Sol­dier boy: My baby has joined the IDF

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - IS­RAEL EMMA SHEVAH

THIS WEEK, on the morn­ing of his nine­teenth birth­day, my son Maor was dropped at the meet­ing point in Jerusalem at 7.30 am and taken by bus to Tel Aviv to be given an in­tro­duc­tory talk, his dog-tags and his uni­form. Af­ter some blood tests, he then boarded an­other bus to base to be­gin his train­ing in the IDF.

This is not the usual start to a birth­day morn­ing in our fam­ily. Birthdays be­gin with hugs and a break­fast ta­ble laid with sur­prises, bal­loons and presents. In­stead, my boy left that be­hind and took a bus ride into man­hood. This ex­pe­ri­ence will chal­lenge ev­ery­thing he knows, take him to places and sit­u­a­tions nei­ther of us can cur­rently en­vis­age, and test him men­tally, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally to the very lim­its. And he can’t wait.

As for me, I was in Lon­don that morn­ing, go­ing off to teach. Tak­ing a deep breath to bat the tears away. Not be­cause I’m a clingy mother and can’t deal with my chil­dren grow­ing up, but be­cause this isn’t univer­sity or a gap year he’s go­ing away to. My most ex­cel­lent son is go­ing to war. He’ll learn to shoot a weapon and to fight. He’ll see things he’ll never be able to un­see, and hear things I don’t agree with and never taught him. He’ll en­counter dan­ger and hos­til­ity — and pos­si­bly ha­tred, ag­gres­sion and big­otry. And even though of course I’m wip­ing the very thought from my mind and tfoo tfoo tfoo and God for­bid, waves of nau­sea rise in me be­cause I know what the sit­u­a­tion is and what those dog tags are used for.

I also feel … well, I’d use the word con­flicted, but that’s a word I’m go­ing to avoid, given the cir­cum­stances. Let’s say am­biva­lent. I’m happy for him be­cause he’s wanted to do this since he was a boy. Be­ing fully aware of who he is and where his tal­ents lie, I know it’ll be good for him and he’ll be a truly ex­cel­lent sol­dier. He’s en­thu­si­as­tic about this next stage and about de­fend­ing and pro­tect­ing the land and people he feels New re­cruits to the IDF (above); Emma and Maor as a baby strongly about. I couldn’t be prouder. My tears are of pride and love as much as any­thing. Es­pe­cially as he’s cho­sen to do this: he doesn’t have to go. He was born in Is­rael, but we moved to Lon­don when he was four, moved back to Is­rael when he was nine and then re­turned to Lon­don when he was eleven, and stayed. As we spent a year in Is­rael af­ter he turned 10, he’s not el­i­gi­ble for Ma­hal, the 18-month vol­un­teer­ing pro­gramme. For him, it was all or noth­ing — he had to do nearly three years of army ser­vice or do some­thing else with his life. He chose all, and not only that, he in­sisted on a com­bat unit, so he’s draft­ing to Cara­cal. Set up in 2000, it’s a rel­a­tively new divi­sion named af­ter a desert cat of in­dis­tin­guish­able gen­der as the bat­tal­ion con­tains both male and fe­male sol­diers.

Now, I know noth­ing about the IDF. I didn’t even re­alise that the dif­fer­ent bat­tal­ions (Na­hal, Golani etc) de­fend dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the coun­try un­til re­cently. Good old Google. So when he told me the name of his unit, I looked it up. I dis­cov­ered their job it is to pa­trol the Is­raeliE­gyp­tian bor­der, and their base is in the Negev.

Which made me smile: Maor show­ers twice a day, hates sand and he doesn’t like heat much ei­ther, so that’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing. Other than that, he’s happy. Ap­par­ently, he can do in­ter­est­ing cour­ses in Cara­cal, and pos­si­bly train snif­fer dogs which, as a dog-lover, Maor’s keen to do. Once he starts, he’ll prob­a­bly find some­thing else he’s interested in, but he’ll fig­ure that out on the way.

As he em­barks on his IDF jour­ney, so do I. I’m now a mem­ber of the Face­book group Moth­ers of Chay­alim Bodedim (Lone Sol­diers) and although I’m mainly a silent gulp­ing ob­server, I’ve mes­saged a woman in Canada whose daugh­ter drafted to Cara­cal last week, as ap­par­ently, the girls draft first. Maor and I laughed on the phone that it re­minded us of Year Sevens go­ing into school a day be­fore all the older, scary kids turned up, but this was a lame joke. Note­wor­thy Cara­cal sol­diers in­clude Sec­ond Lieu­tenant Noy, the first fe­male of­fi­cer to com­mand a sniper pla­toon; Eli­nor Joseph, the first Arab woman ever to serve a com­bat role in the Is­raeli army; and Cap­tain Or Ben Ye­huda, who was awarded a mil­i­tary dec­o­ra­tion when two-dozen armed men opened fire on their po­si­tion in an am­bush in Oc­to­ber 2014. Wounded in the vol­ley, Cap­tain Ben-Ye­huda man­aged to get on the ra­dio, call for back-up, ad­min­is­ter first-aid to her driver and re­turn sev­eral mag­a­zines of gun­fire at her at­tack­ers while wait­ing for re­in­force­ments. These sol­diers de­serve the ut­most re­spect, and un­der­stand­ably, even though the girls serv­ing in Cara­cal have to sign up for a third year, this is the unit my 16-year-old daugh­ter now wants to serve in when she turns 18.

So this might not be my last ex­pe­ri­ence with the IDF, but it’s most def­i­nitely my first — not only be­cause I grew up in Lon­don, but be­cause I grew up not Jewish. My friends didn’t go, my sec­ond cousins twice re­moved didn’t go — when I say I have no ex­pe­ri­ence of this, I mean I have no ex­pe­ri­ence of this at all. To my es­tranged Is­raeli hus­band and his fam­ily, this is sec­ond-na­ture, but not to me or my side of the gene pool. Grow­ing up in south Lon­don in the 1970s and ’80s, the con­flict in the Mid­dle East wasn’t our con­flict.

I viewed it in the head-shak­ing man­ner of an out­sider: here, I thought, were two stub­born-headed, vo­latile groups of people who’d never see eye-to-eye, fight­ing over some­thing I couldn’t en­tirely com­pre­hend the mean­ing of. It was a mael­strom and, frankly, I was happy I had noth­ing to do with it. And now, in a twist of per­fect irony and fate, my fam­ily and I are Jews and Is­raelis, and this now has ev­ery­thing to do with us. My son, my much-loved boy, is now go­ing right into the very centre of that mael­strom, and my younger daugh­ter and son are likely to fol­low. If you’d told me that when I was seven­teen, I’d have laughed at you.

But here we are. When Maor boarded that bus, I be­gan my IDF ca­reer as well. Over the next three years, I’ll learn things I had no inkling I’d ever need or want to know about. I’ll fol­low his progress, hear his weekly exploits and sup­port him on the phone through his ups and downs. I’ll look up weapons and berets in a bid to com­pre­hend his new life, and I’ll bond with the par­ents of other sol­diers, past and present. And as I teach war po­ems like Pop­pies to my GCSE stu­dents, it’ll be from a much more per­sonal an­gle. Be­cause my boy and I are em­bark­ing on a new jour­ney. How do I feel about that? Happy, sad, ter­ri­fied, touched, blessed, hon­oured, freaked-out and fas­ci­nated — those are just a few emo­tions for now. It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see how we get on over the next three years. But let’s just get through this first week.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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