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.

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.

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.

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.”
“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.

‘Shoah’

The last day comes
Like any other cloudy morn
And its unwelcome cold
Arresting our souls,
The wire
Weaved by thorns
Chases us in circles
like blonde children with guns
taunting any chance of escape
And misunderstanding the hope of the common man
And his secret precious life
Hidden beneath an undesired countenance;
The Versailles weren’t kind
In teaching the famine’s children
That to abstain from strife
You must turn against the Chosen,
Die schweinhundisch kyke;
So the Yiddish children carry the burden
Under the skull men’s
crushing calls,
Fast, yid!  Arbeit, yid!
With no resting at all–
This time
Avraham’s blade has come too close,
and G-d is abstinent
As Nietzsche wrote,
the eight Jewish flames
comatose–.
The gray men enter the courtyard to stifle the weak; or are they too strong?
To hunt Solomon’s gazelle, its prey of Hope
of nationhood and escape;
As the beads sprinkle along the still stone,
that notorious strangler–

One last thought

And its menagerie of many words
From the naked men and hairless women
Courses through my mind like the blood of life,
Never loud enough:
It            Stay     is
 so        I        here    Hear
  forever      dark    O     with
  Love         what    me!
is      you     in   Israel   here
     that     so      sound
       the  where
     is          Lord
    much              it
is               coming      from?
        One.
–.

16 Adar 5775

I once felt a variant of guilt; pursuing a place I’ve had no connection to by blood, nor faith…

An arresting feeling that I would always be a foreigner, with no claim, settling in a land that was once farmed by the grandfather of a Palestinian orphan living in some Lebanese refugee camp, or that I might one day wander a desert wadi won by the blood, hand-me-down iron, and chutzpah of Buchenwald survivors I’m not related to; a confused boy whose sophomoric broken Hebrew will never compare to even that of a bronzed, native-born Kindergartener… a guilt that had me trapped in the thought I will be damned as a child in a land of men; a place of such renown that it would forever tower over my being, making me feel smaller than a rat in New York City.  

I’ve felt that I could never be present in spirit at the foot of Mount Sinai, a rabbinical legend said of all Jews and converts not yet born during Moshe’s receiving of the Ten Commandments; this variant of guilt that I would never feel Jewish, thus the next muse, would I ever understand, or begin to help others understand, the Dream of my heart?

Depression wraps its unholy hands around my mind’s neck and attempts to strangle it; for years I have been this asphyxiated near-corpse desperate and thirsty for the fresh air of change, change I have been too weak and fickle to realize or attempt. And like change, motivation is never fulfilled overnight; I will not wake up with a green uniform on my closet with “TzaHa”L” on its breast, hard-earned red beret tucked in it’s shoulder loop; I will not fall asleep in America to wake up in Israel.

Countering these unholy hands, I’ve turned to embracing a holier presence. My longtime swaying and trepid faith in G-d has, with a conscious personal decision, matured into a more stable commitment. As time has gone on I’ve desired discipline, and with this discipline came opportunity, with opportunity came motivation, and with motivation– more discipline.

The guilt is decaying, and my decision, once a fish-tailing tunnel-vision, is locked in my sights.

Kadima!

‘Burning Bush’

When I first met you,
Your arms stuttering
Across the cabin
With a dreadful fear
That was once anger,
Your eyes blue with youth
Your finger was entwined by a wearying gold
And your chest wrapped in a scarf, but your soul was nakedly standing
Before us all nakedly waiting.
It’s tough to savor the flight from Mitzrayim.
Here,
This Sten is your Staff,
Hold it close to to your heart, m’zun
Its pillars of fire
Will deliver you to the land
In time
–Give your children a name;
Our cousins in Palestin’eh call,
So when you face Ost
Pray that they’ll have abundance of grain
For you’n me.
Those navy, glossy eyes
You afraid, m’zun?
Your shtetl you shouldn’t worry about
Only look forward, into the flame;
Never mind the smoke and ash.
What was she like, m’son?
Eyes of charcoal, a tikhel of dirty hair,
Miriam’s hand swinging between her breasts?
You’ll find her again in Eretzyisroel,
Trust me, m’son
Put this Staff to good use, though
You’ve probably never used a gun.
Look at me.
You’ve come this far,
You believe in reason?
Make dying your treason;
Success is your fate.
Though’w’re hunted like rats
Let Adonai be your lance,
Stand by it, pray quiet
And don’t you ever look back
They say the Reds are giv’n them hell,
Plagues of green are a’coming through France,
The Mandate holds our land,
And the fascist murderers panic.
Hope runs through your veins;
One day you’ll change your name,
And in streets of peace your daughters will dance,
Consider this fight a bris,
You’ll draw blood, sweat;
And these tears,
Hold onto this Staff,
m’zun.
And trust,
follow, live;
Spite our Angel of Death.