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 as we nursed Macabi Beer while pounding shots of whiskey and rolling cigarettes; 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 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.