Warrior: Making Aliyah and Joining the IDF

Jan 16, 2018 | Israeli Defence Forces, Israeli Politics

Oftentimes people will thank me for my service. It has been more than seven years since I got out of the army, and I still don’t know how to respond. “You’re welcome”? Nobody in Israel ever thanked me. It was entirely a North American thing. Israelis understood why I was there. I did not serve in the Israeli military for the Jews living in the Diaspora. I did so to ensure Israelis knew they were not alone on a virtual island with enemies on all sides. I was at a point in my life where I was trying to find myself, and wanted to do something I believed in before I got too old to do so. I am an outspoken supporter of Israel’s right to exist, and it has always broken my heart to hear and read about terrorist attacks against the civilian population there. I felt there were three things I could do to support Israel: I could speak out on their behalf (but I unfortunately lacked the education on the situation in the Middle East to do so), I could donate money to support various charitable activities (but, at the age of 22, I was certainly lacking any extra cash flow), or I could go put boots on the ground and serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I packed up and moved to Israel.

There was, however, a catch. I didn’t speak Hebrew. I had a basic understanding of the alphabet that I learned when I was young and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. I could read at a snail’s pace and couldn’t understand anything I was reading. I moved to Israel (made “aliyah”) with the assistance of The Jewish Agency, and that included arranging to spend several months on a kibbutz where I would exchange my labour for room, board, and Hebrew lessons three days a week.

With my life packed in a few bags, I took off for Israel, having booked the first one-way ticket of my life. Upon landing at the airport in Tel Aviv, I was greeted and whisked off to a small office in the airport. There, I completed some paperwork and was handed my first Israeli ID as a newly landed immigrant. In what felt like a blur, I found myself in a taxi headed for the north in the middle of the night. When I think back on it now, I have trouble remembering the details. It all went by so fast. I do recall being asked if I wanted to go by my given name, or if I wanted to legally change my name in Israel. I opted to keep my name as is. It had worked alright for 22 years, so I figured I may as well keep using it. Unfortunately, the person who filled out my paperwork in Hebrew, spelt my name wrong. Israel, I’d like to introduce you to “Creeg”?

In the middle of the night on a Saturday, I arrived at what would be my new home for the next month.

It was there I met Daniel. He was a large ginger and former police officer from South Africa. He was also my new roommate. I remember vividly how I was introduced to him. Daniel was an enigma. He was in his mid-20s and had never smoked a cigarette, done any drugs, had a sip of alcohol, or even drank a caffeinated drink yet, when we met for the first time in our trailer that became our home, he pretended to be mentally handicapped as a joke. Again, Daniel was and still is an enigma to me.

The kibbutz was one of the richest in the country, and the people in the Ulpan (Hebrew language program) lived in a trailer park at the far-flung edge, far away from the rest of the community. None of us felt welcome. We ate meals in a community dining hall and would get yelled at for accidentally sitting in someone’s favourite seat, or for asking for an extra scoop of mashed potatoes after a long day at work. We worked on the kibbutz as a part of the program. Partially to contribute to the kibbutz, but also to have an opportunity to practice using the Hebrew we were learning. I still don’t know how work assignments were chosen. It must have been randomly. As a strong young guy who was intending to go into combat service, I was placed in the laundromat to work. My friend Karen, who was daddy’s little princess (she actually got a pony once for her birthday) went to work in the landscaping department. If this is how Israel was going to be for me, I had begun having doubts about my decision to move.

Before going too far, I feel like I need to explain how laundry worked on the kibbutz. As you walked towards the dining hall, you’d pass by a building that looked a bit like a flat-roofed bunker. This was the laundromat. It had two walls with holes throughout that would drop into baskets. Each of these were labeled – whites, colours, work clothes, army uniforms, etc. You could always tell which soldiers on base lived on a kibbutz, because their combat fatigues were always nicely ironed. Once your laundry was in the correct bin, my job began. Wash, dry, and then deliver the clothes to the building next door to be folded and sorted. But how did the right person get the right clothes? Don’t worry, everyone had a number assigned to them that was sewn into every article of clothing. At the end of the day, you just dropped by the “folding building” and grabbed your freshly laundered clothing from the appropriately numbered bin. It was a pretty brilliant system. I just didn’t understand why I was a part of it. I went to work every other day, and I think I got pretty good at it. I worked with two women. One was an immigrant from India to Israel eight years earlier, and the other was a woman who was a five or six generations Israeli. Both of them loved to speak English to me.

Hebrew classes were not ideal. I had a basic understanding of the alphabet, so I was placed in the advanced Hebrew class. Looking back, I am very fortunate to have had the basic Hebrew lessons as a child. The unfortunate part of classes was that you could only go as fast as the slowest person in the class. There was a drug and alcohol problem in the ulpan. People would come to class drunk or stoned on hash, and it would prove to make classes painful at how slow things would have to move and how little we would learn as a result. This was something I would thankfully escape in the near future.

Now that I had lodging, work, and schooling sorted out, I needed to do the other things like getting a bank account. I made a friend on the kibbutz named Ethan. He grew up in Texas with two Israeli parents. Ethan could speak Hebrew fluently, but had never before seen a Hebrew letter (Ironically, he was placed in the beginner class). Ethan and I caught a bus to town and headed to the bank. I slowly read all the banking documents out loud, and Ethan then translated everything for both of us. Between the two of us, we were a single functional person. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to get it done. This would set the tone for my time in Israel. Getting a citizenship card was pretty much the same story.

It was now time for the big one. Time to start the process that would begin my journey to join the army. I was off to the recruitment office nearby. The nearest office to me was in Haifa in the north. This was before smart phones and Google Maps, so it took a bit of effort to find the place. I must have asked a lot of bus drivers and strangers on the street. At this point, every conversation I had in Hebrew started with “Do you speak English?” I found the office, and it was guarded by two soldiers who were clearly office workers taking their turn guarding the building. They wore ill-fitted tactical vests, and had M16s from the Vietnam War era. I headed inside with the hopes that someone in there spoke English and could help me.

I found a woman at the front desk who spoke English. She was able to tell me I would not be drafted for a full year unless I opted to draft earlier and, that due to my advanced age (though I was only 22!), I was only required to serve six months. That just wouldn’t do. I made a request to draft in August 2007 (I should probably mention it was January 2007 at the time), and that I wanted my service to be long enough for combat. She told me I would have to serve 18 months (don’t worry, we’ll return to that later). I was happy with how things went and told I would receive something in the mail to bring back in for interviews and testing. Back to the kibbutz for me.

The drug and alcohol issues in the ulpan that were affecting my ability to learn persisted and were becoming a serious problem. Daniel, of course, was immune to all of this and oblivious the problem even existed. Ethan however was experiencing the same issues as I was with trying to learn in an environment that was not conducive to education. Fortunately, Ethan knew about a kibbutz elsewhere that had a really good ulpan program with students who were serious about learning. It was on a religious kibbutz near Ashdod. Neither of us were overly religious. Ethan had almost no religious experience or exposure and, though I grew up going to an orthodox synagogue, we would only go to evening services from time to time. We were both fine with wearing a head covering on the kibbutz and observing the Sabbath (going to Saturday services there were actually a bonus as it gave an excuse to practice reading Hebrew more). I had to write a letter explaining that I wanted to move to the other kibbutz for religious reasons and, for the second time, I found myself in a taxi with all my belongings.

The new kibbutz was pretty much the polar opposite of the one I had left. We lived in dorm rooms with a roommate, which was a step up from the ulpan trailer park in the north. Naturally, Ethan became my roommate there. Meals were eaten in the dining hall, and not only did we not get yelled at for sitting somewhere, but we were encouraged to sit with people who lived on the kibbutz (let’s be honest, we were nervous and usually sat with people from the ulpan). As part of the program, we were assigned an ‘adopted family.’ The families were there for us in many ways, from helping us practice Hebrew, to eating brunch with us on Saturday after synagogue service. The family I was assigned had a son who had recently been drafted into the army and, on the weekends he was home, he could share stories and give me pointers on what life in the army was like. The other unique thing about the ulpan was that half the people there were doing a program to convert to Judaism as well as the language program. The conversion program had a rabbi running it, and the ulpan manager was a New Yorker named Merv. 

Merv. Mervin. I can only say great things about Merv. He was strict but always fair. He moved to Israel from New York at a similar age that I moved, and he was a Combat Engineer during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

When Ethan and I arrived at the kibbutz, classes had already begun, so we had to play catch up a bit. I was placed in the advanced class, and Ethan was in the beginner class. We also received our job placements. This time, they actually took into consideration our abilities. I went to work milking cows for two months, followed by two months of farming (mostly repairing irrigation hosing).

Milking cows was tough work. The days started somewhere around 5 a.m. It was good practice for the early mornings I would later experience in the army. Jewish law states that you must first feed your family, then your animals, and finally yourself. Being on a religious kibbutz, we fed and milked the cows before heading out to the dining hall, where we sat at a table – in our dirty work clothes – by ourselves. The guys who worked in the chicken coops had to shower and change before they were allowed in.

I got pretty good at working with cows. They usually knew when milking times were, and were fairly easy to move through the series of maze-like gates. You had to open and close gates in order to change the routes for the cows. If the cows didn’t feel like moving, it came down to running around jumping up and down while flapping your arms. You looked silly, but it sure did work. The manager at the cow barn was named Royee. When he taught me the arm flapping technique, I remember him falling into a pile of cow manure. He quickly popped back up, continued herding the cows, and told me that I’d get so used to the cow manure. At this point he picked up a dried cow patty and threw it at me. Once the cows were in the milking area, it was as simple as putting iodine on the udders, wipe them clean, and attach the suction devices. If the cow was on antibiotics, they were milked manually, and the milk was discarded. I practiced my Hebrew by speaking with the guys in the barn. When they weren’t around, I spoke to the cows.

Generally speaking, life on the kibbutz was good. The people were friendly, the food was satisfying, and someone else did my laundry for me. There is one catch to kibbutz life though. The community is so small and all your daily tasks –cooking meals, doing laundry, or mowing the lawn – were done for you, which left you with maybe a bit too much free time. This free time seemed to get filled with gossip. I’m pretty sure the whole kibbutz knows who you’re dating before you even get asked out. Even so, life was pretty good there.

Every once in a while, a soldier, who was a former student, would drop by the ulpan. There was one in particular who would drop by more often than anyone. His name was Meiron, and he was dating a woman named Bracha, who was a student in the conversion program. Meiron was a tall ginger from South Africa (you’d think the country was full of them). Bracha was an American from the deep south. Accent and all. It was great that Meiron was around so often so I could pick his brain about the army and being a Lone Soldier (a soldier with no immediate family in the country). Meiron served in the Givati Brigade, and that is exactly where I was hoping to go when I got drafted.

Now that I was settled down in my new temporary home on the kibbutz, it was time to hop on a bus and head north to Haifa to visit the army draft office once again. Thankfully, Merv was pretty good about people taking days off to take care of army things. I arrived at the office and was let in yet again by two soldiers with unloaded Vietnam War era M16s that looked very uncomfortable and foreign in their hands, along with the ill-fitting vests.

Inside the recruitment office I got some news about my draft into the IDF. I was just there to do an address change, and at the same time found out that my draft date was February 2008 (a year away!), and that it was for only 6 months due to my age. So essentially, my last visit to the office was useless. It turns out that I needed to write a letter stating my desire to draft earlier and have a longer service (this is going to work, right?). Back home to the kibbutz to wait for a letter from the army about my draft.

Classes on the kibbutz were going well. The people in the class were dedicated to learning Hebrew and we had a fantastic teacher. She was from Morocco and is the reason I speak Hebrew today. We got the newspaper to read every morning. My reading and writing was improving quickly, as well as my ability to speak and understand Hebrew. I managed to write the letter required for my draft date and service length, and I headed up north to drop it off.

Time passed on the kibbutz, filling my days with work and school. I met a woman who lived in Ashdod nearby, and she too helped me to learn Hebrew. We would buy bootleg DVD movies in the market that were in English with Hebrew subtitles. She was bilingual, but her family only spoke Hebrew. It forced me to speak Hebrew with them, and was exactly what I needed. My Hebrew started improving rapidly. I remember waking up one day and realized that I had my first dream in Hebrew. It was at that point I realized that I could actually speak to people in Hebrew.

I also learned an awful lot about cows and cow barns. One day, while rounding up the cows to lead them to the milking building, I had one cow charge at me. I had no option but to run and hop over the fence to safety. I went to tell Royee about my life-threatening experience. His reply was simple – “Cow number 517? Follow me.” So I guess this was a problematic cow since he knew which cow it was without me telling him. We headed off for Royee to deal with the cow in question. Without even breaking stride, Royee walked up to cow 517, and kicked her in the stomach. The cow looked at Royee, gave a sort of shrug, and walked off in the direction of the milking building. The cows are so big that they would barely feel the kick, but it let them understand who the boss was. It didn’t seem very nice, but it was better than being run over by a cow.

Working on the kibbutz was a great workout to get me ready for the army. Ethan was also planning to draft and was set on becoming a paratrooper. He and I kept each other on target for our fitness to be army ready on time. Daily push-ups and sit-ups every morning and every night. We also started jogging in the corn fields that were part of the kibbutz. The soil was soft and that made it more difficult to run, and was a fantastic workout. Unfortunately, during our time on the kibbutz, Ethan developed a problem with his knees. He was no longer fit for combat service. This almost broke Ethan’s spirit entirely. He had decided that an office job in the army was not what he had moved to the country to obtain. Ethan did finish the ulpan program, and he finally learned to read and write. But, when the program ended, Ethan packed up his life in Israel and moved back to Texas.

In the meantime, I received a much-awaited response from the army about my draft. I had given them my letter, and I had finally received my answer. I opened the letter to see that I was being drafted in February for a six-month service. This wasn’t right. Back on the bus headed north. I was getting pretty good at this by now. Past the two guys guarding the outside, past the woman working the front desk, and straight to the offices in the back. They had me write yet another letter in Hebrew, and assured me that everything would be fixed. I would receive a letter soon with the correct date and service length. Back to the kibbutz.

It was about the halfway point in the ulpan program, and I had stopped working with the cows. I had moved on to the fields of corn and chickpeas. No more falling in cow dung, or watching one of the managers get splashed with liquid cow dung while trying to fix a clogged pipe. Now it was going to be days full of being out in the sun, working on my tan, and laying irrigation hose.

Farming had a few bonuses. The day started a little later, and I would get to eat breakfast before reporting to work. Most of my work involved walking along the seemingly endless rows of recently seeded crops, checking the irrigation hoses and fixing them as needed. I’d cut out the problematic section, and repair it with a small plastic connector that would link the two cut pieces together. It’s difficult work, but I enjoyed every moment.

I recall working in the chickpea fields one day. That field was a short drive from the kibbutz, and oddly shared a fence with an airforce base. Maybe it was a Canadian thing of me that it seemed weird to sit so close to a military base. Not only that, but the fence (as far as I could tell) was a simple chain link fence. I was becoming a pro at fixing irrigation hose. I was doing so in the chickpea fields when a loud alarm burst from the base. I hit the ground and waited for the worst. The guys working with me started laughing and explained that it was simply lunch time for the pilots. It was a fun place to work. The pilots would fly over the fields as they landed, and you could clearly see the pilots and wave. The planes were painted sky blue on the bottom, and desert camouflage on the top. I had never thought of camouflaging fighter jets – they were always just grey in movies and on TV.

It was around this time that those of us in the ulpan found a hidden place on the kibbutz. In the corn fields near the chickpea crops was a hollow area in the fields walled in by cacti. It was a small “secret” (everyone on the kibbutz knew it of course) area with a fire pit, some places to sit, and a bench swing. It was the place the teenagers on the kibbutz would sneak off to and smoke marijuana, or find a little privacy (a rare thing on the kibbutz) with someone they were dating. It became our new place to hang out and we took it over from the teenagers.

The summer had begun, and I was getting worried about the draft date in August. I had wanted the August date because it matched up with the end of the ulpan program. Luckily, a letter from the army was waiting for me. Year and a half service. Yes! Draft date of February 2008. What the hell? Bus. North. Guards. Office in the back. Deja vu. I was told that they had the letter I wrote on file, and to not worry because the letter with my August draft date was in the mail. I believed her. I headed back home to kibbutz life, and to wait for mail from the army.

Friday night on the kibbutz was always a great time. It was the coming in of Shabbat, and was a cause for celebration. Dinner was the best of the whole week with chicken, all the sides you could want, and wine. The wine was plentiful, and was made on the kibbutz for use on Friday nights. The wine was pretty hit or miss. Sometimes you got wine, and sometimes you got wine vinegar. It didn’t stop us from sneaking a few bottles back to the ulpan every Friday for our after party.

Classes were going well. I was reading, writing, and speaking almost fluently. It was amazing how quickly I could pick up a language while immersed in it, and while I refused to speak English. I would do a pantomime, song and dance routine, or whatever I had to do to avoid speaking English. I knew I’d never learn Hebrew if I took the path of least resistance.

It was now July, and I got another letter from the army draft office. Finally, they sent me the correct draft date and service length, right? Of course not. Yet again, I had another for a year and a half service drafting in February 2008. But there was more! I had a second letter from the army. It was for a year and a half and drafting in… November 2007. I don’t even know where that date came from. Bus. North. Guards. Office in the back.

At this point, it was only a couple of weeks away from my desired draft date. I was being told yet again that the letter was in the mail. I showed her the two letters I had just received, and she insisted there was still a letter for me in the mail (there wasn’t). I insisted that I wasn’t going to leave without the appropriate letter in my hand. I was told that wasn’t an option, and was told to go home and wait for the letter that was definitely in the mail (it wasn’t). I had enough at this point. I grabbed the bottom of my chair, and told the woman that I wasn’t going anywhere. She was a little shocked, and insisted that I leave and wait for the letter that was in the mail (there really was no letter). I held my ground (chair), and reaffirmed that I was not leaving. She went and got her boss, and we went through the whole thing again. I held tight, and was finally introduced to the officer that was in charge of the entire office. He asked me to explain to him why I wouldn’t let go of the chair. He asked what I was going to do if they tried to remove me. I said I was ready for a fight. He handed me a draft letter for a year and a half, and a draft date of August 2007. Finally. I happily let go of the chair, thanked the officer, and headed home.

The kibbutz program was rapidly approaching its end. I needed to find myself somewhere to live. I found a room for rent in a three-bedroom apartment in Southern Tel Aviv. It’s a now trendy area called Florentine, but when I lived there it was a rough area. It was an area full of crime, illegal immigrants, and slum lords. I managed to find an apartment that was well cared for and had two decent roommates. It was only a 15-minute walk to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, which was a huge help during the first half of my military service. Soldiers bus everywhere!

Now that my August draft was only a couple of weeks away, I was due to report to the draft office yet again. This time, it was for testing and interviews. Daniel was there, as he had gotten the August draft as well (it turned out to be a battle for him as well). The first step was a psychometric exam, which I was permitted to do in English. Easy. After that was an interview. This, however, was in Hebrew. Not only was the interview designed to gather information about me and different aspects of my life, but I was also being scored on my Hebrew speaking skills. Less easy. The final part was the medical. Turn and cough. Now all I had left to do was wait for my draft day, and show up to the drafting base on time.

Just before my draft date, my two sisters came to Israel on a Birthright trip. It was a 10-day long trip, and I managed to see them on a free night. It was the perfect way to wrap up that chapter in my life as a civilian in Israel.

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