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Ode to a desert sunrise

From a Manhattan college campus, the dawn sparks memories of cold mornings in the army and hope for the Land

I like pulling all-nighters. That’s not something you’ll hear often from college students, for whom the expression is laden with foreboding: cramming for a dreaded exam, stress-eating your body weight in chocolate bars and stumbling into class the following morning looking and feeling like a reanimated corpse. But I like staying up, because in the stillness of the early morning I have the feeling that by stepping outside of the boundaries of routine I have stepped into another world.

The campus in the early morning is a palette of dark blues and greys, painted against the backdrop of a sky of lightest peach. The sunrise casts its warmth along the rooftops and I am drawn irresistibly back to another sunrise, a vibrant orange orb rising slowly to bathe a desert scene in gold. I see the clouds turned rosy by the rising sun and think of the way the clouds in the Israeli desert look like a Renaissance painting, perforated here and there by brilliant rays that touch down on the sand and look like so many ladders to the heavens. I sit on a bench in New York City and see before me the panorama of the Negev in the first moments of the new day.

The tranquility and freshness of campus in the morning, when the first peachy glow of the sun grazes the buildings and the profound silence is interrupted only by the thrum of crickets and the chirping of birds, is so different from the early mornings of my army days. In those days, I hated getting up — hated it more than civilians who just have to get up for work or for school can understand. I woke up every day of basic training to the knowledge that I had no control over my own life. That I could not make my own choices, that I could not use my voice without permission, that there would be fear and exhaustion and exertion seemingly without end, followed by precious few hours of troubled sleep. And worst of all, that I would be once more adrift in a sea of foreign sounds and sights and concepts: I spoke Hebrew at home, but not like this. I didn’t know the army language and most of the time when my sergeant yelled at me I struggled even to get the gist of what he wanted, let alone what I was supposed to do. I woke up in a complete darkness that was reflected in my heart.

But the sunrise, when it came, was magical to me. Whether or not they did so intentionally, our commanders always had us in formation at the moment when the sun peeked out from behind the barren hills, and in the first breath of dawn we would sing Hatikva before the flag. I remember this instant more vividly than almost any other from my service, despite the fact that the last time I recited the anthem at daybreak was over three years ago. The Israeli flag, dancing in the desert breeze, was backlit by the fiery crimson glow of the sun as it made its ascent into the huge, empty sky. The words of hope that we sang in unison — fifty girls in overlarge uniforms, shivering from the cold and thinking of home, all of us just barely out of high school — rang in my body so powerfully that they brought tears to my eyes every morning, without fail. Every morning I would stand and shake not only from the cold (yes, the desert is very cold at night) but from the wrenching in my gut at the sight of the Star of David twisting in the air, the sound of all of us singing as one the words of a people who had found their way home. In that moment, I felt like I was being broken and made whole again.

Now, as a college student in New York, I sometimes like to stay up and watch the sunrise. Even if I don’t have a paper to write or a problem set to finish. I sit on my bench and wait for that moment when the sun rises triumphant over the roofs and casts its rosy glow on the dome of Low Library. I look at it and see another dawn, remember many other days, feel the twinges of fear and despair that are thankfully only echoes of what I felt then. But the most powerful feeling is hope: that the sun will always rise on that flag, that I will grow into my uniform (whichever one I wear, soldier or student), that I will learn the language and do my duty and always belong to this barren landscape for which so many fought so hard and lost so much. Our hope is not yet lost, we sang in unison with the desert wind and the rising sun. Our hope is two thousand years old. To be a free people, in our country.

The sun rises. The campus wakes. I trudge back to my room, either to gather my things for a morning lecture or to tumble into bed, clothes still on, and try to get some rest before tackling the day. The magic dissipated, I am once again firmly rooted in the routine and the noise and the duties of everyday student life in the city. The mornings of three years ago seem to belong to another lifetime, to have been lived by someone else. Maybe in a sense they were.

When my friends ask me why I like all-nighters, I usually just say that I’m a night person. Or that I am too busy during the day, so at night I get the most work done. But the truth is, I like sitting on my bench and watching the sun rise and being transported somewhere else for a little bit. Somewhere where I can smell the sand in the air and there is so much hope in my heart, it may burst.

About the Author
Brit Felsen-Parsons is an Israeli-American from New Jersey, recently released from voluntary service in the IDF. She is now studying political science and Middle Eastern affairs at Columbia University in New York. Brit is the cofounder of Columbia's chapter of Mishelanu, a national organization for Israeli-American college students.
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