When I Was a Soldier

I remember always having been a little Jewish girl, covering her eyes before the Shabbat candles on Friday night, and knowing her Ma Nishtana by heart at the age of three. I remember, more or less, the day I became a woman, but I will not share the details on this subject, and anyway it is not what you have asked me here.

The very expression Jewish woman raises so many questions in my mind. My God, how can one define such things? I never had a bat mitzvah. My religious marriage was a very bad idea, followed in its wake by several catastrophic years that culminated a divorce in front of a rabbi with a classic Yiddish accent. Nothing wonderful here that would make me a Jewish woman.

The army in Israel, perhaps? During these two years of service I did become an Israeli, I washed a record number of glasses and dishes. I grew, but I wasn’t always being a Jewish woman.

And then, suddenly, an epiphany. But yes, of course! I have the date, the hour, and the proof! I know exactly where and when it happened! It was the 18th of August, 1996 in Paris, in the 16th arrondissement. On that day I fell, like a fool, in love with a little man, nearly bald, toothless, who drooled a bit. I thought I had never seen anyone so beautiful. So tender. So attractive. And so intelligent too, of course. I knew that I would spend my life loving him. On that day, in joy and pain, I became a mother. A Jewish mother, of course.

Valerie Zenattiauthor of the memoir, When I Was a Soldier (Bloomsbury, 2005) was born in Nice, France in 1970 and made aliyah to Beersheva when she was 13. Now living in Paris, she is a translator, novelist and children’s book author.

Longing for Love in Uniform

To the boys the army means girls and to the girls it means boys. In other words every girl (let’s just take them as an example) is hoping that in that vast catalogue of boys 18 to 21 she’ll find the one she’s waiting for and who certainly seems to be taking his time turning up, the one who’ll mean something like to this to her. “I’m a man, a real man, strong but sensitive, I’m here to protect you.” And the others, the ones who already have a boyfriend, live in fear: they have nightmares every night that some ravishing soldier girl, some bombshell to die for in khaki, will bump into their boyfriend so far way and offer them a shoulder to cry on. Among other things, the army is our very own commedia dell’arte.

We’re a nation of lunatics stranded between songs, the sea and war. A country in which death is conceivable from as early as eighteen, but this eventuality doesn’t make anyone any more intelligent. A country where we’re convinced that love lies waiting In those army bases surrounded by barbed wire, under a canvas tent, in a thick sleeping bag. This is my country, so I know and I understand all this almost physically

…Shlomo Artzi is singing to me, telling me he’s a soldier and that I shouldn’t cry, me, the little girl. I suddenly think that in all, I mean absolutely all the songs about the army It’s about a boy soldier, never a girl soldier. As If I needed an extra reason to be depressed, there it is: Spend two years in the army girls, but for pity’s sake be discreet! Whatever you do, don’t put in an appearance in any songs!

Army Survival Kit

[I receive] a sort of joke survival kit with loads of little packets which I have to open in a particular order. In each of them there’s an explanatory note:

• A packet of condoms for emergency situations of affection

• Two packets of tissues for evenings of serious depression

• Leg-waxing kit which must be used before the emergency affection

• Aspirins to sooth my pig-headed head

• A torch to see the light at the end of the tunnel

• A big T-shirt with the words “two -year holiday” printed on it to give me sweet dreams

• A clown nose so that I can laugh at least once a day when I look at myself in the mirror

• 25 phone tokens to ring them at midnight to say, “I just have to tell you this….”

• A little photo album with the “best of” our photos so that I never forget I’ve got friends who are always there.

From Valerie Zenatti’s When I Was a Soldier: A Memoir (Quand J’Etais Soldate, 2002) translated by Adriana Hunter (Bloomsbury, 2005).