Fundamentally Freund: A Zionist coming of age

My firstborn child, the son whom my wife and I brought on aliya as a toddler, will soon be donning an olive-green uniform and taking up arms to defend the Jewish people and its land.

311_IDF draftees (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_IDF draftees
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A couple of weeks ago, a small, unassuming notice arrived in the mail heralding a drastic change in my life and that of my family’s.
Lying there innocently among a pile of bills and magazines was an official communication from the IDF, formally requesting that my eldest son be so kind as to please make an appearance at the local draft office next month for a round of preliminary tests.
Well, it wasn’t worded exactly like that, but you get the idea.
Yet even the terseness of the Hebrew military text could not conceal the momentous meaning of this impersonal, computer-generated notification.
My firstborn child, the son whom my wife and I brought on aliya as a toddler, will soon be donning an olive-green uniform and taking up arms to defend the Jewish people and its land.
Fortunately for me, the chair I was sitting in had a solid wooden frame and was firmly planted on the floor. Otherwise, I might very well have toppled over from shock.
DEEP DOWN, of course, I always knew this day would come. When we made the choice to live in the Jewish state, it entailed taking upon ourselves certain responsibilities and obligations, such as cleaning up after careless workmen, getting yelled at by clueless clerks and overpaying for a decent hamburger.
Military service was always a clear part of the package. I just never thought it would come so quickly.
And so, like Tevye the milkman and his wife Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, I couldn’t help but look at my son and whisper quietly to myself: “I don’t remember growing older. When did they?” After all, my hair is still naturally brown, even if it does continue to recede almost as rapidly as President Barack Obama’s approval ratings. And I can still see my toes, with no paunch blocking the view, despite the copious amounts of pizza I occasionally consume.
But the very idea that I have a son who is old enough to be drafted left me wondering if the space-time continuum is still operating at a uniform pace. Physicists of the world, check your instruments! Needless to say, my son’s reaction was far more animated. After weeks of watching his friends receive their notices, he was gratified, even elated, that the much-awaited letter had at last arrived. As he opened it, a smile emerged on his face, as though he recognized that this was the bureaucratic equivalent of a bar mitzva, a ceremonial passage into manhood, a Zionist coming of age.
Naturally, he scurried off to share the good news with his buddies, leaving me to ponder what this all means.
After 15 years of living in this country, I suddenly felt very, exceedingly and especially Israeli, as if I had just been inducted into a special club, with my son’s draft notice serving as a kind of membership card.
I may still prefer baseball to that sport they play here where they chase a black-and-white spotted orb that is always going out of bounds, and I will always love pastrami more than that awful, smelly thing known by the appropriately unappealing name of shwarma. But like it or not, I will soon be the parent of a young, and very gung-ho, IDF soldier.
In fact, ever since the arrival of that little envelope, I’ve noticed how certain things in life have mysteriously come more sharply into focus. Like the prayer said every Shabbat in the synagogue for the safety of our soldiers. Or the greater appreciation that I have for the sacrifices that were made which enable us to unfurl that blue-and-white national banner of ours.
And after getting over the initial jolt, I felt a surge of patriotic pride not all that different from the sensation of downing a bottle or two of Red Bull, only without the calories.
BUT THERE was also a somewhat darker, more exasperated feeling that I detected, one that has been growing in intensity in recent weeks. It may be base, but I can’t help but feel a mounting sense of anger at those young people from all walks of life who abuse the system and dodge the draft, leaving it to others to do the “dirty work” of securing and defending the state.
For all the excuses that they offer, I have no doubt that each and every one of them will have a lot of explaining to do when they eventually go before the heavenly court.
The Middle East is a dangerous place, and like any lousy neighborhood, it requires taking measures to keep the bad guys at bay. How people can justify hiding in the wings, while others risk their lives to protect them, is simply infuriating.
But at the end of the day, I prefer to focus on the positive, keeping in mind that however others may conduct themselves, all I can do is try to live up to the ideals that I so firmly believe in and which I taught to my children.
Nonetheless, when I asked my son recently why he wants to go to the army, I half expected to get a Rambo-like answer with all the profundity of a video game. But without a trace of bravado in his voice, he said to me softly and simply: “Dad, I want to protect the country.”
Like any parent, I guess I have always wondered if I raised my child right. At that moment, perhaps more than any other, I was sure that I did.