Friday, July 21, 2006. Exactly ten years ago.
It is a date I will never forget, no matter how long I live. I was a tour guide in my early thirties, guiding Ramah Israel Seminar, as I had done for the five previous summers, and my group and I were on our way to Tel Aviv for a morning there before Shabbat. It had been several days since the events that precipitated the Second Lebanon War had taken place, and the country was on edge. My phone – long before the days of smartphones – rang, and I saw who it was and knew immediately. It was my commanding officer in the reserves, with two terse words for me in Hebrew: “Betsalel, Titkonen” – Get ready. When the recorded phone call came half an hour later as we were approaching Tel Aviv, I knew exactly what it was: the Tzav 8, emergency call-up, that a reserve soldier dreads and yet deep-down expects in that kind of situation: Drop everything, go home, and grab your army gear, say goodbye to your loved ones, and get to your emergency base as quickly as you can. That was the last time I saw that Ramah group. I’ll never forget the shock in their eyes. I think it mirrored the shock in mine. War was on, although we didn’t know it then.
That Shabbat, and indeed the next four weeks, was of the strangest of my life.
That Shabbat, and indeed the next four weeks, was of the strangest of my life. I say Shabbat, but it was in name only; those weeks felt like one long, never-ending day and night. One never expects the rollercoaster of emotions that war brings, and that was compounded by the well-documented failures of the Second Lebanon War that I will not get into now, both in the preparations for – and execution of – on a national scale. In the end, my unit was one of the lucky ones, in that no one was killed, thank G-d. Light injuries were all we incurred, but some injuries are not physical.
I want to focus instead – and I am sure in some way that this is therapeutic for me, ten years later – on my strange memories of that month, memories that crop up with irregularity in dreams and thoughts, or when I hear noises that sound like explosions or gunshots, or when I close my eyes in the dark and remember. It was so different from the year and a half that I spent in Lebanon during my regular IDF service back in the nineties. Was that because I was now married with two small children? Maybe because it was so unexpected? Possibly.
Some of those memories:
- Realizing that everyone in my unit – and I mean everyone – had answered the emergency call, that some of the faces I hadn’t seen in years had come back when needed most. That’s when it sank in, that this was not a game or a week of light-hearted training I was used to. Some of those faces were sporting more wrinkles and much less hair on top and were balanced above much larger stomachs than they’d been previously, but they all came.
- Stepping for the first time in a decade, through a gate in Metulla, into Lebanon, a beautiful yet shattered and deadly country. Coming back with relief a day or two later – this pattern repeating itself for a month.
- Walking through the fields and forests, and deserted towns and villages. Realizing that there were identical ghost towns on our side of the fence.
- On one such night walk, my commanding officer who was five feet away from me as we were approaching a possible enemy position, suddenly falling as a loud explosion went off; it turned out that it was our friendly artillery fire on them that had fallen a tad too close for comfort to us, and the noise had just made him slip from the rock he was stepping on; but at that moment I feared the worst and as I ran to his aid the adrenaline was pumping in hyper-mode and my mind was already figuring out the best way to get the body out to a safe place without endangering myself or anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to hear such foul cursing.
- In the middle of another such walk, explosions going off, and realizing that my finger was bleeding pretty heavily. Shrugging it off and wrapping it in some cloth and forgetting about it – a war was going on, no time for a finger to get in the way! It healed and only weeks later, being unable to bend it properly, getting it checked out. Turned out that a tiny piece of metal, a 1mm square, was lodged inside and wasn’t coming out. My personal souvenir. I still cannot bend that finger correctly.
- One of the vatikim – experienced soldiers – who was one of the ones who had already been released from the unit but had come back for the war, running around screaming as the piercing whistle of the incoming mortar got louder, instead of doing what the rest of us were doing: lying down covering our heads, mumbling a prayer. He was released.
- Speaking of prayers, my leading Friday night services looking into Israel, when the phrase “There are no atheists in a foxhole” was proved to me. After the service was interrupted by one of those deadly whistles, everyone wanted to join in, religious and irreligious alike. My super-proudly-irreligious friend asking me what to say, and reading with interest what the religious say in prayers. Him asking me after saying the verse “Ha’m’varech et amo Yisrael ba’shalom / He who blesses Israel with peace,” “Betsalel, dachilak!” (There is no perfect translation to this; “Gimme a break!” is the nearest I can think of!) How can you say that? Look where we are! What kind of peace is this!” And my explaining to him what I had learned, that ba’shalom – with peace – can be written without one of the letters, a vav, making it ba’shalem, changing the verse to mean, “He who blesses Israel with unity,” and that our nation comes together in times of trouble, when peace is not on the horizon. I think that appealed to him.
- Deciding to do what became a base-wide trend one listless and particularly hot afternoon: writing a letter to my parents, wife, and young children, in case the worst happened. Destroying that letter with relief when leaving at the end of the war. I remember what I wrote, but I’m not saying what it was.
- Making a decision to lie to my family and pretend I was just training and not actually on the front lines. Lying to your family ain’t easy, but I suspect I wasn’t the only one who took this easy route. I don’t think they really believed me anyway.
- Wednesday evening, August 2. Tish’ah B’Av – the fast of the Ninth of Av – had just started. Getting word that we were going into Lebanon unexpectedly (this was a common occurrence, we got used to it after a while) and to eat now – no, right now – as who knows when the next meal would be. Eating the only thing we could find: salami sandwiches (we made the halachic decision to forgo the ketchup that would have made it taste better, due to the fast), while listening to Megillat Eichah, and then getting the news from a friend minutes before going in, that Michael Levin had been killed the day before. I knew Michael, though not very well: I had guided his twin sister Dara on Ramah Israel Seminar in 2001, and had met Michael when he came in 2005 complete with army uniform to visit his friends, my students. Getting that news, on the Ninth of Av, was devastating to say the least. Not being able to go to the funeral or the shiv’ah was almost as tough.
- A few days later, minutes after a Katyusha rocket had killed 12 reservists just outside the Kfar Giladi cemetery of Hashomer and the state of the roaring lion, a site I had guided dozens of times, arriving at the scene of bedlam. I will never forget the steam still rising from the coffee on a burner, coffee that would never be drunk.
- Getting eight full boxes of junk food from my amazing Ramah group who had clubbed together and spent hundreds of shekels on their departed guide and his unit. The junk food we all shared that Shabbat, and that didn’t last long; the letters I kept, and will never be thrown out.
- Saying goodbye to that courageous Ramah group, all of whom stayed in Israel that entire summer, when I realized I wouldn’t see them again, as the summer was over and they were leaving, by calling one of the phones of the staff, and being put on speakerphone to say my thoughts an hour before they left.
- And finally hugging my wife and children on August 17, when it was over, and realizing that, sadly, this wouldn’t be the last round.
I’ll end with the hopeful words of Isaiah: “Nation will not lift up sword against each other, and will no longer know war.”