Sunday, April 29, 2012

Springtime Struggles

I don't like to do this, and don't do it often, but for the sake of giving an honest and full picture of my experiences as an immigrant soldier, I've decided to devote this post to what is mostly a vent. To say that everything is fine and dandy all the time would just be lying, so here's a bit on when the goings get tough.

April was not an easy month.  While it is usually a month that signifies at least two nights of full out family bonding in the form of Liben Passover Seders, I will remember April 2012 for a while as a month of many personal trials, tribulations, and failures -- with some really cool things sprinkled in on the side.  This pesach was such a difficult one for me because it was smack in the middle of my advanced training stage.  The weather went from pretty rainy/dreadful to beautiful overnight, but then again overnight from beautiful to super hot.  Hot weather, tougher assignments and drills, increasingly difficult workouts and runs all took their tolls on my body.  While I spent 4 months of basic training working off 5 years of beer and library induced physical rust and building myself basically from scratch, advanced training has not been particularly kind.  So although I am in much much better shape than when I enlisted just over 5 (!) months ago, the ratcheting up of things hit me quick and hard.  Notable examples include me still not having passed the obstacle course test in the required time of 9:30, me sweating more than all other 119 guys in my section and dealing with those bodily ramifications (needing to drink insane amounts of water, eat more salts, bring more spare clothes than everyone else, and apply gold bond literally everywhere), adjusting to walking/running/drilling with a heavy travel pack on my back in addition to my vest, and a combination of all of these factors gelling at once and causing my  body to completely break down during a trek so that I actually had to pull out after 12k (out of 40).  This last one really got me down because until that point treks had been a strong point of mine and instead of getting pumped up about what I've been doing and spending time with my family in Elwin, I was straight out failing one physical challenge after another.

I completely understand that one doesn't necessarily just succeed in a new environment so radically different than anything ever experienced before, and that is why I gave myself the adjustment period of 4 months of what I would call the very humbling era known as basic training.  But I did not account for such physical obstacles.  In other words, the physical pains were starting to affect my otherwise positive aura and prevent me from developing the other aspects of my military training/experience (leadership, language, professionalism etc.).  This was incredibly tough for me because I set high standards for myself in general, and especially for things that entail life altering decisions.  It is how I have led my life since the beginning of college, it is how I got myself into an elite unit in the Israeli army, and to not succeed with flying colors after 5 months of working myself into the system gets downright frustrating.

The physical affecting the mental is the lead in to what was Pesach 2012.  I think it was the first time that I really really missed the States.  It was totally the double whammy of not being in Natick with my siblings and parents and niece and nephews and then actually seeing my best friend since pre school and his family for a tease of a few days that did it.  To be struggling at your job, to not be with your family at an event when it has been a yearly highlight and fixture since childhood, to see a best friend come and go with the snap of a finger -- well hey man when those things all coalesce it can really depress you for a minute or two.  And it definitely brought me down.

But let's get real here, this post isn't really only a vent.  That's not who I am, and hopefully my readers (all three of them) know well that I am much more of a Peggy than a Debby.  So a couple of weeks ago when it was 7am, we had been awake for 2 hours and were walking several K with those huge packs that break your back without having eaten anything for breakfast, I was swearing off everyone and everything I could think of in my head.  It was literally just one of those mornings where I could find nothing good to think of.  And then we arrived at the main bivouac, ate a quick can of tuna, and sprinted onto helicopters.  Yep, we flew in a chopper, and I went from near tears to huge smiles.  There's always a light at the end of the tunnel, always something cool or important or meaningful, or maybe even just a tiny thing to you can take away and learn.  I have since made up the 40k trek (ok fine it was 39 but who's counting) and seen my big brother Micah -- here on a visit with his day schoolers; both things which improved my spirits invariably, especially seeing Micah.  I have a brutal month coming up, but it doesn't really matter.  My body will continue to go through insane cycles of blood, sweat, pain, and tears through the rest of my service, and it is really up to me to handle it in the best way I can: with a positive attitude and a determined will to succeed.  Nobody said it was gonna be easy, right?

Now, if only I could pass this damn obstacle course....

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Shabbat Shalom, readers! Just a quick reminder that if you're interested in keeping smaller/little tabs on me, the best way to do so is to follow me on twitter. Simply go to and search JonahLiben and there you will find plenty of little tidbits from the past year and a half. I usually will only have enough phone time to send out one or two tweets a week, but it's better than waiting for a spare weekend when I'm actually with a computer and able to type... That's all! With love

Friday, January 6, 2012

An Ode to Miron

My last post was kind of heavy so I decided to put up a short poem I scribbled in class last a couple of years ago.  It is a something of an ode to Professor Dan Miron, the scholar-saint-man-myth-legend of a professor at Columbia U.  I decided to post it now because if there is one thing that I didn't think I would miss but definitely miss, it's learning and reading. In the army, I simply do not have the time or energy for such frivolities!

So, to all you Hebrew speakers, enjoy!

מירון, יא גאון
קוראים אליך במיקרופון
איחרת! בדקנו בשעון

אתה אמור לעמוד בראש הכיתה
ולהרצות על הנפטרים מהספרייה
אבל הברזת
שנצ'ת? נמנמת? לאן נעלמת?

הקול שלו, חזק אלה נעים--
אותו רמה של מלאך ביום הדין,
חסר לנו בחדר
מקווים שהוא בסדר

מירון, יא גאון
קוראים אליך במיקרופון
בא כבר! ספר לנו קצת על עגנון


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Imagining the Un/Imaginable

Imagine that a topic that has demanded a consistent and persistent place in your thoughts for the past 5 years is no longer just a conversation in your head but a reality. 

In a few cases, you have gone against the advice of friends and family yet find your strongest support from the same people.  Some will never agree with your decision, but many many more have learned to live with it and send encouragement and smiles from all over, including the unlikeliest of places.  Regardless of personal opinion, all eyes are on you, charting your early successes and failures with varying degrees of distance or eagerness and sometimes a weirdly distant eagerness.

'How are you doing?' 'How is he holding up?' 'Is your Hebrew good enough?' 'Does he look healthy?' 'Are you ripped yet?' 'What exactly is his job?'  'When are you coming to visit?' 'When is he coming home?'

These questions and many more like them are the ones I have been fielding (directly or indirectly) since I enlisted in the Israeli army on November 23, 2011.  That was quite a day, exactly six weeks ago.  Emotional not only because I was finally entering the army after a process so prolonged the wait was becoming unbearable, but also because it was my nephew, Ezra Eli's, brit milah back in New Jersey.  Since then, I went through a few days of 'Intro to Basic Training' which was by and large a funny joke.  I participated in what I assume was my final gibbush (unit tryout), this one for the advanced units in the Nachal brigade, and was placed into the Gadsar company of the Nachal brigade.  [I'll explain in brief what that means: Nachal is one of five infantry brigades in the Israeli army, the other four being Givati, Tzanchanim, Kfir, and Golani. Within Nachal there are 4 companies--the 50th, the 931st, the 932nd, and Gadsar/934th. The first three are your normal infantry companies, with Gadsar housing the advanced units in one.  Within Gadsar there are specialty positions, which is where I come in...].  Most importantly, the army became a very tangible reality for me.  After the Intro Basic and tryout, real basic training began.  The majority of the month of December was spent on base, including a very intense 21 day stint where my platoon of 22 soldiers began to collectively get our asses kicked and the collective molding process of a) transforming us from civilians into soldiers and b) becoming a tight knit unit ratcheted into full gear.  Almost the entirety of the three week period was spent by us counting the days toward the light at the end of the tunnel, symbolized by our swearing in ceremony at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem and a weekend leave.  But before we were to be sworn in we had a week of first aid and bio warfare training (very interesting), a week of shooting (the first of many, as I understand it), and a week of hell on earth (called 'field week,' or שבוע שדאות/shavuah sadaut), where we operated in the desert's cold and wet winter terrain, guarded our shanty tents that were not in the least bit waterproof, crawled up rocky hilltops for as much as 45 minutes at a time just to eat our can of tuna, and 'slept' in holes that we dug.  These three weeks, strangely enough, I had prepared myself for.  They were on our schedule that is posted on base, and I had asked around to try to gauge what to expect.  It was the day we were being sworn in, when we toured Israel's military cemetery on הר הרצל/Har Herzl, that grabbed hold of the framework I had built for myself and threatened to shatter it all.

Har Herzl is the final resting place of many of Zionsim's earliest and biggest leaders, from Jabotinsky to Herzl himself.  It is also where most of Israel's prime ministers and other noteworthy leaders are buried, from Golda to the Rabins and more.  The vast majority of the cemetery, however, is reserved for Israel's fallen soldiers, where the highest generals are buried next to fresh conscripts.  I had been to Har Herzl several times before, most recently with my garin a couple of months ago, but this was the first time visiting the military cemetery donning a military uniform.  I understood there was a new importance and meaning to this visit as soon as I stepped through the front gates, but for the majority of the tour, things were for the most part standard.  This changed towards the end when I was walking with my group and I ran into my friend Robert, also a garin tzabarnik in Gadsar Nachal.  My group was walking up a set of stairs and his walking down.  As we crossed paths I closed my fist to give him a pound and he out of nowhere just grabbed and shook me.  Staring me in straight in the eyes, Robert said something like 'Michael Levin's grave is totally different in uniform; you just don't see things the same.' 

Michael Levin is the name of a very well known American Jew who immigrated to Israel earlier this decade and a year into his army service was tragically killed in the Second Lebanon War of Summer 2006.  His story and name have since become household among Zionists across North America.  I had visited his grave twice before (including two months prior), but I hadn't prepared myself to see the tombstone again.  Seeing Robert with that look in his eyes jolted me a bit, and I found my commander a couple of moments later and asked him if I could walk away from the group and seek out Levin once more.  I spent the next 15 minutes in the area of the grave, but, subconsciously or not I am still not entirely sure, I was not able to find it.  There was a memorial of another fallen soldier taking place in the area, and the deceased's mother was reading a passage about her boy.  I knew Levin's grave was right by the memorial, and I couldn't get myself to get too close.  I do not know why, but something in me was telling me to seek him out, but only at a distance.  I was guarding myself.

Before we left Har Herzl for the Old City, my platoon commander sat us down and summed up the importance of visiting a place like this.  He then asked if anyone saw a grave site in particular that touched them personally, and pointed to me and asked me if I wanted to tell the story of Levin.  Some of my platoon mates recognized the name, but I know it is an honor to recall one's memory so I agreed to tell everyone what I knew about the soldier from the States.  I began by saying that though I never met him personally, I had met Michael's sister on my college campus last year and have many friends who were his friends from summer camp.  He was a spark plug of a character who literally sneaked his way into an army building to convince superiors to let him into the unit he desired.  He was a devoted American Zionist who left his friends and family to serve his country.  He was a lone soldier.  And then my voice cracked, my throat choked, and I could not get another word out.  I just coughed, cleared my throat, and blurted out (in English for the first time), "Yeah."  My commander took that as a cue a moved on. 

I nearly broke down at that moment because after a mere month in the army, I had had a real taste of what it means to be a soldier, what it means to shoulder expectations (some real, others self imposed) from friends and family, and what it means to represent the Jewish people--not just by self identification but also in official dress and look.  And thinking about the far too early death of an American Jew who 'left it all' made me think really hard about my own position.  It might sound morbid and even selfish, but anyone who visits a military cemetery while in uniform and doesn't at least for a moment think that in the near future it could be their plot being prepared is simply probably lying.  My buddy Sam met Levin's parents at an event for lone soldiers once and told them that Michael served as an inspiration to him and countless other lone soldiers.  Sam said the parents responded that Michael never intended or wanted to be an inspiration; he just wanted to do his part and serve his country.  It is scary, uncomfortable, and possibly disrespectful to say this, but for that moment at Har Herzl, Levin represented my biggest dream and my biggest fear.  He is inspirational for me because his fervor and passion for Israel led him to make difficult life decisions that brought him to a place far away from the people he knew and loved.  In that sense, I see a lot of myself in him.  Which is why he is also my biggest fear.  Because like Levin I am here to serve my country.  But I am here for many other reasons, too.  I am sure that Michael also had many other dreams and life goals that were not fulfilled.  Robert was right when he hold me that I wouldn't be able to look at tombstone the same post enlistment.  And that thought scared me; it kept me away from paying the proper respects to a soldier for whom I have utmost respect. 

The journey that I have just begun and the experiences I will gain over the next two or three years will surely be formative, but they are supposed to be just the beginning.  In death, however, there is no 'things were supposed to happen differently,' or 'this was just supposed to be the beginning.'  How does one coherently explain this, that my life, too, might very well be tragically cut short, and then attempt to convince close ones with a full heart that combat military service is something that needs to be done?  It is a task I have struggled with for 5 years-- not an easy task, and one that does not end.  In life, Michael Levin's story provides American Zionists like me with an inspirational story of aliyah and enlistment.  In death, his story provides us same Zionists with a deep sense of mortality, humility, and a stark reminder of Job's message--we do not understand death, we cannot understand death, so do not try; for to try will bring too much doubt and pain into our lives.  In both Michael Levin's life and death, heroism prevailed, and the story of his smiling, determined character continues to be passed and spread.  Thus while I am ashamed of myself that fear got the better of me during my last visit to Har Herzl, I know that I will return again and give Michael a visit without hesitation.  For after thinking and writing this out, I believe that he would do just the same.