Sunday, December 16, 2007

When Yoni Comes Marching Home Again (Article# 66) 11/29/2007

Last Sunday my nephew Yonatan entered the army. He is the first Katz (even though, as my sister’s son, he is actually named Uzan) to serve in the Israeli military. We had known this was coming for quite some time; for the last two years, he has been consumed with a focus on which unit he would try out for and what capacity his service would take.

He initially wanted to be in the Shayetet (similar to the Navy Seals) program. This super-secret unit is involved in the most difficult and dangerous missions. In fact, a year and a half ago, during the Lebanon war, I had asked Yonatan what the Shayetet was doing during the war. His reply: “Shmuel, neither you nor I will ever know.” It was only weeks later that we found out that the unit that had tried to land at night near Beirut in Lebanese army uniforms and vehicles had been Shayetet.

After months of personal training and preparation and after passing numerous intelligence and psychological aptitude tests, he went for the final five days of extreme physical testing designed to weed out the weaker candidates. Of the hundreds of qualifying teens, he was one of 17 who actually made it through the testing. Only 15 of them were actually taken and he was one of those who were left off.

There is no question he was disappointed. We were all very proud of him and pointed out to him that he had passed everything they could throw at him and made it through. Whatever criteria they were looking for—perhaps they wanted another Arabic-speaking soldier or some other random need—it was through no fault of his own that he didn’t get in.

He got a call from Chail Ha’Avir (the Air Force). They wanted him to try out for their pilot training course. The only person who was against it was Yonatan himself. We were all excited at the possibility of a lifelong career as a pilot and how it could set him up for life. He felt destined for an elite combat unit and refused to compromise his goals. We had to give him credit for sincerity and focus.

After careful research and investigation, he set his sights upon another specialized combat unit. And he got in. If I told you exactly which unit he is in, I’d have to kill you. Apparently it is supposed to be confidential. All I know is that they are a unit that specializes in jungle warfare.

When my sister told me this I asked her what jungles we have in Israel that we need to train for. She told me that there are actually jungles in Lebanon and Syria and that is what we are training for. It was only later that I realized my naiveté. Of course we would train to fight on enemy territory—if we have a choice we would always prefer to bring the fight to them to having it within our own borders. The only person who expressed any concern about his upcoming enlistment was my sister. She dreaded the day of enlistment and didn’t want to even think about what it would mean. The rest of us just laughed it off as the natural worries of a mother.

As I wrote last week, Goldie and I decided to give him a gift (a pocketknife was recommended by a friend) and made a special effort to give it to him (along with a handwritten personal note of love and support) in person in order to wish him well and say goodbye. So we saw him just a few days before enlistment.

At dinner that same night, both Goldie and I (and our brother-in-law Arieh) saw the ease with which my sister Bluma came to tears when the subject was mentioned and, while we could see the reason for her concern, I think we all seemed to feel less of a concern than she. After all, thousands of teens enter the army each year and the overwhelmingly vast majority return home safely.

Goldie and I decided not to speak with my sister about him from Sunday on. We figured that bringing up the subject would needlessly cause her more worry, and that if she wanted to talk to us about it, she would take the initiative (she—like her brother—is not known for her reticent and reserved nature). We put the whole subject to the back of our minds.

On Monday evening, the day after Yonatan went in to the army, we got a message from her to call back. When I called she spoke to me about some mundane item, and then, when it was obvious that I wasn’t going to ask about Yonatan, she said, “Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you how it went!” (I told you she wasn’t shy.)

She told me how traumatic it was to see his name flash up on the screen, telling them to bring him to the bus that would take him to begin processing and billeting. It was a difficult moment for her and she had a hard time even pointing out to everyone else that his name had been called. She said goodbye to him and let my brother-in-law take him to the bus. When he came back she asked him if everything had gone OK and he said no, as the realization that his son was now entering the army hit him. He later told me himself how tough it was for him to let go of his son and how surprised he was at the depth of his distress and concern.

It wasn’t until a couple of days had passed that he could even talk about it, and even then he was not able to articulate what he was feeling. After the phone call, Goldie and I started making some simple calculations and realized that with the birth of our latest nephew a couple of weeks ago, there would be a Katz (or Uzan) in the army almost continuously for the next 20-plus years. Sure, there are a couple of six-month breaks thrown in there, but it was an incredibly sobering thought.

Not every one will be in a combat unit. But every one of them, for every single day that he wears that uniform, will have an additional target painted on his back for our enemies. For the next 20 years and more (as we begin to consider grandchildren for all of us) we will face the almost daily concern about a loved one’s well-being. Until this first one actually went in, it hadn’t hit home for us.

When we were in the U.S., and even for our first few months here, those boys doing the fighting and the dying were an abstract concept—someone else’s kids, but certainly not ours. Every time we thought of them, we thought of them with a sincere concern, but definitely a sense of detachment and safety that it couldn’t possibly be us.

Even in making aliyah, it was very hard to look so far down the road to Mordechai’s military service (which he is very excited to consider whenever he sees a chayal). He is six years old; the military is twelve years away! Twelve years doesn’t seem so far away anymore.

I look ahead to that time when it will be Goldie and I taking our precious son to the enlistment base and I see how hard it was for my sister and brother-in-law, people who have lived through this in their personal lives (my brother-in-law just ended his military reserves obligations in the past few years). If they—who have lived through this themselves—had such a hard time facing their son’s enlistment, how can Goldie and I even hope to cope?

How can I possibly consider letting my precious treasures—these children who are more dear to me than anything—how can I possibly think of letting them be put in harm’s way?

My Mordechai, who is so sincere, who lives just to spend time playing with his Abba first and his friends second, who delights in the pure joy of learning something he didn’t know, whose empathy for others is overwhelming and whose dedication and devotion to his friends is unlimited—how can I think of letting him do this?

My Moshe, the boy of a million expressions (every one of them cute), whose “Heblish” is a language all its own, whose loving trust in others can melt the coldest of hearts, who can disarm the most angry adult with his soft quizzical smile—from where will I get the strength to support him when it is his turn to serve?

Each and every parent goes through this turmoil in some way or another. Without these young men, there would be no army and no protection. To extend Golda Meir’s thought to the next step, I think this is part of the rage we have for our enemies, that they force us to sacrifice some of these treasures for the sake of us all.

I was corresponding with Larry Gordon, the editor/publisher of the Five Towns Jewish Times, while I was speaking with my sister on the phone that night. I told him what was going on and he replied, “You must be very proud.”

Proud is how I felt the week before the enlistment; here was my nephew preparing to do his duty for the country in which he lives. He approached it with such devotion and dedication that I could not help but be proud. Now? Of course I still feel pride in him and in his desire to stand and be counted. Yet now that he is actually in the army, I am also filled with no small amount of horror that he and all the rest of our young men have to be there to defend us from our enemies.

I cringe at the thought that some of them may not come home to their parents, and I cannot help but imagine (now that my own children and nephews are actually subject to military obligations) how incredibly painful and devastating it will be for their families.

I suddenly understand a lot more of the bravado of the men, especially the young men, for whom showing fear may mean the difference between seeing their families again or not. I understand just a bit more clearly the mother’s agony each time her son leaves her to return to his unit and his base. And I realize why it is that Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) is such an emotionally charged day here in Israel—after all, so many people at least know of someone who has lost a family member in battle, and every one of our families knows that it can happen to us in the blink of an eye.

I understand how hard it is to say things like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” when the flip side of that argument means condemning someone’s son to death at the hands of his captors when there is even a glimmer of possibility that he can be returned alive. In some cases it is only the promise that no soldier will be left behind that keeps hopes alive.

Mostly, I understand how little control over our lives we actually have. I see how many of the things we do to support these young men is done by rote, and how important it is to support them with every means at hand. So I ask you to do your part, as well.

There are thousands of young men and women who are actively putting their lives on the line for the safety and security of every man, woman, and child who either lives in or visits our holy country. No matter who you are, from the yeshiva student whose service is done in the beis midrash to the most non-religious, secular-oriented person, each and every one of us benefits from the blanket of security provided by these stalwart youths. Tourists. Students. Business owners. Housewives. Mothers. Fathers. Sisters and brothers. Grandfathers and Grandmothers.

So the next time you are in shul, no matter what your politics, maybe offer a small tefillah for him and his peers. If your shul says a Mi Shebeirach for the chayalim, perhaps listen a bit more attentively and say Amen with feeling and meaning.

Last week this tefillah may have been an abstract concept for you. This week, if you think of nothing else, maybe think of my nephew who is this very moment drilling and preparing to put himself in harm’s way so that we can all enjoy the kedushah, beauty, and splendor that is Israel.