Exit Ramp: Final fragments from the homeland
The following is an excerpt from a post on “Lost in the Homeland,” a blog written by Max Rochman, a 2012 graduate of Livingston High School, at the end of his two years of service as a paratrooper in Israel. After making aliya, he served as a “lone soldier,” a member of the Israel Defense Forces who has no immediate family in Israel.
I saw fire. Great bursts of flames searing upwards. Ancient olive trees twisting into dust. The beautiful Talmon hillside in the West Bank looked like it had bathed in volcanic ash. Distant sirens, shouts and yells of worried mothers, broken-hearted homes left abandoned. This was the last night of my army service.
A series of arson attacks have plagued Israel, tearing through large cities and tiny settlements. Where I was stationed, there wasn’t much we could do. We are not firefighters. We don’t have that kind of equipment. All we could do was evacuate families from their homes, guard the firefighters from additional attacks, and watch in horror as ash fell from the sky.
I, and the other lone soldiers, returned to base to organize equipment. The next day we would be driving to Beit El, a settlement next to Ramallah, to return everything the army gave us. From my room I see the fires raging.
At 3 a.m. I sat at the entrance of the base for my final guard duty.
In the morning we threw our equipment and personal belongings into a Hummer and all stuffed into the back seat. I had four pairs of pants and shirts, one jacket, two water canteens, a “onesie” (one-piece winter coat), one helmet cover, one helmet, one pair of rain gear, six magazines, and one gun.
The roads of eastern Israel are like a labyrinth — certain roads are only for Israelis, others are only for Palestinians, others are for both. The government tells no one to drive on certain dirt roads, yet both of them do.
This land is still so ancient. The landscape is decorated with knotted olive branches and jagged stones. The hills are painted a faded green and a dusty brown, her curves are deep inclines, and her face is biblical. These were the lands of our ancestors: Jewish, Christian, Muslim ancestors.
The smell of smoke has permeated my glasses. Every breath of this scenery tastes like fire. Why would anyone want to destroy a place so beautiful?
We arrive at the army office in Beit El, return everything, sign a few papers, and that’s it. No grand ceremony. No fireworks or streamers. Nothing but a cute girl in an office telling you to go home.
I’m feeling a lot of things. But I’m also feeling nothing at all.
I have to ask myself: “Was it all worth it?” Did the hours of scraping weeds, cleaning the kitchen, breaking bones, hiking countless kilometers in broken shoes have meaning? Did I make an impact on my country?
The truth is…sorta. I have never seen a day of war. I have never shot my gun at a terrorist. I never saved a child from a well or a cat from a burning tree. The stories that I have collected are ones of personal suffering. Of testing how far I could push my body. Of how much pain I could take until my legs gave out.
But although that may not constitute “making an impact” on the country, I feel in many ways I did. I gave pride to the Jewish mothers who heard I had come here alone and offered me a seat at their dinner table. I gave friendship to those who remain in my unit. I was an example to Jews around the world that even though most people hate us, we still have something to be proud of — a country of our own.
The real story is that I did this for myself. Any lone soldier who tries to claim that volunteering for the army is completely altruistic is a liar. We all joined for the glory, for the story, for the experience. And there is nothing wrong with that.
So yeah, maybe I am a different person. Maybe this was all worth it.
But when I ask myself, “So now you know what’s next, right?”
I answer, “No, I am in the exact same place where I started: just a Jew lost in the homeland.”