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...