of the population. But that was back then – back in a faraway time before I was born, when Jews still lived – endangered – in hostile countries, and every time a refusenik sneezed in a Soviet jail cell, the shock-waves would be felt on the streets of New York:  Today, Jewish communities don’t nearly face similar problems of such magnitude  – and thus the impetus to make Aliya (lit. to immigrate to Israel) that saw millions of Jews fleeing to Israel like a running tap, is no longer there. We now live live largely in the west, comfortably and with little antisemitism. The tap has been plugged.

So what is it that still brings these modern day, facebooking, Iphoning halutzim (pioneers) to leave comfortable Melbourne and Miami and make the big jump to the Middle East? Well I have a few theories – or stereotypes rather – and here they are, in dot point form:

1. The religious guy

Espousing ‘Torah ve’Avodah’ (Torah and work – the slogan of the Bnei Akiva movement), the religious guy makes it to the holy imbued with a desire to defend the Land of Israel for the People of Israel. Sporting a flat-tennis-ball like kippa, he looks like a modern day Sampson from the Settlements, his Tzitzit proudly hanging out beside a pair of brown sandals that Moses may have worn 3000 years ago. Highly motivated by his beliefs, he is often accepted into the top units of the IDF. Unfortunately, as the IDF has trouble catering to all the numerous needs of religious soldiers, and even moreso to the complicated issues that Chayalim Bodedim face in the army, so the religious oleh in the IDF may have a hard time adjusting to army life. On more than one occasion there have been those who finish their army service secular – like the majority of their peers. However those that keep their faith until the end are truly a testament to the motivation that brings them to Israel.

2. Gi Joe

Jacked up from endless hours in the gym, GI Joe has always dreamed of joining the military, eliminating baddies in Afghanistan, and posing stoically in a Marines outfit beside the American flag. Usually a last-minute decision or a flip of the coin brings him to Israel, in a bid to fulfill his dream of becoming a modern day Maccabee – albeit in a Jewish setting. Fitting the personality of the typical ‘popular-kid-at-school-that-sits-in-the-centre-back-seat-of-the-bus’, GI Joe looks like he was born for the army, bursting with American-Zionist pride, whilst never taking off that IDF tourist shirt he bought last year on a Birthright trip to Israel. Beyond ramping up his intensive training sessions, he spends his spare time watching WWF, teaching American football to clueless Israelis, reading ‘Brotherhood of Warriors‘ and mixing protein shakes.

3. Picking up the pieces

Half a college degree later, working long hours at an uneventful pizzeria, and a desire to ‘sort things out’ so-to-speak, brings these guys to Israel to join the IDF and clear their head a little. The army is seen not so much as a remedy for the problems they face back home, but an intermediary chapter of their life, so that they have enough time to think things through before heading back home. Whilst any Oleh Hadash that leaves his/her home to join the IDF is laudable, these guys assert that they have no higher motives for enlisting other than personal ones: A desire to gain a sense of discipline, motivation, and acquire new skills along the way.

4. Katin Hozer (born overseas to Israeli parents)

Speaking Hebrew at home, going on Falafel picnics with Imma and Abba and hanging out with the other Israeli kids in the neighbourhood leaves the Katin Hozer vying to leave the Israeli bubble he/she lives in abroad and experiencing the real thing. Besides having already visited Israel a million times and hearing Abba’s stories of how we won the Six Day War, the Katin Hozer has the additional benefit of a large extended family in Israel – including Saba and Savta (the grandparents): an imperative support group that most Olim in Israel lack.

5. Searching for a destiny/looking for more in life

The perfect life just aint what what it ought to be. Having everything handed down on a silver platter – from Humvees to Harvard degrees, these (mostly) upper-middle-class “JAPS” (Jewish American/Australian prince(ss)) simply feel that they have it too good in life, and the monotony of exclusive house parties, rich friends, and job offers in the banking sector that most people could only dream about, leaves them wanting more of a purpose in life. Images of sun-tanned Kibbutznickim holding ploughshares and dreams of a middle-eastern adventure by the medditerranean gets these kids rolling first-class off the plane and into a perennial quest to find their destiny in Israel. Perhaps it’s because the Israeli-Arab conflict is one of the most burning political issues in the world, and so they envision to make it here armed with the all solutions, thus fulfilling their desire to make a difference. Or perhaps it’s just the desire to escape the perfection of the American dream and the bordeom of being mollycoddled on a daily basis to get as faraway as possible – without losing all their Western creature-comforts. One striking similarity they share though, is the desire (at least in the beginning) to stay permanently in Israel, and therefore, service in the IDF is seen as a stepping-stone to becoming a fully fledged Israeli.

6. Something for the resume/military career

An aged grandfather sitting on a cushioned chair by the fireplace, sits his young grandchild on his knee and begins recounting the legendary battle of Wadi Um Nisnas in the Summer of 2016, in which he, as a young tank commander in the IDF routed all the enemy forces. Although perhaps exaggerated, the desire to be able to tell the kids ‘where papa was when…’ is a driving factor that should not be ignored. This type of motivation – manipulated as propaganda by the Germans and English in WWI – is an enlistment tool that (in part) causes people to make the decision to enlist. Many of these kids view their lives in ‘chapters’ – with the ‘army chapter’ fitting in nicely after the ‘high school chapter’ and before the ‘university chapter’. There are of course those who also join up for all the post-army benefits, like a nice little line in the resume, (or if they remain in Israel –  a free education), however the efficacy of this kind of motivation lasting throughout an arduous and challenging service is questionable.

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”