An open letter to the lone soldiers of the IDF.
Dear Chayalim Bodedim (Lone Soldiers), until Michael Levin, the paratrooper from Philadelphia, was killed in August 2006, almost nobody knew who we were.
Two weeks ago we lost three more of our own: Max Steinberg from L.A.; Sean Carmeli from South Padre Island, Texas; and Jordan Bensemhoun from Lyon, France. More than 50,000 Israelis attended their funerals.
And now more people know who you are.
But there are people who still don’t know why you’re there, in an Israel Defense Forces combat platoon, instead of back here in the U.S., where you supposedly belong.
For example, your mom. You’ve explained it a dozen times. And she supports you. She has to. She’s your mom. But she’d rather you went to university, where you could major in bio and meet a girl at the Hillel barbecue.
And Dad? He supports you. He has to. He’s married to your mom. But he, too, would rather you were not there in an army so far away.
Your girlfriend — your ex-girlfriend — thinks you’re crazy. And Sam, who you’ve known since kindergarten (he’s pledging ZBT now), and your friends from camp, and Bubbie Fran, and Sarah who you went to prom with, and even your older brother Stu, who always understands you…
They think you’re out of your mind.
Which you are.
There’s another person who wonders why you’re here, on the Gaza border, sweating your ass off in hundred-degree heat while you stand guard on a tank, your thighs chafed, feet rank in the same socks you’ve worn since Tuesday, your helmet wobbly and your back sore.
Yes, there’s one more person who wonders why you threw it all away — the quad double and mixers with Tri Delts and a pre-paid meal plan instead of combat rations stamped “Kosher for Passover 1982” (tuna fish older than you are).
And that person is you.
It’s OK. Happens to all of us. Moments when every Lone Soldier asks himself why he’s here.
So as you stand poised on the border, flak jacket on, magazine in, helmet tight as you can get it and Gaza footsteps away, I will remind you, Chayelim Bodedim, why you’re here:
You’re here because there are only so many trees you can plant, checks you can write and Israel Day Parades you can march in before it feels absurd.
You’re here because you read Yoni Netanyahu’s “Self-Portrait of a Hero” so many times the cover fell off, and because you still get choked up every time you watch the movie at Latrun where the tank commander who lost his eyes in the Yom Kippur War addresses his daughter he’ll never see. WHAT MOVIE?
And you are here because any country where you can buy chocolate milk in a plastic bag must be defended.
You’re here because in Israel there’s a spice to life that you just don’t get in Minneapolis, and because as much as you can’t stand how Israelis shout, cut the line, honk their horns the instant the light turns green and refuse to apologize because God forbid they might look like a freier, you still love them. And you don’t want them to go it alone.
In other words, you’re here because it’s only fair.
You’re here because you believe in country the way your grandpa believes in country. In this respect you’re more like him than like kids your own age. In fact, you believe in things like sacrifice and the doing of difficult tasks for the greater good. Society tells you these are silly things. But these are not silly things.
Why else are you here?
You are here because that Israeli counselor you had at camp the summer you turned 14 was the most all-around terrific human being you’ve ever met, and you believe that by joining up some of that magic will rub off on you. And because in an age of Me, you believe in We.
That is why you are here.
You’re here because you’ve figured out that the best way to bring out what makes you unique is to be part of something larger than yourself.
Plus, you want to look cool. Deny it, but it’s true. The Lone Soldier Fantasy: in uniform, M-16 over the shoulder, strutting down Ben Yehuda Street while yeshiva girls stare and think thoughts that could get them kicked out of yeshiva. You’ve got major-league chutzpah, and even if it’s dangerous, you know that the only thing worse than dying in Gaza is living in Scarsdale and wishing you’d at least tried.
You’re here because you have a scope of history that includes pyramids and temples and concentration camps and Ben-Gurion declaring a state of our own, and you want to claim your place in this 3,000-year-old story. This is a more meaningful way to spend time now than beer pong and streaking naked through the quad.
You’re here so you can live the rest of your life knowing you did the one thing you absolutely had to. The rest is commentary.
Soldier on, chayal. May the Holy One, blessed be He, bless you and your big-time chutzpah. Amen selah.
Joel Chasnoff is a comedian, former Israeli lone soldier and author of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” about his IDF service. Visit him at www.joelchasnoff.com.
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