Son of My Land, by Sagi Melamed
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Son of My Land, by Sagi Melamed

In these essays, Sagi Melamed expresses his yearning for peace and his frustration over the absurdity of war, his deep regard for the values and achievements of this country’s founders, and his concern over the shifting balance between the needs of the individual and the collective. Melamed presents an insider’s view of historical developments that are shaping Israel’s future, and a quest to identify universal values among the different streams in Israeli society, in Judaism and across the Middle East.

On Promises and Cakes

How many milestones there are in bringing a Jewish child into the world and raising him and her! Many of the milestones are universal. Discovering that you are expecting. The birth. The Bris. The first day of kindergarten. The first day of first grade. The Bar/Bat Mitzva ceremony. Graduating from High School. The wedding.

Only in Israel does the Jewish parent mark an extra significant and unique landmark – the day their child enlists into the Israel Defense Forces.

When our eldest son Guy was born 17 years ago, I felt that I had a better understanding of the act of creation. His emergence from his mother’s womb with a thunderous wail of self-confidence (which characterizes him to this day), confirmed my belief in a divine creator.

Like many new parents, I knew that as small as he was, one day he would grow up. And that, I see, has happened. From the day that he was born, I was already foreseeing the day he would enlist.

There is a promise in Israel that has been promised again and again, and it is the ultimate traditional promise that has never been kept. It is something akin to the promise of the arrival of the Messiah. It is the promise of fathers and mothers to their children, that when they reach the age of 18, they will not need to carry a weapon and go to war. A few days after Guy was born, I promised my wife that our precious child would grow up in a different Israel – an Israel of peace. Those were years of great promise. Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister. The Oslo process was underway. Israeli consulates were being opened throughout the Arab world. A peace agreement was signed with Jordan. A new Middle East was peeking over the horizon. During those years, even I prepared myself for service as a soldier of peace – studying for a BA and then a Master’s in Middle Eastern studies – struggling night and day to learn Arabic.

And then even I, the third generation of the Melamed family living in Israel, joined those who came before me, who made a promise but didn’t manage to keep it. Guy, who just celebrated his seventeenth birthday, has started the process of recruitment for army service. Tests, medical and psychological exams and try-outs for the elite units of the IDF. And I actually thought that I and my generation would succeed where our fathers and their fathers failed.

The army experience, and the influence of the army on our lives in Israel, are felt in every corner and every place. Last week, we sat around the Seder table of the Lau-Lavi family in Hoshaya. The Lau-Lavis represent and personify the story of the resurrection of the Jewish people.

The grandfather of the family, Naftali, from a family of distinguished rabbis in Poland, survived the horrors of Treblinka and Buchenwald as a youth, saving his younger brother Yisrael-Meir (who went on to become the Chief Rabbi of Israel) as well. During his years of public service, with his wife Joan at his side, Naftali filled key positions in the newly established state, among them as the assistant to Moshe Dayan and as the Israeli Consul in New York.

His son Shai, lives in Hoshaya in the Galilee, has served in the IDF for some 34 years in combat and leadership positions, as well as in management and industry, and maintains an organic olive grove for his pleasure, producing excellent quality olive oil.

Shai’s sons, Moshe and Elad, naturally volunteered for the elite army units, and Moshe continues to serve as a commander in the unit he started out as a soldier in. Shai and his wife Varda also have four daughters, two of whom are married, and they also have five grandchildren.

That evening the threads of our interesting conversation around the Seder table touched upon the women of the family, and the heavy price exacted of the wives of career army officers. Difficult questions arose that only someone who had personally experienced this situation could understand. Is it correct for a commander who has a family to sleep at home with his wife and children during the week while his soldiers are sleeping in the field, or should he always spend the nights together with his soldiers? What is the job of senior commanders in establishing priorities and attempting to keep a balance between military responsibility and the family life of their officers? What leads a 28 year old man to choose a military career when his wife and three children are waiting with frustration when he can’t even make it home in time to carry out the mitzvah of checking the house for hametz on the eve of Passover? And when does his wife declare, “enough!”?

There were also questions that weren’t asked, and things that weren’t said, but hung heavy in the air. No one spoke of the line connecting between the concentration camps of Europe from which Grandpa Naftali was saved, and the army camps in Israel where his grandson Moshe is training Israel’s fighters, upon whom the responsibility falls to prevent another Holocaust. Neither did anyone ask “If we don’t serve in the army, then who will?”, nor even “What would happen if one day we aren’t strong enough?”

The next day, we hosted a couple from Boston, who had taken advantage of the holiday to make a visit to Israel. Twenty years ago L. and R. spent a year as volunteers at a kibbutz, and memories of that time were deeply etched in their hearts. Today, as parents of three children, in the middle of a visit as tourists in Israel, at the height of spring when the Galilee is painted in its most glorious colors, this couple began to amuse themselves again with the idea of moving to Israel. R. asked me about the regular challenges of immigrating from the United States to Israel: making a living, where to live, language, education. For all of these questions, I could supply informed answers and advice. But then we reached the question of questions. “We are not so sure we’re ready for our children to serve in the IDF”, R. admitted. “That’s a subject only you can decide about”, I answered him. “I can tell you how much it costs to build a house in the Galilee, that in Israel, almost everything is more expensive than in the US. That you can find good schools for the kids, but not always. And that when you immigrate to Israel, you need to be prepared to take a cut in your salary and compromise on career options. But about military service for your children – that’s a discussion for you to have with your spouse!”

Now back to our Guy, 17 years old. At this point our worries are still within the framework of the theoretical and have not been put to the true, daily test. I remember how during the four years I served in the army, my late mother Zehava, used to say to me after Shabbat ended and I had to go back to the base: “Take care of yourself, son”, and her words and the expression on her face followed me like a prayer. We still have another two or three years until the end of Shabbat kiss, and the words that follow. In the meantime, Betsy consoles herself by saying “What can I do? I’ll do a lot of laundry and bake a lot of cakes, and God will take care of our Guy”

Sagi MelamedSagi Melamed was born and raised on Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, the third generation in a family that helped found the kibbutz and the State of Israel. He earned a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, specializing in Conflict Resolution, serves as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and is a Karate instructor. Professionally, Sagi is dedicated to promoting collaborations that cross borders, continents and religions.

Sagi blogs at The Times of Israel.

 

He lives with his wife and four children in Hoshaya in the Galilee.

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