Commando Assignment in Paris

It should have been a dream assignment. Like writing about pure mother love saving the day, or how happiness is really our birthright.

17gilah (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
What could be more gratifying than describing three groups of people who represent the best in all of us? A group dedicated to helping those who have had the misfortune to live through a traumatic event; a congregation pledged to welcome anyone seeking to learn more; ten young men who risked their lives for three years for people and country. It's already a family joke that I fall in love with everyone I interview. (It's probably a good thing that I mostly stick to editing these days.) But even a polygamist might have found this assignment daunting. I was leaving Jerusalem to accompany ten recently demobilized IDF soldiers from the elite Egoz commando unit on a trip to Paris. They saw bloody action during last summer's Second Lebanon War, when three of their number were killed. Now they were to enjoy the gift of a long weekend during which they would receive 30 hours of seminars interspersed with good times, as they were hosted by Jewish families in the capital of France. During the five-day trip I would conduct informal interviews with the young men during their free time. I would interview members of Kehilat Gesher (KG), the trilingual, Liberal synagogue that in the framework of its Tikun Olam Committee had opened its arms to the "Egozim" as KG members referred to them. Quite a find, this Anglophone/Francophone group of progressive Jews willing to channel energy into redemption through good works. Before the trip, I took notes at a briefing about the project from its architects at the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma (ICTP). I was to discuss the project's goals and execution with Sasson Rahabi, the Jerusalem psychotherapist who shepherded his charges, who had only recently traded in khaki for civvies, through workshops on transitions, coping mechanisms and processing potentially traumatic events. I would elicit information from my charming hostess, Denise Silber, the widely respected president of KG. Somehow in those few days Denise and her lovely daughter Joanna managed to squeeze in unforgettable, if condensed, Parisian experiences. We managed a decadent brunch in the shimmering surroundings of La Gare, a converted train station, and had 30 minutes to drink in Monet's giant canvases of water lilies at Mus?e Marmottan Monet. Did I mention that this was my first visit to Paris? Or that there was a public transport strike at the time, so that 90 percent of my forays into the incomparably stylish, exquisite city were on foot? Walking is a favorite pastime of mine, and the bright sun, crisp autumn air and brilliant flaming, colored leaves are like pieces of my Canadian past that I miss on a visceral level. I was worn out but elated after walking about four hours a day. On my way to the synagogue the first day in France I suddenly came upon the Eiffel Tower - with a huge rugby ball hanging from its belly. It was a real treat for someone whose family's life was just then revolving around that sport's World Cup. I managed 25 minutes and a heavenly hot chocolate at the Caf? Kimbo in between interviews one day. In the plaza outside the Louvre I waited in line with ten Israeli males still riding the high of their long weekend cadeau. Delighted at the prospect of strolling through this most famous museum, I was disappointed to be informed that there was an eminent psychiatrist whom I simply had to interview that afternoon. Worse still, because of the transport strike, it would take me an hour and a half to make what should have been a 20-minute trip. To be on the safe side, I was told, I should leave in ten minutes. But to be so close and not see the Mona Lisa was simply not an option. I power walked up stairs and through galleries, paintings of Napoleon a blur. Panting, I arrived at the holy of holies, craning my neck and balancing on tiptoes to see over the throngs who were snapping pictures on their cell phones. I gazed in awe, straining to own the moment. Was I really there? But a glance at a clock and I was off, almost jogging now. Sweating, I had a chance to cool down as I joined one of the lines of 15-20 people, most of whom smoked incessantly as they waited remarkably patiently for the most in-demand commodity during those few days - a taxi. Back in Israel I had 96 pages of notes and at least three other deadlines looming. I felt sure that I could tell the story, but I was concerned that I had lost some "professional distance." The project seemed so important that I half-seriously contemplated quitting my job and starting a non-profit to ensure that every IDF soldier and Diaspora Jewish community could benefit from a similar experience. I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the large number of well-meaning people involved, all of whom deserved to be included. And, of course, each and every one of the "Egozim" found his way into my heart. I was certain that even if I did remember to mention how instrumental, say, Dr. Naomi Baum of the ICTP had been in helping Dr. Ruth Pat-Horenczyk to put the project together and how important Didi of Egoz had been in persuading his highly-trained team to give this (to them) strange beast of a workshop a chance, I would never emerge without inadvertently hurting someone's feelings. But I guess that's what happens when you fall in love. Somewhere along the way, someone always gets hurt.