Monday, February 21, 2011

It's A Kid's Life

I was in a coffee shop this morning waiting for a friend, and I saw a young guy who looked to be about 15 years old. He was short, maybe 5’6, and sort of reminded me of the stereotype 98-pound weakling that we used to see depicted on the old Archie comic books getting sand kicked in his face before doing the Charles Atlas body-building program and kicking the bully’s ass.

I looked at his face, with its remnants of obvious pubescent acne, and wondered why, at 9:30am, wasn’t he in school? Then I noticed his IDF uniform. I figured, OK, I misjudged his age and he’s probably 18 and a recent recruit. But no, even then I was mistaken, because on his shoulder, rather than wearing the colored strip of electrical tape signifying a private in basic training, he wore the shoulder bar insignia of a Second Lieutenant.

So for the second time I re-assessed the age of this baby-faced officer as being at the very least 19, and probably closer to his next birthday than his last one.

I understand and accept the reality that in Israel kids are forced to grow up so much faster than in most Western countries, but this morning it really hit me looking at this kid. Actually, it would be more appropriate for me to refer to him as a young man, and if I had known him during my regular IDF service, I would have called him “Sir”.

One of my very favorite things about life in Israel is also one of my least favorites. Young men and women enlist in the army at the age of 18 – men for 3 years and women for 2. Most of the polls that I have seen show that the vast majority of Israelis are very motivated to serve in the IDF, and that many would do so even if it were not mandatory. I love that Israeli youth feel such a connection to and a responsibility for the State of Israel, and I honestly believe that the time spent in military service will most of the time help mold these young people into more responsible adults.

{I know – here is where we could easily insert a very long blog-within-a-blog about many typical (and negative) Israeli behavioral patterns which make us both laugh and cringe, and they would pretty much be on the money. That being said, I stand by my above statement regarding the positive aspects of Israelis serving in the IDF because, even if the “good” Israelis are not the ones we typically see – and hear – in the street, I believe that they do make up a higher percentage of Israelis than the ones we have all come to know and avoid.}

On the other hand, it tears me up how much young adulthood is being taken away from these fine young men and women while they are trained for an art that none of us really want. There is no question in my mind that these kids would prefer never knowing a thing about weapons and attack maneuvers. They would just as soon not know how to fight. Just about every one of them would choose going to college, or the beach, and hanging out with their friends over being in the position where they have to either kill or be killed.

But considering the reality with which are dealing with by living here, these kids do what they have to do. They still manage to find the time for the hanging out, going to the beach, and so on. And from the age of 21 or 22 many of them do get moving on whatever their career track is – whether via university or jumping into the job market.

I served in the IDF for one year when I was 26, which was both lucky, and horrendous.

It was lucky because I had already gone through the period of being 18 in the way that American society had taught us to be 18 – the college experience (although mine was not a successful one), the parties, the various and sundry part-time and summer jobs. Most importantly, I had the time to get to know myself a little bit – I had lived on my own for 8 years, and I had moved halfway around the world to Israel. I basically had experienced much of the young adulthood which I see Israelis being denied.

But the experience was also horrible. Even though I was 26 and had been living as an alleged “adult” for 8 years by that point, I was in a “regular” call-up and serving with 18 year-old Israeli kids, all of whom were living away from home for the first time in their lives.

Some of these guys thought that it was very cool that I was there – I had left America to live in Israel and I was serving in the IDF, in a combat unit no less, going through all of the rigors and pains and crap that they were going through just to be a part of this country and society. The others thought that this made me the biggest idiot they had ever met and they couldn’t even begin to understand me.

Physically the experience was hell, because let’s face it – a 26 year old body, even one in reasonably good shape is not the same as an 18 year-old body. I managed to do everything these kids did, but it usually took me several more hours to recover afterwards than it took them.

But no matter how difficult a time I had physically in the army, socially it was even worse. I was simply not in the same “place” as these other guys. I was never really accepted by them as “one of them” – not even by those with whom I was friendly. But in the eyes of the drill sergeants and commanding officers – I was one of these guys. Just because I was 8 years older than them didn’t make me any different in terms of my role as a soldier in the unit.

But the truth is, that no matter how terrible a time I had during that year, if I had the chance to go back – and knowing what I now know in retrospect choose between doing what I did or doing the shortened service usually served by immigrants (one month of basic training and 2-3 months of reserve duty), I would still do the one-year service with the 18 year-old kids. I would be miserable the entire time all over again, and I would do so willingly.

My one year of serving in a unit with 18 year-old Israelis was probably equivalent (or sure as hell felt like it) to the 3 years that these guys had to do as well. And I cannot think of any better way for me to have learned Hebrew to the level that I speak it, to learn Israeli culture and Israeli mentality as well as I get them, and I would not have gained the feeling that I have given of myself for this country.

I feel as though I have earned the right to feel a certain “ownership” of Israel, that I have paid my dues and earned my rights of citizenship. And I did it for the very reasonable price of giving one year of my adult-life when I had nothing else pressing at the time, and I paid with a few months of awkward social interactions and jokes about my age and excessive body hair. All in all, not a bad deal for me (although I realy hope that I never again hear the stupid joke about wearing my sweater in the shower).

Then I look at the young baby-faced officer who I saw this morning, and I can truly appreciate what he’s doing and what he is sacrificing for the State of Israel. He is giving so much more than I did, and if he has already passed the officer’s training course, then most likely he has signed on for additional time beyond his mandatory 3 years.

The pride I feel when I see young men and women like this is overpowered only by my hope and prayer that one day, we will be in a position that we don’t need to expect this of them. When these kids will have the opportunity to be 18 year-old kids as I was able to be a lifetime and a half ago.


  1. I'm begging you, Asher. Take this essay along with other pieces you have written and put them in a book. The description of the young IDF member and of your own experience is a gripping, eye-opening revelation for those of us Who Have No Clue. Thanks for sharing in a down-to-earth, no-nonsense way. You have a way of gripping the reader's attention and not letting go until you have finished what it is you have to say. Pat Fulton

  2. You are compiling a wonderful auto biography. Very pleasant reading.