News from America 1:14 AM 6/19/2013
Middle East 4:45 AM
Inside Israel 5:14 AM
Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast
Paula R. Stern is CEO and founder of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company offering documentation services and training seminars. She made aliyah in 1993 when her oldest son was 6 years old. In March 2007, her son Elie entered the Artillery Division of the Israeli army and Paula began writing about her experiences as A Soldier’s Mother. The blog continues as Elie begins Reserve Duty and her son Shmulik is now a soldier. She recently opened a publishing house, helping other authors fulfill their dream to publish.
Links to the Author's blogs:
Sivan 29, 5769, 6/21/2009
There were many posts during the first month Elie was in the army - about the first time he came home in a uniform, the first time he came home with his gun. It's been a long road, traveling over these 2 years since Elie has been in the army and I'm anxious to bring you up to where Elie is now, who he is now. Looking at these older posts brings back so many memories. I smile at the fears I had, the uncertainties. I'm anxious for you to meet Elie as he is now, to see how he has grown, what the army has given him and what he has given the army.
But just as I had to live through each moment, I think I should pull you into the present a bit more slowly than just jumping across months and stages so, here's the post that marked his first month in the army. Already, I was beginning to understand so much of what I now take for granted.
One Month in the Army - April 25, 2007
It's now one month since Elie entered the army. It's been a month of worry, and a month of learning to accept. It's been a month of growth for Elie, and for the family. We have learned to cherish moments, to grab them and hold them close. When he comes home, when he calls.
Tonight, he cannot call me to wish me a good night. To tell me what he did during the day and how things are going. He doesn't call every night, but he calls quite often in the one hour free time per day they are given before they go to bed. So much is regulated for them - when they get up in the morning, how much time they have to say their morning prayers, eat their breakfast.
They have a specified period of time for dressing, for rest periods, eating, and more. They are encouraged to call home because, as I have come to learn, the army recognizes that their soldiers need to have their parents calm and aware of what is happening to them. We become a sounding board, another pair of eyes watching over as they take our sons and transform them into soldiers.
As I wrote, Elie won't be calling tonight because he called last night to tell me that they would be out on an exercise tonight. More shooting practice, and this time, Elie will learn how to shoot...well, some big thing with a gun on top. Happily, this weekend Elie will be coming home again.
That's another thing the army recognizes - the need to do things gradually. To take a boy from his home, after he has grown there 18 or 19 years is a hard thing to do and so the army recognizes that they need to send them home often enough that we understand that we are not losing a son but rather, our son is gaining new experiences. These boys are not ready to be soldiers and hike and run great distances. They need to be built up - strengthened, and so, Elie and his unit walk several kilometers - more and more as time will go by.
What all of this tells us, teaches us, is that we aren't the first. The army actually knows what it is doing with our sons...at least so far.
So - today it is one month that my son has been in the army. There is no cake, no telephone calls, no celebrations. I'm not sure if anyone but me even realizes the significance of the anniversary.
Somewhere, at this moment, Elie is sleeping under the stars of the Negev Desert in a sleeping bag, with his gun within reach. And miles and miles away, I sit here with a quiet sense of satisfaction - that we have come this far. I brought a small 6 year old boy with beautiful blue eyes to Israel and now he has grown old enough to serve in the army.
And a sense of dedication - and a sense of pride.
Lila tov, hamudi (good night, my sweet one).
Sivan 26, 5769, 6/18/2009
By far, one of the hardest days I had experienced up to that point in my life was the day Elie went into the army. It was emotionally draining because I forced myself to not react, not cry, not hold him back. It was all about letting him go free and easily with a promise to myself, that after he went, I'd fall, I'd cry, I'd come to terms and go forward. The first few days and weeks were an incredible experience because it was, essentially, my first real encounter with army life.
My Son the Soldier - Induction Day - March 25, 2007
Well, the day has finally come - arriving with a mixture of so many emotions and unspoken fears. Elie packed his bag last night - as ready to go as he has been for some time now. Perhaps over the weekend, he was a little more playful, a little more "around" us than usual, but this morning, it was all business.
He woke me up at 6:30 a.m. (I'd been up long before, but I wasn't going to tell him that). We got in the car, found the place a short 20 minutes later. There were a few other cars parked in front of the building, each with a young man sitting in the front beside a parent. No one got out to talk to anyone else, each holding those last few minutes. You don't want to speak any great words of wisdom - there aren't any left to be said. You can tell him that you love him, but really, he knows it already. This isn't like school, where he can call if he needs me to come and pick him up. His experiences are now his own and we are left behind in real life, as much symbolized by his walking alone into the building after a few quick words and a refusal to give me a kiss (typical of a teenager boy). I sat outside with nothing to do but go back home. Other parents still sat in their cars with their children, but I'm glad we did it the "quick" way.
There is no ceremony, no great moment, just a gentle slide into a new world. He went in his direction without hesitation; I reluctantly went in mine and I tried all day not to think of where he was. Or, more importantly, I tried not to think of where he wasn't. From the time my children were born, almost without exception, I have known where they are. Perhaps not to an exact location, but close enough to know that they are within reach, within a short drive or call away. Now enters a time when more often than not, I won't know where he is, what he is doing. I will have to trust that no news is good news, that he is ok.
Elie called me around 6:30 p.m. - not quite as good as him walking through the door, but still a wonderful gift. He's fine. He's wearing a uniform. He complained about the heat of Tel Aviv after the cool and wonderful air of Jerusalem's hills. They gave him boots and they are more comfortable than he expected them to be. They didn't have any undershirts, but he's got the 3 or 4 that he packed from home. They fed him lunch and dinner and there's a place to get snacks. He has a place to sleep, some boys he knows from school and one from a neighboring town. Tomorrow he'll go to the base. No, they didn't give him a gun (I didn't expect them to). No, he doesn't know the rest of the schedule. All normal talk - so many questions I could ask, but won't. I'll take it one day at a time...for the next three years. Today is over. He's safe. He's fine. Tomorrow is another day.
My son is a soldier in the army of Israel. Why that makes me want to cry, I can't explain when it is something that I have accepted, something in which I feel pride. For now, the fear and worry that threatens to push the pride aside will be my personal battle in the next day and week and year. My son is where I have always wanted him to be, doing what he must do. It is something that Jews have been unable to do for thousands of years - to defend their land and their right to live here. My son is a soldier in the army of Israel.
Those First Calls - March 25, 2007
The first calls from a son in the army are precious. You listen to the voice. He sounds okay, he's being taken care of, he's happy. He'll tell you the plans, as the army tells him. No one to argue with, when what they tell him isn't logical - that too is part of the army.
So, as Passover approaches, we are told that Elie will be able to come home for the Seder on Monday night, but have to return to the army Wednesday morning. He'll then be able to come back home on Friday, but have to return to the army on Sunday. He'll be able to come home on Monday for the last day of the holiday, but have to return again on Wednesday after that. Is it logical to endure a three hour trip on Friday and Sunday and Monday and Wednesday? Wouldn't it be better to let him stay at home from Friday to Wednesday? How much training will he really be able to do? A few hours - maybe the equivalent of one full day?
This is the lesson we are to learn, and learn it early. You do not question the logic of the army. You take what they will give you and be grateful for it. There are so many questions we'd like to ask, but each call home is only for a few minutes.
His day starts early and ends after something like 17-18 hours. Elie gets up at 4:30 a.m. and has a long and detailed day.
"How are things?" we ask.
"Fine. Good," he answers.
"So, did they cut your hair on the first day?"
"Ok, that's good. "Did you get all your supplies?"
"Some," he answers. "We got the pack and sleeping bag."
And he explains about there being two kinds of uniforms - essentially those that are worn on the base for training and those that are worn when a soldier goes off-base. He's only been issued one type so far.
I ask more questions. He answers and tells me what is happening. And, of course, as soon as we hang up, my mind fills with questions I didn't ask.
Is it cold there? Are you warm? Is the food good? Are you tired? It seems silly to ask him if he has made friends - this isn't school or camp.
But the thought of him being alone is scary for me. Of course, he won't be alone. He's on a very large base "somewhere" in the south. Alone is the last thing he will be for the next three years. He'll sleep with others in the same room, even shower in close quarters. Everywhere he will go, will be with others. But I want him to have people he can talk to, boys he can laugh with. There is no time off - except an hour before bed. I have to resist speaking in terms that are foreign to the army and while he will gain brothers-in-arms and in many cases friends for life, I worry about who he has to talk to now. They are all going into this as a new experience, depending on their commanding officer to guide them through. Faith is a wonderful thing, but somehow the mother in me still thinks of reasons to worry.
I'd like to think that some part of me is always aware of my children. Through business meetings and work or resting or shopping, at any moment, I am "aware" of my children in my heart. But so far, this "awareness" is different than it has ever been before. Now, it is a small ache buried deep inside. At any moment, it can swell up to the level of worry and then settle down. It can ignite my imagination (something that I am prone to at the worst of times) into thinking dim and dark thoughts and then I force myself back to reality. He is safe. He is on an army base going through basic training, for Heaven's sake! He won't face any really real danger for...for...days? Weeks? Months? Years? Never - will I even know when that moment comes. Perhaps that is the scary part. I may not even know. You could drive yourself insane if you continue on this road. Better to stop and look at the moment. Today, he is safe. He's ok. He's good. Today until it fades into tomorrow, I will not worry. Tomorrow - always tomorrow, I will allow myself to worry, but today, I will force the worry away because in all the years he was growing up, there was no other place I wanted him to be, no other country I wanted him to call home.
He will be safe and we will get through this all - one day at a time. We have survived three days already. I will get used to this new method of communication - short conversations, quick, intense. He's ok. He's safe. One call the first night; another the second night.
Today, a - text message "Ima, everything is good. I'll call you tomorrow." Everything is good - he'll call me tomorrow. What more can a mother ask for when she has already determined that the next three years will pass one day at a time.
Sivan 20, 5769, 6/12/2009
My daughter was married just two weeks before Elie went into the army. This event and its timing brought many blessings - the joy of welcoming our son-in-law and his family into our own, the happiness of seeing my daughter so happy, and, in another way, the chance to focus on something else besides Elie's entering the army.
Wedding plans filled our home - dresses and fittings and things for her future home. The wedding was wonderful, the week that followed unbelievably hectic...and then I had to face the next challenge. It was a countdown of sorts; each day a challenge to hold myself together, at least until he would go. I remember promising myself that I could...and would...fall apart - after. All I asked was that it wait until after he left.
7 Days and Counting - March 18, 2007
Seven days from now, I'll be driving Elie to the drop-off point. From there, he will be taken to join an artillery unit, given a uniform and a gun and taken to some location somewhere...and I'll cope with not knowing where.
This week, after my daugther's wedding, it's all about him. What he will need, what we should still buy. He still needs a strong backpack and locks, underwear and extra socks. He looked so handsome at the wedding, dressed in the suit he didn't want to wear, in the shoes he didn't want to buy. Everyday pants and his hiking boots would have been his choice, but he made us all happy by dressing for the occasion.
There are the physical things we concentrate on to avoid thinking about the emotional issues. What he will need, where he will go the first week, the second week. Months of basic training and then additional training for his unit. When will he be allowed to come home.
I don't believe wisdom necessarily comes with age, but fear certainly does. The older we are, the more we learn to fear. When I was expecting my first child, and my second, and even my third, I was too young to fear, to understand that we aren't always blessed with beautiful, healthy babies. Only as I got older did I realize what an incredible miracle each child was.
Now, with age, comes the reality that just as we are given this incredible gift, we must cherish it and watch over it at all times. This becomes hard to do when the child goes off to a new place, leaving you to wonder and worry.
Elie does not seem to be afraid; this is a stage in his life, an experience. Many boys love the army. It gives them direction, training, companionship and life-long friends. Only we mothers focus on the more serious aspects of where our sons will go and what they will do. We are the ones left crippled behind as they soar in triumph. They are free of their studies, free of daily routine. Life is new and exciting for them. Responsibilities come with trust. The state of Israel puts its faith and its love into its soldiers. They are treated with love as they travel from place to place. People stop to give them rides or hand them candy and food when they are on patrol. It is a love affair that never ages. There are few countries, if any, in the world who can claim the relationship that Israel has with its soldiers. Each is a son of the nation and the whole nation celebrates and mourns together when it comes to our soldiers.
Perhaps, despite the worries, my son is right. This is an adventure, a new road he will take. I should be excited for him. I should be (and I am) very proud of him. In other countries, 19 year old boys are drinking and driving and focusing on girls. It will be years before they grow up while here in Israel, they are given responsibility, life and death decisions.In a matter of a few weeks, my son will come home with a gun and the training to know when to use it and when not to use it. He will be given responsibilities to protect whole communities and our country. All this on the head of a soon-to-be 20 year old. He celebrates this time while I quietly mourn the boy he will leave behind.
So, as Elie sees the adventure ahead, I look at the boy knowing that all too soon, the army will return him to me as a man, having experienced new and exciting things, having gone where I've never gone, done what I've never done. He'll hold people's lives in his hands and learn things I never dreamed he would need to know. How far to shoot, how to aim a massive weapon capable of bringing down a building.
They'll teach him the human side of war - our responsibility to avoid civilian casualties when possible and even to endanger his life to protect our citizens (and the citizens of other lands). He will learn how to defend himself, how to recognize the enemy and how to react. All this is new to him and it will change him, as it does each boy because in the end, he will be not just a boy, not just a man, but a soldier too.
6 Days and Counting - March 19, 2007
So - today we went shopping for those last minute items that the army recommends each new soldier should have. We went to a camping store, which has its own list of what the army provides (one column) and what they recommend (two bigger columns). The store gives a free wallet and discounts for many of the items the new soldier will need.
Undershirts - green; socks - gray. A wallet, a special strong backpack, a flashlight, toothbrush holder, antiseptic non-water cleaner, and much more. The hardest part wasn't paying the bill, but rather standing there listening to the young store clerk (who has served in the army), explain to my son what he would need. A rite of passage that they all go through here in Israel, a language they understand. It will be cold at night, hot and dusty during the day. You'll only have a few minutes to wash and dress (better to get the key lock rather than the combination lock); better to get the back with zippers and compartments. You can keep your wallet with you while on patrol, but you might get into trouble if you try to keep your cell phone. Don't take anything of real value - there are thieves even among your brothers in arms.
You'll get nine pairs of socks from the army; three undershirts in green; three undershirts in white. Two types of uniforms - one to be worn on the base and during training; one for when you are going off-base.
The young clerk smiled when he said that my son would be home the first weekend after he enters the army - the army's way of reminding us that we aren't losing a son...that he'll be home if we just have patience and hold ourselves together. We aren't saying goodbye forever...just a few more days and he'll be home - lugging dirty laundry, wanting to sleep and eat as much as he can. They can wear any pajamas, the store clerk explains, and any underwear they want. What matters is that on the outside, the uniform is perfect, the clothes according to regulation.
Black shoe polish. "How do you know he needs black and not brown?" I ask naively, and the answer is a single word "Artillery." How strict they will be depends on the particulars of the army base, but it will be dirty and dusty and unpleasant - in short...reality.
It's all so simple and logical - no time for a mother's feelings and worries. Monday is gone...6 more days.
Four Days and Counting...Nothing Left to Do - March 21, 2007
He's got all he needs - the backpack in which to pack his things, the green undershirts that will soon be a part of his uniform, extra little "gadgets" that he loves - like a keychain flashlight and a business card-size "thing" that contains pretty much everything - a flashlight, pen, 4 different screw drivers, magnifying glass, scissors, tweasers, and I'm not even sure what else.
For him, these last days are dragging by - he's ready, all set...waiting to go.
For me, I'm trying to act normal, keeping anxiety and worry at bay by trying to get the family back into a normal routine. Planning a family wedding is amazingly disruptive to the normal course of events. It's a wonderful thing to have, but it touches and rearranges schedules for weeks before and even after. Now, as things settle back to what they were and the new couple wants nothing more than to be left alone, it's time I can focus on Elie...but the amazing reality is, that isn't what he wants.
Going to the army is a part of what he was raised to do, as much a part of normal life as pretty much every other stage in his life. It doesn't represent life and death battles, moral dilemnas, enemies or politics. It's a place he'll go to meet his obligation and because of how he feels about the country in which he lives, he'll perform his service to the best of his ability, as he serves in the local ambulance squad, as he "serves" in the family.
For a young man, the army in Israel is about change, but also about growth. It's about new friends and about new experiences. To focus on this, is to help us cope with the unknown. He asked me tonight about how many pairs of socks he should bring with him. The army will give him 9 pairs of socks - should he bring a few more? This is a code phrase for the question of how long he'll be away from home. Or maybe not - maybe I am reading too much into what is really a simple question.
He'll go to the army on Sunday - just 4 days from now. The army almost always sends the boys home for the first weekend after they enlist. It's their way of assuring us that the separation isn't permanent; that they aren't leaving home forever. After the weekend...comes the first period of unknown. How long will he be gone? When will he come home? Where will he be stationed? How long will it take him to get back here and how early in the morning will he have to leave in order to get back to base in time?
If he's like other soldiers that I've met, he'll come home tired and hungry and all he'll want to do is shower, sleep and eat. We'll have to learn to leave him to the quiet he'll need, just as now he needs us to act as if Sunday doesn't represent some major change in our lives.
He wants Sunday to be just another day. Just as before he went off to his yeshiva to learn for a few weeks at a time, now he'll go to the army. No fundamental difference, he wants to believe. But for us, it represents every possible difference in the world. But this is too much for him to handle, too much to take in when he's looking forward and not back at us. He'll go with a clean head and a full heart because we won't burden him with our worries and fears.
Oh, he knows we are scared - but what is not spoken isn't heard...or so a young 19-year-old on the threshold of tomorrow would believe.
The Night Before - March 24, 2007
Trying to act normal when you feel your life changing from under you is an interesting experience. Elie has just carried his 7 year old sister up to bed. By the time she wakes in the morning, he will have left. She has no real understanding of the moment; I'm not sure Elie does either. Only later in life do things become so heavy. At 7 or 19, life is for the moment. You give or get a kiss goodnight and you don't wonder about who will give you a kiss tomorrow night.
As you get older, you learn that you can't freeze moments. They come and go in an instance and all you can do is hold the image in your mind. Of Aliza jumping up on Elie and of Elie swinging her up in his arms. He's always loved the strength he has over her, that he can lift her up high and make her squeal with delight. He can flip her and play with her as no one else can. She loves it, as does he.
I look back at pictures we have taken over the years and am surprised to see how often she is on his lap. He was just 6 months short of his 13th birthday when she was born. He didn't mind sharing the spotlight when his bar mitzvah came around and so many looked at the adorable 6 month old baby. I was terrified that she would wake up and cry during the service, but she slept peacefully. Even going through high school, when most boys would probably have no interest in a little sister, Elie adored her.
It was Elie that laid down the rule in our house that soda is only for weekends and what we call "happy days." And Aliza accepted it right away. Aliza's world is shifting - first with her older sister getting married two weeks ago and now with Elie going off to the army.
We believe, as is the army custom, that he'll be home next weekend, probably even before Aliza gets a chance to miss him. Tomorrow, his day will start in Jerusalem at a central gathering point for incoming soldiers. This is being repeated all over Israel.
From there, they'll take these young men to a central point in Tel Aviv. They'll get their alloted supplies - the uniforms, socks, boots, washing kits and more. Those that need haircuts will get those as well. Elie is thinking of going to the mall tonight to have his hair cut, though I'm not sure he even needs it.
They'll sleep the first night at this central point, before being dispersed all over Israel to the training camps that will be his home away from home for the next 2 months of basic training. By nightfall tomorrow, my son will be a soldier. In uniform. Beyond my reach.
This blog, that began as my way of coping with the changes to our family as my son waits to become a soldier now begins a new phase. From tomorrow, it will truly be about a soldier and his mother, rather than about the way in which we prepared for this moment. One thing I have learned over the years is that tomorrow will come in its own good time. For me, I can only bless my son that he should go in peace and come home in peace, knowing that we love him for what he is, who he is, what he will become.
Sivan 19, 5769, 6/11/2009
Once I'd started the blog, there was no getting around the future, no denying that the day was coming. Only a week after I started the blog, amidst all my daughter's wedding plans, Elie got a letter from the army. I wished they would let me get used to the idea, but I knew we were on a roller coaster - or maybe a large Ferris Wheel. Either way, we were going around so fast, and all paths were leading us to that one moment when Elie would go, and I and the rest of the family would stay. I cherished those last few weeks, afraid that life would never bring me back to the same moment with my family together in just that way.
The "Letter" - February 21, 2007
The final draft call letter has arrived. The list of items the army will provide is a startling reminder that my son is entering the army. They will give him a set number of shirts, undershirts, socks, underwear, pants, shirts (uniforms), etc.
You wouldn't expect any different, but for a mother about to send her first son off to the army, you can't help wondering who will give him love and warmth. Love and warmth. It is something my son takes for granted and would certainly scorn if anyone expressed the idea that he would need such things. He remains, before the army, a teenage boy. I have no doubt the army will turn him into "a man," though I will mourn the loss of the boy.
Already, as a frequent and "mature" volunteer in the local ambulance squad, he has seen things that I have never seen. I have (thank God), never had someone die in my arms or beside me as I tried to save his life. I'm not sure I'd even know what to do and yet Elie handles it all with grace and leadership. I believe he will do well in the army (if they don't crush him first...and perhaps even if they do). The army is known to crush the individual within you in many ways - it is the nature of an army, any army, all armies, and the Israeli army is no different.
But the Israeli army is known to build you back up - better than you were before, stronger, more decisive. I have no doubts that Elie can handle the army and will probably even love it, as many boys do. He is, at 19, so incredibly self-sufficient. He cooks - he's one of the best in the family. Rice, chicken, omelets, noodles with sauces - whatever it is, Elie is not afraid to try cooking. He does his own laundry (doesn't trust me not to lose his socks).
But there is, within me, the concern for the person deep inside him. Elie doesn't need to share his emotions and so I try to pull them out of him at times. I guess one of my fears is that no one in the army will be there to do that.
His commanding officer is scheduled to come to our home Saturday night. He will talk to Elie in preparation for what is to come. This is so typical of the Israeli army - the personal touch, the outreach. I am hoping that it will help me as well as Elie adjust to what is to come.
Perhaps the greatest injustice...and mercy...in this whole process is that my oldest daughter is getting married just two weeks before Elie goes into the army. This helps me focus on other things, but it also doesn't allow us all to focus completely on Elie - for the good and the bad.
Precious Moments - February 24, 2007
As the clock ticks down towards both my daughter's upcoming wedding and Elie's entering the army, I find each moment is that much more precious. Today we gathered for our "last" Shabbat meal together as the family unit we have been. In another two weeks, even a little less, Haim will be joining our family and two weeks later, Elie will enter the army.
Much of what Elie is feeling is kept private - it is his nature both to keep things private and to keep things in perspective. As a mother, that is much harder for me to do. I could discuss and analzye this forever, and the result would be the same. With all the wedding plans, we have yet to address the things Elie will need. The closest we have come to figuring this out was when my husband bought me a present - a wind-up flashlight that I'd heard about. Elie saw it and thought it was useful and I realize that I'll want to get one for him as it is much more reliable than battery-operated flashlights.
So, for now, we are in a holding pattern - enjoying these precious moments, knowing change is just around the corner.
Sivan 19, 5769, 6/11/2009
Weeks after my oldest son turned six, our family packed up all that we owned, and moved across the world to Israel. We did it for more reasons than I could mention here and that’s another story in itself. Weeks later, not yet fluent in the language that was to become, in many ways, his mother tongue, Elie entered first grade.
Like all young children in Israel, he grew up while learning basic realities about himself and his obligations to his homeland. One of the constants was the knowledge that he would enter the Israeli army and serve his country. It was, in those early years, a distant cloud in the sky that seemed so incredibly beautiful.
About six weeks before Elie entered the army, I realized that I needed something else. I needed to talk through my feelings, express them, absorb them and explain them. I did what I almost always do when feeling overwhelmed, I sat down and began to write. As it took shape and form, the story of one boy’s transition into a soldier became a universal rite of passage, both for a boy, and his mother.
Elie’s been in the army for two years now but as I start this new blog, I’d like to take a few posts to go back and explain how Elie became a soldier, and I became a soldier’s mother.
Starting Young - Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Starting from a very young age, Israeli boys know that they are destined to go to the army. It's part of how they grow up, where they are headed, who they will become. For those of us who came to Israel as adults, it's something that is harder to assimilate. It's so easy, year after year, to deny that it will happen, to postpone dealing with it. So, here I am, six weeks away from when my son will enter the Israeli army, suddenly having it all become real. This blog is a soldier's mother's story.