By the time we arrived, cars were parked all along the highway, long before the turnoff to the parade grounds where the swearing-in ceremony for new recruits was to be held.
I took out the chocolate cake I’d baked that morning, carefully balancing it in my arms; my husband hauled the plastic bag holding the drinks and paper cups. I felt virtuous. Here I was, a practiced Israeli, who knew that these events required food. But as I looked around at the people traipsing with us up the hill, I realized that once again I’d never come near the perfection of the Sabras, who had generations of such activities behind them. There they were, whole families wearing specially designed t-shirts that declared: “We are so proud of you Omri!” And “Kol Hakavod to our Joseph!” As we neared the parade grounds, we could see the picnic tables and chairs, the aluminum pots filled with Mom’s homemade delicacies as large, extended families spread out feasting their soldier, and watching, with great joy, as he rested and ate.
My grandson would get chocolate cake, cokes, and whatever his mother had brought, and it wouldn’t be the kitchen sink. We were Ashkenazim. American Olim. It takes a few generations to get it right.
I searched for him and his siblings and parents. And there they were.
He had only been inducted a month before. The past two years he’d chosen to spend in a yeshiva learning Talmud with other religious boys who planned to join the army. Always skinny, he looked tanned and strong, already a little older than the last time I’d seen him. He was happy about the cake, but said he had no time to eat: his unit was calling him to get ready for the ceremony.
The parade grounds were situated on a high spot amid rolling hills between Jerusalem and Rechovot. It had four cement bleachers in a semi-circle capable of seating at thousands. They were packed. Facing each bleacher was the insignia of each unit within the platoon. Families seated themselves accordingly to get the best viewing spot of their own recruits.
It was May, hot beneath a Middle Eastern sun. Again, the sabras had brought their hats, and picnic umbrellas to shield them as they sat. They had brought their huge banners proclaiming their love and pride in their soldier, unfurling them in the stands to catch their young man’s attention as he marched into the fairgrounds with regimental panache to stirring military music. As the first young soldiers appeared, a shout went up and people applauded as if having heard or seen a masterpiece.
And there he was, our skinny, young, suddenly taller young soldier, our son, grandson, brother. He stood third from the left in the front row, we communicated to each other excitedly, sending the family photographer – Grandpa – down the concrete steps to take the pictures we would cherish, admonishing him to get close enough, to take good angles. We stood up in anticipation, watching him snap away, then sat down again, satisfied that his good camera would improve on the shoddy results of our own equipment, mostly smartphones that could not be adjusted to take anything but faraway snapshots of crowds.
The music changed. The photographers scurried back to their seats as a line of commanding officers marched through, settling themselves before their own units.
There they stood, hundreds of young men and women in khaki uniforms, their army berets at a jaunty angle, ramrod straight, their eyes looking forward, determined.
“Please rise for the raising of the flag.”
We jumped to our feet, watching as the blue and white banner rose slowly up the flagpole to our left, only fully unfurling as it reached the very top. No one spoke as we watched the blue and white flag with the Star of David wave in the wind, our throats a little choked, tears rising in our eyes.
Very quietly, the Rabbi of the unit was introduced and he opened a Bible to the Book of Joshua.
“My servant Moses is dead. Be prepared to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to the Israelites. Every place on which your foot treads I give to you, as I promised Moses. Your territory shall extend from the wilderness and the Lebanon to the Great River, the River Euphrates, on the east and up to the Mediterranean Sea on the west. No one shall be able to resist you as long as you live. As I was with Moses, I shall be with you… But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moses enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left that you may be successful wherever you go…Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful I charge you: be strong and resolute: do not be terrified or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
I could see my grandson’s shoulders straighten, his chin lift. He was a religious boy, and he was not alone. There were many skullcaps under those berets. But that didn’t matter. These were the words that give strength to the Israeli nation, religious or not. They are our history, our legend, our culture and our deepest faith. They are our truth.
There were more speakers, one who touched on the Holocaust. I don’t remember what he said, but simply the invocation of that time of deathly helplessness as a people uttered among young recruits could not have been more moving.
The unit’s commandant then explained the role of Military Engineering, which included planting and detonating bombs and land mines; destroying weapons caches, and detecting and destroying terror tunnels meant to facilitate the entry of Hamas murderers into Israeli towns. It was the unit’s job, he said, to protect all the soldiers in the IDF as they went forward to engage with their enemies.
Like a sudden breeze, a frisson of fear, of pride, of grief swept through the crowds, making the banners and the hands that held them, tremble. My daughter and I looked at each other. We did not want this good boy dismantling bombs. We didn’t want a single hair on a single head of any of those precious young people standing so firmly and so proudly before us put into harm’s way. We did not want them to be soldiers. Yet both of us recognized the truth: their willingness to step forward and do these dangerous jobs was the only thing that made our lives in our homeland possible. We hung our heads in acceptance.
“I swear and commit to maintain allegiance to the State of Israel, its laws, and its authorities, to accept upon myself unconditionally the discipline of the Israel Defense Forces, to obey all the orders and instructions given by authorized commanders, and to devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life, for the protection of the homeland and the liberty of Israel.”
The proud new recruits repeated these words, their voices strong, ringing with determination and sincerity from someplace deep in their throats and even deeper in their souls. One by one they filed up to the table where their commanding officers gave each his own gun, and his own Jewish Bible.
What other army in the world, I thought, is like the army of Israel?
When the ceremony was over, and the soldiers broke ranks, they formed a circle dancing to the words: “The Jewish people lives. Our father still lives.”
We waited for our soldier to finish the tasks he was given cleaning up the bleachers from paper cups and coke bottles, putting away all the tables and banners.
When finally, he was dismissed, he came to us, his face shining, tan, and so very young.
“Savta,” he said, hugging me. “Can I have a piece of that cake now?”
I cut him a large piece, and watched him eat.
Twenty-three thousand four hundred and forty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed in the country’s just wars against her enemies. But unless you come to a swearing-in ceremony for new recruits, I thought, you can never, ever really understand what that means.
May God bless my grandson, and every other IDF soldier and keep them all safe and far from harm.