Sunday, 28 March 2010


I can barely contain my excitement as I sit down to write another blog, whereas normally I write my blogs on a Saturday night, knowing that I need to wake up the next day at a ridiculous hour in order to go back to the army, today it's a whole different story. As of this morning, I am on my 'regila', a five day holiday that a combat soldier gets twice a year. While everyone else in my battalion had their holiday two weeks ago, mine is this week, since my parents are coming to Israel to see me and spend Pesach here. Thus, I not only am relieved to just get some time off from the army, but obviously delighted that I will be with my parents for the whole of Pesach, after not seeing them for four long months.

I have just been in the army for more than two weeks straight, since I stayed on base 'guarding' while nearly everyone else was on holiday. I say 'guarding' because, in fact, what I was doing was standing in front of an empty 'neshekia' (gun storage place) for most of the week, since everyone had taken their guns home. There were six of us guarding last week, which meant we did guarding hours of 2:10 (i.e. two hours guarding, ten hours not guarding). Usually, the second number of hours is filled with scheduled activities, like P.E. or cleaning, however, since most of the commanders weren't there either last week, we had free time for 20 hours of every day for a whole week, something truly unheard of in the army. So, last week I did a lot of sleeping, speaking on the phone and watching movies in the common room. Last week was also weird because some of our old commanders were on base, including mine, doing preparation for officer's course. Now, since there is no 'distance', it was bizarre to sit down at dinner and joke around with the guys who used to make me run to a tree and back fifteen times in a row. You come to realise how your commanders are just nineteen year old boys who put on a face, as part of the discipline that was basic training. I even managed to play football with my old commander last week; and felt guilty when I beat him in 'Wembley singles'!!

Me with my dad and ex-mefaked after my swearing-in ceremony four months ago.

Talking of football and Wembley, I am also in a great mood because, like I requested in a blog recently, Spurs have started winning again and now are going to Wembley for the FA Cup Semi-Final. I do find it slightly fustrating how I owned a season-ticket at Tottenham for 12 years and never saw big European teams at White Hart Lane, but the year that I go and leave England to make aliyah is the same year that we (hopefully) might finish fourth and make it to the Champions League. On that note, there are two stray dogs that like to come and sit near our battalion building, which I have named Defoe and Crouch (Spurs' two strikers)! Also, as I've said before, everyone in the battalion seems to know of and all about me, partly because I'm English and have a funny accent, however, now it seems that every Sunday morning even the commanders are coming up to me and jeering me if Spurs lost or congratualting me if we won!!!

Dressing up in a kippa and 'madei aleph' (smart uniform) for Shabbat last week.

I don't think I have ever mentioned it before but it's defiinitely a big part of army life; 'galhatz'. Galhatz like most phrases in the army is mix of two words to make one word, this one being 'gilooah' and 'tzatzaooah' (shaving and brushing - polishing boots). Galhatz is something that every kravi soldier has to do in the morning as part of the disciplined routine; but also to look like a presentable solider, even on base. Polishing the shoes is something I actually enjoy and is somewhat kind of therapeutic, however, shaving my face is so annoying. Luckily, since I have a babyface, I only need to shave about two times a week (always on a Thursday night before you leave, in order not to get caught by the military police at the bus stations)! I'm also finding it very annoying how all the guys who have girlfriends in my class keep on complaining about how they never get to see them because of being in the army, I wish I could have those sorts of terrible complaints but I'm still waiting to find a nice Israeli girlfriend out here!

There is so much more that I still want to write about in this blog, like how the new March 2010 draft have arrived and how that makes us, Nov '09, not the youngest and inexperienced soldiers in the Tzanchanim brigade. I would want to tell you how I worked in the kitchen all week this week, which is the most horrible week of the year since we were there from 5am to 11pm every day cleaning for Pesach. Also, my weekend in Ein Gedi (!), where we guarded on the beach and spoke to and had our pictures taken by Christian tourists from around the world. What about the depression that I went into at some point last week where I started worrying about if people would leave my Garin and the Kibbutz and where that would leave me, and how I miss all the little things from civilisation that I don't have time or the opportunity to do here. I also wanted to mention how my Hebrew has imporved, mainly in terms of knowledge of rude slang!!

Me at Ein Gedi this weekend, you can just make out Jordan in the back-

However, I want to end this blog by saying how I just can't wait to relax for Pesach with my parents in Tel Aviv and will try not to think about the difficult times of advanced trainng that awaits me afterwards. Hag Samaech to everyone.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

End of basic training

I returned to Ortal yesterday from the army with the news that I had finished 'tironut' (basic training) after a total of nearly four months. It marks the end of a momentous period, a period which is meant to turn me from a citizen into a soldier. I find it hard to believe that I have been in the army for such a long time already and its even crazier to think that I'm done with the infamous basic training of the Israeli army. To top it off, I've had a really great weekend here with my friends, doing some things I haven't done in such a long time; like playing football and sitting down in the sunshine.

The last week of basic training was supposed to be a bore; guarding and kitchen duty, but for me it turned out to be anything but that. While most people did guard all week, some of us were in the shetach, having been specifically chosen to be a part of a special group. I now have a new role, being the sharpshooter for my whole platoon, which means, when in combat formation, I stand in the front with my platoon commander and a few other soldiers. It's kind of scary because in times of war I would literally be on the front line and I have the responsibility of finding the enemy from afar with my scope and take them down with my supposed shooting skills. Personally, I don't see myself as a very good solider, I'm not as much of a team player as I'd like to be (which is extremely vital in the IDF), plus, because of the language, I am sometimes a little bit behind everyone else. Despite this though, it seems to be that every time there is some sort of place to go and new skill to be learnt, I am part of the same trusted group of soldiers who are involved. So, it was another week of shetach in the boiling heat, so much so that at some points we weren't allowed to do anything and were ordered to just sit in the shade. The week was hard but also interesting, however, the worst bit was when I fell over and my gun hit me in the face. What's more is that it caused me to chip my tooth (!), nothing dramatic, just a tiny hole, yet still my first considerable army-related injury!!

The end of tironut also marked the end of some of the commanders' time with us, which unfortunately included my class commander. I was upset to hear that he was going to be leaving as he had been a super commander to me, always looking out for me and helping me with any problems I'd had. One of the most anticipated things when a commander leaves is the 'distance breaking' that occurs, this is when the commander finally stops putting on the 'face' and talks to you like a normal 19 year old. It was so weird to go up and give your commander a hug, the guy who's been teaching and punishing you for the last four months.

The end of tironut makes me think back to my whole journey up till now. I remember the vision of aliyah and the army that I had back in London. I knew it was going to be hard but the reality of what I'm doing is the most difficult challenge I will ever face in my life; to leave my family and friends and the wonderful opportunitites that I had, in order to come here is just the beginning. It's hard to explain the toughness of the army service itself, to be on base for days on end, struggling with a foreign language, trying to fit in with guys who have a completely different culture and, to top it all, being physically destroyed each day with gruelling challenges. How can anyone who hasn't done this truly understand what I've been through and will continue to go through. The reality of life here is so different to the zionist dream that I used to have. However, despite all this, I cannot, for one moment, contemplate about doing anything else than this. Despite all the things I've just said, this experience is the most meaningful and worthwhile thing there is; some feelings are simply undescribable, like finishing a 21km hike with a sprint while carrying a stretcher with your new friends or being offered to have your groceries to be bought for you by this random woman in the supermarket, after she realised I was a lone soldier. To anyone out there thinking about doing this, I would say to think carefully because there will be some very tough times ahead, one where you think to yourself "what am I doing here?" and you just want to go back home. But, come here and do it. I don't for a second regret what I've done because it has been the most amazing experience ever. Although it's been unimaginably hard, I have realised my dream and I can't wait to go on to the next stage.

That next stage is advanced training, four months of combat exercizes, shetach non-stop and the period where the army takes you from a soldier into a fighter. They've told us that the real hard stuff starts now, so what have I been suffering through up till now? The transition to advanced training does come with some advantages however, we can now call our commanders by their first names and there is no more pathetic punishments. Basically, from now on they treat us like fighters, and forget about the pointless rules, which were instilled merely as a way of disciplining us, like folding the gun strap meticulously when holding the gun by your side. Before advanced trianing starts, we are priveliged with a five day holiday, which for me is going to be postponed until Pesach when my parents will be here. So while all the other soldiers have their 'regila' (5 day holdiay) this week, I am back on base tomorrow doing absolutely nothing for a week, apart from maybe going to the dentist....

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Global Positioning System

After a sleepless weekend in Hebron, we returned to another week in the army, instead of being on the Paratroopers' base, half of my battalion spent the week on the army's central base for infantry soldiers' training.

The people who went to this base was anyone who was taking a course on learning a new role within the army; from drivers to radio men. Anyone who wasn't getting a new 'pakal' (accessory) would be staying on base to do cleaning work or something like that. Since I'm already a sharpshooter, I assumed that I wouldn't be getting another 'pakal'. However, I soon learnt that I was going to be learning about being a GPS man, which I thought was really weird because I have always been a really un-technical person. Then I found out that the other person in my platoon who was getting the GPS was David, who happens to have made aliyah from Chicago. My suspicion over the new role was confirmed when I was told that the machine is in English, so of course that was the reason for my new job!!

So all week I was on this base learning about the GPS system, the machine and navigation, in general. The lessons weren't really that interesting, but using the machine to navigate was good fun and actually really easy. At first I just couldn't stop laughing in the lessons, for once the shoe was on the other foot as all the Israelis in the course attempted to say 'navigate route', in a terrible accent. The lessons also started to become really difficult for me, I mean I haven't even learnt topographyin English and suddenly I was learning it in Hebrew. The week passed and now I am a certified GPS user, impressed?, I will be able to use my new skills in combat by helping the platoon commander in navigating.

It was an unusual couple of weeks, I have been on five different bases and have constantly been living out of bag, clearly being at the tzanchanim base for three straight months (which is the best base in Israel for infantry and is like a hotel) is obviously having an effect on me. In fact, this last week we slept in tents, which was ok but something I don't really want to get use to, and thankfully, unlike Nachal and Givati who spend all their training in tents, I won't really have to.

Tents, the enemy of tzan-

I came back to Ortal this week on Thursday because I went to a memorial service for a fallen tzanchanim soldier, and from the cemetry we were allowed to go straight home. It was the 40th anniversary of the date that this particular soldier had died and every time there is a memorial service like this, tzanchanim send some soldiers to represent the unit and comfort the family. This particular soldier had fallen in the Sinai campaign, after making aliyah with his family from Turkey in the 60s. After learning about this soldier, I was surprised to see that this soldiers' parents were still alive, who must have been at least in their 90s. The service was actually really emotional, seeing these old parents crying at the grave of their son, who died aged 20. It made me devastated to think that this couple had made aliyah, probably escaping from anti-semitism, and then suddenly their son died in defence of this country. I don't want to sound like a preacher or something, but too many lives have been lost for this country and despite all the politics and all the war, all the Jewish nation wants is peace. That was a bit deep, but going to the memorial service and seeing all the Jewish graves made me really think.

This week was also kind of hard because my parents were moving house this week and they've had some problems with it, which has obviously had an effect on me. Although everything will be ok in the end., it's just kind of hard not being able to do anything from this far away. Anyway, for some unknown reason, which has caused the battalion to be in uproar, we have to go back to the army Saturday night, after Shabbat is out!!! Sometimes, I just hate the army.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Purim in Hebron

Once again am back home again after 2 straight weeks in the army. It was a really unusual fortnight, I only spent one night on my base in total; the first week spent at Michve Alon, the weekend in Hebron and last week on a base called Bislach. I did get another 'hamshoosh' (thursday weekend) and I'll explain why in the second blog.

Last week my battalion went to Michve Alon for the week, in order to have an educational week. Michve Alon is the central base for education in the army and also the place where I would have had to have gone to for three months if my Hebrew was not good enough. The Hebrew course that goes on there, which five people from my garin are participating in, is a melting pot for Jews from all over the world who are about to enlist in the army; Europeans, Americans, Russians, Ethiopians and even Indians. It was amazing to think that people are coming here from every inch of this world in order to join the army and do their part.

One of the many strange sights from Hebron!

We had four days of lessons there and was generally a really interesting week, and also a nice break from the all the running of a normal week. We learnt about the history of Israel, what it is to be an 'oleh' (immigrant, but translated as 'going up') and the current enemies of Israel. What was most interesting though was 'dilemnas in combat', two of which I want to talk about. Firstly, we discussed the dilemma of whether to put a soldier, who's Hebrew may not be so good and his potential misunderstanding of orders, which could cause people to die, in combat. As my platoon starting talking about this it started to be directed at me rather than a 'soldier' in general and I felt very weird and sort of guilty that my Hebrew could be a problem in times of war. At the end of the discussion I decided to speak and I said that if there are no risks in war then maybe I shouldn't be allowed to take part. My 'samal' (commanding officer) came up to me in front of the whole class, slapped me ferociously on the leg and said "don't worry Sam, you're going in!", I could only smile at that. There was another dilemna that caused much controversy; whether it is acceptable to take a lemon from the tree of a terrorist you've just captured. I'm sure that in times of war not all the rules are kept to, but I want to explain to you how incredible it is that the IDF strongly teaches its soldiers that it's completely against the ethics of the army, to take as a little as a lemon, as it is morally wrong and not the example that we want to set. We, as a platoon, concluded that it is ok to take the lemon if it has already fallen on the floor!!!

That's how you would look after 3 hours of sleep a night.

The weekend came and, once again, we went to Hebron to help with the guarding there. Coincidently, you may not have heard about it on the news, but Hebron has been a really dangerous place in the last month, with a lot of 'balagan' (trouble) and many incidents. The reason for all this craziness is because the Israeli Prime Minister had put the Cave of Machpelech on a list of construction sites, it was Purim, it was also a Muslim festival (and the Palestinian Prime Minister went to Hebron to pray) and because of the whole Dubai thing. Anyway, it seemed crazy that us lot, who have not even finished basic training yet, were being placed in this hotbed for Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers, for the weekend. I guarded at a couple of different places within Hebron, some of which were rather dangerous, for example, I had rocks thrown at me by some Palestinian kids, who were on there way to school!! It is insane to think how last Friday night I was at guard point on a road between a Jewish settlement and a Palestinian village. I was standing there with a loaded gun in my arms, stab-proof vest on my body and some newly learnt Arabic on the tip of my tounge (yes that's right, I can now say 'stop or I'll shoot' and 'go home' in Arabic)! I've come a long way, while my friends are waking up late after a night of partying at university, I have been physically defending the Jews of Hebron and I really feel that I have contributed, even in a small way.

Me (far right) with some of my friends in Hebron.

While the rest of garin apart from me were in Ortal having a Purim party, I, of course was in Hebron, but Purim actually happened to be quite a memorable experience there. During one of my six thousand guard sessions (!) one of the religious guys whose house I was guarding gave me a 'humantashan' (Haman's ear, the cake given on Purim), just one of the many moments when you feel appreciated as a soldier in the IDF. On top of that, we also received Purim gifts that had letters in them, sent from kids in New York; all the guys in my platoon quickly handed them over to me in order to read and translate what was being said. Purim in Hebron was completed when we all heard the Megillah and then danced the night away, which was a fantastic opportunity for us to subtlely break distance with the commanders. In short, although I was disappointed initially to be closing again and missing out on the fun with my garin, it turned out to be a really fun and, also meaningful, weekend in Hebron. To be continued...