12 Elul 5776 – Lace Up

Life is a brutal, messy, heart-wrenching trial as much as life is a glory, a journey, an adventure, beautiful and spontaneous and unexpected.

What a disheveled life.

So awful and worthwhile, and it can all end at any corner, at any given moment, as abruptly as when we were once born out of nothing; one of the things I tendentiously love about life. Maybe not the death, but that element of life that keeps it so alive, and vital, and beating, and existing. One day it began, likewise it ends.

I have been in the United States for about a month and a half, and I am enjoying it. Not without its challenges, being back in the States has been a test for my final self waiting to be absorbed into the place I call home six-thousand miles away.

I turned twenty-four in June, and already feeling a great deal older than the people I lived with during those months of Ulpan, or Hebrew immersion school, I’ve begun to deliberate what I want versus what I need, versus what I must do: All fighting inside me at once every day.

Four months away and I will be back in the ancient rain-laced preserve of an Israeli winter. I am deciding on whether I will be taking one final Ulpan before the Army in August, or an expedited program so I may draft by April. I want to choose the latter, but realistically I must wait to consult with the immigration representative I meet with next month.

It has been a season of closures since I’ve arrived back in the United States, and a supply of conflicting emotions have catalyzed within. Losing my family’s young dog to an aggressive disease and my father’s car I’ve held privy for its sentimental value and making final goodbyes with certain friends, altogether have really closed a chapter on this American life for the time being.

Who knows what happens next?

I am ready to return. I miss the night marches with a rabble of voices yelling out in volition their determination to hold onto the land. I miss the surge and crash of Mediterranean water on my legs and chest, the rare sight of lightning that illuminated the ragged teeth of Mount Carmel, the beating rays of the midday sun and the purple skies of midnight. I long for the night fires in the wilderness with the hevreh drinking to the point that vocalized commitments came out: I will take a bullet for you, and I promise to attend your beret ceremony, G-d forbid.

A concern I’ve slowly begun to scratch the surface of is my coming of age and the responsibilities and steps that traditionally join it. There are women in my life, but not a single desire within me to settle. There are friends beginning families, but I cannot start a family right now. And the pressure is heavy and real.

I have family here in the States, and family in Israel. So in a sense I suppose I am starting a family. And for now Israel is my wife, and I don’t believe we’re divorcing any time soon.

I stare down my path with sober eyes, in its truest, naked, starkest form. After our Sh’ma we lace up and take life head-on, every morning, every day.

I am going to wear those coveted red boots and I need all the strength and focus I can release right now so that I earn them.

Tokef v’moked.

27 Iyar 5776 – White Night

“I’ll be going to Layla Lavan.”
“Jesus, going straight into Layla Lavan?  You haven’t worked with these guys before?”
“I can’t, you know?  With Ulpan and work.”
“I get it, your schedule is full.”
“I mean, I’ve been training everyday, sometimes with friends and most times solo, working myself as much as I can.”
“You’ll be fine, it’s just-”
“It’ll be a baptism by fire.”
“Yes, exactly.”
“Is it difficult? ” I asked, knowing just how unnecessary the question was, but wanting to get as real of an answer as I could.
Layla Lavan (white night), or tironut (training) in general?”
Tironut.
“It’s extreme, but do you know how to keep on?”
“Mental.”
“Yes, exactly.  Shoot for as high as you can.  The training is a bitch, but listen Nachshon, it’s worth it.  In kravi what you’ll be doing for majority of the time is holding a part of the border.  The days are long, but you do jack.  Nothing.  The only part you need worry about getting through is tironut.  If you can survive tironut, it’s cake.  It’s so good and rewarding.  The army rewards hard work.  You even go home on Thursdays for an extended shabbat.”
B’emet?
“Really.  Go to the beach, have dinner with your family, fuck your girlfriend, whatever.  Get back to the grind on Yom Rishon and repeat for seven months until you’re combat ready.”
He pulls a video up on his phone; a rabble of olive-drab warriors in boonie hats standing before wet earth caked in mud.
Achat shteim shalosh!
The soldiers jump forward and smack prone in the mud, their elbows and knees jerking forward in the thick, sinking ground, rifles held above the clay.
“Is that a Galil?
Negev.
I continued to watch in awe as the full-gear heavyweights confidently pushed their way through such hampering obstacles like tanks on asphalt.
“…During war week, you’ll sleep every other day.  Not much, two hours tops, but your body is going to soak up as much rest as possible.  During the days, the m’faked will hand out maps with topography and shit on them.”
“Okay.”
“You’re going to go through hellish marches, and will be expected to always stay on alert.  If a time comes where the group stops, there is no sitting.  You kneel with your rifle in your arms.  But after these little missions are finished, you’re going to want to lay around.  Don’t.  Study the maps as much as you can.  By the end of the day, the m’faked will send you out and you need to know exactly how to get back to base.  …But honestly, during most marches, you’re expected to carry your rifle at your shoulder at all times, you know, ready to shoot.”
“Yeah.”

IDF

“But, much of the time I’m walking with my arms tucked in my pockets.  That’s not how it is in a real combat situation.  You’ll know and feel the difference.  Last week, we were moving through a Palestinian village looking to arrest a man who was selling weapons.  We couldn’t find him all night, but we had other suspects.”
“Yeah?”
“Do you know what we found?  In one suspect’s house, business cards tucked in a stand belonging to a journalist.”
“Is that who took the photo?”
“Yes.  At about five AM we were leaving the village, and ahead of us a man was on the ground setting up a tripod.  That is why we wear the masks.”
“To protect your identity.”
“Exactly.  You cannot touch them, bother them, destroy their camera, by law.  You just ignore them and move on.  …I’m in the photograph somewhere.  Don’t remember where I was.  See the guy with his hand over his eyes?”
“Is that you?”
“No, don’t think so.  But he’s hiding, you don’t want to be too familiar in the West Bank.”
“It looks difficult.  Exhausting.  But this was my intention all along.  And I’ve always doubted myself, my poor Hebrew, my body, my upbringing.”
“That will all fade soon.  I can already tell that you’re one of us, you’re a brother.  Honestly, don’t doubt yourself.”

That changed when I came here.  Do I have fear?  Yes I do.  Not of the physical challenges, not of the gibush.  I fear for losing myself, who I am in the place I came to find who I am.  I made this clear to my American-Israeli friend while we nursed Macabi Beer and pounded shots of whiskey; he called me brother.

The humid night brought in a hazy smog which cradled itself in the Jezreel Valley, likely from the ammonia plant east of Haifa.  It fortified the deep feeling of strangeness, one of life’s inevitable turns that leave permanent marks on the always-changing, pliable human conscious.  The alcohol wears off in the middle of the night as I lay, looking out the iron-paned blinds of my bomb-proof window, as the haze dissipates and the sun burns the dark away.

Ghosts and unwelcome memories linger, I feel I look down on them from a lonely mountain’s crest.  But it is a another day, another chance, a new time under the sun to fulfill the unforgiven minute with sixty seconds-worth distance run.

23 Nisan 5776 – Stifled

(Anachronistic thoughts from this past week gathered in a single entry)

An aqueduct’s silhouette, like an ancient arched wraith, rises from the shadowed valley along bus route 480. Unpleasant odors fill the stale air, relieved by an open window above my head bringing in torrents of fresh wind.

We cruise fine and fast, when suddenly there is stalling traffic, and the encounter of bright blue lights in the opposing lane.

Highway One. 20:27. Outskirts of Jerusalem.

I hear the marriage of laughs and children’s shrill cries while Gotye wails over them all. Dim lights keep the cabin lit; too tranquil for the man in the seat next to me, who has fallen victim to sleep.

The strange outlines of beautifully endowed hills and mountains are highlighted under the purple sky and amber clouds grazing above and beyond. The massive grotto of a contoured cliff appears beside the freeway, littered with occasional markers and plaques and monuments; the Palmach fought on this hill in 1948, the Ottomans erected a citadel here, Hadrian raised a wall there.

On some days, like today, I feel like I can’t hold on. A friend had sat next to me one evening and told me “you are the most serious person I’ve ever met.” I don’t know if I can take her words as a compliment or a validation for the foreign nature of my soul’s fabric. I think too much, I have known this. I curse myself too often for it.

Jerusalem’s golden glow can be seen in the night, from the foundation of Mevaseret Tzion’s unexpectedly winding hills. Climbing to the plateau, the bus stops at Harel station, as a number of smiling faces and families anticipating Yom Tov disappear into the night.

A couple relocates in the seats in front of me. She wraps her hands around his neck, kisses him on the cheek and presses her lips into his ear. The streets below are uniquely quiet per the normal busy Jerusalem scenery; many have fled to the Kinneret (Galilee) for Passover. Feelings conflict within me. A breath of supernatural peace washes through my busy head and eases my heart. My heart would be the man arguing “it is too windy“. An infamous hazard for every human being, regardless of age.

The bus enters the garage of Central Bus Station as the crowd erupts in activity, as though we are on a plane that has just landed. Phones and conversations suddenly alive with the lights that flicker on.

A man in tan air force uniform stands in the aisle. Behind him, a man in dress clothes and tzitzit impatiently gathers his kids. A glock is holstered on his belt.

I’ve landed again.

My future I am tossing to the wind. I have made my decisions, and now I am working a plan post-IDF. Where am I being called to next? What is in my heart that I can give to the world? I am sowing my seeds here, where and how can they bloom?

I’m stifled. I’ve been stifled all my adult life, feeling unable to bloom!

I am returning to a thought that I will eventually move northwest. The mountains and trees of Washington and Oregon, the raging waters of the Pacific, the cold rain and commanding nature and tender, pale, warmly gratifying sun I equate to the region, in my memories and stays, I believe will be a good season of rest for me; deep down, I hope it gives me a chance to gather the pieces of my salvaged faith.

I run my hands along the wailing wall and bow my head; a plain-clothed Masorti thumb on the hands of black-coated Haredim. I whisper a few private petitions, gather my pledges and promise myself and Whomever is listening that I will not give up, ask for the necessary strength to carry through, and walk away. Jerusalem at night feels near freezing in a t-shirt; having been 30C in Haifa earlier today, it must be no warmer than 18C now. I covet a silk scarf a man wraps around his whole upper body

I ride the light rail back and forth across the city, waiting for a hostel to reach back to me. I refresh my phone and open an email which reads:

“Dear Brendan,

Since we do not recognize ‘conservative conversions’, we are unable to host you.

Shalom”

It is my first encounter with the ongoing strife between movements that make us all uniquely Jewish. The news stings, but does not deter me.  How could it?

I would be murdering my identity if I were to give up.  That is not the fabric of this soul, most serious.

A newer friend of mine returns to the kibbutz from basic training for the weekend.  I only know him as Ari, his real name unknown.  Perhaps he legally changed it after his conversion somewhere on the East Coast.

Standing a foot taller than me in black boots and a ruffled green General Corps uniform, himself hoping to graduate into the cobalt and black of Magav (Border Police), Ari comes from a nearly identical process of converting to Conservative Judaism, having dealt with the issue of recognition with subterfuge.  I tell him of my encounter with rejection.

“What did they say when you told the Jewish Agency that you are a convert?”
“You don’t tell them.”

And here he is, he made it, albeit with plans to formally convert to Modern Orthodoxy while in the army.

These experiences have raised so many questions within, mostly regarding the state of my commitment.  I love this land, and the choices I have made.  I know who I am, but with this I know what I have come to hate.

Legalities and lies.

25 Adar Sheni 5776 – Update

I am sorry for not writing in a while, I would not be lying if I told you that this is the most difficult thing I have ever done.

Besides the long mornings losing myself again and again in the lessons of an alien language that takes me try and try again in order to remotely understand, the repetitive work here in a collective of cold-shouldered kibbutzniks, a temporary stereotype I’ve learned and prepared myself for when I landed here a little over a month ago, and the occasional, stifling loneliness, there is one true preparation I have set my focus on: Tzanchanim (the paratroopers).

I’ve since joined a group of young guys led by a man who has experience training alongside Yahalom sappers (the commando unit responsible for detonating the terrorist network tunnels in Gaza two summers ago) and has completed a gibush, a gruesome “tryout” required to access elite units in the IDF.

Every other evening I end with black nails packed with dirt, peeling knuckles cratered from stones; thorns and bristles chalked across my back and chest, skinned elbows, bloody knees, bruised lungs. The mornings are a routine struggle to raise my arms to wash my own face. I am fighting sicknesses once a week. The raw stress tempts me to quit; but that is exactly what this training is trying to do to me. Kicks in the groin while planking, pepper spray to the eyes before going for a few brief sprints, being dragged backward by my comrades a dozen meters over rocks and tree roots on a final army crawl to finish an exercise. It is all worth it.

In between planks on aggregate concrete and sprints in the scorching April sun, a tan UH-60 circled above our heads with a tough whir. There’s our boys, I thought, with sweat pouring into our open mouths, as salty and dehydrated as rawhide.

You want to join them? our group leader said.  Quit being a fucking pussy and get on your knuckles.

I have decided that I will end my temporary stay here with a mock gibush, governed by members of elite units in the army. This is more than necessary for access into Tzanchanim, but I will prove to myself that I am capable of joining a tougher unit if the opportunity arises.  After I return to the United States in August, the six month countdown to Aliyah begins.

I am broken, and it fucking sucks, but so be it. That is how this miracle state came into existence and will continue on the shoulders of a chosen people strong enough to keep it alive.

I love my people, and the promise of this beautiful land too much to not stop.

5 Sh’vat 5776 — Ramat Yochanan

Well, I am a month away.  That is the plan, anyway.

I will be moving to a small kibbutz just a few short kilometers from Haifa and the Mediterannean coast, some thirty kilos from Lebanon, for the purpose of Ulpan, named Ramat Yochanan.

I am pursuing my active hope of adopting the Hebrew language as my primary tongue and taking furious leaps to pursue citizenship.  I will be living in Ramat Yochanan for five months, coming back to Minnesota in August for one final push in finalizing my dream of making Aliyah.

Personally, I am in a strange limbo.  Here is the place of my upbringing, family, friends.  Here is where it all began, and I am opting to leave.  Some people question this, a few more critically than others, if this is just something temporary.  

I tell them and myself, a ship is not destined to stay in its harbor.

More to come as I approach this much needed time in the land of my soul’s passion and content.

Shabbat shalom.

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?

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.

Resurface.

“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.

Go.

25 Tishrei 5776 – Defense, Deterrence, Depravity

SHOMRON 18 TISHREI 5776 – SAMARIA, 1 OCTOBER 2015

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.

HA’IR HA’ATIKAH 20 TISHREI 5776 – THE OLD CITY, 3 OCTOBER 2015

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.

Damascus_Gate

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.

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.

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

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.

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!

Fight!

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.

Fight!

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.

FIGHT!

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.

FIGHT!

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.

FIGHT!

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.