A man in his mid-thirties plays with his young son at the entrance to a high-rise apartment building in Ashdod on a Friday morning in August, as a visitor arrives looking for an army-aged woman who lives in the building.
"Do you know Isabelle Fhima?" the visitor asks. "She's a soldier who lives here somewhere."
"Why?" The man asks, suspecting the visitor is from the army. "Did she go AWOL?"
The man obviously doesn't know Fhima. Because if he did, he would have known that not only was she not absent without leave from the army, but that she bucked the will of her parents and came to Israel from Morocco precisely to enlist: not exactly the normative path for a kid growing up in Casablanca.
The IDF has thousands of soldiers in the army who grew up in homes where their parents spoke the Moroccan dialect; who feasted on couscous, stuffed dates and kebab; whose grandparents waxed nostalgic about Casablanca, Marrakech or Rabat; and who - in this land where the country of one's parents' birth defines a person's Jewish "ethnicity" - are considered Moroccan. But the IDF has just a very few soldiers who themselves - not their parents or grandparents - were born in Morocco, and who immigrated not in the 1950s and 1960s, but rather over the last few years.
Fhima is one of the few, and - in this regard - is something of a curiosity. Israeli children of Moroccan Jews, those reared on stories of King Hassan II, a backward country, and long treks over the Atlas Mountains to make aliya and live in tent camps in Israel, have a difficult time pegging her.
"When they hear I am from Morocco, people my age ask what its like to live there, whether there are cars, how I got here," says the twenty-one-year-old Fhima, in a lilting French-accented Hebrew. "I remind them that it is not exactly the same Morocco their grandparents left fifty years ago, that it is a modern country. It is an Arab country, but it is modern."
Modern or not, it is not a country where Jewish youth, or their parents, see much of a future.
The Moroccan Jewish community has gone from some 250,000 in 1948, to about 4,000 in 2008. And even though the current king, Mohammed VI, has taken pains to show support and protect the Jewish community, especially after al-Qaida linked terrorist bombs against Jewish targets in Casablanca in 2003, most Jewish youth leave there after high school. And most of them leave for other locales, not Israel.
"The way it works in Morocco," says Fhima, stroking long, thick, wavy brown hair, "is that you go to high school, do the matriculation exam, and then go abroad for university. There are no good universities in Morocco, so the Jews go elsewhere. Everyone goes to New York or France or Canada. They don't stay in Morocco."
Of her class of some twenty-five at the Alliance Israelite school in Casablanca, a Jewish school that also accepts a small number of select Christian and Muslim students, nearly everyone left Morocco after high school. She was the only one to come to Israel.
Speaking of her Jewish classmates, and why they showed little interest in studying in or moving to Israel, Fhima says they "didn't want to go to a country where there are problems, I don't think they wanted that pressure. To a certain extent, I think they were afraid."
Which, considering the portrayal of Israel in Morocco, is not entirely unreasonable. But rather than scaring Fhima away, the unbalanced representation of Israel at home only increased her motivation, since she was convinced Israel was much different from what was being shown.
"My mother had friends in Israel who would come to visit, and we also had some cousins there whom I would talk to on the Internet," she says, sitting on her porch during a four-day leave from her base in a sleeveless, rainbow-colored blouse, her green army fatigues drying on a clothes line just over her shoulder. "From time to time they would come to Casablanca. They talked about life in Israel, and told me how after high school the kids go into the army."
That talk had an impact, and from the time she was about ten years old, Fhima says she realized she too wanted to join the Israeli military. "I remember people asking what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I would say, 'go to Israel and go into the army.' And everybody would laugh."
Fhima's interest in the army is, to a certain extent, inexplicable. She knew absolutely nothing about the military, and says she was even unaware until a certain age that all countries had armies, because the army played such a low profile in Moroccan life. Nor did she have any interest in action movies.
Her relatives' talk about the IDF, however, piqued her interest, and she began to pay attention. She would watch shows on satellite television that dealt with Israel and discussed IDF soldiers, shows that were beamed late at night and painted a different picture of the IDF from what was shown on the state-run media.
"I saw those shows and said, yes, that's the contribution to Israel I want to make, I have to give something. If we do not defend Israel, who will? It was something I felt the need to do."
Fhima's mother, a social worker who worked with Jewish community organizations in Morocco, had over the years helped send destitute Jewish kids from Morocco to Israel, and Fhima recognizes that her mother's work, to a certain degree, helped mold her Zionism. The rest, she says, just came from "deep within."
"I lived with my mother and grandmother until I was ten years old," says Fhima, whose parents are divorced. "[My grandmother] was like another mother to me. I was not Shabbat observant before she died, but when she died it was a huge trauma. I pledged that from then on I would observe Shabbat, and become more religious. I'd say that now I am traditional."
But being a traditional Jew in Morocco, indeed being any kind of Jew in Morocco, is no easy task. A common theme that runs through Fhima's recollections of her native land is that as much as the king has managed to keep a lid on anti-Jewish manifestations, and as little as she felt overt anti-Semitism, it was still a strain to be a Jew there.
"It is possible to live there as a Jew, but you feel it when you come and go. People stare at you," she says, adding that the Jews in Morocco are - because of their facial characteristics - easily identifiable. With olive-colored skin and large, brown eyes, Fhima looks distinctly Mediterranean, and those Jewish characteristics of which she speaks are not immediately apparent. Yet, she says, in Morocco it was as if she wore her religion on her face.
"It is not too comfortable an atmosphere," she says, adding that there have not, however, been the isolated incidents of beatings of Jews that occurred sporadically in France during the early 2000s. "You live well, but there is always that thing you have to hide - that you are Jewish."
One of the most refreshing things she finds about Israel is that she can walk around without feeling all eyes are on her; that she can apply for a job or for school and not be concerned she will be rejected because she is Jewish. This was her strongest impression of Israel when she visited for the first time in 2004 as a participant on a two-month program for Moroccan Jewish youth going into the twelfth grade.
"I liked the feeling that I would walk in the street and nobody would look at me," she says. "You feel yourself, that nobody is going to do anything to you because of your religion. I felt free in my soul. I had no concern when I walked around that anybody would stare. That's what I felt here. I felt that I could breathe at last. I wanted to stay."
Fhima called her father and said she was interested in remaining in Israel, and that it would be possible for her to finish high school and pass matriculation exams at a French-language school in Jerusalem. But he didn't like the idea, saying the adjustment would be too difficult and it would be too hard to take the matriculation exams in a school in which she didn't know anybody, and would have no friends with whom to study and prepare. He insisted she finish her matriculation in Morocco. After that, he said, she could return to Israel.
Fhima recognizes now the common sense of her father's directives, since it would have been difficult passing the matriculation exams in a new school, in a new land, in a new language and with no close friends. Yet, she says, returning to Morocco was also complicated.
"Before you see a place, you can only imagine what its like. But after you see it, and like it, it's difficult to leave. For two weeks after I returned, I just went to school and then home; school and home, I had no interest in anything else."
During that year back in Casablanca, as her friends were applying to universities abroad, Fhima was preparing her return to Israel. She met with Jewish Agency emissaries, and they directed her to a college preparatory program in Tel Aviv connected to Tel Aviv University.
It was on that year program that the previously sheltered Fhima met people from all over the world, an experience she says was invaluable. "I learned a great deal just from the people," she says. "I didn't know beforehand there were Jews from India, but I came here and met Jews from India. I met Jews from Colombia, Australia, everywhere. It was an eye-opener."
Her parents had no objection to her coming to Israel to study - though her mother would have preferred she go to New York, where an aunt lived - but they did not share her enthusiasm for going into the army.
Fhima's mother was opposed largely because she thought that if Isabelle did the army, she would then - like many of those who finish the IDF - travel abroad for a spell after her two-year army service ended, and as a result would probably not go to college and earn a degree.
While Fhima's mother was well aware of her daughter's desire to join the IDF - Isabelle had talked about it for years - she never took it that seriously, believing it was just a passing phase, and that while her daughter liked to talk about it, she would not actually carry it through.
Her father's opposition was stronger: He didn't think the army was a place for a young woman. He understood why boys were needed in the army, but not girls. So with neither parent supportive of her decision to join up, Fhima went back to Casablanca at the end of her year of studies in Tel Aviv, just prior to induction, to try to explain it to them in person.
"I went there to talk to them about my decision," she says. "My father didn't agree on the phone, so I thought that if I went to talk to him, it would be better. It wasn't. He did not speak to me for four months afterwards."
Eventually, she says, her father came to terms with the notion, and - she has been told by other relatives - is proud of her. She now talks to him on the phone, but doesn't tell him much about what she is doing -more out of a concern that the phone lines are not secure, and someone might be listening to the conversation to Morocco, than any lingering anger he might still have over her decision.
Fhima admits it took a lot of strength to go against the wishes of her parents. "It is good to listen to your mother and father, I realize that," she says. "I told them I was listening to them, but had to do what was good for me. They also did things their parents didn't want them to. It is impossible to always do what your parents want."
Fhima says a Holocaust-related book she read helped her during this tug-of-war: Martin Gray's Au nom de tous les miens ("For those I loved").
"He told about his life, how he lost all his family in the Holocaust, and - after he went through all that - how he returned to build a normal life. He showed that it was possible to overcome the most difficult things.
"That gave me strength to come here," she says. "It is difficult to live in Israel, difficult to leave your friends, leave your family, and the places you're familiar with to go to a new place, new people, and a different language." But, she says, stressing that she was in no way comparing what she faced to the tribulations of the author during the Holocaust, "this book showed how it is possible to overcome difficult things. I thought that what I'm doing may be hard, but it is not as hard as what he faced, and he overcame it - so it is possible to leave everyone and come live here."
FHIMA'S DIFFICULTIES carried over to having to get used to the army, a framework with which she was completely unfamiliar before she arrived. All she knew about the IDF came from some television programs she saw in which IDF soldiers were interviewed, and bits of information culled from a cousin who immigrated and served in the army. But his experience, as a boy, was obviously different. She went in cold.
She went in, however, with a friend - a new immigrant from France whom she met in Tel Aviv on the university preparatory program - which helped cushion the initial shock. She also went in knowing that she did not want to serve two years as a clerk, but rather wanted a challenge, preferably as a combat soldier in Karakal, the IDF's only mixed-sex infantry battalion.
Fhima was told candidly at the induction center when she began the induction process that the IDF could not promise her any particular job or unit, and that she would have to do basic training and take her chances on an assignment after that like everyone else. The clerk then asked if she still wanted to go through with it, or preferred to continue her studies. She joined up.
Her first stop, like so many other lone soldiers, especially those with limited Hebrew, was Michveh Elon, and two months of ulpan and basic training combined. While Fhima's Hebrew had improved dramatically since she first arrived, it still needed some work. In addition to Hebrew, she speaks English and French, understands Moroccan, and is rapidly picking up Arabic.
"It was weird to see so many new immigrants there, most of them Russians," she says of her first impressions at Michveh Elon. "But there were others as well. I remember a twenty-three-year-old woman from Texas. You saw people who wanted to come to Israel especially to go into the army."
One of the oddest things in the beginning, she says, was the absence of Hebrew in her immediate surroundings. "It felt a little weird. You come to Israel, go into the army, and then don't hear Hebrew. All I heard was Russian, and I didn't understand anything. I would try to speak to the Russian girls in my not-so-proficient Hebrew at the time, but they didn't understand me. Then I tried English, but that didn't work. I didn't know anything, and thought this was the way things were going to be for the next two years. But, obviously, when you finish basic training and leave Michveh Elon, things change dramatically and, finally, there is Hebrew."
Fhima, who smiles broadly and laughs easily, downplays the initial shock and the difficulty of basic training. "If you are doing something that you want to, then everything becomes easier," she says. "I told myself that I was entering the army framework, and that what they tell me is the way it will be. That was my attitude: that you can't go against them."
Following basic training, she went to the officer responsible for further assignments and said she wanted to go into the Karakal unit. "I didn't see myself working in an office," she says. "I wanted to give the maximum."
A bureaucratic mix-up - her file was confused with someone else's and she was given a medical profile that precluded her from being in a combat unit - kept her out of Karakal. Although it was a mistake, she was told it would take weeks to correct, and in the meantime she was shunted off to a course in the Border Police combat support unit that checks Palestinians at roadblocks.
"My father called during that period and asked how it was going," says Fhima, who was deeply disappointed at the time. Unable to tell him the truth, because he so opposed her coming in the first place, she said everything was fine. It was a lie, because she was unhappy at not knowing where she would be, and disappointed at not getting into the unit she so badly wanted.
Nevertheless, she went to the Border Police unit, and was happy to hear it was "like combat," and that she would be stationed at a checkpoint near a large West Bank city screening Palestinians.
Asked why exactly she wanted to be in an area of tension, she says, "because it is important, because there I feel I am contributing something."
Indeed, the checkpoint she has been assigned to frequently makes the news, now for a suicide bomber stopped on the way to Israel, then for attempted stabbings of the soldiers there. It is not exactly a unit that people are standing in line trying to get into, which means it is small, and also - Fhima says - full of people with a great deal of motivation.
"It is difficult work," she says in obvious understatement of her duties. It is done while wearing full body armor in hundred-degree heat in the summer, and while standing in the driving wind and rain in the winter.
"The best thing about the unit is that the people who are there want to be there. That already is a good start and makes everything else easier," she says. She became so fond of her unit - a group that includes two other female lone soldiers -that even after she succeeded in raising her medical profile, she decided not to try to transfer to Karakal but to stay where she was.
Her unit is one of the last trip-wires, one of the last lines of defense against people smuggling explosives or suicide bombers into Israel, and it can't be manned by people who are not committed to being there. The job takes complete focus. "If someone doesn't want to be there, they won't do a thorough check, and that will endanger the rest of the country."
Is she afraid?
"Not everyone coming through the checkpoint is trying to blow themselves up," she says, avoiding a direct answer to the question. "If one of the kids comes to blow himself up, or bring something in, you stop him, and then you feel that you have done something vital for the country."
And it is doing something vital for the country, she says, which makes the work bearable, since the actual job itself is not something very "likable." But, she adds, "What I do like is doing something I feel is important."
Excerpted with permission of Devora Publishing from the new book Lone Soldiers: Israel's Defenders from Around the World by Herb Keinon.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>