Friday, 25 December 2009

Radio Man

Today is the 25th of December, exactly one month ago I joined the army. I have passed through one of the thirty months to come in the Israeli Defence Forces. It has been a fantastic month; I had my first taste of the army when sleeping at the Bakkum, I finished the gibush for Tzanchanim special forces, I got into exactly where I wanted to (Gdud 101) and am now into basic training. Although having never celebrated Christmas at all, it was always a big day in the calendar for me. Mainly because living in England meant that the whole country stood to a standstill, meaning no school, good television and family meals. However, when I woke up this morning at 4.15am on base, it was just a regular Friday, and I found it weird to look at the date on my watch.

Another weekend off, the fifth in a row, which is a luxury I am getting used to. Yet, this is about to stop as my class is going to be closing now for 21, two straight weekends, on base. For me, however, I will only be closing for the first weekend, I'll explain why later. This week was rather hard physically as we did a loads of 'madas' (P.E.), our seocnd masa and, generally, a lot of shlepping (i.e. moving heavy things from one place to another all day). For three straight days this week we were in the shooting range, which got really boring and is very repetitive. My shooting has got worse, probably because I lost all my concentration and patience after continually shooting for so many hours. As I said, we had quite a lot of running and physical activities as part of our 'madas' (literally translated as sport clothes but basically means P.E.). We ran 3km twice, as well as doing sets of press-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. By the end of this week, I was sore all over and but the physical stuff is only going to get harder as we continue to train to be 'kosher kravi' (combat fit).
Our second masa was a major part of the week. This week's one was 7km, with the final kilometre being completed by carrying an open strecher filled with sandbags. Luckily I didn't have to carry the strecther at all, unluckily, though, the reason for this was because I was with the 'kesher' (contact) i.e. radio man. Before the masa started, my mefaked asked me how I found the last masa, I lied by saying I found it fine, so he chose me to have the radio. Being 'kesher' means carrying the radio, extra kgs on top of all your normal gear; vest, gun etc. Also, it means having to walk next to the commander at all times and passing on messages from him to the rest of the class, for example, "Speed up", "No talking" and "Don't look at your watches". It was a long hike, around 45 minutes, and was quite difficult, in terms of constant walking and jogging with all the weight on your back. I remember trying to name old Tottenham teams as a way of passing the time and not trying to think about the pain in my 'shrir masa' ("hike muscles", the shins). It felt good to finish together as a class and we sprinted the last little bit. This July, I climbed three mountains in Yorkshire with a few of my dad's friends for chairty and I'll always remember how they said to me at the end that whatever I do in the army can never be as hard as what we did that day. Well, I can safely say that I've barely started basic training and have already done things, like the masa, that have been harder. What also makes it hard is because after the masa I had to wake up in the middle of the night, dress in all my combat gear (gun, vest, boots) and do half an hour of guard duty. Not quite like the hour long bath I had after climbing those mountains!
A couple of added things this week, which I want to mention. Firstly, it has been a good laugh in the army so far. Whether it's seeing the commanders desparately trying to keep a straight face when something funny happens or just the general banter in the room or in the showers. Halfway through this week I also had my first haircut in the army. To squash the rumours, it's nothing like what you see in the movies, e.g. the first scene of Full Metal Jacket, in fact, the guy actually gave me a good haircut. Not only did he ask me what number I wanted, but he also used the clippers on my sides and back! Since I am a lone soldier I have the right to do my washing in the army, so in trying to take advantage of this benefit, I gave a packed bag of washing to my mefaked on Wednesday. The next day he gave it back to me; clean, but not folded, no-one's perfect (!), I still can't believe that my mefaked; my taskmaster and teacher, is cleaning my dirty pants and socks!!!

On the 7th of January I have my 'tekes hashba'ah' (swearing-in ceremony), which for Tzanchanim, is performed at the Kotel. It's a big deal, not only is it the official way of showing one's decleration of commitment to the army, but on that day, we officially receive our gun and are allowed to go home with it. It's something I have been looking forward since I first heard about it, especially, since it is at the Kotel and will be a perfect way of giving my oath; in full IDF uniform, with the Western Wall in front of me, shouting 'ani nishba' (I swear) and then collecting my own M16 from the platoon commader. My zionist vision is actually becoming a reality. What makes this day even more special for me, in fact the reason why I am so excited, is that my parents are coming all the way from London to attend. I can't even begin to imagine the emotions they will feel when they see their son getting his gun at the Kotel, in front of hundreds of other Israeli parents. While my class have to stay on base the weekend after the ceremnony, I will be spending four days with my parents in Tel Aviv. Obviously it is nice to have a little break from the army but mainly I am just itching to be with my mummy and daddy, since I've been missing them a lot since going into the army (despite speaking them every day, sometimes even twice a day). It will defintely be a memorable couple of days and I am getting excited just thinking about it now.
This week is kitchen duty and guarding (the worst week of basic training), followed by staying on base for the weekend, which is then complimented by 'sada'oot', the whole week spent in the field, (the hardest week of basic trianing). However, then I have the ceremony and a long weekend with my parents, so things aren't that bad. Will not be back here in Ortal for three weeks, sad to not be with friends and missing New Year's Eve, may try and write a blog while in Tel Aviv but may be to busy cuddling my mummy!!!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The First Masa

This week was really busy, which is why I wanted to write another blog about all the other things I have done this week. The biggest event of the week was probably our first 'masa' (literally translated as journey but really means a hike). The 'masaot' are used by the army to train soldiers for a situation where they would need to hike a long distance back from combat, with the possibility of carrying the wounded on stretchers. That's the official reason, but these 'masaot' are also used to build up your fitness and are a great way of building strong bonds between soldiers.

Our masa this week was 2km and is the first of many to come in the next eight months, leading up to the final 'masa kumta' (beret hike) at the end of advanced training, which for tzanchanim, is a brutal 74km finishing on Jerusalem. I can't even comprehend the difficulty of the later 'masaot' at the moment, as this week's one I found quite tough, even though it was only 2km. Now that may not sound a lot (5 times round a running track) but with all the gear on and the nature of how we have to do it, I assure you that it is hard. We wore our normal uniform and boots, which makes running difficult and also gave me blisters on my feet from the constant rubbing of the boots. I also wore my 'fod' (vest), which contains two full water canteens, my helmet and six magazines, each filled with 29 real bullets. The 'fod' is really heavy and was pressing down on my shoulders for the whole hike. Also, the gun was around my neck, which firstly is not light at all, but was also uncomfortable, both holding it and the strap around the neck. As you can tell from the description, during the masa, the gear is both uncomfortable and heavy, the reason why these 'masaot' so tough.

Before the masa started we all got ready and our 'mefaked' (commander) painted our faces with camoflauge, it really felt like we were going to war or something. They taught us songs, some specific to tzanchanim and some for battalion 101, and as we sang them (I wasn't singing that much, more shouting along, as I didn't understand the words!), and we all got pumped up for the masa. The masa itself was hard as I've said, you walk as a class (i.e. 11 of us), in two single lines behind your commander and try to keep up with his fast pace. It's pitch black and silent, no-one is allowed to speak more than a whisper. Due to the commander's quick strides, every 20m or so, we all had to jog up to stay close to him. For me, I tried to jog as close to the commander as I could, in order to be able to walk and rest for a couple of seconds. However, it seemed that for the whole masa we were just desparately running to try and stay directly behind him. Although it was hard, it was also really meaningful and we had a special ceremony afterwards to commerate the first masa.

As a reward for completing the first masa, we received the covers for our dogtags, which has the battalion 101, November '09 draft sign on it. It's the first of many things that we will get as part of the joruney towards having a complete uniform. Also to come will be the watch cover, the gun strap, the pin for the beret, the shoulder tag, the pin for being a fighter, the wings (after jumping) and, finally, the red paratroopers' beret. The mefaked called us one by one and presented us with the dogtag cover...

The reason why I was able to leave on Thursday this week, rather than Friday, was because we did a special run for Hannukah and were able to leave home straight after. Only tzanchanim, and within tzanchanim only battalion 101, were chosen to participate in this event, which was called 'Mirootz Halapid' (the torch run). Basically, each soldier ran 2km as part of a route from Modi'in to Ramat Gan, which was connected to the route the Maccabees took in the story of Hannukah. In my section, I ran with my commander and four other guys, from the suberbs of Rehovot to Rishon Le'Zion. It was a fantastic experience. We ran along the streets, with the commander holding a torch and us soldiers carrying flags of Israel and of Tzanchanim. All the cars on the street were beeping us and people were shouting encouragement as we ran passed them. I also got a t-shirt from it, another first of many.

Going to the army tomorrow, as per usual. Getting up at a ridiculous time, 4.45am, in order to get there on time! This week I hope will be as good for me as the last two have been. I've heard that we will be shooting all week, which is supposedly hard mentally, due to being in the shooting range from morning to night. Actually am excited to go back to the army and be reunited with all the guys. Hope everyone had a good Hannukah, my first in Israel was defintely something to remember.

Friday, 18 December 2009


Back again for a free weekend. This weekend started on Thursday, as we received the treasured 'Hamshoosh' (a weekend that starts on Thursday not Friday, very rare), ah, the joys of being in Tzanchanim. I remember hearing once, that a soldier normally comes home once every two weeks, however for me, it seems that I am coming home every week! In fact, since officially drafting on the 25th November, I have already had four free weekends here in Ortal, absolutely no complaints about that. Yet, there is a rumour going around that at some point in January, my battalion, 101, will be staying on base for '21' (two consecutive weekends on base).

My bed - notice the gun under the mattress for sleeping at night!

Another great, exciting, filled-to-capacity but tiring week in the army. I can definitely say that my early experiences in the army and in basic training have been fun and enjoyable, especially since getting closer with friends in my 'kita' (class). My class has actually been increased by one soldier, we are now 11 guys, as someone from Sayeret Matcal joined (soldiers from arguably the best unit in the army do their basic training with Tzanchanim). The week started on Sunday, as it does every week, and I arrived on base two and a half hours later than everyone else due to living so far North. The first couple of days this week was filled with learning 'Ma'ar' (first aid), which was extremely difficult for me in the lessons as they used so much technical Hebrew that it was almost impossible for me to understand. So for the majority of last week, all the olim hadashim and chayelim boddedim (immigrants and lone soldiers) in my battalion had group lessons where the hebrew was a lot easier.

One of the most exciting points this week was throwing a 'rimon' (grenade). Yes, unbelieveably, on Wednesday I threw a live, real grenade as part of my training as a 'lochem' (fighter). We had a number of lessons beforehand, learning about the different types of grenades, the actual mechanism and when to use it. We practised a couple of times by throwing with rocks, while in the special grenade bunker. Then came the moment. In full gear I ran up this hill to meet with the commander of the 'mahlaka' (platoon - about 30 soldiers). We went through the procedure and then he handed me the grenade, I couldn't believe that I had a real grenade in my hand but, also, how much trust the army has in us 18 year olds with theses deadly weapons. I mean what could have stopped me just taking out the pin and holding it. Anyway, people do remain serious, of course, and I prepared to throw the grenade about 10m into this massive ditch. I pulled out the pin, shouted "Rimon!" (grenade), croutched down on the floor and counted "21,22,23,24" (the reason being that it takes 4 seconds to detonate and saying 21 lasts for a full second). What I didn't realise, is that the 'mefaked' (commander) then jumps on you! My platoon commander is a kippa-wearing, six-foot-something, giant, who, when holding an M16, makes it look like a minature toy. The shock of his massive frame falling on me was more terrifying than the defeaning bang of the grenade!!!

Me with 3 guns!!!

Hannukah in the army was something I will never forget. The whole battalion stood out in the center of our building and they brought out this massive hannukiah. One of the religious platoon commanders took a candle and proceeded to say the brachot. At that moment, all those who weren't religious (i.e. not wearing a kippa), started to cover their heads. The commanders put on their red berets and us soldiers put on our mandatory sun hats. It was one of those moments, no-one needed to be told to cover their head, it was just an immediate reaction and it didn't matter in the slightest if you were religious or not. After the war-worn platoon commander sung the brachot like a tuneful chazzan, the whole battalion started to sing 'Ma'or Tsur'. As I looked around, I saw that every single person was singing and knew all the words, again I had that feeling of emotion and felt a lump in the back of my throat. When in Israel, you sometimes forget how it doesn't matter if you're religious to know the customs, as Judaism is the way of life here, even in a secular approach. That's the reason why I came here, to help protect our one tiny portion of land, in order to allow Jewish people to carry out a Jewish life without being in danger. Although we have still yet to find complete safety from those embedded on destroying us, nowadays I have realised, it is the Israeli army that is fighting on that front line to try and ensure our safety.

It was another really busy week, so I am going to write another blog tomorrow about more interesting things, such as the first masa and a special run we did for Hannukah. I want to finish this blog by telling you how I felt during this week. I hope I cause no offence to all my friends who went to university and are now on their month-long break, but this week I really felt that I was doing something important with my life. I've had to make an enormously hard decision this year in deciding to leave my parents and my life in England, all because of my ideals and beliefs. Not only was the decision difficult but now, in the army, it is also as hard as you can imagine. Physically, I come home sore each week from all the different exercises, mentally, I am tired from trying to keep up with a foreign language that I am still coming to grasps with and, emotionally, I am away from my home, both in England and in Ortal, for at least a week at a time. Having to make new friends from a completely different culture and language, being stressed about sorting out your stuff all the time and travelling for hours on end from one side of the country to other, only makes my situation even tougher. But, despite all this, I still don't regret what I've done for an instant and I feel even more Zionist than ever. I could have gone to university and had it easy, but look what I've done, I feel like I've achieved so much and have actually delivered on doing what I believe in. So while my friends are at home on holiday, probably bored stiff, I am painfully doing 30 press-ups in my pyjamas because we were four seconds late. But it's all worth it and it has already made me so much stronger as a person. Another blog tomorrow....

Friday, 11 December 2009

Gdud 101

Have successfully completed my first week of tironut (basic training), I am now back in Ortal for a free weekend. It seems that my early experiences of the army have been filled with these two-day (not nearly long enough) free weekends, but I am sure that will soon change and every week, I pack enough clothes to be ready if I have to close (i.e. not leave base on the weekend) for 14, or even 21, days.

I have had a really great week, which is saying something, since it was my first week of basic training. On Monday, we all sat in the basketball court and they started reading out the list of which unit we will be in for our army service. As I said in the last blog, I requested to be in Gdud (Battalion) 101, which is one of three battalions in Tzanchanim, excluding the special forces. They read out my name and I was ecstatic to find out that I was placed in 101. I think that since I finished the gibush for special forces but still asked to be in a regular 'gdud' (battalion), they gave me my first choice. Within Gdud 101, there are three 'mahlakot' (platoon) and, within each platoon, there are three 'kitot' (classes). I am in "Class Bet, Platoon 1, Battalion 101". So, in my class, there are ten guys and we have a personal 'mefaked' (commander), as does every class. Then, there is a commander officer and, higher up, the official commander of the platoon. Following this, there is the commander and deputy-commander of the whole battalion, as well as the commander of the all the battalions. Also, don't forget the two deputy-commanders and official commander of logistics for our battalion. What I am trying to explain is how confusing and intricate the army is, and this is just for one battalion in the paratroopers' brigade, a tiny part of the massive machine that is the army. Moreover, it means a lot of saluting (and every time I salute someone, I still find it funny, like something out of the British army in World War One!).

The 'giyus' (draft) to Tzanchani-m from my program.

So now I am settled in my 'kita' (class) with the nine other guys who I will be with for the next eight months - both basic and advanced training - at least. As someone once told me, it doesnt matter where you are in the army, what makes one's service memorable, is the people you're with. I can truly confirm this, as the reason for why I have enjoyed the army so far has been because of the boys I am with and the jokes that we have had so far. Already, I feel close to these mix of Israeli guys and I get a lot of attention from them, being the 'English one'. They all are really patient with me and try and help me with the language. It's not like they sympathise me, instead I am part of the group and have managed to show my father-inherited-English-dry-sense-of-humour to them in Hebrew. I can already see how friends from the army become friends for life, and I even can't wait to carry on from where we left off when I go back on Sunday. Our 'mefaked' (commander) is an absolute cutie, being 19, and has been constantly checking up on me, albeit between the times when he is shouting at us to stand in line or clean the room. The other higher-up commanders also seem to know me already, in fact, it seems that everyone in 101 seems to know 'Sam'.

There were points this week where I missed parents and friends but those moments were rare. I realise that there will be both ups and downs coming up in the next three years, but right now, I am absolutely loving it; being with my class, learning and doing interesting stuff and just being a soldier in the IDF (the lifelong dream has become reality). This week has been filled mainly with lessons and introductory talks by the doctor and dentist etc. During these talks, nearly everyone falls asleep, causing the commanders to shout at us and make us stand, or jump up and down or do press-ups. The reason for everyone desperately trying to keep their eyes open is because the army lifestyle (and basic training, in particular) is the most tiring experience due to the endlessly long days. There is morning inspection at 6, which means waking at 5.30 to get ready; organising your locker, cleaning the room and getting dressed, which is a whole mission in itself. The day is filled with lessons and physical activities, with breaks only after mealtimes. Then there is the 'sha'a tash' (hour of free time) directly before bed. An hour is not nearly enough time to shower, shave (which luckily for me I only have to do once a week!!!), speak to parents and friends on the phone, polish boots and organise all your stuff for the next day. The army has to legally give you at least seven hours sleep, so they give you seven hours sleep, however, the seven hours are normally interrupted by the mandatory guard duty, which lasts 20 minutes a night.

Arriving back home week.

This week also contained something else rather exciting... receiving and shooting our guns!!! That's right, after two days of basic training, we were presented with our own gun, which we will keep and use for the rest of the service. My gun is a short M16, and since receiving it, have had it with me at all times, including sleeping with it under my mattress (not entirely comfortable!). The gun must be with me at all times, except in the bathroom, when you can leave it in the room with someone else guarding it, or when you place it in the 'neshekia' (weapon storage). After learning about the 'neshek' (weapon) for a couple of days, we were finally allowed to use it on Thursday. Surprisingly, following my disgraceful performance at Gadna where I got one bullet on target, I shot the best in my whole class! We shot six bullets and although mine were not that near to the target, they were are located near each other (which apparantly is more important). The distance between the two furthest bullets was 2.5cm (considered very good) after shooting at a distance of 25m. Despite not being the type of person who gets excited by guns, the moment when I was given my gun and shot with it for the first time, I felt the adrenaline and some sort of unusual bond with it (by the way, I have yet to name my weapon, so am open for any suggestions).

Next week basic training continues. I am excited to return to the modern and relatively comfortable base, and be with my new friends. I am not too sure what is planned for this week, but I do know that we have our first 'masa' (hike) of 4km.

I fiddled with the settings of this blog and now anyone can comment, so feel free to, because I love knowing feedback. Happy Hannukkah everyone.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


I felt that a couple of paragraphs would not have given the gibush enough credit for what it is. As explained previously, this past week was not the start of basic training, one of the reasons for that was because no-one was in their permament units or groups. Instead, there was a gibush (physical and mental test) for certain special units either within or connected to tzanchanim. The gibush was for Maglan (weapon experts), Palsar (reconnaissance), Palhan (special combat engineers) and the famous Duvdevan (who are known to infiltrate Palestinian areas). However, only some people were chosen to participate in the Duvdevan gibush, which was done in conjunction with our one but quite a bit harder.

So, I was contemplating doing the gibush not because I wanted to be in a 'sayeret' (elite) unit (the general reason for doing this gibush) but for a number of other points. Firstly, I wanted to experience it. Apparantly it is the fourth hardest gibush after Shayetet, Yahalom and Duvedevan; even harder than the five day Sayeret Matcal gibush, which is less intense, according to someone I met who finished both. So, I really wanted to know what it was that gives this gibush such a formidable reputation and was interested to see if I could handle any of it. Also, anyone who didn't do the gibush had to spend the three days doing work on base, like cleaning and meaningless work for tzairim (newbies in the army). I have never wanted to be in an elite unit as I don't feel that I suit the serious and competetive lifestyle that is an elite service, instead, I really want to have more jokes, fun and friendships that come with being in a 'gdud' (regular fighting battalion). I went into the gibush with the aim of just trying it out and seeing what it's like and if I could do any of it.

Anyway, on Tuesday morning at 5;30am, after being put into groups, having a small warm-up and being passed onto our mefaked for the gibush (a miluimnik i.e. someone who was in an elite unit and who's reserve service is to take gibushim), the gibush started. With our gibush equipment on our back (a bag containing a tent, matress and a 10kg sandbag), my group of 25 set out on our first 'masa' (hike). The mefaked took us out the back gate of the base into the 'shetach' (land) and started walking up and down these steep sand dunes. After about 5 minutes I was already struggling to keep up with him and the rest of the group, what with the early start and the heavy load on my back. I remember thinking how I wanted to quit already but forced myself to see through the first exersize at least. The masa lasted about 45 minutes and was tough, especially since the mefaked would taunt us by striding up the sand dune, turn around to the bottom and then climb once more. I lasted that session, but that was just the start. The rest of the morning was filled with sprinting continuously, drinking our water canteens quickly (causing some in my group to be sick) and, worst of all, crawling. I can't explain how hard I find crawling. About two hours into the gibush, he told us to crawl from one point to another (around 20m, uphill, on rocks) and count how many times we can do it. He didn't tell us to stop until after about 40 minutes, by which time I was physically exhausted.

By about lunch on the first day, my group had shrunk to about 14 people, with some dropping because of injury but most who found it too difficult. The physical challenges continued until the evening with more crawling, sprinting, some group challenges and a killer masa. The masa must have been at least 4km, which doesn't sound much, but for this masa we opened up two strechers (each carrying 7 sandbags), as well as jerry cans full of water and our other gear. Under the stretcher it was very hard and going up the steep hills, which our mefaked did consistently, needed everyone to get involved and help push the people who were carrying the strecher. The first day was really, really hard but I just kept telling myself to carry on and make it to the next session, whether that was until lunch or until the end of a particular sprint. Within the group I was very average, as I wasn't interested in trying to impress the scouts from the different units (who were constantly watching us and writing down our specific numbers). The mefaked pressured us the whole time to come first in the many competitions, but I sort of blocked off the competitiveness and just concentrated on trying to continue.

Every meal during the gibush, breakfast, lunch and dinner, was 'manot krav' (combat rations), which included: tuna, vine leaves (disgusting), sweetcorn, chocolate spread, jam, pineapple chunks and bread. For meals the mefaked would give us around 20 minutes to eat from this box of rations and, trust me, even by dinner on the first day, I was sick of tuna sandwiches. During the night we had to do 'shmira' (guard duty), which meant being woken up in the middle of the night by the guy before and having to stand in front of the tents for twenty minutes. I must have only done ten minutes at most, as I didn't have a watch and just guessed when I was finished! About an hour after going to bed on the first night, we were woken by the screaming mefaked, telling us to get ready and prepare for a masa. We couldn't get ready in time (30 seconds) mainly due to the laces on our boots, resulting in many press-ups as punishment. Eventually, once ready, with stretchers and jerry cans prepared, he told us to go back to bed. What an absolute...

Day 2. Wednesday. More crawling, sprinting and masaot, all just as hard, all just as long. Right before lunch we had to run up and down a sand dune as many times as we could with the sand bag on our back. It lasted for 45 minutes and everyone was struggling for air by the end. But wait, the mefaked then told us to do it again, to see if we could improve on our score. The day continued on in much the same way. This blog doesn't explain effectively how tough those two days were. There were plenty of moments when I just wanted to quit and stop running to and from a rock as fast as I could for 20 minutes on end, but I kept carrying on. The second evening came and we went to bed, everyone was exhausted and most needed help getting up or sitting down. That night I slept with my boots on, in preparation for the likely mid-night masa, but, luckily, it didn't happen. On Thursday morning we were woken to be told that the gibush was over and I felt over the moon that I had succeeded in what I wanted to do by finishing.

Once the physical aspect of the gibush had finished, the interview followed. Like in the gibush to get into tzanchanim, they want to see what type of person you are and to see if you can impress to get into the unit. Now, as I've said from the start, I never wanted to be in these units and just did the gibush for the experience. So, after questioning my commitment for elite units, I told these officers how I don't actually want to be in sayeret. They were surprised to hear me say this, obviously as everyone else went in there and tried to show how they really wanted to be in sayeret (elite units). However, I told them how I did the gibush for the experience and they were happy, even proud, that I had shown the spirit to finish this physical nightmare without actually wanting to succeed. I came out of the gibush feeling fantastic, I had taken everything they had thrown at me for two long days and then politely told them how I don't want it, even if they would have offered it to me on Monday. Soon after, my story became relatively famous amongst all the soldiers and, while some thought I was mad to say 'no' before finding out if I would even get in, most were impressed and in awe of the fact that I finished the gibush and still decided to request gdud. People came up to me and congratulated me, it's something that hasn't really happened before and I didn't do it to be original, but because I genuinely don't want to be in an elite unit but still wanted to try and finish the gibush.

So on Monday, we find out which unit we will be placed in, whether that will be a gdud or a special unit. I have requested to be in gdud 101, which has a great history and is normally really good for olim. I know some people in that unit, who all say that it's a great experience with great guys and lots of fun. Hopefully I will be placed there and know that some of the other boys from my programme have also requested that unit.

This week, tironut (basic training) starts on Monday once we are in our units, with the guys and commanders who I'll be with for the next 8 months at least. I am excited to start basic training and all that it entails, although I do know that it is going to be very diffciult. The first week may not be so exciting, more standing in line being shouted out than actual training, but, nonetheless, it all starts this week. I am not sure if I will have next weekend off, if not, then the next blog will be filled with the experiences from the first two weeks of tironut and with confirmation of where I am in the army. Need to get some sleep, it's a big week.

Week Zero

Once again I find myself back in Ortal for a free weekend after being in the army, remarkably, since drafting last Wednesday, tzanchanim have had two weekends off already. Now this may not sound so much, but spare a thought for the November '09 Golani draft, who, since drafting two Mondays ago, have still not been allowed off base (that's closing for '21' i.e. two weekends on base). This only enhances the idea that tzanchanim are just stuck-up, lucky Ashkenazi boys who get whatever they want. Not only that, but the tzanchanim base, where I was this week, is brand-new, American-built and complete with dormitories, bunks and lockers for the soldiers (unlike the cold, stinking tents, where Nachal and Givati soldiers sleep in during basic training).

One week in the army down, only 129 weeks to go!!! My week at base this week is known as 'Trom Tironut' or 'Shavua Efes' (week zero) as, essentially, tironut (basic training) will not start until Monday, once we know which unit will be in for our service. Thus, this week was filled up with three main things: 'klita' (absorption into the army), the gibush for special units and 'avodat rasar' (work around the base). I surprised myself by deciding to take part in the gibush and my experience from it deserves a whole post on its own and will follow this blog.

Last Saturday night, I travelled to Tel Aviv to stay at a friend, in order to arrive to the meeting point on Sunday morning on time. This won't be a regualr occurance and this week, I have already told my temporary commander that I will meeting up later than everyone else, since I'll be travelling straight from the Golan Heights. It will be easier to sort this out once I have a permanent unit and commander, and I should be able to use my rights as a lone soldier and 'tzphoni' (northerner) to exit earlier and come back later every time. So Sunday morning, 600 tzanchanim draftees met in an army bus station 5 minutes from Be'er Sheva, along with hundreds of other soldiers from different units, meeting to get to their bases in the south. I couldn't help to quickly call my parents and tell them how overwhelemed I felt, standing there, as one of the of thousands of young Israelis called by the country to serve its army. From this point, we were taken by bus to the tzanchanim base to start our first week in the army.

This week there were a lot of form-fillings and introductory speeches by people like the 'rasar' (the secretary of the base), whose hour long rant was filled with rules regarding both the upkeep of the base and general army do's and dont's. Uniform perfection was heavily emphasised and we were told about the rules regarding what colour t-shirts, being clean shaven, polishing our boots, wearing our dog-tags, using elastic bands for our trousers and many more. Of course, the army discipline has started to appear (although it will escalate from Monday), from standing in line for the dining room (which serves relatively nice food) to being on time for every activity. We also received our tik bet (a bag of stuff), which contained our 'madey bet' (uniform while on base), water canteens, a sleeping bag, a shovel and a helmet. The uniform for base is not all new, unlike our travelling uniform, and the trousers on me could fit two people.
All in all, I actually had a enjoyable week. The boys in tzanchanim are all really cool guys and by the end of the week I had made friends, despite having problems with the language. In my temporary group they called me 'London' for the first couple of days, but by Friday everyone knew my name and my story. That's another thing, being an oleh hadash (new immigrant) gives you unbelieveable respect amongst the Israelis. Everyone I met was interested to hear about me and always, without fail, said 'kol hakavod' (well done) for what I've done. It felt good knowing that these guys appreciated my big step and I felt honoured to hear people calling me a hero. However, as much as I received praise for making aliyah, I also was asked if I was crazy to leave London (which is considered the best city in the world in the eyes of these Israelis) and voluntarily join the army. But joking aside, my decision to do what I've done and follow my beliefs certainly impressed these guys, both soldiers and commanders.

The army is hard. Having little sleep and trying to be on time in perfect manner is stressful, to say the least. But what's really hard is how being in the army really made me realise how much I miss those around me. Being in that environment alone, depsite having friends, (both new Israeli soldiers and other boys from my programme), and experiencing those moments where I just wanted to drop everything and run back to my parents was hard. I missed my host family, my garin and the kibbutz; but hearing my parents' voices on the phone during my free time was extremely hard for me and showed me how, sometimes I am still just a little mummy's boy who's made a life-changing move by leaving everything. Nevertheless, I have stayed strong, I do not regret my decision for an instant and I realise that the army is hard, even for Israelis. The point of the army is to break you down and its environment emphasises how much you appreciate loved ones, and also time, space and food. It makes the time when I speak to my parents (either on the phone or skype) and when I see them (whenever they come to see me) even more special.

I know it's a long blog, but it has been a long and eventful week. It's hard to fit in all the funny stories that have happened, like when my commander looked at my bum-fluffed face and asked 'ma ze?' (what's this'); I told him I would shave but I never did, what a rebel! I also want to say how I feel so independant at times, especially when travelling the length of the country in army uniform. I am going to do another blog now, dedicated to the mid-week gibush and also what's to come next week. So read on...

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Back already?

Yes, that's right, I am already back in Ortal for a free weekend after spending one night in the Bakkum (army absorption centre) at Tel Hashomer base in Tel Aviv. I can now relax for a few days until Sunday, where we have been told to meet in Be'er Sheva at 10am, where will get the bus that takes us to the Bach Tzanchanim (paratroopers' base, where I will be for the best part of the next year). I will probably have to leave the Golan Heights on Saturday and sleep at a friend in Tel Aviv, in order to make it there on time, but hopefully, for future weekends, I will be given a later time to meet, so that I can travel down south from way north on a Sunday morning.

Well, I have been to the Bakkum and back, not much of a start to being in the army but there were some significant moments. On Wednesday, we arrived at Tel Hashomer as a group of 15 boys from my programme all going to tzanchanim. Since we had already done a lot of the things (due to being in this special programme) that Israelis need to do on that first day, there was a lot of sitting and waiting. Eventually, after not doing much the whole day, we were finally in the line to receive our uniform, I was absolutely buzzing and couldn't wait to get dressed. After signing for the madim (uniform), you're given a massive kitbag, then two sets of boots (red!) and finally, after looking at you and judging your size, two sets of madim aleph (nice uniform used for travelling), which includes trousers and the special tzanchanim shirt with four pockets. Then, you go into a football-style changing room and are told to change into uniform. I found a tiny cubicle and, after changing my trouser size two times to the smallest size there is, I was marvelling at myself in the mirror in full tzanchanim uniform; kumta (beret), skirt and red boots.

It was common knowledge that we were going to be given a free weekend before Sunday, but would have to spend the night at the Bakkum. While everyone else from my programme and the rest of the tzanchanim draft, 600 in total, went to some orientation and form-filling, I was told to stay behind. Due to a slight problem with my only child form, I needed to see a welfare officer on the following day, in order to be signed off for kravi. So, for the evening, night and following morning, I was split up from everyone and found myself in a group for people with some sort of problem, many of whom had nowhere to go in the army. On thursday, the following day, all of tzanchanim went home for the weekend at 8am, however, I waited from 9am until 6pm for the signature of the commander of the Bakkum. Don't even ask. It was a very hard day for me (and I haven't even started basic training!), mainly because I was alone, totally clueless regarding the situation, had missed out on stuff that they had told the other tzanchanim and, frustratingly, found it extremely difficult being in a completely hebrew environment without any help whatsoever. Anyway, I managed to get things sorted and returned here to Ortal for the night. Yesterday, was tough but I feel like I have really experienced the bureaucratic nightmare that is the army and I managed to argue in hebrew the whole day with officers and commanders.

Now I am just repacking my two bags: the giant tik aleph that we received and my own bag. In the tik aleph we got everything from a bomber jacket to a brand new Gillette fusion razor, from elastic bands for the bottom of your trousers to baby blue army y-fronts! It is said that you should pack for two weeks as there is the likely possibility that you are closed for two weeks before having the next weekend off. So now I will transfer two weeks worth of clothes into my tik aleph; green t-shirts, white t-shirts, underwear, special socks, toiletries and more. By the way, this is a video that our leader made of some soldiers' arrivals, definitely worth watching the start!
On Sunday, we will be taken to the tzanchanim base, nicknamed 'Lunar Bach', because it is modern and massive. While Givati and Nachal have to sleep in tents for the next four months, tzanchanim soldiers have dormitories, but don't start thinking that I am lucky as tzanchanim are also expected to do more, in order to live up to the reputation. On Monday there is another gibush, this time for elite units within tzanchanim, as well as two other units; Maglan and Duvdevan. This gibush lasts four days and is impossible to describe its diffculty, in terms of physical and mental challenging. I have not decided if I will do this, since it is not compulsory and I have always said that I preferred to be in a 'gdud' (regular battalion), rather than a more serious elite unit. However, I still may try out for it as there is nothing really to lose.

To end, I want to say how I have such conflicting emotions at the moment. On one hand, from Sunday, it all starts; the discipline, the exhaustion and the general 'shtuyot' (army nonsense). The first week is always the hardest (apart from maybe 'war week' and the weeks in 'shetach' (field) but I don't have to worry about that right now) and I just want to get through this period. I know I am going to be missing home terribly at hard moments and the lack of space and sleep are normally the main causes of the inevitable shock. However, this is what I came here to do and if it was any other way, then it would not be the Israeli army. The hell of basic training is what makes it basic training and what makes scared boys into trained soldiers. I will always have my passion, determantion and knowledge of loved ones to try and bring me through in those really hard times. I also need to try and enjoy it because, in some aspects, the army (and basic training) can also be fun, especially for boys in combat units. I'm looking forward to writing the next blog as that means this week (and maybe next week) will be out of the way, but at the same time I am excited start this totally one-off, incredible and rewarding experience.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

This is it!!!

Wednesday afternoon. 3:15pm. Chilly weather. The Golan Heights. This is the where I am at the moment, on the eve of the biggest challenge I will ever take; enlisting into the Israel Defence Forces and completing a full service as a combat soldier in the paratroopers brigade.

This is not your regular nerves and excitement before doing something; like starting school, going on holiday or moving house. This is signing your life away for three years and joining an army that is continously protecting its borders and citizens from dangerous terrorists, set out on murdering innocent Jewish civilians. For the next year, the army is going to put me through hell and back, in order to train me into a soldier, capable of following on with the task of defending our one and only piece of land on this earth, where we, the Jewish nation, can call home. As you might notice, I am feeling particularly zionist and ideological at the moment, but can you blame me? After the months and years of talking about this moment, I can finally put some action to the talk, and contribute, as best I can, to doing what I truly believe in.

Tomorrow, I will travel from Ortal to Tel Aviv in the early hours of the morning, and go directly to the 'Bakkum', where hundreds of tzanchanim mothers wil be waving away their sons at the infamous gate. There, after some logistical procedures, I will be given a kitbag (approximately the same size as me), which will contain my uniform, boots, t-shirts etc. We will then have to take off our civilian clothes (!) and get changed into uniform. This is one of the many moments that I have been waiting for, since pondering my future in far-away London. Learning more and more about the army, and constantly seeing soldiers and fellow garin members in the olive green uniform, has only made me more excited for the instant when I see myself in the mirror. From tomorrow I will be the lowest of the low within the army, a true 'tzair', however, my red boots and untucked shirt (customary to look like a skirt) will at least show myself in public that I am a tzanchan. Despite that though, my uniform will have absolutely no pins, no patches, no coloured beret (just the olive green primary beret), nothing, a true sign of being young in the army. The first thing you receive is the basic training shoulder badges, which often cause constant harrassement and bullying from more distinguished soldiers. I guess you have to start somewhere!

So that's it then, only 15 or so more hours of civilian life. It's sad to end my time with the garin here at the kibbutz (in terms of being together, doing activities for 24/7) but I will be back on most, if not all, free weekends, along with others who also aren't 'closed' for the weekend. As I've said before, I have had an incredible three months with my garin and also with the kibbutzniks. Learning hebrew, touring the country and just having so much jokes, has been a perfect way to start my life in Israel and get ready for the army. Although it's sad to end, I also feel ready to move on with this next (and massive) part of my life, I mean this is what I came here for.

At the moment I can't describe the excitement that I am feeling, partly because of getting into tzanchanim, but generally because, although there will be extremely hard times ahead; the army, especially for kravi (combat) soldiers, is a truly fantastic, meaningful and fun experience. I can't wait to get in that uniform and, although this sounds crazy, start one of the many masaot (hikes consisting of running, sprinting and carrying stretchers that range in distance all the way up to 70km!) that one does in basic training. That sensation of being a soldier and making solid friendships, performing tasks, having your life timed to the second, not sleeping more than 6 hours a day, doing guard duty in the middle of the night, running until the blisters pop, making your uniform absolutely spotless and much more, is only around the corner and I am just relishing it. Maybe I won't be saying this tomorrow night!!!

My host dad wil take me and my fellow tzanchan roommate, Omri, to the Bakkum tomorrow. My host family, the Shoshana's, have been amazing and I want to mention them and thank them for all they have done for me so far, and will continue to do.

I would like to end this blog with the two most important people in the world to me, my mummy and daddy. My dad has actually been quite ill recently and there was a point where I might have needed to go home, just in case. Luckily though, he has come through, coincidently after hearing about me becoming a paratrooper, and is going to be ok. I know that both my parents are immensely proud of me and of everything I do, but getting paratroopers was just the icing on the cake, and will give them eager anticipation to coming to my first ceremony: the swearing-in and receiving of gun, which, for paratroopers, is performed at the Kotel. They both miss me with all their hearts and, while I am having the time of my life out here, life is sometimes difficult for them, partly because I am not with them and they just miss me so much, especially regarding the circumstances of our situation. But, of course, they support my decision to be here and are just beeming with pride as to what I have achived so far.

Tomorrow is the big day but it is likely that I will be coming back to Ortal on either Thursday or Friday for my mandatory first free weekend. So I will do another blog this weekend despite maybe not having that many experiences to tell so far, as I may not even go to 'Bach Tzanchanim' (paratroopers' base, where I will be situated for the next 8 months). Nonetheless, tomorrow, I go into the army, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Tzanchanim here I come...

So as I sit here in Ortal on my last weekend before going into the army, I finally have some closure as to where I will be going. I found out the other day that I had been accepted and chosen into the tzanchanim brigade following the gibush last week. As I mentioned in the last blog, I was accepting the fact that I would be going to Nachal, a great unit, but I was gobsmacked to hear that I passed the gibush!!!

I can't explain how happy I am. Firstly, from the start of making aliyah I always knew that I wanted to be in tzanchanim (paratroopers). I wanted it for many reasons, especially as the time got closer to my draft, and I expressed these reasons in the interview at the gibush. I told them how I know that tzanchanim is one of the proudest units with a phenomenal history, and to become part of that is amazing. Another cool thing is that the tzanchanim uniform is slightly different to other combat units, with its red kumta (beret) and red boots; and also it is custom not to tuck in the shirt, which although makes it look a little like a dress, is considered very cool in Israeli society. The paratroopers have a fantastic reputation, and the thought of being a tzanchan is an enormous honour for me and will give me a fantastic reputation. Also, to be in the same unit that captured the kotel is a specific priveledge to me. The tradition of paratrooping won't happen until another four months, once basic training is finished, but the thought of jumping out of an aeroplane (with full combat gear and the gun) is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, for tzanchanim, you get to do it five times!!!

Tzanchanim in full uniform!

Getting this unit is such an honour and it is one of the biggest achievements that I can claim. Not only was the gibush highly competitive, since there were so many new immigrants and lone soldiers there, but also, the fact that this is something I set my sights on a while ago, worked hard towards and have actually achieved, is really rewarding. I know that is has made my parents and close family extremely proud, since saying that your son is a paratrooper in the IDF is no small thing. What's more is that my roommate also managed to pass the gibush, which is really important for me, as having my really good friend (who's fluency in hebrew will help me) with me, even for the just the first day, is really reassuring. So on Wednesday, I go to Tel Aviv for my draft day but I will explain more in my next blog, the last before I go into the army!!

This week was full of achievements for me. I also managed to pass my driving test and will be able to drive as an Israeli, without any sort of restrictions, once my license comes in the post. The test went fine, I drove really well and, depsite the awful parallel park, I gave the instructor no reason to fail me. It was really important for me to pass, as it becomes quite expensive if you have to start paying for more than one test, but, more importantly, I don't know when the next time I could have taken another test. Not everyone from my garin who took the test passed, in fact I was the only one who passed manually, probably due to my calmness before the test started. Anyway, that's another step that I have taken in fully integrating myself as an Israeli, I just need to learn to beep more.

Wow, what a week it was and on this Wednesday coming up I actually go into the army properly and start basic training. I want to do one more blog before Wednesday, but I want to take this time to say how I have had the time of my life here in Israel and in the Golan Heights these last three months. Living here with 18 other soon-to-be soldiers has been amazing and I have made some extremely strong frienships that I know will last. It is sad to say goodbye to this part of my aliyah journey but I am very excited (and nervous) to start the next bit, which I can safely say is the biggest point of my life so far. This week, I just need to buy some things for the army and relax before the torture of basic training starts!!!

Monday, 16 November 2009

The gibush

Last Tuesday and Wednesday was the gibush tzanchanim at Tel Hashomer base in Tel Aviv. I managed to finish and complete the gibush but do not feel confident at all, if I impressed them enough to obtain a place in the paratroopers unit. We find out the results any day now and if I don't get in, which is probably the case, then I will be joining the Nachal unit, which I am more than happy about.

We (Alejandro, Omri and I) arrived to Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning and for about two hours we filled out forms, were dictated the rules of the gibush and got our tent ready for where we slept. If I haven't explained already, a gibush is an elimination process, whereby the army tries to pick the right people for specific units based on their perfomances on physical and mental challenges. We had lunch and medical checks, followed by the Bar-Or test, once our food had gone down. The Bar-Or test is a 2km run, which the army uses on a general basis to test fitness. Surprisingly I did quite well within my group of 40, coming 4th and feeling fairly strong and fit. Although I probably got a reasonably good time, they only use this score to place us into appropriate groups for the real physical stuff the following day. Also, I haven't properly explained how this gibush was made up of 200 eager boys; 40 from my specific programme, about 100 from Michve Alon (the army ulpan i.e. immigrants from all over the world, mainly Ethiopia and Russia) and the rest were Israelis. This meant that the majority of people had really high motivation and could claim leaving their parents behind, which explains why the competition was so intense.

Anyway, that was pretty much the first day. We went to sleep at about 8:30pm, the reason for it being so early is because they legally have to give us seven hours sleep, which means..... yes at 3:30am the following morning we wore woken for the physical part of the gibush. We were put into groups of about 25 and were given a number (mine was 22), which was constantly being written down by the 'scouts' for all the good and bad things we did during the following four hours. Those four hours were physically the hardest four hours of my life at the time, but looking back at it now I really feel that I could have put in more effort towards the end, which is why I am not feeling confident as to whether I got in. The gibush was made up of four 45 minute long excersizes:

1) Firstly, sprinting 20 metres and back, on a narrow trail with 24 other guys pushing you in order to get back first and have your number jotted down. Between each sprint, we were ordered to take a heavy sandbag and raise it above our heads until the next sprint. This was unbearable. We did about 15 sprints, which meant about 15 minutes of sandbag lifting. Hell.
2) Didn't get much better, around 12 crawls across sandy rocks. Apart from the pain of elbows and knees hitting the stones (both areas show the scars, with scabs everywhere), it was the sheer effort of dragging my body time and time again that really was tough. More hell.
3) Sprinting again. But this time, trying to finish first, in order to get the 7 sandbag-filled stretcher, which although was heavy, looked good for the 'scouts'.
4) A hike with multiple stretchers and jerry cans (massive water bottles).

Between these excersizes, there were a number of team games, which was hard for me to show any sort of leadership skills because of the language. However, in one acitivity I definitely excelled and was about the only point during the day, which I did well in. Our mefaked (commander) randomly picked people to talk in front of the rest of the group and scouts for 30 seconds about whatever they liked. The first people who spoke were quite boring and stuttery, so I sort of moved forward so the mefaked would pick me next to speak. It worked and, after getting permission to speak in English, I spoke for about 2 minutes to everyone all about Tottenham. It was brilliant, everyone seemed interested and it would have definitely impressed the scouts. I found it funny how White Hart Lane managed to get a mention in the gibush for the paratroopers of the Israeli army. Also, JFS made an appearance at the gibush, as I wore my JFS P.E. shorts to do the 2km run (the rest of the time we wore uniform).

Towards the end of the physical part of the gibush I felt like I was trying to finish rather than trying to succeed, which may cause why I don't get in. It finally finished at around 8am and after getting changed, everyone is given an interview, which went OK for me. So, I've had another taste of army life, this being very similar to what I'll be experiencing physically and mentally during basic training, and I can at least say that I survived. As I said, I will find out what happens in the near future.

Tomorrow, I have my driving test, which is another milestone of my aliyah journey. I've had about 3 lessons and feel fairly comfortable driving in Israel and Tiberias, which is where I will be taking my test. I still find the difference between the English and Israeli style of learning so funny. For example, in today's lesson, the instructor encouraged me to cross hands when turning the wheel and even suggested that not crossing hands could cause me to fail the test. Wish me luck for the test, hopefully I can do the double, and pass first time in both England and Israel. Will do another blog soon with results from the gibush and the driving test.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Things are changing

Time is moving on at a rapid pace and in a months time I will already be a week into my basic training. This week I have the tzanchanim gibush, which is a overnight elimination process in order to get into the paratrooper unit. I am going to go into the gibush with a positive head, I know that I will try and give everything I've got; both physically and mentally, while selling myself as best as I can in the interview. If I don't succeed, either by falling at the physical challenges or simply because I am not what they're looking for, then I will not be depressed. If I don't get into tzanchanim, it is highly likely that I'll go to Nachal, which is also a good combat unit, with lots of new immigrants and kibbutzniks.

In order to try and get us ready for the gibush and the army in general, we have a weekly training session with one of the kibbutzniks. They have gradually been getter harder and the last two were the worst ones yet. These sessions happen on a Monday night and normally last 45 minutes. The one last week was particularly difficult, involving sprints and the dreaded 'matsav shtayim' (press-up position) on hard rocks. That last excersize is always the final bit of the session and it really pushes us mentally, as for 30 seconds at a time, we have to hold our already tired bodies above the floor, with our knuckles facing down onto these sharp stones. Although the cuts on our hands and heaviness of arms are painful, its the pure agony of trying to not fall, which pushes us. Especially since the guy counts down like this: 30 (four second gap) 29... and towards the end, 3 - 2 - 2 - 2 -1 etc. Anyway it is all good fun and when, in this week's session, we were lying on our backs raising our legs in the air and the rain just started pour, I got that feeling of being in Eretz Yisrael.

Some of us boys after the latest training session.

Which leads me onto another thing that has dramatically changed, the weather. From wearing shorts and flip flops every day to ulpan, I now need wear a coat when leaving the room and a dressing gown at night. Although it rained everywhere in Israel this week, here in the Golan Heights and Ortal in particular it is entirely different, considering that there was a mini tornado at the kibbutz the other day, which made it into the news! On top of the miserable weather, last weekend wasn't made any better by the fact that Spurs fell apart at the end of the first half to the scum of North London. I managed to watch the whole game here in my room, but would have preferred not to as my Arsenal roommate would not let it go for the rest of the day. The win over Sunderland has not really eased the wounds.

A typical ulpan lesson, which have now finished, as our three month programme comes to an end.

The army was always a serious issue but now things are just getting too scary to deal with. One girl from our garin, Yael, has already been drafted and has since returned on the fortnightly free weekend, in uniform. Seeing one of our fellow garin members in her 'aleph' (travelling/nice uniform) without any badges or pins, due to the fact that she had only completed one week of 'tironut' (basic training), just enhanced the reality of it all. Not only that, but also her gruelling stories of how hard it has been so far, what with the time limits, poor conditions, shouting commanders, physical punishments and more, only terrified everyone. Rememeber, this torturous period will only last 3 weeks for most girls but for us combat boys, 4 months of more intense levels, not including the 4 more months of advanced training. I have still got a couple of weeks before I sign away my body and soul, but the thought of, literally, one whole year (but really 3) of phsyical, mental and psychological hell sometimes makes me question why I left the luxury of university life. But then I think how not only does every Israeli have to do this in order to protect his fellow Jews, but also why I, ideologically, am putting myself through all this change and harship, in my attempt to fulfill my dreams. That is what will keep my going.

Interrogating the garin's first soldier!!!

On a more positive note, the other day I had my first driving lesson in Israel. As an existing holder of a foreign license I am entitled to some benefits regarding the changing of my driving license; mainly, not having to do as many lessons, cheapers prices etc. Anyway last week, about 6 people from our garin went out in two cars with two instructors as part of our first lesson (I'll probably have two more lessons in inner-city Tiberias, where I will hopefully be ably to take my test before going into the army.) So, in the two cars, we drove from Ortal to Haifa (to register our driving licenses) and back again, all in all, I drove for about an hour and a half through the picturesque Northern Israel. First of all, I had to get used to driving on the other side of the road, sitting on the other side of the car and using the other hand to change gears, nevertheless, after a couple of minutes it all seemed normal. The funny bit of the day, for me, was how travelling at 80kmh down the side of some sort of cliff, all I can hear, is the instructor shouting 'ten gaz, ten gaz' (which means accelerate more). Typically Israeli, can you imagine an English instructor saying that to you during a driving lesson? Also, I don't think he once told me to look in my mirrors and, during several moments, nudged me to overtake some relatively fast cars.
So, as you can tell, things are starting to get wrapped up here at the kibbutz. Ulpan has finished, some of the girls have gone or are soon to be going into the army and us boys have about three weeks to mentally and physically prepare ourselves for the biggest shock and most intense, but also rewarding challenge of our lives. I still don't quite believe how quick everything has happened and also how I actually went through with what I actually always dreamed of. Next blog I am sure will all be about the gibush that is happening on Tuesday (!). Wish me luck.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Tiyul to Jerusalem

A few days ago we got back from our 4 day tiyul (trip) to various places around Israel, which has definitely been a highlight of making aliyah so far. After leaving Ortal on Monday morning, we travelled to a natural spring quite near to Jerusalem called Ein Mabua. It was a really fun afternoon, as we all jumped into these freezing cold springs and went through this pitch-black, narrow tunnel. There were also waterfalls and rivers; and, although unlike some of my other friends, I don't marvel over nature, I did recognise how beautiful of a country Israel is. From there we travelled to Jerusalem and arrived at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, where we stayed for the night. That night we went out to a bar on Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem, a place which, as the country's capital, seems so far from the danger that is associated with Israel.

On Tuesday, we visited the Old City, the Jewish quarter and David's City. First we went into the Chain of Generations Center, which is situated next to the Kotel. This interactive museum really got me in the mood for what was to happen next, as the translated narration talked about how for 2000 years Jews have prayed to return to Jerusalem and, even after all the persecution that we have faced, we have made it back to the eternal city. I could feel goosebumps forming and my hairs tingling, but I generally didn't feel like crying, or anything like that. In fact, I think I had worked out that the last time I cried was two years ago. After this museum we were given time to go to the Kotel. I walked there alone and stood facing the Western Wall. As I pressed my head and hands against it, I suddenly and unexpectantly burst into floods of tears. Now I am very passionate about Judaism and Zionism but I honestly can't truly explain the feeling I felt when I was there, but it was amazing; not tears of sadness, or neccessarily happiness, just tears of general emotion. Without shame, I can tell you that I cried like a baby for a full ten minutes. For a long time I wasn't thinking about anything in particular, I was just letting it all out. Once I felt that I was done, I thought about my aliyah to Israel (and the miracle of how easy it is to make aliyah compared to much darker days in the past) and how I felt like my parents were there with me... then the tears started again. It was crazy experience that I will never forget and will hopefully give me the inspiration and determination that I will need in harder times to come.

My Garin at the Kotel

The rest of the day was interesting, even though I saw stuff that I had seen before (on Lavi and tour), I remember thinking that I could have been the tour guide. During some free time, me and my roommate went to the Arab market in order to buy a rug for the room. Although I only spoke a little, it was my first time of haggling in hebrew; we bought a miniscule Persian rug and managed to haggle the guy down from 200 to 100 shekels. From Jerusalem we drove to Ein Gedi beach where we slept for the night. Definitely one of the most uncomfortable nights of sleep of my life; there was no room left for me on the mat so I slept on the rocky ground in just my thin sleeping back, no pillow. I was woken by about 50 flies on my face and, the most annoying birds ever quawing loudly, at 5.30 in the morning. On Wednesday, we did a 4 hour hike in the Judean desert and then went into the Dead Sea, where a rope burn on my palm from the earlier hike was unbearably painful in the water, also, I mistakenly farted while in the water, also very very painful. That night we slept in Bedouin tents, in order to wake up at 4am the next day for Masade. Thursday, we climbed Masade (the shorter trail) and watched the sunrise, been there, done that. Later we returned to Ortal. It was a truly fantastic trip, memorable moments and great times with friends.

During the trip, the girls found out if they got the jobs that they wanted in the army. It was a dramatic scene, as some of my friends were delighted they had received their jobs, while others were distraught that they didn't get what they wanted. It showed how important it is to some people about where to go in the army, for me, I have a preference to a specific unit but I will be happy with any combat unit that I am placed and I will learn to love where I am. I will just feel privileged to put on that uniform. Regarding this, along with my two flatmates coincidently, I will be going to the gibush (trial day) for the paratroopers unit at the beginning of November. This means I need to start training if I want to pass through the physical part of the test, which I have heard will consist of running with sandbags, sprinting up sand dunes and other horrendous tasks. But I still have some time before I start worrying about that.

My host family on the kibbutz, who I haven't mentioned yet, the Shoshana's (Dror and Amir, with their three sons) are amazing to me. I go to their house around four times a week for meals and to play with the children. They really make me feel at home and I feel so lucky to have such a great host family. Along with all the other host families and the rest of the kibbutz, they came last Saturday night to see the garin show that we put on for them. The show was a way of declaring ourselves as a group and generally entertaining the kibbutznikim. It was a great success and here is a link to one of the videos that we made for the show...

A scene during the show

So it was a really fantastic week, with the show and the trip, this week everything goes back to normal with ulpan.

The 'striptease' during the show, I am in pink, wearing the light blonde wig!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Yom Hiyul

Yesterday was Yom Hiyul, which is a very important day in terms of my army service. Officially, it is the first day of the army service, meaning that from 13th October 2009, there is only 2 and a half years to go! However, since I am in a special programme, we don't actually go into our specific units until November.

Yom Hiyul was at the 'Bakkum' in Tel Aviv, we did a number of processes that all soldiers do on their first day.... After lunch and a lot of waiting, we started queing up at these different stations. First there was the picture for the 'hoger', which is the army identity card, I look like an 10 year old Russian immigrant in the picture! Then, we had our teeth pictured, fingerprints taken and skull x-rayed. I asked why they need a x-ray of my skull and the soldier just replied with "kaha", which basically means "because" - you don't ask questions in the army. We also passed the hairdresser, which happened to be closed, to the relief of my good friend; whose long curly hair will be able to stay until November. After that our DNA was taken and we were given two injections. I have no idea what they were, we just sat down and were injected! We gave in our bank details and will start receiving our salary once we get drafted into our units, as 'hayalim boddedim' (lone soldiers) we will get double pay. The final station was where they gave us our 'hoger', already printed, and, in a little folder ...wait for it... DOGTAGS!!! Yes, as of now, since I am an official soldier, I have dogtags, which I will start wearing once I have uniform. So, as you can imagine, all the boys started showing off their dogtags...

My current status is that of a soldier without pay. This is because Yom Hiyul for us was not on the same day as Yom Gious (draft day) i.e. for a regular Israeli, going to the Bakkum, where we went yesterday, is the day that he says goodbye to his parents and goes straight from Tel Aviv (after doing all the things we did) to his base; whether that be a combat basic training base in the south or a intelligence base somewhere else. So, for me, I am now a soldier in the IDF but am still waiting to see if I can go to the tzanchanim gibush in early November, which, if I pass, will get me into the paratroopers unit. However, I still don't know where I will be going as I may not be able to go to the gibush and, even if I do, may not be able to pass. Yesterday was our first step in becoming fully-flegded soldiers and the time until when I properly go into the army is getting nearer at lightning pace. I find it crazy that I am actually less than 6 weeks away from getting into that uniform and defending my country. Mind-blowing.

Last week I was mainly in Tel Aviv as my parents, along with my nana, papa, aunt and uncle, came on holiday to visit me. After the initial floods of tears from my mum, everything just felt like normal, like we I had never left them and that we are on one of our normal holidays to Tel Aviv for Pesach. It was a fantastic week, relaxed and chilled, but filled with me telling stories from my last two months here. I know how important it was for me parents to see me because, being an only child, their lives were pretty much surrounded around me and since making aliyah, my absence has been significant for them, to say the least. Although moving to Israel was my decision to make (one in which they supported), I still appreciate the effect it has on them. Anyway, hopefully when I see them next I will be in uniform with an M16 hanging by my side!!! It feels good to know that since leaving, I have now seen my parents, all three grandparents and others here, before I go into the army.

Yom Kippur on the kibbutz was a really chilled but also meaningful day. A yeshiva from Jerusalem come every year to Ortal to set up a shul and take the service. So, I went to 'shul' (the converted meeting room) and took part in my first Israeli Kol Nidre service. Yom Kippur definitely has different atmosphere in Israel, even in the secular Ortal. It seems as though people are happier, maybe because here in Israel "we" (since I am now one of them) appreciate everything in life, as life in Israel is a gift, every day the army and its civilians are threatened by people who want our destruction. I felt like Yom Kippur was a way of celebrating our existence in the promised, and that of a flourishing existence. Fasting was easy, much easier in the mountains of the Golan than in the grey streets of North London.

It has been a stuttering couple of weeks for the Garin with people leaving to see family and some having tests for specific units in the army. During this time we have been rehearsing for a show that we will be presenting to the kibbutz as a way of declaring ourselves as a Garin. Next week we have a five day trip to Jeruslaem, the dead sea and some other places, which should be really fun but also useful in bringing the group back together after these past couple of weeks. Sam out.

This is the garin before our Rosh Hashannah meal.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Shana Tova

Happy New Year everyone. Rosh Hashannah has now been and gone; and my first new year as an Israeli citizen and future soldier has started. Kibbutz Ortal is not a religious kibbutz, to say the least, but for Rosh Hashannah there was a different atmosphere here and it felt very Israeli. Although there was not a shul, they did have special meals on both Friday and Saturday night. Not only was there multiple courses, but we were also served our food, instead of the regular buffet service! Being in Israel for Rosh Hashannah was a very special experience and I look forward to the many more (just to let anyone who didn't know, that I fully intend on staying in Israel after my army service, I mean, honestly, once you've made aliyah and gone to the army how can you leave this place). Anyway, the new year was very nice and I though about my year ahead; the physical and mental difficulties of the army (i.e. the dreaded first 8-10 months of basic and advanced training), as well as missing my parents, family and friends. But of course, all the wonderful things I have to look forward to as well. Shana Tova to you all, I hope you all have a happy, healthy and successful year ahead.

In less than a week, my parents (along with my nana, papa and honourary aunt and uncle) are coming to Israel for Succot, but I think there is probably another reason why they're coming here, mmmm, I wonder what it could be... Due to the special circumstances, as you know, my absence at home has been the overriding factor of my parents' lives for the last seven weeks. So, next week, they are coming to see me, which will be as amazing for them as it will be for me. I wouldn't say that I have missed home, home being Stanmore and London, apart from maybe missing some luxuries, like Sky TV. However, I have missed my parents and the role they played in my life e.g. if I am feeling a bit down or annoyed at something, it is difficult for them to comfort me properly through Skype. But, I am very excited to see them and I'm sure you will hear all about it on their return.

This was my birthday present from my parents, notice the 'Sam 19' i.e. my age. C'mon you spurs.
As I said in a previous blog, we have a weekly kravi (combat units) training session from one of the kibbutzniks for those who want it. Every week, around 5 of us are subjected to some interesting and sometimes fun (but mostly gruelling) physical and mental exercises. One particular challenge, the koala, was where he made us hang by our arms and legs on a pole and the last man standing (hanging) was the winner. Extremely tough, but I finished 2nd out of 5. This weeks session was the hardest yet, in my opinion. There was running, sprinting, slalom, carrying a bag of rocks and crawling. But the continuous commands of 'Matsav Shtayim' (the straight press up position) and then "echad=1" (going down to an inch off the floor) and then "shtayim=2" (back up to mastav shtayim) was nearly unbearable. There were certain points where I was ready to give up (and this is just pre-army warm up!) just because it was too difficult, but I forced myself to continue. As everyone who has been in the army says, "it's all in the head", and this week I just about started to understand what that entails.

The picture here is some of us pitbulls getting ready to do 'matsav shtayim', i.e. we haven't lifted our knees up yet. As you can see, during the training sessions, matsav shtayim is not only performed on soft grass, but also concrete and rocks. My knuckles are still red!

Last week we all had individual meetings with an officer from the army, regarding where we want to go. I have requested tzanchanim (paratroopers) as my first choice with Nachal and Golani as second and third respectively. These choices are different units in the army but all three come under the bracket of foot soldier/combat/infantry. I chose tzanchanim specifically because I have heard numerous good things about this unit, it has a lot of meaningful history behind (i.e. taking back the kotel in '67) and I just like the idea of jumping out of a plane! From what I've heard, if you're in Garin Tzabar (the programme I am in) you normally get accepted into your first choice. However, to get into tzanchanim you need to pass the 'gibush' (screening day/elimination test) which will be in November. But when that comes, I will explain in more detail.

Another thing that happened this week was that most of my friends went to university and are currently at the end of their 'freshers week', a week of clubbing and partying. Seeing all the photos on facebook made me feel really weird. Firstly, I couldn't believe that my friends were old enough to be going to university; leaving home and living on their own. But then thinking about it, I suppose I have done something even more 'brave' (not sure if that's the right word), even though I still feel like a little mummy's boy from north London, but I'm sure that feeling will leave once I am issued with a gun! Also, it's not that I felt left out when seeing my friends at their universities, instead, in shock of what I actually achieved in making aliyah on my own and actually fulfilling a dream that I have had for years. I don't want to dismiss anyone who goes to university because that is not what I mean, just that looking at photos from Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds, while in the Golan Heights just reminds me of my personal accomplishment.

This is something else we did this week, all the boys helped to clear up and then paint the sign at Ortal's entrance. Look at those hard working kibbutzniks.

Getting a little bit colder here, but still definitely no need to use the radiator! In two days is Yom Kipur and here in Ortal they do have a shul, so I will be fasting and going to shul like normal. Fast well everbody.

Here are some pictures from my first day of aliyah. To the left, leaving my parents at Heathrow and, to the right, some of my friends surprising me at the opening ceremony.