I am very happy to say that my son finally made it home from the army last week.  It was really touch and go for a while due to quarantine and a host of other issues, and my son told me not to expect him home until this week.  But truthfully, he thought he would get home last week and was hoping to surprise me. But nothing is predictable in the army.  You never know what will happen for certain until it actually happens.

Each unit in the army has two sets of uniforms: Aleph and Bet.  Bet is what chayalim wear when they are training, working, patrolling, and all that they do when they are on duty. Aleph is a nicer and more refined uniform, which the chayalim wear on Shabbos and the chagim as well as when they leave the base, in order to project the dignified image befitting a soldier serving in the Israel Defense Force. Before the chayalim leave their base, they change into Aleph and then receive their list of guidelines: kiss your mother immediately upon entering your house, don’t drink and drive, don’t sit in a large groups of people, make sure your gun is in a safe place, keep your shirt tucked in until you get home, come back to the base with short hair and shaven, rest up, and enjoy.  These instructions are given to the chayalim just prior leaving their base.  Every time.  Last week, the boys were already dressed in Aleph and had received their instructions when an order came down that they are not permitted leave their base.  The boys could not believe it.  They practically already had one foot out the gate.  They were hugely disappointed, as they had already been stuck without leave for way longer than is typical. But within 10 minutes, the order changed and they were granted leave.  The boys were ecstatic.  They were running around cheering with excitement.  They were finally going home. 

As much as the army in unpredictable from one minute to the next, there are “minhagim” in the army which never change. On the day of recruitment, boys and their families come to “Bakum” - Basis Klitah U’miyun - in Tel Hashomer.   Bakum is where the draftees say farewell to their families and are absorbed into the army. The inductees and their parents are enthusiastically welcomed by other chayalim with cheering and music.  Much effort is expended in the army into forming cohesive, pride-filled units. This process begins in Bakum and continues throughout their entire service.  Each squad has its own color, song, logo, type of hat, and boot.  Each unit has its own area at Bakum where unit flags are waving, the unit song is blaring non-stop, and videos of chayalim in the unit are playing.   Each unit cheers for itself.  The atmosphere at Bakum is celebratory, but also competitive, as each unit tried to show they are the best. My son is in the Givati Brigade.  Their color is purple, with purple and white flags, purple caps, and black boots.  The day we brought our son to Bakum actually reminded me of color war.  It’s quite a scene which goes on for a while.  Slowly, slowly the boys say goodbye to their families, often with a brachah from the parents, and get on the bus.  It is very dramatic and emotional as everyone waves as the buses pull away, but in reality, the bus drives for about 3 to 4 minutes to where the boys get off and begin the process of changing from a citizen to a soldier.

The boys have to pass through an enlistment sequence, which involves several stations. They stop at a barber who makes sure their hair meets army requirements, a photographer who will take a photo for their identity cards, an oral cavity x-ray and imaging station, fingerprinting station, personal information station to make sure all information is accurate, a bone marrow station where they can volunteer to give a sample, and a vaccination station where blood is drawn and vaccinations are given.  They will have a personal interview with an appointment officer, they will be given all the military and civilian equipment they will need for their entire service, and if there is a need, combat soldiers will meet with a doctor. After all these steps are completed, the new soldiers are driven to their base where they are served a festive banquet meal with tablecloths and paper goods in the color of their unit and food served in the shape of their logo.  Each unit tries to outdo the other in terms of lavishness and creativity.

In addition to all of the rules of the army that chayalim have to follow, there are many “traditions” of rules that older soldiers enforce upon younger ones.  A chayal is not permitted to count anything at all until close to the end of his service. He is not allowed to ask, “how much longer?”  He is not allowed to ask, “until when?”  All of these numbers and phrases indicate a desire to finish serving, which is not allowed. A soldier is not permitted to nap during the day unless he is given permission.  He must always wear his full uniform unless given permission otherwise.  A soldier who is caught breaking these rules is punished.  This is all reminiscent of the way seniors treat freshmen in high school.

When a unit moves into an army base, it’s a big deal.  The chayalim spend the first week building their pluga.  They set up a comfortable area for themselves in the area where they sleep. They put together tables, chairs, fake grass, and shooting targets. They hang tarps for shade. My son’s unit even had a ping pong table and Xbox. They really put their all into this.  It’s a matter of pride.  Who builds the best pluga? Who serves the nicest meals?  Who has the loudest music?

Serving in the army is a serious business.  Some of these army traditions remind me just how young the defenders of our country are.  I’m so glad that these young boys are provided with some measure of fun, treats, and pleasure during their service.  They certainly deserve it!  

Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.