We went to a ceremony “celebrating” the formal ending of Elie’s training. He received a promotion (customary for soldiers after completing the first eight months). Each division of the armed forces has a special place they call their own. It is where they honor their new inductees, celebrate milestones in the soldiers’ service, and, in some cases, remember their fallen. The paratroopers were critically important to the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, and often hold their ceremonies at the Western Wall. The tank division has a memorial and many of their ceremonies at Latrun, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And the artillery division has The Gunners House in Zichron Yaakov which serves as a museum (you can see many examples of older artillery vehicles that have been used in the past and even a guided missile on display) as well as a memorial.
There is also a large open area used for ceremonies such as the one we attended this past Thursday. In the background are several walls containing the names of all soldiers from the artillery unit that have fallen in Israel’s many wars. I couldn’t bring myself to read the names, to walk among the walls. I’ll do it one day, but I couldn’t do it this past week. We arrived early to spend some time with Elie before the ceremony. Elie had already told us that he would be going home with us for the weekend and would be bringing home everything he had in the army. After the ceremony, Elie explained in advance, he had to turn in his gun and one uniform. It was a formal signal that he was leaving his unit.
It is also something of a power play. The officers want Elie to take the Commanders course. The Hovshim want Elie to take the Course Hovshim (medical training). Elie has decided he wants the Course Hovshim, which means he would have to join the artillery division’s four month training and then join the next round of courses. The Commanders Course formally begins in two weeks. The army cannot “force” Elie to agree to take this Commanders Course, but they can order him to take a two week preparation course, and this is what they have done.
So, next week, Elie goes south again for two weeks. He’ll be issued another gun and given another uniform. At the end of those two weeks, he either signs on for the Commanders Course (as his officers are hoping he will do) or refuses to sign on, in which case, he will return to the north to rejoin his unit. If he doesn’t join the Commanders Course, he’ll return the gun he is issued in the south, and then get another gun when he returns to his unit up north. The ceremony on Thursday began with speeches and recognition of several “excellent” soldiers and then the formal pin-giving ceremony began. To simplify things, each soldier had already been given his pin, and then had covered the new pin by pinning a pocket flap over it.
The plan was for the commanding officer to pass through the lines of soldiers, quickly greet each soldier and unpin the flap to reveal the decorative pin that symbolizes their new rank and position in the army. Or approached Elie, and we noticed right away that he stood before Elie for a long time. We were much too far away to hear what was being said, but while others moved on, Or stood there, with his back to us, talking with Elie. From the distance, I suddenly caught the grin on Elie’s face and knew something had happened, but didn’t have a clue what was going on. Eventually, Or moved to the next soldier and on it went. The ceremony finished. The national anthem was sung by one and all, and then the soldiers marched off to the side. Elie came running over, grabbed a uniform from his duffle bags and ran to turn in his gun. When he returned, I asked him what had taken Or so long during the pinning part of the ceremony. Elie told us that when Or got to him, instead of unpinning Elie’s pocket flap, instead Or took off the pin from his own uniform and pinned it on Elie, taking what would have been Elie’s pin in exchange. In each unit, apparently, the same was done between each commanding officer and one soldier.
This is a special honor, a bond between two young men who clearly liked each other, between a commanding officer and the soldier he chooses to honor. It is not related to the army, no special rank, no note in his army record, just a gesture that each commanding officer apparently makes to one soldier under his command. It will never appear on Elie’s army record or resume, but it is something that Elie will likely never forget. The other amazing part of the ceremony, like the pin exchange, is another Israeli tradition that goes beyond the “rules” or planning of the army. The army regulates the giving of the pins (not the commander’s choice to single out a soldier and give him his personal pin), the speeches, the music, the marching, the salutes.
The ceremony begins and ends with army precision. The raising of the flag at the beginning, the singing of the national anthem at the end. It is all planned and staged, rehearsed and controlled. What they don’t “control” is the emotion, the love between the soldiers. They don’t “regulate” the hugs, the slaps on the back, the warmth, the touching among the soldiers before and after the ceremony. The army does not tell the commanders to not only walk among their soldiers, but to be one of them, to love them, to care for them, to share with them their highs and lows.
During the past several months, Yedidyah lost his father and now, three times a day, stands with his soldiers and says the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. Before the ceremony began, Yedidyah and the soldiers stood quietly to the side and recited the afternoon prayers. This too, the army does not regulate. They have no control over the smiles, the feelings of success and the sense that these boys have become friends and brothers.
In some ways, this may be something unusual in an army, any army, which requires discipline and rule. In the Israeli army, there is discipline and rules aplenty, but there is also a sense of a greater good here. They defend their family, their land, not on some distant shores and not against some unknown enemy. Each day, they stand between us and those who would harm us, and they know this. These boys, these young men, have spent the last 8 months together. They have traveled a long road and have an even longer road yet ahead of them. There were approximately 200 soldiers participating in the ceremony. This weekend, they all go home to be with their families. Starting next week, some will go into regular units, others to special courses. The commanding officers will move on as well. I don’t know where Yedidyah will go, but Or is heading south to take over training the next Commanders Course, so, at least for the next 2 weeks, Elie will be with him still.
Elie was happy to come home, to sleep in his own bed, to have that one extra day (he only has to return on Monday). But come Monday morning, he will get up early and head south to start another adventure, another road through his army service. He might choose to be a commander; he might choose to return north and hold out for the Course Hovshim – but whatever he chooses, he goes among brothers and friends and for a mother, there is no better knowledge to have, no greater feeling of pride and honor, than watching your son’s commanding officer hug him, exchange his personal pin for your son’s, and finally, watch the smile fill your son’s face.
Eight months after Elie entered the army, I see he is among brothers even when he is away from his family and I know that a circle is being completed. I worried about Elie before he went into the army. I knew that the army would care for him physically but I worried about who would love him, who would be his family and care for him beyond the rules and disciplines and once again this past week I saw the answer before my eyes. There is much truth in the concept of “brothers in arms” and on Thursday we joined Elie’s brothers, his two brothers by birth and dozens of his brothers in service, celebrate the receiving and exchanging of pins.