Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Army

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 25 May 1999

Here in Israel, the army (Israel Defense Forces or IDF) is a dominant feature of the culture. I have mentioned before that almost all Israeli men and women are required to serve in the army, starting at age 18. Women serve for two years, men for three. The men continue to serve, as reservists, for up to thirty days a year, until age 45. For this small country, that policy has been a necessity. In the 51 years since its establishment, Israel has been at war no less than 5 times.

It is common to see young men and women in uniform every time you leave your house. In shopping malls, at the movies, waiting at bus stops...they are everywhere. On every variety show broadcast, you will see large blocks of soldiers sitting in the audience enjoying the program (they are given free tickets). Army service is a standard part of every job resume, along with education and work experience. It can be very difficult to get a job in Israel if you did not serve in the army.

Sometimes you see fathers in uniform, dropping off their kids at school. Either they are career military, or they are on their way to reserve duty. All army correspondence, including notices to report for reserve service (called "milueem" in Hebrew), arrive in a special brown envelope. As soon as you see it in your mailbox, your heart sinks. It is no surprise that reserve service interrupts work and family life. Last year, my husband missed our daughter's first day of elementary school. This year, he was away during her birthday.

Reserve service means not having your spouse there for all the small things he does to help out. It means he may not be home for weeks - or he might get leave and come home for the weekend. In either case, he'll arrive sweaty and exhausted, with a duffel bag full of filthy uniforms to wash. It means his feet will be in terrible shape, after days of wearing ill-fitting army-issue boots. If he comes home on leave, he will most likely be bringing a rifle and a clip of ammunition home, too. A safe place needs to be found for that right away.

While your husband is away on milueem, your kids might regress and need special attention. When they are very little, it is a good idea to let the preschool teacher know that abba (daddy) is doing his reserve service, so she can give your child a bit of extra patience and understanding. When your husband is on milueem, all of your friends call and ask if there is anything they can do for you. They invite your kids over for extended play dates, or ask you to come for dinner. It helps to know that your friends know what you're going through, because they have been through something similar.

The whole army experience, both regular and reserve service, brings the people of Israel together. It creates a kind of closeness that I believe explains a great deal about the Israeli character.

(c) Amy Samin

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