With Pain and With Might: Reserve Duty on the Northern Front

Cadets training to be IDF Rabbis
Cadets training to be IDF Rabbis
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Gilad Goldberg


Gilad Goldberg, translated by Mordechai Blau, republished with permission from Makor Rishon

In the morning at the synagogue, they had already given instructions on where to go in case of a siren. But we still didn’t understand. Even when the kids went outside to look for shrapnel from Iron Dome interceptions, the rumors told of one casualty. We still didn’t understand. When it came time to make kiddush, between the kugel and the herring, out of the corner of your eye, you could already see children in the synagogue holding onto their fathers’ legs to prevent them from leaving, and bags of kool-aid and potato chips took on a different flavor. But we still didn’t understand. Later on, when we sat down for the festive meal, and there was no longer any alternative, the phone was turned on. I was called up.

I write to Pini from reserve duty, a friend from my company who lives in the neighboring community, a ten-minute drive. “Have you gone yet?” I ask him. Pini isn’t one to hesitate―“Come, let’s go.” Uniforms are thrown into a backpack with hysteric panic as well as laundry detergent and boxers so I won’t run out. A hug, a kiss. The first tear begins to well up, but there’s no time. We’re on our way.

After a long drive which felt like eternity, I get to Pini’s house. Again children holding onto pant-legs, again bags of kool-aid and potato chips, again a different flavor. “We’re picking Shoko up on the way,” he says, “They’ve already been at her parents’ house for a month. Tomorrow is his wife’s due date.” We drive. Pini, with a pistol on his knee, lifts it every time we pass by an unidentified vehicle. At the security checkpoint, throngs of Arab cars are stalled. He turns on his car’s siren and drives around them. From the left, from the right, in between, above. All the options are open; this is no time for rules. In Jerusalem, Shoko parts from his nine-month pregnant wife and the three of us keep going toward our destination: the brigade’s emergency storerooms in Havat Ha-Shomer Base.

A quiet ride with a churning stomach. The sunset of a Shabbat and Yom Tov that closes out the holiday period. The streets are empty; we’re zooming. All the cars around us on Highway 6 are also full of soldiers. Hard glances are exchanged among the passengers. Maybe also a little comfort. The automatic dialer of the system calling up reservists disturbs the silence. In order: first Shoko, then Pini, and I am last. Even before it finishes the sentence, we press 1. Of course, we’ve already reported for duty.

The entrance to the base is packed with cars with a line trailing back to somewhere off under the heavenly throne. We enter. We receive the equipment that has been waiting in the storerooms since the days when makim [squad commanders] were called mem-kafim. We think of the devoted soldier who organized all of our new equipment in the backpacks; she has probably already been discharged. New bandages, ammunition, and vests that have never been worn go on soldiers who never imagined this day would come. I offer a “hey there” to the guys. Rumors and names start to trickle in. The channels already have videos of good-looking people who came to some party for a small getaway from the humdrum of daily life and are fleeing, running for their lives. Literally their lives. Unimaginable. Everything gets mixed up in some jumble of emotions without much order: frustration, anger, horror, confusion, preparedness. There’s also worry there, and who knows what else.

We’re going, we’re not going, to here or to there―in the end we spend the night next to the storerooms. In the morning they wake us and tell us that we’ve been assigned to be a provisional force up north in case other countries decide to join the party. After some running around and a couple of changes, we find ourselves in the new outpost: the shoreside playground in the heart of Nahariyah. Pure surrealism, young people walking on the beach at sunset, bearing guns, and they haven’t exactly come for a dip. Children come to play on the swings, and next to them there are rockets and ammunition. By now the IDF has brought us a lot of equipment but has barely taken care of food. Despite this, we have filled our bellies thanks to special civilians who come to us with full hands and big smiles, with cries of “good job, IDF.” Chabadniks with tefillin and canned drinks locate us prior to our arrival. If only the army had had the intelligence that they have.

There’s some time, so the thoughts begin to creep in. I’m actually in uniform. Again. “Reserve duty is like a shower,” one of the guys said during the last reserve stint, only a few months ago. “We don’t want to start, but once we’ve started we don’t want to finish.” This time is more like toweling off after the shower. As-fast-as-possible-put-on-what-we-need-so-we-can-finish-this-thing. And, truthfully, everyone reported for duty. Two officers from the company who were [separately] supposed to get married during the coming week are now sweating with us here at the firing range, leaving behind waiting fiancés, waiting for what comes next. In the meantime, we do anything to make the time pass―some chatter about this and that, checking the equipment again and again. We look in every direction, going through briefing after briefing, but the tension remains. We get updates primarily from the channels and websites; the commanders don’t have much to say. The emotional rollercoaster doesn’t pause, and the transitions are sudden. Too sudden.

During one of the guard duty sessions in the middle of the night, I look up when those who were called down south were last seen [on WhatsApp]. Good friends, a neighbor from the community. My heart is torn in two. We’re just waiting, and they’re deep in the fighting there. Between the fragments of words and the little information they can share, I hear stories of great valor: fighting over who will be in front in the tank, preparing everything so that they can be there for all of us. God bless them, their dear hearts. “Watch over us and over yourself. Green heart,” I write to my younger brother who was last seen two hours ago, a message I never thought I’d write.

I didn’t believe I would ever be able to say this: Rabbi Sabato’s books were right. True, we haven’t yet reached the same scale, but on the whole not much has changed since then―the uniform is still olive green; the element of surprise still wreaked havoc on us. What has changed is that every conversation brings up the number for the psychological first-aid hotline, and the dashed expectation that this wouldn’t happen again, because we’ve already learned.

Gilad Goldberg is a writer for Makor Rishon.