Thursday, October 30, 2008

Teaching Others

In a few days, not more than a week, Elie will once again move to the southern training base far from home. He knows the base well. He spent almost 12 months there already. This time, he returns as an experienced commander, ready to take on the training of newly inducted soldiers. This time, the army has confirmed that there will be only boys in his unit.

Once again he'll spend two weeks preparing for the new soldiers, going over what he learned, only this time from the perspective of the teacher, not the student. After he welcomes these young men to the army, he'll teach them what he has learned. They will call him "Commander" and not Elie. They may not know anything about his family, where he goes when he comes home. They'll complain about him to each other. They might even assign a secret name (as Elie and his friends called one commander "Blondie" and another "Solomon") and Elie might hear the name, but not know to whom they refer.

Elie will force them to run, but he will likely run at the front of the group. He will teach them about shooting and the first time they see him shoot, they will be amazed because his gun has been calibrated to him and so he'll shoot with amazing accuracy. He's probably stronger and faster than they are right now, having spent the last 20 months of his life training and strengthening his body. That first time, he'll run only a half a kilometer with them, while he himself can easily run many times that amount. Even if he's tired, he won't show them.

He'll let them sleep only six hours, while he himself will likely sleep even less. He will teach them to respect the gun they are given, to make it a part of themselves. He will insist that they know where it is at all times, even in sleep. To make sure he succeeds in this lesson, he will likely try to "steal" a gun. If a soldier "forgets" his gun on his bed when he runs to stand in line to be inspected in the morning, Elie will hand out a punishment.

Elie will be counselor and trainer to these boys, but never quite a friend during this time. That will come later, not now. For some of the days, the army will take these boys on cultural trips, to teach them about Israel. Elie will accompany them on some of these trips, but unlike these other soldiers, Elie's gun will be loaded. They'll walk through the city of Jerusalem, but Elie will be watching around him. After so many in his unit were hit by a terrorist driving a car in Jerusalem, Elie will be even more alert.

On at least one of these cultural days, probably several, Elie won't go with his soldiers. Rather, Elie will leave this team and go visit each soldier's parents. There, he will explain, as Or once did in our home, what their son will be doing in the months to come. They'll ask him questions and he'll explain. So many questions, but also so many that won't be asked.

"Can I tell others what you are telling me, or is it a secret?" one mother might ask hesitantly, thinking of her son's grandparents and what they too would want to know.

"If it were secret, I couldn't tell you," Or had smiled and answered back patiently, when I asked.

I listened to Or describe what Elie would be doing and the types of things he would learn. After Elie finished basic and advanced training, he might choose or be chosen to take the Commanders course, and Or described what that would mean. And so it went, as Or explained what he himself had done for the last 12 months in the army, I understood that it was possible, perhaps even likely, that Elie would follow this or a similar path. And here is where we are today.

"Will you love our son? Will you watch over him carefully and tell me if he needs me?" No. I didn't ask Or that question and I doubt anyone will ask Elie. It seemed so silly. He wasn't a child and though I had no idea how fast it would happen, I knew those were the last days of his childhood disappearing and that soon he would come home the same and yet forever different. And here is where we are today.

I don't remember the questions that I asked Elie's commanding officer. Mostly, I am left with the memory that it was the first time since moving to Israel that I felt completely accepted as one of "them," one of us. To Or, I was another mother of one of his soldiers and the location of my birth (or that of my son), was not relevant. Elie was his, I was Elie's, therefore, I was accepted. Mostly, too, I remember the wonder of having this soldier in my home and thinking that in a year or so from now, Elie might be doing the same thing.

Elie is the practical one in the family and while I think of these other soldiers and their mothers, Elie knows it would be a waste of time to think too much on matters about which you have no control. So he focuses on how he'll move so much stuff back home and already I am calculating how I can help drive past his base and pick up as much as possible.

Last time, Elie arrived to the training base as a young 19-year-old leaving behind a mother filled with uncertainties, worries, pride and fear. Soon, he will arrive as a trained soldier (or as trained as a soldier can be without having actually gone into combat). Last time, he was excited and looking forward; I was anxious. This time, he feels challenged as he looks to the next few months, and I feel calm.

Last time, he arrived at the base in a new uniform, and was issued a new gun. He'd only fired a gun a few times during his pre-military academy training, but that was nothing compared to being given the responsibility, 24-hours a day, of having, guarding, and taking care of a tool of war. This time, he'll arrive again without a gun because he's leaving the g'dud (battalion) and so must return some of his equipment to them. When he arrives at the training base, he will be issued a gun that belongs in their inventory. Once again, he will have to calibrate it to his eye.

Last time, he was responsible only for himself and had to learn the importance of time. They accomplished this by restricting him, imposing time limitations on tasks. Five minutes to dress, fifteen to eat. Seven minute breaks and more.

Last time, his watch helped him keep up with the commander's orders. This time, his watch will set the pace of his unit and he will be responsible for teaching this sense of responsibility to others.

After meeting Or, I gained a sense of trust. He would watch out for Elie, he would know. This time, as a commander, Elie will be responsible for the safety, physical and emotional, of those the army gives him to train. And though he would never think to put it quite this way, in the next few months, Elie will take these boys and help turn them into men. Their mothers will wait for their first calls, the first time they come home wearing the uniform of Israel, the first time they bring their guns home. All that I have experienced in the last 18 or 20 months is about to begin again.

Many mothers and fathers all over Israel are thinking to themselves, in just a few short weeks, their sons will be soldiers. I would never attempt to tell them not to fear, not to worry. It is as natural as breathing to a mother of a soldier. A father recently wrote to tell me that his son was going in with this group and asked for my advice. How should they act, during these last few days and I wrote that he should follow his son's lead. Let him set the tone and the pace. If he wants to be alone, let him. If he plays with his sister just a bit more than normal, don't say anything. Let him leave easily and return safely. Let him not feel your worry, your fear, your need to be reassured. It is, I have always believed, easier to leave than be left behind but we can't tell them that. So let him leave easy.

I saved my tears that first day until after Elie had said his quick goodbye and after I'd driven away. I saved it until I got to my office and alone I sat and cried. I can't tell you anymore what was in my mind or why I cried, other than a longing for my little boy to come back...and at the same moment the recognition that there was no little boy left to come back. He'd already begun to change, even before he got that letter telling us he'd be going into artillery but the pace of the change from the moment he entered the army was so fast.

Elie had to go, had to grow and as he has grown, I am aware that he is so much more than I could have imagined he would be. Ultimately, much of that comes down to a gift given to him by the army. His faith and his personality were all his, but the army gave him a sense of time, of responsibility, a sense of self. It gave him a sense of what strength God put into his body, how he can push it, fine tune it, enhance it.

What Elie received from the army and from Or, his commanding officer, he will now give to others. And perhaps somewhere, there is another mother beginning her own journey, her own blog...

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....

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.
-- Induction Day, March 25, 2007


joyce said...

Thank you for those beautiful words.

muse said...

This is a must-read post.

Alex Pearlman said...

I'm an intern with a start-up website based in Boston and I'm interested in linking your blog to our site.

I think your writing is incredible and so compelling and I think you'd be a great addition to the sight's Israel page.

Please e-mail me at and give you all the info you need to know.

Alex Pearlman

the sabra said...

Wow. Gotta link.

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