November 19, 2012

My Son Was Drafted Into The Army Today

My son was drafted into the army today. From the moment he opened the white envelope with the army insignia, and pulled out his draft letter, we knew this day would come.

And so we counted down months, weeks, then days. Time flew, the classic image of days flipping on a calendar, pages flying about like swirling, autumnal leaves. Then five days ago, a new war broke out. And time stopped. 

We all held our breath. What now? What next?  For Israelis who do not live in the immediate vicinity of missiles, a regular routine may prevail, but life is not the same. It is hard to focus, to plan, to celebrate.

And as I watched my son pack his bag last night, I felt like I was finally an Israeli.
I have never sent off a son to the army and I have never experienced a war with a son in uniform (though we have been through two wars in the past seven years).

When we first made aliyah, my son was 12. And when he entered grade seven on his first day of school in Israel, he did not know a word of Hebrew and he did not know a soul.  Back then, as fresh olim, our energies went into adjusting to our new life and culture. We had to learn how to stand in line and how to keep our spot; we had to figure out how to read bills and then how to pay them by phone with a menu that barked out Hebrew, Russian and Arabic commands at breakneck speed.  We also learned how to talk with wild gesticulations to teachers who did not speak a word of English and how to drive on roads where cars recklessly cut us off.

We did not master these skills, rather we adapted. And at 7:30 this morning, we were faced with our latest challenge of living in Israel. This was not the first day of school; we were giving our son away for three long years. We will always be his mom and dad, but starting today, the army is his new keeper.

Today they will clothe him in a khaki uniform and cut his hair to their specifications. The clinic will give him vaccinations, the canteen will feed him, and at night, they will assign him a locker and a steel bunk in a barrack.

And tomorrow morning they will tell him when to get up and how much time he has to dress and to pray and to eat. He will listen to each and every order and he will obey. He has given up his free will, and for a 19 year old, this is a tall order. But like most Israeli boys, he will be challenged and he will be transformed. As they say here, you give the army a boy and they return him to you a man.

We stood around this morning as the courtyard filled with other young men, all carrying duffle bags, all shifting nervously. And then names were called over the loud speaker. I heard my son’s name. It was the moment. Time stood still as we embraced. And then he turned from us and boarded a bus. Other boys’ names were called and families gathered to say farewell. I saw tears in mothers' eyes, grandmothers dabbing their cheeks and girlfriends choked up.

The bus doors closed and it drove off with our boys. They are going into the unknown and as parents, we too face the same blank space. But this is a place that every Israeli has been before and still must venture. If it were not for our boys, we would have no land and the Jewish people would have no future. 

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