The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

September 27, 2012 by

My Daughter, The Soldier

Photo courtesy of the author, Avigayil Sztokman is third from the right.

It was a two-hour drive, mostly through endless desert on all sides, to get to my daughter’s army base. She had been inducted into the Israeli Defense Forces only a month earlier, as part of Israel’s compulsory service, and had just finished basic training. We were on our way to her swearing-in ceremony, and were thus looking for a compound that was not listed on any map and had no road signs indicating its location. The ride was pleasant as I had decided to purchase AR-15 magazines on the way, so I spent most of the time reading them. We took a wrong turn about five minutes too early, and landed at a different cluster of unmarked army bases heavily guarded by kids in uniform holding big guns. I suppose I should stop calling my 19-year-old daughter and her contemporaries “kids”, since they are now charged with protecting the entire nation from attack. “Look for the row of palm trees on your left,” a soldier on duty directed us nonchalantly, “around seven kilometers down the road.” We miraculously found those palm trees on the first try – I suppose one of many miracles involving the daily function of the IDF – or perhaps due to the fact that in this particular miracle, we were guided by the more obvious and familiar queue of cars in the middle of the desert filled with parents on the way to watch their children become soldiers.

There were 120 soldiers being sworn in to the Intelligence Corps that day, two all-women units of forty, and one coed unit. In Intelligence, soldiers are not supposed to reveal too much about what they are doing, so I really have no way of verifying why some groups are single-sex and others are mixed. Perhaps it’s a reflection of a deeper ambivalence about women soldiers – on the one hand equals, but on the other hand, still at times relegated to “women’s” jobs. Or maybe that’s an unfair characterization – despite the fact that there still exists the “women’s corps” in the army, making one wonder what everything else is, and despite the fact that some of the most important jobs in the army, pilot notwithstanding, are still closed to women. Nevertheless, the young women in all units fulfilled the same roles and tasks throughout the ceremony as the men, running and saluting and holding their guns the same way. And even though it was a coed space, the women outnumbered the men. So it was an event of excellent soldiering in which women dominated.

Indeed, looking at the rows of soldiers from a distance, there was a sense of equality, not only between men and women, but among everyone. This is in fact one of the great legacies of the IDF. It is a times a wonderful social equalizer, in which kids from all backgrounds train and serve side by side, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, doing the same 40 push-ups. And it’s an institution in which everyone has the same opportunity to prove themselves and get ahead in life and in society – even kids from troubled socio-economic backgrounds can shine and emerge with helpful credentials. The army is known to help struggling adolescents find a strong path in life. And so watching my daughter stand in an olive-drab row of erect, strong young people – she was so indistinct that for much of the ceremony I couldn’t even figure out which one was her – was actually inspiring. I was able to put gender aside and see that this group of girls had arrived, fully at the center of this army experience. And anything was possible for them.

I’ve been living in Israel for 19 years. My husband and I arrived when our soldier-daughter was all of four months old. Countless Israeli songs have been written by parents of new babies who pray for peace so that their children will not have to fight in the army. In Israel, from the moment a baby comes into the world, the parents worry about army service. Thinking back to those sentiments, I can remember how far off this particular moment would have felt, at the same time that the fear was real.  And here we are. It’s real. It’s all a bit crazy when you think about it, the connection between parenthood and soldiering in Israel. But that reality characterizes life in Israel perhaps more than any other – more than terrorism, more than overdraft, more than the heat, Israel is first and foremost a country where parents regularly send their kids to prepare for war. And that colors everything.

The guns. I have such mixed feelings watching my daughter hold her gun.  I must admit that I found myself overwhelmed with pride – hers and mine. I was surprised at that in myself, to tell you the truth. I am really not much into guns, and the only time I ever held a gun was in Camp Moshava riflery when I was about 13 years old. And the older I get, the more gun-shy I become. When we first made Aliyah, my husband and I discussed the possibility of having a gun, but thankfully never took the idea seriously. We know lots of people who carry handguns regularly, but if I was once indifferent to that concept, today I’m most definitely nervous about seeing a gun. The stories about gun accidents compete in my consciousness with stories about heroic rescue. I don’t really want either of those narratives in my life.

Even more than that, when I think about what guns do even under those heroic circumstances, I’m not really comforted. As much as I believe in our right to self-defense, and I fully support the actions of the IDF in defending Israel’s fragile borders, there is a difference between that support as an abstract idea and living that reality. Meaning, I’m happy that there is someone out there who knows how to use a gun when the time comes. I just don’t really want it to be me or any of my children. I know that sounds terribly selfish and naive, but that’s what’s there in my flawed brain. Even in self-defense, the act of shooting another person does something to one’s spirit. And that’s another narrative I don’t really want directly in my life.

Still, seeing my daughter in this soldier uniform running and saluting and holding that gun, I had other things going through my mind. Mostly, I was in awe of her presentation of strength. With the desert landscape on all sides, I was overcome by the enormity of this indeed miraculous Zionist enterprise. Images flashed through my mind of pioneering women in the 1920s or 1930s leaving behind the shtetl, coming to Palestine, putting on khakhi shorts and grabbing a rifle to protect the land. I suddenly felt the presence of Jewish women throughout the ages who dared to defy social expectations by being strong, outspoken, independent and physical. I was filled with gratitude for all those brave women – and men – who gave their lives over the past 150 years so that Jews would have the opportunity to simply stand unimpeded in this space. I watched these young women and felt like they embodied that spirit. I could almost feel my grandmothers breathing over each shoulder, glowing in pride, sharing this incredible event, watching young Israeli women take charge, believe in their own power, and yes, hold guns with confidence. I felt this enormous spiritual connection, like a circle of women holding hands through the generations, brave young women then and now. I was so happy to be in this moment, right now, watching my daughter do this.

And when I listened to the soldiers shout out in unison, “Ani nishba’at” – I swear – as they vowed to protect the Jewish people, to ensure our rights to live freely in our land, I cried.  This was the reason we made aliyah. After 19 years living here, I finally arrived in Israel.

And then something startling happened.  The emcee for the ceremony began calling out names of soldiers who received commendations. Every unit of forty soldiers had a “chayal mitztayen” – an “Excellent Soldier”, one who received the highest scores on skills tests such as shooting and physical tasks. He read it fast and soldiers who were called came running and I barely followed was happening. All I know is that suddenly I heard my daughter’s name being called out, “Avigayil Sztokman”, and she came running front and center and the commander gave her a certificate and shook her hand and chatted with her and made her smile, which seemed so out of order that I knew it had to be special. I didn’t know this was happening – neither did she – and we didn’t even get it on video (!). Turns out, she received the award of “Chayelet mofet” – “Outstanding Soldier”, which is given to one person in every group of 120, not as much for skills tests but more for expressions of character. I know – incredible. That was, without a doubt, one of the proudest moments of my entire life.