Lone soldiers on the home front: The Golani soldier from Casablanca
Around 3,300 lone soldiers from abroad currently serve in the IDF. Most haven't seen their families in months. Shortly ahead of Independence Day, Yedioth Ahronoth and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) came up with an idea: Send four of them a trip home, and surprise their loved ones. Part 3 of 4.
- Part 1: The fighter from the Philippines
- Part 2: The paratrooper from Sydney
- Part 4: The tank crewman from New Jersey
In the summer of 2014, A. was in his family's apartment in Casablanca when he saw Hamas launching rockets towards Beer Sheva, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. He had personal reason to be concerned: His father and two younger sisters were in Israel on vacation, and found themselves on the front lines of a war. That's when he made his final decision. "I wanted to move to Israel and enlist in the military before, but my mom always told me, 'Only after you finish high school,' A. explained while we were standing in the security check line at Ben-Gurion airport, shortly before boarding the flight that would bring him to Morocco for his first visit home. "Now I understood that it was my turn to protect the country. Up until now, others had done it. Now it was time for me to be a soldier as well."
The only option in his mind was the Golani Brigade (one of the IDF's main infantry brigades. -ed). It's amazing to see how ideas about the importance of unit pride and the importance of a beret's color can cross physical distances and cultural boundaries, reaching all the way to Casablanca. During the layover in Rome, when he met a childhood friend who told him he's considering joining Golani's rival, the IDF Paratrooper Brigade, A. almost leaped from his seat. "Not a chance, I'll slap you silly," he said.
A., 22, is making his first visit home since he enlisted about a year and a half ago. It has been planned with military precision. He told his mother beforehand that although he tried, he won't be able to come home for the Passover Seder. His father, who was in on the secret, came to pick us up at the Casablanca airport. Since the flight landed after 1am, A.'s mother had a hard time understanding where her husband was going so late – demanding that he return home in a series of text messages.
When he finally did, it brought tears to everyone's eyes. A.'s father parked, silently placed our luggage in the hallway, and went into the apartment. Then, the doorbell rang. A.'s sister, 15, looked at him through the peephole, and was taken aback. It took her a few seconds to recover and open the door. Then came a flurry of hugs, kisses, and cries of joy.
"I was so disappointed when you said you wouldn’t come over for the Seder. After a year and a half without you we were waiting so eagerly for your visit," A.'s mother said, understanding now that she's been fooled by her son's deception. Suddenly the meaning of the mysterious phone calls her husband was receiving over the past few weeks became clear. The family sat around the living room for several hours, listening to IDF stories told by A., who had just come from active operational duty in southern Israel.
Crystal and Rabbis
A.'s family lives in a third-floor apartment in central Casablanca, Morocco's largest city. Only about 2,000 Jews remain from what was once a large and proud community. A.'s neighborhood, which is near Boulevard D'anfa, one of the city's main boulevards, is marked by shaded streets and well-kept buildings. Their apartment is spacious. The light emanating from beyond the colorful crystal chandeliers highlights photos of the family and of the rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Chaim Pinto. The living room has two seating areas, one old and one Moroccan-styled. The large kitchen has stacks of carrots, potatoes, beets, zucchinis, coriander, and strawberries. The holiday cooking is in progress, and like most Jewish families, A. is using the services of a local young woman who comes in every day. The family members speak French among themselves. A.'s two younger sisters, who are 11 and 15 years old, study at the same Jewish school that A. attended.
It's a warm, happy family, with a special, fun, manner of interaction. A. himself turns out to be a charismatic, generous, clever guy, who admires the IDF. He still doesn't have complete command of Hebrew and his fellow soldiers poke fun at the mistakes he makes. In Israel, he lives with two roommates, both of whom are also lone soldiers. He also sees his girlfriend when he's on leave. His older sister, 25, moved to Israel before A. and earned a master's degree in microbiology. She married a Jewish man who moved to Israel from Martinique, so A. isn't completely alone in the country.
The move to Israel and the IDF enlistment gave A. a chance to go on a new path, after feeling a bit lost. "When I finished school, I didn't really know what to do. I helped my dad with his business a bit, but I'd go to sleep late and get up in the afternoon each day. I was bored, everything I wanted was done for me. When I wanted a glass of cola, I asked the maid. I didn’t give my parents a lot of reasons to be proud before. I wasn't an excelling student, and all I was interested in was soccer. Ever since enlisting, I feel like they're really proud of me."
Muscles in Golani
We go for a walk in the 'medina', the city's ancient market, which consists of a bunch of crowded streets at the city's center, surrounded by a wall. There are lots of souvenir stalls and shops for pottery, carpets, glass and leather at ridiculous prices. Buyers are welcome, even expected, to bargain, and often a deal is forged over cups of sweet tea with lots of mint. During our walk around, A. runs into acquaintances and childhood friends, who excitedly respect the fact that he is an IDF soldier. They converse in French, and A. is not afraid to translate into Hebrew. "In any case, Moroccan Muslims know how to identify who is Jewish or not," A. explained. "One could say that our Jewishness is written on our foreheads."
Indeed, shopkeepers try to tempt us to inspect their wares with greetings of 'shalom' and 'baruch haba' (welcome in Hebrew –ed.). A.'s family say that there are almost no signs of anti-Semitism in Casablanca. The Jews enjoy the protection of King Mohammed VI, the authorities are able, at least for now, to deal with the threat of radical Islam, and Passover prayers at the synagogue were secured by police. Contact between Jews and other Moroccans is, of course, a daily occurrence.
The young Muslim at a shawarma shop is entirely familiar with Jewish dietary customs. Neighbors, family acquaintances, neighborhood business owners are happy to meet A., and it seems that everyone is aware that he has spent the last year and a half in Israel.
He himself is careful to distinguish between the Muslims with whom he grew up and with the enemy he fights as an IDF soldier. "It's not the same," he says emphatically. "I do not hate Arabs. These are people I grew up with, and most Moroccans I know do not care about the Palestinians. But my job is to defend my country against enemies who want to destroy it," he said.
We drive along the Riviera of Casablanca, which begins west of the Hassan II Mosque, an impressive building in shades of green, considered one of the largest mosques in the world. This is a well-maintained tourist district, with a promenade, palm trees, hotels and swimming pools. Some of the beaches are private, others are open to the public and are numbered 1 to 22. "All of Casablanca's Jews always go to beach number 17. I'm not exactly sure why," he tell us.
In the afternoon, he invites me to come along with him to a hammam. This is an old ritual, a sort of purification ceremony before the onset of Shabbat or a Jewish holiday. He warns me that the place is old and devoid of comforts. He was not exaggerating. The ceiling was moss-green and the floor was made of a simple mosaic. There are no benches nor steam saunas, one has to bring his own soap, and instead of showers there are of faucets and fiery-hot stone walls. We fill huge buckets with water, pour the water on the floor and stretch out.
A few minutes later, a short, emaciated older man comes to us and without a word silently begins to scrub my body with a washcloth. He pours water, soaps, stretches my limbs, continues to scrub and pours more water. After fifteen minutes of such close-contact care, we get dressed and go out, washed and purified as the holiday approaches.
The synagogue is ten minutes away from the family apartment and it is only one of several synagogues active throughout the year. On Passover eve it is filled with hundreds of worshipers. The atmosphere is festive, even excited. The men sing the prayers out loud deliberately. At the end of the prayers, A., as usual, is the center of attention. "These are the friends I grew up with," he explains. "They want to hear military stories. Everyone is so surprised at how I grew physically. I tell them Golani develops muscles."
Next year in Netanya
Seder night at A.'s family is an exceptional experience. They are careful to read the entire Haggadah until the meal ( which consists of an infinite variety of salads, 'Moroccan' fish, roasted meat and stuffed zucchini) and following it. When they get to 'Next year in Jerusalem', the father adds: 'and in Netanya' - the city in which a large population of French-speaking Jews live, as well as several family members.
In between passages of the Haggada the family is enthralled by A.'s army stories. "In the winter, before we go out on missions," A. recounts, "our officer says: 'you are cold and it is not easy; everyone else is at home, watching TV or they are out on the town; and the rain is pouring down on you, and you don't even have a jacket, but you are doing it for the State of Israel.'"
The father offers his usual humorous interpretation of things: "When I used to go to the casino, I felt as if they sprayed something in the air that made me go back there again and again. It's the same with you and Golani. They really have poisoned you."
Another day goes by, and for A.'s family the holiday is not over, it is just beginning. As elsewhere in the Diaspora, in Morocco the seder is done twice. Again we read the Haggadah from the beginning, and again the table is full of almost endless amounts of food.
As a citizen of a foreign country who volunteered to serve in the IDF, A. is only obligated to serve for a year and a half. But in a short while, when he returns from his visit to Morocco, he plans on extending his service by 6 months. In his belief, according to which he is in exactly the place he was meant to be, there is something infectious, and he is proud of the role he has chosen on his way to full Israeli citizenship.
Once I went to an ATM in Raanana, and there was some problem and I couldn't take out money," A. recalls. "A man standing in line behind me, saw this and took a hundred shekels out of his wallet. I told him everything was fine, but he insisted. In another case, friends of mine from my platoon were on leave and were sitting in a restaurant with their uniforms on, eating hamburgers, French fries and salads. A man who was there went to the manager and told him that all their meals were on him. This can only happen in Israel."
Some 6,700 lone soldiers serve in the Israel Defense Forces today. Close to half of them come from outside of Israel hailing from more than 60 countries around the world. One of the flagship programs of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) supports these soldiers. In 2015, according to FIDF figures, the organization supported 2,665 lone soldiers, 1,385 of whom received plane tickets to visit their families courtesy of the organization.
FIDF is an American non-profit organization which raises funds to support IDF soldiers and their families through educational, cultural, economic and social programs. It currently has more than 150,000 donors and 16 regional offices in the United States and in Panama. In 2015, the FIDF raised $101.4 million for these programs supporting IDF soldiers.
“These teenage girls and boys from all over the world, imbued with belief and a sense of mission, to leave their homes and families overseas and join the ranks of the IDF, choose to do something brave and noble to take part in the continued effort to defend the citizens of Israel and world Jewry," says FIDF National Director and CEO Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi Amir. “I see these lone soldiers as a source of inspiration, of pride and of hope for us all. FIDF aims to be an adoptive family for the lone soldiers in the IDF and to make sure that they will never, ever feel alone.”