The male barista asks from across the counter, as he shoots a quick glance up at the person standing beside me. The strikingly beautiful young woman, a long black braid cascading down her back, nods. Her nails are French-manicured, she carries a brand-name leather bag and smells of pricey perfume. The diamond studs in her earring glisten in the early light. I don’t have to guess her age; her uniform is a dead giveaway. She’s between 18-20 and wearing army fatigues.
That’s the way it is in this country. The kids, just out of high school, get drafted, then slog miserably – or glide enthusiastically – through the next two (or three, in a man’s case) years. Some, the ‘jobnikim’ are tasked with a dreary day-job (hence anchored to a desk), while others specialize in training, social issues, research, out in the field, in combat, on the front lines. The top guns are seduced into being paratroopers, combat infantrymen or intelligence officers.
But most Sunday mornings, and in most cases, they’re in the same game. After spending the Sabbath at home, with their families, in cities, villages, and small settlements around the country, they lace up army boots and button down neatly ironed uniforms. Then, they set out on the long trek to their army bases. At a glance, with minor variations, they are clearly members of the same tribe.
Khaki is the primary color, followed closely by beige. Stripes on upper sleeves. Pins on the chest. Berets, tucked under shoulder lapels. Black boots or, a hallmark of heightened military status and rank, rusty red boots – telltale signs of a paratrooper. They carry daypacks, backpacks and guns; typically rifles. The soldier riding up the escalator in front of me has a rifle slung over his shoulder and two handguns strapped to his belt. I can’t help cringing at the sight of it, even if it’s the norm.
They all carry smartphones (ringing as they do incessantly), and Ray Ban sunglasses are de rigueur.
Not only do their uniforms tell silent tales, but the soldiers themselves talk in code; a language often misunderstood by foreigners, riddled with slang, titles and acronyms culled from years of induction training, service and camaraderie.
Last night, I was in the car with my cousin and her daughter (who is currently in her last year of the army); they spoke in army dialect. Matai at samalit? Their banter was peppered with words, titles and acronyms that were utterly incomprehensible to me.
And this morning, on the train, my cousin and I overheard a soldier’s conversation on the phone. My cousin smiled when I asked her what he meant about lishmor merkhak, because although I understand the literal meaning, it was clear that, in this case, it was military-speak.
A gargantuan backpack has just been dumped onto the ground in front of me by a navy officer. The sight of the Israeli guy and his tarmil makes me wonder: Given that he’s been schlepping it around this combat-weary country since the beginning of his army service, is it any wonder that he (and thousands like him) will one day hand in that rifle and put this piece of hardware to better use… by trekking around Asia and South America?