This piece first appeared in the author's column "Necessary Stories" in The Jerusalem Report in July 2010. Niot died in a diving accident in April 2011 and, in his memory, his family has established the Niot Project to help students with learning disabilities.
The scene at your enlistment next Monday will not be as dramatic as your grandfather's. He set off for infantry boot camp in the U.S. Army on February 19, 1944. His entire family—Ma, Pa, and sisters Jean, Bernice, and Laki—accompanied him to the train station at Cleveland's Terminal Tower. Your great-grandmother and her daughters wailed and screamed. When the young recruit pointed out that other families, if teary-eyed, were sending their sons off with considerably more decorum, Ma retorted: "They're not Jewish mothers!"
Nor will it be as lonely as my own enlistment. My parents, brother, and sister were on the other side of the world, and the kibbutz driver who dropped me and a few other guys off at the enlistment office in Tiberias on August 16, 1982, was hardly an adequate surrogate for family.
Your older brother insisted on going alone; farewells were bid at our apartment door. You've kindly agreed to allow your mother to take the number 4 bus with you to Ammunition Hill in East Jerusalem, where an army bus will be waiting. I'll be on the other side of the world, on a trip to the U.S.
Your grandfather and I enlisted in the middle of wars. His sergeant greeted him and his fellow-trainees by shouting: "Gentlemen, in six months, half of you will be dead!" My sergeant was not so blunt. But, while Beirut was not as deadly as D-Day, I faced the prospect of being sent to a front in a foreign land.
No war rages now, but your mother and I are not much comforted by that. While it's true for the moment, Israel faces vicious enemies on all fronts. And we know that the present semi-calm is precarious—invasions, incursions, and operations are regular occurrences and there's a good chance that you'll be involved in one or more during the three years of your mandatory service. Since you've chosen the Golani Brigade, you're likely to be in the vanguard of whatever campaign the government decides on.
Your grandfather joined a non-Jewish army to fight against Hitler, in a war he believed in with all his heart and soul. He ate, for the first time in his life, pork chops, ham, and bacon, and guiltily enjoyed them. He didn't bother putting on tefillin. He had to put up with anti-Semitic comrades and his sergeant's regular Sunday morning order: "Men, you will now attend the church of your choice!"
I joined a Jewish army fighting a war about which I was skeptical at enlistment. Within a few weeks, as the facts of the decision to invade Beirut and of the Sabra and Shatila massacres hit the newspapers, I was convinced that the Begin government's Lebanon adventure was wrong. But in the IDF the food was kosher and we religious guys were given 20 minutes each morning to put on tefillin and daven a super-fast shaharit. There were no anti-Semites, but some of the tough development-town kids who were the great majority in our platoon were pathological Ashkenazi-baiters.
You are convinced—unlike your grandfather and father—that Israel's occupation of the West Bank is just, and you are enlisting wholeheartedly in the war against Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. You're not much for praying, although you put on tefillin every morning—it will be interesting to see whether you keep it up under the pressure of basic training. Half-breed that you are, you can be Ashkenazi or Sephardi at your discretion. But, ironically, your platoon is likely to be less Jewish than mine was. Some of the soldiers will almost certainly be the sons of Russian immigrants, boys not Jewish according to halacha. Even if they or their parents converted, their Jewish status is under threat from the rabbinate and the Knesset.
Your grandfather wrote his parents a postcard every day. After the histrionic sendoff they'd given him, he filled the postcards with lies. He was happy and optimistic, he wrote to them with impeccable Yiddish penmanship, well-fed, brimming with vigor and good health, and having a wonderful time at camp. He got a furlough to visit home every six months or so.
I wrote my parents a weekly aerogramme. I tried to give them an entertaining account of my adventures, character sketches of my pals, descriptions of the nondescript landscape in our training area in the Negev. I asked my father about the petty theft of other guys' gear that shocked me—not so much because it happened, but because it was institutionalized, accepted, and even ordered by our NCOs. (He said that anything of that type would have been severely punished in his unit.) I judiciously left out the kid who tried to commit suicide and, later, anything at all about Lebanon. Despite my efforts, the despair and loneliness of my darker moments seeped through. My parents' letters to me were upbeat and encouraging, so I assumed they were not losing sleep over me. I learned later that I was totally wrong on that score. After a year, the army gave me a plane ticket to visit them for a week and a half.
You're going into the army with a cell phone, and while your commanders certainly won't let you chat at will, your mother and I will have access to you to a degree unimaginable to my parents and your grandfather's parents. As is the custom in the IDF, you'll be home every weekend or every other weekend during most of your service. I'd like to delude myself that you'll tell me everything, but I know that it will be your own world, one to be discussed with friends but not much with your elders. I hope you don't have any dark moments, and that if you do, you'll seek help from us or from others who can help. But that probably won't happen. Unlike your grandfather and father, you've grown up in a society that's prepared you psychologically for this experience from a young age.
Your grandfather served in an army of occupation. After Germany surrendered, his unit was shipped to the Pacific theater. He and his buddies thought that their drill sergeant's promise was about to come true—Japanese soldiers, they knew, fought to the death and never retreated. But by the time they reached the Philippines, Emperor Hirohito had surrendered, and the American soldiers arrived as conquerors.
Grandpa's parents saved the detailed letters he wrote home from Chichibu, a village about 30 miles west of Tokyo, just as Grandma and Grandpa saved my aerogrammes. (One of the tragedies of technology is that you, with your cell phone, will leave us with nothing to save for you to reconsider years hence.) Grandpa is discomfited today by some of the language he used to describe the subject people. But he had an open mind and quickly saw that the stereotypes the army and the press had fed him weren't true.
Here's a passage worth quoting: "You know: the land of yellow-skinned liars and smiling monkeys, of two-faced backstabbers and suicidal maniacs. Where hara-kiri is traditional and assassination in an art. Where the people believe themselves to be the conquering angels of their solar Lord. Well, where are they, these people? I don't know. All I've found so far is a frightened populace.... Not only do they seem incapable of suicide, but also incapable of every cruelty their own sons perpetrated on the battlefields and in the prison camps." Another letter tells of a visit to a Buddhist shrine, where your Grandpa, who had a dim opinion of pagan cults, nevertheless tried (unsuccessfully, and to the alarm of a group of school kids) to replace the head of a shattered idol.
I was an occupier in Lebanon. My unit spent many months bivouacked in a tiny Christian village, 'Ana, at the foot of a towering mountain, Jabal Barouk. Our base was the village's brand new elementary school building. Soon after arriving I made a bad name for myself by asking, and asking again and again, where the village's kids were going to school. No one, from our regimental commander on down, seemed to think it was any concern of theirs. Before Christmas, on leave in Jerusalem, I ventured into a bookstore in the Arab part of the city and bought the only Arabic language book with a title I could make out with my elementary knowledge of the language. It was a four-volume edition of "The 1001 Nights." Back in 'Ana, I convinced an officer to accompany me—against all orders and security warnings—to the home of a village elder to present the books as a gift to the library of the school that didn't exist. When my excursion came to the attention of my commanding officer, he wasn't even angry. He just thought I was crazy and deluded—an opinion that, in retrospect, I'm pretty sure the village elder shared.
You'll almost certainly be spending a good part of your service as an occupying soldier in the West Bank. If you don't, it will be because a peace treaty is signed—unlikely—or because a war breaks out—much more likely, but something that I, even if I dread seeing you as an occupier, cannot hope for. I hope you'll carry on the family tradition of looking beyond the stereotypes.
Your grandfather came home from the army safe and sound. He didn't think his debt to society was paid, though. He worked for civil rights for blacks, and as a newspaper reporter weeded out corruption in local, state, and national government. He and your grandmother raised three children, all of them socially-aware, committed Jews.
I came home from the army safe and sound, although the army didn't leave me to my devices. I continued to serve for a decade and a half thereafter in the reserves. In between stints of reserve duty, I did what I could to work for a more just, more equitable Israel, and did my best to raise my four children on the values I learned from my father.
I hope you'll continue in that family tradition, too—especially the part about returning safe and sound.
Your grandfather hoped that his sons would not have to fight in wars. I hoped that my sons would not have to fight in wars. Grandpa was proven wrong. The way things look, I probably will be, too. But I hope that you, too, hope that hope. And I hope that for you it comes true.
Haim Watzman is a Jerusalem-based writer, journalist, and translator. He is the author of Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2005) and A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2007) and writes the "Necessary Stories" column for The Jerusalem Report.