Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ima, I'm in the middle of nowhere

Yup, that's what Elie just said on the phone. He went with his commanding officer to help prepare for some exercises over the next few days. He mentioned the place; I have no idea where he is.

They went in an air conditioned vehicle, deep into the Judean Desert where the temperatures at the best of times hovers around...really hot. It is one of the lowest places on earth and the temperatures soar in the summer months.

"Can you just stay in the car?" I joked.

"That's not going to work," he answered and I could hear the grin.

He's coming home Wednesday again. A month ago, he had a doctor's appointment that was deferred because of the switch from being a commander of new troops to the checkpoint and it was rescheduled for this Wednesday. I was planning on going to a client on Wednesday and once again, I'm going to steal time and get Elie, take him to his appointment, and then return to take my second son to his Hesder.

On Wednesday, our family reaches another milestone and another of my children leaves home. The going is easier this time, as it was when Elie moved out to go first to a pre-military academy before his actual military service begins. I'm not sure that it will make a difference in how empty the house will feel, but there is no sense of panic in the pit of my stomach, no sense of danger and unknown.

He goes a few short miles away to learn in a yeshiva; I can likely call him any time. Certainly, he can call me. He'll be home every other weekend and probably the holidays as well. If there is something special in the family, I have but to tell him and the yeshiva will likely have no problem with his coming home. I can even drive over there and meet him. He'll learn what it's like to be away from home, but not yet what it is really like in the army. But it's a stepping stone; a gentle one that helps us slide into the future more easily.

This time, I go as an "experienced" mother of a soldier, waiting only to hear what division he might go into or what task he might be given. Nothing to worry about until that comes through. Last time, I didn't know that "artillery" means you should be able to worry a little less or that they joke that those who go into tanks never get to go home (they do, but less frequently than those in other divisions).

This time, I know what socks to buy, what shirts, what extras. This time, I know that they'll make sure he has time to call me and that they know how to train him, when to train him. I'll know the milestones and the support he will receive from his fellow soldiers and his commanders. I won't worry about his being alone nearly so much as I worried about Elie because I understand more and accept more that the army sees that the success of the soldier is a key factor in the success of the army. Yes, the army will roll over the individual for the good of the army, but only if it has to and more times than not, "rolling" over the person will do more harm.

Where once I thought the army would break the boy to build the man, now I understand that the army focuses on building the man, the soldier. They may break the boy, but if they do, there are people there to watch him, help him, and the building is done, for the most part, in a way that overshadows so much more. It isn't automatic, the breaking. It isn't the goal nor is the goal to build the man - I'm not so naive that I believe that. But the army has tried and tested its training and because it is an army of the people, where fathers served where sons now stand, it is an army that is humane. Not just to our enemies, not just on the battlefield, but to its sons as they train.

So, today, as Elie is "in the middle of nowhere," I don't panic anymore because wherever he is, he wouldn't be there if the army didn't believe he could handle the challenges they present to him. And as much as he may feel that he's somewhere in the area of nowhere, I know that the army has walked him...and this point along a path as safe as they can make it.

In two days, my second son will take his first few steps towards that path. In another year or so, he'll enter that path, as Elie has, but for now, I'll think about Elie "in the middle of nowhere" and laugh and smile that it tickled him enough to call me in the middle of the day to tell me and once again as he says, "Ima, I'm in the middle of nowhere," I'll think to myself, "Darling son, there's no where else I'd want you to be."

Stay safe.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Vacation to Remember...and Miss

We got back Wednesday night from our trip up north. In the winter, we flood the south and enjoy the heat and the lovely desert areas - it's a tradition of national proportions. But in the summer, seeking refuge from the seemingly endless heat of August, it almost feels as if the country leans to the north, as tens of thousands of Israelis fill the cooler northern areas, and enjoy the simple luxury of a river or waterfall.

So like many others, and as we have done so many times in the past, we went north. This time, we didn't take the family dog (she's just gotten too old and gets too upset at the disruption). We didn't go camping and most important, we didn't take Elie. We did take our married daughter and our son-in-law, now married for the last year and a half (ask them and they can give you a daily count). We filled two cars with all manner of suitcases, bags, toys that can be stuffed in little crevices of the car, bottles of water (a must in our climate), and, of course, an empty place in the deepest parts of our hearts.

For those of you who love water, I can recommend several "new" places we have added to the list of those we love up north.

Visit Nahal Kibbutzim! It's a great place to wade in the water, float, relax. Next to a picnic area and easy parking. We had lunch there, and my oldest daughter mentioned that she missed Elie.

Visit the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee - that's where we spent two days. One day, we waded and swam through Nahal Zaki, amid the trees and a winding tributary to the sea. We had a picnic, floated, splashed. It was a wonderful day! And somewhere in the middle of the day, feeling a bit bad, I called Elie to see where he was. He was still at the base in Jerusalem, expecting to go back to the checkpoint a few days later.

Visit the shores of the Sea of Galilee - just a few months ago, Elie joined us for a family barbeque. This time, he wasn't there to taste the meat fresh off the grill, or jump into the waves that came in as the sun began to set. The Sea of Galilee is vast - at least by Israeli standards and as the evening rolled in, the calm sea brought forth gentle waves that allowed us to jump and float and feel refreshed.

We went kayaking. Last time, I went with Elie and his youngest sister and my oldest daughter teamed up with my middle son. This time, Elie's middle brother took his spot, but not his place, as we made our way through 5.5 kilometers, crashing into the sides of the river banks, freeing ourselves, twirling (not intentionally) down the Jordan River. Each experience going down the river was precious for me - both the time I went with Elie and this time that I went with Shmulik. We laughed, we took pictures, and again watched as the sun began to set on the drive back up the mountain to the rented apartment. It was, by all accounts, a wonderful day and I accepted it for the gift that it was.

And finally, on the last day of our vacation, as we knew the summer was drawing to a close, we walked the streets of Safed, a mystical, enchanted city perched high in the mountains and visited the famous candle shop where we saw the most amazing candle sculptures - a whole chess set, Biblical scenes, houses, Noah's ark, and so much more. We ate pizza, looked in many of the art galleries and simply shared in the last moments of summer when you know that school and life is about to take another swing. This year, I will have only two children in school (and one in university). I will have one in the army and a second in Hesder, a special program that combines religious studies with army service. And so it begins for my second son...but not quite yet.

Through the vacation, what I accepted was the basic truth that you can have perfect family moments even when all your family is not with you; you can relish and enjoy those times you spend with your children, even when one is not with you. Your heart can sing...and hold just a bit of saddness at the same time.

Last night, we went to yet another wedding of the daughter of dear friends of ours. The groom broke the glass and later the band played the moving tune and sang, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy."

The symbolism of the breaking of the glass is a reminder that even at the most joyous of times, there are hints and memories of sadness; something or someone is missing. At the wedding, it was the fact that we as a nation have not reclaimed our former glory and many remain in exile. Once Jerusalem was united and our Holy Temple standing majestically on the Temple Mount; today we cannot even go to this holy site freely and say a simple prayer. And therein lies the sadness, the missing piece of who we are as a people. There is great joy in living here, in celebrating the weddings of our children and going on vacation and there is the sadness that something is missing. At a wedding, you rejoice in all who attend, even as you may think of loved ones who could not be there. This was so similar to our vacation - the joy is no less for missing someone.

We dream of a reunited Jerusalem, rebuilt, whole and at peace and we dream of a time when our sons will not have to serve in combat units and learn of weapons and guns and cannons. Elie is doing something important, a very important service that comes first.

I spoke to Elie a short while ago and he asked about the vacation. I didn't know if I should start telling him first or wait for him to ask. As much as I missed him, how much did he miss having this time with us? Once he asked, I was able to tell him about the kayaking and the places we visited.

"Would you like me to set a time when we can go back up north when you have a few days off from the army?" I asked him. "We could go up on a Wednesday and come back on Sunday and then we'd have a few days to do things."

"Maybe," he answered.

Next week, his unit is going to go back to artillery practice for a few days. "We'll be shooting at Givati," Elie told me - mentioning another unit.

"Don't miss this time," I joked. Of course, they won't be shooting AT the other unit and of course, God willing, they most definitely WILL miss the unit. Things are going well for Elie and we are gliding through his service together as a family, and yes, at times alone and individually as we each relate to these other things happening in Elie's life.

This time, we took a vacation without him and he can't have a part in it - ever. Another time, we'll go to Nahal Zaki or Nahal Kibbutzim or swim in the Sea of Galilee and walk the streets of Safed with him.

May God watch over my son and keep him safe and bless us with many vacations together in the future...and may Jerusalem be rebuilt speedily in our days and be blessed with peace. Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What G'dud Are You?

Yes, being a mother of a soldier carries with it one other element that I might not have mentioned - we stare at other soldiers as we think of our son. We look at their boots and their berets. Today, as we returned from our vacation up north, we stopped at the "favorite family pit stop" - a lone diner/shop in the Jordan Valley that welcomes you, provides relatively clean bathrooms and a nice place to just stretch your legs.

It's a familiy favorite we call the "tank place" because it has the remnants of an old gutted tank set up for kids to climb in and around as parents relax over coffee or ice cream or just a bottle of cold water. For religious Jews, it's also a great place to "grab a minyan". For the uninitiated, this means finding a quorum of 10 men to pray together, elevating the individual prayers said three times a day to a higher community level. It always amazes me that the owners of the store have no problem with this and readily surrender various areas of their property to groups of men who stand, face south towards Jerusalem, and pray.

Today, on our way back from our vacation up north, we again stopped. This time, it was in the last few moments when the afternoon (or mincha) service can be said. My husband, sons, son-in-law and his brother got out of the car and went in search of six others. Just as we arrived, a bus pulled in and the passengers were given "1o minutes" to go to the bathroom, buy some refreshments, and get back on the bus.

A few soldiers were on the bus, including one with black boots and the turquoise beret of the artillery division. I debated with myself, told myself to just be quiet, and then listened in surprise when my mouth refused my brain's command. Clearly, my heart had taken over, thought by brain in disgust.

"What unit are you in?" I heard myself ask and watched at least one of my children cringe. "There she goes again," they must have been thinking. "Couldn't anyone have stopped her?" To be fair, the soldier didn't cringe, didn't even hesitate. He told me the unit number and, as if that wasn't bad enough, my mouth just continued, "my son is in..." and there it went - name and number of the unit. The soldier knew immediately the number, based on my having said the name, and quickly pointed out that he is involved in armaments, not cannons, whatever that means.

No, I didn't bother mentioning Elie's name, that would have been just beyond embarrassing. There's no way he would know Elie. He's in a different g'dud (battalion...was that the translation?....well, a different group), not the same unit or task and not even stationed in the same area of the country. There are thousands, give or take, in artillery, many units and types of units. Israel's Defense Forces are divided into (roughly): air force, tanks, ground forces, border guards, artillery - and maybe some others. That puts Elie in one huge group consisting of tens of thousands, if you include the reserves as well as the standing army. It was silly to have even approached the young man based solely on his being part of the same general classification.

And the very worst part of it all is that I know deep down, I'll probably do the same thing again next time I see that combination - black boots and turquoise beret.

The one redeeming quality here is that hopefully I'll forget to mention this to Elie. My brain is already threatening my heart with excommunication!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pizza, Flashlight, Fan and Home

So, it turns out that the base where I thought Elie was...he isn't. He's still 15 minutes away (not 10), but the base is smack inside Jerusalem, secure and centered for non-combat officers coordinating, planning, and I have no idea what.

But, since this is a non-combat base, they lack one thing: combat soldiers. These soldiers are needed to defend the base, even one located inside Jerusalem's municipal borders and so it is Elie's group's turn. In real terms, this is a piece of cake and a walk on the easy side. They are a few blocks away from pizza, hamburgers, and everything else, actually. In short, they are bored, well-fed, and as relaxed as they can be while still being "on patrol."

I went to the First International Bloggers Conference hosted by Nefesh b'Nefesh last night, promising Elie that when it was over at 9:00 p.m., I'd go back home, grab a bag of stuff I'd prepared and a hot pizza, and take it to him. If I'd realized the base was IN Jerusalem, I could have just picked up a pizza in the city...but never mind, that too is part of getting used to the army's efficient inefficiency (as well as our own).

So I loaded the car with a bag of goodies, the likes of which...well, ok, the likes of which Elie can get anytime he wants. I added two packages of those horrible gooey candies that stick to your teeth when you chew and make you work your gums really hard. Of course, they are filled with so much sugar that it cancels out any benefits of this gum-workout. I try not to keep them in the house but I bought a few packages for our upcoming vacation and then put two big packages in for Elie. The standard Doritoes (two flavors) came next, along with pretzels, chocolate wafers, two large bottles if ice tea, one bottle of cola, and I can't honestly remember what else.

Ah, that was it - the ice tea was frozen - as Elie loves it, and so had I been efficient and left the backpack of goodies in the trunk of the car while I attended the conference, the ice tea would have been melted. Great - I've rationalized myself into contentment!

It was a treat to see Elie, to show him the new flashlight. He immediately compared it to his current one that the army gave him. As he shined both on the building across the street, the new one, given by Yashar LeChayal shone brightly and strong on the face of the building while his current one was weaker and the light more dissipated.

"What will you do with your flashlight now that you have this one?" I asked him.

"I'll give it to one of the others guys. Only the officers have flashlights in the unit."

I wasn't happy hearing that, but they adjust to what they have and work with it. Anyway, Elie was more interested in all the gadgets that came along with the flashlight, "this is a really good one" he said at one point. Just "wow" was there too.

As I stood watching him first look at the flashlight and then switch to the backpack of treats I'd packed, I realized I'd been given a gift this evening. My little boy was there. Sure, it was the man standing there tall and strong and so incredibly handsome in the uniform with the M16 rifle and commander's bars on his sleeves. Sure he's in a man's body as he towers over me and I can see the strength in his arms as he lifts easily the packpack I'd found was a bit heavier than I'd expected. But this was Elie - the same Elie who could sit for hours examining and taking apart everything he could get his hands on when he was young.

The pizza was getting cold, the flashlight had been examined, and the ice tea was melting, "You better go," I told him, knowing that he was fine and missing him anyway. "If you need anything, call me and I can drop it off on our way up north in the morning."

"You're leaving tomorrow morning?" he asked. His voice was steady and I'm sure I imagined that little twinge of regret.

After I went over our plans again Elie told me how long he'd be on this base and when he'd be returning to his checkpoint. It will happen while we are kayaking on the Jordan. Here he is, so close to home, close enough to touch, close enough to visit, and I'm going away. There is no end to the ways a mother can find to feel guilty and bad, I discovered long ago.

"Have a good time," Elie told me as we parted with a smile and a brief kiss on the cheek.

"Be safe," I told him as I always do. Just be safe.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Israeli Proteckzia (Using your Connections)

I was sitting at a wedding last night and realized that, as luck would have it, the table was filled with a microcosm of Israel - at least as far as the army was concerned. Everyone there has some connection, much indeed, like almost all of Israel. My friend immediately to my right has two sons in the army, both in combat units. One is Elie's age, one a few years older.

To her right was another friend. Her oldest son served in the air force, her second son will go into the army in the year or so, as will my second son. Two other couples sat at the table, both major leaders in an organization known as Yashar LeChayal (Straight to the Soldier: I asked how their organization was doing and heard wonderful things about the supplies and donations they make, including protective vests, personal supplies, and even flashlights for the soldiers' guns.

It reminded me of a story Elie had told me and I found myself telling them. Elie was on the checkpoint when an Arab car approached quickly and didn't stop, despite being signaled by the soldiers. The soldiers have clear instructions and have been trained. As the commander, it's Elie's decision to shoot. One soldier called out; another aimed at the tires of the car.

And my son drew his weapon, aimed it at the Arabs in the car, turned on his flashlight directed at the car's occupants and cocked his gun. Yes, a bullet went into the chamber ready to shoot, but more importantly, it made a loud and clear sound. Combining the light and the sound, the car screeched to a stop and obeyed the soldiers as they confirmed it posed no threat. Elie felt strongly that it was the sound, and even more so, the strong light from his gun, that made his intention clear. Stop the car now, or I will shoot. What it does to me to know that he would have had to pull the trigger is more than I can write about now, so back to the conversation at the wedding last night.

"Our flashlights are better," one of the men told me and explained why. The type of light, the construction, the strength. He had me convinced.We talked about Elie's unit and that many of the soldiers didn't have flashlights - Elie only received his after he became a commander. He's used it often out in the desert, on patrol at night. I was talking even before I realized myself what I was about to do.

I'm often a bit shy or hesitant when asking for things. I'd rather help than be helped, rather solve something on my own than ask. If I fail, I won't be proud, but first, I have to be true to myself and just try. Apparently, that was lost last night.

"Would you give me a flashlight for Elie?" I blurted out.

As simple as that and without hesitation, both immediately agreed. I tried to offer them a graceful out. What nerve, I thought to myself, to have pushed them like this at a social event. "We help a lot of people," Meir explained, "but we see to our own too." As simple as that.

"Call me tomorrow morning," Leon said. Could I get it tomorrow? My mind was racing - Elie's ten minutes away from me; I can get it to him easily. No problem, Leon told me. He even has one in his house.

Elie forgot his watch, wants a bigger fan if possible, and needed another item as well. I agreed I would bring him those items later today, and now I have this flashlight as well.

Elie called me while I was in the store asking what time I was going to come. He wanted to know if I was willing to bring them all pizza. I don't yet know how many soldiers are included in a "them" but I basically don't care.

"How many pizzas should I bring?" I asked Elie. "Three, four, seven? Just tell me." There was silence on the phone. I don't think Elie really considered that I'd be willing to bring that many. In the end, he's happy if I can bring one pizza. I also have a bag of snacks, I told Elie.

"The more the better," he said lightly. I've never been good at keeping presents secret. First I hint there is something; then I tell them what it is. I didn't even attempt to keep this one. I told Elie about the flashlight, describing it to him as Meir had described it to me, and Elie was amazed.

"Those are the best ones," he told me.

"Yes, that's what Meir said."

"Wow - tell them thanks."

I will Elie; I absolutely will.

So, as it turns out - because of a bit of nerve, a bit of "proteckzia," and a lot of generosity from a special organization, tonight, along with the personal items and the pizza, I'll also bring a special gift - straight to the soldier, yashar leChayal - delivered with love by his mother.

What an amazing organization to have thought of a concept so pure. All donations - every cent or shekel - goes directly to the soldiers. This is Israel - Yashar LeChayal! Straight to Elie, his friends, his fellow soldiers on the front line, on bases throughout Israel, on patrol.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hey, Elie - Wave!

Elie came home for a nice long weekend, spending all day Thursday through Monday morning with us. There were many discussions that I'll have to organize and write about, but for now, I want to write about where Elie is.

Sometime on Sunday, Elie's commanding officer called and told him that the army had pulled another shift and so, for the next 7 days after they return, his unit (and a few related ones), would be guarding a large base. Instead of the next group going home on Wednesday (as Elie came home last Wednesday), they would have to stay until the following Sunday (meaning that they miss being home for the weekend/Sabbath).

They will be off from Monday to Friday. The next group, that was supposed to be leaving on Wednesday, will leave on the same bus that brings these boys back to base early Friday morning. That second group will return Wednesday morning, meaning Elie will again have this wonderful Thursday - Monday break.

Why the change? Only the army knows. Mainly, their task will be guard duty within the base and its surroundings. Tedious, ordinary, and round the clock.

Where was this base that Elie would be guarding? "Near Jerusalem," he was told, along with the name of the base. We looked on the Internet and the nearest match was somewhere up north.

"That can't be it," I told Elie, "and how will you get there by 9:00 Monday morning?"

"They don't know what they are talking about," Elie told me, "I'll call him back."

As Elie said, the commanding officer didn't know more and so he instructed Elie to be back on base by 8:30 a.m. to travel with the army bus. Even getting to his base at 8:30 a.m. would be difficult, and so I calculated that I had time to do the round trip and still get back for my last class of the current course I'm teaching.

A few hours later, Elie called.

"Guess where I am," he said.

"Ok, I give up. Where?" I responded.

Well, it turns out that the commander was half right in the name, but that half changed the location significantly. In the end, for this week, Elie will be about 10 minutes away. I can actually see part of the base on a distant hill. Despite wasting the better part of three hours driving to his base and back to here, Elie still found humor. If only he had understood; if only the commander had used the name of the base that is known around here. I can't complain though - I enjoyed the conversation, the time, the trip.

Years ago, we lived in a different location. When we moved here, my friends from "there" said, "aren't you scared to live there?" and my friends from here said, "well, no wonder you moved here, weren't you scared to live there?"

On the general scale of checkpoints and locations, Elie is in a relatively secure location during this rotation. Having him so close to home now, on a base that I have passed regularly and seen from my window is so calming. It isn't as good as having him home, but it's nice to feel him close by.

Tomorrow, I'll drive over there and say hello and bring him a few things he forgot. I offered to bring him a hamburger from his favorite restaurant, but he told me they had just ordered from there the night before.

Wave, Elie! And be careful.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Happy and Home

Sometimes, I think that I have to find issues about which to post. Having had this blog running now for about 18 months, many of you have come along with me on this journey while others have joined on more recently. I love clicking on the ClusterMap icon on the lower right to see from where you all come. America is covered, much of Europe as well. Israel has long since disappeared in a red blur of visits, and on and on. And so sometimes, even though I don't feel the urge to write, I know that it's been a while and people are wondering. What's happening with Elie? What's he doing? Where is he? What's new?

So, I'll start by saying the most important part of all. Elie is home. Elie is safe. Elie is wonderful. He's running errands today. He's on a schedule that gives him five days home now and then. He's got all day today to do whatever he wants; same with Sunday. It's a wonderful schedule for him. He decided he needed more personal items and went to buy them this morning. He called to tell me what he'd bought and that he'd borrowed money from his brother. What an ordinary conversation, I thought to myself, just like any other kid anywhere in the world. Yes, Elie. I'll give your brother back the money. It's fine. Later, we will go to the mall in Jerusalem. Just for the fun of it. Just for the break on a warm day in the month of August. Yesterday he was standing with a gun, today we will go relax at the mall.

I told him about the vacation we are planning for next week, the one that he won't share with us. He understood. If I'd told him a while back, he might have been able to switch things around - but I didn't know a while back. He accepts and moves on while I ache a little inside.

I picked him up from his base yesterday on my way back from a client. Ok, it really was on my way back and this time I didn't manipulate the route, I just manipulated the time, leaving the client's offices several hours earlier than normal because I wanted to get Elie. The client cooperated by having a development crisis leaving their engineers unable to meet with me. Perfect timing.

Elie asked if we could offer a ride to a friend. The two soldiers loaded the car and we were off. The young man in the back fell asleep very quickly while Elie played a little with the new car phone we just had installed.

"Are you tired?" I asked Elie.

"No, I'm fine," he said and indeed he sounded refreshed and wide awake. We talked for a few minutes; he fiddled with the radio. He told me a little about the checkpoint. It's different than the ones I pass through regularly. This is one between Arab villages and is intended to stop the flow of weapons and drugs while attempting not to interfere with normal traffic and life. It's a hard balance.

One young man made Elie suspicious. Elie asked him for identification but the boy said he was only 14 and didn't have anything. Elie made him wait and soon the boy's father showed up demanding and then asking that his son be released. Elie asked his father for the man's identification and quickly realized that his son was not listed on his identity card.

"How old is your son?" Elie asked the man.

"Fourteen," the man answered.

"Then why isn't he listed on your identification card?" Elie asked the father. All children until the age of 16 or 17 are listed there. After that age, if you get a new ID, those children who are over that age are removed and only the younger ones listed, each with their date of birth, their ID numbers, etc.

After 16, they must have their own IDs. If this boy had really been 14, he would not be expected to have his own identification, but he would have been listed on his father's ID and so clearly, something was wrong. Either the boy was not his son, or the boy was not 14.

Elie kept the boy there while sending for the boy's mother. He looked at her ID and found the boy was indeed listed there. He also had a date of birth and quickly calculated according to the date that was listed on her ID.

"Your son is 17 years old," Elie told the parents, "not 14 as you told me."

The father asked Elie to let the boy go, and Elie asked why the boy has no ID. The father explained that he didn't want him traveling all over and so he didn't get him his own identity card, despite the fact that the law requires this.

"So stop him from crossing into Israel illegally," Elie told him as he let the boy go.

It's hard to explain. From one point of view, the news media would report that an Israeli soldier, my son, had detained an Arab boy for question, seemingly without cause. But that Arab boy was caught sneaking back from an Israeli town, which he had entered without identification or a permit.

What did he do there? Perhaps he was seeking to work - that's a possibility. But other more sinister events have happened when young Palestinians have crossed into Israeli towns. Theft is rampant, drug trafficking, but by far, the worst are those young Palestinian men who believe for the glory of Allah, they should blow themselves up as close to as many innocent people as possible.

Was the boy so innocent, if he had already lied to a person in a position of authority? Why not just say, "I'm 17." Why lie and raise suspicions?

This time, the boy was let go. Hopefully aware that he risks detention or arrest if he attempts to enter Israeli towns without permission; hopefully impressed enough by the sharp-eyed Israeli soldiers that he will not risk attempting to enter Israel with explosives.

It is a world filled with "what ifs" for my son, who is responsible for the safety of a team. I want my son to respect others, to never judge someone by their religion, their customs, their nationality. And I want my son to be safe.

My son wants to serve his country and protect its citizens. A 17-year-old young man entered Israel without permission. Without a permit, he cannot work. He would be checked at stores, just as we are. He had no identification on him, and when he was stopped while trying to sneak back home, he lied about his age. Innocent or guilty? Bent on fun or evil? Decide quickly - in the blink of an eye. Too much time, and he, like too many other such young men, might reach into his pocket and pull wires connected to explosives.

After a short conversation, it was quiet in the car. The young man in the back slept peacefully. The music played quietly and my mind filled with a picture of Elie standing on some road, narrow and isolated, stopping and checking Arab cars and pedestrians and a group of young Arab boys standing in the distance, playing at getting closer and then backing up when warned to keep their distance. It's a game to them; it's my son's life to me.

I looked at Elie sitting there with his sunglasses on and noticed that he'd falled asleep. He'd said he wasn't tired at all, and then a few moments later was dozing peacefully in the front seat, his head tilting a bit to the side. I thought of waking him to tell him to put the seat back, but decided not to bother him.

I drove; they slept. A while later, Elie woke up, looked at me, at his friend in the back, and then adjusted the chair backwards. "I thought you weren't tired," I said to myself and was rewarded with that smile that I love so much - the one that reaches deep into his eyes.

Elie is home now. Day after day, last week, he was challenged with decisions to make. Does he look suspicious? Could she be hiding something? Is there danger and if there is danger, are they back far enough that they can't hurt others. Hurry, make the decision because you don't want to cause hardship and delays to innocent people who have a right to go from point A to point B. Slow down and take the necessary time. Lives depend on it.

Elie is home now. Elie is safe. Elie is happy and at peace with himself.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Tisha B'Av - A Day of Mourning

Tisha B'Av is the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. There's a long list of terrible things that have happened to the Jewish people over the centuries on this very day or in the three weeks that precede it each year. It's sort of like your single worst-luck day of the year, happening year after year for centuries. It gets to the point that if something bad doesn't happen, you still spend the day worrying what will happen while still finding time to mourn the past.

In addition to the 25 hours of fasting that takes place, traditionally, you don't do dangerous things. Why tempt fate, right? So you don't go swimming, you don't fly if you can avoid it. You don't take long trips, by car, by bus, by anything. You don't sign contracts and close business deals. In short, you just sort of hang your head and pray for tomorrow to come.

Of course, on a spiritual level, we also read the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) and remember that in many ways, so many bad things have happened because we turned away from our tradition and these days are the price we have paid.

In the Jewish religion, there are 613 commandments that guide our daily lives as individuals and as a community and a nation. Of all of these, there are only three that are deemed more important than life itself. Three commandments that you do not break, ever, for any reason. One, for example, is that we cannot live by murdering someone else. If someone were to attack you as an individual, and say, "Kill that person over there and you will live," you have the right to attack and even kill the person that is threatening you. But, you do not have the right to kill another person who is innocently standing there. In the clearest terms, you cannot say that your blood is "redder" or your life more worthy of living.

On the other hand, we have the laws of the Sabbath - break them if someone's life is in danger and you can save them. We have the laws of keeping kosher - put them aside as well. All but these three laws fall away when human life is at risk. For those serving in the army, understanding this and accepting this is very important and very real.

When the Yom Kippur war started, one of the first things the rabbis in the army did was to tell the soldiers to break their fast. In a weakened condition, they would not have been able to defend their country. For most people, touching a gun is not permitted on the Sabbath, just as it is not permitted to touch many things that have nothing to do with the holiness of the day. Pens. computers, microwaves, cars - these are not part of the Sabbath and so, for this period, we do not use or touch these items.

If the gun is something of a hobby, it is not allowed on the Sabbath. Of course, if you need that gun to protect, as soldiers do, it is allowed. It is all based on understanding the purposes of the laws and how they are meant to be applied.

When Elie was patrolling the northern border, and now at the checkpoint, there are laws which he can break, in order to properly serve and protect. He has learned what these laws are, when they can be put aside and when they must be followed.

It is strange for me, having raised Elie to honor these laws, to now sit by and know that Elie is driving on the Sabbath or using equipment that is not allowed. In each case, Elie only does what is necessary and no more. He will go in a vehicle to get to the checkpoint, but certainly once he returns to base, he won't even turn on a light or use electricity in any way, as is our custom. He might be driven to a checkpoint, but once back on base, he would never get in a car to go shopping or visiting.

Tisha B'Av is observed in a number of ways: we don't wear leather shoes, a sign of comfort and perhaps wealth in many cultures. We put these aside on this day. But Elie will wear his combat boots, made of leather. They protect him and are a necessary part of the uniform he wears. We don't eat or drink for the entire 25 hour period from sundown tonight until sundown tomorrow night. We don't listen to music or greet friends with joy. In short, we mourn what we have lost in the past that has brought us to this painful day.

Almost not wanting an answer, I asked Elie if he would be able to fast on Tisha B'Av. He said that he would and I didn't ask further. He will be standing at a checkpoint, commanding a group of other soldiers (with another commander there) for two shifts during the next 25 hour period. He must be alert and attentive. I'm not sure whether in the end he will be able to really keep this fast, or even if he should. All it takes is one moment for such bad things to happen.

There is a point when, as the mother of a soldier, you look to the Heavens and put all things in perspective; when you appeal to a Higher Force and say, God, please guard my son in all things and in all ways, this day and all days. This is what I do this day.

There is little comfort to be had in Israel on the 9th of Av. We save this finding comfort for the days ahead. The concept can best be summed up by saying that sometimes, you can't climb the highest mountain without first crossing the deepest valley. Israel is in the valley at this moment. In the distance, we see the mountain and we know we will climb it. But that is for another day. Tonight and tomorrow, we will not find comfort.

In the next month, we will celebrate two weddings and a bar mitzvah with dear friends in the neighborhood and yet, at this moment, it is hard to imagine being happy again, hard to believe we will come out of the valley of mourning and climb the mountains of Jerusalem in all their beauty. But, to follow the analogy further, for perhaps the first time, I notice something different about the valley that I never noticed in the past.

This time, when Elie isn't with us, I am aware of where he is and who he is with. As we mourn, our sons stand guard. They walk with us through the depths of our despair. But there is a difference. We lower our heads in pain, but they do not. We bend our backs as a sign of our defeat, but they stand and walk proudly and so tall. It is an interesting feeling, to realize that we have these guards beside us.

Tisha B'Av is the day on which - twice - Israel was sent into exile, our Holy Temples destroyed by invaders. Tomorrow, as we mourn, we have set guards at our borders and they will walk beside us and help see us through the valley. It is the ultimate partnership, the ultimate blending of faith, of service, of prayer.

May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may we all know no more sorrow and may we be honored to celebrate each of the upcoming weddings and bar mitzvah in the rebuilt, eternal capital of Israel, Jerusalem.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

August in Israel

August in Israel is vacation time. Essentially, the whole country just about shuts down. Many leave the country, but others flood Israel's northern and southern areas looking for some respite from the heat.

These are the hottest weeks in Israel; the ones that come towards the end of summer when it's been hot for months and we have little patience for the unrelenting sun. The forecaster easily explained Israel's weather here this morning on the radio as, "hot. Tomorrow the same."

Here in Israel, we have a rainy season (approximately October/November until early March). Certainly from April to October there is no rain - often not even a single drop. Every day is sunny and temperatures range in the 80s, 90s and even 100s (Fahrenheit; Celsius - high low 30s up to low 40s most days). At most, one day here or there, a few sprinkles will fall on parts of the land, but nothing more than that. By August, the weather is...always the same as yesterday and tomorrow - just plain hot.

There is no break for our soldiers, especially those like Elie, who are manning checkpoints and guarding borders. Training continues in the south and in the north, despite the heat. Twenty-four hours a day, they guard and watch. Elie tells me he prefers the night patrols because it is cooler and then he can sleep some of the day away. I can't get the image of him standing on some dark road somewhere with his soldiers stopping to check cars, looking for the terrorist who is seeking entrance...and what if he finds him?

I washed Elie's bullet-proof vest recently. As it turns out, this is not the one he is using at the checkpoint where he is now stationed. The one I washed was made to protect the body against knife attacks or being banged around inside an armored personnel vehicle. It was never meant to protect the body against bullets, as I now understand. The one Elie now wears contains the ceramic inserts to protect him. Soldiers are positioned strategically to avoid the exact scenario I fear happening most. They have been trained; they know what to do. But the image of a car hurdling towards my son or some gunman bent on suicidal martyrdom taking aim lingers.

As always, I push that fear back into the deepest parts of my heart and brain and turn now to focus on the holiday my children are so anticipating. It comes down, finally, to a few stolen days here or there. Some of our greatest vacations as a family have been in August. We've gone kayaking in the north and we plan to do that again this summer. We've gone hiking and camping too. We've cooked outdoors, even once during a katyusha attack from Lebanon.

So, as the final days of August are within sight, I asked my older daughter to help me find a place for us to go this summer. She came through quickly and with great success. We'll spend almost a week in Safed, the beautiful, mystical city that sits perched on the mountains of the Galilee. Cool nights, open views. Clean air and no email or computers to think about.

From Safed, we can easily travel to most of the places in the north. We can find the waterfalls and the kayaking and shop in the art colony and walk the beautiful alleyways of the ancient city.

The kids are looking forward to the kayaking most of all, I believe. We went once before, taking three boats. My husband and youngest son easily coordinated and gracefully glided along the river, stopping at will to wait for the rest of us. My oldest daughter and middle son stole the show as they never quite figured out how to steer the kayak. The currents eventually delivered them to the final stop, but not before they had twirled the kayak perhaps a hundred times, gotten stuck perhaps a dozen. The only thing that beat the number of times they sent the kayaking in meaningless circles, was the amount of laughter this all generated.

Last time we went kayaking, Elie was in the boat with me and my youngest daughter. Elie should have sat in the back of the kayak, where he could have easily propelled us through the water. The person in the front is responsible for steering and the strength to guide you through the water comes from the person in the back. Perhaps it is more of a combination, but there is no doubt in my mind, from the safety of years and the shore, that Elie should have sat in the back.

But I had a mother's fear that my daughter would fall into the water and despite the fact that the water wasn't really deep at all, that she was wearing a life jacket and that even then, Elie was stronger than me, I couldn't stand to put her where I couldn't see her and so I took the back and didn't really do much better than my son-daughter team twirling in circles and laughing hysterically somewhere behind me in the river.

What made us get somewhere, anywhere, and avoid the rocks and shallow areas, was Elie's reasoning and directions. Perhaps Elie's best suggestion, delivered with some laughing of his own, was that I keep my oars out of the water. The main point was to have fun, and with that we all succeeded wonderfully. Were I to go today, I would have sat in the front and trusted Elie more, but we all remember that trip with great fondness and laughter.

This time, we go with my daughter's husband, a wonderful addition to our family. Another may come along as well. My younger son is already demanding to go with his middle brother, thinking that he'll have the fun of twirling and circling. He justifies this by suggesting that his sister should properly go with her husband, but really, I know that he wants the fun of getting stuck and struggling against the currents with his brother.

We are likely to visit other locations in the north, relax and unwind. There is so much to see, so much to enjoy. Some of Israel's most beautiful areas are located in the northern Galilee and Golan Heights and the pace of life in general is more relaxed. It's the ideal location to go during those last days of August when the promise of autumn is there on the calendar but the days are unrelentingly hot.

And through all the planning, there's this hole inside of me because, as some part of me is always aware, Elie won't be there. It's enough to cripple me if I think about it, enough to make me regret having to tell him. You are doing something important; we are going to leave you behind and have fun. How unfair of us, how unkind. The army took his group kayaking and hiking a few short weeks ago, but that does nothing to alleviate my feeling torn in half.

So, in a few weeks, just as August promises to surrender to September, half of my heart and soul will go enjoy Israel and my family. We'll laugh and eat and sleep and walk and hike and swim and kayak and have fun. And half of me will cry just a little, as it always does, as it worries with the same mixture of pride and concern for a son of Israel, my son.

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