What It's Like to Serve in the Israeli Army Without a Man in Sight

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A young couple tells the story of how they met while operating Hummers in the army ■ How pilgrimages to Uman made this Israeli's wishes come true

Shlomit Leshem and Inbal Greenberg.
Tomer Appelbaum

Shlomit Leshem, left, and Inbal Greenberg, both 29, with the dog Nusha; from Tel Aviv; Shlomit is arriving from Poland

Hello, hello, where are you coming from?

Shlomit: I’m the one arriving. At first we were together, the two of us, Inbal and I, for a week in Bavaria, and then I went on alone to Berlin and from there to Poland for the Kolobrzeg [also called Sunrise] festival.

What kind of festival is it?

Shlomit: It’s a music festival on a lake shore – electronic, house.

And what did you do in Bavaria?

Shlomit: We were invited to a beer festival.

Who is “we”?

Inbal: Shlomit has a colleague named Ofer Dekel. They have a band called Klyben, which means “to lift up” in Yiddish.

Shlomit: We play acid-house, new disco. We played an extreme set, three hours, there.

How was it?

Shlomit: It was amazingly fun, and it was surprising that it was fun.

Why, because they’re Bavarians?

Shlomit: Yes. We laid on the electronic, Arabic, and they took off … the Bavarian audience. From a woman of 50 who kept dancing like crazy, to the woman who grows garlic in town, to the mayor, to the deputy mayor. It was like a kibbutz party.

Does she really grow garlic?

Shlomit: Yes, and what garlic it is – it wakes you up! Really, all the officials from the municipality were sitting around a table there.

What do you do, Shlomit?

Shlomit: Music, produce parties. There’s an emphasis on as much art as possible in our events. There are people we meet along the way and we connect with them and they take part in the action. Like the video artist we worked with, who joined us because she really liked the music.

How do you get the crowd to go home after a party?

Shlomit: In Israel it’s almost impossible. People don’t go home. In Bavaria it’s an audience of drunks, totally wasted, we got them to drink chasers in groups throughout the whole party, and later they just go. Educated Germans.

The clock strikes midnight and they leave? And tell me, do you have anything coming up soon?

Shlomit: Yes. On September 14-15, Ofer and I will celebrate a year of our party “line” [brand], with a glorious party on a stream in the north. It’s a party we’re doing together with a line called Mycophobia.

Good luck, let’s hope it’ll be awesome! And what do you do, Inbal?

Inbal: I’m a master’s student in anthropology.

What’s your thesis about?

Inbal: It’s on female fighters in the IDF. Women in a job intended exclusively for women. For example, operating a Hummer, or in an armored company. A place where there’s a chain of women only, across the entire hierarchy. In that context I’m examining sexual perceptions of female fighters, in retrospect, in a closed group with the stereotype of a male organization.

What have you discovered?

Inbal: It’s too soon to know.

Is there a hypothesis?

Inbal: It doesn’t work like that. In anthropology you go out and check.

Does the research question stem from life experience?

Inbal: Both of us, Shlomit and I, operated Hummers. We were both drafted at the same time. That’s how we met. We were very good friends. Talking all day, always together, it was in the air.

Shlomit: It was real fun, laughs.

Sounds like an experience of total liberation, in the least liberated place there is.

Inbal: There was liberation. Both sexual and gender-related. The men simply aren’t relevant there. They have a marginal role, they come to train and they’re always being rotated. The girls wait for the day when it will end, when the maneuvers will stop and we can go back to being together and have lots of laughs.

With all the difficulty, it sounds exactly like the sort of service I’d want. Can you go into more detail?

Inbal: In service like this, you’re dealing with the most masculine experience there actually is. You’re cut off on a closed base and you’re with women only. You meet lesbians on the base, and you see there’s a sense of liberation in them that you’re not familiar with, and slowly you disconnect from “feminine” mannerisms, because no one is watching you. And you try everything. You want to, so you go for it. There is also the gap between army service and civilian life ... Let’s say, you return from there to reality, to the conventions that have never really disappeared and you adopt “feminine” mannerisms again.

As though the real world somehow always lurks for us when we try to grow. And what was your service like, Shlomit?

Shlomit: The little picture is that it was laughs and fun; the big picture was shocking, horrific, a nightmare, a shit place with goals that are in no way elevated. In the little picture, two soldiers closed off at an outpost in Timbuktu would also say it’s an experience. But it’s a horror.

Sapir Vaknin, Ronit Guetta, Dubi Atwar, Miriam Avivi, and Sarit (who preferred not to give her surname or age).
Tomer Appelbaum

Sapir Vaknin, 23, Ronit Guetta, 46, Dubi Atwar, 60, Miriam Avivi, 44, and Sarit (who preferred not to give her surname or age), from Jerusalem and Petah Tikva; flying to Uman, Ukraine

Hello! Where are you flying to?

Dubi: We’re flying to Uman. I went there for the first time eight years ago.

Sapir (interrupting): What did you want to hear? That it’s been a year since I flew to Uman and I’m getting married in two weeks? I’m going now to give thanks and pray for a child.

Congratulations! And Dubi, what happened eight years ago that you decided to go?

Dubi: My girls were grown, aged 30 to 32, and I wanted them to marry. And they both married in the same year. I went to give thanks and to ask that they become pregnant. And they gave birth, too, one to twins, the other to a son. I went again to give thanks, and the one who’d had twins gave birth to a boy, and the who’d had a boy gave birth to twins. My son is also getting married now and asked me to give thanks. My friends – all their prayers were answered. And I’m not religious!

What do you do, Dubi?

Dubi: I am a budget and projects manager at the Petah Tikva Municipality. And Ronit was an army woman in her past.

I understand that Ronit is a rebbetzin, a rabbi’s wife.

Ronit: I’m not a rebbetzin. My husband is a learned man, and the truth is that I deserve to be a rebbetzin. But I prefer to be Ronit.

So, Ronit, tell us about what you do.

Ronit: I organize trips every two weeks, and [the Hebrew month of Elul] is the period when prayers are answered. In my opinion, a woman is above time, and when she prays, her prayers are fulfilled.

Sapir: I could pray with a siddur, but that’s not from the heart. I simply weep to Rabbi Nachman [from Bratslav, who is buried in Uman], and he understands.

Let’s talk about prayer. I see it as a means for looking honestly into myself, of pondering what I actually want. But, without any connection to anything else, that’s pretty difficult.

Dubi: Prayer is a point at which you remove all the masks and lift the burden you carry. Your social mask, the mask of your role. When I got to Uman – completely rational, secular – the first thing I did was to cry.

Miriam: Everyone who goes there feels it and cries. As of you’ve reached a father, who takes you in and knows what you want. Your soul becomes magnetized and lights up, and when that happens, you cry. It’s not a crying of sadness, but of cleansing and longing.

Miriam, I see you have a violin.

Miriam: There are all kinds of trips to Uman. There are trips with darbukas for Tu b’Av [the Israeli holiday of love], there are rabbi’s wives make sfinj [a type of Moroccan donut]. All kinds of attractions. But I saw that the violin works on everyone. It goes straight to the soul.

And in the groups you accompany, everyone feels this?

Miriam: Even women who didn’t originally like the violin tell me the sounds opened their souls. They understand that the sound of a violin doesn’t necessarily stand for “sadness.”

Just as the crying for Rabbi Nachman is not out of sadness ...

Miriam: True. Not sadness but a pouring out of the soul. The melody opens an abundance that flows from within to the outside.

Have you always played the violin, are you a child prodigy?

Miriam: Yes. I was born to a mother who taught piano and an engineer father. I’d say it’s a kind of archetype of Russians. I’ve played the violin since I was 6. I liked it, but it was still obligatory to practice every day. For example, we would go to Sinai, but weren’t allowed into the water until I’d played for an hour on the sand.

That’s a lovely image – a girl with a violin on a Sinai beach.

Miriam: I suppose. In any event, I stopped playing when I became religiously observant.

What made you go back to the violin?

Miriam: I began to look for Jewish melodies, less classical music .... For years I didn’t take a violin with me on the trip, because I was still afraid that the Bolsheviks would take it from me, but once I joined a group and it continued from there.

It’s nice, how you found a renewed place for the violin in your life.

Miriam: I prayed all my life that if my parents prepared me for it, I would have the privilege of taking the violin out of the closet. And it actually happened.