I took my kids to Jerusalem for the first time on the last day of summer vacation. The heat was cranked up to a slow broil, and through sinuous alleys we wended our way past fluttering scarfs and fragrant spices, past shelves lined with kipot and kefiyehs, past mirrors reflecting a rainbow of fabric and skin, straight to the heart of the Western Wall.
We look like every shop keeper’s wet dream: A trifecta of tourists, the blonde mother and her two blonde children, gobsmacked and ready to pay 50 shekels for a stuffed camel with an “I <3 Israel” saddle (and a label that reads “Made in Taiwan.)
A simple “Lo,” isn’t enough – you gotta break down it down with some serious Israeli attitude. Think Marisa Tomei from My Cousin Vinnie meets Menachem Begin and you get the idea. You have to wave your hands a little, and pop your chin, and for GODS SAKE DON’T SMILE, because that’ll give you away.
It also helps if your kids speak Hebrew. (OK, so they’re begging you to buy the stupid camel while the shop keeper leers with a knowing gleam in his eye, but the fact that they’re whining about it in one of the two official languages of the shuk is good enough to drop the price faster than Miley Cyrus mid twerk.)
(Oh yes, I did.)
My kids are Israeli – no doubt. They roll their ‘reshes‘ and gut their ‘ayins,’ they bronze beneath the sun. They love jahnun and falafel and sahlab and schnitzel. They’re impatient and loud and laugh with all their teeth showing.
(And they got their camels – down from 50 shekels to 30 for both. Such a bargain.)
But the highlight of my son’s day happened when we left the shuk and went to catch a taxi just outside of Jaffa Gate.
“Soldiers!” My son crowed. “Soldiers!”
My son is at that age when he notices the men and women in their olive uniforms, with the colored berets on their shoulders, and the stripes and the pins and the insignias…
And the guns strapped to their backs.
And there were hundreds of them standing around the entrance to the Old City — they were so young, these “men and women” with guns on their backs and pimples on their cheeks.
“When do I get to be a soldier?” he asked me, not for the first time.
Once upon a time, several lifetimes ago, I used to be a preschool teacher in Berkeley, California. And inevitably, every single 3 year old boy in the Monkey Class went through the loving on policemen, firefighters and Superheroes.
Guess who is 3 1/2 years old?
Maybe it’s a gun thing — apparently this is the age when testosterone starts coursing through their little bodies.
But in Israel, our boys don’t really fantasize about being cops or firemen or Batman: They want to be soldiers. And it’s more than just fantasy for them: It’s a look into their future because serving in the IDF is usually not a choice.
“Oy,” the American in me sighs.
But the Israeli (as usual) is louder than my quiet past life:
Hell yeah, my son wants to be a soldier.
“I hope you leave Israel before he gets drafted,” someone from the US with loving intentions told me recently on the phone.
It’s funny, because I used to want the same thing: “We can to move to Israel, but we’re getting the hell out of dodge before our son reaches draft age,” I told my then-husband in between cramming my Old Navy tank tops and hooker boots into the last suitcase we were packing.
I don’t feel that way anymore.
(Let me bust out my Israeli flag and wave it around, people, because it’s about to get real.)
I freaking love this country, and I’m raising Israeli kids who love this country, too, and yes – while I wish there was no need for an army to begin with, the fact is that our men and women in the IDF are keeping us safe.
And I’ll tell you something that I never thought I’d feel: After my son and daughter have reaped the benefits of living in this incredible and complicated country where they will never have to worry about tucking their Jewish Star necklaces under their shirts, where the rhythms of their year are measured with Jewish festivals, and illuminated by Sabbath candles, it would feel like sneaking out to leave before draft age.
But yes, like every Israeli mother I know, there is a hitch in my breath as each birthday passes and we close in on chai: That 18th year. Do I hope that they’ll get a desk job in an intelligence unit? Hell yeah. Do I pray that they’ll perform in the army entertainment troupe? Why do you think I’m teaching my son how to do jazz hands.
But chances are it won’t go down that way.
And in 15 years, we’ll be back in Jerusalem again at the Western Wall, and I’ll be standing with the other mothers holding my breath and trembling in fear and in awe at the sight of my little boy in uniform. The pimply kids with guns on their backs are the modern day heroes of Israel, as it has been throughout the generations where we fight and struggle for our existence in our land.
And not only is it an existence worth fighting for, it really isn’t a choice.
One day, my son will be safeguarding this country.
And I wonder if he’ll still be sleeping with the stuffed camel we bought at the shuk.