Elie spent the holiday and weekend at his yeshiva just south of Jerusalem. They learn in this yeshiva for a year or two after high school. It is called simply, "Mechina" - or Preparation. It teaches them many things - it reinforces the faith of their homes and adds knowledge of what the army will be like. It is a pre-military academy designed to ease them into army life, but it is so much more.
They learn, often for the first time, what it means to hold a gun, to fire one, to take responsibility. They begin the process of challenging their bodies. What was once sport becomes serious as they begin to train.
Judaism is a religion of laws and customs - many ancient and derived from the Bible, others are more modern interpretations of these same laws. There are laws related to war, to serving in the army. What they are allowed to do, what they can never do, what they must do and when to apply each. This is what they learn.
And, while they are learning this, they form a bond. These are the first brothers they have outside the ones that were born to them. A few times a year, even after they leave the yeshiva, they gather there. It is usually not known who will be able to come, who will be released from the army.
"Will Hanina be there?" I asked Elie of one friend.
"He's in shiryon [tanks]," Elie responded. It is a well-known joke that the tank division keeps their soldiers on a tighter schedule. No, Hanina didn't make it for this holiday. Elie had called a few friends to see if they were planning on going. It was all set. I gave Elie permission to take the car; he would meet a group of friends in Jerusalem and drive them the final short distance to the yeshiva.
On most days, they wear different colored berets; serve in different units. What they all had in common was a day off from the army, a need to go back to the basics of their shared experience, and an army-issued gun to accompany them.
On Thursday afternoon, Elie left home with his backpack, a cooler filled with several bottles of frozen water, a bottle of frozen ice tea, and a homemade cheese cake. It is a tradition to eat dairy products on this holiday; meals are lighter than the traditional Sabbath meals. At home we would have onion soup with melted cheese, lasagne, salmon, and cheese blintzes. He sampled each dish before he left home. In the mornings, we eat cheese cakes - one that I make, an American recipe the kids love, and one that my older daughter learned to make here - also a family favorite.
I made three small cheese cakes and packed one for Elie to take with him. There's a refrigerator at the yeshiva he can use, but I was worried about it going bad while he was on the hike and so I froze bottles of water to keep the cake cool in the car while he hiked. In the end, Elie reported, it was a very successful decision, as the combination of so much frozen water and the cooler gave them a supply of cold drinks throughout the holiday.
Elie drove into Jerusalem, picked up his friends. As planned, they stopped somewhere and took a hike. The hike led them underground, into a tunnel that runs 200 meters under the earth. They walked through the ancient, water-filled tunnel - using the flashlights from their guns to light the way. They had a great time, finished the hike, returned to the car, drove to their yeshiva and greeted their teachers, their friends, their rabbis. They showered, and began the holiday.
Elie came home a little while ago, rested, happy, content. The cheese cake was long gone - the cooler was an amazing success, as it allowed them to have cold drinks for most of the two day holiday, and the brownies went too.
Tomorrow is Elie's English birthday - we will go out to eat as a family, and have a celebration of 22 years. I wish I could think what to get him, but I haven't got a clue. The army provides the clothes that he wears every day; for the few days a month he is not in uniform, he has enough clothes. He has so many gadgets already - I could probably get him a book or a DVD movie, if I could figure out which one to get him. He doesn't wear jewelry; he has two watches - strong ones that he relies on for the army and isn't yet ready for a dressy one.
With army boots and running shoes and two pairs of Crocs, he doesn't need shoes. He's got towels and jackets. A mini-computer, he'd love, but that's a bit steep right now.
I'll think of something...but for now, as he goes to sleep in his bed, I think I'm the one who has been given a present - my son is home safe in his room and we'll have the day to share. Tonight, Elie has volunteered to be on call for the ambulance squad. I hope it will be a quiet night for him and for the people in our city. Hopefully, he'll sleep the night through and not be called out.
Tomorrow, I'll think about what present to get him, what gift can mark the beginning of his 22nd year with us. For now, I'll just be happy imagining him walking through a dark tunnel, pointing his flashlight to light the way. I envy him the freedom, the health, the youth he has. It is why I chose to live in this country - to give my children this incredible connection to this land and the beauty that is here. I asked him if he took pictures...I always do.
He laughed and explained about how dark and wet the tunnel was. I thought of the dangers of entering a dark area, "did you take your guns with you?" Yes, I know it was a silly question. Obviously, they weren't going to leave their guns behind in the car and Palestinian terrorists tend to go for the unarmed. A 7-year-old boy against a terrorist with an axe is more their speed; four armed young men...no way would a terrorist take them on. Yes, of course they took their guns with them.
"What do you think we used to light the way through the tunnel?" he asked with a grin. That's when he explained about the water and the mud.
"Didn't the gun get dirty?" I asked. Yes, it was another silly question but I love listening to him talk. What better moment could there have been for him than the dark and the mud and the water - a young man's heaven.
"Yeah, but we wiped them down," he answered.
Maybe, just maybe, the present I have given to Elie for this and all his birthdays, is the gift of who he is, what he has made of himself and what he is yet to become. The army has given him strength of body and purpose; courage and confidence. But we, his parents, brought him to this land and gave it to him. Each hike he takes is his way of connecting with his land.
Just two days ago, Elie had fun in a tunnel, but more than that, he entered it with confidence and emerged from the depths. Maybe, must maybe, the gift I'll give him will be a book about other areas to hike and the prayer that he will never grow bored hiking on our land...even when the path takes him through the tunnels, into the water, over the mountains and around the desert. Perhaps, the greatest gift of all is the simplest of all - Israel.
Happy birthday, Elie - may you grown in strength in the land of your fathers and know that there is no where else I would have you be, no one else I would want you to become.