It been had been a rather tumultuous, elbow-in-the-back subway ride by the time a few friends and I arrived at the New York hotel where two Israeli soldiers were staying. The soldiers participated in the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) gala dinner in March. We were introduced to the soldiers in the lobby; after a few minutes of admiring their full uniform from the khaki shirts and pants to the well-worn combat boots, we went up to the second floor balcony and sat down cross-legged on the floor to talk.
My friends got straight down to the questioning, but I, being a bit shy, blanked out on anything to ask. When I finally thought of a question, I wasn’t sure I should actually ask it, as I thought it wasn’t all that important. For the time being, then, I kept quiet.
We first got to know Sharon Grisaru, who was originally from Herzliya, Israel, moved to Canada when she was 7 and then went back to Israel at age 10. She is now 21 and serves as a combat paramedic in a 500-soldier brigade.
The other, Chen Saban, originally from outside Tel Aviv, is a 21-year-old paratrooper and commander of a 25-soldier platoon. They spoke to us for about an hour, but after only a few minutes their dedication to Israel was clear. Both Sharon and Chen joined the army at age 18, as is the custom in Israel for men and women.
The first thing we asked, of course, was about the food in the army. We were informed that it stinks during training; there’s nothing warm to eat. Sharon told us that when they do want warm food, they have to cook it by making a fire out of toilet paper. At other times, though, it really depends on the cook’s mood. To me, this form of self-deprivation was a clear sign of commitment. I honestly don’t know how I would live off of the smoked tuna and corn they told us about.
But apparently, their dedication to defending Israel goes much further than that. Chen told us that he had been in the army only two months when he was taken with a few others to learn to parachute. He explained that it was really nerve-racking, but when his group was asked if there was a volunteer willing to jump first, he stepped up and in the end, it was “really nice,” he said. He has now jumped a total of seven times. We asked him whether he thinks parachuting from a plane is dangerous. “It’s a bit risky,” he replied. We laughed.
Sharon also gets into extremely risky situations, but on the ground. When asked whether they ever get anxious in combat, both soldiers described that they are more excited and pumped with adrenaline than scared. You just do what you’re trained to do, they said— you’re obligated to do it and you’re proud of it. “We don’t think about the worst thing that could happen; we would never win that way,” Sharon explained.
We oohed and aaahed over the fact that they get to carry around Uzi guns. “I don’t know if it’s cool, but it’s certainly necessary,” Sharon said. They then said it’s nothing like the war movies; unlike what we tend to think, they don’t really use their weapons. They try to fight as nonviolently as possible; they don’t want to hurt anyone.
We asked if all the inaccurate information that gets around in the media about the army gets on their nerves. For example, falsely implicating Israeli soldiers in the deaths of three Egyptian soldiers in August. Yes, they acknowledged; it is very hard for soldiers when they see all this awful and untrue information in the media, but they do their best to ignore it. “We’re really proud of what we do,” Sharon asserted. On their trip to New York they were astounded that 1,300 people came to greet them at the Friends of the IDF dinner and were there for them. In Israel, they explained, you don’t realize how much people outside of the country care about you.
They also spoke of their other boosters at home. Being in the army means always being surrounded by friends, even when you’re their commander, like Chen is. You learn so much about friendship, because you know that in the army your friend is the one who’s going to take care of you, the soldiers said. Chen pointed out that you see people in the reserves who haven’t seen each other for years, greet each other like they just saw them a couple days before. “We’re like brothers and sisters,” concluded Sharon.
One question had been burning away in me the entire time. When our interview with them was nearly over, I blurted out, “Those care packages we send you — with the gum and the toothpaste — do they really help?” I was recalling a package I had once sent via the organization Thank Israeli Soldiers and was stuck over the idea that soldiers would really appreciate a travel size tube of toothpaste. Fortunately for me, Sharon’s face lit up at the mention of them. This past Purim she and her friends got packages full of candy and even shampoo — it really makes them happy when they get the packages whether or not they need the items, she said enthusiastically. They even hang up the letters that come with them; they absolutely love them.
With that question answered, I was satisfied. After a few last words, we said our goodbyes, exchanged e-mails, thanked them for protecting Israel and left. I went home feeling proud of my people — and jealous of their boots.