Friday, March 30, 2007

The Sabbath Comes

Friday is a wonderful time in Israel because it heralds the Jewish Sabbath. I've often compared the Sabbath in Israel to a huge umbrella descending on the whole country. Sorry, world. We need a break - see you Sunday. Friday is a day of mad preparation. Shopping. Cleaning. And suddenly, the Sabbath arrives, the candles are lit, the table set with the finest of our dishes and the smells of our favorite recipes fills the house.

This Shabbat is a little different, a little emptier than usual. We've had weekends where both our two oldest children weren't home, but somehow this one seems different. Elie is much further away. Not just in physical distance, but in the sense that his daily schedule is so much out of sync with ours. He rises at 4:30 a.m., long before we awaken, he is already going about his day. We can't reach him during the day, other than to send text messages to his phone that we know he won't see until the evening.

The one time when we are all in sync, if still separated by great distances, is on the Sabbath. Though he couldn't come home, he will still have a special meal, go to the synagogue in the morning and most important, he will have time to do nothing but enjoy the day and rest.

The Sabbath is family time in Israel. The rest of the week, our schedules are crazy. Hectic, almost never ending. For me, it is always a whirlwind of activity - emails, meetings, kids, laundry, phones, computers, lectures (www.writepoint.com will give you an idea of part of what keeps me busy) and more. Friday is the day I slow down and get back to family issues that might have been pushed aside during the week.

But Saturday, our Shabbat, is precious because it is 25 hours of uninterrupted down time. Family time. Kids and meals and friends and spiritually reconnecting with both the Divine and the physical. Each Friday night, as I light the candles, I ask for a blessing for each of my children. I give thanks for the week that has past and pray for the week to come. This week, I feel almost a sense of desperation, but also of gratitude.

May God bless my son, Benyamin Elimelech (who we lovingly call Elie because he would never have the patience to wait while we called him by his full name). May He watch over him and all the soldiers of Israel this day and every day and may God bless Israel, our land and our people.

Shabbat shalom, Elie - we love you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Those First Calls

The first calls from a son in the army are precious. You listen to the voice. He sounds ok, he's being taken care of, he's happy. He'll tell you the plans, as the army tells him. No one to argue with, when what they tell him isn't logical - that too is part of the army.

So, as Passover approaches, we are told that Elie will be able to come home for the Seder on Monday night, but have to return to the army Wednesday morning. He'll then be able to come back home on Friday, but have to return to the army on Sunday. He'll be able to come home on Monday for the last day of the holiday, but have to return again on Wednesday after that. Is it logical to endure a three hour trip on Friday and Sunday and Monday and Wednesday? Wouldn't it be better to let him stay at home from Friday to Wednesday? How much training will he really be able to do? A few hours - maybe the equivalent of one full day?

This is the lesson we are to learn, and learn it early. You do not question the logic of the army. You take what they will give you and be grateful for it. There are so many questions we'd like to ask, but each call home is only for a few minutes.

His day starts early and ends after something like 17-18 hours. Elie gets up at 4:30 a.m. and has a long and detailed day.

"How are things?" we ask.

"Fine. Good," he answers.

"So, did they cut your hair on the first day?"

"No"

Ok, that's good. "Did you get all your supplies?"

"Some," he answers. "We got the pack and sleeping bag."

And he explains about there being two kinds of uniforms - essentially those that are worn on the base for training and those that are worn when a soldier goes off-base. He's only been issued one type so far.

I ask more questions. He answers and tells me what is happening. And, of course, as soon as we hang up, my mind fills with questions I didn't ask.

Is it cold there? Are you warm? Is the food good? Are you tired? It seems silly to ask him if he has made friends - this isn't school or camp.

But the thought of him being alone is scary for me. Of course, he won't be alone. He's on a very large base "somewhere" in the south. Alone is the last thing he will be for the next three years. He'll sleep with others in the same room, even shower in close quarters. Everywhere he will go, will be with others. But I want him to have people he can talk to, boys he can laugh with. There is no time off - except an hour before bed. I have to resist speaking in terms that are foreign to the army and while he will gain brothers-in-arms and in many cases friends for life, I worry about who he has to talk to now. They are all going into this as a new experience, depending on their commanding officer to guide them through. Faith is a wonderful thing, but somehow the mother in me still thinks of reasons to worry.

I'd like to think that some part of me is always aware of my children. Through business meetings and work or resting or shopping, at any moment, I am "aware" of my children in my heart. But so far, this "awareness" is different than it has ever been before. Now, it is a small ache buried deep inside. At any moment, it can swell up to the level of worry and then settle down. It can ignite my imagination (something that I am prone to at the worst of times) into thinking dim and dark thoughts and then I force myself back to reality. He is safe. He is on an army base going through basic training, for Heaven's sake! He won't face any really real danger for...for...days? Weeks? Months? Years? Never - will I even know when that moment comes. Perhaps that is the scary part. I may not even know. You could drive yourself insane if you continue on this road. Better to stop and look at the moment. Today, he is safe. He's ok. He's good. Today until it fades into tomorrow, I will not worry. Tomorrow - always tomorrow, I will allow myself to worry, but today, I will force the worry away because in all the years he was growing up, there was no other place I wanted him to be, no other country I wanted him to call home.

He will be safe and we will get through this all - one day at a time. We have survived three days already. I will get used to this new method of communication - short conversations, quick, intense. He's ok. He's safe. One call the first night; another the second night.

Today, a - text message "Ima, everything is good. I'll call you tomorrow." Everything is good - he'll call me tomorrow. What more can a mother ask for when she has already determined that the next three years will pass one day at a time.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Induction Day

My Son the Soldier

Well, the day has finally come - arriving with a mixture of so many emotions and unspoken fears. Elie packed his bag last night - as ready to go as he has been for some time now. Perhaps over the weekend, he was a little more playful, a little more "around" us than usual, but this morning, it was all business.

He woke me up at 6:30 a.m. (I'd been up long before, but I wasn't going to tell him that). We got in the car, found the place a short 20 minutes later. There were a few other cars parked in front of the building, each with a young man sitting in the front beside a parent. No one got out to talk to anyone else, each holding those last few minutes. You don't want to speak any great words of wisdom - there aren't any left to be said. You can tell him that you love him, but really, he knows it already. This isn't like school, where he can call if he needs me to come and pick him up. His experiences are now his own and we are left behind in real life, as much symbolized by his walking alone into the building after a few quick words and a refusal to give me a kiss (typical of a teenager boy). I sat outside with nothing to do but go back home. Other parents still sat in their cars with their children, but I'm glad we did it the "quick" way.

There is no ceremony, no great moment, just a gentle slide into a new world. He went in his direction without hesitation; I reluctantly went in mine and I tried all day not to think of where he was. Or, more importantly, I tried not to think of where he wasn't. From the time my children were born, almost without exception, I have known where they are. Perhaps not to an exact location, but close enough to know that they are within reach, within a short drive or call away. Now enters a time when more often than not, I won't know where he is, what he is doing. I will have to trust that no news is good news, that he is ok.

Elie called me around 6:30 p.m. - not quite as good as him walking through the door, but still a wonderful gift. He's fine. He's wearing a uniform. He complained about the heat of Tel Aviv after the cool and wonderful air of Jerusalem's hills. They gave him boots and they are more comfortable than he expected them to be. They didn't have any undershirts, but he's got the 3 or 4 that he packed from home. They fed him lunch and dinner and there's a place to get snacks. He has a place to sleep, some boys he knows from school and one from a neighboring town. Tomorrow he'll go to the base. No, they didn't give him a gun (I didn't expect them to). No, he doesn't know the rest of the schedule. All normal talk - so many questions I could ask, but won't. I'll take it one day at a time...for the next three years. Today is over. He's safe. He's fine. Tomorrow is another day.

And the irony - of all things, I was counting on seeing him this coming weekend. I've always been a firm believer that we, as human beings, can survive almost anything, if we know when it will end. That was what got me through each birth - I didn't know exactly when, but soon enough, it would be over. I was counting on him being home this weekend - hadn't even realized that I had talked myself into surviving until I saw him on Friday.

But after all the expectations - the army isn't releasing them for this first weekend. It seems silly, given the Pesach (Passover) holiday will begin on Monday night and they have decided to release them for that. So, he won't be home for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), but he will be home for the Seder just two days later. We don't know if he'll be home for the whole week or only the Seder night and first day. In short, we know only what the army is ready to tell us - and this is how it begins and how it will likely continue for the next 3 years.

My son is a soldier in the army of Israel. Why that makes me want to cry, I can't explain when it is something that I have accepted, something in which I feel pride. For now, the fear and worry that threatens to push the pride aside will be my personal battle in the next day and week and year. My son is where I have always wanted him to be, doing what he must do. It is something that Jews have been unable to do for thousands of years - to defend their land and their right to live here. My son is a soldier in the army of Israel.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Night Before

Trying to act normal when you feel your life changing from under you is an interesting experience. Elie has just carried his 7 year old sister up to bed. By the time she wakes in the morning, he will have left. She has no real understanding of the moment; I'm not sure Elie does either. Only later in life do things become so heavy. At 7 or 19, life is for the moment. You give or get a kiss goodnight and you don't wonder about who will give you a kiss tomorrow night.

As you get older, you learn that you can't freeze moments. They come and go in an instance and all you can do is hold the image in your mind. Of Aliza jumping up on Elie and of Elie swinging her up in his arms. He's always loved the strength he has over her, that he can lift her up high and make her squeal with delight. He can flip her and play with her as no one else can. She loves it, as does he.

I look back at pictures we have taken over the years and am surprised to see how often she is on his lap. He was just 6 months short of his 13th birthday when she was born. He didn't mind sharing the spotlight when his bar mitzvah came around and so many looked at the adorable 6 month old baby. I was terrified that she would wake up and cry during the service, but she slept peacefully. Even going through high school, when most boys would probably have no interest in a little sister, Elie adored her.

It was Elie that laid down the rule in our house that soda is only for weekends and what we call "happy days." And Aliza accepted it right away. Aliza's world is shifting - first with her older sister getting married two weeks ago and now with Elie going off to the army.

We believe, as is the army custom, that he'll be home next weekend, probably even before Aliza gets a chance to miss him. Tomorrow, his day will start in Jerusalem at a central gathering point for incoming soldiers. This is being repeated all over Israel.

From there, they'll take these young men to a central point in Tel Aviv. They'll get their alloted supplies - the uniforms, socks, boots, washing kits and more. Those that need haircuts will get those as well. Elie is thinking of going to the mall tonight to have his hair cut, though I'm not sure he even needs it.

They'll sleep the first night at this central point, before being dispersed all over Israel to the training camps that will be his home away from home for the next 2 months of basic training. By nightfall tomorrow, my son will be a soldier. In uniform. Beyond my reach.

This blog, that began as my way of coping with the changes to our family as my son waits to become a soldier now begins a new phase. From tomorrow, it will truly be about a soldier and his mother, rather than about the way in which we prepared for this moment. One thing I have learned over the years is that tomorrow will come in its own good time. For me, I can only bless my son that he should go in peace and come home in peace, knowing that we love him for what he is, who he is, what he will become.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nothing left to do...

...but worry.

He's got all he needs - the backpack in which to pack his things, the green undershirts that will soon be a part of his uniform, extra little "gadgets" that he loves - like a keychain flashlight and a business card-size "thing" that contains pretty much everything - a flashlight, pen, 4 different screw drivers, magnifying glass, scissors, tweasers, and I'm not even sure what else.

For him, these last days are dragging by - he's ready, all set...waiting to go.

For me, I'm trying to act normal, keeping anxiety and worry at bay by trying to get the family back into a normal routine. Planning a family wedding is amazingly disruptive to the normal course of events. It's a wonderful thing to have, but it touches and rearranges schedules for weeks before and even after. Now, as things settle back to what they were and the new couple wants nothing more than to be left alone, it's time I can focus on Elie...but the amazing reality is, that isn't what he wants.

Going to the army is a part of what he was raised to do, as much a part of normal life as pretty much every other stage in his life. It doesn't represent life and death battles, moral dilemnas, enemies or politics. It's a place he'll go to meet his obligation and because of how he feels about the country in which he lives, he'll perform his service to the best of his ability, as he serves in the local ambulance squad, as he "serves" in the family.

For a young man, the army in Israel is about change, but also about growth. It's about new friends and about new experiences. To focus on this, is to help us cope with the unknown. He asked me tonight about how many pairs of socks he should bring with him. The army will give him 9 pairs of socks - should he bring a few more? This is a code phrase for the question of how long he'll be away from home. Or maybe not - maybe I am reading too much into what is really a simple question.

He'll go to the army on Sunday - just 4 days from now. The army almost always sends the boys home for the first weekend after they enlist. It's their way of assuring us that the separation isn't permanent; that they aren't leaving home forever. After the weekend...comes the first period of unknown. How long will he be gone? When will he come home? Where will he be stationed? How long will it take him to get back here and how early in the morning will he have to leave in order to get back to base in time?

If he's like other soldiers that I've met, he'll come home tired and hungry and all he'll want to do is shower, sleep and eat. We'll have to learn to leave him to the quiet he'll need, just as now he needs us to act as if Sunday doesn't represent some major change in our lives.

He wants Sunday to be just another day. Just as before he went off to his yeshiva to learn for a few weeks at a time, now he'll go to the army. No fundamental difference, he wants to believe. But for us, it represents every possible difference in the world. But this is too much for him to handle, too much to take in when he's looking forward and not back at us. He'll go with a clean head and a full heart because we won't burden him with our worries and fears.

Oh, he knows we are scared - but what is not spoken isn't heard...or so a young 19-year-old on the threshold of tomorrow would believe.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Going Shopping...

So - today we went shopping for those last minute items that the army recommends each new soldier should have. We went to a camping store, which has its own list of what the army provides (one column) and what they recommend (two bigger columns). The store gives a free wallet and discounts for many of the items the new soldier will need.

Undershirts - green; socks - gray. A wallet, a special strong backpack, a flashlight, toothbrush holder, antiseptic non-water cleaner, and much more. The hardest part wasn't paying the bill, but rather standing there listening to the young store clerk (who has served in the army), explain to my son what he would need. A rite of passage that they all go through here in Israel, a language they understand. It will be cold at night, hot and dusty during the day. You'll only have a few minutes to wash and dress (better to get the key lock rather than the combination lock); better to get the back with zippers and compartments. You can keep your wallet with you while on patrol, but you might get into trouble if you try to keep your cell phone. Don't take anything of real value - there are thieves even among your brothers in arms.

You'll get nine pairs of socks from the army; three undershirts in green; three undershirts in white. Two types of uniforms - one to be worn on the base and during training; one for when you are going off-base.

The young clerk smiled when he said that my son would be home the first weekend after he enters the army - the army's way of reminding us that we aren't losing a son...that he'll be home if we just have patience and hold ourselves together. We aren't saying goodbye forever...just a few more days and he'll be home - lugging dirty laundry, wanting to sleep and eat as much as he can. They can wear any pajamas, the store clerk explains, and any underwear they want. What matters is that on the outside, the uniform is perfect, the clothes according to regulation.

Black shoe polish. "How do you know he needs black and not brown?" I ask naively, and the answer is a single word "Artillery." How strict they will be depends on the particulars of the army base, but it will be dirty and dusty and unpleasant - in short...reality.

It's all so simple and logical - no time for a mother's feelings and worries. Monday is gone...6 more days.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

7 Days and Counting

Seven days from now, I'll be driving Elie to the drop-off point. This week, after my daugther's wedding, it's all about him. What he will need, what we should still buy. He still needs a strong backpack and locks, underwear and extra socks. He looked so handsome at the wedding, dressed in the suit he didn't want to wear, in the shoes he didn't want to buy. Everyday pants and his hiking boots would have been his choice, but he made us all happy by dressing for the occasion.

There are the physical things we concentrate on to avoid thinking about the emotional issues. What he will need, where he will go the first week, the second week. Months of basic training and then additional training for his unit. When will he be allowed to come home.
I don't believe wisdom necessarily comes with age, but fear certainly does. The older we are, the more we learn to fear. When I was expecting my first child, and my second, and even my third, I was too young to fear, to understand that we aren't always blessed with beautiful, healthy babies. Only as I got older did I realize what an incredible miracle each child was.
Now, with age, comes the reality that just as we are given this incredible gift, we must cherish it and watch over it at all times. This becomes hard to do when the child goes off to a new place, leaving you to wonder and worry.
Elie does not seem to be afraid; this is a stage in his life, an experience. Many boys love the army. It gives them direction, training, companionship and life-long friends. Only we mothers focus on the more serious aspects of where our sons will go and what they will do. We are the ones left crippled behind as they soar in triumph. They are free of their studies, free of daily routine. Life is new and exciting for them. Responsibilities come with trust. The state of Israel puts its faith and its love into its soldiers. They are treated with love as they travel from place to place. People stop to give them rides or hand them candy and food when they are on patrol. It is a love affair that never ages. There are few countries, if any, in the world who can claim the relationship that Israel has with its soldiers. Each is a son of the nation and the whole nation celebrates and mourns together when it comes to our soldiers.
Perhaps, despite the worries, my son is right. This is an adventure, a new road he will take. I should be excited for him. I should be (and I am) very proud of him. In other countries, 19 year old boys are drinking and driving and focusing on girls. It will be years before they grow up while here in Israel, they are given responsibility, life and death decisions.

In a matter of a few weeks, my son will come home with a gun and the training to know when to use it and when not to use it. He will be given responsibilities to protect whole communities and our country. All this on the head of a soon-to-be 20 year old. He celebrates this time while I quietly mourn the boy he will leave behind.

So, as Elie sees the adventure ahead, I take one last look at the boy knowing that all too soon, the army will return him to me as a man, having experienced new and exciting things, having gone where I've never gone, done what I've never done. He'll hold people's lives in his hands and learn things I never dreamed he would need to know. How far to shoot, how to aim a massive weapon capable of bringing down a building. They'll teach him the human side of war - our responsibility to avoid civilian casualties when possible and even to endanger his life to protect our citizens (and the citizens of other lands). He will learn how to defend himself, how to recognize the enemy and how to react. All this is new to him and it will change him, as it does each boy because in the end, he will be not just a boy, not just a man, but a soldier too.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Artillery Jokes

Joking is a part of life, humor a way of dealing with what life deals out to each of us. Today, we heard our first "artillery" joke.

What happens when a paratrooper makes a mistake?
Answer: He dies.

What happens when an artillery man makes a mistake?
Answer: A paratrooper dies.

No, thinking of the real meaning of these words isn't funny - and yet, it shows in the way of things, how my son is already beginning to identify with the artillery corps. It is part of who he will be and, God willing, years from now, it will be another label he will carry with him along with the town in which he grew up, the school and year he graduated, what college he might attend, and the unit in which he served.

Time flies as the days draw nearer and as we wind down the celebration of my daughter's wedding, the focus turns more and more to Elie's entering the army.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Mother's Questions..

Well, after much rearranging of schedules, an officer from my son's division arrived and met with Elie to answer any questions he might have. What will he do the first day? Where will he go? What will he need to bring with him?

A drop-off site in Jerusalem - a bus to Tel Aviv - supplies doled out and assignments received. A trip to the basic training base, two months of basic training. Another two months of artillery practice. Details of uniforms and schedules and visits home. These are the questions and answers a 19-year-old boy will ask. As he's old enough to vote and apparently to serve in the army, he doesn't need his mother to come along, but I have questions too.

How will I know when I need to worry and when I can be calm?

I know the army needs to mold the boys into men, the individual into the unit, but will you protect the boy inside the man, the soul inside the individual?

Sometimes my son is a natural leader - will you develop that trait, or seek to crush it?

Sometimes my son likes to talk and it isn't always clear where his thoughts are going - will there be friends for him there, comrades in arms - but also comrades in peace - to listen to him?

Perhaps my biggest fear is that the army is bound to change him and yet I love him just as he is. Every mother loves their infant, knowing that soon he will grow and crawl and walk and run. Now my son goes into the army and the next stage in his development is upon us. Today, he is more boy than man, though he would likely argue that. Tomorrow will come soon enough. I hear him teasing his sister and laughing upstairs - may God bless him and keep him safe, always to tease, to laugh, to lead, to live.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Countdown...

The countdown continues. Twenty-five days. Elie's meeting with a commanding officer was postponed and rescheduled. Still not sure what the purpose of the meeting is and most who hear that someone is coming personally to meet Elie think it is strange - perhaps the army has too many soldiers and not enough to do. Either way, it is a wonderful concept that some officer (ordered to or not), is taking the time to meet with all of these boys before they enter.

It is a huge transition for any child, though Israeli children have been conditioned almost from birth that the army is a natural part of their lives. Most American kids, at least where I grew up in New Jersey, knew that after elementary school comes junior high school; after junior high school comes high school; and almost without exception, college would follow. Here in Israel, kids progress through school knowing that the army, or at least some national service, will follow.

The army invests a tremendous amount of time and resources to match the child to the army. Those who show a keen interest are channeled to use that talent and develop those skills and interests. Some can go directly to university and gain a degree, and then use that degree for a period of time in the army. Elie's main talent, though I doubt the army will channel into it, is his ability to lead or manage a situation, and his background as an ambulance volunteer. He has taken several different courses to become trained. My older daughter and second son also took some of these courses (I wrote about one experience at The Ostrich Calls to Me).

So, we have two countdowns at this time - one only 7 days away, my daughter's wedding; and one 25 days - Elie's entering the army. If I think of either one...my stomach begins to roll and my thoughts freeze. There is so much to do to marry off a daughter, to help prepare her for a new life. Yesterday, we explained to my youngest daughter that her sister would soon be changing her name. She said the new name a few times and then said, "I have to get used to it."

It's easy to know what you have to do to prepare for a wedding, though the preparation itself isn't nearly so easy to accomplish. But how do you prepare a son to go into the army? One friend said she went and bought her son some army-regulation green socks and underwear. Another recommended a flashlight and a strong backpack. These are the things he may need, but there are emotions and knowledge that I can't offer because he takes a road I have never traveled and though I would see him on this road and even go along with him if I could, this is a road he travels with others his age. Mothers are left behind. They walk through the door and we know in our minds that the army is smart enough to send them back to us just a few short days later for a visit so that we too, like my little daughter, "get used to it."

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