Saturday, 21 May 2011


It looks like my run of luck of getting out all the time has hit a bad patch. Despite being home this weekend, I will be closing the next three weekends in a row! This is practically unheard of for a man of my oketzing calibre, but sometimes you just have to put in the work, to seep the rewards at the end.

After going back to the army following yom ha'atzmaut, I closed the weekend in the west bank in preparation for the yom ha'nahkbah protests that took place last Sunday. For anyone who doesn't know, yom hanakhbah (day of the disaster in arabic) is the day Palestinians use to commemorate Israel's independence in '48 and the start of the mass Palestinian refuge. On yom hanakhbah, an annual event, demonstrations against Israel normally ensue and this year was no different, if anything was even worse than expected. Of course the protests that happened on Sunday at our borders with Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the west bank, made headlines around the world and we came out as the 'bad guy' once again for preventing people trying to get into our country, while the terrorist attack in tel aviv was quietly swept under the radar. In England, for example, the country is praised for keeping those trying to get in out, but here the anti-Israel press, as per usual, took advantage of the spilled Palestinian blood. As you can tell, it was very annoying for me to read the news on BBC and Sky when I was partially involved in the action and saw things differently. My experience wasn't anything too crazy but I did partake in some protest dispersion and was able to comprehend the instigating and violent nature of their demonstrations.

Resting behind the "wall", in preparation for the protests.

This week in makim marked the 2/3 point in the course, meaning there is just over a month to go, how time flies!! I feel that I have come to an understanding about the course itself and what it tries to instill in us. As much as it attempts to do, the course can never really prepare anyone for the colossal task of being a mefaked (commander). It has, at times, felt like we are merely going through several processes, like this week for example which was guerilla and anti-guerilla warfare, to say that we have learnt it and can therefore tick the appropriate box. I would say, though, that the course does prepare us very well in our professionalism of being a soldier. What I mean by this is the heavy emphasis that is put on becoming experts on all of a solders' criteria; whether that be general fitness, education (history of the army and Israel), combat & warfare and knowing in-depth all the weapons and shooting them, to name but a few. By teaching and training us to be the best soldiers, we can then pass on that knowledge to our own soldiers, and it makes sense that the best soldiers are the ones who are leading others. However, the real way to learn how to be a commander and to take the responsibility for ten soldiers, can only be through experience.

Just because I'm in makim, it doesn't mean the hard, slave-like work has stopped!

As I said beforehand, this week was guerilla/anti-guerilla warfare, something I have done before but was still fun and interesting. Also this week was my turn to be the practicing commander of one of the platoons in the course. This is something that they do as a way of preparing us for what is to come and was something I was quite apprehensive about, since talking in front of and having control of fifteen other soon-to-be commanders is no easy task. However, I actually really enjoyed the week; having some responsibility, knowing the schedule before anyone else and speaking in front of the platoon with confidence that everyone was listening. It was my first real taste of any sort of 'tafkid' (leadership role) in the army and I executed it fairly well, despite it being a major headache dealing with soldiers' problems, chasing after people and having little sleep due to late night meetings with the officer of the platoon. This week has given me confidence and my general opinion on being commander has changed gradually in the duration of the course. Whereas at the start I was more interested in doing the course for the experience and not really thinking about the aftermath, now I have started to properly think about maybe being a commander once I've finished 'makim'. I also led a 4km run this week as part of my duties the practicing mefaked and even though there were a lot of people who were in better shape than me, I finished the run without breaking a sweat, making me realize that it is a lot easier sometimes to lead than to be led, especially in physical exercises since you are distracted from the exertion due to concentrating more on other people.

A very recent edition to my morning routine...

I also wanted to write about something that has been present in my army service practically from day one until now: 'ma'azin'. 'Ma'azin' is the guard in the pluga who watches over the company area and keeps an eye all all the equipment. The 'ma'azin' is obviously a 24 hour post and while those doing company duties occupy it during the day, in the night everyone needs to chip in. Normally, each mahlaka takes it in turns to do ma'azin, meaning on average you do it once every three of four nights at 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Every kravi soldier who has suffered those nights of being woken up to do ma'azin knows exactly what I'm talking about now but you may also find it interesting and amusing too. Now, of course, the best time to be ma'azin is either at the start or at then end of the night; meaning you get a full, night of uninterupted sleep. Being second or second from last is also great as it too means uninterupted sleep, while if your the penultimate ma'azin it means you can get ready in the morning ahead of everyone else without rushing. Being bang in the middle of the night can also be preferable; you sleep well beforehand, guard for a bit and then go back to a sleep for a lengthy period (and by the morning you don't even remember you guarded!). But, when you look at the list for the ma'azin and see that you're third from the end, it doesn't get much worse than that! You sleep well (but still not enough), get up to do your guard duty and then attempt to go back to sleep for an hour, whilst still in uniform because it's too much hassle to get undressed and then re-dressed again. Of course, when you wake up you feel terrible, like you haven't slept at all and it sort of ruins the rest, or at least the start, of the day. The fight for getting a good position in the list is always a constant feature of the pre-sleep routine and the guy who writes up the list is always bombarded with people begging to be the first ma'azin. I could go on and on about this subject; how sometimes miracles happen and you don't get woken up at all (!) or how it is literally impossible to wake up some people, but this can wait for another blog.

Posing with a good friend, with the West Bank as our backdrop.

I couldn't finish this blog without telling about what happened yesterday morning. We were supposed to be leaving early in the morning of Friday, like always, but because of a certain planned event on facebook, there were fears of more protests by Israel's borders. Due to these fears, that were soon publicised throughout the media, the army put a lot of soldiers on standby, including my company in makim. This meant that getting let out to get home was delayed until 9am, which is not as early as one would like to leave base. So by nine o'clock, we were all on our 'aleph' (travelling uniform), sitting on the bus with our bags packed and ready to go. However, beacause of the ongoing fears our exit was delayed even further to 10, then to 11 and then to 12.30. By this time, it was understood that the chance of us getting out at all was very little and everyone, including myself, was beyond depression. To be on aleph, ready to finally go home after two hard weeks in the army and then to be told that you need to close is like having a dagger plunged in your chest. As I've explain numerous times, going home is the most important thing for any soldier, but especially kravi, since we are away from home for such long periods. Eventually, by 1.15pm (ridiculously late), we didn't need to be on standby anymore and we were let out. In all my army service, I have never seen a reaction like it. A massive roar, followed by pure jubilation as every single soldier in the pluga embraced each other (this is meant very literally; I was even kissed on the lips by one of my friends from the mahaaka!!!) in the news that we would be allowed to go home. It did make me appreciate this weekend more and I am happy in the fact that there was no trouble but getting home at 3.30 on a friday afternoon was unacceptable. O well, that's the army and the life of a kravi soldier for you...

Back to the army tomorrow and I'm now going to be closing for the next three weekends in a row, with Shavuot somewhere in the middle as the only break away from the army. This next three weeks will mark the final stage of the course and I will be sure to blog about it when I'm home for Shavuot.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Standing for the Siren

After not writing a blog for a month, I'm now writing two in two days but I felt I had to write one specially for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut, especially since last year, even though I was in the army, I hardly felt the true meaningfullness (is that even a word?!?!?) of these two incredibly important days. Talking of incorrect grammar by the way, I have to apologise for my terrible spelling mistakes on teh (that one was on purpose!) last blog, which I just saw now. I know how my mum and flatmate always get annoyed by it, but it just can't help it really.

Before I even talk about Yom Hazikaron/Ha'atzmaut, I did forget to mention in the last blog about a very proud and recent accomplishment of mine. Last week was the midway point of the course and that meant passing certain tests; like there are at the beginning and end of the course. There was the bar-or (the army's general fitness test) that all soldiers, kravi or non-kravi, do at some point in their service; we have to do it every couple of months as a way of keeping tabs on our fitness. I actually did the best I've ever done on the bar-or with full scores in both press-ups and sit-ups and 7:41 in the 2km, but that's not even the big deal! The big deal is also not that fact that I got 72 in my written and practical exam on all the different types of weapons in the army infantry brigades, not a bad score considering my difficulty with the language. Just to say, this blog is not a medium for me to boast about all the achievements, although I do like to do that (!), I'm simply explaining what I did last week, hehe. The real big deal is that I passed the 'bohen samal' (seargent's test), a combination of the dreaded assualt course and a shooting exam that followed an extended sprint and crawl. I can't rememeber if I ever mentioned it in any of my earlier blogs while I was still at the paratroopers' training base, but I always had a problem with the assualt course, finding it very difficult to pass it due to both the not-easy task of getting past the many obstacles (like the notorious wall or 3 metre high ropes) and the hard time in which to pass it, less than ten minutes. It took me nearly eight months to pass the assualt course on the training base and, thus, it was the thing I was most anxious about doing in the whole of makim. However, somehow and I still don't truly know how, I passed it first time and got, if I may say so myself, a truly unbelievable time of 8:13. I don't know why the sudden change of fortune, maybe it's that my fitness has improved during the course or my susceptiblity to quitting has decreased!

So, even before I mention the whole Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut thing, I also think it's important talk about another symbolic day that happenend last week, Yom Hasho'ah (Rememberance Day for the Holocaust). This was another thing that I didn't feel at all last year, mainly because twelve months ago I was in the middle of a week in the shetach. This year however, I was on base and, although I still feel they should have made an even more of an effort with the whole day, I still experienced the solemness of the day. Especially, when the siren rang out and I looked out at the rest of my pluga in makim (company in commanders' course); combat soldiers from the whole army joined together to stand in attention for all those who were murdered in the Holocaust. It was highly symbolic. A group of young Israelis, proudly serving in the Israeli army and soon-to-be commanders of the next generation of young Israelis. If only the Nazis were to see that sight, something they so inhumanely tried to prevent, the continuation of the Jewish people, was a terrible failure and in Israel, as we celebrate on Yom Ha'aztmaut, we can see the unfathomable success.

Yom Hazikaron is another day where Israel stops to remember those who have died in the struggle of our people and for the fight for Israel. 'Yom Hazikaron' (Day of Rememberance) is dedicated to all those who gave their lives; both soldiers who have fallen in action and civilians who have been murdered through acts of terror or casualties of war. It is the saddest day in the year for Israelis. This is beacuse every single person in this country knows at least one person who has died in those circumstances, and even those have perished through something unrelated, like a car accident (which unfortunately there are far too many here in Israel), are specifically remembered on this day. On Yom Hazikaron, people go to the graves of lost loved ones, the military grave at Mount Herzl in particular is always packed with people, it was said yesterday there were over 101,000 people there. On Erev Yom Hazikaron, Sunday evening, I went to the special ceremony at Rabin square, a ten minute walk from my new apartment. It was definitely a very emotional evening and the first time I have properly experienced this day here in Israel, as last year in the army I was doing guarding in Jerusalem. The ceremony at Rabin sqaure was basically a collection of live performances of sad songs and very moving videos of stories from families who have lost loved ones. Most of those from the videos who had passed away were combat soldiers and standing there in my uniform and gun at Rabin square, I felt proud to have made aliyah and be in the army, a representative of the body that does everything it can to protect its citizens by putting soldiers on the front line, like myself.

Yom Hazikaron is the most heartbreaking day of the year, to think how many mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters, are going to graves of those who have died for a great cause, the best cause I can think of, but have died none the less. On the videos that were shown at the ceremony it was the same thing that kept coming up and kept haunting me; all the mothers telling how there was a "knock on the door" and two army officers were standing there and from that point they knew they had lost their son or daughter. It's obviously extrememly sad, but it also makes me angry that so many lives have been cut short and wasted because our neighbours refuse to make peace. Another notable thing about Yom Hazikaron is the siren, which sounds the night before and then again in the morning. Throughout Israel, it is maintained immaculately and is a very remarkable sight to see if you're new to this, as people stop everything they're doing and stand to respect the siren. On the roads, drivers stop their car, and get out to stand, while those in a middle of a conversation in a coffee shop do the same. For the siren, I walked down to the bottom of my street, Rothschild Boulevard, to where the Independace Hall is, as I don't really have any specific graves to visit.

I understand why Yom Hazikaron is the day immediately before Yom Ha'aztmaut. The day before we celebrated Israel's birthday and independance day, we have to acknowledge and remember the huge price we paid and continue to pay to have our country and our freedom. On one day, we mourn the young boys and girls who gave their lives in the face of terrorism and then on the next, we celebrate the miracle that we have, for 63 years now, something that Jews prayed in vain for for nearly 2000 years, a land of our own, even in the face of that same terrorism. It's a strange transition to go through; from devastation and mourning, to elation and joy, within the space of twenty four hours. For the families who have lost relatives it must be very difficult indeed, as you can't simply forget about what happened and then the next day to go out and party. The mood in Israel on Yom Ha'atzmaut is very party mode and the celebrations go long into the night. Maybe for some it is just an excuse for a night out, but most of those living here understand the meaning behind all these celebratons; the success story that is Israel and the miracle that it has finally become what it was promised to be: a safe home for Jews all over the world. I celebrated Yom Ha'atzmaut with a fun night out and a barbecue the next day, as did most of the country.

I definitely feel, as opposed to last year, that I experienced the lows and highs that is Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut respectively, like a true Israeli. These past two days, especially the ceremony at Kikar Rabin made me feel incredibly passionate and zionist. Back to the army tomorrow, quite optimistic to be going back to routine of being in the army for more of an extended time. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

King Oketz

It's been almost a month since my last blog, so you'd expect me to have lots of stories from being in the army for such a long time. The truth is, that I've hardly been in the army recently, spending nearly two weeks with my parents here in Tel Aviv., who came over for the Pesach period. After my parents went back to London last Sunday, I also went back "home", returning to base and to the reality of commanders' course, after being absent for a fortnight!

Before my parents arrived here, when I was living the life of a soldier (as opposed to a full-on tourist in a hotel on the Tel Aviv beachfront!), I did actually do some army work. The week before Pesach was filled with a lot of Pesach cleaning, as well as the last group of navigations. This included learning and performing urban navigating, which is a very interesting experience and something that was completely new to me. Learning to navigate in a city seems easy enough; we do it as tourists and even at home when we look through A to Z maps or GPS to plan our route. Urban navigating in the army is practically the same, in the sense that we are given a map of a city (like that of Google Earth) and simply plan a route using the streets. The difference is, however, that in army inner-city navigation, you are running around like a lunatic (due to time restraints), while carrying your vest, gun and the radio! This is, of course, following the four-hour, 12km navigation in the mountain-ranged desert on the outskirts of the city. In my urban navigation, I did find it enjoyable to run around Dimona at 3am, trying to find the codes around the city that are the get-to points for the navigation, it's sort of like a treasure hunt, but without a prize at the end! Anyway, who's on the streets of Dimona in the early hours of the morning? Naturally, it is the youngsters, back from their night out, many of whom were still reeeling from the effects of alcohol. This made the whole experience even more hilarious, especially when it meant interacting with them in order to ask where we were on the map or how to get to the next point! In the end, we finally finished two long weeks of navigating and I was selected as a 'mitstayen' (top performer) within my platoon and I'll be rewarded with a 'hamshush' at some point. Obviously there had to be a catch that somehow involved me getting more time off the army!!

The class medic opening up one of my friend's veins as a part of a standard exercise.

Also, before we broke off for Pesach (or rather before I broke off for Pesach), I celebrated my one and a half year 'pazamoledet' (birthday in the army). This was quite a momentous event as it meant that I had exactly one year to go of my service. A year can pass very quickly, especially since my next 12 months of service is bound to include a month back home in London and a month's holiday before my release that all 'lohemim' are entitled to receive. This all means that a year to go is not such a long time, considering, and I already need to start looking towards life beyond the army. Finishing a year and a half of the army also made me realise that in all that time, I still haven't had a day of 'betim' (being sick while on base) or 'gimmelim' (being sick while at home), or needed to go to an 'aphnaya' (appointment with a doctor). This is an incredible statistic, not only becuase I am a 'kravi' soldier and am involved in physical exercises all the time, but also because that it is such a long time. In basic training there are guys who were always on 'betim', meaning that they didn't join in with everyone else and just did nothing, while there were also those who were at home all the time after getting sick days from the army. It just makes me feel good to know that I have never not joined in on any sort of activity because I was unwell or injured and, let's hope in continues. This doesn't mean to say that I have a exemplary attendance record in the army, as I will explain...

Practicing on the ropes.

It is said that while in 'makim' (commanders' course), it is almost impossible to get time off. Sure you're can have the odd day here and there for a close relative's wedding or barmitzvah, but in general, it is known that any more than four days away from the course could result in being chucked out of makim completely, due to missing too much of the course. However, once again (much like I did in my excessive number of hamshushim during basic training or getting out for my garin's seminar while in jump school) I have somehow got my way around these "rules" and was with my parents for 13 of the 14 nights that they were here. Yes, we were given some time off for Pesach, but I missed at least seven days of 'makim' and am still definitely in the course. The army slang word for getting out of stuff is to "oketz" (literally means to sting) and this can range from missing out on kitchen duty to go to do something else far less horrible, to getting out on a weekend when everyone is closing. Since the start of my service I have built up a reputation as a master 'oketz', because of my endless 'hamshushim' (Thursday weekends), always seeming to get maiximum time off when my parents are here and other countless things too. This art of 'oketzing' is not something I do, in order to screw over my friends (which has never happened) or to get out of doing something hard (I can't remember not being present for a particularly hard activity during my service), instead I have just gained a skill of knowing how to organise myself things I feel I deserve, as a lone soldier, like getting out a day earlier than everyone else if it's possible. This has followed me wherever I've been in the army from basic training to the battalion and now to 'makim'; the other soldiers always seem to notice after a month or two of knowing me that I am very good at dealing with the army and getting things done for myself. This 'oketzing' ability of mine is the best example of how I have successfully integrated into the army and the Israeli mentality. I often joke with my friends how I'll write a book on how to 'oketz' the army for lone soldiers, but don't start to think of me as sly or conniving as I simply understand when 'oketzing' is appropriate, within boundaries and deserved.

Taking a break, after finally finishing two exhausting weeks of navigations.

Talking of which, getting two weeks off to be with my parents was no easy task. All this 'oketzing' I have tried to explain to you is not some way of me trying to be as less in the army as I can, far from it, it is simply my way of dealing with the hardships of being a lone soldier by getting out potentially when I can see that it is possible without affecting anyone else and won't affect me i.e. not missing out on anything important. I also feel that sometimes the army doesn't give lone soldiers enough time off that they deserve and need, and time with one's parents is by far the most important thing for any 'hayal boded; (lone soldier). That's why when I knew my parents' trip to Israel for Pesach coincided with me being in 'makim', I did everything I could to try and be with them as much as I could. My relationship with my parents is incredbily special and not seeing them for a day when they are in the same country as me is devastating and as much as the army can understand that for a lone soldier seeing his mum and dad is important, the commanders themselves don't know what it is like to see one's parents only a couple of times a year. I explained to the commanders of my course that I couldn't see why they wouldn't allow me to be with my parents as much as I could if there was the possibility of making up for lost time on the course by completing things at a later date. That's how I managed to get such a long time off from the army to be with my parents and I honestly believe that I deserved to be with them as much as I was, and I have seen, since coming back to the army, that not letting me off for more than four days initially was simply unccessary as I was able to do everything I missed out on and, in truth, I didn't even miss out on that much!!!

Although he may not look it here, my dad is very proud of my new stripes!!!

Being with my parents was as wonderful as ever. Every time I see them here in Israel is always a special time for us and each time is just as hard as the last to say goodbye. I know that it is a lot harder for them without me than the other way round, so it's important that we make the most of our time together and that is why being with them for practically the whole time that they were here was truly amazing. We all had a great Pesach, as I hope you did too, and it got even better when I managed to get a beard permit for the counting of the Omer, meaning I don't need to shave or cut my hair for anohter month! Also while I was with my parents, was the royal wedding and while my mum and dad weren't bothered and had gone to the beach, for some reason I was glued to the television and watched it for four hours! When I lived in england, I always felt no allegiance to being British whatsoever and would even want the football team to lose in teh World Cup so everyone would be disappointed. Since I made aliyah though, I realised that I've held onto my British identity a lot more that I thought I owuld and I think this is because it is one of the main things that defines me here in Israel and, espcially, in the army where I am known as being from London. Maybe it was the just the excitement of the royal wedding, but I have finally found my British patriotism; it's only taken 20 years and a combination of aliyah to Israel and drafting to the IDF to bring it out of me!!!

So that was my summary of the last month for me here in Israel, apologies for the delay. I am currently off for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut and will write another blog about all that in a couple of days...