Meir in the Middle

Gibush Tzanchanim, Part I

No I’m not the man I used to be lately…

Who here wants to go to Paratroopers?”

See you met me at an interesting time…

Again, who here wants to go to Paratroopers?”

And if my past is any sign of your fut- Wait what?

Hands shoot up all around, almost half of us. My mind’s rpm revs past eight.

Good. I wish you luck in your gibush next week.”

It’s hour six of a lecture-only day at Michveh Alon- the base I’m assigned to for a 3 week combat-fighter preparation course- and after another round of brain-singing the entirety of John Mayer’s Continuum to pass the monotony, I suddenly space-in. I, like many new recruits, have entertained the thought of joining Tzanchanim, the IDF’s paratrooper brigade. Although referred to by many an Israeli as “the unit that wears skirts,” Tzanchanim’s historical connection to Jerusalem’s Old City speaks to me. While learning in a Yeshiva located a cardboard kipa’s toss away from the Kotel, the glorified images of 1967, of Jews and Jerusalem reunited, reincarnated during every Paratrooper swearing-in ceremony I witnessed during my time there. But while Tzanchanim is a possibility, it’s not make or break for me; I’d be happy serving in any of the other combat units. Except Kfir. Seriously, have you seen their beret?

Unlike the other main infantry units- Kfir, Nachal, Golani, and Givati- the Paratroopers require you to first pass a “gibush,”or tryout, to be accepted. The gibush is scheduled for this upcoming Monday and I figure I’ll have enough time over the weekend to consult with friends who completed it. Thankfully, I do. Two doors down from my room on Kibbutz lives a soldier named Avi who serves in Platoon 101.

Avi, who is trained in advanced urban combat, counter-terrorism, and riot-control, has spent a good part of this week chasing down camels on his base to see if he could make them carry his gear. He also has some helpful insights and tips regarding the gibbush: “Keep your elbows locked during the Sandbags;” “Think outside the box and distinguish yourself when they pose group questions;” “Fight to get a spot under the stretcher;” “Tell them about your connection to the Old City;” “If they tell you to leave, don’t. No matter what. Tell them to send you to jail because you don’t care, you’re not leaving.”

Back at base on Sunday, my Mifaked HaSamal, or Drill Sargent, who also happens to be in 101, put things more directly:

DON’T BE A PUSSY.”

On Monday afternoon I arrive at the Bakum- the IDF’s induction center- and am herded into an outdoor gym with 400 other hopefuls. A long set of bleachers lines the back of the gym while a team of mashakiot tash- army social workers- distribute questionnaires and medical forms and try to order the disorder. A group of tzanchanim soldiers joke around in a corner; individuals with completed forms inch forward on a reception line. I feel like I’m back in sleep-away camp, except here I’m older than all my counselors and instead of getting docked from using the inflatable iceberg in the lake I could spend hours making porcelain pretty should I choose to misbehave. Not-so-quietly, we sit and wait for our names to be called. Finally, mine arrives:

Portman, Jacob”

Kaplan, Rafael”

Paks, Meir”

It’s go time.

The first part of the Gibush is a 2k run. The run is a back-and-forth down a twisty dirt path. I’ve run a full marathon before so 2k is kloom b’pitah. The only thing I need to avoid then is the other runners and any wild pokemon I might encounter.

A full moon bleaches an inky sky. I wait, heart pounding. 20 seconds… 15… 10… 5…

Feet lunge forward, my own pound the earth below. What place I’m in, how long I have left, it’s all irrelevant. Run fast. Then faster. Before I know it I’m at the halfway point, where my arm is marked by a “tushist,” or marker-er. (Really, Israelis think they can just add -ist to everything). I burst back through the darkness, my gait cacophonous. I suddenly spot the starting line. Time to turn it on. The three runners in front of me are now behind me. Faster. My legs are becoming numb. FASTER! I nearly run over the soldier recording our time at the finish line. A fitness instructor momentarily stabilizes my body as I exhale my number. I’m not sure how much dirt I inhaled, but it was enough to make breathing a thought-out activity. If there was a Guinness for most wheezes in a minute, I could have taken it. Part one. Done. I’m not sure what place I came in- I think it was fourth but I don’t care. After imbibing what seemed like half of a water cooler, I sit down and breathe out a smile. Those moments of reflection after giving something your all are ones to cherish.

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