18 Kislev 5776; Untitled Poem

I’ve loved you
until the moment you were
taken from my rib
My sides are still sore from the ripping and the mending;

I’ve remembered you
standing on the color-absent sleeping shore:
exhaling that intoxicating purple haze
escaping the ruins of wars, wars, wars
that the schlepper generation we are called
still wearily participates;

I’ve felt you
sitting shiva times seventy
from the pale arms of winter’s sunlight
to the kindled retreat of
hot milk and cocoa beans,
you in your flower dress, Tillamook green
woolly arms contently rest on frayed schwarz leather
why, why, why
did I look away to the busy Sunday streets
mulling another absence too early, panicking, [hostilely]
–helplessly captive in my lonely mind’s eye
kilos from your embracing dainty hands
forgetting to savor the moment
and my lukewarm café?

BRENDAN ברנדן, PRAYER תפילה

26 Cheshvan 5776 – Covenant

MOSES DISTANCES himself from the throngs of Hebrews gathering on the shore while he begins an uncertain conversation in the Holy Presence.

During the wait, the Chieftan of Judah feels the shifty waters of the intimidating Sea of Reeds on his feet. His tribe gathers behind him, vulnerable, mortal, panicked; his spiritual and martial commander arguing with G-d even at this vital moment, the faint contour of Moses’ staff angrily waving in the air toward a rageful sky, from where in the distance a stanchion of flames stretches downward; the uncomfortably close thin line epitomizing the nearness of a vengeful Egyptian cavalry to nomadic, fragile life.

I choose You to choose me.

The Chieftan silently, impulsively, hurls his body into the waters. The motherly screams of women on the shore, the silence of disbelief overtaking a once boisterous, stormy crowd, and the shouts of a few indecisive men erupt. The dark waves of the Sea of Reeds pulls at the Chieftan’s robes as he sinks lower beneath the burning salt lido churning around him. The deep, black indigo bathes his chest, his neck, his nose and ears, until he is gone.

I reach out my hands along the Mikvah’s walls to keep my naked body submerged. Resurface. Too hasty I think to myself while the Beit Din, the House of Judgement consisting of my Rabbi, my synagogue’s cantor, and its director, stands waiting for me to immerse again.

The warm water softly beckons on my shoulders and breasts. Going under again, flare of the nostrils, assault on the eyes, the lifting pressure in my head, and… peace. The change. The transformation, the will actualized by the commitment of my heart.

Years of desire and shouting out, I choose You to choose me.


“One more time” I hear my Rabbi softly speak.

I remember the long road that has led upward to this moment. The questioning, the depression, the confusion, the anger, the tears… the silent glimpses of joy like sunlight grinning through cloud shade.

I remember asking myself who the fuck am I, walking dozens of miles from my parents’ home in the middle of night, feet soaked in slush and snow, wondering about the state of my soul after a shouting match with my parents in which I had cursed them with colorful insults and slammed my boots on the floor.

I remember the comfort of a woman holding my hand with a glass of wine in the other, asking me why, then warning me, warning me until my eyes could no longer comfortably look at hers, and finally, not surrendering, not breaking, she began to console me with intoxicating words of how she has not opted from the faith, that we are a tribe, that I am taking on an ancient and heavy commitment, that I cannot opt out either.

I remember the shame of pulling out my active phone during a communal gathering of singing during a Shabbat service in a soldiers’ hostel in Tel Aviv, a gross violation of the Shabbat laws, that caught the attention of a young reservist with leathery skin and a knitted kippah. He eyed me with a sort of stare nixing a brief shock and disdain with an understanding that whispered it is okay, he will get there one day.

I remember forgetting how to pray, and learning again, because of my primitive understanding of Hebrew, and having always prayed to Jesus, until the revelation came one night in 2011 while gazing into the maze of Chicago’s skyscrapers from a hotel room, going through a messy breakup, that I need to stop worshipping a man and my crumbling relationship; that evening I found a sliver of G-d, reaching down into the cold ruins of my consciousness from the starry lights of the many windows, like glimpses of warmth in the sea of black concrete during a chilly downtown night:

Shema Israel Ad-nai Eloheinu, Ad-nai Echad.

was the first prayer I had prayed, battling a massive headache, strangling loneliness, questioning my future and my willingness to stay alive for it.

“Stretch out your hand, Moishe.”

The words penetrate the chosen leader’s focus as the clouds grow darker, a harbinger for night.

Wood smacks stone. The waters flee in furor, light obliterating darkness. Two majestic curtains of sea stretch into the brewing clouds, opening a passage for the Hebrews. The nearly-drowned Chieftan is regaining composure, having been swept under his feet by the power of the parting.

The Hebrews start forward, abandoning carts and deadweight, led by an astonished Moses and Aaron. Trembling with fear, awed in the Presence.

The Chieftan is named Nachshon, son of Aminadav and directly descended from Judah, son of Jacob. His namesake, allusive to the Hebrew word nachshol, “waves”, is the name I am taking on as a Jew.

Reading from a framed prayer, in Hebrew, at the poolside, wet hair covering my eyes from the third immersion in the mikvah, I begin:

Blessed are You, Ad-nai
Ruler of the Universe
Who has sanctified us with the mitzvot
and has commanded us concerning immersion.

My Rabbi begins a beautiful Hebrew prayer, the most beautiful prayer, and I hear him speak my name as though it were written in a book. My identity rose out of the water that day. My desire, my current life, and my future, family, children, home, I will go with G-d and mend the world in an everlasting covenant; I will speak of these words to my children, speak of these words while I sit at home, when I walk along the way, and when I lie down and rise up. I will bind these as a sign upon my hands, between my eyes. I will hang them on my doorposts and upon my gates.

The waters are open, blown back by a strong Eastern wind; my life’s Egypt behind. I am free. I belong. And the journey has only begun… although I am still imperfect, although I still, like a child, continue to learn from misunderstandings and petty mistakes, I am untouched by regret, rather, yolked by delight that I am going where I am meant to go.

And it has not been effortless, this choice will not be without complication. My identity was once scarred by a controlling, aggressive darkness, unconfident and insecure. Difficulties in the road ahead are surely waiting for me. The future is uncertain for all of us, no matter where we are in life.

Stretch out your hand, Moishe, take a breath, go with faith.


BRENDAN ברנדן, ISRAEL ישראל

25 Tishrei 5776 – Defense, Deterrence, Depravity


A white Subaru hatchback drives over the pacifying sound of gravel as it slows to a stop, making a turn onto another winding road to reach Highway 60, toward the Neria settlement in the west. The driver and the front passenger, Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, are returning from a class reunion as their four children in the backseats begin to quietly wink off to the scenery of somnolent hills in Samaria, from where the sun had cast its final honeyed light hours earlier.

Another vehicle suddenly unsheathes itself from the camouflaging dark, driving into the lit intersection, blocking the passage of the Henkins. Two men jump out from the doors, masked in balaclavas, and fire their small arms into the front windows of the Subaru.

The children’s silence is likely what spares them from further gunfire; the eldest, nine year-old Matan Henkin, takes control and urges his younger siblings to be silent as he watches his parents’ bodies rip apart by the sudden hail of bullets. Just as quickly as the attack began, it was over; the critical silence and quiet murmuring of confused children grotesquely steals away the normalcy of a family returning home, on holiday, with no expectation of what violent execution has just taken place.

Minutes later, the children now flashing brights and honking on the horn for attention, an off-duty medic and soldier arrives at the strange scene. The soldier immediately whips out his M-16 and checks the shadowed hills for any signs of terrorists. The medic, Tzvi Goren, is horrified to find that behind the blood-stained doors, two limp bodies sit placid while children scream and panic in the backseats; the youngest, a four month-old, cries unconsolably while bound in a carrier.

Tzvi’s worst fears, while examining and comforting the children, realizes they are now orphans; he brokenly attempts to follow procedure, averting the traumatized youth’s attention from their parents, while waiting for the army to come.

A day later, Matan reads mourner’s Kaddish for his parents over the wailing of friends and family, an intrepid voice among a sea of people with no comfort, wounds raw, still searching for the faintest glimmer of hope in a stifling valley of shadows. The two well-known, well-loved parents, who made Aliyah from the United States, are escorted to their final resting place before Shabbat begins, thousands of mourners in attendance. The attacks that orphaned the four children are but the beginning of a wave of attacks that will claim the lives of two more Israelis, and injure dozens more, with no end in immediate sight.


Among the crowds inside the Lion’s Gate, a Palestinian law student makes his way through the throngs of prayer gatherers and tourists on this often-troubled road in the Old City, locked between the Arab quarter and Temple Mount.

In recent weeks, this site has been a nest of trouble between Arab dwellers on the Temple Mount and Jewish worshippers observing Rosh HaShanah; the local Arabs, carrying the perception that the Mount from where sits their Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques, are under threat by the recent large pilgrimage of Jews. Because of this, the Arab masses have been actively rioting from the Mount by use of lethal stones and firebombs, even a failed grenade, on the unarmed worshippers.

Due to this escalation, the Israeli border patrol division of the IDF, unique for their grey uniforms and black combat equipment contrary to standard olive green dress, have been deployed on high alert.

The nineteen year-old Arab law student, Al Bireh, weaves in between the crowds of worshippers sauntering their way to the Western Wall as he lays eyes on his target: a married orthodox couple carrying with them an infant. With a few quick swings, he fatally stabs the father, Rabbi Nehemia Lavie, while severely injuring the Rabbi’s wife and daughter. The crowds of people begin to flee through the narrow streets as the fourth victim, IDF reservist Aharon Benita, is mortally wounded and his rifle confiscated. The terrorist then begins to fire wildly, vainly, into the fleeing crowd before he is almost immediately neutralized by a Border Patrol officer.


All of these acts occurring in unusual unison surround the bold announcement last Wednesday of President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in front of a cheering United Nations General Assembly, that the Palestinian people “will no longer continue to be bound” to the 1993 Oslo Accords, a failed attempt at mutual recognition by Israel and Palestine, laying grounds for Palestinian statehood, and peace.

I remember watching the televised speech, in shock, followed by the raising of the Palestinian flag at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. I was not in shock because of the lack of desire for a consolidated peace between Israel and Palestine, not because I do not believe that Palestinians have the very basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, nor because I do not believe that Palestinians should have access to the founding of their own sovereign state.

But under these threats? These conditions?

The chilling voice of a woman buzzes on my phone, tzeva adom, tzeva adom, tzeva adom… “code red, code red, code red”… At that moment, an untamed rocket was screaming into the night sky, bound to strike down on Israeli soil.

This warning system, found on smartphones, is designed for Israelis in the event of these frequent, often unpredictable launches. If a rocket is tracked in the airspace over a specific town, its residents will receive a personal alert; being abroad, I can receive alerts for any region under fire.

The weight of the situation has prompted a lot of personal thoughts, especially as I plan to make this beautiful, complex country my home in the next year. What can prevent further attacks on my people? What measures do we need to take as a collective, as a fighting force? My motto breathes deep, interminable, defend life. Defend the life of my people, defend their rights, their happiness, defend the youth until they are ready to live under the helmet and carry the flame of that mantra.

But when will defense become depravity? Deterrence, the long-embraced strategy of the IDF, is condemned by the world. I have always believed that it is necessary to discourage terrorism, by means of the home demolitions, the night arrests, the brutally long prison sentences for convicted terrorists… who can complain about demolished homes, an active, violent convict being stolen away in the night, and living in custody, when we have to bury our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters? These strategies, in spite of repeated acts of terror and inevitably uncontrollable violence, has been effective in keeping Israel safe. But is deterrence effective in solving the Palestinian problem?

The stabbing sprees are becoming wildfire. From last weekend, a mounting figure of incidents are spreading from the West Bank, to Jerusalem; whose mayor, Nir Barkat, has just urged its citizens to carry firearms; and in the last day, to Tel Aviv and Yaffa.

Today in Israel, a list of incidents grow:

05:00 Men throw stones at a bus near Um al-Fahm
11:56 Rocks are thrown at a car driving past Afula
12:19 A Haredi man is stabbed and seriously injured in Jerusalem, his assailant shot and killed
13:02 Palestinians throw stones at vehicles passing Gush Etzion
13:22 Palestinians throw rocks at non-governmental organization vehicles near Halhul
15:00 A terrorist stabs five people with a screwdriver in Tel Aviv, and is killed
15:28 A glass bottle is thrown at a passerby in Jerusalem
15:54 A young man is seriously injured in a stabbing near Hebron
17:15 A soldier is lightly wounded by stones during a protest in Halamish
17:20 A Palestinian minister is wounded after stones are thrown at a vehicle passing Nablus
18:20 A Palestinian is killed and 9 police officers are wounded in clashes at Shuafat refugee camp
19:06 A soldier is critically wounded in a stabbing in Afula

The situation’s urgency mirrors a minor Intifada, a Shaking, an uprising, and various newspapers and journalists are assessing the beginning of the third such uprising.

As these acts unfold, six-thousand miles away, I urgently watch and wish I were not so helpless. I want to be there now, protecting my country and my people.

But this time is also a reflection, a spiritual question I need to mold into an answer; Defense, Deterrence, Depravity. I cannot stoop to savagery; I need to guard my heart. And at the same time, lives are being lost, and I need to defend life, a priority I hold over my conflict and muse.

The gray skies of this Minnesota autumn are quiet, soothing, maddening; life here in Minneapolis passes with a simple fury and joy, making infant steps toward its true manifestation in the gloriously bright Tel Aviv, where people appreciated life with every step, every waking breath, because we had no choice, because the present day could be our last, because we have a history that did not have to spare us, because we don’t have to be here, and we are; I wonder how I could not only preserve this deep appreciation for free Jews in our Holy Land, but for our Palestinian neighbors, who, despite their negative and often hostile perception of us, are facing a crisis deeper than any act of knife-wielding viciousness could bring about; with our army on the high-guard, it is inevitable that they should act when enough is finally enough, and no one really wants to acknowledge what will happen next.

I ask you, reader, to pray for the Peace of Yerushalayim, for its precious namesake, for those who are dying in her, and for those who endanger their own people from within her.

I refuse to believe that this is how it will end.

BRENDAN ברנדן, ISRAEL ישראל, LITERATURE ספרות, PRAYER תפילה

14 Tishrei 5776 – Atonement

All I remember from that day was walking into the deep end; all other pigmented fragments surrounding that blue memory is a lost haze, burned long ago like some forgotten nitrate film cache.

I remember watching the roundel of the glowing bulb closely, attentively.  The burning sensation in my nostrils; the hard buoyancy in my head fighting upward, my tiny body dragging it down.  My feet kept moving, toward the light.  Wavy tails of brown hair quivered against the current of my steps toward the pool’s furthest trench.  Calm, curious initiative.

I lost consciousness.

I next remember being stood up with cotton swabs stabbing my ears, bleeding with chlorine water.  Coughing tremors that made my eyes burn, belching up water from nauseous lungs.  I remember being blind; was it my eyes refusing to open, or some temporary reaction?  I made out the wet, shifting shadows of people standing around me on the rugged stone floor.  My mother continued to wrench the swabs deeper into my ears as I rubbed my eyes dry with a towel coating my cold, wet body like a blanket.  A strange menagerie of sensations that resembled salvation played themselves within and around me.

This girl saved you, they told me.

According to my family, she was the only one who saw me, who pulled me out of the pool in time after I silently slipped below the water.

The waves are hard, warm, good. I see Daniel swimming meters away, shouting as each new emerald curl rises for its final smash toward the populated shoreline.

Did you see that! he would shout too often, in a thick, amused Australian twang.

His wild crop of black hair, which reminds me of a burning bush, disappears beneath the currents, and torpedoes far away toward the Mediterranean horizon. Less experienced, but high on confidence, I determinedly dash beneath the frothy blue, tasting the vindicating sensation of sea salt in my mouth and nose, scissoring through the hard tides, and following the slipstream like wings through air.

The magnificent lido of Tel Aviv-Yafo is an emotional, invigorating way to spend a weekend resting and connecting to the land.

These currents are where Jonah was swallowed by the whale. It was these waters that have seen thousands of years of trade and fishing in the levant. Near this coastline a civil war among Jews was being ignited, the Irgun’s ship Altalena being the flint, and the newly formed Israel Defense Forces the steel.

My eyes follow the white monoliths of luxury hotels, the distant sapphire parhelion of the Azrieli district’s business skyscrapers, to the near olive-skinned bodies that are the blood of this city. My white flesh is my fading identity; fresh from the diaspora, waiting to be minted by the sun toward true physical Israeli personhood.

Do I feel self-conscious as my friends remark with curses and jeers how pale I am? Perhaps a little, but I laugh with them. It is truly a funny sight.

I swim to a stop, and cry out in joy as the hot rays of light bathe my friends and I like myrrh; heart full of passion, each summer breath full of the life I’ve prayed on, the spent nights curled and destroyed in the diaspora of my once ruined life, waiting, mumbling petitions between hoarse breaths of deluded hopes for this salvation that is now real, vivid, green like the lush foliage on shore, and dulcet, flowing, like the natural mikvah us Jews freely roam.

We end the evening smoking hookah on a street café, and converse with women soldiers we have our hearts locked on. I walk into the bunk room of my hostel, shirtless. I have passed the burn stage, a nice tan coat runs down my chest and midriff; Daniel and Yair are marked by crimson streaks down their faces and back.

Did you see that? I shout, unable to quench my laughter.

Yom Kippur was difficult to stand through. Not because of the hunger and thirst of fasting, not because of the repentant state we are in during those twenty-five hours, but because of the affliction we bring upon our souls as we mourn our sins and petition to G-d and people in our lives, who we have wronged, for forgiveness.

I had gone through multiple stages of mourning throughout the day, at one point, getting into my car, I remember shouting in a brief fury, have I not afflicted my soul enough for the past five years!

I drive on a bleak highway 35W to my Minneapolis apartment and creep lifelessly into the thick cool duvet of my bed, with iron-weight thoughts, praying a little to G-d, a little to myself, stifle my soliloquy with a self-doubting thought, this is vacuous, be a mensch, stop being so down on yourself, live like any other day, continue on with your life, commit to your dreams, kfotze! [jump!]

I arrived in the contrite halls of a darkened Temple of Aaron to join my community for a Ma’ariv and prayer. I was disconnected from the depths of the holy day as various congregants ascended to the podium to recite prayers while the community read responsively, yet I didn’t feel it; standing in the furthest seats away from the altar, I couldn’t connect, stubborn and destroyed, I tried to gain my strength back to fight the haunting dreariness of my unbearable past.

I was tired of afflicting myself. I asked G-d for something new, as I continue to. A revelation I had in my mind was that G-d gives us the tools to make our lives what our hearts desire for them to be, and, knowing that I will have my mikvah in a month, and having chosen my Hebrew name which I have yet to reveal, and, applying for the Ulpan kibbutz classes somehow confirmed that G-d was giving me something not just new, but completely transformative. And it was because of my initiative.

My Rabbi calls out the final shofar call, and incorporeally, with hairs rising on my neck and eyes welling up with tears, I find myself standing at the base of Mount Sinai, every generation of Jewish man and woman standing with me; King David, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Golda Meir, Maimonides, my Rabbi Fine, Channah Shenesh, all repentant, all afflicted, all crying out in their souls for something new, something good, final, and freeing; a chance to escape the past, to walk on salvation’s shores, to repair the world, be a mensch, and kfotze!

I cannot examine this hole in my heart no more than I can examine the absence of a person, a place nor a calling. This is more of a deep emotional absence and I know it can only be filled by the G-d I chose to embrace after several years of wandering, committing, and fall out. This G-d of mine, the G-d of Ruth and David and Abraham, is missing. And His covenant I am failing to understand. And His people I am not with, His plans, far misunderstood and abused, I am not accepting out of failure to see.

I am choosing my own path, hoping one day to look at my reflection some-decades on, sit on the foot of my bed to speak my nightly reminder (“G-d is One”), and see a man made in His image rather than a man discouraged. That this hole may be filled with self-forgiveness, forgiving others, and not worrying about things past nor coming, but focusing on committing to an oath bigger than myself in this present. This practice cannot begin now, or then, but continues, even by revenant mistakes we all make and of all of the times we fail ourselves and others.

Unless I quit focusing on myself, and the more I come to terms with what love and life are truly about, I will be just as empty tomorrow as I am now. This is not a depression I have to climb out of, but a bank on the sea, waters parted, a restless cavalry behind; we all must cross.

I experienced my first case of Israeli stubbornness. Contacting the Ulpan kibbutz proved more challenging than I thought; it required a greater effort than I initially expected, but one I am willing to give.

I had sent out a few emails inquiring for information regarding the program; no response. I found a few members of the kibbutz on facebook, sending kind messages asking for more details; no response. I then found phone numbers belonging to the kibbutz.

After listening to a series of long Israeli drones contrast to American rings, I ended the call, aggravated. I tried back another day, when miraculously, a man answered.

“Shalom, Iftach?”
Shit, don’t hang up…
“Allo, atah m’daber anglit?”

I spoke with an animated man, half-expecting to hear some native English speaker, but to my pleasant surprise, found a man whose English was difficult to understand. As though surprised at the lengths I went through to reach him, Iftach enthusiastically laid out the basic syllabus of the course and asked me for a few contact details to forward an application.

I could feel my cheeks flushed with excitement as I wished the man Shalom, anticipating yet another advance toward my dream.

As Sukkot begins, marked by a crimson lunar eclipse, I am beginning to feel a deep connectivity to my future, as well as my people, and this holiday, this harvest season and resounding Atonement; a divine forgiveness that states all will be well with my soul; cleared obstacles past and mountains on the horizon, brambles, thistles; more challenges that I live for, and less the emotional traumas that once convinced me that my life was meaningless, retrograde; taking two marches forward and years of steps in regression; not anymore.

I walk with confidence, the fire of the 6th of Sivan still burning, eternally, enticingly, deep down.

BRENDAN ברנדן, ISRAEL ישראל

29 Elul 5775 – The Springboard

The black-shirted instructor stands at the head of our assembly, chest out, ready to bust our ass. His old eyes rest behind the weary strain of crow’s feet, pupils moving silently across our line formation; each time he glances at me, I feel it, like the careful glare of a searchlight ready to expose an unsuspecting intruder.

“Okay,” the weary, strong soul begins, “in this warm up, I will order each of you to sprint around the room, until I say ‘fight’. There will be no cutting corners. Once I give the word, you will stop your laps and immediately break for the bags.”

The old man’s muscular arm reaches outward for the body bags swaying vacant along the gym’s walls.

“I want you to give those bags your all. Punches, kicks, elbows! No mercy! The moment someone stops punching, I want ten pushups.”

Some faces in the motley assembly of trainees I stand in grimace at the threat of punishment. Some of their expressions silently whisper are you fucking kidding me? My mind is far away, imagining the terrible possible: getting caught in an angry mob of Fatah supporters in some hot West Bank village, separated from my brigade, far from assistance.

“Then I will call out ‘fight’, but no more running laps. Instead, there will be bags on the ground behind you, ripe for the beating. After each cycle, there will be one less bag, so expect competition. You will have to fight for your target. The one who doesn’t get to a bag fast enough is out. We will repeat this exercise until there is one person left standing.”

The instructor’s experienced, intimidating aides begin to strategically place small punching bags the size of someone’s torso along the blue rubber floor mat.

“Does everyone understand this exercise? Well? Yallah!

We begin to sprint orbitally around the gym at top speed. Our diverse group ranges from older women to well-built men; college-age kids to middle-aged professionals. Fit, fierce young women, body-building goliaths, then there are guys like me– wiry, lean, seasoned runner-types. In other words, not ideal.

Yet I am determined to be king of this hill. En brera! No choice!


I zero in on the hanging body bags. Three quick throws of my clenched fists, the shattering sound of ass-kicking echoes through the room. A few people and I shout insults, as if trying to taunt the inanimate perpetrators.

A kick, two quick thuds of the elbows on the heavy bag.


I duck and scramble for one of the dozen bags on the floor. Diving with fists wound, I hop onto my target and squeeze it between my thighs. I begin to batter this prone bag mercilessly, my arms recoiling with each lightning-paced sack, a little more tired with each swing. Sweat begins to bead on my forehead. In a real confrontation, I would be pissed by now.


Back to the body bags! A drop kick sends the bag violently swinging back and forth. With each sway, an assault of knuckles produces craters on the glossy material. I begin to feel the urge of vomiting, as my heart wildly pumps blood through my body into my light head, and my legs violently shake from the trauma of the sprints.


Fewer and fewer bags on the ground. The barrage of punches lessen; the will just as strong. Mind fighting flesh to keep on, my sluggish confrontation is being forded by an impassioned rage. I imagine myself in a desperate situation, transforming my body into a weapon that decides the integrity of my lifeline, threatened to be snipped by a showdown with an overwhelmingly large group of potentially armed terrorists. I enter my second wind, jump back to my feet, and charge the body bag behind me.

Transition from defense to offense as quickly as possible.

Do as much damage as quickly as possible.

Two principles of Krav Maga being impounded in me with this brutalizing exercise. An inner-aggression I have repressed shows its rare face, full force.


One bag left on the ground, three fighters. I don’t look at my opponents, I just run. The spirit of 1948 burning in my veins. I dive on top of my target, and beat the absolute shit out of it. I do not see who I took it from until the instructor ends the exercise; one of the heavy-weight instructor’s aides, and a young woman who twisted her ankle in the flight for the last bag.  I instantly feel sorry, helping her to her feet, telling me that she is okay.

I was the last man standing.

Breathless, I feel my face peel back in an exhausted grin as we conclude our warm ups.  We now delve into the art of Imi Licthenfeld’s renowned martial strategy, contact combat, taught to Israeli soldiers intensively throughout their service for the self-defense of their very lives; is my grin that of ecstasy, or exhaustion? It is both.

The temptress of the night is drawing me in with a heavy, sensual pull as my eyelids begin to seal shut; each long breath growing fainter, deeper, like a motor in remission.  My mind is spellbound by the disabling hands of a masseuse guiding me inward to unconsciousness.

I am then startled awake by a thunderclap within earshot.

Switching the light on, I discover that the three hardcovers I had tucked into the unstable space on my desk’s side shelf have slammed onto my bedroom’s wood floor.

In vain, I tuck them back in their original place, realize that I had forgotten the Shema prior to my first attempt to fall asleep, pray, then turn the light out.

My book collection is growing out of control.

My minimalist mission of getting rid of belongings in preparation for my immigration is complicated by my growing library, the fact that books will no longer coexist on my overcrowded shelves being one aspect of this issue.

I will also on frequent occasions retreat into the huddle of ceiling-tall cases in bookstores to hunt for paperbacks and pamphlets I can educate myself with, usually dealing with history in the levant, politics, counter-terrorism, Judaism, and language, then I will waltz my way with hands full into the fiction section, eyeing my next fix between butternut pages that will take me far away from the dreary land of impending autumn; the painfully joyful words of Hebrew literature, and the fantasy and adventure of the beatniks.

And it is just when I am fully enveloped in another writer’s words, processing images, conversation, and actions of a fictional collective, my mind ceases to function. I will sometimes look up from my hands to a bokeh of reality; standing in a downtown intersection at my job, momentarily lost, having just been drinking coffee with Yonatan and his wife under a warm lampshade during a rainy Kibbutz night, reading Yonatan’s thoughts of wishing for escape.  Like me, except opposite; Yonatan dreams of the big city, I dream of the kibbutz.  And a wife.

I must admit that besides maturing a sense of literary style, constructing my vocabulary, and discovering inspiration for my own writing, I only read to get high. And to escape.  I believe that I should be focusing on making my own life a beautiful reality worthy of the pages; I need to stop fantasizing and finally jump on the hitchiker’s flatbed with Dean Moriarty on my way to my heart’s Denver.

I meet and befriend an older retiree in a coffeehouse, who is looking to pawn off a monolithic collection of his own.  I immediately accept his offer of Plutarch’s Lives and a rusty old book entitled Caesar and Christianity, forgetting my goals in haste.

Looking back on that moment of botched failure, I realize that in other aspects of my life I am breaking discipline; for example, struggling to keep kosher and observing the Sabbath.  My book addiction, amplified by fall, I abuse as a retreat from my seasonal depression.  Contrarily I think that this is can be a productive time of self-improvement and preparing a strong mental and physical profile for the Army life, as I have previously mentioned.

There comes a point when long-runs and calisthenics do not cut it.  I need to go to the gym, and reinforce my diet.  Despite the warnings that Israelis are looking for men and women who are mentally devoted rather than those who only hit the weights, I feel this change of direction is needed; a foreign front to aquaint myself with that can only make me stronger and better prepared for what lies ahead.  One-hundred and thirty pounds will hardly have an affect on an attacker on the street, unless I risk severely injuring myself.  I am coming to terms with my errors, physical, mental, emotional, and I need to immediately remedy them.

Will I dance like David in the Holy Presence, giving this mission my full potential?  Or will I break?

5775, the current Hebrew year, is in its dusk.  Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year, begins in less than a day.

It will be my first year as a Jew.  It may be my last year in the United States, considering I make Aliyah by next winter.

As a Jew by choice, a man must make certain commitments to devote himself to the tribe.  If he is uncircumcised, he must have a bris, he must participate in a ritual mikvah, and make an Aliyah (an ascension, the same name used for Jews immigrating to Israel) to the Torah scroll in the presence of the synagogue’s congregation, to read a passage in Hebrew.

I will not forget the feeling of a veil being lifted when I walked out of the mohel’s office at Park Nicollet in St. Louis Park.

“So, Brendan, what has led you here today?” Doctor Karasov asked as he snapped sanitation gloves over his hands.  He was a gentle man with a kind smile, revealing comforting white teeth that shone from rich dark skin.  A pink knitted kippah, the yarmulke worn by the conservative and modern orthodox, sat atop graying pepper hair.

I explained, not having assembled my thoughts, the journey I have been on, in brief.

I grew up in a Lutheran household, but my parents were not religious until the summer I left for a Baptist school, my mother becoming born-again.  Being a Christian as a teenager, I was familiar with Biblical stories, and Judaism maintained a presence around my developing faith like a forbidden, illustrious aura.  Growing older, I became more free-thinking.  I fell in love with the Jewish culture and faithful observances.  Although I was studying in a strictly Conservative Christian environment, I still maintained desires deep down that began to shape my identity.  The inspiring stories of the Jewish people struck a deep chord in me that never quit singing, inviting, as I was beginning to question the defensive, one-sided theology of the professors that seemed to imprison us all in a room without windows.  Was Jesus a white man in a three piece suit, driving a Mercedez to campus to preach the errors of atheists and agnostics?  Did he really mean to absorb us into the church, contrary to his vagabond ministry that instead went to the broken, oppressed people living in Roman-occupied Judea?

My belief that Jesus is the Messiah has since left me, but faith still remained.

Judaism’s chord kept singing, inviting, but my then-infantile journey was, and still is to an extent, uninviting.  Deterring.  Hostile, and lonely.  Not my community, not my encouraging rabbi, but today’s counterculture and the out-of-reach land of my longing where I could pick a conversation out of dust.

Doctor Karasov smiled at me as he unsheathed a long needle from its cover.

“Well, with this hat’afat da’am Brit (a ritual drawing of blood since I was already circumcised as a child), you are entering a covenant with the G-d of Abraham, who chose us to heal and perfect the world with Him.”

“I want to be a part of this covenant,” I replied.

He smiled and ordered me to pull my britches.  He held my member in a firm grasp, began to pray a blessing, and broke skin.

One of the many books I have been reading lately is Dr. Michael Oren’s Ally, documenting his time as Israel’s ambassador to the White House.

His journey toward becoming ambassador began in a familiar place that almost mirrors mine; a humble Jewish kid from New Jersey with desires of making Aliyah to experience a new life.

He left for Israel in the late 70’s with nothing more than a backpack. He joined the Paratroopers during the onset of the 1982 Lebanon War, and his account of the brutal training took my focus with force.

“I never forgot the image of those airborne troops dancing in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War and was determined to be one of them. No other unit would do. There were nightlong marches that flayed our feet, and daylong drills crawling through brambles or laying our bodies across barbed wire while others used our backs as springboards. The drinking water was rationed, sleep denied, and showers virtually unavailable; I once went six weeks without one. Less than a third of the unit finished the course, and I often questioned whether I could. While lacing up my boots, my eyes involuntarily welled up with tears. I forced myself to remember the Jews of 1948, who held off Arab armies with handguns, the pioneers who gave their youth, and often their lives, to cultivate a patch of our homeland. It worked. I sleeve-dried my eyes and knotted my laces.”

My chest tightened during his description of the discipline, and my heart beat with raging joy, absorbing his motivation to never quit.  I want to be the less-than-the-third.  And by my faith and determination, I will pass my gibush (tryout) that Dr. Oren described with passion.

While asking a friend of mine, himself a veteran of the IDF Paratroopers, how to prepare for the gibush, he recommended a program to me that looks every bit as brutal as it is vital: tsevet lochamim (literally “warrior’s team”).

It is a pre-combat training program designed by fitness instructors who have completed service in elite units.  One look at the intense training regimen, and I was immediately in.

Hearing back from David, one of the instructors, I was given a date in the Spring for when to join.  The trip will immediately follow my two-month plan to study in an Ulpan Hebrew school on a kibbutz between January and February.

And I think about this wildly at Selichot, a poetic choral service taking place a week before Rosh HaShanah.  Gazing at the bronze ark doors of Temple Adath Jeshurun, which hold the temple’s covered Torah scrolls, and with my eyes transfixed on the magnificent sandstone stage, I am taken back to Jerusalem.

The beautiful voices of our synagogues’ cantors reverberate through the pews and echo on the walls.

Shomer Yisra’el, sh’mor sh’erit Yisra’el,
v’al yovad Yisra’el, ha’omrim sh’ma Yisrael.
Shomer goi ehad sh’mor sh’eirit am ehad,
v’al yovad goi ehad, ham’yahadim shimkha Ad-nai el-heinu Ad-nai ehad.

Guardian of a unique people,
guard the remnant of that people.
May none perish of the people
that proclaims: “Ad-nai is our G-d, Ad-nai is one.

The shofar blows.

Everywhere, we, the congregation, wish each other “Shanah Tovah“, “good new year”, as we prepare for 5776.

My first year of being a Jew, the year I prepare my springboard for Aliyah, ready to crawl through brambles and flay my feet.


17 Elul 5775; Kibbutznik

It has always been
the restless hope
finding the marauder
at odd hours
during the dark’s
temperate breeze;
a desperate need
grasps us two
under the Negev night
receding caution, our
entwined eyes elope;
mid-desert day,
beyond the gates
and the tower
from where I stand;
holding a strange girl
as my heart beats like
the discomforting report of a Sten
making senselessness of sense,
advancing with passionate hands–
that is how I betrayed you.
but loud is the labor of shared
sacrifice; the psalm
to survival in this strange
and embattled Land;
the hope, the red hymn,
a phonograph to our youth
in whose infant fields we stand;
the howls of night
and the colorful screams
of Semitic words
as they usher the tearing
of the fertile tapestry,
‘y’allah, kadima, aish’!
‘feel the might of our tribe;
pursue Ishmael ’til he dies’
again, don’t relent,
back into the land of Ur
from whose ancient heart
we’ve been heard–
by the declaration that shocked
the world near and far
and those brutal May evenings
with the sounds of armored cars,
whose names like Latrun, al-Quds,
and Mount of Olives
troubled this heart;
on the steep hill
from where my commander fell,
the stampede of boys busting ass
back to the Merkaz
O Yerushalayim!
this handless arm
has lost its cunning!
but you and my relatives
I haven’t forgot’;
under the white grace
of the hospital bed
with rows of cots
and dying Yids,
I felt my conscious
regain its strength,
man in the green,
send me back again.
and the sunburnt officer
cold stillness in his eyes
takes my bandaged arm,
stares as I try not to cry
‘you’re staying here, boy’
in an old Hungarian tongue;
it was days later
the song on the radio sung
that which you wanted
me to listen to,
and I remember back
how I did not desire your desire
or thought maybe you were too afraid; but it was I.
I remember how your coffee eyes
used to keep me awake.
I was never able to sleep,
while thinking a boy’s thoughts
and fearing a pauper’s fears
and that sad answer
leaves me restless again
as I understand you
hearing the words that you
so often thought of
I was quick to neglect
and how we came to the end;
it was one sunrise
in petah tikvah
I heard for the first time
an old man pray
the song of first rains
to come down again;
was this the religious longing
your fragile lips once spoke of?
was this the faith
that I had so recklessly set fire to?
I never knew G-d
nor what He could do
with every harvest and
new summer moon
hanging in the purple night
with that lingering citrus smell
that reminds me of you.
now a different hope,
a man’s hope,
festers deep down
walking the streets of holiness.
standing on the hill,
where the shells fell straight
we heard the chief order
us into the Lion’s Gate,
and I could feel the weight of your
distant joy, like heavy water
walking the charred streets
dodging bullets and occasional
explosive fodder; the wall was craggy
to the touch, and I couldn’t restrain
my tears that caused
these cheeks to rust,
I had become iron, so inhuman; incapable of love, and emotionally decayed,
and at the foot of the holy presence
the first prayer in two-thousand years
of my own negligence,
I prayed.
now the restless hope
liberated like the heart
of the Jewish people,
sets my faith anew
as I wait for you
whether by charcoal eyes
or Mediterranean blue
I build, and wait on this temple
for the day I can be true,
lest I lose my left hand
and its vacant finger
ready for a hope fulfilled
in spite of a past omitted–


8 Elul 5775; After Me

I think the dying man
Does not want us to question our dreams
Such as when we protest about life
And cannot remember what life means,
The weight of goodness it brings;

He wants us to be examples
To break the chains and give pursuit to our peace
Whispering gently as the levant’s revenant cyclamens grow
Heart furiously ablaze, eyes welled up like a spring,
After Me

BRENDAN ברנדן, ISRAEL ישראל

25 Av 5775 – The End

The hands of my kibbutz-made watch move slowly, seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. I tiredly work the math in my head as I pace forward in patient blinks at customs; it is sometime past seven here, and mid-afternoon in Israel.

I notice a lone suitcase ahead of me, two women behind me ask if it is mine. We wave down a security guard and he promptly takes it into his custody. A kerchiefed middle-aged woman ahead of me startlingly asks “where did my bag go?” as I try to make contact with the fleeting security guard. She distressfully pursues him, abandoning her post, despite the droves of travelers she gives up her place for; the line is too thick and too constant to save a spot. And in the forefront of grumpy thoughts, I think to myself, “at Ben Gurion they would’ve detonated that case by now, lady.”

Taylor Swift smiles at me from an advertisement, with emboldened letters that seem to strain,
welcome to New York.
You’re home.

The solemn Atlantic skies burst through the terminal windows painting the rooms and its faces gray. I follow the attractive figure of a young woman practicing yoga one terminal away. She seems careless, in wanderlust. She is on her way to the next adventure; the past’s oblivion. I feel like I’ve been assigned to a mundane return that is mandatory. I am overwhelmed, planning out my next exodus.

A taxi driver catches the sight of my hand as I cumbersomely shoulder my overweight luggage into his backseat.
“Where to.”
“The airport. …Ben Gurion airport.”
He raises two fingers, “yes I know.”
The two fingers then reach for the volume knob on the radio.
Being a backseat passenger is a bliss I have almost forgotten. It is even more enhanced that I can gaze at this curious lifestyle I aspire to.

I see the morning life I fell in love with, described in book pages I had read years ago. Israelis are certainly awake earlier than most Americans, I feel, and the consistent sunshine at such early hours is a mirage to this cliché. Black-shirted, freshly showered beatniks are having a post-workout espresso in the hidden coffee shops that can be found at the base of Bauhaus apartments. An old woman walking her numerous dogs; perhaps some are her neighbors? Confident young business people in animated conversations and old retired war buddies enjoying a jog. And it’s only Sunday; the first day of the week.

An impassioned Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in his famous Boston-accented Hebrew on air, accompanied by irritated commentators whose voices rise and fall like the sudden ramps and curving freeways the taxi drives through, custom to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, as I believe Elie Wiesel best described her, “a city that is constantly growing in successive maelstroms of fury and joy.”

The fury of freak traffic started by a man making a food delivery with hazards on, the joy of a young green-bereted recruit kissing her brown-bereted Golani boyfriend. The fury of emergency vehicles constantly driving with lights on in case of a terror attack, the joy of an expatriate in a kippah on cell phone talking with his child abroad.

Fury and joy— a reminder the two can never be alone, nor separate.

The cab driver asks me, again, “AC or window?” It must be routine. “Window is good.”

We come up to Ben Gurion’s security gate. A man with a sharp jaw and Oakley radars covering his focused glare wields a TAR-21, finger disciplined over the trigger, ready for a confrontation with a non-stopping vehicle. As of late, a popular terrorist tactic, the act of ramming vehicles into checkpoints and highly-populated pedestrian centers, has Israelis and soldiers on high-guard. The numerous deaths that have transpired from this disgusting act in the past two months makes this soldier’s stone-cold tact look pious.

A woman questions the cab driver, then questions me. I give her my passport, and she smiles at me, as if trying to mimic my photograph. “What are you doing here?” “Volunteers for Israel, I’m meeting my group.”

We enter without a hitch.

Ben Gurion International is busier than when I had initially arrived a week prior. The Arrivals Hall, when I had first arrived, was anti-climactically placid; it’s tall concrete pillars standing alone, and vast floor space unused. Now, a diverse flag of people gathers, families of a different story standing naked in the refuge of a Jewish dream willed.

Aware that I am going to be living on a base for a week, I withdraw a modest amount of shekels from an ATM. I purchase a phone, and am given my first Israeli number; a blonde speaking in rapid fire Hebrew to one of her customers switches over to California-accented English as she issues me an old Nokia.

I sit, meet Lars, and after a few hours I am united with my congregation of young volunteers for the first time. Not one American in my group; a Dutchman, Hungarian, Japanese-Australian, and a French girl. This is home.

I stand at the pinnacle of the Citadel hostel, taking in my last views of ancient Jerusalem. An amazingly crimson horizon burns in the presence of a gold haze bathing the city in its unique twilight. I am the only one awake at 05:40, weary travelers with disheveled hair peeking out from a rainbow of neon sleeping bags on the roof’s floor around me. I don’t want to leave.

I haul my weighty rucksack of belongings toward Sha’ar Shekem station near the Damascus Gate (Sha’ar Shekem— “Damascus Gate”) as a muezzin’s voice hauntingly carries from a minaret tower.  Another faraway crier joins him.  Another.  The cadence of voices in minor Arab key breaks the dusky morning with a sunrise the color of smelted gold.  

The weekend hangovers from Shavuot’s intense celebrating are apparent aboard this quiet and sparsely occupied train. A soldier of the Kfir Brigade stares a thousand yards into the ugly multi-colored conundrum that is the empty seat across from him.  Is he, too, suffering the consequence of drinking one too many Goldstars with his buddies, relishing the sabbath-breaking East Jerusalem night life?  Or is he shouldering the final stretches of an intense, short-lived service with a combat brigade?  His black M-16 with nickel-colored scars, worn camouflage beret, purple bruises beneath his eyelids and three diagonal bars on his shoulder sleeve suggests the latter.  It’s an attractive sight; I would be in a sore bliss if I were him.  

Jerusalem Central Bus Station is more lively– but not the chaos from a few days prior. A man selling teffilin gestures towards me as I wait in line at the information booth to confirm my ride back to Tel Aviv.

I feel a piece of myself missing as I see the valley of Jerusalem slowly fade from view. Har HaMenukhot, a famous hillside cemetery established as a result of the 1948 Jordanian Occupation, rendering all other Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem inaccessible for the next nineteen years, is the final landmark I pass before experiencing Highway 1’s famous countryside aboard this Egged bus.

As I watch the stone graves shrink and fade, and the beautiful funeral cypresses standing in formation, perpetually watching over the silent rows, I silently, intensely, promise to myself that once I return to this city that has stolen my heart, it will be for good, just like the ones resting upon that hill.

I stare at the cold-colored ceiling of my barracks as the AC rattles over the snores of my American-Israeli madrikh, or group leader. My thoughts are haunting me. I have gone too deep, again.

I am in the country of my dreams, yet I am alone.

I am able to connect with people here, and I love them. I feel a love for them that lights a happiness, unknotting a marred spirit worried of how it would be perceived, accepted. I accept them. They accept me, my dreams. But would my dreams I have worked so long for in America be unchallenging to the average soldier? I mull on my lack of initiative and wisdom. I am by definition a child in my development as a dual-citizen, as a Jew. I am too remote, too behind to contribute to the world; not even the sum of my life’s vigor will contribute one iota to this world abroad, than what the average sabra can do in this country. I then notice the absence by my side; too many years of ruffled sheets where a responsive mind and soul should lie.
Where are you? Who are you? Ma shmek? T’gadi li.

Remember that love, remember the dream. Rise with that hot Judean morning light; feel the powerful blast of the shower head, shave my whiskered jaw with the blade; cuff my fatigues, lace up my boots, and work.

Fury and joy.

Somewhere about Rabin Square, I wait to meet a friend for coffee. I gaze at the monolithic, iron, upended tetrahedron that sits in the middle of this public square of Tel Aviv; residents leisurely sit beneath and around it.

Beyond the monument sits the aged, unassuming City Hall, where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I am greeted by an ecstatic furry black lab, taking leaps on and off the marble bench that forms the base of this great monument, hopping on again, zig-zagging as it sniffs around, just as curious of this place as I am.

I sit and process my final days in Israel. I have tackled and achieved a long-awaiting promise to myself, and have overstepped an intimidating boundary. What is next? How do I join the Paratroopers from here? What sacrifice do I need to make? I know a great one awaits.

The energy that comes with my newfound confidence and love, is like a marvelously prolonged coffee high. I am unstoppable; I have touched ground, now I need to plant my focus here completely, even if it tests my individuality. If I lose who I am in my dream, the chances are great that I shall find myself again here. That sacrifice I am at least willing to make.

I stand and wander toward a grouping of trees.

“Nu, hello?” My friend ambushes me from behind, and I am surprised to find someone like me, at least physically, standing there; completely Jewish, completely Israeli, but completely Eastern European. I shout her name and hug her, and we begin walking in the way of the streets. How to talk with an acquaintance you have known for a long time, but have never met until now?

For those in Israel, it comes easily.

“How long have you been growing them?”
“Well, since I was a child.”
“And how old are you?”
“I am twenty-two.”
“Brendan? I’m Benjamin.”

The handsomely dressed man and I shake hands, as a silently sporadic scene of pillow-smuggling and seat-reclining takes place around us abroad El Al Flight 9. Benjamin’s side curls are what attracted my attention toward him, despite seeing hundreds in the past three weeks. And although I may not be able to achieve his length for decades, I think to myself, my children may look just like him as young adults. I entertain more thoughts of the future to get my mind off of the departure.

The long moments before takeoff, the black of night; Star of David on the wingtip, the thrust of being taxi’ed down through the tarmac; the anticipation of take-off; the roar, the lift, airborne.

I watch the confusing horizons shift and sway; a dim view of the many white apartments, as minute as salt-mines; the brilliant desert sky, distant diamonds in the close vacuum of space.

Tel Aviv bids her seductive farewell; my neck hurts as I strain to make contact with its disappearing lights, an ominous Mediterranean blackness now escorting us below.

When my eyes meet the lonely islands of Nova Scotia ten hours later, I cannot fall back asleep. We descend two hours later into the swampy marshlands and crowded brown brick apartments of New York City. Benjamin’s glossy, tired eyes carry a childhood’s wonder. I know that he is home; his clean accent and destination is a dead giveaway that he is a New York City Jew; although we are away from the Land, he has a solid refuge to keep his spirits up. I feel solemn, almost victim. Something is taken away from me, but I try to not exude the ridiculous thoughts that ravage me. It’s time to see my family, and better now, I know where I belong.

Minnesota, as I can best describe the place, is like a crushing Red Sea, racing toward me as I stand on the last dry stretch of the floor. And I realize that it is not an optimistic image, but believe me; I am.

I have learned the great opportunity and spirit that encompasses my faraway home; I can counter the accusations of delusion with this true experience. Israel is greater a place than I had dreamed it would be. And I intend on returning to it, I intend to reach as high as I can in my coming Army service and make as great a contribution to the land and its people as I am physically and mentally able.

And, I have a newfound desire to heal it; its apparent divide, and ancient wounds that keep breaking and bleeding with every new incident.

The evening is fresh as I run past the gold dome of Saint Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. I remember the true Greek Orthodox monks I saw in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; their incense-waving walk and dark beards. I am underwhelmed by the small size of this church’s dome, but inspired by the architecture I know exists six-thousand miles away.

I scale the final stretches of a sixteen kilometer run, the morning run of Matkal commandos. I feel the sinews of my hot muscles bending and fraying, as burning salty perspiration runs into my eyes. The sweat on my back has made my shirt as heavy as a coat; my lungs pulsate sorely as I take in and shove out air.

I recount the fighters who have preserved the land in its genesis; the boys who suffered like me, but with the intense weight of ammunition on their backs and machine guns in their wiry arms, bullet wounds and broken ribs.

I smile to myself while I pant. This is nothing.

The hum of heavy aircraft echoes through the summer air as I watch two C-130’s approach the airport for a landing.


24 Tamuz 5775 – French Shabbat

24 May 2015

Raspy knocking plays distantly as I struggle to fall back asleep. The noises, the breathing, the nonsensical hallucinations I am convinced are reality, the raspy hook and knock persists as I weave out of deep unconsciousness; an unpleasant outside world making itself known. What is that sound? I forget where I am for a moment, and then come to my senses while passively trying to identify the noise.

Neighbors walking in the apartment above my bed? A machine, gas line, old pipes bringing fresh water from a well? A terrorist trying to get in?

I am convinced it is a man. The owner, maybe? But David said he would be in the Negev for a Shavuot festival. I wake from my bed and slip into gym shorts. Exiting the bedroom, the shadow of a figure with its moving arm convinces me this is Ilan, a tenant mate watching the apartment, as David is absent. I check the time on my phone: 02:25.

A dark-eyed man with the wild hair of Shimshon, I unlock the door in an awkward hurry and apologize while trying to introduce myself. He is a calm, kind man with a gentle handshake. Perhaps some friendship will come of this meeting.


Late in the afternoon, sometime past 13:00. Damn it.

Lethargic, still in bed, perhaps a little too exhausted from the walk through the Old City and comfortable in the cool underground, I see gray leaking through the window.

Could this be my first cloudy day in Israel? I peel away the petite curtain to find vibrantly blue, cloudless skies; the ancient white walls mute the colors as they enter the now conscious living space.

I look at myself in the reflection of the bookcase’s sliding glass partition and see empty brown eyes with the faint curl of a smile. Alone, yet alive. Alive in the city that will be the final legacy of my life, someday down a hopefully long span.

I check my Nokia to see if a girl I had been talking to for the lesser part of three months had responded to my message, I am here. I will be exploring. Let me know.

I had first begun talking to this person online, and a mutual romantic interest was building. She was a photographer with brown eyes and an orthodox braid, and immediately I was infatuated.

In the meanwhile we exchanged photographs, she sent me a photo of the Kotel with a companionless Dome of the Rock gleaming over it.

“This is the view from my place,” she would say. Are you kidding me?
She was a motivation, a voice on the other side, as a friend of mine had put it. But it was not long until I discovered that long distance takes its toll, and as the weeks went on, and after pledging that I would be in Jerusalem for Shavuot to meet her, I found I was not learning more about this person, but rather less and less.

I had received a black and white photograph from her one day. Heavily shadowed, with a high winter sun in the corner of the frame, stood the Montefiore Windmill from a queer angle that I had not seen it before. I imagined the photograph being taken from some vista below the mill in a maze of ancient city walls and homes.


“Just for you.”
“Montefiore’s windmill. I want to visit so badly!”
“I will take you there.”

Still no response from her. Was I contacting the right number?


I decided to visit the Citadel once I left my rental space, a youth hostel I was to be staying at in the heart of the Old City after I left David’s apartment.

Jerusalem is hot, and my clothes, washed by hand with hair shampoo and dried in the sun back on the base, were brittle and beginning to smell. It was the Friday before Shavuot, and I was about to experience my first Shabbat in a city that wholly observes it. And because of Shavuot, Jerusalem would be closed for business during the whole weekend.

I had to think of how I was to eat for those two days, as all grocers, restaurants and stores were to be closed.


Ilan is home as I come back from the Citadel.

You have Shabbat plans? I remember him asking me as we met in the Bohemian living space. He invited me for a dinner with his family, and expecting not to hear back from this girl, I accepted.

Close to sundown, Ilan and I walk to his SUV and drive south for Talpiot. Travelling on a highway just outside the Old City Walls, my eyes meet the Montefiore Windmill for the first time. Bottom-lit in a bright white, the mill stands on a hill overlooking a busy valley of streets and intersections across from the Old City; not where I had expected to find it, but I am awed nonetheless.

Apartments with a homage to Victorian luxury rise from the curving streets and stand at the height of the neighborhood’s many trees. Apartment living in Jerusalem is not too affluent, but far from poverty. It’s tasteful, ideal. I am inspired as I walk in, through a courtyard with a garden and an orange tree.

Spiral stairway leading upward to the residence of Ilan’s mother and father, I am welcomed by a French family.

Mother in a headscarf and father stout with glasses and strong arms, I greet everyone with Shabbat shalom as they proceed to speak to me in heavily accented Hebrew. I have to tell them I do not speak Hebrew yet and surprisingly, find it more difficult to communicate with them as many of them are bilingual with communicational English as a third leg. And I am pleased with this.

The apartment, with its dark cream-colored walls, tells a story. A bookcase in the corner, housing two wood-paneled stereo speakers, and a menagerie of aging leather books and light-leak damaged photographs, is distinctively Israeli. Lofty satin curtains weave their way around the apartment’s few living room windows. Aged harvest gold lighting warms the chic wall decor with memories telling of a quaint life interweaving army service, leisurely study, passion and many children.

L’ami de Ilan reads a card on the long table. An old wine bottle of iced water is passed around as I look upon the selection of salad, specially prepared chicken breast in a peculiar sauce, and a shortbread in homemade caramel. More bitter than sweet, perfect, I take caution not to over-indulge, aware of the stigma that Americans like to overeat.

I listen to the conversations around the table more than I speak. It is a happenstance supper, with a people I have never met, but feel an intangible, instant love. I talk with one of Ilan’s cousins, only sixteen, saying he wants to join Sayeret Matkal. Envy of my life, I would join Matkal only if I were a native Israeli, but Paratroopers is the only accessible elite brigade for an American.

I leave with handshakes, kisses on the cheek, and hugs. Enamored by Ilan’s blessing, I tell him how fortunate he is. He is a man atypical of the Israeli in my mind. His long hair and leftist appearance makes me think he is not completely religious, not a Zionist, critical of the army. Yet he wears a kippah, shared photographs of his Israeli subjects at the Shabbat dinner, and responds yes. I am very blessed to be here.

A contrastive glimpse into an Israel I never knew.


Travelling alone on the second day of Shavuot, miles from the Citadel, I approach the Knesset, map-less.

I find it, snap a few photos from unflattering angles, convince a persistent cab driver that I need no ride, and begin my walk back to the Old City. I walk through the Rehavia neighborhood, similar to Talpiot, in broad daylight. Jerusalem seems desolate on holidays.

I shouldn’t leave this place. I am prepared to settle here.

Parched, tired, sweating, I detour to a small park where Jerusalem’s vanished residents have all taken refuge. Behind the rows of trees and park benches, a windmill stands.

Silently I walk beneath it, spiteful, taking a photograph from the exact angle she had taken it months before.


Zeh mah she’aish, ah? That’s the way it is, ah?

I laugh to myself, laughing empty and proud; perhaps more proud than I am disappointed. I did it. I am a man of my word. I stand here on Shavuot.

And I suppose there is the lesson. Never expect too much out of one person, but always demand such a quality of effort from yourself; the quality you dream of in a companion.

My confidence gained is the reward, and I will need it.


13 Tamuz 5775

“Here the Dawn is gray; in Palestine it is red like fire.”
-Elie Wiesel, “Dawn”

And it is gray. And quiet. And different, here in America. All the memories of this place, my upbringing, they sit like novelties on a shelf behind glass, collecting dust. Waiting to be passed down through the generations; I don’t own it anymore. This is not who I am, this is not where I belong. Tell me otherwise, it will not resonate.

Every morning that I wake I am starting to pray the Shema; throw in a little Hatikvah like I had sung at every flag raising, it gets me through the shower.

Brush away the wet, slip on some clothes. Fashion the golden wings of the Paratroopers around my neck; I’m doing this so I can wear the real thing, I tell myself. Working fourteen hours a day, every day.

Blast some Meir Ariel on my morning drive to work, watch the planes ride up into the sky as I pass the airport, remembering when I left the ground not too long ago. My chest is heavy and hurting from being so tired, but the fire I felt on the 6th of Sivan still burns deep down.

I will return, en brera! No choice.

I fell behind drastically in my writing while I was in Israel. I have been back in the United States for almost one month, and it is beginning to feel like it. I was so caught up in all of the happenings that it was easy to not write for a day, and I wanted to enjoy the experience; let the sentimentality sink in while gazing at every sunset and conversing with people, rather than staring at a laptop’s screen jotting down every memory.

And now I stare at the laptop’s screen, in between jobs, thinking about Ulpan in the late fall. I plan on living on a kibbutz for a month this autumn, taking my first Hebrew courses. And until then, I am going to give myself the body I need for the Army, and the funds to pay my way through the Winter.

It is a sort of discipline that is new to me, I used to be so reckless with my time and money. Now I feel I live in one of the most vainglorious places in the world; I find myself asking so often, do you people even know what is going on over there?

Living in one of the more trendy neighborhoods of Minneapolis once appealed to me, now I need to escape. People will pass you without a word here, absorbed in their iPhone or shopping transit; three weeks in Israel visiting a handful of coffeeshops, I encountered dozens of new friends and had many thoughtful conversations. Not to say I think everyone in America acts this way, but it is far more difficult here. It is a different mindset. Too much comfort to the point of decay.

Although I must say I am feeling more motivated than ever. I have an end goal, a purpose. When I am in synagogue, it almost feels like home. I almost cried as my Rabbi prayed at the open altar, guide our leaders as we negotiate with our historic enemies. He was praying about Iran, and the negotiations surrounding their nuclear program being held in Vienna this week.

An Israeli issue, it almost felt like home.

One of my final nights spent in Israel, I remember walking around the Army base alone. A beautiful Ramle night, the moon hanging in a dark purplish haze. The silhouettes of mountain valleys guarding over a beautiful desert landscape. I was looking at the moon, following its pure contour high above the branches of eucalyptus trees. Thinking to myself, one day this will be my nightly walk. My posterity’s nightly walk. This will be our peace.

I checked into my barracks and stripped down for the night. It was an eventful day spent painting radio parts and repairing signal antennae. Action was brewing forty miles south; three rockets that day had been launched by ISIS-affiliated terrorists into Ashkelon. Suddenly the barracks shook, the shatter and roar of a lion echoed throughout the night sky.

The next morning as I was in Tel Aviv, I learned in the online paper that the Army had retaliated by launching airstrikes into Gaza at midnight, and I realized my barracks was not that far from the Tel Nof airbase when it happened.

On my night runs, I stifle the possibility of not making it as an Israeli citizen and chayal. I follow the moon, and its bright, pure contour, high above the branches of elm trees, thinking to myself.

I will return.