Mazal Tov, my chayal!
At last! The sweat, torment and testing of Basic Training are over, and today you take the official oath of Tzahal. My kid! - a soldier in the army that lets every Jew on Earth sleep safer! I am so proud of you, son.
A mother prays for days like this, ya know, for this golden moment of knowing a child has made a good choice for himself as well as a choice for the good. There ought to be a bracha for it (how about she'asani ima?) Naches to the max, dude. My love runneth over.
And in the best of all possible worlds, sweet Moshe, firstborn of my body and spirit, I would be with you in Israel on this splendid day, to show my respect for the man you are becoming and, natch, to squeeze in as many motherhugs as your eighteenness would permit. In this beautiful but imperfect one, the best I can do way off here in galut is salute you, and reach for my pen. I know words are not a mother's hugs, lovey, and I am sorry for both of us. But perhaps through these words you will know that only my body is missing. Perhaps you will sense ruchi, if not Rochi, applauding and embracing you with tremendous love and pride, maybe ruffling some epaulets. As a better known songwriter put it, libi bamizrach va'anochi b'sof ma'arav, my heart is in the East though I am far off in the West.
And with my heart's eye, I am watching your swearing in ceremony: I see the flag of Israel rippling in the breeze against a sky of its own colors, ranks of handsome young men in uniform standing proudly at attention.. there you are! (Best looking in the bunch if you ask me; and I could even be convinced to vote twice!) I can hear your strong, firm voice promising to defend the Homeland and the freedom of our People. I see you stepping forward to receive the official symbols of service from your Commanding Officer. You step back into formation, a brand new soldier of Israel. In your hands are a rifle and a Bible.
For many months now, I have been wondering what to say to you on this important day. It is, of course, a much bigger event in your life than mine, and I don't mean to take it over, but you know I take this mothering stuff pretty seriously. Intuition told me this was a crucial crossroads and that I had to help prepare you.
First thing I discovered is that this isn't one of those typical topics covered by parenting books the way they cover baby's leap to solid foods or the toddler transition to daycare. The experts who guided me when it came to packing your school lunch box, psychologically as well as nutritionally speaking, have nothing to say on what a mother should pack in a kitbag. Can you imagine Dr. Spock on "Preparing Your Eighteen Year Old for the Draft?" Being drafted has not been an American experience for quite a while now. Thank God, of course, but no help in my dilemma.
So I turned in search of souls similarly situate to American mothers whose sons had chosen to put on the uniform of its all-volunteer army after high school (I didn't meet any mothers of enlisting daughters). They had trouble even relating to my questions. "Worried?" one asked, looking at me like I was from another planet and ticking off Earth-sense on her fingertips: "Uncle Sam's gonna keep my kid away from partying and drugs, give him a free education heading towards a career, and finally make him learn to put away his own clothes. Worried? I'm thrilled!" No resonance there. All-volunteer seems to describe the mothers too, even though peacetime soldiering has plenty of dangers, as we've seen all too painfully recently; accidents and 'interventions' leave soldiering chancy. But American mothers clearly know that the roll of the dice in the service is still far better than the one on the streets.
To the question of whether they planned to have any special words for the upcoming parting with their sons, any last advice or encouragement, the answer was, inevitably: "Sure, 'Remember to use condoms."' What did I expect? "Stand on guard for democracy"? Do mothers say stuff like that, even in times of war? Even in docudramas? Yet somehow I suspect that the mothers and grandmothers of the women I spoke to would have understood the something else I was after. The Founding Mothers (and sisters and cousins and aunts) sure would have.
Now mothers in Israel certainly know what it is to face a son's beginning the army. Israeli women have committed the children of their bodies to the defense of the Jewish People for generations. They know all about it, which is much too much. Too much even for words, for they do not talk. They'll shrug when I raise it, give a pained half-smile to acknowledge what we have in common, slowly lift a brow, and with a gentle, precedent "tsk" or "nu" declare the subject closed: "Kacha zeh," that's just the way it is. "Breira yesh?" some add in clearly rhetorical inquiry, is there a choice? The answer obvious and indisputable, of course, for the subject is survival. Ain braira. There is no other way out. To be or not to be is not a Jewish question.
I don't mean to suggest, of course, that these mothers feel no anxiety that their son's turn has come. It is that their anxiety is already at an inexpressable peak. Long before this child put on a uniform, father, brother, uncle, cousin, sweetheart and husband wore theirs. (Of course, some mothers themselves, as well as daughters, aunts, etc. have uniforms of their own, but the female army experience is a different one, I am told, a different passage for the young woman and one with its own set of parental worries. Makes sense.) All Israeli women are embedded in families where male members routinely disappear, turning soldier for two, three months a year. The minimum three year stint of duty at age 18 is common to them all, those in yeshivot hesder serve for five. They also serve who only stand and wait for these men to come home safely. Death has touched every family or, more Jewishly, death has continuously touched The Family.
Now this mind-numbing state of affairs is called 'normalcy' in Israel. So when a son puts on a uniform for the first time, it marks a milestone, no doubt, it is a moment of pride, but not of newness. It's just what happens to sons at eighteen, like SAT's or driver's licences happen to American kids. There is worry, of course, all mothers worry. Not one of us on the globe is crazy about how you guys run the world - dressing up in uniforms and shooting at each other seems the silliest way to get anything positive accomplished - but we're not in charge yet. Or are, but don't know it. And even if we were in charge, self-defense is a different story.
As long as The Family is surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction (and since the birth of Israel there has been no time off), mothers of Israel will offer up sons (and daughters, and selves and husbands and fathers and sweethearts and brothers....) in the same spirit as Abraham bound Isaac. It is an act of faith. Faith in the Creator, faith in our heritage and destiny as Jews; faith in life itself. It is a statement to the world and to ourselves: There will never be another Exile.
I am now joining the waiters, but they cannot share with me the secret of their strength. The Israeli mothers turn the conversation to the adventures their boys are planning for the traditional summer vacation 'blast' between matriculation exams and enlistment. This (unspoken: last?) burst of sweet freedom is a big topic.
Perhaps it is because I am of both worlds, America as well as Israel, thus entirely of neither, that I feel stirred in uncommon ways, summoned to speak when others would be silent. Maybe it's just me. Silence would leave this an un-crossroads, and to me it feels like a final, irrecoverable moment. Worse, silence would leave the passage to be defined by the army alone, and this I cannot permit. Not as a mother, not as a person, not even as a citizen of Israel. I know too much about armies and what they do to your head (indeed, are authorized by us to do to your head) to let them have the final word on Life. You know, when talking to men about your upcoming army service, to a man (you should pardon the expression) the almost choral response was, in essence, "don't worry so much, the army will make a man of him." Irritating, patronizing and true. The army will 'make a man of you.' Your journey to manhood will be completed within it, that is it's job. But it is its job to make you a particular kind of man, one capable of particular acts. Armies have their own agenda for manhood.
A Jewish boy puts on t'filin, the spiritual responsibilities of manhood, at 13. Father is no longer a shield or go-between; the son must deal with God himself. Now, all of us who have been 13 knows this takes some time. The struggle of working out who you are, and what your relationship with God is, goes on lifelong, it might even be a pretty good working definition of a life. But some especially crucial finding out goes on in adolescence. It is a wonderful/awful, messy, cacaphonous passage: emotions are vibrant and fluxing, symbols are powerful, sexuality, heady. The love is the sweetest, the heartache most poignant, the imagination most fertile. And through it all is the backbeat of the music, whatever music has called your name to be forever yours.
A messy passage, yes, but we emerge from adolescence more organized, knowing a whole lot more about ourselves (and Life the Universe and Everything) than we ever did before those first hormonal shifts began jarring us out of childhood reverie 'round about Bar Mitzva age. By the time adolescense is over, if its 'normal,' we've faced choices and challenges, loves and losses, risks and failures, each experience revealing us to ourselves. We've tasted winning, we've tasted sin. We've had friends and we've had 'friends.' We've stood up to parents and we've stood up for them. We've been hurt by users and have been in the position to use. We've been in groups, we've been on the outs. We've told lies, we've done good. We've talked to God, we've shut Him out. We've felt helpless, we've tasted our own power. We've seen hypocrisy, we've tasted living with our own. I'm not saying you know it all by 23 or 24 (or ever) but by about then the adult world is no longer alien space, you've passed through the lab course. "Right," "wrong," "relationships" are no longer the abstractions (or overconcretizations) that they were at 13, through your own experiences and choices you come to have, you should pardon the expression, a philosophy, a world view; a sense of how it all works, what it all means. And we all have a world view whether we know it or not, can express it or not, or live in accordance with it or not. Time, fortune and our own openness continue to shape our philosophies throughout our lives, but there is something about what goes on in those turbulent, steamy adolescent years that imprints us forever. It is out of this wonderful/awful chaos of adolescence that personality emerges. If permitted, the Truth of us outs.
I have walked with you through five years of this exciting and turbulent human passage of doubts, discoveries, changes and development, and you are growing beautifully, my Moshe. But as you and the rest of us who have turned 18 know, adulthood does not arrive on the doorstep the morning of that birthday even if a "Report for Duty Notice" does. We are not yet fully formed.
Your adolescence is about to be rudely interrupted. In this most impressionable period of your development, something abnormal is about to happen. You are offering yourself up to a very powerful socializing influence, the army. I honor you for your choice, but you must know what it means. You will come out of army service a different person from today. You will be altered in body and in mind, in your relationship to yourself and others. That is the nature of all socialization processes, in an army it is pressurized, intensified, speeded up and has narrowly defined goals. This isn't college with it's metaphors of pass and fail, this is IT: life and death.
We, the citizens of a democratic state, give the army authority to take hold of our (or our) son's bodies and minds and mold them in the particular way it needs to in order to insure a prompt, instinctive response to danger-filled situations, when The Family's Life is on the line (so far, perpetually). We authorize the army to whip your body into shape, teach you its language (endless acronyms and bureaucrateze, no?), its categories of thought. We authorize the army to train your behavior and attitudes, your ways of seeing, through reward and punishment. That is the only way to build a soldier. And nobody does it like the IDF. There are no soldiers like the citizen-soldiers of Israel in courage, efficiency, decency and honor and I am proud that you are joining them. I know you will be obedient and diligent at whatever the army hands you to do (remember - and there will always be people of narrow vision who will make it hard for you to remember - that from flying jets to working in the motor pool, it is all holy work); I know you will rise to any challenge the army poses.
But there is one assignment that may never come up, Moshe, because armies don't raise it. It's not their job, but it is mine. Moshe, keep in touch with Moshe. Army life has the power to change you in ways you might not want. You must build and fortify a tiny mikdash inside you, a place where only your voice is heard, never speaking or thinking in 'milatarese'. Wear your uniform with pride, but tend the flame of your own uniqueness, remember your own truths, continually asking Moshe if he is being Moshe (or just being uniform), or you will lose touch yourself and with God, Who, I understand, does not come up at all in the vow you take today, despite the symbolic Bible.
Now I would give you this talk about the army no matter what army on earth you were serving in, even the one with the highest moral standards, even the one with the Bible at its induction ceremony. Armies are armies, they are not real life; I shall never be silent in their presence.
But, most importantly, I could not remain silent on this day because of who you are, my Moshe. You deserve something better, something higher. For you, among all of the inductees swearing allegience today, had a breira, you had an alternative. Your dual American/Israeli citizenship offered you a way out. You did not have to serve. With no coercion, you went for the higher ideal, for the choice that makes no sense in the realm of the rational (you could be a snug, safe sophomore in a U.S. dorm) but only in the realm of the spirit and heart. For me to witness this and remain silent would be to not honor your holy act.
I am especially glad that you had the opportunity to come to the States for a year of college and American teenage shtik before coming to a decision about army service in Israel. You had looked back so nostalgically on the America you left in 1982 when Abba and I made aliyah. I put it that way (instead of saying "when the family made aliyah'') because you have sensitized me to the fact that in your experience of it, Abba and I made aliyah for you, our signatures binding you to Israeli citizenship and its implications, not your own. Now all small children are, in a sense, hostage to parental decisions (say, moving to another neighborhood), but a nearly-12-year-old isn't small, and aliyah is HUGE. I understand your resentment. You are right: Abba and I should have made aliyah earlier, if for no other reason that it gets more difficult for kids as they get older. Growing up in an American home where respect for Torah, respect for America, and yearning for Zion co-mingled in the air, you had a harder time on this score than Noam and Estherlee, who were younger when we left the States. At 12, you were American, you knew you were American, you had an American identity. You knew which part of the turkey was yours on Thanksgiving and every baseball statistic ever formulated, along with chapters of mishnayot, by heart. You were confused by the adoption of another country side by side with the one of your birth, even if it was the one of your faith.
And in your 12-year-old's memory, America was an everglowing place where Coke springs eternal. Where endless stores with endless shelves have endless rows of choices and you get first run "Who's the Boss?" Israel was The Land Without Baseball. Who could get excited about soccer? Or Israeli TV? Two channels, State-run and no commercials (a severe loss to a kid). And who needs funny money that's always changing value? And school six days a week? Life in Israel seemed so much more difficult in so many ways (no argument there, even through grownup eyes that could see the bigger/higher picture). Even as you gained friends, the language and confidence, and came to take real pleasure in many things about our life in Israel, you never really got over feeling a bit irritated at me and Abba for our choice and for our idealism, which to you seemed simpleminded (though I'm sure you had your own, more descriptive adjectives for it). Age and knowledge only seemed to bring new awarenesses of comparisons to be made at which Israel would lose (like the U.S.'s two-party system vs. Israel's parliamentary democracy, let alone the absence of MTV.)
Ironically, Abba and I getting divorced and my move back to the States for now (someone's gotta keep the Shechina company) generated a peculiar spark of blessing for you along with its darkness. It meant an opportunity to check out your choices. And, lucky for you, my smartypants, graduating high school (with such honor!) at seventeen gave you a whole year to try out the 'goldene medina' before deciding whether to make your own aliyah, so to speak, and respond to your IDF draft notice.
It was so much fun having you here for a year. Your toothbrush hangs in permanent memorial, still Crest encrusted. (My original thought - bronzing a small heap of your dirty socks - would have been a more appropriate reminder, but it didn't work out because the smelter refused to smelt. Impudence, I say.) I know that your learning/dorm/class/friends-life took up most of your time, but having nearly every Shabbat together was sweet, as were the vacations we snatched and the midnight phone calls. Good talk, lovey. Wish we had the same rates from AT&T right now. I wish it often.
Thanks for sharing so many of your adventures with me (slightly censored, no doubt): Teenagery, its ups and downs. It was delightful to know you were getting your fantasy, doing all the mythologized American teenage stuff that you'd dreamed about after the family's aliyah:. You gorged yourself on junkfood of the mind and body, cramming Entenmen's, cramming for tests, cramming in experiences. Finding a crowd, rap sessions 'til dawn in the dorm, blasting your brains out with rock, now and then squeezing in classes and studying. I didn't worry about you a whole lot. We'd had talks about AIDS, drugs, New York safety, and social pressure; the channels of communication in the realms of emotion and faith were wide open. As far as your grades, well, I just reminded you whose hands your destiny was in and then left it alone. You can't teach a seventeen year old much you didn't teach him at seven.
Anyway, you did just fine. You learned some hard lessons (like what pre-final crazies are like when you let work slip during the term) and rose to new challenges (like making the fencing team!). You met new kinds of people, new kinds of systems, new kinds of thinking and did your best at each encouter, earning respectable grades and a nice bunch of friends.
The emotional road you travelled had educative bumps, too. But you lived through the heartache and didn't give up on love. That's an A+ in that course, lovey. And now, with the distance of time and the perspective of new love, I'm sure you can say a hearty gam zu l'tovah!
I know you felt no pressure from me to make a choice about your future either way, Israel or the American Jewish community - I wasn't going to let that come between us again - and, in truth, I really didn't know what your decision would be. America's pull is very strong; galut feels real good. You were having a riproaring time, experiencing a new kind of freedom and questing with a whole slew of new friends and at the same time earning a marketable diploma - give that up for three years in army fatigues? For an idea?? Iffy at best, even (especially?) for the child of idealists, especially one once burnt. And who am I to judge? Only you could decide what was best. All I could give you was trust, freedom, and a sounding board, and faith in the last 17 years of effort.
Of course, I also gave you a required refresher course in American hype. You'd been away from it for six (formative) years (thank God) but were returning to the States eager to be seduced. When we left Brooklyn in 1982, my hand could still control the TV switch (at 11, you were still smaller than me!). Then in our years in Israel, there was so little choice on television that I'd nudge you to watch when something good was on. Now, with you at 17 and addressing me as 'little Ima,' I knew my authority was about to end. But before I handed over the remote control, we watched for countless hours together, with me attempting to tune up the ear and eye your Abba and I have trained all your life.
It did not take you long to catch on to the mind-rape the American television you had longed for was up to. Commercials using manipulative hooks of language, image and music to scream buy! buy! buy! have! have! have! or you won't be loved. And shows that (unconsciously?) send the very same message of conformity and materialism and violence, albeit in more entertaining form. Evidence that the message is received shows up on the evening news in stories on drug abuse, crime, homelessness and corruption but no one makes the connection. When things are more important than people, people are treated (and treat themselves), at best, like things. In a society where property is valued above people, people will be treated, at best, like property.
Now I could raise your consciousness only so far with a television mini-course; in the arenas where things really count you had to find out on your own. And, being gregarious, you had alot of opportunity, meeting kids from all over America, from all kinds of backgrounds. Different heads, different ideas, the energetic microcosm of the university.
I'll never forget the real struggle in your voice, months into the term, when you first tried to confide to me something unnameable that had been troubling you for a while, your shock at your own awareness. "Ima," it slowly, finally came out, "I can't believe what kids here talk about!" You tried to describe a kind of fluff between the ears. Not stupidness. Oh, no. Some of these kids were very smart, incredibly smart. But the things they worried about, the things they talked about, the things they based choices on, the ways they related, what they knew, was as deep as a sitcom. Relationships were by one liner, full of games; thought was moved around in cliches. Being serious (except about grades, clothes or money) was odd. Real sensitivity to truthfulness and the feelings of others was rare. Spirituality, even (or perhaps especially) among the more religious students (and teachers, for that matter) had no real place: religion wasn't about an inner search but about public pressure to adhere to a rulebook. Now, these were nice kids you were talking about, nice friendly people. There was nothing wrong with them. That's what was so confusing. You liked them, recognizing each had good qualities and talents. It was a certain 2-dimensionality you kept running up against, as unreal as TV. You felt like a sphere in flatland, a soul in Ama reka.
That, my son, is how a Jew should feel in galut. As an Em b'Yisrael a Mother of the Jewish people, I was so very proud that you could feel it. So many American Jews feel this is the promised land, they do not know how deeply they have bought into the illusions of America, they do not know how essentially it has changed them. They fit in. They sleep easy. But you, like the real princess who got black and blue marks from the pea 100 mattresses down, are more sensitive. You toss and turn. You can feel it: there's something wrong here.
This discomfort evidences your Jewish soul, your Jewish blood (royal, too, no less, going back on your Abba's side to King David!). Your choice to return to serve the people of Israel in the Land of Israel is an act of faith, wisdom and foresight: you know where the Jewish future lies, indeed, is taking place. And you have chosen to be part of it, contribute to it. In the face of such genuineness and courage, not only could I not offer you silence on this day, I could not offer you cliches. Because of who you are, my son, on this, the last day of your childhood that I can even pretend is in my hands, I must give you more than one more in a eighteen-year long series of lessons in individuality and personal responsibility, more than just the 'army' talk. Your own holy act raises our level of discourse, summoning me to respond with something higher, something wholer, something holier, something to fortify you in your mikdash.
But what to say? Let me tell you, man, figuring it out was nothing like preparing your bar mitzvah; it was like nothing anything any mother should ever have to do. Just formulating the questions in my mind was a trip in itself, beginning, awfully, necessarily, with breathstopping, unspeakable awarenesses, chas v'shalom and a 'poo-poo-poo' on them all: My dearest Moshe could die. My Moshe could be mutilated for life. My Moshe could be taken prisoner or hostage. My Moshe could kill or damage another person. Before I send my precious firstborn off on this day, horrible dictu, to kill or be killed by another mother's son, is there anything I know about Life that I have not taught him? Have I left out any details of the big picture? Have I woven all the mother lessons of these eighteen years, all the lessons of chai, into the unified tapestry they are? Tomorrow is too late.
And as a citizen of the People and State of Israel, I asked myself, as member of the nation into whose name God's own is woven, have I told this young man whatever it is any son of Israel - a ben Yisrael, not just the modern, generic 'Israeli' - should know on this day that I hand him a gun to use in my name?
The questions merged and emerged, to my surprise: have I taught you who is a Jew? And I suddenly knew I had to try to answer "Who is a Jew?" in a way few were asking it. Perhaps all the other ways of asking it that make headlines - patri-matrilinear descent, politicization of the Law of Return, etc. - are so we never really have to ask it this essential way. But you and those young men standing with you today are deeply in need of a real answer, at least a real attempt at a real answer.
On this day that you and your comrades take your vows of allegience to the Israeli army, you are surrounded by symbols of Jewishness - the blue and white flag, the Star of David, the Bible, even, alas, the gun. But at the very heart of it, to be a Jew is to declare awareness that no symbol is the same as what is signified: the idol is not The God. The flag is not the kingdom, the book is not the understanding, the rifle is not survival, the map is not the territory. They all point to something beyond, something higher: the real Jewish State is a state of consciousness. It is to this something higher I, too, wish to point. Merely point, of course, because in the end it can never be defined or understood through words. Chillul though it is by definition, I must speak in the realm of the holy.
For your generation, my son, must be the one to forge a new vision of Zion. You must see further than all the generations of exile and even beyond the generations of nationhood heretofore; the questions you face are unprecedented. And the mountain your generation must stand atop to expand its horizons is a new understanding of itself, a new understanding of the meaning of its own existence and destiny, a new illumination of who is a Jew. Or chadash al Tzion ta'ir. Towards that inevitable end of new vision, I offer you some sparks for guidance, some secrets of Torah. Torah as you never learned it in any yeshivot, Forbidden Torah. Torah that one is not meant to speak aloud. But its time is come. It is what is needed in the kitbag of the soldier of atchalta d'geula..
It is certainly sheer arrogance for me to attempt to sum up Judaism, but not because that work is the domain of 'wise men.' The central words of Torah are darosh darash - the Search for meaning is every Jew's work, every Jew's assignment. The process itself might be one passable answer for who is a Jew: A Jew is someone who is always asking "Who is a Jew?" I would have, perhaps, been happier to leave the question in its free state, so to speak, unfolding in my life and illuminating my art, rather than struggling with reducing it (for it can only be a reduction) to the stark written word. But perhaps every Rachel is summoned to make her voice heard in the heights, to cry out for the sake of her children, to evoke an affirmation of hope, to show the road home from galut.
But before I begin to share with you the closest I know to Truth, dearest Moshe, l'shem kudsha brich hu, I must ask you to draw a mental frame around the entire creation that follows, as Magritte framed his picture of a pipe and labelled it "Cecei n'est past une pipe" (This is Not A Pipe) to startle us into remembering that, after all, it isn't, it is a representation of a pipe bearing no qualities of pipeness at all. Label the frame around my work Kavyachol, "as it were," the word your Zeide alav hashalom would always say before daring to express any understanding of the King of Kings, revealing his everpresent consciousness that our words, our symbols, our categories can never define, can never 'capture' the Infinite. More bluntly, mentally stamp every page of what follows: "Not one word of this is True." For no words about Him, no representation of Him by a finite being can be the Truth. Reishit Chochma, the beginning of wisdom, is to know that He is Unknowable, Indescribable. All the rest is the struggle to get closer to Him.
What gives a mere songwriter the audacity? It's may just be a songwriter's job. Rav Kook, ztz"l says that our people's name, Israel, means Shir El, the fourfold song of God. It is the song of the individual person, the song of the People, the song of the Humankind, the song of all existence, all woven into one glorious, joyous unity, the song of holiness. I hear the music. I will be forgiven for every desecrating penstroke if your mental frame reads: A Lyric.