The Lonely Soldier – Philip Graubart

1981-1982

I was assigned to the wrong unit. An odd mistake, especially for an army renowned for its prowess. My IDF mobilization letter ordered me to report to the Seventh Armored Brigade. This was an elite unit. Some ten thousand Israeli teens suffered through a rigorous application process each year. Less than 100 were accepted. You needed to demonstrate outstanding physical prowess, as well as exceptional intelligence, excellent health, and clear leadership potential. I was a weakling – 5’8, 140 pounds – and an infection-prone asthmatic. Also, an introvert with eyeglasses.  I was smart enough I suppose, but I wasn’t fluent in Hebrew, so I came off in my pre-army interviews as kind of slow.  I was the only recruit from my North American garin – my immigrant group – assigned to an elite unit. And – I hadn’t applied! A native friend told me it was like a mediocre American high school student being admitted to Harvard, without having submitted an application. It was, in other words, totally impossible.

But how to point out the mistake to one of the most powerful fighting forces in the world? The young, apathetic manpower officer I spoke to in in the Talpiot office, as I expected, flatly refused to admit that it was an error. Harried and bored – a disconcerting combination – she assured me that the only way the army could have made a mistake was if another recruit had exactly the same name and birthday as me. And since, she told me, my name – Philip Liebstein – was, shall we say, unusual – oh, and, by the way, did I know that the diminutive of my first name was the Hebrew word for Elephant? (I’d only heard that a million times since the age of 6) – there was no possibility of a mix-up. (I found out years later that was exactly the issue. Another Philip Liebstein, my age, wandering around Israel. Who would have thought?) She took a sip of coffee, a drag from her cigarette, and then took her eyes off my file and looked at me for the first time. She must have seen something, probably my skinny arms, because she handed me the card of a commander I could speak to if I wanted a transfer. Then she gestured to the next guy in line.

“Does anyone get a transfer before they even start?” I asked quickly.

She looked up, surprised I was still there. She considered my question for a second. “No,” she answered.

“Then why. . .”

She tilted her head, looked me over again, but this time with genuine, appalled curiosity. “You should ask for a transfer.”

But the commander didn’t want to transfer me. After three days of phone calls with the wrong offices, knocking on the wrong doors in the wrong buildings, more phone calls with subordinates who refused to put me through, more wrong doors in Tel Aviv, and Bet Shemesh, I found the right commander in the Jerusalem Talpiot recruitment office where I’d started my search. Tall, muscular, tan, dark brown eyes, hair slightly too long, top uniform button undone, two falafels (military insignias) on his fatigues, he was exactly what a casting director would order to play a tank commander, which is to say he looked nothing like me.

“Elephant,” he said. Like the recruitment officer, he kept his eyes on my file, not on me. “You don’t want to be in a tank?”

“It’s a mistake,” I said, trying, but failing, to sound impolite.

He looked at me for the first time. Noting my physique, he did a double take. But then he shrugged. The orders said what they said. “There is another Elephant?” he said. “With the identical date of birth? I don’t think so.”

“I think there might be,” I insisted. Then added “Sir” for the first time in my life.

He smiled, then handed me back my file. “Give us a try, Elephant,” he said. “Otherwise. . ?” he shrugged. Otherwise, what? I thought. He never answered. I joined the Seventh.

Three weeks later, I considered running away. It wasn’t the six-kilometer midnight mud runs on cold nights, where I always finished last; it wasn’t my wretched slowness in scaling the splinter-filled wall; it wasn’t our sergeant screaming into my ear during our daytime runs so his spit bounced off my cheek, his Hebrew so fast I only caught every fourth word – and he knew my Hebrew wasn’t fluent. This was all torture, but also clearly the point of basic training. And there were benefits. My fellow soldiers all rooted me on. My Hebrew vocabulary expanded, especially all the colorful slang words for female body parts. I got in shape. But there was one essential task for a tank soldier that was simply beyond me.  I couldn’t load the shells into my tank’s turret because I couldn’t physically lift the shells on my own.  The ordinance was half my size and weighed much more. There was a reason for the strength requirement. I wasn’t strong. One day, after three weeks of sweaty, back-breaking, humiliating failures, I let the missile fall through my sopping hands and I ran into the barracks, sat on the floor, my back against the wall, and lit a cigarette (I’d just started smoking a week before). After thirty seconds I heard army-boot footsteps clopping up the steps. I expected my sergeant, waited for him to scream his spit-filled profanity at me, drag me back to the field. But it was the unit commander. He eased himself down next to me, his muscled legs stretching long past mine. He leaned back and put his arm around me. “Elephant,” he said. “You are the strongest soldier in the unit, Elephant.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, right.”

He nodded toward the door. “All these boys. They go home to mommy on Shabbat. She cooks for them, washes their uniforms. They see their friends, their brothers, little sisters. Everyone treats them like heroes. I know you, Elephant. You’re alone here. You chose to be with us. You are the hero, Elephant.”

I stubbed out my cigarette on the floor. “I can’t lift the fucking shell.”

He shrugged. “Elephant. Here’s the plan. Every day, before breakfast. You and me, Elephant. We’ll lift weights. I also need to be stronger. In six months, I swear to you, Elephant. You’ll lift two shells. With one arm. Elephant.”

After six months of pre-dawn work-outs, I still couldn’t lift a single shell. By the time I finished my service, with luck, and ten minutes of screaming, grunting and fighting, I could sometimes wrestle the missile into the turret. But not often.

 

I was a “lonely soldier,” my semi-ironic translation of chayil boded – the Hebrew designation of an immigrant soldier with no immediate family in Israel. The word boded could also mean “lone,” but during my time in the army I was rarely alone. Like most soldiers, piled on top of each other in cramped barracks, I craved aloneness. On the other hand, I was often lonely.   As a chayil boded, I was assigned a “family” – folks with a house I could escape to on weekends, or other earned leaves. My army mom and dad – The Feldmans– treated me like the stranger I was. They were polite, hospitable, even generous. Mom – she insisted I call her Ima, Hebrew for “mom,” – learned to cook macaroni and cheese, and Dad (Abba) took me to shoot baskets in a local park. But they only ever asked me one question: how is the army? I hated the army with a dark passion, so this was a difficult question to answer. I stuck to “fine,” which gave Abba the opportunity to regale me with stories from the Sinai campaign, when he apparently chased the Egyptian army in a jeep, armed only with a Hungarian pistol. He’d recite the same story, then drive past me on the basketball court, tsking about my slowness and wondering how I ever made it to tanks. After my fourth week of basic training – that is, after the second time I tried to transfer out – I stopped spending my weekends with the Feldmans and switched to Minna and Willy.

Minna, my grandmother’s first cousin, was a Holocaust survivor, her Auschwitz tattoo prominent on her chubby forearm. Willy refused to call himself a survivor, but he’d spent the war hiding in the forests of Lithuania, climbing trees to avoid SS killers. They’d met at a DP camp in Cyprus and got married two weeks later.  I met them a year before I enlisted in the army. I was spending my junior-year of college in Israel and they were my only family. I didn’t enjoy the one Shabbat I spent with them in their tiny apartment in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. Minna only spoke Yiddish, so I couldn’t converse with her, though she kept trying as if somehow I’d magically pick up the old language if she spoke it quickly enough. Willy was fluent in Hebrew, but he only wanted to talk about how much he hated the Labor Zionists who, he claimed, ruined the country. I didn’t dislike the old, childless couple, but my dominant mode of being that year was having fun, and no one would describe Willy and Minna as fun.

But a year later, ensconced in the wrong unit, with frozen mud runs, limited sleep, and shell-wrestling my daily curse, fun was no longer on the table. I longed for family. I called Willy and he quickly agreed to take me in, beginning that weekend.

Minna had evidently learned some English since I’d last seen her, since she greeted me at the door with the word “Food.” “I have food,” she said, completing an entire sentence, and my nose told me she wasn’t lying. I smelled fried peppers, fried onions, fried garlic, fried tomatoes, and some kind of fried meat – probably chicken, but the frying garlic overwhelmed everything. Even though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday, we immediately sat down for Shabbat dinner. That was fine with me. In my army years I was in a state of permanent hunger. I could eat any time; for that matter, I could sleep any time. “Food,” Minna called for the third time. She brought in a tray heaped with chicken schnitzels, coleslaw, and shakshuka – eggs, onions and green peppers.

It had only been a year, but Minna somehow looked a decade older. Blue varicose veins now accompanied the Auschwitz tattoo on her fleshy forearm. Her limp had become more of a waddle, and she winced every time she took a step. I jumped up to help her, but Willy pulled me down. “It makes her happy to serve you,” he said. And she did seem pleased, possibly from successfully utilizing a new language, though she switched to Yiddish as soon as she sat down and babbled on for the rest of the meal. Willy translated her first sentence – “We’re happy to see you” – then ignored the rest.

After dinner, Willy led me by my arm to the living room, poured two glasses of brandy, and lectured me on Israeli politics. I made it through half a glass, then passed out in my armchair. When I woke up hours later, I was lying prone on the sofa, covered by a cool comforter. Without washing up – I was in the army – I peeled off my uniform, burrowed into my pillow and slept until 1PM the next day.

And that was my first eighteen months as a lonely soldier. Backbreaking training as a tankist, where I gradually rose to a slightly less than mediocre level of performance. I could drive a tank in something resembling a straight line. I could execute a turn as long as I was fully braked. And, on rare occasions, I could heave a shell into the right place.  Shabbats and holidays I spent with Minna and Willie – always the same meals: fried chicken schnitzel, fried vegetables, fried eggs in the morning, then re-fried leftovers. Minna never learned another English word and Willie never changed the subject from his hatred of the political left.

On the first day of my eighteenth month an official army letter astonished me. I was being released. When I’d enlisted, they told me I’d be in for two years. But someone had miscalculated, and it turned out, based on my age when I joined, that I’d served my term. One more week and I was free.

I was still pumping weights with the commander every morning. When I saw him the next day, I held out the letter. He grabbed it and held it in his fingers while lying flat on a mat and pushing up a 150-pound barbell. He read the orders while holding up the weight. Then he bounced the barbell on to the matt, handed me the note, and shrugged his wide shoulder. “Don’t leave,” he said. “You don’t have to. I’ll recommend you for officer’s training.” He added two ten-pound weights to the bar.

“Are you joking?” I asked. I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe he was.

He shook his head. “Elephant. What can I do with you, Elephant? You still don’t know?”

“Sir? Don’t know what?”

“Elephant, you’re the strongest.”

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Enough with the. . .”

“Shah!” He hissed sharply.  Israeli army officers constantly amazed me with their ability to hiss with a volume loud enough to carry through a room.  When I taught high school much later in life it was a skill I tried to develop, unsuccessfully. That morning, the commander reinforced his silencing shush by cupping his right hand and pointing it at me, a signal that for ordinary Israelis meant “hold on a second” but in the army meant “don’t you dare fucking interrupt me.”

“You don’t see it?” he said. “Your leadership potential? Everything you’ve learned? How you’ve grown? Everything you could give to this country?”

In my mind, I’d already given eighteen months. But the commander was a career officer, and I didn’t expect him to understand. I didn’t say anything. He stared at me, and for the first time in eighteen months I held his gaze with no difficulty. “Go then,” he said. “Take your trip to India. To Brazil. Go back to America. Elephant.”

Actually, unlike most native Israelis, I wasn’t planning a liberating post-army trip. I’d been offered a teller job in an Israeli bank around the corner from Minnah and Willy’s, and I figured I’d start a few months early. I had a ticket to visit home in Cleveland but it wasn’t for another six months and I’d return after two weeks. I could tell the commander was pissed off at me, but I couldn’t figure why. Most soldiers didn’t stay for officer training, and he couldn’t have been serious about my qualifications. From driving, to navigating to firing – not to mention lifting the goddam shells – I had, hands down, the worst skills in the unit. The joke among the men was that you knew Israel was in deep trouble if I was ever ordered into battle. The line didn’t offend me. I came up with it.

“Well, we’re done, Elephant,” the commander said. We stood and faced each other. Was I supposed to salute? Salutes were rare in the IDF.

“I want to thank you,” I said.

“Go,” he said, flicking his hand. “Go.”

I turned to leave. But he called me back. “Elephant. You follow the news?”

I used to, I thought to myself. Before the army. Now, after an exhausting day, I only wanted food, then sleep. I only used my radio for music. But I nodded. “Lebanon, you mean?”  For the past several weeks PLO terrorists in Lebanon were shelling Israel’s northern cities, mostly Nahariya and Kiryat Shemona. Like everyone in the unit, I heard rumors of an invasion but, to me, that seemed unlikely. So far, no one had even gotten injured.

“Maybe don’t leave the country so fast.”

“Seriously?”

Lehitraot, Elephant,” he said, and marched away. I wondered. Lehitraot in Hebrew means “I’ll see you soon.”

 

Philip Graubart is a rabbi and writer living in San Diego. He’s served congregations in Massachusetts and California, and worked in leadership positions at the National Yiddish Book Center and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He’s published six novels, and his latest, Here There Is No Why will be published next summer.

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