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September 21, 2014 | 26th Elul 5774

Present Arms

February 11, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

Just returned from Lev's “beret ceremony” for paratroopers: graduation from basic training. This, it turns out, is a major rite of passage for Israeli males (except, of course, for ultra-orthodox and most Arabs). No matter what you have scheduled for that day, if you tell people you have your son’s beret ceremony, you are expected to cancel your plans and go. And so we packed up snacks and umbrellas and picnic blankets and set off for the three hour drive to Jerusalem, on a cold, showery day. Having done extensive research among veteran parents about the appropriate fare for the post-ceremony picnic, we stopped at one of the hole-in-the-wall “steakiot” in the Machaneh Yehuda market on the way into town. The proprietors, upon learning our destination, treated us as honored guests, filling styrofoam containers with salads and sauces and soggy french fries to go with the grilled steaks.

Arriving at Ammunition Hill, the memorial park where the paratroopers heroically overcame the well-fortified Jordanians in 1967, we found the kid waiting for us in dress uniform, hobbling around painfully like all his colleagues, having marched 50 miles overnight from the coast to Jerusalem - the institution of the “beret march.” After half an hour of hearing stories from the march, and being introduced to the buddies and officers we had heard about for the past six months, the parents were directed to seats in an amphitheater while the army organized the kids into loosely lined-up companies in the center. The pot-bellied master sergeant called us to order, goose-stepped to the microphone, and emceed the ceremony - flag raising, recognition of outstanding trainees, trite but appropriate inspirational speech by the base commander, lots of “company, attention” and “company, at ease,” and then “company commanders, present berets!”

And then, with Israeli easy-listening songs playing on the loudspeaker, songs that conjured up images of good old days of heroism and simplicity, each commander - himself just a year older than his charges - presented each new paratrooper with the trademark maroon beret and gave him a slap or a hug of affection. At one point, when the slaps and hugs were taking too long, the master sergeant barked, “company commanders, hurry up!” Then, Hatikvah was sung along with the taped choir, and with a whoop, all the berets were tossed in the air, and the smiling troops hobbled off to dine with their families on luke-warm steaks on the wet grass.

Looking over the crowd, I was reminded again what a great leveler the army is here. The families represented every ethnic and socio-economic grouping, from professors to executives to laborers, religious and non, city and kibbutz, left and right. We were jockeying for camera angles, annoyed in a good natured way by each others’ umbrellas. Our kids were learning to depend on each other and support each other, to take on responsibility for each other and for all of us in ways that seem unimaginable to me.

As a rite of passage and a leveler, the army with its silly ceremonies can make one feel proud. You find yourself qvelling to the taped military march music, and eagerly photographing your kid with his beret and rifle. And you know “we have no choice.” You know we have a right to exist. You know history. You know we live in a violent world. And yet you wonder what you are doing, and if it has to be this way. You wonder how our democracy might be if it weren’t led by generals. You wonder about the effect of learning how to kill as a rite of passage, as the one thing that unites us. And you wonder how it is that you decided to move to a place where your child is learning hand-to-hand combat while his classmates from elementary school in Philadelphia are learning liberal arts.

And then the kid tells you with great enthusiasm that next week they move on to paratroop training - i.e., jumping out of airplanes. And you understand that armies are for kids. And you wonder if it has to be this way.

 

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