22 July 2014

Operation Protective Edge

I've recently had an epiphany. I'm rather embarrassed that it's taken me so long to realize this, because now that I've thought about it, it seems like a pretty simple truth. But nevertheless, I've only just put it all together: Terror is never justified

That sounds so obvious, the very word "terror" renders it an evil that shouldn't be used to manipulate entire governments. But I had always figured that as long as there were people out there trying to justify terror, there must be cases in which it is, indeed, justifiable. 

But there aren't. And the line between acts of self-defense and acts of terror is not as thin as the media is making it seem. 

Since I began this blog, I've tried to shy away from taking a political stance. Based on the fact that I've made Aliyah and drafted to the IDF, I assume it's obvious that I support Israel, but I understand that there are many things I don't understand, and so I've avoided politics as best as I can. It's easy to remain apolitical when the conflict is so far away, when it seems like this is all happening to other people. But now it's here, skirting dangerously close to me, and I can't pretend to be anything other than completely against the terror that Hamas is wreaking on my country. 

A few days ago, I wrote an OpEd piece for the Jewish Exponent about what it's like living in Israel right now, about the pit I feel in my stomach when I read a newspaper headline and know that at any time, this conflict could come waltzing into my life in a very real, very personal, very heartbreaking way. And now it has. 

Sunday morning, 13 members of the Golani Brigade were killed in Gaza. Over the next few days, the IDF released the names of those killed, and the country mourned every one of them. But I learned two of the names before they were released to the media. Just a few hours after their deaths, I began getting frantic text messages about two lone soldiers who were among the 13 killed. I never met either Sean Carmeli, z"l, or Max Steinberg, z"l. But we are a community of lone soldiers, and this loss is something that all of us feel excruciatingly deeply. These boys were friends of my friends, we shared a background, they held the same values and passions as I do. Suddenly, the posts on my Facebook newsfeed went from generic posts supporting Israel to "I miss you, brother." Though I didn't personally know them, many of my friends did, and seeing their pain so close to me makes me feel it.

Those words, "I miss you, brother," won't stop wrenching at my heart. 

Coming to Israel and drafting was a choice for these boys, these soldiers, and they are nothing short of heroes. But they shouldn't have died. None of the 28 people killed since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge should have died. 

I support Israel's ground incursion into Gaza because I refuse to wait for Hamas to advance their weapons before we fight back. I support it because although the Palestinian death toll is much higher than the Israeli one, we're not waiting for them to even out before we take action. I will never condone the tragic civilian deaths on either side, but Israel should not be attacked, not by Hamas and not by the media, for successfully protecting her citizens.  

And my epiphany was right, terror is never justified. When Hamas stops preaching terror and threatening kidnappings, when they stop silencing the civilians of Gaza who do want peace, then maybe this conflict will become something more than just seemingly futile killings. I want this to end because it's actually my friends who are fighting this battle, it's people I care about as if they were family. But Sean Carmeli, z"l, and Max Steinberg, z"l, and the rest of those killed did not die so that Israel would tolerate hundreds of rockets a week being shot at innocent civilians. We will not justify Hamas's terror, nor will we ignore it. Israel will continue to defend the Jewish homeland without crossing the line into terror, we will continue to oppose extremists while acknowledging that not every Palestinian is an extremist. We want it to end, but we will do what we believe is right even in the face of misguided and, in many cases, misinformed international pressure.

It's frustrating not being a combat soldier right now. My job has very little to do with the current operation, and so I'm stuck here watching the beginnings of a war with no way to stop it, no way to contribute. But I'm part of something bigger. My unit is the one communicating with the civilians of Gaza, we are the ones who create and distribute fliers warning people to evacuate their homes before an attack. And even bigger than that, I'm part of an army that will do anything to protect my friends who are being torn from childhood and thrown into war. I'm so proud of every one of them. I'm proud of those fighting and those in combat support, and I'm proud of Israel. I've never been so grateful to be a part of something I truly believe in, to be a soldier in the IDF.

Max Steinberg, z"l
Sean Carmeli, z"l
To all of my friends, stay safe.

18 July 2014

A Quick Update

I know it's been a while since I last posted, but I just wanted to thank everyone who has sent me messages of love and support since the situation in Israel has started heating up. I can't even begin to explain how much your words mean to me and to all the soldiers of the IDF. Below is an OpEd piece I wrote for the Jewish Exponent about what it's like living in Israel and being a soldier right now. Hope you enjoy!


07 March 2014

"I Carry Your Heart With Me, I Carry It In My Heart"

Looking back over my blog posts, it's fair to say that I complain a lot about the army. It's boring sometimes, the bureaucracy can be overwhelming, I clean a lot... You know, the usual stuff. But for all the complaining I do, I actually have it pretty easy. I've wanted to make Aliyah since I was 10, so even when I inevitably have things to whine about, I'm whining with the smug elation of someone who waited literally eight years to complain about those things. When you fulfill your dream, you're left with  this profound happiness and satisfaction that make inconveniences like being stuck on base for 21 days or waiting for a bus that's over an hour and a half late seem absolutely trivial. Even the hardships that are slightly more than trivial don't seem to matter so much. When my budget forces me to choose between buying vegan food or a warmer blanket for base, or when I have to sew a button on my uniform myself because my mommy isn't here to do it for me, of course I see that fleeting image of my life if I lived at home or went to college instead. Of course I feel that tinge of sadness. But it's only a tinge, and it's quickly and easily subdued by the thought that Oh my God I'm deciding what to bring to my army base, or, I'm sewing a button on my IDF uniform! Yes, there are moments and thoughts that sometimes make me sad, but it's a sadness that comes about only because I'm finally living the life I waited eight years to live. As you read my blog, you should take all my complaints with a grain of salt, because no matter how often these trivial difficulties arise, I can't honestly say that army life, or even life in Israel in general, has ever actually been hard. 

Except for once. 

There was one time, one week in the entire year and a half I've been in this country, that my fulfilled dreams and profound happiness didn't outweigh the hardships of living here. 

Tomorrow will be one year since my cousin Lauren passed away from brain cancer, and one year since the first and only time I hated living in Israel. 

What I've heard most about Lauren since she died is that she had an unmatched ability to connect with anyone on an individual level, to give a special piece of herself to everybody she met. And since she had such deep connections with everyone, a lot of people took her death really hard, and really personally. It wasn't just the inspiring woman with a beautiful and fiery soul who died. It was much more personal than that. It was Lauren the cousin who passed away. It was Lauren the daughter, Lauren the mother, Lauren the sister, the niece, the friend, the sister-in-law, the aunt, the Eagles fan, the synagogue congregant, the enthusiastic Facebook user, the childhood friend, the patient, the Israel supporter, the mentor, the life of the party; it was all the pieces of herself that she gave to everyone she loved and everyone who loved her.  If she had been just any one of those things, her death would've been an incredible loss. But she was all of them. And it's the pieces of herself that she never had the chance to give, all the pieces that she would have given if her life hadn't been cut so tragically short. If the number of people who attended her funeral is any indication, Lauren touched more people's lives than probably even she could ever imagine. 

But that number isn't a good indicator. Because there are some people who were forever changed by Lauren and who loved her very deeply, but still couldn't be at her funeral. 

During Lauren's funeral, I was sitting in my room on kibbutz, my knees pulled up to my chest, facing a computer screen. I watched over Skype as my family members delivered eulogies, as my own sister spoke of feelings that I didn't yet have the time or tools to register. I listened as the rabbi chanted a broken El Malei Rachamim and I held back a wave of sobs every time my Internet failed me. I watched from 6,000 miles away as her casket was lowered into the ground. I heard my family's tears over my computer speakers. I watched people huddle around Lauren's daughter Ava as she released a new mournful wail with each shovel of dirt that filled her mother's grave. But I couldn't hug my little cousin. I couldn't comfort her or offer her my shoulder for support. And for the first time ever, I truly regretted moving to Israel. 

Logic has no place in the grieving process. If it did, I wouldn't have found myself after the funeral writing in my journal that I'm a selfish coward. Those were my exact words. "Is that why I wanted to move to Israel?" I wrote. "So I wouldn't have to face the heartache and the pain and the suffering that comes with being close to the people I love?" I didn't just make it harder for me when I doomed myself to be far from the people who could help me through this. In my selfishness, I effectively relieved myself of any responsibility to be there for the people who need me. That train of thought morphed into another: "Was it worth it? Did I even know the price of moving to Israel before I paid it?" I had known I was going to miss birthday parties and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and Passover Seders -- but celebrations are so easy to plug into from afar. How did I not think about this? Am I really so naive, so simply stupid, that I never even considered the possibility of tragedy? I realized that when anything ever happens in my family, I've put myself in a position where I'll be the last to know. The hardest to reach. The least likely to be able to come home. 

And as soon as I started hating where I was, what I was doing, and the decisions I had made, I went to an even darker place. I convinced myself that my eight years of yearning and longing and dreaming were based on a delusional fantasy, on a 10-year-old's complete inexperience with reality and heartache. I began to despise the army. I refused to take a test and my commander threatened to put me in jail. The worst part was that I had no one to talk to about it. I have people in Israel that care about me as if they were family, but in my bitterness towards the country, I found that it wasn't enough. I spent the entire week of shivah alone in a sour whirlpool of self-pity and unfocused rage. 

And then, a few days after shivah ended, I was on my computer again, reading all the messages that people were posting on Lauren's Facebook wall. I looked at all of her pictures. I read all of the things that she had posted throughout her battle with cancer about finding an inner strength that everyone around her already knew she had. And then I found something she posted on my wall. I found this. 

And this. 

That's the piece of Lauren she gave especially to me. When I was younger, she was the cousin who made me feel ten feet tall, even though I was the baby of the family. She was the first to treat me like an adult, a friend. When I decided to follow my heart to Israel, she gave me a new piece: She gave me her support and her unconditional pride. She bragged about me to her friends on Facebook. She listened when I called right before I made Aliyah, when I was questioning if it was the right thing for me to do. She stood up for me when I didn't know how to stand up for myself. She spent two minutes of a long-distance call telling me about her health, and ten minutes asking about my new life. It felt so wrong to me that I wasn't at her funeral when my piece of Lauren was so special, but then I remembered that she loved that I was in Israel. She admired me -- her own word!! -- for giving up basic comforts like being able to mourn with my family in order to live in and serve the Jewish homeland. I found a weird comfort in realizing that she probably expected me to not be at her funeral. And I realized that I had gotten to do something even more meaningful to me than attend her funeral. You see, the army has many strictly enforced rules about when and why soldiers are allowed to leave the country. You can't go before you're eight months into your service. Emergencies only apply to immediate family. You need at least a month's advance notice. You can't leave during a course. Literally not one of the exceptions applied to me in February of last year, and yet in what I swear was a case of some kind of divine or supernatural intervention, I found myself at home in Philadelphia for an entire week. She was confined to bed, she could barely speak, and sometimes looked like she was in pain, but it ended up being Lauren's last full week of consciousness. Of course it was hard seeing her like that. There were few physical similarities between this bedridden Lauren and the Lauren who came to my going-away party to see me off before I moved. But I got to say goodbye. I got to tell her about the army and watch as her eyes lit up with the familiar love and pride in her family that I had seen in her my entire life.

And I realized that she wouldn't have wanted me to go to army jail for refusing to take a test. She wouldn't have wanted me to minimize the relationship I have with my almost-family in Israel. She wouldn't have wanted me to regret this thing that I'm doing -- this thing that she was so proud of. Lauren's death forced me to face serious issues that in my blessed and inexperienced life, I had never really had to face before. But the things she did and the person she was in her life showed me that I'm strong enough to handle those issues. 

That realization didn't make handling her death any easier. When someone like Lauren dies, it can never be easy. But as soon as I stopped feeling guilty and calling myself names and convincing myself that my family felt I deserted them, I could focus on Lauren and on comforting my family and myself. I found that I really am strong enough to handle this, though it's the hardest thing I've ever had to handle. There are times when I still get flashes of it - these waves of regret, this inexplicable physical sensation of my heart literally being pulled back to the life I had in America, my life in the place where Lauren was always just an hour-long drive away. But I just have to remind myself that although the cost of what I did was high, nothing can ever diminish the pride that Lauren felt for me or the pride she made me feel for myself. I've set myself up to face a lot of heartache in the future, but Lauren has shown me that I can't ignore my dreams or the causes I believe in just because they're going to be hard. If I'm doing the right thing for the right reasons, I'll always find a way to make it through even the most trying of times. 

Tomorrow will be one year since the world lost someone so incredibly beautiful and compassionate, but every day of my life, I can feel her guidance and her love and her spirit. Every single person who held even the smallest piece of Lauren's soul knows that her gifts would cross galaxies to comfort the people who love her. 

I'll never stop thinking about you, Laur. I'll never stop being grateful, and I'll never stop wanting to make you proud. I love and miss you more than anything. 

Lauren Pearl Halper, z"l

"I carry your heart with me (I carry it in
my heart),
I am never without it."
- e. e. cummings

11 February 2014


They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Ok, that makes sense. Cavemen needed to hunt, so they invented the spear. Eskimos needed to keep warm, so they invented the igloo. Hungry busy people needed a quick, easy meal, so they invented Hot Pockets. But I have a sneaking suspicion that some inventions were not birthed by necessity. I think that sometimes, there's a much stronger force at play and it can probably take credit for more inventions than necessity can: boredom. Or, more accurately, I think that boredom is the mother of necessity (thus being the grandmother of invention, if you were finding this extended familial metaphor difficult to follow). Think about it: Alexander Graham Bell was sitting home alone, he needed a way to talk to his friends, he invented the phone. Thomas Edison was sick of sitting in the dark after his candles burnt out, so he invented the light bulb. Ben Franklin's plans were rain-checked, so he grabbed his kite and his house keys, went for a swim, and voila! Electricity. Boredom is responsible for some pretty groundbreaking inventions because the human mind is capable of incredible things when left to its own devices.

I myself have some firsthand experience with boredom. Anyone who has ever been on guard duty for upwards of 8 hours will tell you that boredom is to be expected. That's not exactly a bad thing -- a boring guard shift is most certainly preferable to one with a lot of action. And when you're facing such spectacular tedium for such a long period of time, that's optimal procreating time for boredom. 

Now, the nature of the invention depends entirely on the nature of the bored person in question. When faced with overwhelming monotony, I personally make lists. In the past year and two months that I've been in the army, I've had lots of guard shifts, and therefore have made lots of lists. I gave you a little preview in my blog entry Top 10 Reasons Why The IDF Is Like Harry Potter, but that was only the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg. I create these lists constantly. I haven't really posted anything about my daily life since I finished my course, and perhaps I will one day, but until then, I feel like writing about what I think on a daily basis is almost just as good. So as a product of my current state of boredom, I hereby present to you...

or, The Top 15 Lists Created By Becca When She Was So Bored It Was Borderline Dangerous

1. The 6 Most Common Nicknames Given To Me By People Who Think "Becca" Isn't A Name

2. 10 Life Skills I Learned During The Year That I Worked At Bed Bath and Beyond That Are Weirdly Applicable To The Army

3. Top 5 Reasons Why My High-Ranking Officer's Ring Tone Should Not Be "Sexy Lady" By Shaggy

4. The Top 1 Reason Why I Hope My Officers Don't Read My Blog

5. 26 Of My Friends Who Would Actually Have A Chance At The Hunger Games and How They Would Fare If All Pitted Against Each Other

6. Top 5 Mustaches Featured On The Faces of The Palestinian Bus Drivers I Work With Daily

7. 12 Most Creative Recipes for Potatoes I've Seen Since Drafting

8. The First 10 Things I Would Do If I Discovered That I Was Sabrina the Teenage Witch

9. 15 Hebrew Words and Phrases That Are Hilarious When People Try To Translate Them Into English

10. 6 Reasons Why Hercules Is The Best Movie To Watch More Than Once In A Row If You Only Have Room For One Movie On Your Phone

11. Top 4 Bodily Functions You're Exposed To When You Spend A 12-20 Hour Guard Shift With Three Boys

12. 250 Productive Things I Could Be Doing Instead of Making Lists

13.  20 Reasons Why My "Red Hot Chili Peppers" Playlist Is The Best For Passing Time

14.  Top 15 Times My Friends In Israel Made Me Feel Like The Luckiest Person In The World

15. The 100 Best Times to Use The "I'm American, I Didn't Understand" Excuse

So there you have it. A brief glimpse into the extraordinary capabilities of the human mind when it's forced to occupy itself. Don't get the wrong idea, a lot of my army service has been really interesting, and serving Israel has provided me with some amazing opportunities. But being in the army also means that sometimes I'm bored, sometimes I have to watch Hercules three times back to back, sometimes I have to look for things to make me laugh so that I don't go crazy.

Depending on how much longer I can put up with these guard shifts, there may be a Listception part II coming soon. Until then, you should try watching Hercules. Or maybe an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch

17 January 2014

A Letter to the Man Who Called Me A Fascist

Dear Sir,

You may not remember me. A while back, you attended a protest outside a venue on Broad Street, in Philadelphia. That venue was hosting a fundraising dinner gala for the FIDF, or Friends of the IDF. The FIDF is an organization that - among many other things - gives support to lone soldiers like myself. I assume you knew only that the event was pro-Israel. You arrived early, the event started at 6 PM sharp, and you were already waiting outside with signs and slogans when I arrived. You may not recall my arrival; it must have been a long and busy night for you as hundreds of event attendees came from all over Philadelphia and New Jersey. In case you have forgotten, I was the soldier. I came in my uniform as one of the representatives of the IDF. It was cold (I've adjusted very nicely to the weather in Israel and just can't seem to adjust back), and as I walked by you, clutching my mother's arm for warmth, you and I made eye contact. I saw you eyeing my outfit - my olive green uniform seemed to pop from among the sea of business attire. You glanced back up at my face, narrowed your eyes, and hissed, "Fascist."

The main reason why you should not call me a fascist is that I am not a fascist.

Another reason why you should not call me a fascist is that name-calling is mean. You looked at my uniform and decided that I was something that I'm not, and then made it offensively obvious what you thought. That's on par with me looking at your scraggly long hair and stylishly mismatched clothes and saying, "dirty hipster." Would you have liked that? I have to assume that you wouldn't. If you went to elementary school, and I'm going to guess that you did, as you seem to consider yourself well-educated enough to form an opinion about some pretty complicated political issues, then you too learned that name-calling is mean. We also learned that "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say it at all." But we're not naive, there is a validity to protesting that which you think is wrong. And though we may disagree, if you think Israel is a fascist state, then by all means, protest and be heard. But don't undermine your own cause by stooping to the same level as a 5-year-old boy who pulls his classmate's hair and calls her stupid. 

Which brings me to the third reason you should not call me a fascist: I am a human being. Not only am I a human being, I am a teenage girl clutching my mother's arm for warmth. Does that scream "fascism" to you? Or beyond that, does it seem to you that calling me a fascist is going to bring about the desired results? You may take issue with Israel, but as a single solitary soldier, I lack much of the power that it would take to "Free Palestine," as your banner was calling for. And as a 19-year-old with relatively little self-defense experience, I lack many of the skills that it would take to fight you off if you turned out to be one of the more violent protesters. So not only did you not accomplish the goal you set out to accomplish when you hurled your insult at me, you also scared the **** out of me. It's not that you looked especially threatening, but I'm scared when the mailman comes and I'm home alone -- why would I not be scared of someone who so publicly disagrees with my very existence as a soldier? Your cause has been known for having some extremists, you can't take it to a personal level without giving me reason to worry. And I'm with my mother, God dammit! Sure, you may not have known she was my mother, but she was. She is. And while you may only be trying to make a political statement, a mother is a mother and will go into Mama Bear mode when you seem to pose a threat to her young. I don't want to get into politics, it's the simple humanity in this situation that bothers me. I may represent the State of Israel as soon as I button up my uniform. But being a soldier does not stop me from first and foremost being a human. When you call me a name, you're not offending Israel, you're offending me. And you don't know me at all. 

The last reason why you should not call me a fascist is that I'm not sure you know what fascism means. I looked it up to make sure that I did, and Dictionary.com defines it as a "governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism." Truthfully, I can't hold you responsible for this one. If I didn't know what a fascist was, I might also suspect that I am one. But in all seriousness, Israel has many faults, and I'm not blind to them. But some very basic facts about Israel make you seem a little uneducated, the first of which is that Israel is a democracy. That's rather undeniable, no? The convoluted voting process in Israel (that is, by the way, very stereotypically Israeli) makes having a dictator seem rather impossible. The second basic fact would be that if Israel tried to oppress all criticism, you would be jailed. So the fact that you can attend a protest and spout your beliefs against Israel, and the fact that you could also do so in Israel, is in and of itself in defiance of your "Israel is fascist" theory. Thirdly, Israel is not nearly organized enough to "regiment all industry, commerce, etc." Fourthly, though I couldn't expect you to know this, my unit in the army literally has the sole purpose of making sure Israel stays safe while Palestinian civilians get their non-fascism-compliant rights. In fact, some other units of the IDF laugh at my unit, calling us extreme leftists. But the very existence of my unit, which a quick Google search would bring to your attention, rules out the possibility of a fascist regime. 

In conclusion, I want you to know that you had your desired effect, if your desired effect was calling a teenage girl names and scaring her a bit. If you had higher aspirations, I'm afraid you were a bit off your game. Again, all politics aside, I applaud you for exercising your right to protest. History has proven that sometimes the simple act of demonstrating your beliefs can be enough to change the world. Far too many people today see something they think is wrong and choose to be a bystander. And I'm not going to tell you that you're on the fundamentally mistaken side of the conflict, because although I may believe that my cause is more humane and more well-researched than yours, objectively that may not be so. But I will tell you that if you want to be heard, you must learn how to advocate effectively and with a clear purpose. After all, you had far more than just your cause at stake. You risked your personal safety. You almost invoked an attack from Mama Bear. 


P.S. I've attached some photos from said event to jog your memory as to who I am and/or for the enjoyment of the people who read my blog. I apologize that you do not make an appearance in any of my photos. 

18 December 2013

The Blog Post Where You Learn More Army Slang Than You"ll Ever Need to Know

Imagine you're sitting in class on the day of a big test. Maybe it's a biology test, and you need to get at least a B+ to raise your average. You've been studying for days, if studying means looking at pictures of the new French exchange student on Facebook. I mean, you had a study guide open in another tab, easily accessible in case your mom walked by, which she often did. She knows how important this test is. After all, how are you going to get into Columbia (shout out to my crazy-smart sister) with a C- in biology? But you opened your textbook for the first time last night. You were up all night studying. Sure, pictures of cute French boy were dancing in your mind, but they were interspersed with images of a double helix and the dominant/recessive chart. You made flash cards, you created mnemonics, you even had a song listing the names of all the bones that you learned from that episode of Hannah Montana. Maybe you could've been better prepared, but you're ready. You know you are. You're almost certain. Oh my god you're never gonna pass Mr. Johnson hates you and wants you to fail and the girl you cheated off of earlier in the semester is in France on the exchange program and the girl who sits in front of you now is a total idiot and how are you ever gonna concentrate when the back of French boy's head is sooooo darn French-looking? No, you got this. You breathe. 

Mr. Johnson walks around, passing out the thick packets of doom facedown as he weaves between the desks, his malicious smile lurking behind an icy stone face. As he reaches your desk and practically hurls your test down in front of you, you swear you see a lick of fire flame up behind his eyes. That man is the devil. You wonder how a man so clearly not human got licensed to teach biology, let alone to teach human children. You look to the side and see that French boy isn't in school today; good, he won't distract you. You briefly wonder if he's OK. No, clear your head, relax, think only of biology. Mr. Johnson cackles his evil laugh (at least, you swear it's a cackle. You'll testify in court that the man cackles, if you need to) and tells the class to flip over the test. "Best of luck," he hisses. 

You turn over the packet, close your eyes, breathe deeply. You open your eyes with a picture of the study guide planted firmly and clearly in your brain. You read the first question and chuckle to yourself. Easy. You scrawl out an answer, detailed and thorough, the way he likes it. You marvel at your own genius. You read the second question. Oh god. You know this! You flip through your mental study guide but the part that answers this question is a blur. What, devil-man Mr. Johnson just expects you to memorize everything? He's the worst. WAIT! Wait. You DO know this. It's... It's... The answer is starting to formulate in your head. OK, you got this. You start penning your answer as the information floods your mind. You begin to scribble furiously, so furiously that at first, you don't hear the loud alarm that has gone off around you. All of the sudden, students start rising from their seats, you don't know why. Only then do you hear the alarm. What is this? Is this part of the test? You hear one of your classmates breathe "Saved by the bell," but you don't understand. Is it some kind of alarm that outlaws unfair tests? Fire drill, whispers your brain. You know what this is. But what do you do? Your mind is blank. "We're kind of in the middle of something!" you want to shout. But more than half the students have already filed neatly out of the room. The other 49% are standing by the door, waiting to exit. Only you remain seated at your desk, looking around with confusion and panic slapped onto your face. It's the first Monday of the month, of course there's a fire drill. But what do you do? How are you supposed to remember what to do when -- the test -- dominant/recessive -- you're stuck. What do you do? Mr. Johnson sees you and gives you a funny look. He says your name.
 "I--" you stammer.
 "It's a fire drill," he gives you a look. "Don't be a smart-ass."
You look around at the mostly empty classroom. What do you do??

There's a term for this person in Hebrew. It's called a shockist, or for a girl, a shockistit. It's when you're in such a state of shock that you completely lose all common sense. You forget your habits, your logic, your instincts, everything that makes you a capable human being. It usually happens when something you're not expecting happens, rendering you completely useless. Finding this type of person is extremely common in the army, especially in basic training, when a kid from a comfortable lifestyle is suddenly thrown into a world of orders and tents, commanders and long-underwear, guns and cleaning human excrement off the shower floor. At best, a shockist is someone who freezes up and doesn't do anything. At worst, it is someone who does something stupid. You know this guy, you've seen him before. It's the student who asks if there's going to be a test on this material, giving the teacher ideas.  It's the guy on the basketball team who scores a perfect 3-pointer on his own basket. In the army, it's the guy who meets with a high-ranking officer, and upon leaving, forgets to take his gun. 

This time last year, I, Rebecca Gabrielle Richman, was a shockistit. 

In fact, looking back, it's safe to say I was the biggest shockistit in all of Israel. 

There is another word in Hebrew, or at least in Hebrew army-slang, that you should know in case you're ever in a situation where you need to know random Hebrew words that are only applicable in the army, and that is pazamuledet. Your pazamuledet is the day that you drafted into the army. For example, I drafted December 17th, 2012, and so yesterday, December 17th, 2013, was my pazamuledet. The significance of this day is twofold: one, it means I have been in the army for an entire year, and two, it means I have half completed my army service. This may not sound like much, but a big part of army culture is wanting to get out of the army. So while I did choose this life, and I do enjoy it immensely most of the time, I'm still counting down to the date of my release. But for me, the main significance of my pazamuledet is that I can look back at my actual draft date and laugh at how young I was. As a wizened old soldier, hardened by a year in the army, with an unbreakable heart of concrete, I really can look back and see exactly how big a shockistit I was. 

As I mentioned earlier, the defining feature of a shockist is someone who forgets some basic facts in the face of pressure. The common sense that I lost first was this simple truth: people are people. A year ago yesterday, I got off the bus at a strange base and right away I was bombarded with instructions. It was there that I first lost sight of the fact that the people yelling at me were people. No, I was certain that they were divine creatures, that every order they issued must be treated like it came from the mouth of God. A few of the other girls believed this as well, but I was different in one important aspect: I didn't speak Hebrew. Imagine if all of the sudden, God Himself boomed His voice down to earth and, with an inexplicable sense of urgency, commanded you to do something. But He commanded it in Swedish. And you haven't brushed up on your Swedish recently. So you don't know what to do. That was me, all the time. I wanted to be a good soldier, I really did, but every time a commander yelled at me, I just cocked my head to the side and put on a pretty convincing puppy-dog face that I can only hope portrayed my utter lack of understanding. And because I wanted to follow orders so badly, I sometimes filled in the parts I didn't understand with my own information. For example, I knew I had to be somewhere at 2:45, I just didn't know where. So I assumed it was the dining hall. I assumed wrong. And not once in that entire month of basic did I ever think to myself, Hmm, this commander is human, maybe if I ask him for help, he'll explain something to me. Nope, that just never occurred to me. 

The second truth that I lost was this: if you seem mean and snobby, people aren't going to like you. It was only after basic training that I realized that the girls I was with probably didn't understand how little I spoke Hebrew. To them, I was that weird girl who was always doing the wrong thing and answered all their questions with one word answers. In addition, there were two other Americans in different platoons in my base, so of course I was immediately drawn to them. I seemed cliquey and snobby and still I was so hurt that none of them wanted to be my friend. But it's only because I seemed to have lost all the basic friend-making skills that I learned in kindergarten. 

However, the main thing that made me a shockistit exactly one year ago yesterday was that in addition to the shock of the army, I was also experiencing some pretty heavy culture shock. The very first day in the army, when we were given uniforms and being assigned serial numbers, a girl next to me made a crude Holocaust joke. You can't say that, I thought, and I classified her as the kind of girl I wouldn't want to be friends with. But apparently that's acceptable in Israel, in this weird country where no one is apologetic for even their most egregious of flaws or most offensive of actions. I was stunned by how arbitrary everything seemed, but that's just how Israel is. They see a need for something, they create a solution however they can. They need to make a ceremony seem special, so they choreograph a ridiculous gun routine and play cheesy music. They need a soldier to stay for the weekend to fill manpower quotas, so they make up a rule until someone breaks it. It's hard to adjust to a system that's constantly changing without a clear reason, and my stumbling journey through basic training was a testament to that difficulty. 

But the beauty of a pazamuledet is that I can look back and laugh. Everything has improved exponentially since my days of friendless, Hebrew-less basic training. The past year has been simultaneously the hardest and most fulfilling year of my life thus far. I'm in an interesting job where I've made some pretty great friends (though I'm still with one of the American girls who was my only friend during basic, so I haven't branched out that far), my officers have become human in my eyes, and while I still respect them (most of the time), I feel comfortable expressing my needs and asking for help. My fear of the army has faded into a minuscule speck in the back of mind, and would disappear completely if it weren't for the need to remind me not to do anything illegal. I now have the simple confidence of a person who knows what he or she is doing, and I don't take it for granted because of the very long time that it took me to get here. Of course, I still have my shockistit moments - just last week I forgot my gun in the shower for 10 minutes before running back to get it - but for the most part, this year has gotten me pretty well adjusted. I do have a feeling, however, that by the time I'm fully adjusted to this army life, it will be a year from yesterday, and I'll be getting released. 

My fellow American friend and me on one of our first nights of basic training. 

The same American friend and me at the shooting range months later, looking like pros. 

01 August 2013

You Can't Fulfill Your Dreams Unless You Dare To Risk It All

Sitting in a room full of crying girls - blotchy cheeks, runny noses, smeared mascara, the works-  may seem like a man's worst nightmare, but it can also be a lone soldier's dream come true. 

A few months ago, during my course, my commanders took all 35 girls up north for a trip. During the day, we toured and learned and hiked and laughed, and I watched as girls around me made the kind of friendships people talk about when remembering the army. Whether it was the fact that they thought I didn't understand them or my inability to tell a joke in Hebrew without people thinking that I'm just highly confused, I often found myself outside of the bonding, and I resigned myself to the fact that I probably would never be close to these girls, but so be it. 

Then one night, my officer called all the girls down into a large room, set up so that the chairs were facing a screen, and asked us to sit. We obeyed, as good soldiers always do, and as familiar music swelled and familiar pictures filled the screen, I began to cry.

45 minutes later, every single person in the room, be it officer or soldier, had tears streaming down her face. The soldier leading the program wiped her face and laughed nervously, then stood and asked for reactions to the movie. "That was really beautiful," one girl said. "I never thought about how hard it must be to be a lone soldier," said another, flashing me and the two other lone soldiers an empathetic glance. "It makes me proud to serve Israel," said a third. Then my commander looked at me. "He was from Philadelphia, right?" I nodded, somehow pulled myself together, and stood. I spoke about how Michael Levin, the subject of the documentary, came from my city, participated in my region of USY, and attended my summer camp. I spoke about how his death is one of the few things I remember from the summer before 7th grade, about how I watched as it deeply wounded my community. When my voice was breaking and I couldn't speak anymore, I sat down, and as my hands covered my face, I felt a hand rubbing my back. 

Everything changed from that moment on. Girls who had been cliquey and exclusive approached me and asked me questions about my Aliyah, they made an effort to ignore my glaring grammatical errors and listen to what I had to say. I suddenly found myself a part of the friendships I had previously envied. 

7 years earlier, August 1, 2006, I sat in a forest with my age group at camp, after a long day of kayaking, and listened as the head of the group explained what happened. Michael Levin, a community member and a former Ramah camper, had been killed in Lebanon while fighting as a soldier in the IDF. The rest of the trip was - in our selfish, middle-school minds - tainted by the tragedy that had struck our community. 

I had already fallen in love with Israel a little more than a year before, but hearing about Michael and his story brought an entirely new dimension to what had up until then only been a fantasy. I could actually move to Israel. I could even serve Israel. Hearing about his life - after his death - was the first time I realized that this is something I could actually, literally do. Visiting Israel at 10-years-old may have been the first step in the journey I'm on right now, but Michael's story was the second and the biggest. 

And 7 years later, as I sat in my olive green uniform and cried with my friends over the death of an inspiringly beautiful person, Michael influenced me again and told my friends what I had been unable to tell them, told them that this is a hard journey, and I'm going to need friends to make it through.

I see the flowers and pictures and Phillies memorabilia that overflow at his grave, I hear the accounts of so many people who were touched by him, I see the metal bracelets with his name that so many of my friends wear, and I see the baseball card with a summarized version of his story that I keep in my wallet, and I can only hope that he knows his legacy. If his dream was to serve Israel, then he did not stop fulfilling it in his death. Whether it's the Michael Levin fund, from which I personally did benefit, or some girl on Birthright crying at his grave with a new found love for Israel, or the pride that the Israeli girls in my course felt after watching the documentary, he is absolutely still defending the State of Israel. 

Michael Levin, z"l
August 1, 2006

24 May 2013

Disclaimer: Reading This Blog Post About A Specific Moment Will Take More Time Than The Moment Itself Did

Sometimes the army sucks. Sometimes it's fun, or interesting, or exciting, but sometimes it just sucks. No matter how much I love my job - and I really do - nothing makes me forget that I still have to wear a uniform in this could-bake-cookies-on-the-sidewalk weather. Even a great day in the army is tainted with the fact that I am literally forbidden from wearing anything other than a black or brown hair band in my hair. I can't wear nail polish unless the color is what I like to refer to as a "Grandma color." (Sorry, Grandma!) I have to wake up much too early. If I accidentally miss a belt loop in the morning, I could potentially go to jail. You can see how this utter lack of personal freedom makes a great day at the office still seem restricted and therefore less enjoyable.

But everyone once in a while, when the planets are aligned or there's a blue moon or whatever happens in the universe to make rare things occur, there's a moment of pure happiness that makes everything else disappear. I don't know how often other soldiers experience one of these ground-shaking, smile-inducing, game-changing moments, but I just had my first one this past Wednesday morning.

After attending my first Israeli wedding on Tuesday night, I woke up early on Wednesday and begrudgingly zipped up my uniform to return to the army. It took a full minute and a half of waiting outside for the sweat to start beading on my forehead. My boyfriend Ben and I started lugging our bags down the road, fretting about bus times and the potential punishments for late arrivals. We were gross and sweaty, and more than resentful that we had to return to the army after such a fun night. (Most of the time, at least in my limited experience, moments of pure joy are immediately prefaced by moments that seem completely hopeless, so prepare yourself for a 'But then -'.)

But then, while we walked along the road in a small settlement outside of Teveria, we passed what has to be simply the happiest scene I've ever witnessed. Across the street from us, there was a class of preschoolers, all holding hands in a line behind their teacher to prevent the wanderers from wandering as they skipped and dawdled and ran cheerfully down the shaded sidewalk in this gorgeous town. Even their bright, mismatched clothes couldn't distract from their brighter smiles and beautiful giggles. It felt like the road that stood between us was a clear divide that kept our state of bummed-hood from infecting them. But the road couldn't keep their simple and inexplicable happiness from permeating our little bubble of self-pity, and so the first little girl in the line raised her free hand and waved at the soldiers across the street. Now, you could be the toughest soldier in the world, you could be a vicious businessman, you could be a super-villain, but when a little girl waves happily at you, you wave back.

And so of course I did, which made the goofy smile on her face grow wider, and her arm wave faster. I began making funny faces at her, which she gleefully reciprocated, all the while keeping her hand high in the air. A few of the other kids started waving as well, until we had the attention of all but the ADD kids in the class. That's when the teacher noticed us. She turned to her class and, in the Hebrew version of the very recognizable pre-K-teacher tone of voice, said, "Look kids! How exciting! Does everyone see the soldiers?" The ADD kids tuned in. "Wow! Everyone say thank you! Have a good day! Everyone wish them a good day!" The kids were smiling and shouting as they echoed her words, staring at us in awe as we labored our way down the road. They kept shouting and waving long after we passed them, and their words reverberated in my mind long after I got to my base.

The weirdest and most powerful part of this brief moment was that essentially, it was an interaction between soldiers and future soldiers. When you look at a pre-K class in this country, you know that in about a decade and half, the same kids are going to be the ones with guns slung across their backs protecting the country. This is just a fact of life for them, but it makes their childhoods a little more precious, their laughs a little lighter, their admiration of us a little more endearing. Granted, my job in the army isn't one that requires me to put myself in any great risk. But seeing that class of preschoolers made me ask myself, Is there anything that I wouldn't do for these kids? The army makes us do stupid, pointless things sometimes, but if there's even the slightest connection between the color of my hair bands and the safety of this class, is it even imaginable that I would complain about it?

The answer was no. Of course, the moment passed, and later in the day, the army sucked again. But the memory is strong, and it's much more powerful than the inconvenience of waking up early. So yeah, sometimes the army sucks. But for many different reasons, I'm happier here than I ever thought I would be.

Shabbat Shalom!

13 April 2013

A Day in the Life

To mark the official end of my two-month-long hiatus, I'm going to use this blog post to answer the question that I get most often from my friends and family back home: what exactly do I do all day? As soon as people hear that I'm a soldier in the Israeli army, they tend to assume that I spend my days in a Rocky workout montage, an M-16 slung across my back as I fight terror and make phlegm-filled Israeli sounds. As close to the truth as that is, there's a lot more to it. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you an army-approved summary of my daily life in my course.

5:25 am
My phone vibrates once before Destiny's Child's Bootylicious begins to blast at full volume, effectively waking me up just enough to blindly find the snooze button.
(Song and official music video for your viewing pleasure.)

5:30 am
Bootylicious begins to play again, waking up all of my roommates, but never me.

5:35 am
"Becca! We have 10 minutes! Get up!" And the song begins to play again. I jump out of bed, throw on my uniform, and race to bathroom to beat the crowd of about 40 girls to the five sinks for washing and brushing. I never beat the crowd.

5:43 am
"Two minutes!" We find our spots, stand in formation, and wait to receive our commander - a 19-year-old boy who quite obviously woke up no more than two minutes before he came to give us orders. We have our morning workout, followed by breakfast. Out of respect for food everywhere, I'm not going to get into what qualifies as "breakfast."

7:25 am
Misdar. Imagine you were preparing a dining hall for a grand dinner with the Queen of England. You dust, you wash the floors, you scrub all surfaces, you organize drawers and cupboards that she isn't even going to see. Imagine that the Queen's royal cleaners come and clean the entire room again. Then my dearest mother comes and does a final cleaning just to be sure. This room would not pass an IDF inspection.

7:55 am
We stand in front of the flags (the Israeli flag and the flag of my unit) in three rows: each row must be perfectly straight and perfectly parallel to the the other two rows. We receive the commander of the course, go through this weird choreography that ends with us holding our guns up in front of us, and raise the Israeli flag. This part of the day is important because it has the highest rate of misbehavior. Scratch your nose during this process and you'll be punished. Hold your gun with an arm that is not quite at a 90 degree angle and you'll be punished. Breathe loudly, you'll be punished.

8:05 am
Arabic class. This includes a test on the 28 vocabulary words that we learned the day before.
هذه الفقرة هي من باب المجاملة مترجم جوجل وليس الجيش الإسرائيلي. بقدر ما أود أن أدعي أنني بطلاقة، وأنا لا. تهانينا لأولئك منكم الذين تستطيع قراءة هذا و / أو كان بمعنى لترجمة ذلك! مكافأة الخاص بك هو نكتة: خبط خبط. من هناك؟ النقدية. نقد من؟ لا شكرا، ولكن أود الحصول على الفول السوداني بدلا من ذلك! (لدي شعور أن هذا لم يترجم إلى اللغة العربية بشكل جيد.)

1:00 pm
Lunch! (Usually a potato-themed menagerie of barely edible morsels.)

1:55 pm
Right after lunch, we have another class where we learn about our unit. Once I begin my job (sometime after April 25th), I'll write another post about what it is that my unit actually does. This class also usually has a daily test - in Hebrew of course - and is a lot harder.

6:30 pm
Dinner! During this time, I usually like to entertain myself while I down my potatoes by texting two lovely girls from my last course who deserve nothing but the shout-outiest of shout-outs. So Danna Price and Ayala Lesser, thank you for being my dinner-time entertainment and reminding me that there is life outside of my army base.

7:55 pm
Remember that awkward gun-dance we did this morning to raise the flag? Reverse it.

8:15 pm
We get in formation, each soldier wearing the following:
1 very heavy vest with...
36 billion pockets
1 very heavy metal helmet
2 magazines
1 M-16
2 water bottles that if, when shaken, they make any noise at all, you will be punished
1 full uniform
1 can of pepper spray
1 set of dog-tags

Then they do an equipment check to make sure that everything is in order. This takes forever.

9:00 pm
This varies. Sometimes we have a student-led class on something related to ethics or culture or something else interesting, sometimes we have a night work-out, sometimes we take a test, sometimes we have a meeting where we complain about things to someone in charge and then listen while he/she tells us that he/she is not going to do anything about it.

9:45 pm - 11:15 pm
The best time of all. This glorious hour and a half is when we are permitted to change into civilian clothes and study, shower, call home, read, hang out, compose blog posts in my head with Beatles' references in the titles. This is the only time throughout the day when my time is really my own.

11:15 pm sharp
Lights out. There's a pretty consistent rotation of thoughts in my mind during the 5-7 minutes before I fall asleep. My third to last thought is always, I could be at a frat party right now. My second to last thought is always, But I would never choose that life over this one, as hard as it may be. And my last thought, though I cannot fully articulate it, is a dreadful knot in the pit of my stomach as Bootylicious plays in my mind.

15 February 2013

Drumroll, Please...

And the winner of the 2013 "Name Becca's Blog" Contest is....

Hilarious friend and avid commenter, Akiva "Tiger" Carr!

Thank you all (read: 4 or 5 of you) for your submissions! Check back soon for a new blog post under the new name!