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Leah Bieler Headshot

Lessons From a Summer Vacation at War

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I was out to dinner in Jerusalem last week with a group of friends, some American, some Israeli. It was a mostly upbeat evening, with good food and wine, a bit too much of both. Thoughts of the war wandered into the meal like a hungry cat nudging at our shins under the table, but there was plenty of levity as well. Most of the Americans at the meal would have been considered fluent in Hebrew by nearly any standard. The conversation arrived at the one piece of language acquisition that can trip up even those of us who dream in a second language: the figure of speech.

One of the diners said she had just had the opportunity to use an expression for the first time, and she was amused that it was one that was itself already an anachronism. The phrase she used was "Nafal ha'asimon." Literally it means "The phone token dropped." It's the Hebrew equivalent of the English expression "A light bulb went off" or "It clicked," meaning "I got it" or "I finally understood." It refers to the old-style Israeli payphones, which required a dedicated phone token in order to make a call. Anyone who's ever used a payphone -- and we're getting to be an elderly bunch -- knows the feeling. You dial your number, then wait until the call connects, the money in the machine engages, and your stomach does that tiny flip of excitement when you know the call has gone through. It's Oprah's "'aha!' moment," I suppose.

Sometimes "Nafal ha'asimon" refers to the second when information comes together and finally marches itself into order, like a difficult math problem that you solve after a struggle. You had all the pieces but couldn't for the life of you figure out how to synthesize that knowledge to answer the problem. And then, suddenly, magically, it all makes sense. The numbers no longer fly aimlessly off the page. The answer was there all along. Aha! The token dropped.

Other times, though, that moment is willful.

A few months into our marriage, my husband discovered a lump in his neck. Thinking the doctor would tell him it was nothing, he was a bit surprised when he was told it needed to come out, and soon. Still, though, we were not overly concerned. This kind of tumor was benign fully 80 percent of the time. We scheduled the surgery, a four hour-long ordeal in which they worked with terrific precision to avoid severing his facial nerves.

Halfway through, the surgeon, who, as it happened, was a neighbor of ours, came to the waiting room. The tumor had looked suspicious, so he had sent it to the lab right away so that they could get the pathology before they closed him up. Two hours later he was back, a smile from ear to ear. The surgery had been a success, and the tumor benign. In the recovery room they gave my husband the same good news, and he related that his first thought was, "Benign? You mean it could have been malignant? Holy crap!" He'd known it all along, yet only after the surgery, when he knew everything was OK, nafal lo ha'asimon. His token dropped.

We spend our summers in Israel and the rest of the year in the States, so even given the current crisis, here we are, sending the kids to camp and keeping an eye on the nearest bomb shelter. Over the last two weeks I've seen numerous videos of soldiers -- kids, really, not much older than my own biggest children. They are videos meant to inspire love and pride. They are all essentially the same: A large group of young men in uniform, just outside Gaza, getting ready for the fighting. They sing, nearly screaming, songs about God, and Torah, and the Jewish people, dancing with the fervor of a groom at his wedding. They have their arms around each other. Sometimes there is a gun in the air.

The mini-films are intended to be inspirational. But, after the initial tear in my eye, these videos leave me surprisingly cold. What does a child in Gaza think if he sees these clips on YouTube? Will knowing how much we love our country make him run even faster when he catches a note from the sky telling him to evacuate? Is this who we are, dancing with guns in the air while singing about God and Torah? Is this what I want for my children when we talk about joining the army or making aliyah?

These summer evenings I sat in my apartment in Jerusalem and wrote careful letters to my older kids at sleepaway camp in the States. I thought, "Maybe this is the reason I react the way I do, my heart stretched as it is, nearly all the time, across oceans. Maybe it is my essential Americanness that divides my emotions as I watch those videos." After all, how can we send soldiers, not yet old enough to buy a beer in the U.S., to risk their lives for our country without a little dose of indoctrination? Don't they need to be hyped up, adrenaline rushing, in order to have the best chance for survival? Will this be my own children someday, drugged on patriotism and music and history, babies sent in to fight on behalf of grown men who know there is always more political capital to be gained from a war than from sitting and compromising at a table?

I recall an evening when I was in college and working in Israel for the summer. I spent Shabbat with close friends, more like family. When the sky was dark and I knew I had to return home for work Sunday morning, I got in the car with the father, a close college friend of my mother's. His eldest son, a couple of years my junior, was in the army in Lebanon. All of Shabbat we had been joking about the army base I had stayed on a few years earlier. The father had been stationed there numerous times in his reserve unit, and he loved the irony that this little American girl had been sent to what he considered to be the worst army base in the country.

I knew that in the back of his mind, though, was a constant, low-level buzz of anxiety and worry. Willfully he held the volume on low. While we were driving, the beeps that announce the news at the top of the hour sounded. Out of habit he turned up the radio. I only half-listened, involved in my own thoughts. Something about some soldiers who had been killed, names I did not recognize. With sudden force he drove the car onto the shoulder and put in in park. Then he let out a sob, a scream, that came from somewhere unrecognizable. It was clear that it would be a while until he could talk, so I waited, silently, in the passenger seat. When his cries had calmed enough to speak, he explained.

"That was my son's unit. His commander."

Even though he knew his son was in the army, doing dangerous things, and even though he himself had served for so many years, hearing now how close his son had come to death, the token that he had been holding back by sheer force of will finally dropped.

And even if this might be a just war, and even though Hamas is, well, Hamas, those videos haunt me still. That's when the light bulb goes off. Nofel li ha'asimon. In war it doesn't help at all to be right.