When my daughter Yael was 17, I checked out her army just as I had checked out nursery schools, junior highs and high schools. Like all secular Jewish Israeli girls, at 18 she would be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces for 22 months.
To check out conditions in the IDF, I pretended I was writing an article. This was not far-fetched, as I often wrote features for The Jerusalem Post, and in the 1980’s I wrote a humorous mothering column until nothing about mothering seemed funny anymore. The Army Spokesman’s Office gave me permission to accompany a group of new recruits on their first day.
Cloudy sky, December 31, 1996. By 7:25 a.m., 150 families have arrived: mothers wearing oversized sunglasses; fathers with paunches; hungry boyfriends; concerned aunts; weary grandmothers; younger brothers and sisters wishing they could go to the army instead of school. The 18-year-old draftees wear the standard civilian uniform: blue jeans and knit tops. One member of each family unit lugs an enormous backpack, stuffed with everything the new recruit will need for the next 22 months, even though she will probably return home for the first Sabbath after induction. Fathers film as 150 Israeli childhoods end in a parking lot.
A heavy soldier stands near a little wooden table and uses a megaphone to order all new recruits to stand in line with their induction papers and Israeli identity cards. Young women look pleadingly at their mothers, reminiscent of first days at any nursery school.
“Mia, Adi, Moran, Ruthi, Svetlana, [the names go on] — get on the bus. Good luck to all of you.”
Middle-aged parents who fought in the Six-Day War or missed that but made the War of Attrition, or missed that but made the Yom Kippur War, or missed that but remember the Lebanon War, surround the bus. Grandparents, who fought the British and then five or six invading Arab armies in 1948, rub their eyes.
From my vantage point on the bus, it is clear that these families are falling apart. Mothers and fathers — intimate enemies — will now be alone, together. How many couples will stay married?
He calls more names: “Gila, Galia, Merav, Avishag, Keren….” They climb on the bus.
The driver aims the bus towards the absorption base, an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. Tissues replace cigarettes.
“That was hard,” says Sigalit, the girl sitting next to me.
The bus enters Tel Hashomer where we are greeted by a billboard: THE STAFF OF THE ABSORPTION AND CLASSIFICATION BASE WELCOMES YOU ON YOUR INDUCTION TO THE ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES.
In June, 1967, when I was 21, I watched the IDF victory on TV from Cleveland, Ohio. I saw the dust, smiles and tears, heard the speeches, threats and songs, and I wanted to be a part of that. By September when I sat with an IDF representative in Jerusalem, I was 22. The army didn’t want me; I was too old. The billboard at the entrance to the absorption base reminds me of my disappointment.
A blond male sergeant gets on the bus.
“Sit properly and be quiet. When I call out your name, say Yes.” He begins:
The new recruits giggle.
“No laughing. This is the army!”
He finishes the list of names, and then, with his whole being, shouts the most famous word in the Israeli army: Acharai! Follow me.
In their jeans and knit tops, the women march in two parallel lines to a low white building, where they are led into a pleasant auditorium. There, they are supposed to watch a movie that will prepare them for the 10-step bureaucratic maze they are about to enter, but the projector is out of order. Is this an omen, like a nursery school teacher’s guitar popping three strings on the first day?
Their names are called again, and they are handed stickers with bar codes. These represent the new recruit’s personal IDF identity number. At each station of the bureaucratic Via Dolorosa behind the closed double doors, the new recruit will hand over one bar code sticker.
Station 1: Each draftee gives the details of her bank account. The army will automatically transfer a monthly sum to each account, enough for gum, soft drinks and cigarettes.
Station 2: Each new recruit receives the first payment — NIS 100 ($25) as a loan from the Israel Defense Forces, to be paid back in five monthly installments. The recruits are handed a 20-unit telephone card, a gift from the Soldier’s Welfare Association.
Station 3: The girls are fitted with gas masks.
“A mask that fits you will be kept in a warehouse especially for your use, should the need arise,” explains a female soldier. Each woman has her own gas mask in her closet at home, but should Israel be bombed with chemical weapons in the next 22 months, the girls may not be close to their closets. (Hopefully, the masks, unlike the projector, will be operative and the warehouse will be nearby and open.)
Station 4: Each woman dips one hand in ink so veteran soldiers can take her hand- and finger-prints.
Station 5: The draftee, in that fertile transitional state, neither here nor there, has her mug shot taken for the IDF identity card. The first 20 of the 50 new recruits from Jerusalem do not smile.
Station 6: The new recruit is interviewed for five minutes to verify her vital statistics — name, address, family constellation — and to determine who should inherit her IDF income, in case of death. This is the second time in 10 minutes that death is raised to consciousness, though in such a way that the horror of it is denied. Death, in the context of Station 6, is one option on the flow chart.
Station 7: Each recruit files into the clinic and extends both arms. She gets two shots, one in each. Some of the women cringe; others take shots like heroes. (This is also the venue for reporting allergies and pregnancies.)
Station 8: The recruit, presumably non-pregnant, receives a form that lists every item she will receive as soon as she walks over to the warehouse. The draftee signs the form and exits. She is still wearing jeans and a knit top. Even though all the paperwork has now been completed, making her legally a soldier, she does not yet look like one.
Station 9: She receives a clean, used, olive-green duffle bag. Inside is a uniform, which she tries on in the dressing room: a green Dacron shirt and slacks. They fit! She exits with her civilian uniform in the duffle bag. Now the fun begins.
Station 10: She stands in a circle with 49 other new recruits, all dressed alike. Their duffle bags sit on the ground in front of them, but these children are not going to play Duck Duck Goose. A red-headed male sergeant stands in the middle of the circle and says, almost kindly, “Welcome to the Israel Defense Forces.”
During those days in May and June, 1967, before it was clear that Israel would continue to exist, I came to realize that Israel was worth fighting for. And if fighting for, then dying for. And if dying for, why not live there?
“Oshrat, Rakefet, Olga, Liat, Noa …” The sergeant gives each girl her dog tag and IDF identity card with the photo taken minutes before at Station 5.
It is clear to any civilian onlooker pretending to be a journalist that these sundry 18-year-olds form a group. This particular group, though, has no identity. At least, not yet. They need a name.
In the Talmud it is written that all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet were created on Friday afternoon, at dusk before the first Sabbath. Clearly, God’s options were multiplied once She had letters to play with. It is no surprise, then, that the army of Her Chosen People recognizes the profound importance of names. The sergeant anoints the group Platoon G.
“We’re going to basic training camp #12 in Tzrifin, a 30-minute drive from here. You will stay there for three weeks,” a squad officer tells them once everyone is seated on another bus. This is the first time the girls have been told exactly where they will be going. Nobody giggles.
“I’m usually not even up at this hour,” Ronit says, as the bus drives by the last orange groves east of Tel Aviv. Like the other girls on the bus, Ronit has been out of high school for six months, waiting for this day. Esther takes out her cell phone and calls home. When she finishes telling her mother where she is going, she looks sad.
Upon arrival, the squad officer orders the soldiers to take their bags from the belly of the bus, put them next to the wooden hut in front of them and arrange themselves in rows of five. When they are lined up, she reads their names: “Iris, Dana, Hili, Lital, Nechama….” The soldiers look as if they expect something meaningful to happen.
Meaning appears in the form of a short woman, no more than 19, with a long blonde braid down to her waist. She is their sergeant, and she stands before them as if a broomstick has been inserted into her backbone, reaching up to the rubber band holding her braid.
“Stand up. Hands at your side. Straighten the ranks,” she bellows. “Those in the back rows, look at the girl’s neck in front of you.” The women obey and, miraculously, Platoon G looks like a military entity rather than a bunch of teenage girls waiting for boys.
“This is how you stand at attention,” the sergeant pounds, “and this is at ease. Now do as I say: Attention. At ease.”
I have seen only one natural wonder of the world — Niagara Falls — but I am sure the others could not compare with the miracle I am witnessing here on a concrete field in the middle of Israel.
“This is how you turn to the right,” the sergeant instructs. When some soldiers giggle, she shouts, “Quiet! This is the army!” She then teaches them how to march in place. “Left, right, left,” she bellows, just like in the movies. “Now march and move forward at the same time.”
Fifty women march across a field as a unit for the first time in their lives. They wear the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. Drums should be rolling and trumpets blaring, but the only sound is the cooing of pigeons in the eucalyptus trees. At this moment of creation, the group is differentiated from all other groups by being assigned a second name: Platoon G, Squad 1.
G-1 marches towards the dining room.
“Don’t talk. Stand straight. Be proud,” their sergeant shouts. “You must go to all three meals every day and sit at the table for at least 10 minutes. Sit together. Never be late.”
I wonder why I never gave my children such clear messages. Coming from this 19-year-old, rules sound beyond argument.
“When you finish lunch, sit at the table with your hands behind your back. No one moves until 1335 hours. At 1345, we will meet in the open space and line up in rows of five.” When the sergeant walks away to eat in the officers’ dining room, the new recruits chortle.
The dining room is enormous. At the entrance is a sink for washing hands. Directly above it is a sign with the words of the prayer that Jews recite while washing hands before a meal with bread. Since observant Jews who serve in the army know the prayer from childhood, and since secular Jews don’t pray, the sign is a puzzlement.
The women eat fried corn schnitzel, fried chicken schnitzel, elbow macaroni in oil, purple cabbage salad in mayonnaise, eggplant salad in oil, tehina, and sliced bread. Oranges for desert. Some of the soldiers sit like statues, staring at the full trays in front of them.
During the 10-minute break after the meal, the girls gather outside the dining hall and smoke.
“How’s the army?” I ask.
“Fun,” says Michal. “Like our annual high school outing.”
“My shots hurt,” Adi complains.
“All my friends will be in discos tonight. . . ” Ronit says, “and I have to be in this shitty place.”
The recruits fall into formation and start marching. Past the dining room, the orange public telephones, the red Coke machines….
“Undo your ponytails,” the sergeant bellows. “When you sit at the desk inside, pull all your hair over your face and bend your neck towards the table so the soldier can check your head for lice. When you’re finished, put your hair back in a ponytail at the height of your ears and line up in fives.”
When my daughter Yael was two and I put her over my knees to inspect for lice, I turned the inspection into a game. I called each louse “Shlomo”, the Hebrew name of King Solomon. We were fishing for Shlomos. How many Shlomos found Yael’s hair so beautiful they could not live without it?
“Now we march to your rooms,” says the sergeant. The soldiers arrange themselves in rows as if they have been doing this for months. They march to what is called “the Hilton,” a four story prefab cross between low-income housing and a youth hostel.
“Take all your stuff to your rooms. The third floor is yours. Put all your things under the bed. Then sit on the bed. Don’t talk. Don’t move.”
The soldiers lug their belongings up 35 stairs to their new homes. Each room has two rows of seven iron beds facing each other. Yellow paint on the walls is peeling and the wooden bookshelf is empty. Fourteen windows — seven on each side — allow in natural light and air. On each bed is a gray blanket and on the blanket are a canteen, a belt, and a long, black instrument for cleaning rifles. Next to it are a soap dish full of more implements for the same purpose, ammunition, a green army jacket, a green wool sweater, a green canvas visor hat, and two folded gray blankets. White powder covers the blankets and clothes. After the recruits put their belongings under their beds, they sit on the beds. Then they talk and move.
“Quiet,” shouts the sergeant. “I said don’t talk and don’t move.” The soldiers move into obeying. “The white powder is against scabies worms, which cause unpleasant itching. The powder is used at the end of each basic training course. There are no worms now, but you must air out your blankets every day.”
I was the kind of mother who skipped those chapters in how-to-parent books about setting limits and making rules. For me, boundaries are lines discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, not mothers and daughters. Consequently, Yael, like me, has no schedule and little routine. Her obligations at home are minimal, due to laissez-faire mothering. I do not admit this with pride. In these barracks I appreciate the consequences of such laxity — scabies worms.
The soldiers are told to report to the Absorption Room at 1530 hours. Once there, they look tired and fed-up. They sit on low benches with no backs. Above the doorway is a sign: “And God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and take care of it.” Next to it is graffiti: “This is a horrible, depressing place.”
Yawns replace giggles.
“Hands behind your backs. Sit up straight. Head forward. Don’t move at all. This is how you will receive the platoon’s commissioned officer. Soon she will enter the room.”
The Midrash says that if the Messiah should arrive when you are planting a tree, you must continue to plant. If a commissioned officer walks into a room, however, you must freeze into a posture of submissive respect.
Now the sergeant is introducing a new vocabulary which the soldiers pick up quickly: “Yes, officer,” and “No, officer.”
“Say, ‘Yes, Officer’.”
“Now, say ‘No, Officer’.”
“You will have a course on weapons, first aid, and chemical warfare. Now prepare to meet the platoon’s commanding officer.”
Drums roll in my head as through the door strides a thin girl, no taller than 5’2”, wearing black-framed glasses and a visor that hides her face. Some of her hair is pulled into a ponytail; the rest straddles either side of her neck. She looks at the floor, then at the new recruits, as if she were wearing contacts for the first time. Her voice thunders with the authority of one who knows all the answers and is always right.
“There are two basic values here. Camaraderie and Discipline. Okay. I expect you to help each other. And I expect you to behave. We do not want to punish you, so do not provoke us. Okay. Platoon G-1 will do everything correctly and obey all orders. Okay. You are one body and you are the best. You will all cooperate. Okay. This doesn’t have to be difficult.”
The commissioned officer paces back and forth in front of the stunned women. On each “Okay” she looks at her soldiers from under the visor and behind the glasses. Her “Okay” is not like that of an insecure mother who, after suggesting to her daughter that she go to bed, adds an “Okay?” as in Are we going to cooperate tonight? Will I still be an okay mother if I force you to go to bed? No. The commissioned officer’s “Okay” says, This is the way it is. No questions. Period.
The new recruits look comatose.
“On Friday you have a military trek and then you will stay here this Sabbath. Okay.”
The commissioned officer escapes before the tears start rolling. The draftees expected to spend their first Sabbath at home. One soldier is crying loudly.
The crying turns into sobs. The sergeant orders the woman next to the distraught soldier to take her out of the room.
“Get her some water at the drinking fountain down the hall,” she says. When they return five minutes later, the sobbing girl’s uniform is completely soaked.
Groups of five soldiers are called to the front desk, while the other 45 soldiers are expected to sit up straight on the wooden benches with no backs and keep quiet.
“Are you vegetarian, naturopath, kibbutznik, religious, or from a bereaved family?” each recruit is asked.
The new recruits waiting their turn murmur, much like the Israelites murmured against Moses. The sergeant singles out one woman for whispering to her neighbor and tells her to stand up straight with her hands behind her back for five minutes.
I chose the nursery school with the teacher who could sing in six languages. Each week Etti taught the children about a different country on the twirling plastic globe. Yael sang in Chinese, Arabic, Dutch, Hebrew, English and Russian by the time she was three. Etti never told any child to stand up straight with her hands behind her back because she was whispering.
In first grade, the choice was between a school that worshipped computers and one that worshipped God. I chose the latter. Computer technology changes rapidly, becomes obsolete quickly. I wanted Yael to learn something lasting. The prayers had been around since the 10th century. For high school, I checked out two schools — one with classes of 40 that paid lip service to excellence and another with classes of 28 that paid lip service to socialism. Yael’s education was a prolonged sensitivity training towards hypocrisy.
At 1630 hours the sergeant begins her opening speech as if the 50 soldiers have just arrived and have not been sitting on benches for more than two hours.
“My name is Inbal, but you address me as Sergeant. You treat me with respect. I am not your friend. Keep your hands at your side. Keep your duffle bags locked. If something of yours is lost, you will have a trial and have to pay.”
I stop taking notes, and list only the headings: appearance regulations, guard duty regulations, daily schedule, channels of communication, prevention of fungus in canteens, soldiers’ rights. At 1745 hours, the sergeant raises her voice. “I’m not finished yet, but it’s time to eat.”
Numb, I excuse myself. Might there be another army in the neighborhood I can visit? What will I tell Yael, who always took five months to adjust to a new school? She has no more desire to become a soldier than I do to send her.
On the bus on the way home, a female soldier sits next to me. She asks if I’m a journalist.
“No,” I say. “Just a mother.”
She takes out her cell phone, the antenna looped like an umbilical cord.
“I…have no control,” I murmur, “ . . . what happens to her.”
She looks at me as if I am crazy and calls home.
Judy Labensohn has written for many publications, including The Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Lilith. She mothers three Sabra children and grandmothers four. www.writeinisrael.com.