This morning I drove Elie to the central bus station in Jerusalem to catch an early bus to Tel Aviv. From there, he will meet his unit and an army bus, and head south to return to base. It’s the army’s attempt to get everyone there earlier and get more out of the day. Elie could have taken the bus to the bus to the bus, but I decided to drive him in. It gave him 30 minutes more to sleep, 40 minutes less on the bus from Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem, got me to work at least an hour earlier than usual, and gave me 20 minutes alone with him.
The drive was pleasant; we talked more about the course, a little about him, some about his siblings, plans, the weather. Nothing unusual, easy conversation that filled the time and let me listen to his voice and feel that he is ok, better than ok. The Central Bus Station in Jerusalem is a beehive of activity. It’s impossible to even drive a car to the front, but long ago I discovered a small road that offers access to the back door of the large building, where many buses enter.
Elie is carrying a large, heavy backpack filled with spare uniforms and the laundry that he washed on Friday, two big canisters of cookies and cake, and more. As I pulled to the side, I noticed that I was one of at least a dozen other parents dropping their sons (and a few daughters) off. All were in uniform; all carried these large backpacks. Different color berets and boots, according to the units they are in. Different color backpacks; some with guns; some not. All were young; all in a rush to get back to where they are supposed to be.
“Bye, Ima,” Elie called out as he passed the window with his backpack strapped on. That’s all. Too much for a 20-year-old to give his mother a kiss or hug goodbye. It’s not the done thing at all, and sure enough, no other boys did either. At this hour and at this location, it is all business, all movement, and no time for sentiment. They all walked into the big building and disappeared. I sat for a second watching other parents drop off their sons, watched the boys walk to the building, pull out their security passes and enter as the parents drove away. It was my turn and I pulled out, leaving behind other parents to take my spot.
For some reason, the sight of all of these young soldiers touched me and my eyes filled with tears as I stopped at the first light, my mind still seeing these soldiers and their backpacks enter the building.
There is no explanation, other than the emotions of a mother. But I long ago accepted that this happens at the strangest times and it is nothing new. One of the first ways some women know they are pregnant is that their emotions go haywire. You cry more easily, feel things more deeply. Even after birth and in the years that follow, it is much the same. You swallow deeply, let the emotions run through you and accept that this is part of being a mother.
I look at Elie and am filled with gratitude to God for who he has become. Each week, I light the Sabbath candles and pray that God watches over Elie this week and in the weeks and months and years to come. I thank God for having seen him through the past week safely and beg Him to remember the boy inside the man, the heart inside the body. I do this with each of my children and now for my new son-in-law as well. It’s a little ritual I started long ago and I’ve almost convinced myself that tragedy will follow if I skip even one week. So there I stand, after I light the candles, and think of each child. Elie with his blue eyes and wicked smile. Elie in the short sleeves while I am freezing with three layers on. Elie with the backpack in the green uniform.
I watched Elie go into the Central Bus Station with so many silly emotions and I know that the tears in my eyes are just something I have to accept. They are tears of pride and fear and happiness and concern and love – all the things I long ago told my mother-in-law I would feel when she asked me how I would feel when my son went off to the army.
I don’t have any reason for the tears this morning, other than the greatest, deepest sense of gratitude for who he is, what he is, and where he is. In the past few years, too much politics has been connected with the Israeli army. Much of that stems from a time when the government was allowed to use the army in a way it was never designed to be used, against our own people rather than against our enemies.
This action caused a terrible and deep rift in the hearts and souls of many Israelis and damaged the motivation of thousands of young men. No matter what has happened in the past, and I am not one to forgive the government easily for its many blunders, we need the army to be strong. We are the army and we cannot surrender that to anyone, not even our own government. I believe the strength of Israel comes from this very simple fact. And so, as I watch my son and see how motivated he is to succeed with each challenge the army throws at him, I am left behind to marvel at it all.
Growing up in America, I didn’t know a single soldier or family of a soldier. The US army was a distant reality for me. I didn’t grow up seeing tanks being moved on the highway or military helicopters flying over head. I never attended a military ceremony. Even the most sensitive and saddest of days, memorial day, was more vacation than commemoration. It took moving to Israel to realize that this is wrong. They, whoever and wherever they are, fight for us and it is for us to remember and honor them.
Elie has grown up with a different sense of army. It is not something distant; some thing with which he has no contact. His teachers were in the army, leaving school here and there to do their reserve duty. Although his father didn’t serve in the army (because we moved here when he was beyond an age worth training, so said the army), many of his friends’ fathers would do reserve duty. As Elie moved through high school, those who were older entered the army and while he was in the preparatory academy, the friends from the year before would often come back and talk.
Everyone knows someone in the army here; everyone knows someone. So, watching Elie go off, again, reminded me that he is now a part of this army, an integral part of Israel in a way I will never be…but in a way I always wanted my children to be. It was my dream to come to Israel, but it is Elie who has made that dream come true in many ways. This morning, I was just another parent dropping her son off, just another soldier walking with his backpack into the bus station to return to the army. It was all just…just…just so perfectly Israel that my eyes filled with tears and my heart swelled with gratitude.
For all the wrongs here, there are so many rights. What the army has done for my son, done to him, done with him, is so very right. I’ll see Elie, God willing, in two weeks, but the image of him walking with so many others will last me so much longer.