May 27, 2013 | by Rebecca Sacks
They commute with guns. A lot of Israeli soldiers live at home while they do their mandatory service, and, like me, they take the bus to work every day. I’m a student so for me that means carrying four different translations of the Qumran wisdom texts to the university campus. They carry what I think are semi-automatics. We all take the bus together. There is a language to the army uniform that I cannot read. If you know these things, you can tell what part of the armed forces someone is in by the color of his or her beret. The red ones seem tough, I know that. The uniforms themselves are different colors too: a standard green, a nappy white, a khaki. The grey-blue ones tend to have broad shoulders and handguns tucked into their pants. It took me a long time to realize they had holsters under their trousers: I thought the guns were being held in by their underwear elastics, and could fall any moment. From this information, a literate person lays the bones of their expectations for the soldier they see, if she sees them at all. I think most people don’t even notice them. One thing I cannot get used to in Israel is a kind of suspension of horror: that the mechanisms of danger and violence are laid bare and become mundane. Through what I'll call a willful innocence, this is something I resist fully. I notice every soldier, every gun. Guns they tote indifferently on the bus, in the mall, getting ice cream, at the beach. Obviously they can't spend several consecutive years (required service is two for young women, three for men) having anxiety attacks about whether or not it’s emotionally damaging to develop a familiar relationship with weapons. Luckily for them, they have me to do that.
The exception to the soldiers’ invisibility is during a series of memorials, which occur in Israel over a period of two weeks. First is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a day of ceremonies: candles are lit, and you will hear testimony from the dwindling population of survivors. This year it was on April 7 (holidays here are kept by the lunar Jewish calendar). It is marked by a one-minute siren at ten A.M. For a memorial siren, everyone stands. No matter where you are, you stop and stand. The entire country has this really effective PA system. It reminds me of that scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before Earth is bulldozed, when every physical object becomes a transmitter. The memorial siren is similar to the siren that sounds when there are rockets falling but it is one single tone instead of a falling and rising pitch. This is so that if rockets fall during the siren, you know to seek cover.
A week later is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day; this year on April 15. It is in remembrance of Israelis who have died in war and terror attacks. The year’s dead are added to a list. The day starts the evening prior (in accordance with the Jewish calendar), marked with a two-minute siren. At this point, the entire nation gives itself forty-eight hours to focus on the soldiers. The TV stations play a continuous loop of short documentaries on the lives of the dead—heartwrenching tributes with interviews and blurry home-videos. The radio stations play only sad, traditional music. At 11 A.M. on the day-of, there is a second two-minute siren. There are ceremonies that evening and, at the end of the memorials, Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) begins immediately: whiplashing the nation into July Fourth mode. Opinions on this model, and the sudden change in attitude (grievance to celebration) are mixed in Israel.
My friend just left the army, after six years of service. He asked that I call him Ido instead of using his real name, and who am I to argue. So: Ido. This was Ido’s first post-army Yom HaZikaron. He said this year he was in his car, driving, when he realized the siren would go momentarily. Perhaps they said something on the radio. He pulled over, with every other car on the road, got out, and stood by his car, with the door open. He probably ended up in a Reuters photograph. He said it was strange to be in civilian clothes, to be a civilian, on that day. When you are a soldier, everyone looks at you on Yom HaZikaron: you are at the center of something that now he felt slightly peripheral to. In the past, during the siren, he has raised his hand in salute (a gesture exclusive to officers during the siren); this year he has stood with his hands folded by his car. I asked where he would look (I was never sure where to look during the sirens) in those days. “At the flag,” he said.
I was waiting for my friend Max at a Yom HaZikaron ceremony for fallen soldiers. I had taken a bus to his hometown. On the bus ride over, the first of the two sirens sounded. While Ido was standing by the side of the road, I was standing in a bus. I wasn’t sure if we should get off the bus after it pulled over, which I then realized was silly: you can stand in the bus. Once I got to the ceremony—a cordoned off street block alongside a large green in front of an angular white building—I waited for Max. The crowd was about half soldiers: anyone actively in the service is in uniform (of course, almost the entire country is in reserves). I’ve written about Max before: he is an intelligence officer who does some kind of fieldwork which I have tended to imagine as a jaunty espionage novel of turning sources over endless cups of strong coffee. His job means that Max doesn’t often wear a uniform (which I suppose means, in a way, that he’s always in uniform). Looking around at everyone in green and white and khaki and grey-blue, I wondered if I would even recognize him in the crowd. Fortunately, when your friend is in intelligence, he finds you, and Max tapped me on the shoulder. He seemed a lot taller than I remembered. And he had a gun. Why didn’t I even consider that he would have a gun? I said “HI!” very, very loudly. Then said “SORRY!” even louder. In my memory, the gun is as big as I am. Most of the junior soldiers here carry these kind of beat-up semi-automatics that look like they fell off a Soviet truck. His was more an army-reserves-at-the-Port-Authority affair. There may have been another gun somewhere—one of the underwear elastic handguns—but I could only look at him from the corner of my eye. I couldn’t look straight at him. I think he had one of the red berets, but I can't say for sure. I could ask him right now, but I won’t. He was like some sacred object, some distant planet swimming out of my keen (sorry, Keats).
The ceremony was huge, thousands of people facing a stage, the proceedings of which were projected onto the smooth white stones of the building behind it. The laying of wreaths was punctuated by the names and photographs of the dead: the number I found online said 22,684 since the 1860. The pictures flash on screen in chronological order starting with date of death—first blurry black and white shots of teenagers, thin smiling kibbutz types, then as the photographs become more recent, men and women in uniform, smiling middle aged women who died in bus explosions, generals holding their children. The picture is on screen for only an instant, each name is said aloud; it is a recording. On the screen next to the picture is information in Hebrew I cannot read, but one number I can: it is their age when they died. 26, 22, 37, 19, 55, 19, 19. You look at the photographs, and repeat the names, trying to imprint them. What were they thinking when the photographs were taken? Did they imagine they would be flashing across a screen every year, year after year? Is this what soldiers think now, when they pose for photographs with their mothers after being sworn into the service? I am aware of theories that consider each photograph the site of our own death: a historical moment that becomes, in effect, a memento mori. Tonight, these theories fall short. The ceremony also screened short documentaries of the lives of the dead—home videos of bar and bat mitzvas, boys lip synching to music we cannot hear with mops on their heads. News footage of tanks from the wars they died in, all flashing on the building in front of us. Then a family would be escorted by soldiers to the stage, and a lay wreath. This building, I suddenly know, was designed for this: to be the surface on which the faces of the dead are projected, year after year; the names read aloud are recorded, each year new ones added to the tape. All so that I could stand here on this night, next to a young man I cannot face, and stare at my hands. On the way to Max’s ceremony my bus had passed a military cemetery. “We are here because they are there,” said the woman next to me. Then she showed me pictures of her son, who is a semi-professional tennis player beginning his army service this summer. Not all people share this women’s mentality. Ido, now studying to be an architect, tells me the attitude is shifting away from thinking of war dead as a “necessary sacrifice” to an atrocious reality. Regardless of the gloss, this country has a narrative apparatus set up to contextualize really, really horrible things. And if that sounds weird to you, consider that 2,201 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001, that 4,486 died in Iraq, and that I cannot name one of them; consider that I have no idea when or how I will grieve for the four who died at Boston.
I did not do so well at my first memorial ceremony. The plan was to briefly and sincerely thank Max for his service, give him a hug, and not cry. That seemed like a pretty reasonable set of expectations: to not let my feelings make other people uncomfortable. Only, I felt nothing. Hovering somewhere around my own forehead, I watched my own hands from different angles, obsessing over what was the most respectful way to fold them. This might be called dissociating. I wonder if this is how the soldiers on the bus feel. I tried not to stare at a uniformed soldier and his girlfriend standing in front of me. She leaned up against him casually, and when she did, the end of his gun (the musket? the barrel?) pressed into the back of her knee. She didn’t seem to notice. I don’t say much of anything to Max. After the ceremony, his friends sit around a backyard table for beers, and I compulsively recount the plot of the Epic of Gilgamesh, much to my own horror.
Later, when I get home, all the hands in my head suddenly disappear and snap back in. I remember the plan: the thank you, the hug. At least I didn’t cry, and I wonder when I will. Once, Max took me biking with his younger sister in the south. She and I followed the path he cut, which I think might have actually been a burden for him—to be the object of defacto deference. But what else could we do? We were biking in an area near his grandmother’s kibbutz, a few kilometers from Gaza. He led us through a fallow field, right through it. The ground was thick, heavy, and red. In Hebrew, the words “ground,” “red,” and “Adam” (the personal name, which also can be used to mean humankind) all share the same root. So in Hebrew, what I just wrote could be said with all kinds of Biblical resonance. But in English it just means that we were all struggling to keep our bikes moving, as our tires sunk into the soft earth. Max kept moving forward and his sister and I struggled behind. Sometimes I would pause and wait for her. I would lean against my bike, watching Max bob steadily forward, his shoulder blades cutting back and forth, back and forth.
The entire country has a kind of predatory reverence toward the young male body. I run along the ocean here, and all the fit young adonim run in loincloth mini shorts. In well-lit lots they park their motorbikes and strip their shirts to practice some kind of rhythmic martial arts under a street lamp. Legs and arms swoop in a steady dance, a code I cannot crack of mutual power, agression, and respect. In a no-man’s land near the beach, an old homeless man shadowboxes with a stop sign while his dealer, a bald man in a turtleneck, looks on smoking. Bataille would say that the sacrificial victim must be set apart, must be honored. I don’t know whom I hate more: him for writing it or me for repeating it.
The day after the ceremony, I take the train to my roommate’s kibbutz. Her name is Sarai. I haven’t cried yet, which puts me on edge. The Independence Day parties begin at sundown—mourning will be over; it will be time to celebrate. I am running out of time. Sarai and I are arguing with the ticket salesman about my student card when the siren goes off, and I dropped my bags and my wallet all at once, change rolling everywhere. The siren sends a funny chill that resides only in your spine. As if the feeling were there all along, and the siren merely awoke it. Then we pick up our bags and go wait for our train. Sarai’s kibbutz is kind of north-central Israel, where the country goes wasp-waisted. I go running through the kibbutz’s avocado orchards. I run along the barbed wire fence that separates the kibbutz farmland from the next-door Arab village, which has a stunning gold-domed mosque. A butterfly flies through the barbed wire, and I actually roll my eyes because I think this day has been imbued with enough symbolism, thank you very much. I keep running, and pass an area cordoned off by electric fence, where two cow carcasses lie. I feel that I am running through the elements of my own dreamwork, but I refuse to narrate them. “I hate you,” I say to the sky. I run into the kibbutz wheatfields. I am running too fast. I have been told to stay on a path that is free of snakes. Instead I am running along the thin strip left by whatever machine cuts across the wheatfields. The short stalks are sharp, and cut at my legs. My cell phone service cuts out, and I am completely alone. If there were anyone behind me, he would see the flash of my white t-shirt cutting across the trembling gold. There is a feeling when you run too fast that your own mind is trying to lift out of your body, and keeps getting crammed back in. I run for that feeling, until each breath is a question I am answering, until I reach another electric fence and stop, drooping to pant. All around me is blue and gold, all around me is land that somebody loves. Across the barbed wire are homes of Arab families, a beautiful village of whites and oranges. Homes with dogs and toasters. More butterflies go back and forth, shamelessly, begging to be written. “Fuck you,” I say again. I have no solution. I used to think that huge human loss was the result of a bad decision. I have no idea, anymore, what the difference is between necessary and pointless sacrifice. I do not know what it took to grow this wheatfield. I am finding that I am scared to know, to see, what is required for me to walk through this wheatfield. The field in which I am now kneeling, forehead touching the earth, sobbing so hard, so ugly-sounding that it shakes my whole body. I do not know who gave me the freedom to spend my whole entire life looking for my self(ves) while some people die at war—in a world where whether we see it or not war lives alongside us, next to us, in us—before even getting the chance to start. But I know that each life, each human life, is equally sacred, which is why any of us can be sacred. That is the bargain: we all have to be worth the same. And right now my little flame is buckling under the weight of my cries which at this point come from somewhere so deep inside that I begin to heave and then to actually vomit. Convulsing on all fours, I hear in my head again and again that line of Randall Jarrell, “loosed from its dream of life.” I also hear my name. “Becca?”
No, I really do hear my name. My phone has called Max. Which means, as far as the person on the other end is concerned, I have called. He is on speakerphone, and his voice comes up from the broken wheat where my phone is lying.
I think I am dreaming. It is most likely I am dreaming. Butterflies continue to cross from one side of barbed wire to another. My legs are bleeding. Nearby the cows are rotting. I am under a blue sky in golden fields grown from red earth. I slowly hang up the phone. Then I throw up a little more. I laugh a little now, and remind the butterflies to go fuck themselves. Then I get up and run back through the fields.
Rebecca Sacks is an MA candidate in the Jewish Studies program at Tel Aviv University. She previously lived in Brooklyn, New York.