Sunday, March 30, 2008

Who Knows Elie?

I've wanted to write about this for a long time and finally decided to do it now. When I started this blog, after a few months, a friend told me that there was a way to post a map on the blog and see the locations from where people were visiting. It sounded interesting...who would want to read about a young Israeli soldier and his somewhat neurotic, certainly over-sensitized mother? I decided to find out, and so I managed to find the link, follow the directions, and post the map on the right side of the blog for myself and others to see. I've watched it over time, as the red dots grow and cover continents. Much of Europe and the US are covered; Israel has long since disappeared. The icon on the side looks like this:

Someone (or more) in Hawaii and the Canary Islands; deep in the heart of Russia, and China, Australia, New Zealand. Central America. Way up in Alaska and deep into Canada.

If you zoom in, you can see the individual countries - the size of the red dots indicates the relative number of visitors.

It helps answer a basic question - Who would want to read about one Israeli soldier and one Israeli soldier's mother? The answser, amazingly enough, is quite a few.

Sure, some of those dots in the eastern coast are probably Elie's aunts and uncles (and maybe a few cousins), but certainly not all. Some have written to me and so I know there are several parents who regularly read the blog. Like me, they have a son in the Israeli army. They too worry about where their son is, what he is doing, if he is warm and safe.

There are mothers and fathers of American soldiers in Iraq - sharing an experience, a worry. They too worry about where their son is, what he is doing, if he is warm and safe. I've gotten comments and notes from former Israeli soldiers, telling me very politely that I don't have to worry so much and then telling me that if I was anything like their mother, I'd keep on worrying anyway (yup, I will and so did your mother).

Beyond the obvious readership in Israel, there's a whole bunch of red dots along the Iraqi border and in the Gulf - I imagine these are American soldiers, comparing their adventures to Elie's and wondering if their parents too are as concerned and proud (they are).

There are a bunch of red dots in Vietnam, China, and South Africa - these are perhaps the result of Elie's grandmother's visits to these countries. She is the proud grandmother of an Israeli soldier and is quick to tell others.

More dots throughout Thailand and the beautiful Southeast Asian islands - I imagine these are Israelis who have finished the army and stumbled across this blog as they travel and explore new worlds, away from the pressures of Israel and army life. Perhaps this blog reminds them of what they wanted to get away from - or perhaps it reminds them of home. In this group, perhaps, is Elie's cousin - may you all be safe, come home safe.

I have no explanation for the many red dots in South America and the many clusters in Europe. I know only that there are thousands of hits, thousands of visitors to this blog and I can only guess that beyond the story of one soldier, one son - this blog touches people...and it touches me that people care enough to visit and leave such wonderful comments.

And the close to this is that of all the readers there are...there is one I know there is not - Elie himself.

"I don't read it," he said almost proudly on the phone to someone who asked recently. And therein, perhaps, is where I get the freedom to write. I don't know if Elie knows this. I don't know if he will ever read it. But I am secure in the knowledge that now he isn't reading it, doesn't know how much I share him with others and conversely, he doesn't know how much I am amazed by him, how proud I am.

More than an occasional, "I love you" - I have to let him and his brothers grow and be free to explore. His youngest brother is just young enough (at 12), to remember to say "I love you" back. Elie and his middle brother smile or say, "yes, yes" or shrug it off...but I know that they need to hear it, hopefully as much as I need to say it. His sisters have no problems expressing and enjoying these emotional statements. Despite all the studies on gender, mothers know that girls are girls and boys are boys and in this, nothing changes. It is a simple fact of life - that 18 and 20 year old males take pride in holding their feelings inside and of choosing when and how to show them. It's there, but you often need a mother's heart and eyes and ears to hear and see and feel it.

To get a hug or kiss from Elie or his middle brother often requires bribery, begging, negotiations and compromise - in short, Elie is normal. Deep down, I know that they are all very secure in knowing that I love them deeply and beyond reason. It is a security they carry with them, a safety that lets them know there is nothing they can ever do to change how I feel, and the knowledge that they can call me for anything, any time, for any thing.

When they were young, I learned all about Dr. Spock (and a generation raised on a theory that has long since been dismissed). I firmly believed that you can never hold a baby too much and was a major believer in the idea that the more love you give a young child, the more independent and free they will feel - safe in the knowledge that home is always there waiting for them and that home is a place of unquestioning love. A place of trust that won't be betrayed; of support that is unconditional.

As I write this, Elie's picture and those of his siblings stare down at me from the top of my computer monitor. They ground me; they remind me that all in life is small in comparison to the most basic reality - family.

It's the picture of Elie smiling with that look in his eye that just sums up his personality. No, Elie isn't reading this blog and for now, I'm glad. I think I hope someday he will read it, if only to sit back and realize how much I adore him and how proud I am of all that he does, all that he is. He would never sit and let me tell him, so maybe, years from now, he'll read it and understand. Probably only when he has children of his own, maybe even a child about to go into the army. Or perhaps not - having gone through the army, he will understand so much more of what I didn't know; he'll accept so much more as ordinary. Hopefully, he will worry less.

But that's way in the future, for now, he'll continue serving in the Israeli army - a soldier, a commander, a Jew and an Israeli and yes, a son. And I'll continue writing, I've decided, sharing a piece of what Elie is and what he does and I'll look at those red dots and know that others know Elie too.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Taking and Giving - a Balance

As Elie learns to lead, he begins to understand that there is a balance to be sought; a pledge to be received and given. He must act for "his" soldiers; think of them as his to command, his to protect. It's Saturday night here in Israel. Elie and some of his soldiers are home but will return early tomorrow morning.

One soldier is being sent to learn to drive the armored personnel carrier. Elie too learned this skill, but as commander, he is now responsible for directing someone else to drive it. The commander stands while the vehicle moves, and is responsible for watching outside the vehicle. The commander orders the driver to drive or stop, to maneuver around objects that are more difficult to see from the driver’s position. The driver has limited vision and ultimately it is the commanding officer who is responsible for guiding the vehicle, though it is the driver who implements his commands. They practice this so that they become a unit and can easily navigate to required locations.

So, one soldier under Elie’s command is going to learn how to drive this vehicle. To do this, he must arrive at the southern base early tomorrow morning to begin a course that lasts several days. And therein lies the problem. The officer who is to learn was at the base up north this weekend. The course is given at a training base in the south where there are miles and miles of open space and challenging terrain upon which to practice. If the soldier has to wait until Elie and the others return, he will miss the course. If he leaves before they return, the base will be under-manned.

And so, Elie ordered one of his other soldiers to return up north tonight. A jeep will take this returning soldier from Kiryat Shemona to the actual base and, at the same time, collect the soldier from the base and take him back to Kiryat Shemona. From there, the soldier who will be taking the course can either sleep in the equivalent of a hostel for soldiers or travel home, spend a quick evening at home, and then continue tomorrow to the southern base. The added time traveling tonight and his not having to wait until the others return, will enable him to arrive on time tomorrow morning.

So, Elie chose one of his soldiers and told him that he had to return Saturday night, after the Sabbath ends. To compensate him for cutting short his time at home, Elie released him a day early. "I gave him 24 hours extra and took back less than 12," Elie explained. Thus the soldier was happy, Elie was content, and the other soldier will get to his course on time.

It's all about balancing.

Elie told me a few weeks ago that one of the things that he is required to do each day with his soldiers is read them their “mission.” This is a constant reminder of what they are facing and why. He told me that two of his soldiers came late and he had to punish them. This wasn’t easy for Elie. He spoke to his commanding officer and then decided that he would punish them by giving them an unpopular task, repeatedly.

“Didn’t that get them upset?” I asked Elie.

“No. They knew they were wrong and it was either that or have them give up going home for the weekend.” To Elie and I think to most of the soldiers, being home is about as good as it gets. It’s a goal for them. Once they are released, they calculate the fastest way to get home. When Elie was thinking of quitting the Commanders Course in order to try to push the army into letting him take the Medics Course, part of his calculations included how much time he could get home. If he quit on a Thursday, he thought, they’d send him home for the weekend. But Thursday came and went and on Sunday, he would once again decide to postpone his decision until Thursday, until it became apparent that he didn’t really want to quit the course at all.

To Elie, denying someone going home was too great a penalty and so he found something else. It’s all about balancing. As a soldier’s mother, looking beyond the wisdom the army is forcing my son to use and the judgment calls they are forcing him to make, I am once again amazed by the long-term ramifications of what these aspects of his responsibility will add to his personality. He is learning to weigh his choices and understand that with decisions comes responsibility; and with responsibility comes the need to find a balance. To give when you are forced to take, and to take only what you must.

It’s a little after 11:30 p.m. Elie’s soldier called to say he arrived at base. Elie has packed his things and is preparing to go to sleep; to rise early and return to the army. He’ll be home again in two weeks…we do not yet know what his schedule will be, if he will be able to spend the Passover Seder with us. But that is a few weeks away. Between now and then, we will wait and see.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Growing up in America, each night at 10:00 p.m. or so, the television station would ask, "Do you know where your children are?"

Before coming to Israel, it was almost an obsession of mine. I knew, to the minute, where my children were, where they were going, who they were with. Pure and uncontrolled panic would set in if, even for a split second, one of my children was someplace unknown. My children got the usual admonishments - don't talk to strangers, don't go too far away, don't go alone.

Coming to Israel was an enlightening experience. Israel is very different than the US and other countries in many fundamental ways, though at times I think it is simply that Israel is behind the times and may catch up. Technologically, we are at the forefront of innovation and development. Medically, our hospitals are among the best in the world. Economically, our country is doing well. Socially...well, never mind. We are much isolated in that department.

But children-wise, we are behind - or maybe way ahead. Our children are rarely in danger of being snatched and rarely must they be warned to avoid strangers. So, I'm sitting here, on Friday morning in Israel, thinking about the question - do you know where your children are?

My oldest daughter is married. She is at her home with her husband; together they are preparing to welcome the sabbath at their apartment in Jerusalem. My middle son is out shopping; buying the special sweet bread (challah) that we eat on the sabbath and other treats for our family. My youngest son and daughter are in school. And Elie...Elie is asleep in his bed upstairs.

He came home yesterday - so dirty and tired. They had them moving their base and the work was grueling. The new base is a better location, more able to view what our enemies across the border might do and so better able to protect our citizens. In the last base, the places that they slept were not nearly as nice; here, they even have access to a room where they can rest at off-duty times (with cable and a TV, no less).

They slept outside the last night, taking turns patrolling. Elie talked about how he took care of "my soldiers" - getting up every three hours to check that all was well. He made them hot tea, checked that they were patrolling, and went back to sleep during the long night. The other soldiers each got 6 hours of sleep and each stood watch for 3 hours - Elie says he got more sleep than them, but his was broken up by the times he got up to verify the situation. The commander checking his soldiers.

I met Elie and another soldier about a two hour drive from our home. I was at a business meeting and the only bus leaving Kiryat Shemona came close to where I was - faster than waiting three hours to get a direct bus. I pulled up behind the bus to collect Elie and one of "his" soldiers who lives near Jerusalem.

Elie got off the bus, as did several other soldiers. They leave on Thursday and come back on Sunday, and yet they said goodbye as deeply as if they would go for much longer. A shake of the hands, a pat on the shoulders, even a slight hug that is typical of Israeli society. Shabbat shalom - a peaceful sabbath, they wished each other. See you Sunday.

Elie and the other young man got in the car. They looked so tired, so dirty. Elie showed me the new attachment to his gun - a powerful flashlight that they'd used well the night before to light up the area. He talked about having to wash his laundry - at least two times through, he said with a grin. His arms were blackened with dirt; even his face needed to be washed. The showers had moved to the new base and there wasn't even time or place to wash up before they were released and hurried to catch the bus. It becomes a single goal - get home.

They were almost too tired to even know where to begin to unwind. They weren't even hungry (and that should tell you how tired they were). The traffic was slow. I thought they would go to sleep, but they talked about nothing in particular or listened to music - time to unwind.

We finally got home and as I'd expected...a shower, food and sleep.

I am at such peace at this moment. Yes, I know where my children are, and feel incredibly blessed for this simple occurrence.

Shabbat shalom.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Pearls of Wisdom

When Elie was little, I would try to capture little pearls of wisdom that he or his siblings would say. If there was paper around, I'd scribble it down and years later, these little pieces of paper would turn up in a book, a pad of paper, anywhere, and I'd smile.

One of my all time Elie favorites went like this:

"Ima, do you know what clouds are?"

"No, Elie. What are clouds?"

"Clouds are pieces of snow. And when they all fall down, there are no more clouds."

I loved that one. It made such sense to me, seen through the eyes of a little boy. There was all that snow in the sky waiting to fall, and once it did, the clouds were no longer in the sky. Of course, that didn't explain clouds in the summer, rain, and wind, but children's logic needs no encouragement.

It's been years since I tried to capture these words in writing as they were spoken. I try to remember them and sometimes can, but my children are older and much more aware of me. If I'm writing or typing while they are talking...they begin to wonder. And too, older children base their pearls on real life and truths as they learn them. Imagination gives way to adult logic, but there are still times when you know you want to run and write down their exact words anyway.

Last week, Elie was on the phone with his father talking about the delay in getting his new phone. It was Thursday afternoon in Israel. Our weekend spans Friday and Saturday. If he didn't have the phone by Friday, he would be returning up north early Sunday morning without it. Having placed the order, Elie was impatient. He knew he could wait, but he just didn't want to.

The phone company was not cooperating. They didn't have the phone, but promised to deliver it on Sunday. Elie tried to explain that he had to return to base, that he could come and pick up the phone in Jerusalem later that day or the next, but the phone representative kept saying that she could arrange to deliver it only on Sunday. Elie was having this conversation with his father, as his father explained to the salesperson.

"I’m on the border – she can’t get to where I am," Elie told his father. The woman persisted. She would arrange to get the phone to him...wherever he was...and that's when Elie's latest pearls of wisdom were delivered.

"Sure, come to the Lebanese border and deliver my phone – don’t forget to bring a bullet proof vest so you don’t get shot." He said it with such a smile that my heart filled. The woman's promise was absurd, leave it to Elie to point it out so brilliantly. But Elie wasn't done.

"Tell her to look for the DANGER – BORDER sign and make a left."

The phone didn't get there either that day or the next and we began to think of other ways to get it to Elie. One of his soldiers had asked for an extra few hours to take care of some critical personal issues. Elie secured the extra time and thought that if I could get the phone to the soldier by Sunday afternoon, the young man could take it to Elie. It was agreed - best we could do.

Then, Elie found himself in the northern city of Kiryat Shemona early Sunday with an hour to spare before the army bus met him for the last leg of the trip. "Ima, there's a Cellcom [phone company] office near here," he told me.

We agreed that he would walk over there, but held little hope that he would actually be able to get his advanced new phone (either because they wouldn't agree to give it to him considering that another was about to be delivered for him, or because in the northern town, it was unlikely (we thought) that such an advanced phone would be sitting there and available). We were wrong on all counts and Elie called me a short time later to tell me he'd caught the bus...and the phone.

Now all we have to do is learn how to use it (I got one too). Another of Elie's pearls - voice filled with concern, "Ima, it might be too complicated for you."

And with a smile, I responded, "you can help me when you get home." A few more days...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Purim on the Edge

Almost all of the holidays on the Jewish calendar mark a moment in the history of our people. Passover is the time we gained our freedom; Shavuot the time we received the Torah. Sukkot reminds us of the temporary and fragile life we lead, that we are under the protection of a Greater Force and we need His protection. Without it, we are vulnerable as if we lived without real shelter. Chanukah is our time to remember our victory over one enemy; Tisha B’Av the time to mourn our defeat by others (and by ourselves).

Purim is perhaps the lightest and easiest of holidays to celebrate. We are commanded to be happy, infused with the joy made more poignant because the holiday carries an underlying promise. It is a commitment that at the worst of times, God will protect the people of Israel. Purim is a children's holiday that adults love. It's the simplest of tales. An inane king led to evil by a sinister advisor is about to destroy the Jewish people in the kingdom of Persia, in the city of Shushan. The stupid king, too busy with his personal life, is led into issuing a decree to kill all the Jews. Meanwhile, back at the palace, the king actually marries a woman from the very people he has promised to destroy.

And, if that isn't suspenseful enough, the new queen's uncle overhears a plot to kill the king, jumps in and saves the day and gains the gratitude of the king! The plans of the evil minister are thwarted; the Jewish people of Shushan saved!

It’s a wonderful story. The children love it and focus on the heroes. The adults are encouraged to remove themselves from the pressures of life, to relax, to act like children by thinking you can blot out evil by making noise. It works for a bit of time to take us from the pressures of life. As the story is read aloud, each word heard carefully throughout the country and around the world, adults and children alike make noise, laugh, stomp their feet and "remove" the name of the evil minister, Haman, and cheer again and again, as Mordechai and Esther save the day.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent Purim away from my children. They might go to another place to hear the megillah (the story of Purim) read, but we were always together as a family for the main meal, for giving baskets of food to friends, and for just being together. Until this year, when Elie is stationed on the border.

He called Thursday during the day before the holiday arrived, and again Thursday night after we’d returned from hearing the megillah and as we were sitting down to eat. The army has arranged for someone to read the megillah there on the base, but it was clear in his voice that he was lonely. It was one of those calls I haven’t had in a while – where he’s got nothing that he really wants to say, but he’s just reaching out. It's something in his voice that calls out to me; nothing that he puts in words.

"How's it going?" is all he says but the message comes through. Maybe I'm wrong and hearing something that isn't there.

"Fine," I answer cheerfully. "We're sitting down to dinner. Grandma and grandpa are here. What's new with you?"

"Nothing." It's the one word answers that give it away.

It meant that I had to talk. I told him about whatever I could think about; he spoke to his grandmother and grandfather who were visiting. We talked about the new phones. What's happening up north. Plans for Passover (which is a month away). Anything to keep the conversation going.

He told me about his plans for this coming week and yet another short course the army was sending him to, and finally he said he had to go. He didn't sound much better; I felt much worse. My baby is lonely, I wanted to cry inside...but of course, that's silly. My baby is 20-years-old, a soldier, a man. He's not suffering and he's with friends. He's fine...I just felt sad and lonely myself (even in a house with family and friends).

The next morning, we went to dear friends who also happen to be relatives now that our daughter married their son. It was nice to have the families together and since they live only a block away, it’s something we do relatively often. My second son is about the same age as their second son - they get along very well. My two younger kids get spoiled by all the attention of being relatively little in a house where the kids are all grown up.

My older daughter’s father-in-law read the megillah in the beautiful tunes of his Libyan heritage and then we sat down to an amazing meal of stuffed turkey, tons of side dishes and salads. A feast. A perfect meal with friends and family, and then my phone rang. It was Elie again so I quickly answered and stepped outside.

"How's it going?" he asks again. And again I know he's lonely.

It's killing me inside because asking if he is lonely isn't going to help. I give him a brief rundown of what is happening and ask what's going on there.

"Nothing." The one word answers. We spoke for a few minutes. Overall, he’s fine and happy. They again heard the megillah reading on the base. He’s coming home to sleep Monday night so that he can get to this course on Tuesday morning more easily. He’ll be home again for the coming weekend. I’m not sure what’s in his mind; whether he has crystallized the concept of feeling lonely (or if it is my projecting into his voice what isn’t there).

Either way, it is a part of being a soldier (and a soldier’s mother). They will feel a part of all that is happening and not need family as much and then for a brief time, even on a base with friends, they will need to touch home. I accept that it has nothing to do with his overall enjoyment of the army, his overall commitment to what he is doing, and I also accept that there isn’t much I can do about it. Whether his loneliness is real or imagined, I’ll use it as an excuse to call him a little more and hope I hit a time when he can answer. I’ll try to listen if he wants to talk, and I’ll bake cookies and brownies so he can take them with him when he comes home briefly on Monday.

Beyond that, I’ll accept. Accept that the loneliness is the flip side of all that he is experiencing and all that he is gaining. It even has the added benefit of making him want to be home more and appreciating the home and the family that he has.

I spoke to him again this evening after the Sabbath had ended and this time he talked about his new phone, the reception he gets there, the complexity of the phone. He wants to call the phone company and see if they can activate his old phone so that he doesn't risk breaking the new one while on base.

In other words, another minor crisis avoided – he’s sounding like Elie again. Maybe he needed to put the holiday behind him.

I hope the next holiday, Passover, will see us together.

Side note on Purim:

Though I wrote of the "story" of Purim and the tale of Purim, it is important to point out we are actually talking about an historical fact, not fiction. Proof? Proof is in confirmation found a few decades ago here in Israel when Israel helped save thousands of Ethiopian Jews by bringing them to Israel. The Ethiopian community had developed with no outside contact, lost to the Jewish people of Europe and the Eastern countries for centuries.

When they arrived in Israel, the rabbis sat down with their Ethiopian counterparts and began comparing the Judaism as practiced in Ethiopia as opposed to the Judaism that Jews had been practicing either in Europe or in the Arab countries from which they emigrated to Israel decades ago. Holiday for holiday, they compared them until they got to the Jewish month of Adar.

The Ethiopian rabbis, known as Keses, told of a great day of fasting and mourning that took place...on exactly the day we celebrate Purim. How could this be? Why do you mourn?

The king of Shushan issued a decree that all the Jews of Shushan would be killed on that day. When the plot was uncovered and overturned, a second edict was sent out canceling the first one and ordering the protection of the Jews. Sadly, the second edict never reached the Jews of Ethiopia and so, for centuries, they mourned a massacre that had been avoided. Today in Israel, the Ethiopian Jews join all Israelis in celebrating the miracle of Purim.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On to Tomorrow...on the Border

He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.

Each Shabbat this prayer is read aloud and each Shabbat when I hear this in the synagogue, I think of Elie. How can I not? I close my eyes and I listen to each word. Protect them, please, wherever they are. Elie has stood guard close to the desert of Egypt, and near Jordan (the Aravah). He's been near the Great Sea and in the center of the country, and now, he is close to the border of Lebanon.

I've had almost a year where I really didn't have much to worry about - though, of course, I managed to convince myself to worry nonetheless. Our southern areas are under attack from Gaza rockets on a daily basis, but Elie was stationed at a training base outside the range of these rockets (so far anyway). Sometimes he was cold or hot - he was never hungry, never alone, never really responsible for doing more than following the orders of his commanding officers. I worried because there wasn't really much else I could do - or I worried because there might have been something happening, or something silly happened (like Elie sleeping on his phone and calling us at 3:30 a.m. by mistake).

One time I worried because I knew something had happened on the Syrian border and Elie was nearby and for a few hours, the country (and the world) waited to see if there would be a war - but even then, it wasn't about Elie and I knew at each moment that he was ok. I didn't know if the next day would bring war, but I knew on that day where he was and that he was fine.

After his basic training, he went to advanced training. There was a short period when he was actually "on the line" guarding one of the many necessary check points that help our soldiers prevent almost daily instances of would-be attackers coming into our cities and then it was back for another four months of training to be a commander. I had silly worries when he was training as a commander. I worried about the cold, but that was easy to solve with a couple of extra warm thermal shirts. I worried about the challenges of the course itself but I just knew he'd fly through it. And as I stood and watched him receive the new rank and bars of a commander, I worried about where they would send him and what he would be responsible for when he got there.

That's it now - he's trained. He's ready. He's on the border of Lebanon.
May the Almighty cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighters from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavor against our enemies.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Boy Inside

Like most young men his age, Elie loves gadgets and electronic devices, cars, computers. Like his father, he is a master of the mechanical, quick to fix things, figure out how they tick. As his room fills with the new "toys" of his age, the boy's things are handed down to his 12 year old brother. The broken cars, pieces of cherished toys that I would throw in the garbage become a rite of passage.

Elie got in my car in Haifa after somehow guiding me to the location to pick him up last week. Getting out was almost as confusing as finding him in the first place, and so he quickly turned to Jason, our family GPS. Jason is the narrator with the American voice, as opposed to Thomas who announces distances to roundabouts in a heavy British accent that we find difficult to take seriously.

Both are continually confounded with new roads and need to perform a "route recalculation" at regular intervals and sound extremely strained when "GPS signal is lost." I, a technical writer for more than a decade (and, with all modesty, I have to admit I'm respected in my field here in Israel), have yet to read the manual. I figure it's part of being in Israel, this getting lost or challenged with new roads and directions and take it with as much humor as I can. Thus, Jason and his friends become a way to keep the kids occupied while I try to figure out where we should be going. During daylight, I try the oldest of all methods - if the sun is there....we should be...oh.

When in Tel Aviv or near the coast, the Mediterranean is my friend - I want to head to the left when facing the sea, until it should be to my back. It may not be neat, but it works. Coming back from Haifa, Elie took Jason out and began pressing the touchpad. He enjoys telling me how inaccurate Jason is, compared to the GPS units the army has trained him to use. HE wouldn't get lost, is the message that comes through loud and clear. Yes, my love, you wouldn't, but I don't care because I'm not in a rush to do much but spend time with you anyway, so who cares? No, that won't work with Elie, so I duly make the left turn and right turn until we figure out where we are.

The GPS is a grownup toy, or so Elie would have you believe. But mid-way on the way home last week, Elie asked me about a PSP. I'd never heard about such a thing, but Elie has. He doesn't ask for much and I'll probably order it and ask his aunt or uncle to bring it with them when they come for the holidays.

It seems it is the latest version of a PlayStation - hand-held device more sophisticated than a GameBoy. You order games (you can even show movies on it or play music), but it was the games that interested Elie. One of his jobs as a commander is to monitor the radio for certain periods of time to be aware of what is happening all around and be ready to order troops into action if necessary. You can do anything, Elie said, except put earphones on or go to sleep. A hand-help gaming device is perfect. It requires little real concentration, but helps pass the time.

But even more, what it means is that inside this mature young man the army has helped shape, is the boy I gave them. They can give him a gun, dress him in a uniform, teach him all sorts of things and give him a disciplined, ordered existence, but deep down, there he is - my Elie, who loves all these gadgets and games and whirling, spinning, racing, flying things.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Remembering Our Enemies

Elie is off from the army this weekend, but has chosen to spend Shabbat at the yeshiva he attended before entering the army. It is one of the Shabbatot (Sabbaths) that the boys gather together - those who are released from the army, like a pilgrimage. They sleep where there is room, years and years worth of graduates, coming back to meet friends from the past, see their rabbis and teachers.

They gather at significant times - Yom Kippur - the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and this weekend, Parshat Zachor. This is the portion of the Torah that is read once a year and it contains the story of Amalek, may his name be cursed and erased. We are commanded, "Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt." (Dvarim/Deuteronomy 25).

And exactly what Amalek did is read out for each to hear. We are commanded to listen to each word, to remember. What did Amalek do? As the Jews were leaving Egypt, the Torah explains, Amalek struck the back of the long procession where the weak, the sick, the elderly were slowly following our leader, Moshe Rabbenu (Moses). This was the work of cowardice, an ancient terrorist who knew it was easier to attack those who could not fight back. For his cowardly act, Amalek was sentenced to be remembered and cursed, his name and ancestors forever damned.

Though the Jews were commanded to wipe out the Amalekites, they showed mercy when they should not have. Amalek himself was allowed to survive the battle and his descendents went on to plague the Jewish people for centuries. The sinister Haman, assistant to the king of Shushan, Persia, attempted to have all the Jews of Shushan exterminated in his anger and hatred towards the Jews. Though science cannot prove that Hitler was a descendent of Amalek, few doubt that only one such as Amalek could have eventually fathered such evil as we saw in Hitler. And even today, our modern-day Amaleks - Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad, and others continue to follow Amalek's way.

Hitler did not attack the army of the Jewish people because we had no army in that day. He took the women and the children, the scholars and rabbis. He took those who were not trained to resist, and even those who tried, in some small measure to fight back. Nasrallah bombed the cities of our north where the innocent lived, and fled in the face of our army, just as today Hamas regularly sends rockets into Sderot and Ashkelon to kill and terrorize. And Ahmadinejad promises that Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth - these are today's Amaleks, who we must remember.

Tomorrow, Elie will stand amongst his friends and listen as the portion describing what Amalek did to his people so many centuries ago is read aloud. He will stand with an M16 strapped to his back, and a promise, a pledge he has made to his nation, in his heart. There will be no more Amaleks, no more Hamans. The next Hitler that arises will face the power and the might of the soldiers of Israel.

Yesterday, I had a business-related meeting in the coastal city of Caesaria. I agreed to drive up further north to meet Elie and drive him home. Hopefully, it saved him a few hours on the buses and trains, but it also gave me time to talk and hear about what he has been doing over the last 12 days since he returned from his few days at home.

We talked about many things, one of which was his daily requirement to read their "mission" to his soldiers. I found this part fascinating and asked what he meant. Each day, the soldiers gather together, and Elie reminds them why they guard Israel's borders, what Hizbollah is and what it wants to accomplish. It is a daily reminder, not because the soldiers might forget, but because it is so important. I don't know if any other army does this, but I think that they should - I know that we should. You guard our borders and protect our people, Elie's mission statement probably reads.

I doubt the name "Amalek" is included in this mission Elie reads to his soldiers, but the message is the same. They would attack us, the weakest amongst us, the innocent who need our protection. It is your goal, your mission, soldiers of Israel, to do what centuries ago our enemies denied our people the opportunity. There were no Jewish soldiers there when Amalek attacked, as there were no soldiers to defend the Jews who were murdered in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Maidanek, Treblinka, and so many other places.

This time, Amalek will face a Jewish army. This time, we will fight back. This time, Elie and his soldiers will protect those who were not protected. We will not forget Amalek, but even more importantly, we will not let Amalek strike us again - not from the north and not from the south. This time, unlike the time when the Nazis came, our soldiers will meet them in battle.

Tomorrow Elie will hear the challenge, the real reason why each day he and his soldiers hear their mission. It all comes down to the simplest of reasons - because we must remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt, and what Haman tried to do, and what Hitler did, and what Hamas and Hizbollah and the Iranians would do - if not for the sons of Israel who guard our borders, and the God of Israel, who guards our sons.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Very Busy...and Loving It

I'll know more this weekend, when Elie comes home for the first time after spending time as a commander, but from the sounds of it, he's very busy, and loving it. ICQ seems to be a favorite method for young people to communicate in Israel, and probably around the world. Both Elie and his younger brother (the 18-year-old, not the 12-year-old) love to ICQ (can you call that a verb?). Amazingly enough, they'll even ICQ with their friends from school (after having spent a full day with them).

Somewhere along the line, I learned that in Israel, ICQ is hooked into our cellular phone company and so you can easily type messages and send them to someone's cellular phone (for free and much more easily than pressing so many buttons, so many times, on those little phone keyboards).

So, I decided to get with the program, literally. I downloaded ICQ and installed it on my work computer, only to realize that I don't know how to find Elie's ID. I managed to find someone who might be him...but wasn't sure.

"Hi, Elie. This is Ima." I typed out...only to realize that doesn't help much - Ima is Hebrew for mother. Most young Elie's probably have a mother called "Ima."

"Hope you are my Elie." I'm not doing to well here.

"Hope you can get home on Thursday." Ok, that's better - at least it cuts out all the Elie's that already live at home.

I sent the message and wondered how I would know if Elie got it or not.

A few hours later, still nothing.

"Hi Elie. I don't know if I have the right number. Call me when you get this. Aliza says hi." No, actually his little sister didn't say hi, but it was either referring to the dog or his sister and I think he's more likely to believe his sister said hi than the dog, right?

No answer. I might have to drive up north, and it rained here last night. The camping store called and I might forget to tell him. My new laptop computer is finally working. No, nothing really new to tell him, but I guess I just want to hear how he's doing.

So I finally call and get through. We talked for a few minutes - the laptop is fun; no, no rain up north; we'll see about Thursday; a Lebanese guy tried to cross the border; nothing new. It's comfortable up there; the food is, well, nothing much to write home about and he's still with some of his friends from the beginning.

Did you get my ICQ messages? I finally ask.

Yes, he told me, but he's been so busy, he really didn't have time to answer. No problem, I told him. I just wanted to make sure I had the right connection.

So, for now, he's up north, very busy, and apparently loving it.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sometimes, There is No Perspective

A camping store in Jerusalem's largest mall called me this afternoon to tell me that the business-card sized "invention" that I'd bought Elie has just come back repaired. It contains all sorts of things - a flashlight, a screwdriver, scissors, pen, ruler, and I'm not even sure what else. Well, one of these attachments broke almost immediately after we bought it.

To add to the information, every soldier needs a very strong backpack. With this backpack he travels to and from his home carrying all his clothes (smelly and dirty on the way home; nice and clean on the way back). He carries many other things as well, such that the backpack is always filled to capacity, straining at the edges to contain so many things.

Elie typically carries home made cakes, brownies, and/or cookies back to base, further stuffing his backpack. The last time he came home from the course, he returned with the extra blanket he had taken to get him through the winter, a small bottle of laundry detergent that he likes to refill so he can wash his close on the Fridays that he isn't coming home, etc. and even the 7th volume of Harry Potter (in Hebrew) that he has yet to finish reading.

About a month ago, he returned home to tell me that his backpack was in very bad shape. The zippers were ripping, half the plastic fasteners were broken and some of the straps were unraveling. I figured that we had to buy another one. At over 300 NIS (about $75 ), cheap it is not but there's no option, so I began gearing myself up for having to buy one...perhaps once a year. No way, Elie said. It's guaranteed. Not for what you do to it, I thought to myself, but Elie insisted, and so we went back to the camping store, which actually offers a guarantee.

Not only did they take his backpack for repair (without even asking for the receipt), but they gave him a replacement to use while they got it repaired. I had been prepared to buy another one of these massive backpacks, rationalizing that my next son (or the one after that) would need it anyway. No problem, they explained with a smile as they quickly filled out a form. "Who should we call when it comes back?" they asked Elie.

Elie looked at me. It isn't always easy to reach a soldier during work hours so I quickly gave them my number. "Once it's ready, it might be a week or two before we can come in and get it," I explained quite needlessly. Even as I was talking, I realized it was so silly. All of these young people had served in the army and knew better than I do that nothing is certain in the army, least of all when you'll get out. They smiled and let me explain. They know mothers too, it seems.

Elie also told them that the screwdriver of the small "invention" I had bought him previously was broken. No problem, once again. The camping store filled out another form, took the little pieces and promised to call when this came back as well.

They called this afternoon to say the small pieces were back. They'd already called to say the backpack was ready and Elie had made the exchange last time he was home. "Elie should be home this weekend," I told the sweet young woman who called to tell me it was there. "But maybe he won't have time to come get it."

"No problem - it'll be here waiting," she said and something in the way she said it just got to me.

"It's so good you understand," I said. "That you hold it for the soldiers."

"It's the least we can do for them," she said. I thanked her again and quickly got off the phone before I embarrassed us both. But my eyes still filled just a little and I knew it would be better if I didn't talk to anyone for a few minutes while I gained back the perspective I force upon myself regularly. Silly tears, or perhaps not.

Another day is passing into night. Elie is safe on a base, this time way up north; a commander working with his troops. Training; watching; listening; guarding. I thought about Elie after I finished the conversation with the young woman from the store. Yes, it is the least we can do...and sometimes the most. I love that about this country. Everything and anything for our soldiers.

I recently purchased a wonderful new computer monitor and one of the first things I did was tape a small picture of each of my children to the top. The one of Elie is there in the middle, second child...second place. He's got this twinkle in his eye and this great smile - perspective, Ima [mother in Hebrew], he is telling me.

With his picture there, I can always see him grinning. When someone says something silly; when something is just too serious. He's grinning at my constantly worrying, constantly over-reacting, constantly fearing when he really is having the time of his life. There's that grin of his. Telling me to just calm down and deal. Some days that is easy; some days it is harder. Today was a harder day.


Today a soldier died. He'd been wounded last Thursday when a mine was set off under his jeep. Another soldier was immediately killed last week and this one, 20-year-old Liran Banai, was very seriously wounded.

Today, he lost his battle and Israel lost another son.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Picture, or two or three...

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. I don't know who "they" are, but my guess, at least today, is that they would be the proud mothers (and fathers and sisters and brothers) of a soldier who has recently finished the Artillery Division's latest Commanders Course.

As previously mentioned (It's All in the Position), after Elie and the soldiers marched out, a friend asked if I had perhaps phoned ahead and set up the positioning. There was Elie, standing so proud and handsome...lined up with the perfect back-drop of the Israeli flag flying over his shoulder.

After a few speeches and presentations to a group of soldiers, the commanding officers moved among their men - each was congratulated and presented with his new bars. Three stripes to be worn on the upper arms, indications of their new rank and accomplishments.

There was Elie's commanding officer, pinning Elie's new bars on his uniform. The ceremony was typical Israel - hugs, slaps on the arms - a celebration of pride and accomplishment. These boys have worked hard to get where they are, to learn what they need to know so that they can lead others...and trust others to follow. They were taught the Israeli way - the commander goes first into battle. From the front, he says to his men, "Follow me" - and they do.

And finally, as Elie's commanding officer moved on, we got our first glimpse of our new Commander!
At the end of the ceremony, standing proud in the distance, the 160 new commanders presented themselves to their families and sang the Israeli national anthem - Hatikvah...The Hope.

It was impossible to miss the stone walls to our left. Behind a sign that proclaimed, "These are the names of our heroes" - stand several walls covered with the names of Artillery men (and likely women) who have fallen protecting our country. I noticed, from the distance, that the list of names, divided by years, pre-dates our country's re-establishment.

I couldn't bring myself to walk amidst the walls and read the names of the fallen. It's something I owe them, and something I'll do someday...but not this day - when my heart and soul are filled with pride.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I'll tell the enemy to wait...

Elie's our secret weapon when dealing with the ever-frustrating cellular phone company. He has incredible patience...and most often ends up making the salesperson realize they are being absurd. It is another facet of his personality that has sharpened over the last year in the army.

He's been calling the phone company for the last week while enjoying a break from the army. A ridiculous number of calls later, he finally explained to the phone representative that tomorrow he goes back to the army and they either deal with him...or deal with his father in English. Since the woman speaks almost no English, she was anxious to arrange a time to meet at our offices to discuss a new business package.

She was trying to arrange it for today, but wasn't sure. "How about tomorrow?" she asked Elie.

Elie explained that he couldn't meet her tomorrow; that he'd been trying for the better part of a week to arrange this meeting and there was simply no more time. He explained he was a soldier, on a short break from the army, but the woman was bound and determined to push for a meeting tomorrow.

"Fine," said Elie. "I'll tell the enemy to wait."

It's funny. It's cute. It also has its serious side. With ten rockets hitting Israel today, about 20 yesterday; 50 the day before, and 30 or 40 per day several times last week, we all know we have enemies. Perhaps the part that touched me was Elie's acceptance of this basic fact of our existence and put some of life's every day frustrations into perspective at the same time.

Monday, March 3, 2008

It's All in the Position

We went up north today to celebrate Elie's finishing the Commanders Course. It was held at the Artillery's Memorial and Museum, amid displays of Israel's older (and retired) weaponry and a series of walls with names of fallen soldiers. "These are the names of our heroes," the sign proclaims.

Someday, probably after Elie is out of the army, I'll go there and read the names of those who have fallen. For now, I simply can't bring myself to approach to closely. The wall understands, I hope.

The ceremony began. The music started and the soldiers marched in. There was Elie amid more than 160 other new commanders. When the finished marching and took their places, Elie was indeed in the second group, facing in our direction. But even more special was the fact that somehow in the positioning of the soldiers, as I looked to where Elie was standing, I saw that at the edge of the large area, where the stones meet the grass, was a flag pole with the Israeli flag flying in the wind. And there stood Elie, as if perfectly placed - with the backdrop of the flag. It was wonderful. It was magical. "Did you set this up?" I was asked as a joke.

No, I didn't set it up - it never would have occurred to me to set up such a perfect picture. Because our organization's national conference was being held the next day, two international guests had flown in to attend. I used the opportunity to show them something that most visitors probably don't get a chance to see - this military ceremony.

One of the guests had been in the US armed forces. As the ceremony progressed, there were noticeable differences. One was the way the officers and soldiers related to each other. There was so much more slaps on the arms and even hugs of affection. At one point, a soldier put his gun against his leg in order to greet his commanding officer. The gun fell to the floor, making a loud clanging noise. In the US, my guest explained, the soldier would be punished later for this.

I asked Elie about this later and he smiled. No, not in Israel.

The commanding officers moved through the ranks of soldiers, pinning the three bars to the arms of each new commander. The soldiers smiled as the officers spoke to them and congratulated them. In Elie's group, long after the other commanding officers had finished, Elie's commanding officer continued to slowly work his way through, greeting each soldier, congratulating him, and giving him both a hug and a smile. There is a warmth among brothers here.

The speaker, a high-ranking officer in charge of the artillery division, spoke of their training, of their responsibilities as commanders. He spoke of how they would lead their men into battle, but hopefully into peace. He spoke of how they had learned so much in these past few months and what they would likely be doing in the future. And finally, he thanked these young men and their families on behalf of the State of Israel. It was a very nice speech, but mostly, it was wonderful just watching the boys standing there, strong and proud, handsome in their dress uniforms.

"Did you ever call your commanding officer by his first name?" I asked my visiting friend. I must confess that I was relatively sure of the answer even before I heard that this was impossible in the US. Not in Israel. Elie greeted each of his commanding officers by name, as they greeted him. Only in the first weeks in the army are they required to maintain this level of formality.

The soldiers marched around in formation and finally reassembled on the far side of the open area for us to see. The image of Elie and the Israeli flag flying behind him remained in my mind as they positioned themselves and faced their families.

"These are the commanders," said the speaker to the cheers of the audience and then the beautiful sounds of the Israeli national anthem was heard (and sung by the soldiers). Hatikvah - The Hope - speaks of our longing to be a free nation in our land, after 2000 years, to finally come home and be here, in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

The ceremony ended and the boys all joined their families - these are the new commanders in our army, our sons.

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