Wednesday, 14 December 2011


For the first time in a long time, I really appreciate being home for the weekend. In recent months, I have become somewhat accustomed to getting out of the army for Shabbat due to the numerous 'tafkids' (jobs as a commander) and due to my general luck. However, having finished the latest 'tafkid', I have since returned to my company and have been on 'kav' this last week, where I closed my first Shabbat in a very long time!

Finishing the job as a commander in 'trom tironut' last week, meant separating from my soldiers (all 51 of them!!!) after being with them since the middle of November. I was the soldiers for a couple of days at the start of last week and tried to be as mean and unapproachable as possible, in order for the "breaking distance" ritual to be worthwhile. On the final morning, in the twenty minutes leading up to the point where they went to their respective, new companies, I even decided to unfairly punish them, ('kader' in Hebrew), by giving them absurd and repetitive orders. I have to admit, it was fun making them run back and forth from a fence in under 30 seconds over and over again. Those who were still injured from the 'gibush' the week before didn't escape my wrath either and they got put in 'matsav shtayim' (press-up position) while the others ran. Once I finished with that nonsense, I sat them all down and proceeded to tell them all about me. They obviously gathered that I had made 'aliyah' (undoubtedly from the moment they heard me speaking!), yet it was nice to fill them in on my whole story and see that some of them were impressed by the fact their first ever 'mefaked' in the army had been a new immigrant and a lone soldier. What makes "breaking distance" with the soldiers so entertaining is both the commander and the soldiers seem to recreate all the funny moments that happened and retell all sort of incidents that the other side didn't know. Just like I did when I was in that stage of the army, my soldiers were all desperate to hear of the times where myself and the other commanders simply cracked up and failed to control ourselves with laughter in front of them. It was an exceptionally rewarding and enjoyable couple of weeks and I wish them all luck with the rest of their service.

Moments after "breaking distance" with my soldiers.

So my time of being on the 'Bach' as a commander, which had stretched to a total of two months, had finally come to an end and, thus, last week I returned to my company, who are currently in the middle of a 'kav'. I was excited to go back to my company and see all the guys from my platoon, especially as I've not been with them consistently for more than two weeks since before I went to commanders' course (and that was in March!). It was great going back and after receiving a warm welcome from everyone in the 'pluga' (company), I then heard all the stories and gossip that had been going on while I was away and I recounted all my experiences from the past couple of months too. Before too long, I felt like I slipped back into my old place within the platoon and was quickly integrated into the life of 'kav' once again; albeit thanks to almost immediate hours of guard duty upon my return! It was very easy to get back into the swing of things and, despite only being here for a little over a week, I am well accustomed to this 'kav' already. My 'pluga' is currently situated next to a Jewish town, which is surrounded by Palestinian villages and not to far away from a substantially large Palestinian city. Effectively this is 'kav eyosh' (meaning Judea and Samaria), but it's not necessary for me to say on the blog where exactly in the West Bank we are. 'Kav' in the West Bank is completely different from what I've experienced in any of the other deployments of my battalion. Whereas in Gaza and in Lebanon where the border is very clear; whereby we are on one side guarding, whilst the acknowledged enemy is on the other trying to attack, in the West Bank things aren't so clear cut. There's no way I can go into the details of what this current 'kav' entails, but I can say that in the West Bank the enemy can be slightly unclear, while the borders are, to a degree, ambiguous. In short, with all the comings and goings, the West Bank can seem like a bit of madhouse but the IDF is still very coherent in its role of protecting Jewish inhabitants from any threat. After being on the 'Bach' and at home(!) for such a great deal of time, it was refreshing to go back to being a soldier in the "real army" out there on the front line.

Watching the "El classico" football match with my platoon.

The most exciting development that happened within my 'pluga' while I was away, is that my 'mahlaka' and draft, in general, have entered the final year of their service. Finishing two years in the army means that Nov '09 (my draft) and this feels so unbelievably good to say, are finally 'vatikim' (veterans)!!! Even just writing it here on the blog, I can't help but smiling when I write that we are, at long last, 'vatikim'. The significance of being veterans is, in no way, a paltry thing. For more than a full year now, after joining the battalion following our 'sof maslool', the Nov '09 platoon has suffered as the youngest platoon in the company. For twelve months and over three different 'kavs', we have been the grim victims of kitchen and company duties, as well as being deprived of certain privileges that only veterans are entitled to. I think I have explain sufficiently enough in previous blogs, most prominently during my time in Gaza, how kitchen and company duty can be extremely depressing, degrading and is often backbreaking work. But no more will I clean toilets from the inside, no more will I paint bags of sand red and white and no more will I scrub pots and pans for hours on end. Not doing anymore kitchen or company duty makes a big difference to life on 'kav' and to the morale of the platoon, as suddenly there is no pressure on who needs to be a 'toran' (person performing those duties, but in the army this could be more easily translates as simply 'slave') and you don't have the fear of knowing that your turn is tomorrow! It's not easy seeing the younger platoon suffering now, but this is just part of the "army cycle of life", whereby you have been through it all before. One of the other benefits of being a veteran is how we are now permitted to wear a dressing gown/robe. It may be hard for anyone who's not familiar with the insane institute that is army culture to contemplate this, but that is just the way things are. Consequently, my platoon ordered specially-made robes and each soldier has the robe personalized with their name...

My robe!!!

I was on 'kav' for exactly six days, but that was more than enough for me to be bored of this 'kav' already and of life back in the battalion. Yes, it's fun being back with the guys, and having free time to watch movies and play football. In addition, being a veteran and a 'hapash' (regular soldier) means I now have very little responsibility and life on 'kav' is relatively laid back. On the other hand, though, after two months of being a commander, going back to doing three hours of static guard duty in the middle of the night seems somewhat less meaningful. As much as I'm back on the front line and physically safeguarding a Jewish town in the West Bank, guard duty and mounted patrols can still be very boring and monotonous. I have come to realize that the best thing to have happened during my service was, without a doubt, going to course 'makim' (commanders' course). Although I was skeptical about it when picked to go and completely against it before that, I see now that going to 'makim' and becoming '08' transformed my service 180 degrees for the better. Take aside completing the course, becoming a more professional soldier, meeting soldiers from all the other brigades and of course having three roles as a mefaked, this week I've come to understand that going to 'makim' was beneficial for another reason. It's been nearly a year now since I left to go to course 'makim' and, in the time that has followed, I have barely been in the 'gdud' (battalion) for more than three weeks at a time. Being a 'hapash' and staying in my company for the remainder of my service, hopelessly lumbering through 'kav' after 'kav' is what I feared before I recognized that going to 'makim' was some sort of escape from the dreary and repetitive life of being a 'hapash' in the 'gdud'. In the time that I've been away from my company over the last year I have avoided nearly twelve months of being a 'toran', twelve months of static guard duty and twelve months of 17:4. There are obviously guys within my platoon and combat soldiers in the army, in general, who do stay in the 'gdud' for the whole of their service, yet I am relieved not to have endured the same repetitive lifestyle throughout mine and by going to 'makim' (and the significance of being '08'), I have a different and more meaningful purpose to my service. Needless to say, I am very happy to be here with my platoon for the four months that I'm left with and I will perform in my role as a veteran 'hapash' as best as I can.

All in all, it was a good couple of weeks. Finishing the 'tafkid' and returning to my company after months of absence has been undeniably pleasant, with the highlight of the week being how, as part of my company's 5-a-side team, we managed to get through to the final of the regional army football tournament. There's only a few more weeks of this 'kav' remaining so I'll post a blog then. In the meantime, happy chanukah to you all!!!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

ADF (American Defence Forces)

This weekend, while my soldiers are almost certainly telling their family and friends all the stories and experiences from their first ever week in the army, here I am to tell my side of the story...

What an exhausting week! I don't think I've ever worked my socks off like I did in these last five days and the 'tafkid' (role), without me knowing why, was simply ten times harder than when I was a commander of the same job, a little over four months ago. Primarily, the sheer number of soldiers around was simply staggering; both at the 'Bakkum' (the base where one drafts for the first time) and at the 'Bach' (paratrooper training base) the newly drafted tzanchanim were everywhere! I didn't think it was possible that I would overtake the number of soldiers I had last time, 42, but by the end of the week, once late-comers and others had been added, I was left with a grand total of fifty two (!) soldiers, all of whom called me today to inform me that they had arrived home safely. This draft of tzanchanim, November '11, is the biggest in the brigade's history and this only added to the work we already had. Doing this 'tafkid' meant that once again I was back at the 'Bakkum' to meet the draftees on the day they turned from civilians into soldiers. It is a dramatic transition and one of the most extreme instances of a 180 degree change in one's life that I can think of. After getting their army ID and having some injections, they then are given their brand new uniform, in which they change into. Within twenty minutes, as they stand there shell-shocked in the olive green uniform of the IDF, their world has been turned upside down and the first person they encounter on the "other side" is me!!! I did my best to ease them into that first day at the 'Bakkum', while at the same time constantly reminding them that they were soldiers now and the significance of that. This meant, even from the start, I needed to keep them disciplined; making sure they walked in lines, were presentable at all times and when speaking in front of me, addressed me as their commander accordingly, by calling me "Mefaked" and standing straight with their arms behind their backs. It all sounds a bit silly and like something out of a movie, but that is what basic training is like and can even feel like somewhat of a game, however, as a commander, you need to play that game.

No space in the rooms for us means sleeping in the corridor...

In addition to the fact that this was the biggest draft in tzanchanim's history, November '11 also marked the biggest ever draft of lone soldiers and 'olim hadashim' (new immigrants) to the paratroopers' brigade. Even though my draft is only two years prior to this current one, the difference in the amount of lone soldiers is simply overwhelming and if my mathematics are correct then there are something like six times the number of lone soldiers now, compared to in November '09! The reason for this dramatic rise is not unknown, in fact, I heard it from the horse's mouth itself, in a speech made by the 'Bach' commander to us, the commanders, in which he explained how tzanchanim were aiming to recruit more lone soldiers and new immigrants because they understand that they are generally the best and most virtues of soldiers. Coming from the 'Bach' commander himself, this is a compliment and credit to programs like Garin Tzabar and Machal that bring lone soldiers over to Israel, as well as being a tribute to all lone soldiers in the army. I wouldn't say that I'm famous, as a lone soldier or in general, but due to a mixture of this blog, the "small world" nature of the army and the fact that I have been around the army a bit (different courses, kavs and jobs), it has made me a little bit well-known within the "lone soldier world" of the army at least. Thus, they were a couple of instances this week were I was recognised by some of the new lone soldiers, who had either heard of me or read this blog. At one point while I was walking with my new soldiers (of whom I am at distance with), another new soldier shouts out, in a strong American accent "I know you, you're Sam Sank"!!! While my soldiers stood in both shock and amusement, I took him aside and then spoke to him in English for a few minutes and told him that I would help him with whatever he needed. When it comes to soldiers, I am definitely bias towards my own kin!!!

Myself and another 'mefaked' talking to some of the soldiers, unveknownst of are half attire!!!

Being a commander of these sort of soldiers is extremely difficult. When I say these sort of soldiers, I mean newly-drafted, inexperienced soldiers who are in shock from the new surroundings of being in the army and some of whom think they are still in civilian life but at a summer camp or something. One of the aspects of my role is to make sure that these guys know exactly where they are now and that is a working, discplined army, whereby combat soldiers are trained hard and face consequences for their actions. This week, I was forever reminding my soldiers of the procedures of army life; whether that be by telling them to tuck in their shirts or by checking on every single thing that they are told to do. Since they are so "young", it is impossible to trust them, not because they are not trustworthy (although some of them are not), but since they are so unfamiliar to how things work that, as one who is experienced in the army, I need to make sure that everything is done to the standards set by the army. This continuous notion of giving orders and then checking and correcting the final result is what made my week so draining and difficult, in terms of the workload. For those soldiers who were still acting with a civilian "head", my job was therefore to change that into a soldier's mindset and this ultimately meant disciplining them. I have to say, although it's never nice to see someone else suffer as you once did or in general, for me, as a lone soldier, it was very much amusing to see myself barking orders in Hebrew at these new recruits who had yet to "reset themselves" (as the army expression goes).

Phones I had confiscated from soldiers, who were using them during the day. Israel has gone iPhone crazy!!!

My most memorable moment during the last 'trom tirnout' when I was a commander, was probably the night of the 'gibbush' where I sent off my soldiers to three days of hell, after I gave them an Al Pacino style, inspirational speech and then marched them onto the basketball court before embracing each soldier. This time, the "night of the gibush" was also as memorable, but for totally different reasons. Before leading them to start the 'gibush', I was my soldiers for an hour or so to help them prepare their equipment and get them all organised. That night, however, must have been one of the coldest nights in Israel's history because I could barely function properly! Due to the upcoming 'gibush' the soldiers were forbidden to wear anything underneath their uniform as a health measure, on the other hand, I was wearing about five layers and was still freezing my bum off!!! As I then proceeded to lead them to the basketball court, I thought of the three excruciating days they had in front of them and how cold I was. Sometimes I wish I could turn back time and just re-live my whole service again because I've had the most incredible experience. This was definitely not one of those moments. After we had handed them over to those responsible for the 'gibush', along with the other commanders, I ran back to the rooms and got straight back into bed and under my covers. Sometimes it's great being commander!!!

So it was another terrific and meaningful fortnight. A lot of the times when I have been a commander, have been the most fun and most momentous throughout my whole service. This week will now probably be the last time I'll hear "Mefaked Sam", as after this 'tafkid' is finished, I am going back to my company and back to 'kav'. So I'll be sure to make it a good week...

Friday, 18 November 2011

Communal Crossword

The soldiers, of which I have been responsible for over the last few weeks, are now settled in 'makim' (commanders' course) and, as a result, signals the end of my latest role as a commander. I am home for the weeekend now but am once again at the 'Tzanchanim Bach' (training base for paratroopers) next week to start yet another job as a commander.

For the last fortnight I have been situated at the 'Bach' where I have been a commander for soldiers who were preparing to go to 'makim'. It wasn't the most strenuous couple of weeks I've ever had and, at times, the work I was doing seemed more like that of a babysitter than that of a 'mefaked' (commander). Nevertheless, I did have some responsibility and tried as best I could to have as much of an influence as possible on the would-be commanders. I felt this most during the week of navigations, where I taught and advised my soldiers the process of navigating; from reading a map, to learning how to understand and identify the terrain. For me, it was important passing on the knowledge I had to younger soldiers (some of whom may even go on to be company commanders or even higher) and I may even have a lasting influence on them, since it was their first handling of the skill. In a sense, it is a way of giving back to the army, but, more evidently, it shows the successful way in which the army works; how one generation of commanders teach the next generation and so on. In both the jobs I have had as a 'mefaked' so far, despite being temporary ones, both have had a significant influence on me and have made me feel proud of the work I've been doing. In both 'tafkids' (roles), I have played the sort of chaperone role, in the way that I have taken soldiers and got them prepared for that next step; whether it was for basic training or for 'makim'. Like, I said these 'tafkids' aren't considered prestigious like that of being a commander of basic training, however, I am very much appreciative of the opportunity I have had, especially as a lone soldier, of being a commander and affecting younger soldiers' army service.

With my soldiers the night before they left for 'makim'.

For the last night of this 'achana l'makim' (preparation for commanders' course), the overall commander of the whole paratroopers' brigade came to talk to the soldiers about the step they are taking and what that means for the rest of their service. It was a speech I've heard before during my 'achana l'makim', albeit by the previous brigade commander, but his words of leadership, responsibility and authority still inspired me greatly. However, it was his admiration and pride of the tzanchanim brigade that really affected me and reminded me how special and formidable the paratroopers are. On one distinct note, he spoke how no one can know what lies ahead, but if one day, by some certain circumstances, soldiers were needed to be dropped in enemy territory to protect our land, then it us who will take on that incredible duty. By passing jump school, each and every one of us paratroopers are qualified to undertake operational jumps and we proudly show off this qualification through the wings on our uniform. More than that though, it was his sheer confidence in the army as a whole and his way in explaining that the IDF is the modern-day bodyguard for the Jewish nation and how we will stand up and defeat any obstacle that comes our way. In no way was his promoting war, rather instilling in us the exhilirating pride to be wearing the IDF uniform and protecting this country. It is those sorts of speeches that make him a brigade commander!!!

This is me when I started the army; my uniform is fresh from the packaging and has no form of pins or tags. But a lot has changed in two years...

The 'tafkid' officially finished this morning and as my soldiers went off to the base for 'makim', I took the train home with one of the other commanders. On our train journey home, my friend and I decided to do the daily crossword from the newspaper, which happens to be my latest hobby (despite the fact I am rubbish at them since I can barely understand the clues and can only answer the questions which asks for capital cities). When we strated to struggle in a couple of the clues, the man sitting next to me looked very intrigued in what we were doing and helped out with some answers. Before long, the girl next to my friend had also joined in and the four of us completed the crossword together (at one point the girl grabbed the pen from my hand to fill in a clue!!!). It made me think how nothing of the sort would ever happen in England, where complete strangers would come together and interact on a very friendly basis. This is one of just many, in fact countless, instances I have witnessed since living here in Israel, where people simply help out each other; with hitchhiking being the obvious example. Even when calling out for someone on the street, to ask for directions or pass on something, one says "achi", which translates as 'my brother'. I have come to realise that the Israeli society is based on a mutual care for one another, most likely derived from the fact that Israel has been in difficult situations where everyone sticks together and pulls through as one. I also think it's a combination of the charitable nature of the Jewish community and the uncanny 'chutzpah' (cheekiness/audacity) of Israelis. Whatever it is, following the empowering speech from the brigade commander the night before, I realised how strong Israel is and how we will overcome anything. Feeling extremely zionist, I then proceeded to walk home in Tel Aviv's heavy rain, in what seemed an unusually pleasant and fitting reflection of how I was feeling.

... now, two years later, my uniform has changed dramatically, with the addition of pins, the beret and ranks!!!

As I said at the start of this blog, I am continuing on the 'Bach' to do yet another temporary 'tafkid' and for the next three weeks I will be a commander of 'trom tironut' (the same job I had three months ago) for the November '11 draft of tzanchanim. Once again, this means I will be a 'mefaked' of a large group of newly-drafted paratroopers in their first two weeks of being in the army. The last time I did this 'tafkid' I had one of the best periods of my whole service and absolutely relished the opportunity of being a 'mefaked' for the first time. This time, I am equally as happy to take on the challenge once again, although the novelty of being a commander has ever so slightly worn off. I was, however, somewhat looking forward to going back to my company, seeing my friends and experiencing the current 'kav', which is in the West Bank. Although, I will still get to go to 'kav' when this job is finished, I was ready to leave the 'Bach' and get back to the "real army". In saying this though, I would never turn down a job of being a 'mefaked' and, of course, there is the 'oketzing' that comes with it; I'll be out for next three consecutive weekends! Being a commander in 'trom tironut' for the November draft is even more significant for me, not only because the soldiers coming in will be my "grandchildren" but also because there will be loads of lone soldiers from Garin Tzabar. To think I might be the first ever 'mefaked' of some guys who have made aliyah would be a big deal for me. I'll just have to wait and see who I get next week...

So that was pretty much my last couple of weeks. On Sunday I am back on the 'Bach' in preparation of the new draft, which happens on Thursday, after which I will be with my new soldiers for two weeks. I'm sure I'll do another blog at some point and share with you all the experiences of this next 'tafkid'. Three more weeks of being "Mefaked Sam", I just love it...

Friday, 28 October 2011

Staff Sgt. Sank

Once again I have found myself at the 'Bach Tzanchanim' (training base for paratroopers), this time as part of a new temporary job as a commander. While the rest of my company starts a new 'kav' in the West Bank, I have been living it up for the past couple of weeks.

The moment we were all waiting for...

First things first, however. Thankfully, our prayers were answered last tuesday, when Gilad Shalit was released from captivity after five years and four months. I doubt there is one person reading this that did not know of his release or watch the events of last week unfold. For me personally, it was a joyous and highly emotional day. On the day itself, I left the Bach in the morning, in order to go home for the second part of Sukkot and the weekend that followed. That morning, along with the other commanders who I'm with in this current 'tafkid' (job), we arrived at the central bus station in Tel Aviv, in order to go home. We were all very agitated to get home and sit in front of the TV to see everything that was going on. As we walked over to the platform we needed, there was a big crowd blocking our way. Those who are not familiar with the bus station of south Tel Aviv, should understand that a huddled crowd in that area is commonplace and normally means some sort of incident involving misbehaving drunkards and the resulting containment by the police. Thus, I assumed it was another of those mishaps, but as I walked past, I realized that everyone was crowded round this tiny television inside a cafe that was showing the news. It was still quite early in the morning, so it was a long time before Gilad arrived in Israel, yet tens of people were fixated to the screen, in order to get an update on the situation. It reiterated to me the importance of last week's events to every single person in this country. I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV at home and I am not ashamed to say that when I saw the footage of him saluting the prime minister while exiting the helicopter in full uniform, I had genuine tears in my eyes. Without entering the debate about his release and the prisoners we sent back, seeing him back home in Israel is truly ground-breaking, in terms of what this country does for each and every one of its citizens. I could literally write a whole blog on how much this means and it was undoubtedly, one of the most momentous days in Israel's history and is fantastic to see him home.

The soldier returns home and is received by the Chief of Staff.

After such a deep and touching subject, it's hard to move on to talk about the rest of my week but, just like Gilad needs to try to move on and live a normal life, so will the contents of this blog. A few days after my return from London marked my two year anniversary of being in the army. This means a couple of things; primarily, that I have only got six more months left of service. Finishing four fifths of my total time as a soldier is astounding and now (but not during the past two years) it seems to have flown by! Now that I am two years into the army, in the addition to the fact I am qualified '08' (commander), I therefore move up a rank from sergeant to staff sergeant, with the official translation of the rank 'samal rishon' being "sergeant first class"!!! Now I have the 'samal rishon' rank sewed on my 'madey aleph' (dress uniform), as well as on one pair of my 'madey bet' (work uniform), while I am in this current 'tafkid', of which I will explain momentarily. Being a 'samal rishon' gives you a lot of respect within the army as it shows you are no longer a youngster. This is seen especially when traveling to and from the army, where I have seen young soldiers subtly glancing at the ranks on my uniform; most probably thinking how far they are away from those sacred patches!!!

Me and my new ranks; a 'falafel' in the centre of three lines.

So now to this new 'tafkid' that I keep mentioning. As of last week, I am currently a 'mefaked' in 'achana l'makim', which means that I'm a commander in the preparation for commanders' course within the paratroopers. In a sense, I am being a 'mefaked' for the would-be commanders from the paratrooper brigade, by preparing them for 'makim' (commanders' course), which they start in a few weeks. Every person who goes to commanders' course from the paratroopers (like I did a little over six months ago -, goes through this three week preparation before they start the real course. This 'tafkid' is not the most exciting in the world, as I am more or less just babysitting the soldiers; taking them to the dining room, keeping them quiet in lessons and telling them what time to go to bed. Yet, it is a 'tafkid' nonetheless and it's another exciting experience for me at being a 'mefaked'. Like I said, I am mainly with the soldiers to keep an eye on them, but I still hold some authority over them and have the responsibility to care for all their needs over the next couple of weeks. I am a lot older (in army age) than all of my soldiers, of which I have 13 guys from 101, so they are both intimidated by me and interested to hear of my experiences in the army of 'kav' and of 'makim'. These feelings of both respect and fear that they have towards me, allows me to be more of a commander than the 'tafkid' needs me to be!

My soldiers in the shooting range last week.

Being back at the 'Bach' again as a 'mefaked' is so much fun. As a soldier in basic training on the 'Bach', I was always taking orders, running to be on time and had little freedom whatsoever. Now it is the complete opposite; being an experienced 'lohem' (fighter) with ranks on my uniform means I can go almost anywhere I want on the base. The best thing, however, about being back on the 'Bach' is seeing my old soldiers when I was a 'mefaked' a couple of months ago during pre-basic training ( Although I only had those soldiers for a fortnight, I definitely made a lasting impression on them and, of course, one always remembers their first ever commander. So walking through the 'Bach' means every so often, a former soldier of mine shouts "Mefaked Sam" and runs up to me to say hello. Or, in some cases, the soldiers are with their current basic training commander and are still very much at distance. Thus, when they see me, I can see that they've recognized me by the look on their face, but are unable to come over to me because they are walking in line or something like that! They are almost all "grown up" having nearly finished basic training and it nice to think that it was me who had the first impact on their service as a soldier.

I have a couple more weeks left of this current 'tafkid', after which I will return to my company, which has just started a new 'kav' in the West Bank. The week I go back to my company also marks my platoon becoming veterans, a very significant and beneficial event, of which I will explain in the next blog.

There is only one way to end this week's blog...

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Fasting in Lebanon

After being in London for thirty days, I was hoping for an easy transition back into the army routine, but that was one of the craziest weeks I've ever had. I was only in the army for seven days, yet still managed to spend Yom Kippur on base, finish the 'kav' in Lebanon and then complete one of the hardest field exercises the IDF has to offer. This all is but a speck on what is surely the most important thing to have happened in the last five years.

Firstly, my return to the army after a full month off was actually very smooth. Not only was I looking forward to seeing my friends and getting back into the swing of things, but the knowledge that in six months time I'm done with the army helped me to return with a smile on my face. Everyone was happy to see me and hear of my stories from back home, but as ever, any extra manpower in the 'pluga' (company) gives everyone a boost. A mere few hours after being back on base and officially the gdud's property once again, I was thrown straight into the deep end and into something I'd never done before. Due to my status as an '08' soldier, one that has finished commanders' course, I am therefore qualified to be a commander of one of the vehicles of a 'siyur' (mounted patrol along the border) and this is what I was assigned to do shortly after arriving on base. I cannot talk about what a 'siyur' entails, but I can say that I did have a certain amount of responsibility and was responsible for a number of soldiers. Realistically, I didn't have to do that much, although it did show me that my 'mem mem' (platoon commander), who has become like a good friend as well as being my commanding officer, has a certain level of trust in me. It was a new experience to be in somewhat of a minor authorative role in the field (as supposed to when I was a commander on the training base) and although it was slightly daunting at first, I started to relish the experience.

Mid-siyur shopping in a petrol station!

Last week was Yom Kippur and it was my first and will be my only YK in the army. For the previous two YKs I was in my old kibbutz, Ortal, where I simply fasted and just tried to pass the time, much like I used to do when in England. This year, however, I was in very different circumstances, albeit not to far away from my old kibbutz. Along with about just half of the soldiers in the pluga, I started the fast on a big meal and then went to the Kol Nidre service at the tiny mobile synagogue on the base. I was a bit apprehensive about going to prayers, but it turned out to be a very meaningful service and something that I won't forget easily. The fact that it was all a bit patched together just added to it's specialness, whereby everyone gave input to a part of the service, giving it a multicultural atmosphere of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Moroccan and even Ethiopian themes. It really encapsulated the beauty of Israel. At one point I accidentally lent on the light switch and turned off the lights, so one of the Druzi drivers was called in to turn them back on (!), again the beauty of Israel in it's most simplest forms. On Yom Kippur itself, I was on siyur for the majority of the day, so the fast was not easy at all, as we were effectively not resting. Being on border patrol during YK is one of the most unique thongs one can do, knowing that I was protecting Israel's northern border so it's citizens can go to synagogue in peace is exceptionally rewarding. We broke the fast on coffee and cookies while overlooking the landscape of southern lebanon, without a doubt, an unforgettable Yom Kippur!

My bed on 'kav'.

This week also marked the end of 'kav tsafon' (northern border deployment) for my gdud. My friends all said that it was one of the worst periods of their service for a number of reasons and were thrilled to be leaving. Luckily for me, I was absent for the majority of the 'kav', having had the role as a commander for a couple of weeks and then being in England for month. After leaving the north, the whole 'gdud' did a field exercise near the dead sea. I had heard that it was going to be hard and having not really done anything like that in as much as a year, I was actually excited to do the challenge. However, the reality was a lot harder than I'd imagined. We walked from 8 in the evening until 5 in the morning, covering over 20km of mountainous desert; 9km of which, were done with open stretchers. Once we finished all the walking, then the actual battalion exercise began, which lasted several hours, meaning several hours of us to runing up hills in the scorching heat. I can honestly say now, it was one of the hardest things I've done in the army. Walking up and down hills for an hours and hours ("hills" doesn't give credit to what we climbed) with my unbelievably heavy bag is no easy task. The pain was everywhere; from my burning shoulders (struggling to cope with the weight) and excruciating lower back (having to hold up the massive bag), to my legs (striving to push the rest of my body up the steep gradient) and all the way down to my feet, whose state is so severe that it's too horrific to put a picture of them up on the blog. How can one get through a night like that when it genuinely seems humanely impossible and it feels you can't physically continue. This question is what sums up what being 'lohem' (combat soldier) in the IDF is all about. As I walked along beside my 'mem mem', I feel as though we shared each other's pain; hearing him grunt on the numerous 'aliyot' (uphill climbs) and then him hearing me sigh once we would reach every summit. The army is all about being there for the guy next to you, whether its your friend or your officer. It's those sort of hellish nights that builds this army into the strongest in the world and I'm proud to say that we all finished it together.

Grounding of the coffee - a ritual activity for army 'youngsters' in my company.

I can't believe and never thought I would be able to write this sentence in one of my blogs, yet the news on Tuesday night was that Gilad Shalit is coming home. When hearing of the news in the army, we found ourselves overcome with joy and emotion and spontaneously started embracing one another. Without going into the whole debate, it is 100% the right decision from the government and it has taken far too long. I pray that the exchange goes as planned and that I'll be able to write on the next blog how it is fantastic to see him back with us and in full recovery. Imagine the moment when he'll actually walk into the room and reunite with his parents; it's very hard to describe the happiness and relief and all the other emotions that will be felt for every single Israeli. I have found myself a few times this week in pure disbelief at the thought of him coming back, it has gone on for so long that there was a genuine fear of him never ever returning. As I have said a few times before on the blog, Gilad Shalit's fate has naturally been the most prominent issue in the Israel media for five years and the campaign for his release has been ongoing and has never really slowed down. It is just unbelievable that after all the years of marches and posters and songs, he is finally coming home to us.

I am back to the army tomorrow but should be out again on Wednesday for Sukkot Bet (I am currently out for Sukkot Aleph). In the next blog I'll be sure to write about entering my final six months of my service and what that means. Also next week, we'll be starting a new 'kav'. Hag Samaech to you all and hoping for a safe return for Gilad...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Goodbye again London

I am now back at my flat in Tel Aviv, having flown in from London yesterday, after being there for the last month. I had the most amazing time at home with all my friends and family; doing everything I wanted to do and seeing everyone I wanted to see. Whereas last year, it was very hard for me to come back to Israel after the month back home, this time it is a completely different story and I am feeling fine to go back to the army tomorrow.

What a month! Pretty much like last year's trip but probably even better. For four weeks, I endulged myself on all the things I miss about London; from watching Sky TV at home to playing football with my mates. Apart from the two hour session of playing football, I did zero exercise (transition back to the army may be hard work then!) and took no restraint to the amount of food I ate and time I spent lying around being lazy. But then again, that is what the 'meyuhedet' (special holiday) is all about and after more than a year of not being home, I have to admit that I deserved it. Every day was simply fantastic and I spent some quality time with my parents (and all my family) during Rosh Hashannah. Going to shul and feeling part of the festival is actually somehting I don't really do in the surroundings of the army or in Tel Aviv, so that was also a nice part of the holiday. One of the main highlights has to be all the Tottenham matches that I managed to get tickets for, and going to Spurs with my papa (just like I used to in the old days) was extremely special. The fact that we won every game while I was in England, including a fantastic defeat of our rivals Arsenal, made my friends try and convince me to stay in London as I became somewhat of a lucky charm! As much as I don't ever regret leaving London, there are a lot of things that I miss and it's also important to rememeber that this month was a holiday for me from the army, maybe this explains why I had such an incredible then. Coming back here this time was a lot easier than last year and I think the fact that I came home to my apartment in Tel Aviv has a lot to do with it.

With my new baby cousin, Harry, who was born while I was in London.

One of the other highlights from my trip was when I went up to a couple of my friends' universities to visit. Since I was in England during September, most of my friends had already gone back to university and since I've never experienced the uni lifestyle, I went there for a few nights. It was a crazy couple of nights, filled with alcohol, partying and general madness, and it was great to catch up with all my friends and blow off a lot of steam with them. Coming home from the universities left with me some interesting thoughts however. While all my friends are living the non-stop party lifestyle, where they literally do nothing all day, don't turn up to lectures and then party all night, I am leading somewhat of a different style of life. When comparing who is doing something more meaningful or fulfilling, I'd say it's easy to see that the army and aliyah has definitely given me a purpose to life. Nevertheless, I came away a tiny bit jealous and kind of frustrated that I'll never experience what they're doing, which is three years of care-free, student living. Although my plan is to go to university here in Israel once I'm done with the army, it's not the same experience (not necessarily worse, just different and more mature) as the one my friends have been doing for the last three years. It doesn't make me regret my decisions at all it just something that I won't expereince fully, but then again, in life, there are many things one will never experiences and I suppose I have to always look back on the fact that in the long run what I am doing now and continue to do post-army is what really matters.

With my best friends on a night out at uni - and, yes, I am wearing an army t-shirt!

As I neared the end of my amazing trip I started to say goodbye to my various friends and family. Goodbyes are alway so difficult, I mean how do you say to a good friend "see you later", when really "later" means in a years time. As much as I try and keep in good contact with my mates it is quite hard due to all the circumstances, so this trip where I see them a lot for a concentrated amount of time is great but something out of the norm. Although when I was back home, everything felt like normal after five minutes and seeing everyone again so many times in such a short period is great, it makes it even harder to say goodbye. In the end though, there's nothing you can do but part ways and as fun as it was for the last four weeks, everyone moves on and here I am back in Israel. Saying goodbye to my parents however, is something completely different. I think I realised that the main source of any anxiety, sadness or pain that I have following time off from the army is not because I have to finish my holiday and go back to reality, instead it's the fact that I have to separate with my parents every time. I have a unique relationship with my mummy and daddy (the fact I still call them that alone shows that I clearly am still attached to them!!) and making aliyah was the hardest thing I ever had to do as it meant leaving them behind. Leaving them yesterday was as hard as ever and it's simply because I love them so much and miss them all the time.

My parents by Chinatown in London, on one of our many day trips together.

It was truly a wonderful month and something I can enjoy and be grateful for but still come back here to Israel and get on with my normal life. While last year I questioned my life here on my return from London, this time I am a lot more confident of everything and the fact that I can look forward to life beyond the army in six months time is exciting. I go back to the army tomorrow and back to my platoon on the Lebanon border, in the coming weeks there will be some interesting developments to my army service, of which I will update in the next blog. I will be closing Yom Kippur, so fast well everyone and just feel lucky you're not guarding in the scorching heat as I probably will!!!

Singing my heart out at Spurs.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

From Lebanon to London

I don't think I've ever been more excited than I am right now. After a hard two weeks on the 'kav', I am home now in Tel Aviv for the weekend as I prepare for my month-long trip back to my other home in London on Sunday.

Concerning these last two weeks, it most certainly was not a gradual winding down of the army lifestyle before my upcoming trip. I returned to my company on the 'kav' (the general guarding and patrolling of Israel's borders), having been away for a month following my job as a commander on the 'Bach'. It wasn't the first time I had been on the current 'kav', which for tzanchanim at the moment is Israel's northern border with Lebanon, but this time I was now there for more than a couple of days. Although I did 'kav' in Gaza for nearly six months earlier this year, it was a little bit difficult for me to get used to the routine of being on 'kav', having not done it for so long. While the rest of my friends in the 'mahlaka' (platoon) had already been there a month (of which they had to close 24 consecutive days before going home!), I had missed out ('oketzed' is probably the more suitable word) on the end of the 'kav' in Gaza, due to commanders' course, and the majority of this 'kav' because I was in my recent 'tafkid'. All this accumulates to a lot of time that my friends were suffering and closing on the 'kav', while I was having the time of my life as a commander! To top it all off, last weekend was the first Shabbat that I have closed in ten weeks (!), which for a combat soldier is ridiculous, hence my unrivaled reputation as the master 'oketz'. My friends in the 'mahlaka' were obviously not impressed by this little statistic and they made up for it by making me a 'toran' (kitchen and company duties) for a highly unproportional amount of days compared to everyone else. This explains why this last little period for me in the army was rather difficult and tiring but I probably deserve it.

Working hard at the 'shin gimmel' (main gate of the base).

Back on the 'kav', things returned to how they were for me when I was a 'hapash' (regular soldier), the period before I went to commanders' course. By the way, following my recent role as a 'mefaked' last month, I am now back to my platoon as regular, non-commander, combat soldier and am, once again, attached to, (more like the "property of"), my battalion as opposed to the 'Bach'. Being a 'hapash' on 'kav' has its advantages and its disadvantages. On the up side, there are a lot less responsibilities than that of a commander, meaning when a patrol is finished I can go off and be lazy, while my 'mefaked' always has errands to run and sleeps less than us, without exception, almost every night. However, being a 'hapash' means kitchen duty, more guard duties and in general, we are the manpower, sort of manual labour, of the 'gdud' (battalion). So while it is less of a headache to be a commander, especially on 'kav' where one has the responsibility of real operations, like border patrols, the 'hapash' probably works harder overall. I definitely put my fair share of hours in during this last fortnight on base; washing hundreds of dishes when on kitchen duty and guarding for countless number of hours. I was only in the army for a total of fourteen days (which is about half of what platoon will eventually close for) but it did feel like a bit of a marathon and the countdown of days to when I was getting out was blisteringly slow. Still though, I am out now as I sit here in my apartment in Tel Aviv and can look back on the last two weeks with ease now, knowing that I'm not there anymore!!!

Taking a break from the kitchen to check out the anti-demonstration-tear-gas-grenade launchers!!!

The transition from going back to the army after being home on leave for the weekend is never easy but this time it was harder than usual. Partly because we had just been on 'regila' (a five day holiday), partly because we were going back to a lot of hard work on the 'kav', but mainly due to the fact that we went back to the army on a Friday, meaning we were back on base at the start of the weekend while everyone else was going home (including my friends outside the army). On that first Friday night, I saw how the transition from being at home to going back to the army, can really take you from one extreme to another. On the Thursday night before going back, I walked home to my apartment in Tel Aviv after a night out clubbing, on Friday night I walked back "home" to base under very different circumstances. After finishing guarding at a checkpoint near the border, we then walked a few minutes along Israel's northern frontier, in order to go back to base. It was an overwhelming experience; to our left was southern Lebanon, a stone's throw away, and to our right, the not-to-distant lights of Kiryat Shemona were visible. To think that I was comfortably walking home after a night out in Tel Aviv and then a mere twenty four hours later, I was actively safeguarding over the residents of the north. It is crazy to comprehend the quick contrast one can go through when going back to the army. However, more than that, to see the lights of Kiryat Shemona and know that we were watching over the Jewish people was a very rewarding feeling. It's those sorts of moments that caused me to pack up my bags in England and come to Israel and join the army as a combat soldier.

Translation: Military area - no photography allowed!!!

As much as the army does its upmost to guard over Israels' hostile borders, terrorists sometimes find a way in and two weeks ago, another unprecedented attack on civilians occurred, killing seven. I don't want to use my blog to talk politics, although there is nothing political about terrorists, but I do want to touch upon the reaction of the world to what happened. Innocent people were murdered on a bus but for the rest of the world this is still not good enough. There were many examples of the double standard that the world media sets upon Israel, like how BBC's headline was "Israel pounds Gaza" (military airstrikes targeted specifically at terrorist organization), despite the early massacre. From what I understand, Hamas' recent bombardment of rockets on the Negev didn't even make it into the news at all and the fact that young children were injured and over a million people had to sleep in bunkers for a week was simply ignored. I'm sure that many of you who are reading are equally disgusted as to the way Israel is represented and, as an ardent Zionist who is physically fighting for Israel, I too am just sick of it all. We seem to be alone in this world, as we always have been and despite things heating up slightly in Israel, I know that we will overcome everything, as we always have. I don't like setting this sort of tone but I was simply disgusted by the recent events and Israel's subsequent portrayal, that I needed to mention something in the blog.

Learning a bit about tanks.

On a much more positive note, this Sunday I am taking my 'meyuhedet' (the annual 30 day trip a lone soldier receives to go home). The last time I was in England was in August, last summer, so it's been over a year now that I haven't been back home in London. I am so excited to go back again, I can't even begin to explain. So many good things are happening during the time that I'll be back in England, like my birthday and Rosh Hashanah. I've also already got a trip planned to go to my friends' university for a couple of days and several Tottenham games to go to as well. Simply though, to see all my family and friends and be back home for a month, doing all the things I miss doing is something that is truly priceless. Being away from the army for a month is also hard to put a price on, despite having it considerably easy in the army during the last couple of months (in terms of the amount of time I've been off). Not having to worry about getting up in the middle of the night to guard, having the luxury of not putting on uniform and boots every morning and not cleaning one plate in the kitchen (sorry mum!) is going to be wonderful. I did have a lot of trouble trying to get the full 30 days of 'meyuhedet' for a number of reasons (the fact that I'm not a commander means I was able to take time off however) and I appreciate all those who made sure that I got this time off. While my new 'mem pey' (commander company) has truly disgracd himself in his attitude and concern for a soldier, my new 'mem mem' (platoon commander) has shown himself to be a great guy and someone I look forward to carrying on with upon my return. I fly to london on Sunday morning and just thinking about going home gets me all excited; thirty days back in England is something I've been looking forward to for such a long time now and it's finally arrived.

That's it then. It feels like I've reached the end to another chapter of my aliyah journey and army service; having started my third year in Israel and finising 'makim' and, consequently a job as a commander, I now take the second trip back home since making Aliyah. I'm interested to see what I'll be like on my return (there are things to look towards once I come back from London, which I'll talk about when relevant) but I just hope that it'll be easier to come back to Israel than it was last year. I will try and write a blog from London, that is if I have enough time from all the fun I'll be doing. Waited so long for this now; London here I come...

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Breaking distance

Having finishing my 'tafkid' as a commander in 'trom tironut', I am now at home for a couple before I return to my company and to the 'kav' on the northern border, where I have been absent for the last month.

My soldiers lifting me up on our last day together.

What an amazing couple of weeks I have just had being back on the 'Bach' as a commander of the newly-recruited paratroopers. It was an exhausting two weeks to say the least, being a 'mefaked' (commander) in general is hard enough, but having 42 soldiers in their first ever week in the army was a total nightmare! Despite the hardships though, this last fortnight has been one of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences that I've had to date, being responsible and leading others was something that was brand new to me in the terms of the army and I absolutely loved it. Giving orders, as opposed to receiving them and being in the know, is something I've never done before in my service. That is the beauty of the first 'tafkid' (role) and I really relished having the opportunity to use the skills I learnt in commanders' course and to show my personality through my leadership of soldiers. The challenge of being responsible for 42 soldiers (which increased by four from last week) is not an easy one and the fact that this week was one of the busiest, most stressful and a complete logistical nightmare made my job even harder. Just being aware of where all my soldiers were all the time is a whole story within itself and I can already see that my phone bill this month is going to break phone network records. I think my phone is even more tired than I am, with constant phone calls to the other commanders, my soldiers and to the commanding officer, all being a regular fixture of the week. I can't begin to describe the headache that is being a commander and this is before even touching on the interaction with the soldiers themselves. Chasing up on people, building the next day's timetable, arguing with those responsible for the dining room, dealing with bus drivers, the list can go on and on. One thing this week has given me, apart from a continuous migraine (!), is a new sense of confidence in myself to deal with all those sort of things; a type of Israeli attitude that forces you to argue with everyone and push your way to the front!!!

A late-night meeting with the overall officer; long after the soldiers had gone to sleep.

I remember when I was a soldier on the 'Bach' during basic and advanced training, I used to look upon the commanders in awe and was fascinated by them and everything they did. Whether it was seeing them whisper to each other so we wouldn't hear the inside information, imagining what went on inside the commanders' quarters or the rare occasion when the 'mefaked' couldn't contain his laughter even though he was at distance with us. However, this week it was I who was doing all the things that I used to notice about my commanders. I could see how my soldiers would get all excited if I failed to keep a straight face (which happened a lot!) or I would notice the fear in their eyes if I suddenly called them out the room to speak with them. I also saw how my new soldiers would be intrigued by the way I looked in comparison to them; whether that be the sergeant ranks on 'bet' (work uniform), the red kumta or the baseball cap instead of the disgusting hat you're given in basic training. It was very fun to be "behind the scenes" for a change and see things from the mefaked's point of view, where, at the 'Bach' especially, your experience is completely different from that of the soldiers. Different yes, but less fun, absolutely not. I can definitely say that, despite all the responsibilities and headaches, being a commander is very entertaining, particularly with soldiers so early on in their army service. The fact that the other guys I was with were absolute legends (and have now become very good friends of mine), only helped to make these last two weeks such a great laugh and if the soldiers only knew what kind of nonsense we got up to in the commanders' quarters after they went to bed!

That kind of nonsnse! The aftermath of a playfight amongst us commanders.

So what was I like with my soldiers? Like I said two weeks ago, I was a lot more laid back with my soldiers in comparison to some of the other commanders. Although we were not allowed to punish them physically (press ups etc) we still had to keep them discplined, whether that be by making them stand at attention or by walking them in straight lines around the base. Some of the other commanders took the role in one certain way; shouting and screaming at the soldiers, while I took it from another angle. I barely raised my voice (talking quietly is actually more effective in terms of scaring them!!) but that was never the intention, instead I was extremely relaxed, probably too much, with my soldiers and joked around with them a lot. However, where I really excelled in my role was my attention to detail and personal care for each soldier. Even though I only had them for a little over two weeks and my job was that of a temporary/transitional commander, I thought it was vital that I looked after them and made sure they got through the start of their service without any problems. One way I did this was by learning their names and where they came from (all 42 of them!!!), of which I was the sole commander to claim to have done. I also took special consideration of the lone soldiers who were in my company; helping them with the language and with any other sorts of problems that they had; I saw their appreciation for my asistance and remembered what it was once like to be in their position. I think they were also impressed by the fact that a lone soldier who is still struggling with the language was now a commander and, to be totally honest, I am surprised as well to as how far I've come. I was by far the most popular commander in 'trom tironut', to be fair though, it suits me to be the one who preferred to be the "popular one" than the "more efficient one"; by letting my soldiers get away with things they shouldn't have!!! In the end though, my soldiers did truly appreciate the work I put in for them and were grateful for the extra effort that I made to help them in their two weeks in the army.

While they worked... I took photos!!!

The best part of the two weeks for me, was the night of the 'gibush'. The 'gibush' was a three day physical trial to get into the more elite units within tzanchanim, something which I attempted and completed in my 'trom tironut'. All but one of my soldiers went out to do the 'gibush' and a large handful even managed to be accepted into those units. After sending them to sleep the night prior to the 'gibush', we, the commanders, were then informed that we had the pleasure of given them a 'hakpatsa' (emergency wake-up call) later on in the night, in order to get them ready for the 'gibush'. This meant we had the joy of waking them all up army-style, so we all proceeded to burst into the rooms, turn on all the lights, bang on the walls and shout out the necessary instructions. That was amusing; seeing them all suddenly in shock, not knowing what to do or what was going on and then clambering around to get dressed, it's so much more fun to experience a 'hakpatsa' from the perspective of a mefaked! Asides from the initial enjoyment, the episode turned out to be something a lot more meaningful. After helping them get all their stuff ready for the impending 'gibush', I then led them all to the basketball court where they were split up into their teams for the 'gibush'. I stood by the entrance to the basketball court and embraced each soldier before he went off to his specific group and to three days of gruelling physical challenges. I gave each one an affectionate handshake, wished him good luck and then tapped him on the back before approaching the next guy. Although, like I said, I was just their temporary commander for an extremely short period of their army service, I did feel considerably connected to each of my soldiers and seeing them off like that was somewhat significant, even emotional, for me.

Mefaked Sam - with ranks on my 'bet' uniform.

The last thing I did with my soldiers was the customary ritual one does when leaving the 'tafkid' and that is to break distance. Although there was not a huge amount of distance to break, since I was very relaxed and open with my soldiers, I still broke "distance" with them and told them all about myself. They clearly all knew that I had made aliyah, I think my accent from the first minute of meeting them kind of gave myself away but it was still nice to tell them my story and then talk about all the funny things that went on (things they didn't know about and then things that happened that I didn't know about). It was simply a great couple of weeks and a fantastic experience, but more importantly I feel privileged to have take part in a form of leadership within the framework of the army. I salute all the leaders that I've had over the years, whether that be teachers or instructors on summer camp, I now know how much of a challenge it is to be responsible and to educate others. Having that experience in the army though, only increases the challenge and I'm proud to have done it. When I finally parted from my soldiers, they were all very sad to see me go and upset to learn that I wasn't going to continue as their commander for basic training.

With my soldiers, after breaking distance with them - my favourite picture!

I am now two years in Israel (my second year Aliyah anniversary passed last week) and I am still amazed by what I've been through and to where I am standing today. After finishing the 'tafkid', I was delighted to find out that my platoon was given 'regila' (five day holiday for combat soldiers), the reason why I am at home now. So, I am off until friday and then I will return to the north and rejoin my company on 'kav'...

Saturday, 30 July 2011

"Mefaked Sam"

This may well end up being the best three weeks of my whole service and I still can't believe how lucky I have got in this past week. Aside from starting my 'tafkid' (role) as a commander of newly-recruits in the tzanchanim yesterday, we were also given a random two-day holiday from the army in preparation for the 'tafkid' and, therefore, spent more time with my mum, who was here in Israel for work.

When I arrived at the 'Bach' (tzanchanim training base) with the other commanders last Sunday, I was expecting a couple of days of training for this new 'tafkid', before we would eventually meet the new soldiers at the Bakkum yesterday, which was the official draft date for the August '11 draft of tzanchanim. However, we all soon became extremely happy, after learning the schedule for the upcoming weeks ahead. The preparation ended up being just a couple of hours, meaning that we literally had nothing to do from Sunday afternoon until yesterday, Wednesday, the day the new soldiers drafted. So, we were given two and a half days of holiday (!), now this is something that never happens in the army; if you've got nothing to do then they find something for you, there's no such thing as a two day break from the army for no reason. So you can imagine our joy and also our shock to find out about this little gift we were given. It doesn't end there; following the draft day at the 'Bakkum' (the base where every soldier first drafts) yesterday, we then went home for the weekend! That's a 'ravush' (wednesday weekend), meaning that I was in the army this week for a little under two days, without actually having any official holiday. The best (and also spooky) part of it all meant that for the one week where I was hardly in the army, happened to be the same week that my mum was here for work. Consequently, I managed to see my mum for nearly her whole trip here, which came from nothing as I expected to hardly see here and this was of course the greatest part of it all, as we spent some real quality time together.

Yesterday was the big day for me; my first day in my new 'tafkid' as a commander and the day where I received my soldiers for the first time. Being at the 'Bakkum' again brought back some interesting memories and reminded me how far I've come since the day when I first became the army's property!!! I, along with the other commanders, arrived at the 'Bakkum' yesterday with the expectation of a long and tiring day, and we were not disappointed. Before receiving our own soldiers, we first had to help all the newly-drafted tzanchanim in the infamous changing rooms. This is the part where after going through the long process of getting the army ID, having injections, being photographed, form-filling etc, you finally arrive to the room where you get your uniform and make the last transition from citizen to soldier. This is always the most stressful part of the day, as I remember, not only are you being rushed but also have the difficulty of knowing how to dress correctly in this new uniform. Our initial role as commanders was to help the new soldiers with this scary process by... well... dressing them!!! Those couple of hours I spent in the changing rooms may be the funniest I'll have in my whole service. I cannot begin to describe some of the stupid questions I was asked; from "how do you put on shoes?" to "why didn't I get the red beret?", to some of the ridiculous things I ended up doing; from buttoning up shirts to tying up shoelaces. I don't blame them though, we were all like that at the start, but when you get to the position that I am in now, it's hard not to laugh at their naivity and how 'tsair' (young and unexperienced) they were.

Following the hilarious changing room incident, I then proceeded to stand in front of my new soldiers for the next two weeks. Thirty eight soldiers (yes, that's right 38, the size of a platoon, making me effectively a platoon commander because of the sheer number of soldiers) all of whom are 100% reliant on me and who I am now 100% responsible for. It's a huge responsibility, no I'm not leading them into war tomorrow, but I am in charge of their welfare and well-being for the next fortnight, which is their first two weeks in the army. They'll be soldiers now for three years but these first weeks are the most crucial and most difficult due to the dramatic change from being a citizen to being a soldier; suddenly adapting to being told when to eat, sleep and go to the toilet and where, when and how to walk, stand and sit is a huge transition. As their commander I need to make sure each and every one of my soldiers gets through this difficult stage and learns how to behave like a soldier. The 'tafkid', mainly because of the amount of soldiers I have, is also a massive head ache. For example, I need to make sure they all arrive on Sunday to the right place, with the right equipment and on time, no doubt, each soldier will have their own personal problem, meaning my phone is not going to stop ringing all weekend.
The "fresh meat"; my soldiers for the next two weeks.

Despite eveything I've just said though, I simply cannot wait to get started. Although I was only with them for a few hours yesterday, I am already relishing the role and really enjoy the power, not in a dictator sort of way, but in the fact that they need to listen to me and I can help and instruct them. In the few hours I was with them, I have already made a good impression on them, even having a number of soldiers come up to thank me for helping them so far and some even saying they already like me. A little exaggerated I know, but it's kind of like having children, as I need to teach them what to do and what not to do, and if they get out of line, then punish them. I can see from yesterday however, that my style of leadership is one that is more laid back, smiling and joking, rather than shouting and screaming. Having them call me "mefaked Sam", not by my own insistence, makes me feel very proud, to think that a mere two years I was on the verge of making aliyah and now I have 38 soldiers calling me "commander" is simply mind-blowing. This upcoming week, I will be with them a lot; helping them with their absorption to the 'Bach', getting them prepared for the internal tzanchanim gibush and just being there if they need. I will also need to be a bit more disciplinary with them next week, in order to maintain the strict rules of the 'Bach'; walking in straight lines, lining up for food and standing at attention. All this stuff will be a very funny experience for me, to think that I'm going to be standing in front of all those soldiers while trying to keep a straight face is definitely going to be challenge.

Just as I was last weekend, I am very excited to go back to the army on Sunday, despite the fact I am going to have to wake up so early on Sunday morning in order to be the first to arrive. Next week is going to be a hard week for me; little sleep, having to handle the problems of 38 different soldiers and keeping up with a very tight schedule is no easy feat, but something I am looking forward to. I will once again be out next weekend (while the rest of my platoon closes another Shabbat up north as part of the '17'!!!) so will hopefully write another blog on the week's experiences.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Starting the new kav...

I should've been completing my first '17' of the new kav but, as per usual, my repuatation as the biggest oketz this army has ever seen, has once again, proven to be true. As of speaking, I am writing this blog to you from my home in Tel Aviv late on a Saturday night, before returning to the army tomorrow. I was out this weekend because my mum was here for her work, however, the real oketzing is that I won't be going back to the kav up north tomorrow, but I'll be going to the 'bach' (tzanchanim training base) instead. All shall be revealed...

I'll start with my short, but definitely filling, taste of the new kav up in the north at Israel's border with Lebanon. My gdud, 101, is located on and around Mount Dov, a mountain range sandwiched between Metulla/Kiryat Shemona and the Hermon (if you know your Israeli geography). It's a sensitive region and one which needs continuous patrolling and monitoring from a combat batallion. Whereas in Gaza, the whole batallion was situated on one base, this time, due to the complexities of the northern border, the gdud is split up into its companies and even platoons, with each one having its own base or 'motsav' (post). My company has its own 'motsav', which means that for the first time for me in the army, I am on a very intimate base with just my 'pluga' (company), around 80 soldiers all in all. I can't obviously say where exactly the 'motsav' is, but we are very close to the border and our main objective is patrolling Israel's northern front and making sure everything is safe up there. The northern border, those who are well educated on the subject and its history will know, is a very complex matter with certain parts still being quite cloudy, due to the unreachable mountain range, the unconfirmed international borders and the unclarity of the "blue line", Whereas in Gaza there was a very clear border and a very clear stance on what it represents, up north it's entirely different because the situation there is so much more sensitive and delicate. This all adds up to a very interesting type of kav and one that is going to be an experience whatever happens.

My new 'motsav' with the beautiful landscape of Mount Dov in the background.

So I started the kav and as much as I remembered how much I loved the routine of it (I still think my time in Gaza was my most enjoyable time in the army so far), the hardships and difficulties of being on kav were also re-introduced. Firstly, despite being out this weekend, throughout the week the struggle of completing 17 days in the army was a reality again and even though I got used to it in Gaza, it is never a fun cycle and psychologically is very hard. The other harships of kav also came up in this past week; whether that be lack of sleep, the boredom of long guard duties or the pure depressive nature of kitchen and company duties. Being the first week of a new kav and a new '17', the mood was very tense and only on the 12 hour 'siyur' (mounted border patrol) did I notice some more upbeat conversation. In fact, it was on that 'siyur' that I joined in on a very interesting conversation between some of the guys in my 'mahlaka' that I'd like to share. We talked about the friendships one makes in the army and how the saying that "friends from the army are your friends for life" is not entirely true. As much as I love the friends I've made from the army, due to the continuously changing nature of the army, it is easy to lose touch with people. A perfect example of this is how some of the guys from 'makim', who I felt extremely close to, I have already started to lose contact with them, simply because we've all gone back to our respective units and are all in different places doing differnet things. However, we concluded that it even if you lose touch, friendships from the army are unique in the fact that they have been through and passed tests that can't be found in public life. There are some guys in my 'mahlaka' that I honestly am not that keen on and would definitely not have been friends with them if they were in my year at school for instance, however, we have been through weeks of shetach together, where we didn't sleep, didn't eat and snuggled together in sleeping bags when it was cold. We may not like each other but we were on the same 'siyur' together when there was a serious incident in Gaza. These things make a friendship and its something that binds us together forever. We also marvelled how a whole mix of people can come together to make a combat class of soldiers; from Ethiopians and Russians and religious and secular, to northerners and southerners and 'sabras' (born Israelis) and immigrants, like my self. In the end, the differences never matter because we are all fighting together as one with the same cause.

Bunkers on the 'motsav', very much like the movie "Beaufort".

As bad as the first week of kav was, I knew that I was going to get a nice treat at the end of it by getting out for the weekend, but more importantly, by seeing and spending time with my mummy. We were in Jerusalem for the weeeknd and I re-discovered my love for the city, even though it's hardly gone away. As you may have noticed from the blog, I'm a big fan of Tel Aviv. It's a buzzing, young city, full of culture and history, and a truly fantastic place to live for any Jew in the world, but in particular for budding zionists and younger people. Nevertheless, in terms of symbolic, political and spirital (the list of superlatives could go on: historical, religous, militarily tactical etc) importance, it donesn't even come near to the holy city. I don't think I could ever live in Jerusalem, even though the idea of being close to the kotel and all those incredible historical places does inspire me, but it is, undoubtedly, the most important thing about Israel. I think that's why I've always seen the capture of the Old City in the six day war as the key event in Israel's history and this also explains my love for tzanchanim and the desire I had to be part of the brigade's history. With this incredible city as a background, I had a wondeful weekend with my mummy and only made me looked forward even more to my (still not confirmed grrrr!!!) trip back to London in the summer.

Meeting up with my mummy in Jerusalem.

And now to the big news. On friday morning, moments before leaving to go home, I was informed that I would be going to the 'bach' tomorrow, in order to be a 'mefaked' (commander) for soldiers in 'trom tironut'. 'Trom tironut' is the first two weeks of your army service; from the time you go to the Bakkum to get your army I.D. and uniform up until the point where you go to your respective battalion within tzanchanim and start 'tironut' (basic training). During that period, you are under the supervision of commanders who'll look after and guide you, before you meet up with your proper commanders for basic training. For me, it's the perfect job and something that is highly in demand by those who are '08' qualified but don't have a permament role as a commander. When I was told, I was so excited, not only have I finally been given some sort of 'tafkid' (job as a commander) but it's also one of the most fun two weeks that I could've had in the army. These soldiers, who will be drafting into the army on Wednesday as the August '11 draft (such youngsters!!!) have already been accepted into tzanchanim but need go through the absorption process at the 'bach' and the voluntary internal gibush (for elite tzanchanim and other special units) before they arrive at their company for the start of basic training. This will be the first two weeks of these soldiers' three year service and I am going to be their first ever mefaked!!! Even though, it's not the most vital of tafkids, I think its a very momentous role and I still remember my mefaked from 'trom tironut'. There's still so much to tell about what it entails and how I'm feeling but I'll leave that to next week's blog, whereby I'll have gone through a couple of days of preparation and then will have received my soldiers at the Bakkum.

This 'tafkid' most likely means I'll be out for the next two weekends, while my mahlaka back on kav will be facing the most difficult fortnight of their lives due to August '10 going away for special platoon training. Of course, there had to be an oketzing spin on the whole commander thing, but aside from that, this is something that I am unbelievably excited for and probably the reason why it was easier to say goodbye to my mummy earlier this evening. I cannot wait to go to the army tomorrow (a very rare sentance indeed) and next week's blog will hopefully show the fulfillment that I expect to gain from this coming week. (A very...) Shavua Tov.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

TNT in the Kitchen

Today's blog marks the start of a new page in my army service, since, as of tomorrow, I will be starting a new kav on Israel's border with Lebanon. This will be my second kav, following the six months I spent in Gaza earlier on in the year and tzanchanim will be stationed in the north for the next three months. I have also entered the last nine months of my army service, a figure that can seem so short and so long at the same time.

There is not a great deal to write about in this blog but it will be the last time I'll be able to blog for a month because I start a new '17' as of tomorrow. This past week I was situated at a base near Eilat, as part of my platoon's special explosives training. Every platoon in a combat battalion has a special role and while there are platoons of snipers, mortars and heavy weaponry, my 'mahlaka's' role is explosives. I am personally not qualified as a 'hablan' (soldier trianed in explosives), since the course coincided with the time that my parents were here in Israel last December, so I never did the qualification course. This week was like a revision of the course that they did, an opportunity to re-learn anything they had forgotten and general training in their qualification. So far me, it was an opportunity to learn from scratch something that everyone in my 'mahlaka' already knew and I was looking forward to the training and studies itself, as it is very interesting, but also so that I didn't feel inferior in any way to the rest of the guys in my platoon. I did learn a lot of the material and am now able and feel confident (although not qualified) to do certain explosive exercises (like blowing up doors or walls using dynamite, TNT etc.) but for me, the week was a complete waste. This was because I was a 'toran' quite a few times this week (i.e. working in the kitchen or around the base) and they continually kept sending me as I was the only one in the 'mahlaka' who couldn't participate in some of the exercises since I'm not qualified. I understand the theory behind sending me the whole time as a 'toran', but it was just a bit of a pointless week for me, even though I did learn some interesting stuff.

Explosives studies soon turned into 'playing on your phone' studies.

I am now well and truly back to my old life as a 'hapash' (simple soldier) in my platoon and the fact that I am '08' and have completed commanders' course has, for the moment, not really made any difference to how I've been acting or how I have been treated to. It's very easy to return to the lazy life of being a 'hapash' and, following the disappointment of not getting a role as a commander, I am concentrating more on other things, like going home on holiday. I have almost got the visit back home confirmed by the army now and it's definitely on my mind a lot; especially when I have a week where I've been cleaning dishes and just want to get away from the army. As much as I am seriously desperate to go home, see my friends and family and just have a break from the army, I would say that I haven't been as excited as I was last year to go home. Even though I felt that Israel was my home from the day I made aliyah, after being here for almost two years, I am now truly settled and call Israel my home. Whereas last year when I went back I still felt that I was returning home for a trip, this time I think that London will seem further detached to me. The other reason why I was probably craving home a lot more last year is because I now have a better quality of life outside of the army since I am now living in Tel Aviv. Without disrespecting the amazing time I had in Kibbutz Ortal, I now am not going home with the main objective of partying and having fun, as that's what I'm doing every weekend I get off here at home.My better quality of life in Israel means that my trip back to London is now maximum to see friends and family (and have fun).

My platoons' long bus ride down to Eilat.

My life in the army has also calmed down a lot from the position I was in last year. Now, I am an experienced and almost veteran soldier, with six months of 'kav Gaza' and commanders' course under my belt, as opposed to the fresh-faced 'tsair' (youngster), barely out of basic training, when I went back to England last time. It's still very hard for me to look at my friends' lives back in London and not feel slightly jealous, not of what they're doing, but of how easy some of them have it. To see their facebook statuses declaring their four month holiday from university back in June, while I am still working every day and night is difficult. The knowledge that I am doing someting far more rewarding than them and something that I never regret, is sometimes hard to see when they are off to their holidays and I am off to close 21 days in the army. My visit back to London is a long time coming and even though I've said that I am more settled in Israel and in the army than I was last year, that doesn't mean to say that I am not so excited to go back and do all the things I miss doing. I've already started to plan the trip and once I get the final permission from the army, then it will be the only thing on my mind and, without a doubt, the energy that will get me through the next month of 'kav'.

The view from the base we were at last week.

So tomorrow I start 'kav tsafon', the notion of guarding Israel's northern border with Lebanon, a place one may think is fairly dangerous but actually is a very quiet border. Instead, from what I've heard, it's more like something quietly murking under the water, ready to explode if disturbed, something no-one in Israel wants. This is obviously why constant surveillance and operations need to be undertaken, as they do on all our borders, and why the northern border can potentially be the most serious and delicate one. It's most likely however, that during the time that we, tzanchanim, are there in the next three months that very little will happen and the residents of the north will continue to sleep sound at night. Obviously the level of awareness and of being prepared remains high at all times but I hope that there will be very little stories to tell back to my friends from my time up north, in comparsion to my time in Gaza. I'm excited to go back to 'kav', once again I will feel like I am physically contributing to the defence of this country and of the citizens. The routine of 'kav' is also more enjoyable than that of training, due to the free time, interesting objectives and emphasis on togetherness amongst the platoon and the company. Going back to 17:4 isn't the ideal but I have already done it once for a period of six months so I know what to expect, and however bad seventeen consecutive days on base is bad, the feeling of going to bed on a Saturday night and knowing that you're not going to the army the next day (like I had last night!) is simply priceless.

My next blog will be then at the end of the next '17', so I'm sure I'll have lots to tell about what 'kav tsafon' is like. My next exit from the army will also coincide with my two year anniversary of making aliyah, a momentous occasion to say the least. For the meantime happy summering to you all, just think that I am spending my summer in the scorching heat of Israel, while guarding in full uniform and vest...