I turned nineteen this month under different circumstances than I’m accustomed to. Really, I wasn’t sure what to expect- I just told myself my eighteenth birthday was good enough of a memory to excuse skipping this one. Jokingly, I told my friend I’d just stay eighteen until next November. Another friend held up her lighter for me to make a wish; as I blew out the little flame and watched the tiny wisp of smoke evaporate, I ran the hope through my head that I’d been reiterating over and over again, especially when I prayed that morning: that by this time next year, on my twentieth birthday, I should have a clearer idea of where I am. I’m not hesitant to admit I want to be settled, and I’m also not in a rush for the next stages of life. But sitting through my second basic training after complications in the army system felt redundant, and definitely gave me a sense of being thrown backwards.
And then there’s the uncertainty that comes along with my limited Hebrew fluency, training for a job that from what I’ve been told demands full command of the language, frequently under high-stress situations: passing the course will be in and of itself a challenge, but I have to make the decision of whether I genuinely feel ready to take on the kind of responsibility the job would give me if I do.
The nearly three-week lockdown for basic training, confined to a small, quarantined area due to the pandemic, came along with a new rollercoaster of emotions every day, and every hour seemingly took days to pass. When you’re counting seconds down on a stopwatch, I realized, time appears warped into a bottomless eternity. Sunset becomes much more than a pretty view- it becomes an indicator of the passage of time, a signal that it’s only been a day, but that the day will be over soon.
Most aspects of the experience have been sort of bittersweet, for better or worse. There are very few religious girls in my detachment, and there is no minyan to speak of on Shabbos. The secular girls in my platoon are exceptionally nice and often go out of their way to be respectful, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them and familiarizing myself more with different perspectives. The environment is very culturally foreign to me in some ways, and there’s a lack of flexibility occasionally on religious issues. But these challenges have reinforced my passion for my worldview and my lifestyle, reminded me what my priorities are and why, and opened up new questions and ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily have been prompted to think about otherwise.
Being one of the only religious girls, and the only one wearing a skirt on madei bet (the secondary uniform we only wear on-base), can be very isolating, but it has piqued people’s curiosity, and I get approached often with questions that usually open up into really interesting and meaningful conversations that give me an opportunity to share my perspective as well as various other religious perspectives with which I have familiarity. Sadly, from what little I’ve observed, it’s a fairly popular go-to in many interactions to just say “they’re the extremists, we’re nothing like them” in reference to various other religious communities. I found that I feel very strongly that my social validation in any group can never come at the expense of another community or ideological stream of thought, so I attempt to represent other groups to the best of my ability when relevant, which has deepened my respect for them.
So many little moments have caught me off-guard, like when I left my siddur with my roommate for a few minutes to go wash my hands and returned to see her going through it, telling me that she’d never looked at one before, but that it felt like home. Another one of my roommates on a separate occasion expressed the same sentiment after overhearing me singing parts of Shabbos morning services quietly, and after reflecting for a moment I responded that it makes sense, since it’s her culture too. After she confided in me that she felt uncomfortable at her friend’s house on Shabbos because she didn’t understand how kiddush worked, I went through all of the kiddush and havdala services line by line with her. On one Friday night, some of the girls at my table requested a piece of the challah I’d just made the blessing over. A girl who identifies strongly as atheist insisted on accompanying me to hear havdala during Saturday night dinner, since she felt it was unfair they weren’t giving me enough time. Another girl commented during lunch one day that she was glad to have religiously observant girls in her platoon because it made her feel closer to Judaism.
While getting ready to go home one Friday morning, my roommates put on Ishay Ribo music since they know that (although I have no objection to other people around me playing the music they prefer,) I generally only listen to Jewish music. One girl, a kibbutznik who classifies herself as a Labor Zionist and an atheist, suggested we do an oneg Shabbos for our next Friday night on base, and told me she’d be happy for me to prepare a dvar Torah; another non-religious girl chimed in to announce to the other girls to avoid buying the snacks for it on Shabbos itself, so that the religious girls will be able to eat too.
Yet another surprise was in realizing that my Hebrew conversational skills were significantly better than I thought and that I could handle more than I assumed. In just a few weeks, I’ve probably spoken more Hebrew than in the past five years since I made Aliyah, collectively.
Going to the shooting ranges again already felt pointless, especially seeing as I wasn’t supposed to be shooting again, just sitting at the side. Exponentially more so when, after waking up at 4:30 AM, we just sat on the bus for an hour only to turn around without getting off because of a sudden downpour of rain. At the same time, it was the first storm I’d ever really appreciated watching, and I got to make the blessings on thunder, lightning, and a rainbow in the span of just several minutes. Inspired by the view, a secular girl asked to borrow my siddur at one point. From the droplet-littered windows we watched the other half of our platoon who’d arrived before the storm dance in the ridiculous army-issued rain ponchos that look like something out of medieval Europe. As they disassembled a table, we waved to each other while all laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
It’s true that my birthday was spent waking up earlier than I would’ve liked and with more yelling and stress than I would’ve preferred. But every break we had, the girls in my platoon would break out singing happy birthday again. One girl handed me a little brownie bar she’d brought from home, which was like gold considering that, during basic training, we weren’t allowed to go to the shekem (the on-base convenience shop). On Thursday for my Hebrew birthday, they surprised me with a little notepad full of letters they’d written for me. One girl went out of her way to help me carry my bags all the way to the entrance of the base, through the thick mud. And though the limitations of corona on top of the army schedule made meeting with my friends pretty much impossible, when I checked my phone at the earliest opportunities- many messages I saved to read once I finally went home for the weekend- I was moved beyond words to be reminded of how lucky I am to have each of my friends in my life, no matter how many months go by without seeing them.
In the end, going through basic training a second time, though not ideal in the least, wasn’t a waste at all. And I never would have chosen it myself, but for my nineteenth birthday, it was exactly where I needed to be.