My Daughter, The Soldier

Indeed, looking at the rows of soldiers from a distance, there was a sense of equality, not only between men and women, but among everyone. This is in fact one of the great legacies of the IDF. It is a times a wonderful social equalizer, in which kids from all backgrounds train and serve side by side, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, doing the same 40 push-ups. And it’s an institution in which everyone has the same opportunity to prove themselves and get ahead in life and in society – even kids from troubled socio-economic backgrounds can shine and emerge with helpful credentials. The army is known to help struggling adolescents find a strong path in life. And so watching my daughter stand in an olive-drab row of erect, strong young people – she was so indistinct that for much of the ceremony I couldn’t even figure out which one was her – was actually inspiring. I was able to put gender aside and see that this group of girls had arrived, fully at the center of this army experience. And anything was possible for them.

I’ve been living in Israel for 19 years. My husband and I arrived when our soldier-daughter was all of four months old. Countless Israeli songs have been written by parents of new babies who pray for peace so that their children will not have to fight in the army. In Israel, from the moment a baby comes into the world, the parents worry about army service. Thinking back to those sentiments, I can remember how far off this particular moment would have felt, at the same time that the fear was real.  And here we are. It’s real. It’s all a bit crazy when you think about it, the connection between parenthood and soldiering in Israel. But that reality characterizes life in Israel perhaps more than any other – more than terrorism, more than overdraft, more than the heat, Israel is first and foremost a country where parents regularly send their kids to prepare for war. And that colors everything.

The guns. I have such mixed feelings watching my daughter hold her gun.  I must admit that I found myself overwhelmed with pride – hers and mine. I was surprised at that in myself, to tell you the truth. I am really not much into guns, and the only time I ever held a gun was in Camp Moshava riflery when I was about 13 years old. And the older I get, the more gun-shy I become. When we first made Aliyah, my husband and I discussed the possibility of having a gun, but thankfully never took the idea seriously. We know lots of people who carry handguns regularly, but if I was once indifferent to that concept, today I’m most definitely nervous about seeing a gun. The stories about gun accidents compete in my consciousness with stories about heroic rescue. I don’t really want either of those narratives in my life.

Even more than that, when I think about what guns do even under those heroic circumstances, I’m not really comforted. As much as I believe in our right to self-defense, and I fully support the actions of the IDF in defending Israel’s fragile borders, there is a difference between that support as an abstract idea and living that reality. Meaning, I’m happy that there is someone out there who knows how to use a gun when the time comes. I just don’t really want it to be me or any of my children. I know that sounds terribly selfish and naive, but that’s what’s there in my flawed brain. Even in self-defense, the act of shooting another person does something to one’s spirit. And that’s another narrative I don’t really want directly in my life.

Still, seeing my daughter in this soldier uniform running and saluting and holding that gun, I had other things going through my mind. Mostly, I was in awe of her presentation of strength. With the desert landscape on all sides, I was overcome by the enormity of this indeed miraculous Zionist enterprise. Images flashed through my mind of pioneering women in the 1920s or 1930s leaving behind the shtetl, coming to Palestine, putting on khakhi shorts and grabbing a rifle to protect the land. I suddenly felt the presence of Jewish women throughout the ages who dared to defy social expectations by being strong, outspoken, independent and physical. I was filled with gratitude for all those brave women – and men – who gave their lives over the past 150 years so that Jews would have the opportunity to simply stand unimpeded in this space. I watched these young women and felt like they embodied that spirit. I could almost feel my grandmothers breathing over each shoulder, glowing in pride, sharing this incredible event, watching young Israeli women take charge, believe in their own power, and yes, hold guns with confidence. I felt this enormous spiritual connection, like a circle of women holding hands through the generations, brave young women then and now. I was so happy to be in this moment, right now, watching my daughter do this.

And when I listened to the soldiers shout out in unison, “Ani nishba’at” – I swear – as they vowed to protect the Jewish people, to ensure our rights to live freely in our land, I cried.  This was the reason we made aliyah. After 19 years living here, I finally arrived in Israel.

And then something startling happened.  The emcee for the ceremony began calling out names of soldiers who received commendations. Every unit of forty soldiers had a “chayal mitztayen” – an “Excellent Soldier”, one who received the highest scores on skills tests such as shooting and physical tasks. He read it fast and soldiers who were called came running and I barely followed was happening. All I know is that suddenly I heard my daughter’s name being called out, “Avigayil Sztokman”, and she came running front and center and the commander gave her a certificate and shook her hand and chatted with her and made her smile, which seemed so out of order that I knew it had to be special. I didn’t know this was happening – neither did she – and we didn’t even get it on video (!). Turns out, she received the award of “Chayelet mofet” – “Outstanding Soldier”, which is given to one person in every group of 120, not as much for skills tests but more for expressions of character. I know – incredible. That was, without a doubt, one of the proudest moments of my entire life.

5 comments on “My Daughter, The Soldier

  1. Avi.S on

    Wow, I didn’t know the experience meant so much to you… And yet I’m glad it does, I know being in the army is important to me and I’m happy to share that experience with you. You compliment me so much, I really dont deserve it- I kind of feel a bit more pressure now 🙂
    Thank you for making me feel like I’m part of something so much bigger, you have a wonderful way with words; you make me sound like a super ninja or something haha 🙂
    Love you

  2. Shulamit Reinharz on

    Your pride in your daughter’s accomplishments rings loud and clear. But it all rests on your own amazing accomplishment – to make a succesful aliyah. I wonder how many chayalot had parents who gave their children this opportunity to coming to live in Israel.

  3. Jonny on

    Why are they wearing American army uniforms?
    They should be wearing tzahal uniforms.
    Looks a little strange
    Pls explain

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