Sunday, 19 December 2010

Braving the weather

After completing twenty consecutive days in the army (instead of the usual seventeen; I'll explain later), I can finally look forward to spending a little over two weeks with my parents and grandparents in Tel Aviv, over the New Year period.

As I just mentioned, we just did a '20', rather than a '17', the reasons of which I'll get on to later on in the blog. Twenty days. That's the longest amount of time I've ever spent in the army without going home and it definitely felt like it, especially since we spent three consecutive weekends on base. Despite only being on base three more days than what we normally have to endure, the difference was undoubtedly noticeable; mainly because of the extra Shabbat on base. Looking back to the start of '20' feels like reminiscing on years gone by, but here goes...

The '20' started with a trip to the Palmach museum, which is dedicated to the memory of those who fought and gave their lives while fighting for the pre-IDF, pre-1948, 'army' of the Jewish people in Israel. Speaking to a surviving soldier of the Palmach, now an old man, really put things into perspective for us young soldiers, as well as reminding me what an incredible miracle it was for Israel to survive its early years. The first night on base after being home (normally a very depressing time) turned out to be a really great evening, as there was a live showing of El Classico, the football match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, on a projector screen in the company area. For Barca-mad Israelis, this game was a must-see and I thought it was simply amazing to think how a whole fighting company from the paratroopers' brigade had gathered round to watch the match, with the Gazan border 'just around the corner'. Even those who returned from a patrol mid-match, immediately sat down and joined in with everyone else, despite being all geared in combat vests and helmets!!!

The last night of the '20'; going home celebrations.

Closing twenty days is such a long time that I have almost forgotten how Chanukah came and went during the time I was on base. Initially, I was annoyed to be closing for the whole of Chanukah, since it is one of my more favoured Jewish festivals, but I soon learnt that there aren't many more better places to celebrate Chanukah than in the army. Nearly every night, groups of religious guys would come to the company to light candles with us, say the prayers and give us doughnuts. Wow, did we eat doughnuts alright. I'm surprised I haven't been diagnosed with some kind of stomach disease after this '20', I must have averaged around 5 or 6 doughnuts a day! Seriously though, Chanukah felt very meaningful in the army and there were some special events arranged during the festival, like the company-Chanukah-steak-night-thing, where we also recieved some brand new fleeces. The big night, however, was first night Chanukah, as the whole gdud (batallion) came together to light the candles. The real reason for the big effort, however, was the visiting guest who came especially to light the candles, the defence minister, Ehud Barak. Obviously, I was intrigued to see him in person and honoured to meet someone who has contributed a lot to Israel. My Israeli friends, on the other hand, found it weird that I was excited to see and hear from a politican, typical Israelis. However, my excitement soon turned to disappointment as some of us were jumped to the border to deal with an incident and I missed seeing him completely. That's just the way it goes sometimes in the army. Whether it's missing a friend's birthday because you're closing shabbat or missing out croissants in the dining room because you're gurading; you just get used to it. By the way, the race to eat the limited number of croissants served at breakfast, if you happen to be awake or even on base, has now become part of our daily routine!!!

Even when on kitch duty, I still celebrated Chanukah. Here in the dining room, the Chanukiah proudly stands over the yoghurts!

The biggest thing that happened during this '20' was, without a doubt, an incident on the border last Saturday night. It was such a big deal that it quickly became news on the television the very same night and in all the newspapers the next day. Now I'm not overstepping borders of what I'm forbidden to say on the blog, as the incident has been made public, however, there are some (even major) details that have been held back, of which I won't be delving into. Those of you who regularly keep up to date with news in Israel will probably have heard about what happened, but for those who didn't, I'll briefly explain. The sighting of two terrorists near the border was followed by those terrorists being killed, as well as one of our soldiers, a tzanchan from batallion 202, being shot and wounded. Although I wasn't directly involved in the incident, I did happen to be there when it all happened and pretty much saw everything. A soldier getting shot is a rare occurance, in comparison to the more common killings of terrorists, so this just elevated the whole event. Afterwards, my platoon area became a mad-house of telephone calls from worried parents who had seen on the news the headline, "paratroopper shot in Northern Gaza". I contacted those close to me in Israel, who had heard something and were, consequently, alarmed for my safety. Hearing about a thing like that is the constant nightmare that Israeli parents (of sons in kravi) go through on a regular basis and is the day they dread for the most, bar none. Unfortunately, for one set of parents that nightmare became a reality last saturday night. The soldier, thankfully, is in a stable condition. My parents had not heard about it until I told them, which I was happy about. I would not want to think about how my parents would have felt if they had read that on the news. I just want to wish the young soldier, who happens to be a friend of a friend, a full and speedy recovery.

Posing as a pilot!

I don't want to end the blog on a sad note, so I want to talk about another thing that I will remember this '20' for; the blistering cold. Subsequently, the reason why we closed an extra three days was because of the weather and beacuse of the incident. Before I even start, I know it doesn't compare to those of you in London who have been quarantined by the snow lately, this is a rare instant where conditions back home seem favourable to those in the army! Nevertheless, it is so very cold in Gaza, especially at night. For us soldiers, careful planning must be taken, in order to tackle the problem of a mid-night guard duty in the freezing temperatures. For me personally, minimum dresswear is an initial level of thermal vest and longjohns, followed by uniform, a fleece and the almighty snowsuit. This is then complimented by a second pair of socks, woolly hat, neckwarmer and gloves. Despite that mountain of clothes, I was still freezing every night!!!

Braving the cold (in the snowsuit) and the rain (in the waterproof jacket).

I definitely feel that I've deserved this upcoming break, in terms of the recent time and work I've put into the army. I'm obviously really excited to see my family, who I haven't seen since being back home in the summer, which feels like an age ago. Also, I'm craving a break from the kav lifestyle, meaning that I can look forward to sleeping more than three hours a night, going to bed without wearing boots and eating three meals a day with cutlery while sitting at a table. I hope you all have a happy and healthy new year, I know that being in Tel Aviv for a fortnight with friends and family will mean I'll have a good one...

Sunday, 28 November 2010

New boots and a first degree burn...

I'm once again at the end of another 17:4 and am back in Ortal, before I return to the army tomorrow to start it all over again. It was another regular '17', packed with interesting episodes of which I will describe in this blog. Also, I had a simply fantastic weekend in Tel Aviv, releasing all the steam that built up during the 17, by going out with all my friends. I'm now relaxing on the kibbutz, sorting out stuff for the next 17, like packing my bag and downloading movies for my iphone.

During the 17 just passed, I really experienced, for the first time, 'action', as they call it, and first-hand accounts of and personal participation in real security work being done on our border with Gaza. Describing to you in detail some of the crazy stuff that happened is obviously going way beyond what I can talk about as part of the security protocol, but, using my own judgement, I can hint at what sort of things I was involved with, in this last 17. All I'm going to say is that, relatively speaking the border with Gaza is considerably quiet and that the IDF is fully in control of protecting the civilians on our side, yet, incidents do still happen and, being a 'lohem' (fighter) on the 'kav' does mean that I am heavily involved in preventing and dealing with these incidents. One particular incident will forever stay in my mind as it was my first piece of real action and my first live contact with those on the other side of the border. Without talking about what is forbidden by the army intelligence, I will say that I was involved in a sort of "chase and catch" experience, which was definitely the real deal. This all sounds so surreal and I know that I have said many a times before that "I can't believe that me, this North London mummy's boy, is doing all this stuff" but now it has been taken to a new level! When all this action was going on and I was really in the thick of it, I have to admit that it wasn't thoughts of heroic zionism and powerful determination to defend the country that was going through my mind, I was, instead, a little scared and nervous about what was going to happen. Saying this though, the adrenalin was insane and I did enjoy the whole experience, in terms of finally doing something real and meaningful that effectively contributed to defending our country.

Grenades. Enough said.

Life on 'kav' is somewhat enjoyable. Despite the ongoing notion of being a 'toran' (duties, like kitchen and cleaning), which are very annoying, and substantial lack of sleep (I'm averaging about 20-25 hours of sleep a week, no exaggeration!!!), despite all that, I'm having a ball. Playing playstation and watching movies with the guys in my platoon in our surprisingly extensive free time, is all the more fun since we're in the army. These guys are really becoming very close friends (as are the commanders, especially my legendary MM), especially when you can consider that I'm with them for the best part of a month for 24/7 and am experiencing with them this 'kav'. So life in the army, is pretty much better than ever before, I think the fact that there is no shetach or physical challenges improve the morale! Personally, there are also the little things, which give me a morale boost, and help to making an epic 17 day period more bearable, for example, my football team Tottenham's wonderful recent form (I could spend a whole blog on this subject and how when receiving the news about the Arsenal result while on guard duty, a response team was almost sent out to investigate the source of screaming and shouting at the guard tower!!!).

My platoon.

The best bit of the 17 was wihtout doubt when I managed to see my mum, who was here for a week as part of a work trip. Since my parents surprised me at my tekes kumta, I decided to take a little revenge and, after explaining to my mum how there was no way I could take a night off from the army, I turned up at her hotel lobby and got the expected tears! I managed to spend a lovely evening with my mum and ten women from England, to who she was showing Israel and the projects of the charity (United Jewish Israel Appeal of Britain) where she works, in order to raise more money for the Galil region. Although just a short reunion, it was a much needed meet-up, since it was the first time I'd seen my mum since I've been home. Luckily, I won't have to wait much longer, as my parents and grandparents are coming to Israel over the New Year period to see me, and my two weeks holiday to be with them has already been approved by the army. A less-so enjoyable moment in the past month was when I got burnt on my arm from an oven door, while doing kitchen duty. The fact that I will have a scar on my arm from my army service is not a problem, the fact that it is from kitchen duty, instead of something more meaningful is what really got me angry.

Me with my mum (whose arm is around me) and the rest of the women on the trip.

This wednesday was the 1st year 'pazamoledet' (draft anniversary) of the Nov '09 draft, meaning that we have been in the army for a year now, I have actually been a soldier for a little longer due to the Garin Tzabar programme, but November 25th 2009 was the day I received my uniform and went to the tzanchanim training base. A year in the army... wow, how time can fly and yet, I've done so much, I don't want to do a blog reminiscing about all I've been through, as I've done that before, however, it is definitely worth mentioning that I've spent the past year of my life as a soldier. For the rest of my platoon, it was a celebratory night, they'd got through a third of their service, however, the celebration quickly turned to depression as they came to terms with the fact that two years still remain. One needs to understand that as much as the majority of Israelis are happy to give and contribute their part towards the country (this is apparant mainly in 'kravi' and, especially in Tzanchanim, as they are both voluntarily conditioned) the army is still a massive chore; a three-year pause to an Israeli's teenage life, instead of enjoying the supposed best years of your life, they are subject to three years of restricted freedom, being away from home and tough times. This explains why, as much as we (yes, me included) can enjoy our time in the army and understand the importance of what we are doing, we also cannot wait 'till its finished and we can get back to being free!!!

Our 1st year 'pazamoledet', also means that Nov '10 drafted and our sons (children equals a draft a year below you, grandchildren two years!) have finally joined the army. I wish good luck to all those who just joined the army; those in Garin Tzabar, to you Robin and those coming to tzanchanim. I both envy you (because I know what a fantastic year I've had) and am pleased to be where I am now. This week, for the first time, since joining the army, I changed my army boots; giving in my old, worn ones and receiving a new, hard, uncomfortable pair. I was very reluctant to give in my old pair, mainly because of its nostalgia. In those boots I did everything; the gibush for elite tzanchanim, jumped out of plane with them, walked in them for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres including my masa kumta and slept in them for hours and hours. The new boots are very hard and uncomfortable, and wearing them in will take time; one popular method of speeding that process up is to drive over them with a car!! Also, I just wanted to mention how in the IDF olympic games this week, which of the infantry brigades finished in first place... tzanchanim!!

The new boots - not a sratch on them.

That's about all my news from this past month. I've got something coming up next week, where I am being filmed on television because of my personal story, with the blog definitely being an apsect of that. In fact my blog has become quite known in the army and in my company, I remember how the company radio man wanted me to post his mobile phone number on the blog as a way of getting American or English girls! It's another regular 17 on the horizon, once I'm back from that I will write another blog of course...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Gaza ain't so bad after all...

Wow, it feels a very long time since I've been out of the army, 17 days to be precise, which explains why I'm only able to do one blog a month now, so I suppose I better make it a good one. I've successfully survived my first closure of 17 days; something that I'll have to deal with for the duration of my time in Gaza, i.e. the next six months.

Despite being in the army for such a long period, it was actually rather enjoyable (mainly due to interesting episdoes, good company and addictive games on my phone!) and, relatively speaking, I felt the time passed pretty quickly. I go back to the army tomorrow, after having the 4-day weekend, which I used to party in Tel Aviv and relax in Ortal, I am actually not dreading going back and have already got used to this new routine of 17:4. I actually want to go back to the army tomorrow as I'm quite stressed about a number of things here on the outside, mainly being the future of my garin, as many have started to leave the kibbutz and I'm not sure where that leaves me now. I don't want to get into the whole dilemna at the moment but it's causing me to worry insanely and I know that going back to the army will distract me from this problem that could have major consequences for my life here in Israel. It's not that I'm trying to run away from my problems, just that the army is an excellent antidote to worries in your private life and, currently, the army isn't so bad and I'm happy to go back (soldiers across the country will be spitting blood when they read that comment!!!).

No, my feet aren't infected. This is just what happens when you work in the kitchen and your shoes get soaked, causing the red of the boots to stain your socks and feet. Disgusting.

I'm warning you now that this will probably be a very long blog but I'll try to wet your appetite since you've been waiting three weeks since the last one. So I'm now settled in on my new base and have started 'kav Gaza'. The initial never-ending, labour work that I was subject to in the first two weeks has generally died down, but I still have to do kitchen and company duties every so often. Apart from that though, life on base is very relaxed, when not doing something (like guarding or a patrol) then we pretty much have free time, which we spend together as a platoon watching movies or playing on the playstation. Despite this relaxed atmosphere in the company, we have started to do all the work that is needed to be done in the defense and guarding of Israel's border with Gaza. Obviously, I am unable to delve into the details of what that exactly entails but I can say that I have been doing some mounted patrols and other things of the sort. This all sounds very exciting and dangerous and at the forefront of the world's most delicate conflict, and you know what, it is. It definitely is all those things, however, after doing it all solidly, even for just the last three weeks, it has already become just a day's work and the norm of what we do over there. It is surprisingly easy to make the switch from being on a patrol, where one is disciplined, aware and poker-faced, to going back to the rest of the platoon and joking around.

This was a really meaningful day. I filled bags with sand!!!

Despite all this talk of being professional and how any of this stuff hasn't fazed me, I must admit that when we started doing things, I was like a little kid waiting to get his birthday present. For the past year we were in training and now we finally have the chance to put to effect all the things that we've learnt. Aside from that though, for me personally, it was sort of an expectation finally being realised, as when thinking of making aliyah and joining the army, I really wanted to do my part one day and actively help defend Israel, and that is certainly what I am doing now. I can say that during this past 17 alone, I have seen and done some things that will contribute to making sure the residents of the kibbutzim in the area surrounding Gaza will go to bed safe every night. In addition to all this, it's so cool!!! To be part of a mounted patrol, ready to strike upon any threat to our security is a life experience that only a few will ever go through. What I'm doing now, in comparison to my friends at university, really emphasises the gulf between our lives and to think where I find myself after a year's long journey in the army is quite incredible.

This was the final result after two hours of scrubbing a pot in the kitchen. Another really meaningful day!

Like I said, 'kav Gaza' is serious business, which is done professionally by the IDF and it's meticulous standards, nevertheless, in my time in Gaza so far I have noticed the very Israeli 'touch' that is put onto all the work we do out there, I'll explain. Amongst everything; the professionalism of carrying out missions and the seriousness of the work we're doing, there are those moments where you see something and think to yourself "only in Israel"!!! There are many examples of this and I have to share a couple with you guys. Like how in a night patrol, sitting down and drinking coffee is actually part of the routine and even written down on official army schedules!!! What about the time when we had a briefing for a particular patrol, which was then interrupted by half the company who entered the briefing room and turned on the television to check the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball score!!! Or how when on a patrol on Friday night, everyone was called together in the shetach and we did kiddush together. Those sorts of moments will live with me forever, especially the latter one, since it reminds me of who I am and why we fight so hard for our land.

What a difference a year can make! A year later and I definitely look a more assured soldier (with better equipped vest, gun and hat!!!).

I have been very happy within my platoon, making friends with my fellow soldiers and my football-loving commanders. Of course, everyone in the company knows me and there is not a day that goes by where someone doesn't say, in a terrible english accent, "would you like a cup of tea?". I am also known as the Spurs fan, especially since I walk around the company area in a Tottenham shirt, sing Spurs songs in the shower and, like I did last week, go absolutely mental when we win. Recently, I was feeling very confident with my level of hebrew, but since the start of 'kav Gaza' my confidence has defnitely taken a bit of a battering. What with all the new place names and codewords, I'm struggling a little bit to keep up and at one point, needed to take round with me a little notepad and pen to make sure I knew what was going on. So, a message to you MM (company commander) and to you SMP (deputy company commander), I was listening, I just didn't have a clue what you were talking about for a week.

This is my company singing songs and insulting another company in 101. Great moments.

There's a lot more to talk about, but time is precious and I better be going; 4 days at home every month is not a long time. I tried to enlighten you all about what life is like on the 'kav', and I hope you can see that life in the army is really good for me at the moment. I have still been missing my family and friends quite a bit but I'm settling into this new routine of 17:4 and I'm sure everything will be alright. I start 17 again tomorrow, which means the next blog won't be for another three weeks, so check it out then, but continue to leave comments. Shalom.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Scrubbing, Sweeping and Shlepping

I have been in Gaza for two weeks now. I did, however, leave last weekend for a reunion of my garin but, due to an almighty powercut on the kibbutz, I was unable to post a blog. So now I am writing about all that has happened in the last fortnight. I am at home today, my last of four days at home, before I go back to the army for a mammoth 17 days, something that will become routine to me for the next six months.

The first two weeks of being in Gaza is not what you would expect, but it was exactly how I expected it. In the army, everything is decided by 'pazam' (the amount of time you have done in the army), for example, I drafted in Nov '09, meaning I have finished one year but still have two years left. Thus, I, along with the rest of my platoon and Nov '09 draft throughout the army, am considered a 'tsair' (youngster) and duely taken advantage of by all the 'vatikim' (veterans - anyone who only has a year left of their service). I'm describing all this because it explains why my last fortnight was filled with continous duties and labour work. I assumed, having finished nearly a year of intense training and qualification, that I was a fully fledged combat soldier and paratrooper in the IDF. Oh no! In fact, I am part of a 24 hour cleaning service, but I am also available to do painting, cooking and heavy removals. That's right, for the last two weeks in Gaza, I was very busy with endless days of kitchen duty, cleaning duty and other stuff where I broke my back carrying heavy objects. Every time one moves to a new base, a lot of setting up is needed, whether that be unloading literally, tens of trucks containing equipment of the company, or simply cleaning the whole base. Of course all this brainless and exhausting work is piled on the youngsters (while the veterans just sit there on sofas and watch!) because that is just the way of how things work.

A typical view of me from this last fortnight; taking out the rubbish!

I admit it was a very frustrating week. Working from morning to night, being ordered around by barking logistical guys and feeling like a low, pointless labourer who's work does not feel appreciated or meaningful, definitely does not equal an enjoyable time. One would expect that the combat soldiers of the army shouldn't really be doing all this sort of work, I mean we're the ones who are constantly protecting Israel's borders and citizens. You'd think that for all the hard work we do; long periods of time away from home, being pushed to our physical and mental limits as part of the training, and experiencing sometimes horrendous conditions on a regular basis, that we would be rewarded for all this. The least you'd expect is that we would be exempt from this sort of torturous work. That's what you're thinking right, well that's we think as well, but this is all part of the 'kravi' (combat) army service. It is frustrating to think that there are soldiers in the IDF who go to the army in the morning, come home in the evening, never close a weekend, are subject to fantastic conditions, sit in an office all day and never have a hard day's work. I've realised though that everything I've been through; a gibush to get into tzanchanim, all the months of training and everything that it incorporates is all worth it, and one day I'll look back on my extremely challening but totally meaningful service, as an experience where I gained and achieved so much, and was defnitely worth it.

5.30am. 2 hours sleep. Pointless guard duty of the company gun rack. Yep, it's definitely worth it (!)

So my experience of Gaza so far hasn't been ideal. There was one night, for instance, where after working in the kitchen from 6am to 9pm and then doing company duties until 3am, I finally collapsed on my bed. However, the relief was shortlived, as I was called upon to do some guard duty for another two hours! My dream of getting more than three hours sleep was brutally shattered and this incident was one of several last week. Despite this, I haven't felt low at all, in fact I am really happy with my new platoon, new company and the fact that everyone knows me, albeit as the English one. I am quite excited for my time in Gaza, it will definitely been an interesting experience, which will probably mean that I'll definitely need to be a bit more careful what I write on the blog. As much as I love to fill you guys in with a complete and honest account of what I'm doing, there will be some things in 'kav Gaza' that shouldn't be posted on a public blog. I'll do my best to make it a good read though! The only thing I'm concerned about at the moment is the 17:4 schedule, but thanks to my recent purchase of an iPhone, I hope to survive the 17 days on base by keeping up to date with facebook, football and friends.

I apologise is this blog seems a bit lengthy but there was one more episode that I wanted to talk about. When arriving to my base next to Gaza for the first time, I got there a lot later than everyone else (due to living in the Golan Heights), which meant I had to walk around 3km to the base at night. I walked for around ten minutes on this deserted path, until I turned a bend in the road and saw what was ahead of me, the Gaza strip, alluminated by lights. For some reason seeing that place all light up at night panicked me a little bit, it's hard to describe how I felt when I saw Gaza like that, but it was a strange feeling of apprehension. My visions of Gaza is that from news programmes and documentaries, but to see it with my own eyes was a weird sensation; it is a real place, with streetlamps, houses and people inside, some of whom want to kill me. I wasn't scared and I am still not scared of being there or the job we are there to do, but it was just a brief moment of anxiety, where I could see this infamous area up close and it hit me hard that being deployed there is serious stuff. Nevertheless, life on base is like that of any other, with constant jokes and laughs. From inside our base you would never know that a mere few kilometres away is Israel's most hostile border.

A distant Gaza.

That's about it for now. I go back to the army tomorrow for 17 days straight, which will be a hard challenge to get used to. The blogs from now on will only be one (or two, if I have the time on a weekend or there is a lot to talk about) every three weeks, just so you know, but continue to comment on the posts, as I'll have access to internet now, while on base. Have a good week everyone, and a good three weeks for me!!!

Saturday, 2 October 2010


So today is the start of a new adventure in the army; it is one that I am both scared and excited for and that I'm sure will give me an unforgettable experience, from which I will one day look back as the most active part of my service. Today is the start of 'kav' Gaza!!!

My friends visiting me on base, last Shabbat. That's how I look on base; rough uniform, glasses and baseball cap!!!

First I need to explain what 'kav' is. 'Kav' (literally translated as line) is the act of guarding Israel's broders on a "close-up and personal" level by Israel's fighting units. Throughout Israel there are different 'kav's' that are constantly being secured by the IDF; from the borders with Lebanon and Syria in the north to Hebron and Ramallah in the West Bank. The 'kav's' all have their own dangers, like in Hebron, where a lot of arrests and demonstration dispersions are taken place. However, they can also bit quiet, thankfully, like with the Syrian border, where one can may stay for six months without one major incident happening. One 'kav', though, is very rarely quiet and generally agreed to be the most dangerous of all Israel's borders, that of Gaza. From what I understand so far, 'kav' Gaza involves a lot patrolling on the actual border itself, where meetings between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian terrorists are not entirely rare. From today, I will know how the 'kav' works; the details of the tactics used by Hamas to endanger us and how Israel counteracts this. It is obviously a very dangerous place to be in, I mean it's the same Gaza that you hear baout on television, yet, the actions the IDF take, do not put us soldiers in situations where we are on our own or something like that. So as much as you may be worried for my safety, I'm sure eveything will be ok and, although there may be "hot" incidents, I will be fine.
Standing at the 'tekes sof maslool' this week. I'm on the right side.

'Kav' works on a rotation and it just so happens that tzanchanim are now in Gaza for the next six months, with my battalion, 101, in northern Gaza. Regarding future blogs, I will try and update you with everything I'm doing but I will absolutely keep secret anything that needs to be kept secret! A terrible aspect of 'kav' is how much I am going be to going home. Due to a number of different reasons, we will be on a schedule of 17:4, that's seventeen days on base (practically three weeks) and then four days at home. Although 4 days at home is lovely, 17:4 is pretty awful, especially since in 'kav' there can be 16:5, 21:7 and, best of all, 11:3. This means that I'm going to be coming back to my kibbutz only once every three weekends, and, listen to this atrocious calcualtion, for the next six months of 'kav', I will be home only 9 times!!! I think that epitomizes the mentally difficult aspect of the army; not being home for long periods of time is something people often look past when considering how hard the army can be. It's going to be a major challenge for me to survive for three weeks at a time without internet, that means no facebook, no emails, no blog and no Spurs! I am seriously considering getting a new phone that has internet in order to combat this.
Giving a cheesy grin after getting my new fighter's pin!

Another aspect of 'kav' that will prove to be extremely challenging is just how mentally tough it's going to be in terms of the amount of work we'll have and little sleep we're going to get. My platoon is now the youngest and most inexperienced in the company, meaning all the duties will be piled on us; that's kitchen, cleaning and schlapping duties. These duties will be done in the time when we are not guarding or patrolling, i.e. in our resting time. Since we are the youngest, sleep is going to be scarce and the "oldies" in the company are going to take advatage of us. That's just how it works in the army; the young ones do all the work, since the old ones have been in the army longer, it's a cycle that has been going on for years and can be seen everywhere in society e.g. in schools. The next six months are unquestionably going to be the hardest of my service up until now, not physically speaking (in fact I will probably get fatter as the food is good and we'll be doing very little exercis) but through the combinations of hard work, dangerous mission, little sleep and long periods of time in the army without comng home. The danger is something not to be overlooken, in fact, we have already been briefed on "procedure 112" (don't worry nothing top secret), which involves us keeping a magazine loaded (but not cocked) in our gun at all times and having two live grenades in our vest at all times!!!

The last time my old platoon will be together, smiling at the end of the ceremony.

That's all there is to talk about now, but I'm sure by the next time I write a blog, I'll have interesting stories and things to tell you. I've had a really amazing few days here on the kibbutz with my friends; going out to eat, partying it, playing football, spending time with my host family and watching Spurs come from behind to win. Despite the whole 17:4 thing, I actually hope to be out next weekend, as we have our garin reunion. So, it may only be a week's worth of stories the next time I write. Keep posted and continue to leave comments as it gives me that extra supprt that I need...

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sof Maslool

My uniform is now finally complete, after I received the tzanchanim 'sicat lohem' (fighter's pin) at a ceremony, yesterday morning. This means that I have finished my year long (actually 10 month long) training period - the maslool, and am now considered a fighter in the army, despite the fact that, if called on, I would have been eligible to fight a couple of months ago.

I had quite an annoying week up until Tuesday evening, that's when all the celebrations started. I had to close the shabbat, and then was made to stay at on base for a further two days. Although I actually had quite a relaxed time, I ended up missing out on the army sports day, the tzanchanim brigade's annual show and then, most importantly, the "masa aliyah l'pluga". As I've mentioned previously, I am part of the newest platoon that has joined a particular company (the name of mine is mivtsayit) in battalion 101, however, to be accepted into the company by those already in it, there is a kind-of ritual masa. Nothing extreme, a mere 6km in comparison to the colossal masa kumta, but what is special about it, is how at the end of the masa the whole company gathers to celebrate the newcomers, by throwing smoke grenades and singing mivtsayit-related songs. I was disappointed to miss this, especially as I live for the experiences that one goes through in the army, but that's just the way it goes sometimes and I feel lucky to have been there for most of the important things during the maslool. Following the masa, everyone was given the gun strap, watch cover and dogatags holder of the 'mivtsayit', which I can now proudly display on my day-to-day uniform...

My gun strap, watch cover and dogtags holder all sporting the sign of my new company - Mivtsayit 101.

On tuesday night, the night before the 'tekes' (ceremony), my previous company had a party to celebrate our 'sof maslool' (end of journey - the journey being our training period, and one hell of a journey it was). Everyone who was once in the company, (the company being draftees from 101, November '09), came back; from old commanders to fellow soldiers who have gone to commanders' course themselves. It was an enjoyable reunion and we reminisced about all we have gone through during the past 10 months. We also received gifts for finishing the maslool, both through the donations we had raised ourselves and money given by the extremely wealthy paratroopers' brigade itself. It was an extravagant array of gifts; from t-shirts, a fleece and a big rucksack, to a personalised plaque, a wallet and a book (very much in the style of an end-of-school yearbook), and on everything is printed "Sof Maslool, 101, Nov' 09". As you can tell, it is a big deal, a lot like finishing school; where you leave your friends, teachers and memories, and then move on to another place. The evening was very special and a perfect way to mark the end of an era.

All the gifts that we received for 'Sof Maslool'.

So it came to the day of my tekes sof maslool, the fourth and final of all the ceremonies I have had; from the "hashba'a" (swearing-in) at the kotel, receiving my wings at the jump school and, most recently, getting my red kumta (beret), which I still consider one of the best days of my life. Yesterday's tekes was of a similar style to most of the other ceremonies, but instead of getting wings or a beret, we received our fairly small (!) fighter's pin. The highlight of the day by far, was when we actually had the pin placed on our uniform, but for me personally, it was even more fantastic than anyone else in the platoon. This was because my M*M (platoon commander - an officer in the army), someone who has been with me my whole service until now and who I've talked about, admired and followed diligently for 10 long months, gave me his personal pin!!! It was a truly special moment. In front of the whole platoon; he called me out, placed the pin on my uniform, punched me on the arm and said how "there was only one person who he wanted to give it to". It is a massive honour, not just because of how much I've loved this guy, but also because there is a huge amount of accolade in receiving the fighters' pin from an officer in tzanchanim. I thank him so much for this amazing gesture and it definitely was the final cherry to top the most incredible maslool and army service that I've had so far.

That memorable moment was caught on camera! My platoon commander giving me his own fighters' pin.

The pin itself, up close.

It was a wonderful way to end a long, hard but rewarding period of the army and I know I can look back on my maslool with memories of hysterical moments with friends, imposible physical and mental challenges and remarkable achivements and honours, like the one yesterday. As one era ends, another one begins and that is exactly what I'll be writing about in the next blog...

Thursday, 23 September 2010


It's generally never a good idea to volunteer in the army; it could result in you carrying something heavy or working in the kitchen for a day. So when they needed volunteers to close this Shabbat (and obviously no-one volunteered to openly give up their free weekend), the commanders started to volunteer people and, since I was away for a whole month, I was volunteered to close this Shabbat...

It's not so bad though, I have been back on my kibbutz for the first two days of Succot and, despite going back to the army tomorrow to close the weeeknd, I will be out again for Simchat Torah and will get a long weekend next week, which I've been craving for. It's nice to spend the chag on the kibbutz, especially after another one of those weeks, where my physical limits were reached and my mental strength was challenged. This week was 'Tarchat', which was a semi-war week, but for the whole of the Paratrooper brigade. I thought that battalion war week was a big deal, with a lot of resources and money put into it, but that was like a preview show to what went on this week. To understand how big of an operation this exercise was, is quite difficult to explain, just imagine that planes, helicopters, combat engineering units, military veichles, armoured hummers and a whole tank division were used to support the tzanchanim brigade in this operation. The 'hativa' (brigade) itself comprimises of four 'gdudim' (battalions), within each 'gdud' there are four 'plugot' (companies) and then within each 'pluga', there are around four 'mahlakhot' (platoons). Basically, lots and lots of paratroopers. Amongst all these high-ranking generals, experienced lieutenants and the commander of tzanchanim himself... was one little boy who is speaking to you now.

I won't go into detail about the exercise itself, partly because I don't think it's something that needs to be publicly published on the internet, I can, however, tell you about my personal experience of this gigantic operation, which, by the way, was overseen by the Chief of Staff. I returned to the army last week just as my new platoon had nearly finished preparing for this 'tarchat' and, as a special present for not being in the army for a full month, they had kindly left me to take the 'pakal mayim' (water canteen) on my back for the duration of the exercise. In case someone didn't notice the sarcasm there, the pakal mayim was by far the heaviest of anyone's combat bags and I reluctantly carried it on my delicate back for three straight days. In addition to, what felt like a fridge on my back, we wore bulletproof vests, as well as our regular combat vests. The reason for the bulletproof vests is in preparation for the upcoming months, something which I will explain about when I write a blog next week. As I said, I carried all this stuff for the entire exercise and it really stretched my physical limits, especially when we walked for 12 hours straight, through the night, on the sand dunes of the Negev desert!!! There are little words to describe how one can continue to walk like that, but, as per usual, one always seems to be able to, especially when in the atmosphere of the army. I literally broke my back this week for the good of the platoon (in fact, I've been having some serious shoulder and lower back pains since) but at least my hard work was noticed, as my new commander applauded my effort in front of the whole platoon, in this week's pre-weekend meeting, saying how I "carried like a real man".

Dressing up with a couple of my friends from the garin, before Yom Kippur last week.

Things have definitely gone back to how they were, post-holiday, and it feels strangely comforting to be back on the kibbutz in this "broken body" state that I have become used to as part of the combat soldier lifestlye. No, I'm not a sadomasochist who likes being in pain, it's just that having a sore back and my feet in a real mess is something that is normal and routine to me now, something that I was craving a little bit when feeling very foreign and out of routine last week. Anyway, I am feeling very happy now, a complete contrast to this time seven days ago and this has been mainly due to being in the army with my new friends and new commanders. My new samal, especially, who enjoys speaking English with me (something often highly discouraged in the army) has started to call me 'Sammy', which I would normally hate, but he does it in such nm adoring way that I don't seem to mind it. Also, just a quick note, I'm quickly becoming known within the company (of which my platoon is brand new to) as that english-speaking Tottenham fan, alhtough I wasn't so proud of that fact the other day!!

I want to quickly talk about my new company, of which my platoon has just joined. Firstly, I have really settled into my platoon, a mish-mash of people from my old company, guys who I knew but was never in close contact with them, like being in their class or platoon. The guys are really great and most of these people, I will be staying with for the duration of my service, that's quite a significant statement; considering the kind of experiences I will be sharing with them and generally being with these boys 24/7 for the next year and eight months! As a platoon, we have joined a strong, fighting company of battalion 101 of the tzanchanim brigade, called 'Plugat Ha'mivtsayit' (literally translated as Operational Company). It is full of amazing guys and some exceptionally inspiring officers. Each platoon within the comapny has a individual role and speciality (I already know my platoon's role, but will wait to reveal it to you guys, once we start the course for it; it's a rather exciting thing to learn). Anyway, the company is, like all the companies in batttalion 101 and tzanchanim in general, a fantastic one that has performed professionally and successfully in its history of wars and missions. In fact, my company was voted "best company of the brigade" last year, so there are some big expectations to live up to!!!

The sign for my new company.

I'm leaving to go to a reunion of my original platoon tonight, some of whom our now in commanders' course, some of whom are in another company within 101 and a few who are still with me. I'm extremely looking forward to seeing all my old friends and will be a nice way to end the chag, of which has been very enjoyable. Not only did I have good fun with garin here in the kibbutz, but I also had an interesting experience today, where, after receiving a flat tyre last night whilst driving one of the kibbutz's car, I needed to go to the nearby Druzi (non-Muslim arabs who reside in Israel) village to go and get a new tyre!!! I will be back home next Wednesday and will definitely need to write two blogs, one regarding all the interesting things going on this week, and one regarding what's happening in the nearby future, something hugely significant, probably the most exciting and scariest experince I will have, since making aliyah... Hag Samaech to you all!!!!!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Understanding why I'm here

It has been a very eventful week for me; after returning to Israel and having some "post-being home" depression, I went back to the army for a couple of days, experienced a nightmare journey home yesterday and also re-found that passion and determination that I was looking for, following a difficult return to Israel. I am now back on my kibbutz for Yom Kippur and am pleased to be reunited with my garin friends who I hadn't seen for a month.

Surprisingly, I was actually looking forward to be going back to the army at the start of this week. Partly to see my friends from the army and to get back into the swing of things, but mainly because I knew that going back to the army would distract me from feeling low and that my mind would have to concentrate on army stuff and not be thinking about leaving home. And I was right. I was back in the army by Tuesday evening (after landing in Israel on Monday night) and it definitely made me feel better, or at least helped me to forget about how I was feeling before and how I was missing home. I was only in the army two days this week, before we went home on Thursday, but quite a lot happened. I was welcomed back to the news that most of my good friends in the army had gone to commanders' course and the company that I had been in since the start of my service, that of boys from November '09 draft, had disbanded. Don't worry, the disbandment happens to every company once it reaches the end of its first year in the army. The ramifications of finishing my first year in the army (a year consisting of training and qualification) and the ceremony that we have to commerate this event, will be explained properly next week and I'll also explain which company and platoon I have moved to and what that means exactly.

By moving platoon and company it means that I'm with people that I've never been with before(within a platoon) and three brand new commanders, a new samal and a new platoon commander. Thankfully, all my commanders are really great guys and my platoon commander especially, is a real 'gever' (dude). I have also quickly bonded with the boys in my platoon and I already have had multiple offers to stay round at their houses. After joining my new platoon, I got straight back into business; I recieved a new gun (an M4) and within an hour of coming back, had to do a 'madas' (P.E.). The madas was 4km 'easy', easy for the rest of the platoon maybe, for me however, after doing no exercise for a full month, it was a bit of challenge to try and catch my breath! The army did make me feel a lot better and all the feelings that I had at the start of the week were but a distant memory. By the way, thanks to everyone who made me feel better with messages of support, it felt good to know that people wanted to help me get through that difficult time.

This Thursday, before leaving to go home for Yom Kippur, we attended a very special ceremony, an annual memorial service for all the paratroopers who had died while serving the country. In attendance were the families of the soldiers who had perished, as well as the IDF Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a very moving ceremony, but I spent most of the time trying to look for a way home, getting back to Kibbutz Ortal from Rehovot at 8pm is quite a mission. In the end, disaster struck for me, when I missed the bus back to the north and I had to take an alternative journey back home, a journey which spanned nearly six hours!!! It was a nightmare situation and I broke down a little bit, returning to what I was like earlier on in the week. Luckily for me, my amazing kibutz mum, Netta, came to pick me up at 1.15am and I did manage to get back to my kibbutz. This weekend has reitterated for me the stresses of being a lone soldier and living in the extreme north of Israel, not only did I get back so late on Thursday, but I also have to leave the kibbutz on Saturday, straight after the fast, in order to arrive to base on time on Sunday morning. Despite being in this manic situation, I am not feeling depressed because of what happened on Thursday...

In trying to get back up north on Thursday night, I managed to get on one of the buses that was taking the families (of the fallen soldiers) back to their homes. Amidst all my panicking, I realised how pathetic all my complaining was, due to the company on the bus. How could I be complaining about arriving home late, when these families were mourning their loved ones. It was then that I re-discovered the determination and drive that I was missing at the start of the week. To be in the IDF and help to defend the borders of our homeland and the people who reside there, is the perfect way of showing that those young men did not die in vain. That is exactly why I made aliyah, why I joined the army and why, even after an simply faultless visit back home, I can return to Israel and the army with the same drive and determination that I came here with a year ago. I felt honoured to be on the bus with those who had lost fathers, husbands, brothers and sons in the name of our people, and I was proud to be wearing the uniform of the Israeli army and the red beret of the Paratroopers brigade.

To be at the end of a week like this is very relieving and I feel it is fitting that today was Yom Kippur. I said my sorries, successfully fasted and saw Spurs finally find their feet in the Premiership (!), and I do now feel mentally stronger (having passed and conquered a very low point), purer (following Yom Kippur) and more motivated (after spending time with those families). It has been an exceptionally hard week, but one that I am happy to say I have experienced as a learning curve, on which I have built on to feel happier. I hope everyone fasted well and, as they say in Israel, 'hatima tova' (may you be inscribed in the book of life). I will hopefully be home next weekend for Succot, so I will update you all with my upcoming week.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Feeling low

Well I am back in the holy land after a month's holiday back in England, I'm not really in a great mood, which you may be able to tell from this blog, potentially the most depressing one I've ever written.

First things first, I had the most unbelieveable four weeks back in England, I literally couldn't have asked for a better time and this clearly affected me when coming back to Israel. I mentioned in the last blog how in the first two weeks I was having an amazing time, despite some intital disappointments. The second half of my visit just got even better and I saw and did everything I wanted to do; from cinema and resteraunts, to going to Tottenham and spending Rosh Hashana with my family, from playing football with friends and going out clubbing, to watching films at home with my daddy and going out shopping with my mummy. It was truly the perfect holiday ever. The thing is, though, it didn't feel like a holiday, it felt like I was back home and everything just fell back into place. I saw what my life was like before I made aliyah and how great it was. I also saw what my life could have been like if I'd have gone to university like all my other friends, as I saw and heard from them the university lifestlye. In my opinion, this makes what I'm doing even more special and meaningful, while there are some who make aliyah because they believe in it but also because they're running away from a not-so-great life back home, for me I left fantastic opportunites, a loyal group of friends and the most supporting and loving family one could wish for. When I saw friends who either did a year out in Israel or are considering making aliyah they were the ones who understood what a hard decision it was to leave home. However, the hardest thing has and always will be, my parents.

With my close family on my birthday at a posh Kosher resteraunt.

There aren't enough superlatives to explain how close to them I am or how much I love them. I think I've declared that enough over the course of this blog already but they so important to me, I'm sure this child-parent relationship is universal, but, due to our unique circumstances, I know that we have a very special bond. All this love and feeling made living at home again incredible and it was this that was pulling me when leaving to go back to Israel. As I told my rakaz (the man who looks after our garin), I was sort of ready to come back to Israel, but definitely not ready to leave London. So it came to the day of saying goodbye. We have done many goodbye's in the past; at Heathrow before making aliyah, at hotel lobbies when I left my family and at train stations when I was on my way back to the army. However, the goodbye yesterday and aftermath of leaving, was sometting completely different and harder than anything I've experienced up until now. Forget all the masaot and all the war weeks, I can honestly say that yesterday was the hardest day for me since making aliyah.

With my friends on my birthday at my parents' new house.

Partly I think it was because I felt very alone, unlike last August when I made aliyah with two others from my garin, yesterday, I said goodbye on my own, flew on my own and had to travel back to my kibbutz on my own. It was a very lonely day and I all I could think about was leaving home and how terrible I felt. When saying goodbye before making aliyah I was excited about the journey ahead, but yesterday there was nothing really to be excited about, I know that I'm going back to the harsh reality of the army and of the lone soldier life. The difficulties of being a lone soldier were apparant from the moment I stepped off the plane as I had difficulty getting back to my kibbutz in the north, since it was late at night and no-one could come pick me up. Imagine the shocking contrast that I went through; from being in my new house in London (which is fantastic!) on Sunday and having my mummy wash my clothes and cook me dinner, to standing in Tel Aviv bus station on Monday, struggling to find a way home. Yesterday and still today, I can't get over the holiday I've had and the huge contrast that I felt between my two lives. Now I'm not saying that my life back home is amazing and here is terrible, that's definitely not true, but I just want to explain how coming back is especially hard and the reality of living here is worthwhile but also extremely difficult.

I don't feel like the shining example of the IDF soldier and Israeli, zionist 'oleh' (immigrant) that I feel I make myself look like a bit in this blog. In fact, I am not ashamed to say how when everything was going wrong yesterday (when I came back, I had some considerable problems that I won't delve into), I was thinking to myself "why am I doing this?" when I can have it so much easier at home. Of course, I know the answer to that question, it's what drove me here and continues to drive me every day, but for today and yesterday, I still haven't re-found that answer. When I went to bed last night, I had thoughts of just giving it all in and going back home to London, where everything is comfortable and I have my loved ones around me. But, I am still here and I'm sure that once I get into my regular routine of being in the army and seeing my friends from the garin on the weekends, I will be fine. To be totally honest, as I always like to do on this blog, at the moment I am feeling very low and just can't help feeling that I want to go home.

Posing with mummy and daddy before going to a Bar-mitzvah.

After the fantastic visit back home, I always knew that this period would always be the worst and I'm sorry to give you guys such a depressing blog. It may not sound like the determined and motivated Sam that normally writes, but I think it's important to understand that the whole aliyah journey comes with its ups and downs. I think that now is the lowest point I have ever been since making aliyah but I believe I can get back up again, get to those o so high points and carry on doing what I love and that's living here in Israel. Some encouraging comments would not do amiss here...

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Back home?

Today I am writing the blog from very unfamiliar surroundings; the living room of my parents' new home, where I have been comfortably staying, for the last two weeks. After flying to London two Sundays ago, I have now spent half of the time that I will eventually be here for.

Re-uniting with my friends and family has been amazing, and falling back into my old life of comfortable civilisation has been a refreshing change from what I've been doing in the past eight months. Seeing my parents' new home and living with them again has been the best part of my trip back home; after all my maturing and growing up in the last year, it has been nice to be treated like a little boy again and have my mum clean up after me! After a year of army and kibbutz life, there is nothing like waking up in the afternoon and spending the whole day on the couch watching television. Although nearly every day has been filled up with something to do, this visit is also a nice relaxing rest after eight exhausting months. I have spent my time up until now doing all the things that I love; seeing friends, eating pizza and playing football (as well as watching my team Spurs qualify for the Champions League), while I've also had some more moving moments, like, when I was asked to hold the Sefer Torah in Shul for the reading of the prayer 'for the safety of the state of Israel and its defence forces', or seeing two people who greatly contributed to my aliyah journey who are now moving back to Israel.

Being back with friends has been great, but also has left me with some interesting thoughts about my current life in Israel, the life I left behind in London and life I could have led if I went to university like the rest of my mates. My friends' reaction to see me, after a full year of not seeing each other, was somewhat disappointing. They were of course excited to see me but, as per usual, my expectations were of something more and I seemed to forget that life obviously carried on without me and people moved on. I know that seems like I'm very full of myself, but I just expected something that wasn't realistic. Also, since my friends are at a number of different universities around the country, some of them hadn't seen each other for a number of months and because it is summer and everyone is back home, it was a reunion for a lot of them and not just for me. Don't get me wrong, my friends were very excited to see me and were simply in awe by the stories I had for them; stories of jumping out of an aeroplane, stories of carrying half my body weight for four days and stories of throwing grenades, flying in helicopters and running behind tanks! The boys had many typical boyish questions about what it's like having a gun and some of my friends pressed me to tell them about secrets I've learnt since being in the army, but my mouth stayed shut!!!

People had told me what it was going to be like when going home for the first time; I was warned that I would be disappointed by my expectations and how I will feel very different to the rest of my friends. Well, after being here a fortnight, I can see that things have both changed and stayed the same. After around five minutes of being with either friends or family, everything feels back to normal and like I haven't even been away, and living in North London again is pretty much exactly the same. With friends, after the initial stories and catching up, things sort of carried on like normal and the banter is exactly how it used to be (except now, any comment towards me is now related to the army!). In that sense, nothing really changes, but I can definitely notice some aspects where something is not quite how it used to be. In some ways, I have matured more than them, especially in terms of things I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, such as, the responsibility of having a gun, trying to cope with a new language or just simply living in a foreign country without parents. As much as I try to explain the hardships of my life in Israel to my friends, whether that be the physical difficulties of the 'shetach' or the psychological difficulties of not being home (i.e. my kibbutz, Ortal) for three weeks in a row, they simply do not experience this in their relatively luxurious student lifestlyes, in comparison to mine. This is not me complaining about how hard my life is (because I love what I do and don't regret aliyah and the army for a second) or even a way to evoke sympathy, instead I am just trying to explain how my friends back here can never understand what I have been going through this year and this causes an unavoidable separation between us, which I sense is noticeable just to me. (This also makes me think that however well I describe my life to you guys, you will never truly understand how hard, or how amazingly rewarding, my journey has been. Only once you've experienced it yourself...)

This brings me to my next point about how my friends from the garin (the people who I live with on the kibbutz and who are also lone soldiers in the army) do share with me that understanding of what I'm going through because they are doing the exact same thing. Since being here in England, I've learnt to appreciate my life in Israel and the people who I am close to a lot more. This may sound obvious, but my trip back here to London has made me realise that my life is now definitely in Israel and I now feel even stronger about living in Israel permamently after the army. Although I definitely don't miss the realities of the army, I do miss my friends from the army and, in some way, I miss being a soldier and, at points, feel naked without my gun and uniform. Coming back to London is definitely just a holiday as opposed to a visit back home but this doesn't change the fact that making it just an annual visit is extrememly hard and I don't remember ever looking forward to something as much as I did for this visit, I would obviously love to be able to come back more often, but that is the cost of being in the army.!/video/video.php?v=418161533870&ref=mf
(This is a video I made for my friends in the army who are in my class. In a couple of weeks we finish our first year in the army, resulting in the partial breaking up of our company, meaning some of them may leave to other directions. So, I made this video for them; a reminder of our first year in the army together, which was most definitely a memorable, hilarious and action-packed year).

I still have another two long weeks here, which I will definitely take advantage as I have done up until now. I think being here for a full month is perfect as it gives me enough time to do all the things that I want to and I see all the people I want to see, but at the same time, by the end of the month I will be ready to go back home and restart my normal life. I will probably write another blog before I fly back to Israel. Enjoy the rest of the summer.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Ain't no mountain high enough...

Well I've finally reached my last blog before I make that long-anticipated trip back home! I really want to describe the insane week I had, in terms of physical difficulty, I know I seem to say this every week, but it was probably my hardest week in the army so far!!!

This week was the 'Targad', which means a week of shetach doing exercises on a batallion level (i.e. the whole of gdud 101), basically, it was another (!) war week, my third in total. While the first two 'war weeks' have been extremely difficult, what I experienced this week was on another level. This is because while the first two were just for our company, the war week for the gdud is much harder because it involves a lot more people and it has higher status, since it is for a full IDF combat batallion (and Tzanchanim also pulls higher credibility), meaning it is constructed by high-ranking officers, like the commander of the whole Tzanchanim brigade. In short, it was a very important exercise for the army and, thus, they made the conditions as close to a real war, as possible. So, for three full days, my batallion (around 400 soldiers) walked through the Golan Heights doing all sorts of combat exercises, urban and anti-guerilla warfare etc. Since the Paratroopers are arguably the most prestigious brigade in IDF, the week was made as hard as possible, in order to test my gdud's ability to be ready for a war, meaning we had no sleep, very little food, exceedingly heavy weights on our backs and many, many kilometres to walk.

As I mentioned, Tzanchanim's reknown reputation meant that a lot of money and resources were put into this week, which made it feel like a real war (by seeing the full spectrum of the army) and also gave us 'simple' soldiers some great experiences. We started the week by going in helicopters and although it was the fourth time I've flown in a Black Hawk since being in the army, it's an experience that doesn't get old, especially when you have to try and sprint 100m towards the helicopters through the hurricane that is caused by them, while in full combat gear with the rest of your friends from the platoon. In addition to helicopters, there were also a range of weapons being used last week, some of which I never even knew about. Seeing a group of tanks moving over hills and ridges and then firing their cannons 20m from where your 'plooga' (company) is running up a hill to 'kill' an enemy, is something quite breathtaking. Due to a lack of personnel in my platoon recently, half the platoon went to a specific company and what remained were myself, three other soldiers (all of who are good friends of mine) and three commanders; my old class commander (by the way I'm on to my fourth commander already), the 'samal' and the platoon commander. I get on really well with all three of them, which meant the week was full of interesting conversations and funny moments.

Who said I wasn't famous? My collection of articles about me on my wall in my room in Ortal!!!

We walked around 60km in total during the three days of 'war', which is massive when you think of the type of weights we were carrying on our backs. Walking with weight on your back is definitely something that has been drilled into me since I joined the army and this is an intended by the army, after the relatively disastrous Second Lebanon War in 2006, where post-reports showed the soldiers were uncapable of carrying the heavy weights and, in fact, weren't even carrying enough as they lacked extra food and ammunition. Consequently, the army now spends a lot of time trying to train us combat soldiers how to deal with walking for long periods while carrying heavy bags on our backs. Rather than feeling more muscular in the arms or a faster runner, being capable of carrying is what I've gained since being in the army and I assure you that most soldiers in the IDF will agree to that. This little side-point about carrying weight is relevant to the next thing I'm going to speak about: that hardest point of the whole week, something that even compares to the masa kumta in terms of difficulty! As the final exercise of war week, my gdud was subject to climb the Hermon (!), in order to 'kill the terrorsits there'. When us soldiers heard about this final challenge for the week, a lot of people cursed the army, seeing it as an unecessary exercise, as per usual I saw it as one of those incredible experiences that I've been through since being in the army. However, I wasn't thinking like that for long.

Mount Hermon is 2,814m (9,232ft) high at its peak, and, of course, we were told to reach the peak! The 'aliyah' (ascent) of the Hermon took 13 hours and this was after 3 days of 'war'!!! It was simply one of those crazy hard challenges, so hard that there were some people who had to stop because of dehydration or blackouts. They told us "don't look down" because of the height, but I though "don't look up", to see what was left to climb. was more appropriate. The Hermon, Israel's biggest mountain, is gigantic and it's like a visual allusion, because you see this mountain, you reach the top of it and then you see that there's something else to climb that's even bigger. Climbing the Hermon wasn't a random torturous exercise, in fact, the Hermon has important significance in terms of military and strategic history, and climbing it to capture the peak is something that IDF soldiers have achieved in the past. It was a very hard night/morning but in the end, very worthwhile and one of those experiences I'll never forget, especially since I carried the MAG (the 15kg machine) for the last 5km, since our MAGist blacked out from exhaustion!

It is true that pictures say a thousand words and I'm annoyed that I wasn't able to use my camera this week as I saw some truly memorable sights. Whether it was the view at the peak of the Hermon where we were above the clouds, or the silouhette of the whole gdud walking through the Golan Heights at dusk or even the shocked faces of a bus full of Muslim clerics who we passed while in military formation!!!

Mount Hermon; beautiful, but very hard to climb!!!

That's it! I'm now sitting in my room in Ortal with my suitcase packed, ready to go home and visit my family and friends for a whole month. I'm so excited just to live in civilisation again and do all the things I've missed doing, like eating at Pizza Express, or going to the cinema, or going to watch Spurs with my papa (I'll hopefully be going to the game where we qualify for the Champions League)!! I will try at some point to write a blog from London, my last blog from England was on the night I made aliyah, so it will be very fitting. Wish me a safe flight....

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Sweat in the Tsvach

I've just had the most physically difficult two weeks in the army; jam-packed with memorable stories and frightening moments, all of which I'll talk about in these next two blogs. I never thought I would make it to this moment (not just because of the last fortnight but, also in general), I am currently in my kibbutz for my final weekend before flying back home for a month, there are simply no words to describe my excitement to go back home for a month!

Firstly, however, I want to tell you all about these crazy couple of weeks I've had, where I finally understood and realised that all those hard weeks of shetach on the training base are nothing compared to the shetach training in the gdud (battalion). Last week, I had 'imon tsvach', which is basically the training for guerilla and anti-guerilla warfare. There are many things from this week that I can't really talk about on this public blog, but I can talk about some stuff, which will hopefully explain why last week was so hard. For around four days my gdud, battalion 101 of the tzanchanim brigade, trained in the 'tsvach' and we learnt all about anti-guerilla warfare; this extends my repetoire as a soldier, having mastered both rural and urban warfare (wow, I never thought I would end up talking like some sort of military general but this is what I do as day-to-day life). We learnt how to move and conquer enemies in 'shetach' (terrain) that is very difficult; tall trees, wide bushes, thorns on every corner and all in a tight, compact space. To get us warmed up, our commanders gave us 'aggressive training', where we were made to run through thorn bushes! This actually turned out to be one of those hilarious moments, where seeing each other tangled up in trees and bushes seemed to block out the pain of thousands of thorns pressing into our bodies. Of course, the 'mefakdim' (commanders) were in hysterics themselves!

This is the
'tsvach'. Imagine running through that big bush in the foreground... that's what I did all last week!

On a more serious note, we learnt a lot about the practicalities of anti-guerilla warfare and, therefore, about the terrorist group Hizbullah. Hizbullah are probably Israel's most dangerous active enemy, due to their style of fighting and expert knowledge of their terrain (guerilla), organised army (there are even elite units) and their arsenal of weapons (including some scary types of rockets). As a result, we learnt about the IDF's response to this serious danger i.e. our ways of how to defeat these terrorists and combat tactics in the tsvach. This is obviously the more confidential part of last week, but was incredibly interesting and the exercises themsleves, despite being tiring, were very enjoyable. For most of the week, it felt very much like we were in Vietnam; walking slowly through forested areas and carefully listening to every movement and sound. Why it really felt like Vietnam, however, was the unbearbale heat. I simply can't explain how hot it was in the 'tsvach' (Israel's hottest week of the year) and I didn't think my body was capable of releasing so much sweat, at one point our eyes were stinging so much from the salt of the sweat pouring off our foreheads that we had to stop momentarily. All in all, it was an exhausting couple of days but very rewarding in terms of knowledge and exercises.

This was me last week in the 'tsvach'. Try and ignore the terrible haircut and notice the colour of my shirt. The dark green indicates the ridiculous amount of sweat!!!

Halfway through 'tsvach' week, we heard news of an attack on the Israeli border with Lebanon. As we all know now, luckily it was just a one-time thing that seems to have been a mistake, however, news like that travels fast and, like in all Jewish communities, news is exaggerated, and Israel is no different. We got the news that there had been some sort of attack on our northern border and that war with Hizbullah was imminent; remember, at the time we were learning about anti-guerilla warfare and how to combat in the 'tsvach' of Southern Lebanon. What we were doing suddenly went from standard combat training to last-minute preparations before war, and to be honest I was a little bit scared. I wasn't scared of the enemy or scared of getting hurt, instead, I felt very unprepared psychologically. Coming into the army, the dangers of terrorism and war are obvious, but I've never felt like I am going to be involved in something like that. However, after that incident (that was thankfully just a scare), I feel more ready mentally that if something were to happen in the future that I need to step up to the plate and do what, as an IDF combat soldier, I've been trained to do. I know that sounds like some sort of line from an action movie, but in all seriousness, as my 'samal' said "if something were to happen, we (the current soldiers in the army) have the responsibility to deal with it; as it is simply our time". I understand more, now, the importance of being a 'lohem' (fighter) and the responsibility that comes with that role.

עד עכשיו, אף פעם לא כתבתי בעברית אבל חשבתי שהזמן הגיע. לכל מי שמבין רציתי להיראות לכם איך העברית שלי השתפרה בזמן שעליתי לארץ. הרוב זה מהצבא כי שם אני רק מדבר עם החברים והמפקדים בעברית ופשות אין עוד דרך להסביר את אצמי. יותר נוח לי עכשיו לדבר בעברית במקום ציבורי, או שזה לנהג באוטובוס או למלצר במסעדה. אם הבנתם אז אני מקווה שלא עשיתי כל כך הרבה שגיעות!!!!! י
(if you didn't get any of that, I was just trying to show off my improved Hebrew!!!!).

Being back on base this weekend didn't change the heat. On Shabbat, practically the whole
'plooga' (company) decided to sleep in the common room becuase of the air conditioning!

That was just last week; I will write another blog tomorrow about this week, which was even harder physically and more challenging mentally...

Saturday, 31 July 2010

A year on...

I can hardly believe what I am about to write here... This Thursday, the 5th of August 2010, will be the first anniversary of the day I made aliyah. A year has passed since I packed up my bags, said goodbye to all my loved ones and emigrated to Israel, as part of my aliyah journey. What a year it has been...

A year ago I followed my dreams and made aliyah; arriving to kibbutz Ortal with a garin of young zionists from all over the world. For three and a half months, we bonded together as a group, travelled the country, learned hebrew in ulpan and went through some early army processes, like Gadna and Tsav Rishon. Then in November, we all enlisted into the army, each one going to a different place. For me, after passing the gibush, I joined the legendary Israeli Paratroopers' brigade and started basic training in early December. My time in the army has been significant to say the least; from the swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel and jumping out of a plane five times, to war week and the gruelling masa kumta. The climax of everything, however, was when my parents surprised me at my tekes kumta and were there to see me get my red beret. Since that memorable day I have joined up with the rest of my battalion and am currently doing training in the North under the title of 'Rabat' (corporal!!!). That is basically is a quick sum up of my year, but luckily I can always look back at a more detailed version, thanks to the blog...

Nine months of hard work in the army and this is what I have to show for it - the tzanchanim shoulder tag, the wings and, of course, the red beret!!!

Before leaving London, I decided to write a blog, in order to keep both family and friends updated with my doings, but also as a little project for myself. As the year has gone on, however, I have been delighted to see that other people, from all over the world, have been reading this and from some of your warm comments, it is clear to me that my story has really inspired and interested some people. Although my original aims for the blog still remain (I still enjoy the blog as a personal project where I can look back on what I've done), I do feel like now I have different expectations and reasons for doing this. Now, I want to show people what it is like to be a lone soldier and a new immigrant in a foreign country; both the highs and the lows. I also want to show people an understanding to the IDF and the life of a combat soldier. However, the greatest thing I get out of this blog is the inspiration it gives to people who start to consider or actually go out and make aliyah themselves. As a fervent zionist myself (making aliyah and being in the army has only strengthened my, already, strong ideologies) to help encourage young guys to make aliyah is the most rewarding gift of all. Now I'm not saying how I want everyone who reads this blog to go and move to Israel because I respect the fact that it is an incredibly tough decision and harder reality, but for me personally, I think aliyah is a priveledge we have in our lifetime that was virtually unthinkable for the previous 2000 years until as little as 65 years ago, thus, is something all Jews should be taking advantage of.

In just two weeks I am going back home for a month, which is my entitled holiday that a lone soldier can use once a year to fly back home. As you can tell, I have had a fantastic year, not only have I enjoyed my army service but I am always excited to go back to my kibbutz on free weekends to meet up with friends from the garin, who are still very much my family here in Israel. Despite being very happy and never regretting my decision for a minute, I have been waiting come home for a while and since it was confirmed by the army, I've been extremely excited ever since (in fact, thinking about coming home was a regular way to pass the time during masaot). Rememeber I haven't been back to England in a year and have not seen any of my friends and most of my family in that time. Not only that, but I will also be going back to a new house, after my parents moved from the home that I lived in for my whole life. To be honest, I am also just excited to be going back to some sort of familiarity; I have already written down lists of people I need to see, things I need to do and foods I need to eat. I really can't describe in words how excited I am to go home and have a month's long holiday of relaxation, catching up, being with loved ones and just having fun.

My beloved garin, a year on.

Some people have asked me if I've changed in a year and I don't really know the answer. On one hand, I haven't changed as I am still that little jewish mummy's boy from North London. I still get upset by the little things, I still cry when I miss my parents and I still get scared of getting in trouble. In my head, I feel like the same person with the same thoughts but there is definitely some sort of clear change. In terms of experience, how can I compare myself to any of my friends, which of them have guarded at a crosspoint between a Jewish and a Palestinian street in Hebron or jumped from a plane at night with a bag strapped to their leg containing their combat vest. I have also become much more responsible and independant, especially when you think that I travel the country on my own every week to get to base and how I have signed on and am now responsible for a gun. I left my parents at the age of 18 to another country, learnt a new language and, now, am a ready-for-war combat soldier in active army that is constantly fighting terrorists. How can doing that not change someone??? In the end, though, I would say that it is amazing how after going through all these experiences, having all these responsibilites and dealing with all these worries, I am still the same Sam Sank. I suspect when I go home that after five minutes it will feel like nothing has changed and that's how I want it to be. After all I've been through this year, I can still be the same person I've always been and I'm kind of proud of that.

Is that the ready-for-war combat soldier I was talking about?!?!?

This Thursday I am going to the opening ceremony for this year's Garin Tzabar, the programme that I used to make aliyah. It is surreal to think how I will be greeting people and giving advice to those at the start of their aliyah and army journey, as one who has "been through it all" already. I also want to say how a year on, the garin is still as important for me as it was the first day I made aliyah and how this programme really is the best way for young people to make aliyah and join the army. In a way, this year has been so fast and yet so slow, but it has been and now I need to look forward to the year ahead. Thanks to all who have read and enjoyed the blog so far (and continue to comment as I really appreciate the feedback) and I hope you will continue reading. I will try and write one more blog on the eve of my trip in two weeks...