The bus doors hissed open, facing the back of Jerusalem’s central bus station. Before the soles of my boots met the pavement, I knew exactly how many hours remained until I would have to board the same bus line rolling in the opposite direction, back toward the border. A soldier’s weekend clock ticks quickly.
Three weeks of slaving under the desert sun exhausted me to my limit, but I still had to make the final hike back to our apartment before I could peel off my uniform and forget about it for a couple of days. Along the way my eyes refocused to the splendors of civilization, and its blinding colors. Young couples hurried along with their arms entangled, ignoring everything but each other. Competing fruit vendors shouted frantically, each claiming that their strawberries were picked in the Garden of Eden. Had all of this been going on while I was eating sand with my tuna? I dragged my legs around the corner of our narrow street and stopped to look up at the unwashed windows and cluttered balcony of 4 Antebbi Street. That moment’s pause inflated my chest with the pride of a man who has endured.
Nonetheless, like an infant my only desires at that moment were warmth underneath a blanket, and a full stomach.
What I came “home” to could not possibly be confused with the homes of my Israeli comrades. My door had no mother leaning on its post, already waiting to seize toxic laundry and hug her son tightly.
My arm did not feel the punch of a proud father as I let my heavy pack drop to the floor. Nor were there any younger siblings tugging at my legs, telling me that I was missed.
Without turning around, I swung the door shut and silence ensued.
While passing time on guard duty, Israelis curiously asked about the circumstances I dealt with while living with a bunch of “lone soldiers” in place of a family. My response was always smooth and rehearsed since I had been asked the same question so often. Holding my arms out wide, I would smile and say, “Well, actually it’s a lot like this! Certainly smells just as bad.” We’d laugh, but I always caught my breath first, faced with the silencing realization that my answer was no joke at all.
Untying combat boots and slipping on tattered leather sandals in their place is an exchange like no other. I only wanted to sleep, but Shabbat was just a few hours away and the fridge was still empty. I sat down to breathe before leaving for the supermarket, but I’d only managed a short sigh before my phone buzzed. Another lone soldier had called to remind me that next week a new Hebrew month would begin.
At first, I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me. Was he counting how much of our youth had floated away since the last time we had the weekend off? I had gotten used to soldiers looking for someone to share their difficulties with. Finally realizing what he meant, I felt a rush of relief cooling my sunburn. Every Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh, the Lone Soldier Center of Jerusalem hosts a lavish Friday night dinner for us at the Great Synagogue in the company of generous affiliates from both establishments.
All we had to do was RSVP. A Friday afternoon nap... I was in heaven.
A pack of us with our shaven heads and untucked shirts carelessly crossed the promenade leading to the grand entrance of the Great Synagogue. The guard recognized us from a distance and chuckled loudly that it was his turn to watch over us. Inside the atrium, the chamber-choir’s tenors and sopranos welcomed the Shabbat with their heads tilted back. The chazzan towered over the pulpit, forcing the ceiling ajar with his bottomless lungs. As a messenger from the past would, he sang in the primordial key of Jewish longing, reminding all of those present of our shared blessing to be enjoying a Shabbat in the holy city of Jerusalem.
The kaleidoscopic diversity of the congregation welcomed Jews from every background. Stuffed into tightly packed rows were haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) sitting on top of Conservative Jews, Nachlaot (a Jerusalem neighborhood) bohemians rubbing shoulders with staunch Religious Nationalists, and elderly Mizrachim singing alongside Holocaust survivors (this is what real me’urav yerushalmi looks like). This was my monthly reminder of what and who I served for.
In its palatial marble and soft golden light, the dining hall of the Great Synagogue has a royal air.
Explosive greetings rumbled throughout the room, as if we had gathered to rejoice in triumph.
Most of us had not seen each other in a while since we served in different regions of the country. Over full plates of food we shared our best stories – both the hilarious and the miserable.
Despite knowing that service in any infantry combat unit is mostly the same regardless of a unit’s insignia or beret color, we fervently argued over whose experience was tougher. Mocking the less experienced soldiers or “young’uns,” as we called them, for showing up with their assault rifles slung over their shoulders and their backs propped upright was part of tradition.
(At a certain point during one’s army service, it becomes more of a thing to lock up your gun at home than to flaunt it in public.) I always enjoyed second and third helpings of meat, but it was never the food that brought me back every month. My Israeli audience continued laughing and I stood frozen, feeling misunderstood. Even towards my service’s end I was something of an alien to most of my buddies. We considered each other brothers, but there was a dissonance, no matter how funny I was.
Once a month I was surrounded by people who had no questions for me. They never asked what it was like to jump out of a plane as a soldier in the army of a country whose mother tongue I had not yet perfected.
Nor did they inquire regarding the peculiarity of risking one’s life for a land void of any immediate relatives. They never asked because they understood very well themselves. All coping with identical issues and living nearly indistinguishable lives, we spoke in a language that is not Hebrew nor English, but an improvised fusion of the two. We are family, and we have the Lone Soldier Center of Jerusalem to thank for that.