Yes, I’ll repeat this next week when it is Elie’s Hebrew birthday – and God willing, we will all celebrate it together. For now, on the English calendar, Elie turned 21 today – I spoke to him a few minutes ago as he was on his way to a later dinner on base. He sounds fine – others knew it was his birthday and wished him well. His uncle was going to call him from the US on Friday – in short, a birthday, come and gone, and a boy turned man reaching the age of 21.
“I called so you could wish me a happy birthday,” I told Elie a few minutes ago. “After all, I AM the one who gave birth.”
“Ha, ha” he replied and I could hear the smile come through. It’s another of those moments we cherish – he’s safe. He’s fine. He’s not cold or hot. He’s 21 years old and almost half way through his army service. We’ve made it this far, learned so much along the way.
On Thursday, I met a man who told me this was his last year in the army. He’s turning 40 years old and will finish his reserve duty this year and be formally discharged from the army.
He was helping me with Hebrew terms and abbreviations – it’s “the” way in the army. So much is abbreviated; they speak in initials and I’m often so caught up with listening, I don’t want to admit that I don’t understand a word he is saying. This was my chance – I asked all the terms I could think of. I should have been suspicious – at least had an inkling, but I was more interested in his ability to tell me all the words rather than wonder why he knew them. Other Israelis haven’t always known, but I forgot that and focused on getting down the details.
G’dud – yes, yes, I know that one already; Pluga too. And solela? It’s like a pluga for artillery, and as he explained, the light finally dawned.
“Where does your son serve?”
“Artillery. Where did you serve?”
“Artillery. Which unit?”
And so it continued. Turns out he was very much like Elie, doing the same thing for his unit as Elie is doing now. Ami also went through the commanders’ course and knew the bases, the places, the jobs and the life that Elie is living now. We talked of unit numbers and where they are stationed and some of the experiences Elie has had.
Ami’s married with children – and every year, as many men in Israel do, he goes off to do his reserve duty in the artillery division and this year, after so many years, he will finally finish. Elie is as close to the beginning of his service as this man is to the end – in a very real sense, that is what Israel is about. Living your life, always with this other reality in the background. In a few months, this man will go for the last time to give his month of service to the nation. Elie has almost two decades ahead of him doing the same.
Years ago, when I was in college, a friend decided to move to Israel and join the army. Gavriel came to visit me at the university on his way to the airport. We sat and talked. It was my dream to come to Israel, and yet here was this friend, doing what I’d always dreamed of, while I continued on in college. He left to catch his plane; I went into the library where I had a job.
I still had some time before my job started, so I went into this little room where the university library sold off old books it didn’t want anymore for very little. While I was scanning the shelves, I saw a book, “Such Were Our Fighters: Stories of Soldiers Who Died for Israel.” I remember feeling like my heart had stopped. “God, are you sending me a message?” I thought. I bought the book and took it outside and sat on the steps. When I scanned the names in the table of contents, there was not a single Gavriel, Gavi, Gabriel, Gabe. Nothing. Not a one. Ok, I thought to myself, that is the message – God is telling me that Gavi will be fine.
I remembered that feeling when I was talking to Ami. I decided that in the way of things, this was another way that God was sending me a message. Here is a man who was a boy. He entered the army, as your son did, and went into the artillery division. Like Elie, he followed the same path, did the same things, commanded the same kind of unit. He finished his three years in the army and went on to make a life and a family while continuing to serve his country.
And here is Elie. Twenty-one years old – and he is where I have always wanted him to be, doing what I have always dreamed he would do. No, not just serving in an army, but being part of a country for which he cares enough to fight; living in a land to which he has dedicated his future and his present. Happy birthday, Elie – be safe and celebrate.