Soldiers and Schnitzels

Soldiers and Schnitzels

I’m getting to be an old hand at this army Sarel volunteering thing. Every time is the same (hard-boiled eggs, carrying a toilet roll everywhere , two-inch mattress and no shower heads) but it’s always different too.

The status quo in Israel is also always the same but different. Last time I was here, last year, I came on the day ceasefire was declared after Operation Protective Edge. The odd rocket was still being lobbed over at us despite  the ceasefire, this year there are no missiles (yet) but random stabbings almost every day. Which means that they are foiling or catching many assailants before they stab, which of course we never hear about. For sure not every attempt is successful. But if you’re the parent or sister or friend of the beautiful innocent 20 year old girl who was fatally stabbed in the head this week or the 18 year old boy who was murdered during his gap year from America or the 13 year old fighting for her life then that probably isn’t much comfort.

Am I scared? Not on an army base ever and not in Israel actually. Surprisingly. I think I feel safer here than I do in leafy Leeds. Except for the mosquitoes who are all supposed to be dead by now. I finally got a credible answer to my perennial question, ‘why oh why did Noah allow a pair of frisky Mosquitos onto his arc?’ The answer is that bats eat them, so they are part of the food chain. Still not a good enough reason!

Bats and Mosquitos apart, safety is always an issue that comes up when people discuss signing up for Sarel or simply if they should come to Israel on holiday. My answer is to ask, are you safe anywhere?  Are you really 100% sure about that? The world has become a frightening place and to my mind choosing to be scared is victory for the terrorists and coming to Israel, particularly as a volunteer in the IDF is doing something, a tiny little something, against the dark malevolent forces of evil. And we are looked after very well despite the lack of shower heads.

So I arrived a month ago and got off to a flying start. The night before Sarel began I attended a rally in Rabin Square to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s murder. Ex President Bill Clinton was the main speaker along with Shimon Peres and the President of Israel. It was exciting to be part of such a big event  and Clinton was as charismatic as I had heard  and obviously a great friend of Israel so I forgive him for his zipper problem, he’s in my good books!

The next day was the usual melee at the airport when Pam, the super efficient organiser of Sarel in Israel (only a tiny bit of sucking up there!) assigns us our bases. I’m sent to an elite combat base just a hop skip and jump from Gaza. The soldiers of both sexes are the cream of Israel’s youth. I’m kind of biased because I think young Israelis are amongst the most beautiful people in the world but this base was teeming with kids with faces like film stars and bodies like super models. And they are so smart too, the cream of the crop who undertake the most dangerous of missions and are in the front line if or when there is another war. On our last day they were setting up a baseball court as an arena to commemorate the 29 young people they have lost from this base alone. Three last year. The families were all coming for the ceremony. I made the shish-kebabs  for 200 people, as my job  this time was in the kitchen.

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I can now cook eggplant about 16 different ways (I’m only slightly prone to exaggeration to make a good story even better!)  to say nothing of making hundreds of burekas, those flaky pastry, savoury things that are too delicious and we made bread too every morning, that part was fun! I loved my job this time with a passion.

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I loved my kitchen boss Gaddi and his team and I loved the big steamy industrial kitchen and it  wasn’t just because I’m kind of handy round a kitchen, very familiar territory of course, but because when I was through egging and breading and frying 500 chicken schnitzels (yep, 500!)  I felt SO good. Kind of how I felt when I fed my two sons good home-made food and watched them enjoy and grow. This was reminiscent of that but more, this felt like I was feeding Israel and I loved it and felt as proud as punch when I saw those kids tucking in. But I also felt  good when I and my friend cleaned about a 100 windows and their sticky frames one whole morning too. It’s the doing something, doing anything for this amazing little country that counts.

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For some reason or many reasons, we never really knew, the six of us who were staying for the final week were shipped off to another base, this time across the green line into the middle of the West Bank. This was another little life lesson for me since I definitely did not want to pack the too big suitcase all over again, nor did I want to relinquish my lovely scullery maid  job. It’s surprisingly satisfying to wash and then cut up a million cherry tomatoes! My friend who loved her cucumbers just as much as I my tomatoes philosophised that we were ‘off on another adventure so let’s be excited’ stopped me moaning, and she turned out to be right of course. Our new base was in a real hot spot politically and practically, with a far-reaching view to the Dead Sea.

We six, three men and  three women, were their first volunteers. The base was  surrounded by an electric fence and a lot of barbed wire which in turn was  surrounded by Arab villages and small towns and we could clearly hear the muezzin call to prayer 5 times a day.

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Here the soldiers of both sexes, and we must never forget they are all kids these soldiers of the IDF, just 18 to 21 years old, were going out in full kit including bullet proof vests to do guard duty in never-ending shifts. One girl told me that every afternoon crowds of Arab youths arrive with sling shots to throw rocks at them. They are good shots she said and shrugged.
There are of course many opinions about this region, my job was not to have an opinion but to work. It was all very interesting, quite an experience and a privilege. And were they thrilled with us? They really were! The commander of the base who was gorgeous (OK I know I can be superficial!) came to see us work where we were disassembling 80 kilo kit bags and sorting out the myriad contents, was clearly impressed at our industry, and came again to thank us not on one occasion but two. He said, in his sexy accent with just the slightest manly  catch in his voice so we knew he really meant it ” from the deep of my ‘eart I thank you, you ‘ave worked like a hundred soldiers”

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We did work hard. We were a great little team from England, Canada, Germany and the USA and we got very dirty and we laughed so much and  we sang and supported each other  and then ate our entire supper including yoghurt from just a knife as there were no spoons or forks in the evening, go figure! We three girls, dubbed Charlie’s Angels were like sisters by the end. We got into our bunks at 6.30 pm each evening tired out but as happy as sand boys.

They say virtue is its own reward. I can only say that volunteering with Sarel is rich and lush in rewards. Whatever  we give is returned in spades. We gained new lifelong friends, new perspectives, new skills and had so much fun. Laughter is the currency of being Private Benjamin for a few weeks and that is priceless! We did good. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.