Shalom, Shana Tova, and a belated Chag Urim Sameach, as my words are finally paired with a semi-stable internet connection. These past few weeks have delivered themselves hectic just as I had anticipated, and in the small window of time that I do have to unload various tales of my journey unto a willing audience, I attempt to gather the pieces. For while my backpacking abilities have proven to be more intact than my knack for illustrious storytelling, the cashier in this small Tel Aviv café outwardly shooting me the “are you going to buy something before you set up shop in my cafe, you daft tourist” eyes is getting to be slightly intimidating, igniting the fire beneath my many layers and reminding me that my purpose here is not to be merely checking out the insane fashion sense of Israeli women.
What this post-army sabra doesn’t know is I am not a tourist—although the language barrier and cultural differences might rightly find a bit of daftness in me from time to time. So I order one of the only things I can read from the foreign menu and revel in getting to practice my very rough Hebrew, in hopes that maybe some limonana (freshly squeezed lemonade with crushed mint leaves) will inspire me to transcribe the balagan that is December vacation.
In the past three weeks, I have watched the sun rise and set along both the Israel-Lebanon border and the Israel-Jordan border within the time span of three days, I have gracefully swum around inside of an oversized men’s army uniform, and eaten every combination of egg preparation imaginable for every meal, ten days straight. I have taken red eye busses to ensure my sleeping situation was taken care of, sat in two-thousand year old tombs watching tourists gargle with Amstel Light (in a can nonetheless), exchanged broken Arabic to taxi drivers and slightly less broken Hebrew to other strangers.
For two weeks in early December, OTZMA 26 participated in Sar-El which as I mentioned in my previous blogpost is a volunteer program of the Israel Defense Force that gets its name from the Hebrew acronym “Service for Israel.” A project that has brought in over 125,000 volunteers, Sar-El encourages interested parties of all ages and capabilities to come live and volunteer in Israel on an assigned army base for a time mutually agreed upon. Located a few kilometers from the Lebanese border at the most northwestern point of Israel, this ‘combat engineering’ base we volunteered with and for opened their vacant bunkers to nearly twenty doe-eyed Americans who have only been second-handedly exposed to many army chronicles and rumors—in exchange for some physical labor, of course.
OTZMAnikim Alana, June and Jacob repairing and laying camouflage netting on the outpost
The work that we did during our time at Sar-El included the loading, unloading, and organizing of a lifetime supply of camouflage netting. The netting helped to disguise certain lookout points on the outpost from Hezbollah, whose eerie black trucks were clearly visible across the border, a stone’s throw away, during our entire stint. We also filled 300+ bags of sand and gravel, meant to be carried to lookout posts in order to create barriers and hide behinds. For those who preferred less physical work and more of an inviting aroma than that of plastic netting, kitchen duty was offered as an option. I worked in the kitchen on a morning my back pleaded with me to take a break from the shoveling and carrying, and found myself in humorous broken conversation with the kitchen staff who’s job it is to bless the food before it’s served, since all the food on army bases must be kosher. Eating burakas and chopping vegetables, I laughed and pretended to understand the jokes that were being passed back and forth—which very well could have been about me, I’m still not entirely sure to this day.
Speaking from my very little experience, there is a lot of waiting in the army—waiting around for orders, waiting for the next project, waiting to eat and waiting to leave and to get back to guard duty. The thought kept pulsating to the front of my mind, although two weeks is great—two to three years of this would probably drive me crazy. I have always admired, but have a new found respect for Israeli citizens, who treat their service as merely a part of residing in Israel. The difference that entices me to volunteer with the IDF rather than with the US military is the entire ideology that comes with having an army. Where the US (in my own humble opinion) creates and attempts to spread a mentality that invading another country and simultaneously spreading peace is a real thing, Israel merely protects its own land, people, and borders from outsiders and dangerous oppositionists. And where the US military finds more of its soldiers dead from their own accord than from battle, medicating the men and women who have served in the name of their country and forgetting about them when they come back from being abroad, nearly every single Israeli citizen joins the army, lessening the level of post-traumatic stress and opening more of a dialogue for post-service care, since everyone goes through the same experiences together.
Whether it was coincidence or not, the amount of lone soldiers (soldiers who are non-Israeli and who either make Aliyah or temporarily move to Israel on their own for the sole purpose of joining the army) on the outpost was extraordinary. I related with them in a way that was new for me–we both so strongly believe in the safety of Israel, and Israel’s right to exist, but we manifest that belief and those feelings in two different ways–that ultimately lead to similar results. Where I decided to move here for a year to volunteer, other foreigners join the army. Soldiers from Sweden, South Africa, and mainly from the United States were all in attendance on this outpost, and their obvious efficiency in the English language made asking questions much easier. On this specific base, because of its geographical location, there is either full-on war or absolutely nothing going on. One soldier, excited to catch a glimpse of new faces but not allowing of any distractions during his guard duty, surrendered an extra pair of binoculars, to which I graciously accepted. Sitting on the border of Israel and Lebanon, I could see Hezbollah trucks, pacing and driving frantically backwards and forwards, and I could see UN trucks, as well as Mount Hermon, half of which is located in Syria. Never in a million years could I have imagined that I would be sitting on the border of Lebanon, able to view three countries in my main periphery—and in an army uniform, nonetheless.
View from the top, Lebanon and Israel
Donning the uniform was…interesting. I learned immediately that not everyone looks good in green (ha), and that you can almost always get any size pair of pants to fit you, as long as you have a working belt and ankle-high boots to tuck in excess. And since on an army base you must always be in uniform, I quickly embraced the fatigues-as-pajama look, as alarms can and will go off at any point during the day or night.
At the end of the day, we learned to allow for quite some room to laugh at ourselves and to permit the native soldiers to do the same. We collectively learned army card games, helped each other into uniform (which proved to be a much more difficult task than imaginable), put food into our mouths we weren’t sure was edible, and wildly grew in collaboration as a family. We were led across our base and outpost by our two madrichot, or female guides, who proved themselves responsive, tolerant, warm-hearted and very, very silly.
Although our minimal two weeks in the army could have never sufficed an extraction of any insight into what being in the army is truly like, Jess and Chen made sure on their parts to expose us to the important aspects of army life, discussing what beret color meant what unit and what shoulder lace meant what rank, while teaching us some slang words along the way. I learned that if I joined the army I would probably spend lots of time in the shekem (convenience store on an army base), dressed like a chapshanet (lazy soldier, shirt untucked from her pants). We learned all about the Tzav Rishon, the exam pre-army Israeli’s take before assignment, and that (only?) 88% of types of service are open to women. And what I found to be most interesting and/or badass was a specific job in the military open to mainly women, who work in artillery, teaching male soldiers how to operate, clean, and store new kinds of weaponry, tanks, etc. I’m not ready to sign up just yet, but I’m glad that there are opportunities afforded to women that exceed office or administrative work.
Working hard or hardly working?
Some soldiers only get weekend-long breaks from their bases and outposts every 17 days, and that’s only if they’ve completed and organized all of their tasks and assignments. Misplacing some small ammo, not cleaning your gun, or mouthing off could find a soldier spending an entire month on his army base, without getting to see family, friends, or a home cooked meal. Needless to say, I was nearly peeing with excitement when we all piled onto a bus at the end of the two weeks for a light tiyul, or trip, before permanently signing off from Sar-El. Traveling to Elite, one of the largest chocolate factories in Israel and owned by Strauss, Israel’s second-largest and international food and beverage company, I watched fellow OTZMAnikim stuff chocolate bars into places I didn’t think chocolate bars could fit (not a chocolate person) and reveled in the small victory of being out of uniform.
After Sar-El, three OTZMAnikim and myself took a red eye bus down to Eilat, where we crossed the border and traversed the country of Jordan to Petra, where I spent the first few days of my homelessness in a hostel owned by a slightly erratic British woman and her twenty-six year old Jordanian husband who was more up on American pop culture than all of us combined, and who would only give us a ride in his car if we didn’t wear seatbelts. I then journeyed back up the country once returning to Eilat, where I stayed in Kiryat Gat with OTZMAnikim, and hosteled it up between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I spent Christmas day in the Old City, where I did not find Jesus but instead lots and lots and get ready for this…lots, of tourists.
Other than that, I’ve been eating my weight in passionfruit gelato and taking lots of pictures. The next internet connection I am able steal, I will cover my out of body experience in Jordan, and share some photographs hopefully illustrating the vastness that is Petra. As well, my next new home and all of the trappings that come along with the second part of my journey: Haifa, which I will be moving to on Tuesday in two days. Signing off now, before I have to order something else. Lehitra’ot!