Now that my daughter’s olive-green uniforms are hung on the laundry line outside, I have an inkling of what it’s like to be an Israeli mother.
When our son served in the Israel Defense Forces in ‘004, I was buffered from the experience by a distance of 6,000 miles. I couldn’t hem and wash his uniforms, offer him a homemade meal and a warm bed, or send him off with hugs and snacks as he reported back to base on Sunday mornings.
Abigail Klein Leichman hugs her daughter Elana at the Israel Defense Forces swearing-in ceremony. Photo by Jessica Raab
I did fly over for his swearing-in ceremony, but it was my cousin Dafna who brought the requisite picnic supper to celebrate the occasion. Bearing only a container of cookies from my Teaneck kitchen, I was really just a visitor.
This time, we are truly living the experience.
While my daughter’s job as a human-resources coordinator carries a heavy responsibility, she is safely working in an office at a reserve base near Beersheva. By contrast, some of my friends’ sons are fulfilling dangerous duties in the engineering, tank, paratrooper, infantry, or artillery corps.
Still, Elana is one of the few females from our mostly religious neighborhood to have opted for the army. She could have sought an exemption from military service, or she could have chosen to do civilian national service instead a worthy and worthwhile alternative. However, she believed there would be no better way to integrate into Israeli society than to serve alongside her peers. Draft notices usually arrive after a year of residence, but she persuaded the army to induct her just six months after our arrival.
Very early on Feb. 18, Steve and I accompanied Elana to Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, where many other parents were seeing off their daughters as well. The organization Friends of the IDF provided festive decorations, lending the occasion the air of a summer-camp send-off. One of its grandma-like volunteers stood at the door giving each inductee candy and a hug. Soon, we were waving goodbye as Elana and this group of perfect strangers went on their way to the huge Tzrifin training base near Tel Aviv.
The next five weeks were punctuated by phone calls of distress from our daughter. Her group of 80 girls was not training to be combat soldiers, so they had only mild physical workouts and shooting practice. Aside from the weight of the M-16 she had to lug around, that part wasn’t difficult.
Much harder were the cultural and religious divides between her and the other trainees. She was the only English-speaker and the only Sabbath-observer in the group, and for all intents and purposes she came from a different planet. She speaks excellent Hebrew but found herself tongue-tied at first, struggling to make herself understood.
Yet Elana persevered by dint of her sunny personality and hard work. The base’s rabbi lent her an excellent book "The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life," by Akiva Tatz to fill her down time meaningfully. Her officers helpfully translated difficult phrases on written tests. Her fellow trainees grew to admire her determination and commitment.
She became friendly with young women from Colombia and Russia living here on their own. She was invited to join a little clique of Israeli natives who dubbed themselves "The Shoshis." And on the one Shabbat they had to stay at the base, several of the girls volunteered to go with her to the main synagogue on Friday night when they found out that she was the only one who’d requested permission to go (alas, no such luck Saturday morning; she was the only female in the shul).
Despite the frustrations she encountered during those five weeks, Elana apparently gained the respect and friendship of young women she would never have had occasion to meet otherwise. She learned from them, too.
It was a proud moment when we made our way to Tzrifin for her swearing-in ceremony, accompanied by a cheering section of four of her Frisch friends and her big brother, who had trained at exactly the same base.
As I had four years before, I cried when my child stepped up to receive the regulation Bible and rifle, and I shed more tears when we sang Hatikva.
But this time, I had brought the picnic supper.