My princess with a gun

My princess with a gun

Tzivia Bieler

Estair is on the firing range.
Estair is on the firing range.

I am in Neve Daniel in Israel on Passover, walking with my family to Friday night davening, which is being held in someone’s home rather than a synagogue. We walk quickly as the hour is late, but I am distracted by the amazing red-golden sky and an especially remarkable sunset.

As we enter the house, however, the beautiful sky colors are quickly erased from my thoughts by the posters of the hostages taped all over the entryway. Colors again, sharp colors mixed with beautiful faces, but colors and images that evoke dark thoughts, filling me with anger and sadness.

I sit down next to my daughter Lara and my attention is drawn to my eldest granddaughter, Estair, who sits to my left. Beautiful, tanned, bedecked with earrings, bracelets, and rings. A white flowing dress. A princess in sandals rather than silver slippers, a high ponytail rather than a crown, but a princess nonetheless. Beautiful inside and outside, I think to myself. A stunning vision. A distraction for me like the sky.

But then my eyes focus on the sleek black M4 rifle she carries over her slim shoulder. Reality redesigns the vision. My granddaughter is a soldier in the IDF, a soldier during an unprecedented battle with Hamas. On the day I held her in my arms 20 years ago, when she was named in the synagogue, I had so many dreams and visions of what she might be when she grew up.

Somehow a princess with a gun was not one of them.

I think back to when each of my own three daughters was 20 years old and growing up in quite a different kind of world in America. Without any hesitation, I can definitively say that guns and hostages and trauma and cruelty were words that neither came out of their mouths nor entered even their darkest thoughts. We could not have imagined back then that, as Bob Dylan wrote even earlier in 1963, “The Times They Are a-Changin.”

Much of 1990, when Lara was 20 years old, is noted for positive events, such as the launching of the Hubble space telescope. The one negative event that touched Lara peripherally because of her planned semester in Israel was the Persian Gulf War, which began when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait.

Debra celebrated her 20th birthday in 1993. Terrorism reared its ugly head in the United States on February 26, when six people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in the first World Trade Center bombing. Perhaps it was, as we say, a “foreshpeis,” an appetizer of things to come. And in April of that year, federal and Texas law enforcement officials began a 51-day siege in Waco, Texas, aimed at a compound belonging to a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh.

The group was suspected of stockpiling illegal weapons. Seventy-six people died in that siege, including 25 children and David Koresh. You will agree that the deaths, while tragic, cannot compare to later horrific events. Terrorism and religious fanaticism, for sure. Similar to the October 7 invasion or the battle with Hamas? Not even remotely. And neither event affected my daughter.

Estair is with her grandmother last summer.

Dena turned 20 in 1999. Crazy radical thinking leading to killing innocent children came into our consciousness when two teenagers shot and killed 12 students and one teacher in the Columbine High School massacre. Fanaticism and senseless murder. Certainly concepts we understand today. But the only personal event that deeply touched Dena and her siblings that year was the death of their beloved father, z”l ,at the age of 54. Sad, yes. Horrific, no.

Could my three daughters ever have imagined then the life and serious stresses faced by today’s 20-year-old Israelis, like Estair? Then again, would Estair be able to picture the simplicity of theirs?

Estair entered the army in August 2023 and is scheduled to complete her IDF service in August 2025. Two years devoted to serving her country. Her choice of service is as a Madagit, which is an acronym for Madrichat Eemoon Gufani, a physical trainer. She completed her basic training and followed that up with a three-month specialized course. Once that course was completed, each trainer was then placed in a unit. There is one physical trainer per unit.

Estair’s unit is called Caracal. It’s a mixed group of men and women fighters whose base sits in a corner between the Egyptian and Gaza borders. Estair laughed when she told me that all she has to do is take three steps out of her base, and she is able to wave to the Egyptian police officers guarding their border. They are actually soldiers who went to jail, and this police status is how they repay their country for their crimes. If these police feel like being nice, Estair remarked, she can actually wave to them and they might wave back. But if they are not nice, they curse or spit at her. Again, she laughed and said, “But I got used to it!”

Caracal is an interesting name. A caracal is a medium-sized wild cat native mostly to Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. The cat is typically nocturnal, highly secretive, and difficult to observe. Its body is slender but strong, with a short face, long canine teeth, tufted ears, and long legs. Despite its size, it is a force in battle. I imagine it’s an appropriate name for the fighters whom Estair is devoted to keeping in the best physical shape.

The base is small, holding just 100 soldiers. And Estair. She is the only one who is not a fighter and, therefore, when she first got there she did not carry a gun. She described a special closeness between her and her soldiers; she trains them, she focuses on their physical and emotional well-being, she sleeps in the same room with the female soldiers, she is a friend to each of them. This personal connection empowers her as their physical trainer; it’s not just about how many sit-ups a soldier can do. One soldier likes to run alone at night, another soldier likes to run with a group during the day. She knows what towns or cities they come from; she understands their history.

And how do they feel about her? She was presented with an award for excellence on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, where they wrote the following in Hebrew:

“Estairika, the gift of our squad. Every day you are making us better and training us in the best way. Your investment is shown on the squad. You are our leading-edge trainer. No matter what, you are in our hearts. We love you.”

Years ago, Estair and her Boubie wear matching tiaras on Purim.

But over many months, Estair began to feel that there was one significant difference between her soldiers and herself; they carry a gun and she does not. They are fighters with guns and she is not. If the base were somehow under attack, she would be standing there helpless and defenseless. There was a line connecting her to her soldiers that she had not crossed, but that she felt she must cross in order to be their equal.

She approached her superiors and shared her feelings about wanting to be trained to use a gun. She also reminded them that she lives in Gush Etzion, which is a more dangerous place. When she goes home, she travels one and a half to two hours to Beer Sheva and then another two hours to Neve Daniel. What would she be able to do, she asked her superiors, if the enemy comes onto the base? Or imagine her on the bus ride home wearing her uniform, a target who would not be able to defend herself. Her superiors heard her and proceeded to train her. And she practices shooting on a regular basis.

She carries that gun with a sense of pride and a feeling of calmness because she knows she can defend herself. She and the soldiers she trains now stand on equal footing.

I think back once again to that day, 20 years ago, when she was given the beautiful name Estair Rachel, after my late husband’s mother Esther Rachel, z”l. During the naming, I cried uncontrollably (but quietly, not to embarrass my daughter), so much so that people assumed I was so emotional because she was being named for my mother. “Not the case,” my daughter assured her friends afterwards. “My mother’s mother is alive and well; the baby is named after my father’s mother.”

I believe there is a kind of holiness to a name that is passed on from a close relative who has died to the younger generation. That is, of course, my personal viewpoint, and I no doubt possess the minority opinion on the subject. Many young people likely will disagree with me, and they are most certainly entitled to their viewpoint. If parents have no interest in attaching an old-fashioned name to their newborn or they want to select a name that has particular significance and beauty to them, that is most assuredly their right. And I hear that.

There are also those who decide to be quite creative and might take, for example, the first letter of the first name of four deceased relatives and put them together to form a new and creative name for a newborn. The young parents announce that the baby is named for those people. Now this, I admit, I do not hear. When Shakespeare asks, “What’s in a name,” my opinion is that in such a scenario, “that which we call a rose by any other word” does not smell as sweet. Months or years later, will anyone actually realize whose name that child is carrying? Never. The connection is gone forever.

I share with the reader that I loved my mother-in-law deeply. My tears of joy at the naming of my baby Estair mixed easily with my tears of loss for her remarkable great-grandmother. A young woman who survived the Shoah but was no longer someone’s daughter or sister. A pharmacist before the war. A soft-spoken lady, kind, meticulous about everything, gentle on the outside but tough as nails on the inside. A survivor in a Displaced Persons Camp in Bad Gastein, Austria. A woman who faced the challenge of a new life in the United States with her husband and one beloved son. A wife who set the rules straight about the value of Yiddishkeit in their home in Washington Heights when her husband seemed perfectly willing to throw it away. A mother and grandmother whose joy was always mixed with the sadness of the world she lost.

I realize that I am already older than she was when she died, on the very last day of December 1985. And I still miss her. But my angst over losing her is forever calmed and consoled by Estair, my remarkable princess who carries her name. When Estair laughs, I hear my mother-in-law’s laugh. When she speaks, I hear my mother-in-law’s voice. When she takes charge of a situation as only she can, her strength is familiar.

Simply speaking her name makes me smile. And when we share meaningful discussions that give me a deeper understanding of who she is, I feel the power of her namesake within her. Perhaps I am the only one who feels these things, but for me the connection is magical.

I wonder what the 100 Caracal soldiers would think about their Estairika if they saw her in her white flowing dress, bedecked with earrings, bracelets, and rings. Certainly they would know her voice. And they would clearly recognize the M4 rifle. I can just imagine their faces; it is likely that within a moment or two, they would all be smiling when they realize that their “gift of our squad” is not simply a remarkable physical trainer, but a beautiful princess as well.

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