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 …?

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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.

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.

Leaving Melbourne

I’m sitting at the terminal at Melbourne airport, awaiting to board a flight to LA, listening to some forgettable, B-grade remix of a song whose name I don’t remember. I’ve got no wi-fi and no phone connection. My wired-up, unnaturally short attention span has not been trained to deal with empty moments like these. I look to the landing strip for inspiration. Melbourne’s ubiquitous cloudy sky drools past the grey, ceiling-high windows – punctuated by a shimmer of cloud-shine, and the occasional take off…

I stoically scan the runway, imagining myself in earlier years when I would lend such a quasi-significant moment some forced sense of higher meaning. The people surrounding me – dull, gadgeted-up and in various stages of alleviated their boredom – blend in with the bland, un-inspired architecture of the boarding gate.

One woman tends to her wrapped-up baby, whilst searching the room with bird-like glances – perhaps for a tissue? Others immerse themselves in their phones – taking short breaks to stare around – as if suddenly reminded that they are still located in the terminal. An elderly couple sit side-by-side, gazing into oblivion whilst engulfed by years of silence – a heavy, tense silence that can be seen but not understood.

The boarding call has been announced; predictably late and kindly explained away by the staff at the counter. The passengers leave their seats and march to the boarding gate with a quaint air of entitlement – as if claiming an inheritance or a birthright. Each of them finds themselves in different stages of life: The impatient businessman flying to some important job conference. The apathetic student lazily rolling her thumb across her ‘Facebook news feed.’ A surly father lecturing his seemingly annoyed 20-something son – doubtless dispensing some unwarranted travel advice. Two tanned surfer girls on their way to catch some California sun, dreadlocks and blonde hair. All random strangers united by a common need to get somewhere …

My number is called. I look to the dwindling line and get up to join the chorus – my earphone cable nonchalantly dangling from one ear like a fashion statement. As I shuffle toward the flight attendant with the red-lipsticked plastic grin, I realize uncannily that I too, blend in with the architecture. Am I any different?

“Welcome aboard flight 840 sir. Have a pleasant journey.” I robotically nod a polite ‘thank-you’ and quickly disappear into the passageway.

I board the half-empty plane and recline into my economy-class aisle seat. I check to see if the complimentary magazine and laminated safety instructions are safely tucked away into their seat-pouch. They are. They will remain unopened and unread for the remainder of the flight. My tray however will be opened and closed no less than 14 times. The person sitting beside me affirms that he wants nothing to do with anybody and feigns sleep. His headphones convincingly mask his ear-drums, even though they are currently disconnected from his mp3 player. Across the aisle within reaching space, sits the nervous mother with her no longer wrapped-up-baby – a lucky baby who is given permission to take in whiffs of fresh airplane air and the sight of me – curiously staring back.

The pre-flight safety demonstration begins at the far end of the aisle. I sink further into my seat and play with the currently-inert remote control. Why can’t I fast forward myself ‘till after take-off, like I do with boring bits in a movie?

After a brief interlude I find myself soaring above the clouds. A wealth of rhetorical flourishes race through my mind and invite me to partake in this visual feast.

Goodbye Melbourne. The sun winks back at me.

Intertwined fingers

For Liya

Inspired by the Negev desert at night

Intertwined fingers painted in the sky,

A perfection constellation of stars floating by.

The pale moon now holds its ghostly gaze,

As the lifeless as the desert terrain denuded in the haze.

 

I breathe in the icy-invisible air that extends into space,

My heart skips a beat and then increases pace.

The stars seem to realign with my fingers as I trace,

Into the night sky your kind and familiar face

 

You may not be here, but I feel you close,

Another beating heart, the one I feel for most,

A soft hum, I imagine you roll over to your side

The quiet panter of your sleeping breath throws me into a glide

 

Distant snow-capped mountains bring an abrupt end to the moonlight plateau

As I observe the beauty of the night, my only wish is to be here with you.

The sound of footsteps returns me to reality – to this place

But when I return my eyes to the twinkling stars,

I only feel your warm embrace

Coping and succeeding in high pressure situations

Note: The following piece was written over a year-and-a-half ago and may or may not reflect the author’s current view

So I have a problem, probably the longest lasting most serious personality related problem that affects me in the army. When I find myself in a high-pressure or stressful situation, everything seems to break down. I lose control of my ‘excitement/anxiety gauge’. I become reckless. My mind races at a million miles an hour, and I find it difficult to focus. I become irrational. The initial excitement turns into dread, as I come to the realization the ‘this is real’, I’m to blame, and its only up to me to salvage the situation.

My mind speeds and works overtime. My body slow down, my responses less-sharp. I broadcast stress and anxiety, and give off the feeling that ‘everything is lost’, the situation is doomed and other extreme and unhelpful comments. Time seems to fly – indeed loses all meaning – and I feel stuck in motion like a swimmer battling against the stream without progress.

So why am I like this and what can I do to improve?

First of all, most of the time I do feel as if I’m calm, in control and rational. Indeed I try, in public, to give off a cool, suave impression – as if playing some James-bond style alter ego. But in truth I’m anything but, and that all has to change.

I think my problem stems from lack of “personal-framework,” a clear order in my mind of what needs to be done, and an inability to see the bigger picture. I find that many times I find myself in these situations when I’m in a leadership position, or when others are dependent on the performance and ultimate success of my actions. Exhibited emotions include anxiety, stress, a feeling of being overwhelmed and hyper-excitement. It’s as if a valve shuts off in my brain and prevents me from thinking rationally. The worst part is that most of the time I am unaware that I’ve descend into this self-destructive cycle, and as a result it only worsens – with the beating tick of the seconds handle.

So what practical steps do I take to alleviate and prevent such situations in the future? What do I do to minimize and even eradicate this flaw in my personality?

The first step of course, is awareness of the problem, and acknowledgment that it is harming me in the army, and even in the long term. If I do not battle this problem now with all my might, who knows how it will develop in the future?

The next step is to realize that during the ‘high-pressure situation’ that I’m in a ‘high-pressure situation.’ When I find that things are getting out of control, I need to mentally tell myself that now of all times I have to slow down a notch and acquire clarity. This is the most difficult of all, because it requires me – under severe constrains – to stop everything, whilst the clock is ticking and make sense of it all in my head.

Even if it holds everybody up.

Even if there is ‘no time.’

Even if stopping now means that I broadcast that I have lost control of the situation.

This is the most critical stage. I must learn to stop everything – pause time. Ignore the chaos around me, and take a breath.

Ask myself gently like a father asks his young son:

“What’s the problem my dear boy?”

“Well is it really such a big problem, or are you blowing it out of proportion?”

“Can you fix it? Or is there another way?”

“What about the importance of the issue> i.e. the biiger picture?

Problem -> solution(s) -> course of action.

It’s simple really. And it makes a lot of sense. All I have to do is to force myself to stop, and to analyse the situation rationally from the outside.

And of course, as mentioned earlier – to take, a, breath……

Fantasies and growing up

“How’s the army?”

“That’s so amazing”

“That’s intense”

“So how’d you do it?

“Can you give me some tips?”

Not for the first time in recent months, I found myself once again in the position of ‘the guy who’s gone through it’, or the ‘chayal-boded in the army’.  A young, new garin from Miami had just arrived on my kibbutz to begin their journey of making Aliyah and joining the Israeli army, and I found myself mingling with them at the kibbutz pub in a ‘big brother’ position of sorts, answering questions about the enlistment process and deflecting unwanted admiration. Whilst they were very sweet and ‘full of life’ – by talking to them, I felt as if I had been transported back in time – giving advice to my 18-year-old self a couple of years earlier. I saw myself in them – exuberant and giddy, resolving to learn Hebrew and to live my life according to the routine of a Rocky-style train-every-day ‘no-pain-no-game’ cliché.  So what more of a good cliché can I ask for, than to peruse my inner thoughts with a little sarcasm and come to some inexorable life-changing conclusion?

It’s interesting how drastically our life goals and dreams can change in a short period of time. For some, ambitions and desires take a change of turn due to an unexpected life event. For others, motivation simply withers with time as part of the ageing process. In other words, as I see it, changes in destiny are simply an inevitable part of growing up. The more you gather life experiences, the more mature you become, and consequentially, the less naïve and innocent you are. As a result, 18-year-old wet dreams of ‘changing the world’, ‘becoming an astronaut’ and fairytale endings, take fateful, irreversible knocks to their believability (believable in the sense that we cease to believe in them.)

I’d like to illustrate this with an analogy: Until recently, history has always been written by the victors, and the populist myths that accompany it have remained accepted and unquestioned for centuries – nicely fitting in with our story-book, Band-Aid world-view of how things were. With the onset of revisionism, many histories have been repackaged – politically or rightly so – to suit the context of the historian or the vanquished. Coupled with today’s internet, conspiracy-soaked, doubt-everything society – where the veracity of events that happen live, before-your-eyes are questioned – it’s easy to see where all the skepticism comes from. How can one believe history to be genuine, if one can’t even trust the facts coming out of today’s real-life dramas and war-zones? Much as our perception of history and it’s stories and legends have undergone a reframing process over the past generation, so too our worldview and desires undergo massive changes as a result of ‘growing up’.

For me, this change has been potently felt over the past 2 and a half years. I made Aliyah and arrived in Israel at 18 –young and idealistic –with a vigour that effused: “I’m ready to change the world”. Now at 20, and after 2 years of serving in the IDF, I look back on those first months with a nostalgic smile. Back then I lived in a world where history was accepted, and there was only one truth. Everything seemed harmonious and even if it didn’t – it probably had an explanation. I fitted in neatly with my worldview. The grass was greener back then. People smiled more often, and everybody went about their daily lives with a sense of purpose, as part of a bigger project ‘bigger than they’ – or ‘Zionism’ as I called it. You know? That word that once expressed the hopes of the Jewish people to establish their state in Israel – that has today been reframed as a loaded, controversial and even racist term.

But was the grass really greener? Were the people really friendlier? Or was that just my naïve, hopeful perception of things? If I ask myself today, then the answer is obvious – 18 and fresh out of high school. What does he possibly know? But then again – back then I was so sure (so sure!), and the excitement was so palpable. Today, this 20-year-old post-revisionist diplomatically-correct writer is so skeptical that he is sure of nothing. (Ok perhaps that’s a little exaggeration, but it’s there to bring my point across).

Nothing seems noteworthy to me anymore – expect what I feel – and even then, after months of rigorous, emotionally exhausting training, my feelings are like an empty bottle of wine: you can smell the residue, but there’s nothing left to taste. If my commanders tried to shape me into an unsentimental and unfazed soldier, then they’ve nearly succeeded.

So where do my ambitions and fantasies lie with this realization? They’re still there – and my motivation to succeed is still stronger than ever. But my goals and dreams have simply become more opaque – more ‘realistic’ have you will, in our “revisionist-history” scheme-of-things.

More than once, I have come across the analogy of “life as a novel” – with chapters and paragraphs. When I was 18, I could read my imaginary book and skip freely between the chapters – with everything so clearly laid out before me: High school-Aliyah-Ulpan-army-Uni-career-marriage-save-the-world. Today as I read my book, I don’t progress pass the current chapter, as all the rest are hidden from view. In some ways it’s comforting to be 18 and sure of where you’re taking your life, because the uncertainty of not being able to read the next chapter can be frustrating. On the other hand, I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps I’m not supposed to know, and with hard work and motivation – my goals – whatever they may be – will fall into place, one way or another. Isn’t that exciting? Not being able to know what awaits you – today, tomorrow, in a year or 10?

For now though, I can only wax poetic and describe the majesty of the rising sun outside my kibbutz window – heralding the entrance of a beautiful new summer day. Oh wait! I’ve been through so many of these in the army, that every spectacular sunrise happens to be just as ubiquitous as the last. Oh well…