Long before I joined the IDF, every green-clad, gun-holding, dashing young Israeli man or woman looked to me the same: a bad-ass soldier.
I knew, theoretically, that under each uniform is a unique person: a brother, a sister, a friend, a musician. I even knew some, personally.
But I had not yet encountered the textures and gradients of the colorful palette of the Israeli population. I had not met a Russian immigrant, an Ethiopian, a Druze, or a French soldier. I had not heard their stories of acclimating to Israeli society or their families’ plight from their home country. I had not yet met soldiers who wanted desperately to leave the army, to move to America, to become an officer, to master the Hebrew language, to fall in love, to give their all to the country, to become DJ’s, or to just laze through three years doing as little work as possible.
But now, after nearly two years of maneuvering the Israel Defense Force, I’ve seen some of the shades of this palette. The reality is that they do not always combine to create a harmonious painting. I’ve come to realize it’s a huge mess, but a beautiful one. Let me paint you a picture…
Preface: These stories are in no means representative or stereotypical of specific ethnic groups. They are true stories of people I’ve met thus far into my service. Names are changed for anonymity.
“So what made you move to Israel, by yourself, at the age of 16?” I ask Alex from Kyrgyzstan, while he puffs on his hand-rolled cigarette.
“After coming a few times, I just knew I could make a better life here. My parents have never been to Israel, but they supported me coming. I moved with a program that helps Russian-speaking immigrants integrate. They are my best friends here. We live together in a cheap apartment in Haifa.”
Impressed by his early-ambition, I ask him about some low-points throughout his Aliyah Journey:
“Well, I remember once, at the end of the 30 kilometer Masa Kumta (final trek of training to receive the unit beret), when everyone’s families came to congratulate and greet them at the end-point…I saw all my friends run into their parents’ arms and I had nobody waiting for me at the end. So I just sort of stood on the side…I cried a little. But that was one of the only times I cried since moving here. You know, I don’t usually cry.”
I ask, “How does it feel to not be Jewish in a Jewish state? How’d you like course Nativ?”
(Nativ is a 2-month course for non-Jewish soldiers and/or new immigrants that teaches Judaism, Israeli society, and Zionism. The course offers, in addition, the opportunity to convert to Judaism if the soldier chooses to do so. It is an incredible opportunity because outside of the army, the process is tedious and expensive).
Alex replies, “You know, I signed up mainly for the cute girls. But in the end, it was fun and I learned a lot.”
Alex plans on starting the conversion process in a few months, along with a few friends he made during the course.
Our voices blend together as we sing Lecha Dodi, one of the central prayers for welcoming in Shabbat. I’m strumming my guitar and Avi holds my siddur, reading the prayers with me, though he still remembers most of them by heart.
Right before the sun sets, I finish leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service for about 5 soldiers in my unit. I ask everyone to take a deep breath and on their exhale, acknowledge the new Jewish month. Then, we go around and each say one word we hope will define this Shabbat. One wishes for “quiet,” another for “jokes,” and another hopes for an easy transition to our new base. I draw the connection between the new month and the new base as opportunities to turn over a new leaf.
“The month of Av has a particular energy,” I tell the group. Avi nods his head in agreement, revealing a certain understanding of the Jewish months and their significance.
“Were you religious once?” I ask Avi the following day in the dining hall.
“Can’t you tell?” He replies with half-smile, half-guilty expression.
“So what made you change your ways?” I inquire.
“I don’t really want to get into it now, but basically, in the army, I saw the fun in secular living, and it sort of pulled me in.”
I wanted to get even deeper into the conversation, but we were in the dining hall, and Avi explained he didn’t want to get too “heavy.”
“The grinding daily routine is hard on us combat soldiers, so we try to joke around as much as possible. Keep things light, you know?”
Indeed, it has become clear to me that many Israelis—to whom rocket-sirens are as mundane as alarm clocks—depend on jokes and sarcasm to lighten the often heavy reality of the day.
Though she moved to Israel from France 10 years ago with her family, Nathalie still has an accent when she speaks Hebrew.
I met her on my first day in the Artillery Battalion.
She greeted me with an enormous smile and a high-five: “No way, dude, you’re from America? All of my friends are American!”
From then on we became quite close. She worked on base as a weapon-technician and on the weekends, a partier.
It wasn’t until a few months later that she shared her story with me. I found out that she grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community and after high school, decided to join the army. Girls of this community seldom join the army, so she was considered rebellious. As a result, she moved to the Beit Hachayal, a hostel for lone soldiers. Though her parents live in the country, she doesn’t receive support from them, and is thus considered (like me) to be a lone soldier. Nathalie was the first lone soldier I met who isn’t “alone” because of a new immigrant status.
At first, it was shocking to hear, because I had naively defined the term “lone soldier” as an upper-middle class Jew who leaves their comfortable life to fight for the IDF — essentially, the Jew who carries out the “Zionist Dream.”
But after hearing Nathalie’s story, I became attuned to the broader definition a lone soldier. And ever since, I have met many lone soldiers who can’t live at home because of issues such as abuse, mental health, or financial problems. Often, it’s a combination of the three.
Yet, despite all odds, many of these “other” lone soldiers often end up succeeding the most in the army because it is a place where they can thrive. It is a place where they have support of a group, where commanders treat them like their children, and where they learn leadership and teamwork.
There are also the “street kids” — the former trouble makers with police records — who were forced to put on a uniform. The army crushed their egos, provided them with mandatory education, discipline, and a common goal — defense of the Jewish Nation. The same youth who previously had weapons taken from them were then handed an M16 and given responsibility.
Responsibility is the key word here. It’s the thing that helps straighten people out in the army. It’s a pretty simple psychological principle: when people are held accountable, they don’t want to let themselves, or others down. And in the army, they don’t really have the option to not do their job.
And so whether it’s the cook who has to ensure that breakfast is ready by 7:30 am, the tech support soldier who has to fix the headquarters’ computer, or the logistic officer who organizes supplies, each soldier holds a responsibility that affects the other. And while some are more passionate about their job than others (and that’s a gentle way to put it), at the end of the day, the heavy responsibility put on these 18-year-olds matures them in a way that any other system wouldn’t.
Though the system is not ideal and undoubtedly has faults, just like each individual that comprises it — it gets the job done.
And I’m grateful to do my part.