Home March 2014 When Johnny Comes Marching Home

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

I thought it would feel “heavier” and there would be more reflection. That the meaning of his military service would loom larger.  Instead it felt like, uh, Friday.
“Mom, can you see if I cut it evenly and clean my neck?” shouted Ariel an hour before candle lighting. “And is there enough hot water for a shower?” Dutifully, I cleaned up the shaved-to-a-stubble head with electric hair clippers and made certain that the back was evenly squared at the bottom. Surprisingly, I felt no pressure due to the oncoming Sabbath. Everything was ready; the table set, laundry folded and put away and enough time to issue Ariel the requisite military haircut. For the last time. In only 48 hours he’d be officially released from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
When he was still a little boy, I’d written about the fear, the shame of imposing my iron-clad Zionist values upon children who rarely/never questioned my decisions. Who felt safe in the knowledge that Mommy and Daddy knew best. No one was handed a Q & A form: “Who wants to move to Israel and serve in the army to preserve our God-given right to the land?” The possibility of giving up one’s life wasn’t even a blip on our radar screen.  My toddlers and tadpoles nestled in my lap, impervious to any obscure dangers that might await any of us in the future.
But there was another truth, far darker and far more humiliating an admission than anything else I can think of. Because in my heart-of-hearts, I conveniently believed that Israeli mothers were made of other stuff, that they loved their children “differently.” That because I was American-born, I was made of mush inside; less prepared for the potentialities of war. I naively and arrogantly believed that an Israeli mother would be more accepting of bad news if/when her soldier son died; certainly she must be better inured to the frailty of human life. Idiot that I was, I wanted to believe that only an American mother would grieve more deeply at losing a child.
Part of self-awareness is the ability to admit when you’re wrong. Assuming thus, I’m the Queen of Cognizance, because I now know that Israeli Mommies are the deepest and most passionate humans on the face of the planet, and, despite my former arrogant stupidity, there is no dearth of awareness as they send their babies to patrol our borders. Those whom, by the luck of the draw, are destined to pay the ultimate price, sit next to me in synagogue, are in my Weight Watchers group, make dinner for their other children and sometimes go bowling or out for pizza with their husbands.
I implore our God in Heaven never to test me as I unabashedly crow that, as of today, I’m the mother of an IDF son who has served his three combat years with honor and determination. And with the exception of two or three worrisome days, I never succumbed to the fear. This isn’t to say that I didn’t cry and cringe with fear during the few stretches of time that he was unreachable and – as I’d later find out – in terrible danger. As the rockets fell in Sderot and even in the fields near Jerusalem, he’d call and tell me not to expect to hear from him until “Thursday” or “when I can.” Did I wring my hands, fall to my knees and run to the Western Wall for some supplementary praying? Not really. Of course I prayed, but it is Israel; I prayed for all our sons. I prayed that no mother received unwanted news. And I knew that other women were praying for me as well. Placing one foot in front of the other and periodically checking my lipstick, I survived Ariel’s army service.

Indeed, the years sped by, and I am embarrassed to confess that I never got around to surprising him on his base with pots of favorite stews and home-baked cookies the way that other mothers did. I meant to have “the boys” over for beers and kebobs and host more lone soldier buddies for Sabbath meals more often than I did. And though he did schlep home a khaki-clad straggler or two for a well-earned shower, a good night’s sleep and a chance to do a load of laundry before returning to active duty, my recollections are hazy and skewed. “Hey, Mom, remember the guy from Ohio whose mother was Christian, and he was thinking about converting? He just started learning at the Technion.” No, I didn’t remember him.  “Mom, the Russian kid who stayed here for a week wants your recipe for mandelbrodt.” Who? What?
Ari was quieter than usual this “last Shabbat.” There was little laundry to do as most of his uniform pieces have already been returned for next year’s inductees. He has confessed that he will miss his gun; a soldier is a soldier twenty-four hours a day and, true to his personality, he was always “on alert.” And I can’t imagine how Civilian Ariel will look. Thankfully, he has three job interviews lined up, is beginning to study for college entrance exams, has put out some feelers for shlichut (Zionist outreach) programs and I think I hear him whispering on the phone to a girl. Many of his buddies are taking off in the coming days to India, Bolivia, Nepal and Kenya. Ari’s plans aren’t so grandiose, but one thing we’ve agreed upon.  And at the end of the month we will have an open house evening replete with drinks, desserts, music and laughter.  In Hebrew it’s called seudat hoda’ah – a Feast of Gratitude.
I know what I said about it not feeling heavy, but, typically, I’ve changed my mind and understand, now that this milestone feels teary and cuddly, prayer-filled and huge.  By virtue of Ariel’s service, I believe that our family is even more deeply rooted in the complexity and glory of Jewish history. We’ve also claimed seats – front and center – to the powerful unfolding of Israel’s blessed future.

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