Growing up in a secular, upper middle class neighborhood in Jerusalem around the turn of the century, I felt I was firmly rooted in my country, an integral part of the land. My parents were both born in the city, as well as two of my grandparents, and although we were always on the (relatively deep) left side of the political spectrum, the Zionist narrative had a prominent role in the family historiography. My Grandfather was born to a Zionist family in Western Europe and immigrated to Palestine after the Holocaust, and he used to speak of the Jewish state as though it was nothing less than an historic wonder. While he viewed the process of its creation from the eyes of an outside admirer, his wife, my Grandmother, was born into it. For her, the creation of the state of Israel was a real act of personal fulfillment and collective realization.
This subtle yet potent sentiment that I picked up at home was echoed and augmented by my immediate childhood environment. Although my friends were all rather similar to me and shared my left-wing and liberal views, this was in no way a barrier for having strong patriotic feelings and a deep identification with the so called “reason for us being here”. The dominant social institutions in our life also played an integral part in this ethos: In the high school I attended – an establishment older than the country itself – the most important event of the year (or at least, so I remember) was the National Memorial Day. No classes were held during that day, and I can still sense the rush of excitement on my skin from the sight of recent graduates arriving to the main ceremony, wearing their ironed army uniforms, carrying their rifles by their side.
At a certain point during our middle and high school years, the question of our own recruitment became a central topic of conversation, and unavoidably – of dreams and aspirations. Older kids from school and from the Israeli scouts were being drafted, returning a few months later as seasoned men, and we wanted to be part of that. I remember a specific summer night at our senior year, when we were camping near the sea of Galilei. While the girls stayed on the shore, the guys went skinny dipping with our scouts’ group leader – a young man at his early twenties. The water was warm and my friends were beside me. Youth was running in our veins. We floated on our back, looking at the clear sky, and listened to our elder telling stories about army navigations in the Negev Desert, with only the night stars lighting the way.
This romantic view of the military service struck a deep chord with me. Since the early years of high school, if not before, I fantasized about my own recruitment to an elite combat unit. In my eyes, this future event was charged with transformative potential – to become the finest person I can be; to assert myself as a meaningful member of society. When I entered my senior year, I joined an army preparation course in order to get myself ready, both mentally and physically, to the IDF’s screening process. I felt I was well on my way to self-realization as a combat soldier.
Then, without any early warning, my world shattered. During a procedural health inspection I undertook for a youth basketball team, a heart defect was found. It was probably a structural issue that was there all along, something that won’t affect me in any way, but the army didn’t want to take any chances and my dreams of covert missions behind enemy lines ended abruptly. I remember sitting in a gloomy hospital room, my chest still sticky from the jell used for the ultrasound, listening to the cardiologist explaining that my life would never be exactly the same, assuring me that there are other meaningful ways in which I could contribute to my country. My mother was sitting beside me, and the air was buzzing with the sounds of medical instruments. As the doctor was speaking, tears welled in my eyes, and I felt my heart shrinking inside my chest.
Looking back at this experience today, I empathize with this sensitive teenager in the Cardiologist’s office, feeling his life has just been de-railed. I am also amazed by the pervasive power of a social mechanism put to work. I am not a fighter nor am I a warrior and still, large portions of my childhood dreams and aspirations were dedicated to these militaristic fantasies. There’s no telling where I would have been today without this health exam, what I would have seen or done. Sometimes I can’t help but think that this sudden change of course was just the cosmos way of letting me know that my heart just wouldn’t have been able to take it.