Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It's All in A Name

Today, Elie "graduates" from the Commanders Course and receives a higher rank in the army representing his new rank and training. Family-wise, it's a hard day because my youngest daughter's school has planned a special event and she doesn't want to miss it. I'm trapped between needing to find arrangements for her (and not being sure that I'll be back in time to participate in this mother-daughter evening) and going to Elie's ceremony.

It really isn't a hard choice - my daughter's school is excellent and arranges such events at least once per year. In a few months, she won't even remember this night, but Elie's ceremony is different and so, somehow, I'll find an arrangement and be there.

I was thinking about Elie today. If life weren't complicated enough, I'm in the midst of helping to organize a national conference of technical writers this week and two guests have flown in from abroad to speak. I love when guests come from abroad, especially those who aren't familiar with Israel. It lets me put on a different set of eyes, to see this land through their eyes once again, and talk about the land and history of my country.

They'll be going today to Elie's ceremony and I'll have the fun of explaining some of what they will be saying (in Hebrew) for our guests. In the meantime, as I was preparing this morning, I thought of the moment I would introduce my tall son to these even taller guests. I'll definitely be the short one in this crowd!

I thought of introducing Elie and then thought of explaining Elie's name (Elie is actually a shortened version and the name we call him by). And then my mind wandered to a different path and I thought about how appropriate that today, of all days, I would choose to think of a different young man, in a different time, a different place.

That young man was called by the name Youmy (short for Binyamin, Elie's first name), but Elie carries his name. Youmy lived in a small town near the Hungarian-Czechoslovakian border and married around the month of March...the year he was murdered by the Nazis. I don't know what he looked like, how he thought, or behaved. I know only that right after Passover in 1944, the Germans came and took him away and he never came back.

His sister survived, married and moved to the United States. She never really got over what she lost and what was done to her, but she survived and more importantly she lived. She had four children, the third of which was my husband. When our first son was born, we asked my husband's father if he had a name he wanted us to use. It's a Jewish tradition among many Jews of European descent - to have a name live on. That is behind the rational for the National Holocaust Museum in Israel being called Yad VaShem (A Hand and a Name).

So my husband's father told us to ask his wife, to give her the opportunity to have someone remembered and she gave us her brother's name. Elie carries that young man's name and does so proudly.

Today, Elie will be promoted in rank and responsibility in the Israeli army and I thought today how amazing it is, how truly correct it is that Youmy's namesake should be doing something so important. Had there been an Israel when Hitler rose to power, there would have been a place to which the Jews of Europe could have fled.

Years ago, an Israeli leader stood on what was once the Warsaw Ghetto and apologized to those that had died there for coming 50 years too late. What I realized today, in thinking about Elie, is that life comes in circles. A young man died many decades ago because there was no army, no nation to save him. His name, though, lives on in my son, and today, Elie will stand with his army, representing his nation. so that no others will suffer what Youmy did.

Today, somewhere in the heavens, I hope Youmy is looking down and watching as Elie receives this honor and listens as Elie and the others dedicate themselves to protecting the Jewish people here in Israel and, ultimately, all around the world.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Even the Bus Drivers Love Them

Yesterday, while driving to a special course in the north, Elie received a phone call from one of the other participants in the Commanders Course telling him (as the soldier responsible for knowing where everyone is) that the soldier had forgotten his backpack on a bus. He was calling to tell Elie that he was going to try to catch another bus to catch up with his backpack.

Elie gave him permission simply by telling him to update him to let him know what was happening. In yet another very Israeli story -after the phone call, the soldier jumped on the next bus and explained to the driver what had happened. Soldiers get free buses and trains to almost anywhere in Israel and so they don't hesitate or worry about the number of rides they take.

When the driver heard the story, he quickly radioed ahead to the bus in front, telling him about the soldier's backpack. The bus promptly pulled to the side of the road and waited for the second bus to catch up so that the soldier's backpack could be returned safely.

There are so many stories like this in Israel. Recently, a young child fell asleep on the bus ride home from school. He woke up, looked around, and realized he had missed his stop. Suddenly frightened, the young child started to cry, at which point other passengers asked what happened and alerted the bus driver. Without hesitation, the bus driver turned the bus around and took the boy to his stop. He then turned the bus around again, and continued along his route.

Another "famous" bus story had to do with one of Israel's leaders. When the bus driver realized that a former prime minister had boarded his bus, he insisted on driving the astonished leader to his doorstep, even though it was off the usual bus route. Embarrassed at the attention, the leader tried to argue with the bus driver, but the applause of the people on the bus made it clear that they agreed with the driver.

The drivers yesterday, the one who called and the one who stopped, might not have had to turn a bus around for this soldier, but certainly they warmed his heart by making sure he and his backpack were reunited. With their help, the soldier quickly retrieved his property, jumped on another bus in the opposite direction, and was barely late for the start of the day's activities.

Elie told me this story as if it was something natural and logical but I found it enchanting and just one of the many reasons why I'm so happy to live in this country.

The People's Army

The army of Israel is very much a people's army. Most Israelis have some connection to the army - a father, son, husband or brother who is serving or who once served. A neighbor whose son is in now, a sister whose boyfriend is serving. The possibilities are endless but the result is all the same. Our hearts are touched by seeing soldiers. We don't see the green uniform as foreign; we look at the eyes and face of the person. Too many in the world hear the word "soldier" and forget to see beyond the weapon. That isn't a problem in Israel. This is the first time that the army is IN my family or that my family has been IN the army, but we have always been aware, always concerned, always connected to the army and our soldiers.

Even after serving for three years, most men continue to serve up to a month in the army until they are in their forties. It's very common to have a meeting rescheduled because someone is in "miluim" (doing reserve duty). This connection with the army is very common because the army is very much made up of the people.

Tomorrow night, Elie will see this connection in a very personal way. The ceremony celebrating the completion of the Commanders Course will be held this Wednesday in a relatively small town which has no hotel, no bed-and-breakfast, no place where the army can house all the course participants, their commanding officers and those who will take part in the ceremony. Elie's base is several hours away by bus and they want the soldiers to practice marching around a little and understand the program that will be presented to the families who will come from near and far to celebrate.

The solution is, in many ways, a uniquely Israeli one. Elie and the other soldiers will spend tomorrow night sleeping in someone's home. Many families have volunteered to house the boys. Even more special - Elie's group is comprised of many boys from religious families who only eat kosher food. And so the army checked to make sure that each of the families keep kosher and can adequately feed their guests.

So Israel and yet the fact that Elie mentioned it to me means that it touched him to know that someone, complete strangers, would open their homes...but I guess, that's the whole point - no one is a complete stranger in Israel...not when it comes to our soldiers.

What Tomorrow Holds

No one knows what tomorrow really holds. In the army, that is true not so much of tomorrow, but of the day after your current segment ends. Elie is about to finish the third of these segments.

The first was his basic training. During that period, he learned what it meant to be a soldier, the discipline, the routine, the responsibility. He learned to follow orders, to stand in line when commanded, to sleep when told, wake when ordered. He learned not only to shoot a gun, but to care for it, to understand what it can do and be aware of its location at all times, even in sleep.

The second was advanced training in his unit and task. Here he learned to master what the army wanted him to know, to master the massive vehicle that would get him and his unit to the location, to care for the machine so that it would serve the needs and get them back safely. He became a unit with other soldiers, learning to work with them, interact with them, rest with them, bond with them.

The third was training to teach him to command a unit, to take the lead - both in battle and in the regular operations that an army does to protect its citizens. This involved learning as much about himself as about others. Elie learned to control his emotions, to act with his mind, to talk and explain a situation - and to issue orders when the explaining wasn't appropriate. This is the way the Israeli army works. Order your soldiers - but inform them when you can, of what you can. They protect your lead them into battle. They will fight for you, with you, beside you and behind you because they know you are with them. This is the Israeli army.

After this week, Elie begins his fourth segment. What tomorrow holds...what that segment holds, Elie still does not know. Days away, the army must have a plan. Elie will learn only today or tomorrow. He'll probably tell us only on the day of the Closing Ceremony we will soon attend.

What amazes me is that Elie has weighed his options. He knows his preference and has accepted that regardless of what he may prefer, the army will have its way. As they pushed him into the Commanders Course, knowing it was right for this young man, they will continue to guide and direct his time in the army. He continues to volunteer for the ambulance squad when he comes home, taking the night shift when he can. He has accepted that he won't be a medic in the army and has moved on. He has accepted that his next role will be in command and his mind and body are prepared for orders he will soon receive.

Since this is, to some extent, about me as much as it is about Elie, I will tell you that I am less prepared for the next phase. I will adapt, as I have so far - but mostly because I'll watch Elie glide with ease into the next phase as he has into these last three. What wonders he will discover about himself is a mystery right now, but there will be wonders.

For me, I know that each day in the army brings him closer to "that day," and I dread that day more than any other in my life. That the day that Elie faces a real enemy, under real conditions. The day his training is put into action and the consequences of what he and others do aren't measured by anything less than life itself. I don't know if there is a single combat soldier in Israel who hasn't faced that day - not in our almost 60 years of existence.

Too much to contemplate on this beautiful day when I want to focus on his Commanders Course ceremony this week. Too much to think about with work and other family commitments, so I'll put that fear back deep into my heart and leave it there. That fear and I will talk one day, but not today, perhaps tomorrow.

What tomorrow brings, will come tomorrow. For today, Elie is safe on base, excited to be near the end of this course, and committed to conquering whatever mountains and trails the army puts before him.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Where Are You, Soldier

Last week, on the way home from picking Elie up in Beersheva, he received a short phone call from his commanding officer. Later, he explained to me that there had been an attempt to kidnap a soldier and military intelligence was warning that other attempts might be made. Commanding officers were immediately told to account for their soldiers. For most, this was easy because the soldiers were on bases. For some, this meant tracking someone down. Elie was unaccounted for because he'd been given special permission to leave to see his visiting uncle.

"Elie, where are you?" asked his commanding officer.

"In Beersheva eating pizza," Elie explained and then added that his mother was there with his uncle and soon he would be driving home in his mother's car. All is well. All accounted for.

This morning, after having Elie home for the weekend, Elie had to get to a distant location rather early in the morning. He could have taken the bus (that would have meant taking 4 or 5 buses) and ending up at a junction from which he'd then have to walk a long distance carrying a heavy backpack. We didn't know this last part, but it turns out the army was wrong about the "10 minute walk" and a few soldiers hiked for almost an hour. As we passed the intersection, we saw two soldiers (Elie recognized them just as I saw the blue berets), and we gave them a ride. With their large backpacks, there was no room for another soldier from the same unit that we had to leave behind.

Seeing the distance, I was glad that I'd decided to drive him and even happier that he'd accepted. What it comes down to, is that I've decided to indulge my need to be with him as much as I can, to help him however I can. The army doesn't spoil their soldiers, and so I believe that I have that right. I'll hang his laundry, drive out of my way to pick him up. I'll buy him all sorts of sweets that I wouldn't allow my other kids now and spend almost any amount of money to buy a better, warmer undershirt or something that he wants because I can't stand the idea of him being cold or without something that he needs.

I don't want him to know it, but deep down I know that I can't say no and I've accepted that I don't want to. The good thing is that Elie has matured enough not to take advantage of it. I offered to pick him up last Thursday night - it would have meant a drive of over an hour for me, but I just wanted him home. He chose to catch a bus (actually a train and two buses), thanking me in the process and letting me know that if he couldn't catch the last bus that went right near our house, he'd call me to pick him up from the front of Maaleh Adumim (even that wasn't necessary).

So last night, when I realized how far he was expected to travel, and to arrive there by 9:30 a.m., I offered to drive him. I knew the general location - to about a mile away. From there, we were going to look for signs and use the GPS I just got. There's a funny story just with the GPS, but I'll leave that for now. As we got close, Elie got a phone call. Elie's side of the conversation was brief.

"Ok, keep me updated. Bye."

After he got off the phone, Elie explained. Part of the Commanders Course is learning to be a commander and, as I'd seen the week before, part of being a commander is taking charge of your soldiers and knowing what they need and where they are. If the schedule changes and the soldier isn't where he is expected to be, he has to let the Commander know, and the Commander has to keep track of all the soldiers in his unit. To learn how to enforce this responsibility, to make each participant of the course feel this, they rotated the responsibility among the participants, using the others in the course as the unit.

Being responsible for the other soldiers in the course requires a different set of skills, depending on when you are given this job. The hardest weeks are the first, the last, and one in the middle. The first is hardest because there is much to be done and everyone is settling in to the idea of being a commander and the new responsibilities. The middle week is hard because you are being tested physically and emotionally and the army is pushing hard to separate those that can make it through. And finally, as Elie explained, the last week is hard because you've been at this stuff and you're tired. You want to finish and there are many changes in the schedule. You want to slip out of the routine, have a little extra freedom. You can almost taste it. Within days, you'll have a week off (hopefully). You are on the brink of change, another round of changes, and you are gearing yourself up for that as well.

Elie has been tasked with being responsible for the last week of the course. They had to let Elie know if they wouldn't arrive on time today, and where they were last week. Today, after being home for the weekend, the soldiers had to make their way to a meeting place up north for a new special seminar. That was why Elie received that phone call. One of the boys had accidentally left his backpack on the bus and was going to try to track it down. That meant he would be late arriving to the course. It was the soldier's responsibility to check in with Elie and get permission, and Elie's responsibility to account for the whereabouts of the soldier.

"Ok, keep me updated," Elie said in an authoritative voice. And "bye" Elie said in the voice of a friend.

Silly for me to feel like there was a change in the tone of his voice, but there it was.

I've been hearing the Commander's voice more and more when Elie is at home. Lest you think that Elie is the perfect ideal - as one might think sometimes from reading this blog, I can tell you that he's not. That doesn't mean I love him less - probably that I love him more for who he is and what he is becoming. It would be funny, except Elie would never laugh about it.

His room is...well, not something he'd ever want anyone to see and yet the Commander ordered his brother and sister to clean their rooms this weekend and the Commander explained that their mother was working hard and couldn't do everything. There was no reason, he explained, why they couldn't and shouldn't wash their own dishes. From the moment he came home last week, he was ready to take command of the house and, for the most part, I let him. Mostly, I let him because I enjoyed watching him and watching how others responded to him. His younger brother, who is at an age where he doesn't like to do what he is told, did what Elie ordered, or explained why not. Elie handled him, with reasoning when necessary and with orders when the reasoning didn't get past a 12-year-old's stubbornness.

Before he left, he made sure to leave his orders in place: Sunday night, he told his 12-year-old brother, "you should wash the dishes." And, you can sit in the favorite chair. Monday night, he told his 8-year-old sister, "you do the dishes, and then you can sit in the favorite chair" by the counter.

On Friday, Elie picked up his sister's backpack and promptly told her to empty it and take out everything she didn't need. It was just too heavy. This morning, before Elie left, she came over to him and asked him what to do tonight and then stood looking up at him with a very serious expression on her face as he listed her jobs.

The Commander had spoken and amazingly enough, we all respond. But even more amazing is the fact that Elie has learned to control the Commander. He has learned, in this course, how to command. Or perhaps he always knew. It is something to think about. There was always something in Elie that had him commanding others in the family. What he has learned is not so much the art of the art of getting your commands fulfilled. And this is accomplished by listening, not just ordering.

He explained some of it to me on the ride. "You can go in strong and then go easy. Or you can go in easy and then go in strong."

"Which is right?" I asked him.

"Both," he said wisely, "it depends on you."

Yes, it depends on how the commander will command, on the circumstances, on the job at hand. This week, in the next few days, Elie will finish the Commanders Course. For all intents and purposes, last week he finished his last test and the rest is just the final days until the ceremony later this week.

He has now been in the army for 11 months. The boy I took to the meeting place on that March morning has changed, Or perhaps "changed" is the wrong word. He has developed. He has matured. He is everything he was, the same sense of humor, the same twinkle in those gorgeous blue eyes of his, the same impatience at times. And he is so much more.

I have thought when to end this blog - it's been almost a year. I thought perhaps to stop, but I have been overwhelmed with responses - many comments on the blogs, but even more sent to me privately.

In just a few days, Elie will complete this course, but he has two more years to go. Two more years to serve his country. For all that time, and as I have come to understand, for the next few decades as he and his brothers serve in the army and then join the reserve forces to serve as their country needs them, I will remain a soldier's mother. I guess the need to explain what that means and how proud I am to be that mother, will keep me writing.

In just a few days, my son will be a commander in the Israeli army, and I will be a commander's mother. I can only wish that every mother would feel what I feel now and that God would know how grateful I am for the chance to be this soldier's mother.

May God bless the army of Israel and watch over our sons and keep them safe.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Out there, Somewhere

It's a very strange feeling, not knowing where your child is. It's midnight here in Israel, just a little cold. Saturday night, clear. Yet another storm is heading towards Israel, this one coming from Russia. They are predicting snow for many areas that haven't seen snow in a long time. It will be very cold, but it's a relatively small front, not expected to last long. The storm isn't expected to hit until Monday, so for now, we are in a clear period with cool nights, star cover above us and a gentle breeze.

At this moment, Elie is out there, somewhere. To test him, they have taken him far from his base. He's learned much about terrain and tracking and navigation in the last few months. By now, his base and the mountains that surround it are well known to him. He thinks he could almost find his way with his eyes closed. And so, for this last night of tracking, they are taking him far from that base, to a location he has only been to once before and a trail that is unknown and new to him. No doubt he is dressed warmly - but yes, I'm concerned about him being cold. He will have rested over the Sabbath on base - but yes, I'm worried about him being tired.

This time, Elie challenges the desert without a map in a new area - and yes, despite having faith in him, I'm scared he'll get lost. The rational part of me knows that he can be in contact with the army via the communication equipment he carries with him; that he isn't alone and that he has excelled in finding all the points the army has tasked him with finding so far. And, according to what he has told me, faster than most others in his group. Others have sometimes found only two points, he consistently has found all three.

He's good. He's strong. He's rational. He's calm and he's determined. He's warm. He's fed. He's rested. He's armed.

And me...I'm nervous and a bit scared. I'm feeling lonely, thinking of him out there in the dark. Yes, he has a flashlight if he needs it but that requires the mind to think when the heart only knows it is dark outside. In short, I'm being...perhaps not irrational, but most definitely a mother.

Tomorrow, he probably won't even think to call me to tell me how it went. In his mind, it will never occur to him that I'm even sitting here wondering and perhaps worrying just a little. They don't have a clue, and it's better that way. Their minds need to be clear to focus on learning all that the army teaches them. It could save their lives and the lives of the men they may command in the future. By the time he comes home next weekend, I'll probably remember to ask him how it went, and he'll likely say "fine" or "no problem" or "it was easy." And it will all be dismissed as yet another part of his training.

He's good. He's strong. He knows what he is doing - the army has trained him well to find himself, his location, his goal. It's a circle, a balance - Elie will do what he must...and I'll do what I have to and if not for my writing these words, no one would ever know that there was a moment that I worried, that I hesitated, that I was pre-occupied.

Apparently tonight, I have to walk around with this uneasy feeling inside my heart, wishing I could know now that he was safe and warm and back on base. In some ways, perhaps this evening is a test for me too. In a few weeks, Elie will leave the Commanders Course and all his training behind.

The options for the next phase in his army life are varied. If the army assigns him to train a group of incoming soldiers, I'll know where he is and what he is doing for much of the next four months. If they assign him to another task, I may not know at all. Either way, whether now, in four months, or at some point in the future, like tonight, there will be times when I won't know exactly where he is.

My friend's son is in an elite fighting unit. She knows nothing of where her son is and what he is doing for much of his time in the army. Perhaps this is how it begins - one night at a time. Tonight, I do not know where he is. I know only that he is out there, somewhere. Tonight, I have the luxury of knowing that he is "only" challenging the elements and that the army is right there watching over him, protecting him by knowing where he started, where he is heading. Perhaps the really frightening part is knowing that what he is really doing is preparing himself for the time when the army will send him out for real.

Friday, February 15, 2008

In His Words

My brother is visiting from the States. He very much wanted to see Elie and Elie very much wanted to see him. But the army has other plans. This weekend, when my brother is available, Elie is required to stay on base in order to take part in the last, most difficult night navigation testing. He's so close to finishing the course; he can't miss this experience and training.

Next weekend, when it looks like Elie will be home, my brother will be with his tour group. We talked about possible alternatives. I could drive Elie back right after the Sabbath ends Saturday night, I suggested. Elie spoke to his commanding officer and called me back.

It won't work, Elie explained. The army is one of Israel's greatest "equalizers." Not all families in Israel have cars; not all mothers can drive their sons back to base on a whim (or even for an important reason). So, Elie's commanding officer told him, if you can't get back here by bus in time, you can't go. There are no buses at that time, and even if there were, there is no way Elie could reach the base in time.

What about our driving down early Friday morning and seeing you then, I asked Elie. He was holding out for something more and finally, the commanding officer told him - there's a bus leaving in 20 minutes - go on it and come back tomorrow afternoon. This was even better for Elie and so he called me as he ran back to his room, dumped clothes in his backpack and prepared to leave.

"What should I do with my gun?" he quickly asked the commanding officer. It went back to the commanding officer, to be locked away until Elie's return. As he raced for the bus, I drove to pick up my brother - and from there, through one of the worst winter storms we have had this year, we drove south. (A note here - Israel doesn't get a lot of winter storms, so saying this is the worst isn't nearly as dramatic as it sounds).

The problem with Israel's storms, is that Israeli drivers don't respect them enough and so we saw many many accidents along the way and ended up getting stuck for over an hour waiting while the police cleared another.

Finally, we made it to the large mall in Beersheva and met up with Elie. We sat and talked a bit and then drove my brother back to my parent's home - 3 hours to reach Beersheva, another 2 back.

As I drove, my brother and my son spoke. My brother is in the US Navy Reserves and understands all too well that there are things Elie can't tell him, just as there are things he can't tell Elie. It was interesting to hear them speak of guns and weapons, training and exercise, and then they began to speak of the most basic difference between American soldiers and Israeli soldiers.

Officers in the US armed forces aren't given M16s, my brother explained, but rather pistols. They are not expected to lead the charge into battle, but rather to orchestrate it from the rear.

"That's the difference," Elie said, echoing the very words I would have spoken. In Israel, the officer says to his men, "follow me." And they do. Israeli officers and commanders are taught that you must leading, by doing what you would have others do. By showing your men that you are with them, they fight harder and are more confident.

All that Elie has learned in the last few months can be summed up simply by those words. The day may well come when Elie will turn to his men and say, "follow me" and deep in my heart, in the place where pride and fear live, I know that they will.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Where Elie Is...And Where He Is Not

The Israeli army, like Israeli society, understands the need for families to have family time, but it is also an army that needs its soldiers to be there, to train, to protect, to patrol. Elie is coming to the end of his first year in the army. With the conclusion of this Commanders Course, he will have reached a level where he is now ready to begin training others.

For the next two years, his service will shift into the protect and patrol elements of the army during those times when he is not actively training others. During this last phase of training, he's been able to come home almost every other weekend, and in one case was home two weekends in a row. Now, as he enters the "final stretch," he's away for 21 days. It's ridiculous that it feels like such a long period of time, but it does.

This week, if all goes according to plan, I might be able to drive down on Friday for a quick visit. If this happens, it will be because Elie has asked special permission to be released a few hours early so that he can visit with his uncle and cousin (who are visiting from the States). This will also help break up the long period where we won't see him. In anticipation of this long period, I shipped him a box of "stuff." I overdid it, as I do too often. Knowing that I was going overboard didn't help and sure enough, when I told him that I'd sent it...and that it was heavy, he asked what I'd sent. Three bottles of his favorite ice tea drink, the gloves he's asked for, several bags of Doritos, a large box of homemake cookies, a large box or homemade brownies, several packages of different kinds of nuts, the local newspaper. Yes, I'd overdone it.

Elie started to show a little annoyance. "But I'm going out in the field most of this week. I might not even get it in time and if I am able to come home, what will I do with it all?"

He was right. I'd overdone it. "Give it away," I told him. "I don't mind. Share it with the others."

I could tell he was about to say something and then a new side of Elie showed itself. He didn't argue back. He didn't complain, He simply said, "Thank you, Ima."

He realized so much in that moment, and it all came through. I meant well. There was nothing I could do about it anyway. Yes, I'd overdone it, but I did it out of love. "Thank you, Ima."

Friday, if I do go down, I'll ask him what (if anything) he wants me to bring and I'll do my best to really stick to what he requests. I really will. This time, I may well take his younger sister as well. She's gotten better at understanding that Elie is away from long stretches. But not always. A few nights ago, her middle brother came home late from school while Aliza was with me in my room. We heard voices and I knew from the sound and the time that it was Shmulik, but Aliza heard differently, "Is Elie home? I hear him."

I explained that it was Shmulik "Elie's in the army. That's Shmulik," I told her, but she insisted on going and checking herself. "I think it's Elie. I think he came home." And she took herself off to check. She came back a few minutes later and didn't say a word. It was Shmulik. Elie's in the army.

A few weeks ago, I took the two younger children shopping in the center of Jerusalem. Across the street, we saw a large group of soldiers. Aliza's eyes, like mine, followed the soldiers. Her thoughts, like mine, were on our soldier. As we waited to cross, Aliza said, "Elie's not there."

I looked at the soldiers and then back at her. No, Elie was not there. Their boots were not black, but red. Their berets were not blue, but dark green. I don't know what division they were from, where they were going, why they were there, but I knew that Elie wasn't there.

"No, Elie's not there," I told his sister. "He's on his base and he's fine."

She didn't say anything more, but I saw her watch the soldiers as they continued walking down the street. Yes, I may well take his little sister when I go to see him this weekend.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Signal...blinkers...Directional Indicators?

The last time he was home, Elie told me what I already knew. He has inherited his father's mechanical ability to understand...well, all things mechanical. Give my husband something and he can fix it. A car, a computer, a VCR, the refrigerator, a piece of furniture, a bracelet. It doesn't matter what - give him the time and the tools and he'll figure it out.

Elie is much the same. For years already, the two of them have taken care of our family cars when mechanic after mechanic has butchered those poor helpless vehicular devices. When the local mechanic "forgot" to put the bolts back onto the timing belt...which then just happened to slip into the engine of the car I was driving...which just happened to blow the engine while the car was traveling at 90 km. per hour (no, that "click" didn't sound quite right), it was Elie and his father who rebuilt the engine and got the car back to its old self.

Elie's mechanical abilities have blossomed in the army, where others around him quickly understand that he understands. "Ask Elie what needs to be fixed," his commanding officer tells the soldier, "and then go report it to the supply captain."

So the soldier went to Elie and asked him to give him a report on the problems of the nagmash (the Armored Personnel Carrier) that Elie now has a license to drive. Elie quickly gave him a list of things that had to be fixed, including the fact that the signals didn't work.

The soldier dutifully went over to the supply captain - or however that Hebrew term translates - to the person responsible for getting the nagmash fixed. The soldier carefully listed all the things that Elie said, and mentioned the signals too. When the captain asked, "Did Elie tell you the signals don't work?" the soldier believed in giving credit where credit was due - and told him honestly that Elie had indeed said that the signals were not working.

The captain then started laughing and it took the soldier a moment to consider. "There are no signals on a nagmash, are there?" he asked the captain.

"No," replied the captain with a smile.

Elie laughed when he told me this story and I laugh as I heard it and as I write it now. And if my eyes fill just a little, it is out of happiness and gratitude that he has found a place where he can show not only his talents, but that sense of humor I have always loved.

No - armored personnel carriers don't have signals, but in a world that never has enough smiles, hopefully Elie's joke will make others smile too.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Cooking and Sewing

I've always believed that parents shouldn't expect their children to believe they are perfect and shouldn't try to act as though they were. My kids know that I am human and flawed. I'll be angry - sometimes unfairly. I'll be too tired or too stressed to give them the attention they need. I'll worry over things that are so obviously not worth worrying about and defend my right to worry. I won't always be able to give them the time they most definitely deserve and sometimes I'll focus on one child when another really needs my attention.

This has been the case for the last 11 months with Elie in the army. While most of the time he isn't around, he still commands much of my attention and worry. Then it will shift briefly to another and another, only to come back abruptly when something happens that brings it all around again. Bottom line: I am not perfect and my kids know it.

And, in exchange, I accept not only that my kids aren't perfect, but that I wouldn't want them to be. Years ago, I heard a story that has always had an impact on how I view my children, how I love their imperfections, encourage them, and accept them.

I didn't start out to write about this story, but maybe I'll put it here anyway. In short, a young boy becomes very sick. His family and friends all believe that he is on death's doorstep and sit around his bed crying and mourning as they discuss his talents, his intelligence, and what an incredible child he is. The boy's teacher, an important rabbi, comes in and listens to the father speak of his son. How smart the boy is, how well behaved. All around him nod in saddness.

"He would often come late to school," the rabbi said into the silence that followed the father's words. "And he isn't very good in math. I think he needs work on his reading too." People were shocked as the rabbi then got up and walked out of the room.

The father followed him and told him how upset he was, "How can you say that when you see he is so sick?" And the rabbi explained that if you make him perfect, he will die. We are all given a task in this world, the rabbi explained, and if you have no reason to do more, you have no reason to live in this world. If you make it clear to the child that there is so much more for him to accomplish, the boy will strive to live and prove that he can improve. Sure enough, the boy soon improved. No, I'm not perfect and I never want my children to be. I love their imperfections.

As for me, I'm a good cook - I like to cook and somehow have a sense of what works, how to make something appetizing. I bake and people like "Paula's cookies" or "Paula's brownies" or "Paula's stuffing" or "Paula's soup.", I can't sew. I mean, I can sew - fallen buttons and a ripped seam. Add a patch, close a hole, thread a needle, fix a hem.

My middle son came over last week with his Shabbat pants. "Ima, can you fix these?" he asked and I quickly responded that I could. Days passed as the pants waited patiently on the bookcase near my desk. What could easily have been done during the week suddenly became important Friday when time was running out and he needed the pants.

"I'll do it," Elie replied when Shmulik asked about his pants in a stressed tone. "You know Ima doesn't sew."

Well, gee. I can sew...I mean, not well and my seams might not be perfect, but hey, I can sew.

"I can sew," I replied in my best impression of a mother wanting to make her kids think she had that important "mother" ability.

Elie smiled. Shmulik smiled. Elie sewed the pants.

In the army, you are given uniforms and then expected to do all sorts of things that cause those uniforms to rip and tear and then you are expected to repair them. Elie sewed Shmulik's pants while they both enjoyed teasing me about sewing. Their father is fantastic with a needle and thread, being the son of an upholsterer. His seams are always better than mine, straighter, tighter.

It's a perfect marriage in a world of very few perfect marriages. He sews amazingly well, but doesn't cook and me, well I cook really well...or at least a lot better than I sew.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

That's What I Do

Elie came home this past weekend relaxed and happy, only to find a house that was very pressured. The week had been long and hard and there were many things going on. Something with the car broke; we were having company; I'd worked late the night before and hadn't had time to do anything to prepare for the coming Shabbat or Elie's weekend at home.

Elie dived right in to help, his brothers helped, his youngest sister hung up the laundry. Elie and his father fixed the car. It all got done. We were all exhausted and grateful to have the coming 25 hours to rest. But, as happens at the worst of times, Elie's little sister became sick over night with a fever, stomach ache and headache.

In the afternoon, hoping to make her feel better, I made her a cup of tea. It's a special tea known to help stomach cramps, but it was too hot to drink. I asked Elie to bring me some cold water and he suggested an ice cube would work faster. He went to the freezer, took out a tray, removed an ice cube, took aim, and threw the ice cube across the room...right into the cup of tea.

"I can't believe you did that." I was shocked. "How did you do that?" Could he really have aimed that tiny ice cube and thrown it such a distance so accurately?

"That's what I do," Elie said with an endearing smile, "I aim."

Yes, that's part of what he does in the army. He aims and "gets" his target. Still having trouble believing, I questioned him a little further. Elie walked over to the flowers on the counter and pointed to the tiniest one. "I can hit this from 100 meters," he said. "To the eye of a person, not the whole face, if I have to," he finished.

And then I realized what he meant. Imagine a terrorist holding a hostage. Imagine knowing that this terrorist would rather die than give up the hostage to safety. Imagine him using the hostage as a human shield. Imagine knowing that the only way to save the hostage, was to shoot the terrorist, whose head was so close.

"That's what I do," Elie said - and I realized once again that for all the wonderful things Elie is experiencing in the army, for all the growing that he is doing and the new things he is learning, there is a serious side to it all.

This was a week that saw a bomb blow up in Dimona. In the cruelest of acts, two terrorists were dispatched to this small southern city. The first killed himself, murdering an elderly woman, critically injuring her husband, and wounding dozens of others. One of the wounded was the second terrorist who had a plan to wait until a new crowd gathered before setting off his explosives.

Within seconds of the first blast, people rushed in to help. A doctor approached the second terrorist who was laying on the ground, thinking to help him. As the doctor opened the terrorist's jacket, he saw the explosives strapped to the man's body. He and others screamed warnings as everyone ran from the area. Those who could not run, the wounded, lay on the ground close to the second terrorist.

As others ran away in fear, a brave police chief approached. Officer Kobi Mor saw the wounded terrorist reach for the wire to explode the second bomb. He crouched down within meters of the terrorist, took aim and shot the terrorist in the head. The terrorist was stopped from setting off the second explosion that would likely have killed others (at least the wounded who lay around the terrorist).

"That's what I do," Elie said to me, "I aim." Sometimes, the ability to aim can be funny and cute as it was when Elie threw an ice cube across the room, and sometimes, it can be deadly serious. The army gives them the skills. The army teaches them when to use it. Because Kobi Mor had that skilled, many lives were saved this week.

May the families of the dead and wounded in Dimona find comfort in the caring and speedy actions of the rescuers and doctors, and may they know no more sorrow.

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