Sunday, March 1, 2009

Daniel's Tekes

18 Feb 2009
Golani Junction

The variety of landscapes in this small country always amazes and thrills me. A day trip out of The Bubble can take you to rolling farmlands, small villages, wooded hilltops or desert wilderness. Circumstances both within and without our control have limited our touring during this year's sojourn. There have been some bus rides to Jerusalem but we've been missing serious trips to where the green stuff dwarfs the dull, white concrete. So we were very happy to be invited to go with Mauricio and Nurit to the graduation ceremony (tekes, in Hebrew) of their son, Daniel, as he became a full-fledged member of the Sayeret Golani.

Sayeret Golani is the elite unit of the IDF's Golani Brigade. Sayeret Golani's official name is the 95th Reconnaissance Company (sayeret literally translates as reconnaissance unit) but they call themselves the Flying Tigers and do a lot more than just look around and report back. The ceremony took place on the parade grounds at - wait for it - the Golani Junction.

Golani Junction, the intersection of two major highways, the north-south 65 and the east-west 77, sits in the Lower Galilee Valley, surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, less than one-third of the way from Tiberias to Haifa. We'd been here twice before and I blogged about it both times. Three years ago, on our way from Zippori to eat at Makom Sejera, a great restaurant on Route 65 at the entrance to Moshav Sejera, the first place David Ben Gurion lived in Palestine. The second time, two years ago, we were dropped off by a Federation Mission bus. The Metrowest Diversity Mission returned to Jerusalem while we explored the bathrooms at the McDonald's and waited for the Haifa-bound bus. To reach the McDonald's, you can walk up stairs through the outdoor tables or go up the “McDrive” - a phrase that looks even sillier in Hebrew. But if you look to the right or behind the yellow arches, you will see the entrances to the Golani Brigade's Memorial, Museum and the Parade Grounds.

Israeli military units often hold ceremonies at symbolic national sites such as the Kotel, Masada, Latrun or Ben Gurion's grave. Golani holds its ceremonies in the midst of the region it was assigned to protect when Ben Gurion first formed the Brigade on February 28, 1948. Golani troops have since been moved to wherever the front lines may be including Eilat in 1948, Rafah in 1956, the Golan Heights in 1967 and Mt. Hermon in 1973. For the past three decades, Golani may have spent more time in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank than inside Israel.

Sayeret Golani was formed in 1951 as a reconnaissance unit for the Brigade. But the unit regularly engages in commando and special forces operations. Think Green Berets or Rangers, though Sayeret Golani soldiers will tell you that they're tougher than that. Sayeret Golani conducted reprisal raids into Arab countries in the 1950s, took Mt. Hermon in 1967 and retook it in 1973. The unit also took part in the 1976 raid on Entebbe. According to the SpecWarNet website, Sayeret Golani uses a grueling selection process that can end at any time--washouts are sent to the regular units to serve out their commitments. Upon completion of the Gibush (selection phase), potential commandos are trained in a vast array of necessary skills. Training is said to last about a year and 8 months. The curriculum includes a broad array of new techniques to learn and master. Skills such as parachuting, demolitions, escape and evasion, survival, and intelligence work are covered. The soldiers of Sayeret Golani are expected to be proficient with all of the weapons used in their area of operation. Due to the nature of their operations, they also have their own urban warfare training center, known as hell town.

Golani has a reputation for die-hard soldiers, esprit de corps, and initiative. It also has a reputation as a dumping ground for other units' rejects and disgruntled recent immigrants. But when it really matters, Golani is always among the first troops sent into battle. Daniel spent his pre-Army teen years as a soccer rowdy – standing with the caged fans at the Tel Aviv Maccabee end of the stadium. The pre-Army Daniel I knew was one of those kids who never seemed to eat but thrived anyway. (Direct intake of nutrients through his skin?) He rarely spoke to nonparental adults and eye contact was not his strong suit. His high degree of intelligence was a semi-secret shared by his immediate family and a few fortunate teachers. So Daniel and Golani would, at first glance, appear to be a good fit. Daniel certainly thought so as he volunteered not just for Golani but for Sayeret. You have to earn your way into Sayeret. Which Daniel proceeded to do.

On most days, the McDonald's is the only sign of human life at the Golani Junction. On ceremony days, the parking lot is jammed with buses, vans, cars and motorbikes filled with soldiers, their families and friends. The picnic areas fill up fast and, of course, the burgers and fries are flying over the counter. The ceremonies at which soldiers first receive a weapon and a Tanach or Tanakh (The Holy Scriptures to Members of the Tribe; the Old Testament to the rest of you), advance from basic training to full duty or become officers, are conducted with pomp and circumstance and end with cap-tossing, singing and dancing. (Yes, happy Israelis really do dance in circles. I think its some biochemical reaction to the intake of fine grains of sand and olive oil.) All this under the loving gaze of family and friends who cheer, take pictures, give hugs and kisses and make a serious effort to put back all the weight lost by the soldiers in training. Beneath the veneer of modernity this remains a nation of Jewish Mothers.

The most significant and impressive parts of Daniel's ceremony were the presentation of the pins and caps. The Golani Brigade symbol is a green olive tree with deep roots on a yellow background. Green and yellow are the colors of the original Galilee Valley home of the Golani. Yellow is also for the southern lands on which the Brigade has fought. Golani was originally composed of farmers and new immigrants, thus the symbols linking them to the land. Golani caps are brown for the same reason. With most Israeli military units wearing colorful pins, patches and berets, Golani's earth-tones make a powerful statement about attachment to the land. Daniel received his pin with everyone else. But when it came time to present new caps, the unit's NCOs passed him by. Daniel was standing alone, looking a bit forlorn, when his drill instructor stood at attention in front of him and put his own cap on Daniel's head. A special cap for a special soldier. Daniel had a huge grin.

After the ceremony, we got down to the serious business of lunch. My readers know that lunch with Mauricio isn't just a meal, it's an event. This one did not disappoint. Out came the salads (eggplant, hummus, tahina, cucumbers), breads and sodas while Mauricio set up two disposable mangals (barbeque grills). Disposable mangals are aluminum foil pans covered with a thin cross-hatched grill of indeterminate material over charcoals wrapped in paper soaked in what arson investigators refer to as accelerant. Light it up and use it once. Encased in a cloud of smoke, Mauricio cooked beef and chicken kebabs to feed 10 people, so we had enough for the five of us.

Nurit brought desert, cookies and fruit for us and a large box of munchies for Daniel to take back to his base. While it's true that soldiers appreciate M&Ms, it's mainly due to M&Ms being a convenient delivery system for chocolate. They're not the be all and end all of IDF cuisine. What really fuels the modern Israeli Army are Oreos and Bamba. The classic Oreo is a meal in itself. Bamba is a horrid combination of cheese doodles and peanut butter whose popularity among Israelis is something I could never grasp. But apparently if you weren't into them before the Army, you get hooked with all the free bags you get while in the Army.

Over lunch we finally had the chance to chat with Daniel and discovered that the actual result of surviving a course of training designed as much to make him give up as to teach him to be a good soldier is something pleasantly unexpected. Daniel, it turns out, not only can speak, he seems to enjoy speaking. He is friendly, gracious and has a gentle sense of humor. He now eats just about anything and everything in vast quantities. He is in incredibly excellent physical condition (hiking 100 kilometers wearing a full backpack and carrying a weapon will do that to you). When asked what comes next he says, “another year of training.” Sayeret Golani appears to have brought forth a better, albeit a very dangerous, person.

I think his commanders will encourage him to become an officer (more testing, training and an extra year or two of mandatory service). I'm certain he would be a good leader. His parents are very proud of him but will be very happy when his service is finished.

And so, carrying a Golani Brigade bumper sticker, a gift from Daniel, and a baseball cap saying Golani Sheli (My Golani), Liz' impulse purchase, we rode back south watching the sun set over Mount Tabor and darkness settle in on the Lower Galilee. Tel Aviv was still there when we returned, better defended than ever.

1 comment:

Saygirl said...

As a Bamba lover, I am kind of offended:)) Bamba is not only delicious but also, in my opinion, one of the most innovative inventions of this century!! It even has vitamins. The best snack in the world, I guess.