I come from a long line of Mishtamtim, which translates roughly from Hebrew as “one who shirks his military service” or “one who goes AWOL”. My great grandfather abandoned his sword and the Tsar’s army for greener pastures in America. My grandfather contracted a peculiar case of gout just a few days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. My dad ditched Uncle Sam and taught P.E. in an inner city North Philadelphia school to get out of Vietnam. He cited a severe case of Tennis elbow and an extremely rare, incurable arthritis to his index finger to get out of serving in the Israeli Defense Forces when he made Aliyah with his wife and two sons in 1987 at the age of 42. I bought a one way ticket to Philly two weeks prior to my enlistment in 1996. I wasn’t going to serve in the army, especially when I had a “get out of the IDF free” card in the form of an American Passport. This rash decision would, in time, earn me the dubious title of longest soldier to ever go AWOL from the IDF.
I scheduled an appointment with the IDF representative at the consulate in New York City in 2007. A series of unfortunate professional decisions, burdensome student loans (for a major in Film Production and a minor in philosophy… sheesh, what a waste) and questionable relationships had suddenly, at age 30, made the prospect of serving in the IDF seem like a vacation at Club Med by comparison.
I was expecting Colonel Kurtz and instead was face to face with Colonel Klink. Lieutenant Colonel something or other. One of those career army guys who is bald, surprisingly thin and supremely, possibly hyperbolically, surly. This overwhelming bitterness had surely been exacerbated by the endless parade of mishtamtim and oddball cowards whose pathetic life trajectory had brought them to his makeshift office to plead for a merciful decision on their behalf.
We sat in silence for what seemed like forever. Finally he spoke. “Well? Why are you here?” I tell him a woeful tale of redemption, a miscarriage of truth so heinous that I felt ashamed. Not by the well rehearsed and daftly delivered half truths about my everlasting connection to the State of Israel and my commitment to defend it, but by the sum of all the decisions I had made in the past 11 years that had led me to this exact spot. Maybe everything would have been different for me, I remember thinking, had I just stayed in Israel and served in the army.
The Red Eye flight to Israel is seemingly endless. Pitch black outside. I hear nothing but the deafening drone of the engines. I drink heavily. It’s an occupational army, I say to myself. They’ll probably have you kicking down doors in Jenin and harassing innocent women and children in the middle of the night. Nightmarish scenes of toddlers begging for formula while I, the monster, point a weapon at their mother, run through my head. Then I think about those two drunken Polish skinheads at Auschwitz that spat on me as I walked past the pile of shoes at the camp. What about the bus that exploded outside Dizengoff center missing my mom by about two minutes in the 90’s? It’s a never ending cycle of nihilism and hatred, I repeat over and over again. There are six million excellent reasons why every single Jewish person in the world should be lining up to protect the one place that separates us as a people from complete annihilation. I may have left for all the wrong reasons, namely fear, but I was coming back for, I hoped at least, all the right ones.
I spent one day in the brig (a light punishment for the longest soldier to ever go AWOL and come back) and served a year in the IDF’s Educational Corps as a Film Director and Cameraman. I received high marks from my Boot Camp commander (a cute and tomboyish 20 year old Corporal named Chen who had a hard time keeping a straight face while she barked orders at me) who praised my commitment to the core values of the IDF. In my assessment she wrote: Excellent soldier!!! (sic) He is courteous, professional, devoted, responsible and mature. He taught his comrades from his own life experience. I am very proud of you for what you have accomplished. I believe in you.” She signed it with a smiley face.
My wife and I had a son in 2010. Several weeks after he was born I took him to the American Embassy and got him his own “Get out of the IDF Free” card in the form of his own American passport. I wonder what he’ll do when he turns 18. Somewhere in the most optimistic recesses of my mind I pray that he won’t have to make any decision at all.