It was 70 years ago that Israel’s legendary paratroopers were born, even before the state, a brigade tracing its lineage to 1944 when Hannah Senesh, Peretz Goldstein, and Yoel Palgi, from the pre-state Yishuv, parachuted behind Nazi lines to aid the Jewish resistance. Palgi alone survived, and a few years later became the founding commander of the Israel Defense Force’s paratroopers. They are now one of the IDF’s elite special forces, liberating Jerusalem’s Old City and Temple Mount in 1967; crossing the Suez Canal in the pivotal maneuver of the Yom Kippur War; with Senesh’s words studied in poetry books and their military endeavors studied in West Point.
All these years later, how five Israeli teenagers, fresh out of high school, are trained for eight months to become worthy of joining the paratroopers, is the story of a new documentary, “Beneath The Helmet: From High School to the Home Front,” produced with a million-dollar budget by Jerusalem U, a Zionist advocacy group that aims at “strengthening the emotional and intellectual connection of young Jews to Judaism and Israel.” Obviously, this film is intended to be inspirational, not journalism, and in fact the film was subject to IDF military censorship. Of course, there is no way they could have filmed military training without IDF oversight and approval. But while censorship is often crushing, in this case the censors — forbidding any discussion of politics — actually do everyone a favor. Are we really going to learn anything politically from teenagers who have yet to set foot in college or a war zone? Israel’s military service is mandatory but paratrooper service is voluntary and only 1-in-5 volunteers are accepted, so it is doubtful that any cynics would be found in this particular group, all eager to wear the paratroopers’ prestigious red beret awarded after 205 days of rigorous training.
And so, shielded by the censor from current events and geopolitics, we’re able to simply make the acquaintance of several novice soldiers, each one thoroughly honest about their personal situations and goals, each more soulful than the next (and picked for their English fluency in this bilingual film).
We get to know Pvt. Mekonen Abeba, an Ethiopian, and his good friend and cultural opposite, Pvt. Oren Giladi, a “Lone Soldier” (emigrating to Israel without his family, who still live in a Swiss lakeside village).
Oren — in this intimate film, everyone is called by their first names — explains, “In Switzerland they don’t really need me.” But in Israel he feels needed, “to defend the people.” He admits that he has “exactly the same mentality as any Swiss person. But [my] nature will always be Jewish and will always be different from the Swiss. … The Jewish people mean everything to me. For me, my life is the Jewish people.”
Mekonen, born in a rural village, says that back in Africa, “I dreamed and my parents dreamed that we would be in Jerusalem. They told me we’re different. We’re Jews… Our place is Jerusalem.”
Oren says of his friendship with Mekonen, “We have a lot in common. We’re Jewish.”
Many of the soldiers, a minority of whom are briefly shown putting on tefillin or kissing a mezuzah, have grown up feeling that mystical love that some Jews instinctively feel for another. They also love their guns. “They teach us that our gun is like our girlfriend,” says Oren, “because you’re sleeping with it, you’re eating with it … you’re going everywhere with this gun.” Oren’s “girlfriend” even has a name, “Dalia.”
Mekonen had a difficult home life. One soldier noticed, “He’s depressed.” Said another, “His head wasn’t with us.” Mekonen, along with his mother, supported a family of 10, accumulating debt and bills that he couldn’t pay on a private’s salary. While visiting home, he calls his commander to say he couldn’t return.
The commander, Ofir Vadas, warns Mekonen’s mother over the phone, if Mekonen doesn’t return to the army, “you’ve sealed his fate.” Israeli society doesn’t look kindly on deserters.
Oren explains to the camera, “A soldier that finishes in a combat unit has a lot of doors opened for him in life. But if Mekonen goes AWOL, the police will find him and prosecute him.”
Lt. Ethan Adler says, “If we don’t invest in him now, he will fall between our fingers. I won’t be able to live with myself afterwards, knowing that I could have saved him … from drugs or all sorts of menial labor. I won’t be able to live with it.”
Mekonen returns to the base, and the very next day his commander goes with Mekonen to the bank and the debt collectors, advocating for the troubled soldier.
Eden, a long-distance runner, met Mekonen outside the base. “Have you ever run long distances?” Eden asked. “When you run long distances … there are difficult moments when it’s hard to keep going and we want to give up. This is one of those difficult moments. You just need someone who will tell you to continue, you’re going to be fine. That’s us. We’re the voice inside that’s telling you, ‘Mekonen, we’re right here with you.’
“I just had a great phone call,” Eden continued. “We were able to get a donation and the donation will cover all of your debts. This should help you a little bit … . I don’t know what happened in the past and it doesn’t interest me. What interests me,” Eden says, “is that now you’re with us, and we’re with you. And,” he pulls out an envelope, “here’s the money, okay?”
Mekonen’s teary eyes are now mixed with a sad smile. “Thank you very much.” His eyes ask why?
“First and foremost,” explains Eden to Mekonen, “This is the Jewish people. For us … we’re family now.”
Nevertheless, this is an army and the Angel of Death follows them around like a drummer boy.
Eden’s grandmother tells him, “I’m worried. I’m really worried, I want you to return to us in peace, that’s it.”
At the family dinner, Eden gives thanks “to those who fell in the past, so we can sit here like this.”
In Jerusalem, Maj. Aviv Wishkovsky tells the soldiers, “You are going to connect to a long chain of generations that dreamed about you [a Jewish army] protecting the people of Israel. … Jews all over the world prayed for this moment. All the prayers toward the Temple Mount will be above you.”
Visiting Har Herzl, the military cemetery, the major says, “Three of my friends are buried here. Three friends remain 20 [years old], as time passes by.”
Another soldier quotes a bereaved mother who said, those who die “will live through you. That you’ll continue to protect the country. That you’ll be optimistic …”
After 204 days, the training is almost over. The final hike is for a distance of about 40 miles, 16 hours, while carrying 45-65 pounds of gear. “It’s going to be nasty,” says one. Not to finish the hike is not to get the red beret. As Capt. Gal Carmi instructed them at their first hike, “Always remember, ‘The Eternal Nation is not afraid of the derech aruka, the long journey.’ You shall help the weak, push him …”
The soldiers help each other on hills, pulling friends by their hands. “We’re together. And when there’s hardship, we’re together,” says one. “No one is alone. Because this is the people of Israel.”
Who is this film for? The producers would like to see it in every Jewish high school, Hillel and summer camp. There are more than 200 young men and women from New York-area day schools currently serving in the IDF, and surely similar students should be interested in seeing what military training looks like. But the producers have also booked the film into several universities where everything about the IDF is political, no matter the film’s apolitical claim. One of the officers from the film, now in the reserves, will accompany the film on its rounds, attempting to answer questions. He tells us, “You don’t have to wear a uniform to defend Israel.”
Rebecca Shore, the film’s producer, tells us before the recent New York premiere at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “We anticipate that it’s not going to be pretty on certain campuses.” At least, “I want every Jewish kid that walks out of this film to be inspired, to know there are Jewish heroes in the world.”
Let’s take leave of the young soldiers as they finish that 40-mile hike through the night, into downtown Jerusalem. “Chin up. Forget about your pain,” shout the commanders. “Sixty years ago there were battles here … for the liberation of Jerusalem.” Seventy years ago, Hannah Senesh was parachuting into Nazi territory where Jews could only dream of Jerusalem. “And now you’re here, you with the stretcher, here in Jerusalem.”
Of course, the empty stretchers, held high on this march but weighed down with sandbags equal to a human body, will be the inevitable end for some soldiers marching in the cool of that Jerusalem night.
After 40 miles, the commander says, “We’ll enter [Jerusalem] with our chests up, standing tall, as if we began the march just now. And most importantly, keep on smiling, because no matter what, no one [can] take away your smile.”
“By this time next week,” says one, “they’ll find themselves protecting the northern border of Israel.”
For upcoming screenings or further information, see the film’s website, https://www.beneathhelmet.com.