By Dorit Sasson
As a sophomore at the State University of New York at Albany in 1990, I was miserable. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to study and I didn’t want to pay back loans for my indecisiveness. Just the summer before I had volunteered on my aunt’s kibbutz. Going back to the States after that summer felt like a letdown.
Just a few weeks before, Dad told me he would be moving back to Israel with my stepmom. I knew they were serious about moving someday, but I didn’t think it would come so soon.
So three months before the end of my sophomore year, I showed up at Dad’s office. I was really pressed to make a decision, because I knew that if I was going to re-enroll for my junior year, I would have to do it soon. If I decided to leave, I would join a garin, a group of young people who do the army together by working on kibbutzim, settlements, and army bases as part of the Nahal IDF ( Israel Defense Forces) service, in August 1990.
Serving on a kibbutz as part of Nahal meant that I would have the best of both worlds: kibbutz life and military service. It meant as a new immigrant I wouldn’t have to acculturate alone. In 1989, I’d spent a summer volunteering on my aunt’s kibbutz and immediately I’d fallen in love with the lifestyle. Serving on various kibbutzim as a soldier in the Nahal unit would help me settle in.
Making the conscious decision to drop out of college to serve in the IDF offered three main benefits:
- Volunteering for the IDF would make me more mature, disciplined, and focused. When I’d be done, I’d have a much better idea of what I want to study.
- I wouldn’t have to pay for my bachelor’s degree – the government would pay for my first three years of undergraduate studies – so I wouldn’t be in debt.
- I’d be away from Mom who was deeply afraid of many things including Israel and I wanted to be free from her constraints.
He would go on to say the famous line I write about in my memoir Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service and Sacrifice in the Israel Defense Forces. A moment that would change my life forever.
“You have a choice,” he would say. “You can either stay in New York City with your mom, or you can immigrate to Israel before us so you can establish residency before we join you. If you continue to stay with your mom, you’ll turn out to be exactly like her.”
To be like Mom? Why the heck would I want to do that? She was everything I didn’t like: irrational, paranoid, high-strung, catastrophizing, pushy-beyond-the-realm-of-human-belief annoying. If I stayed in New York City, I’d be aimless and susceptible to her influence. We both knew how Mom’s fear and paranoia rubbed off on me and triggered me to catastrophize.
If I decided to join the Israel Defense Forces, the experience would stretch to include a completely different definition of “home” than the one I currently had – loneliness, anxiety.
Becoming an IDF Soldier
Weeks later, I found myself on a desert with a bunch of foreign IDF recruits – some of whom bullied and ridiculed me. One of the hardest challenges was understanding the motivations of others. The Russians for example, couldn’t understand why an American would want to serve. I was not a typical Zionist. Loving Israel did not come naturally.
We went from base to base from the north to the south participating in a wide range of military operations and over time, I learned to see the country as a pioneer with a vision without getting too bogged down by the difficult dynamics of our garin. I began to identify with the concept of service that Israelis are born into and with that, came the notion of thinking of the other and less of myself.
Although it was hard to stay courageous as a lone soldier without any immediate family in Israel and there wasn’t Facebook and other lone programs like there are today. Still I was able to acquire that necessary emotional independence which I couldn’t get from my mother. While it was an accident I got inducted in the Israel Defense Forces because I didn’t have a clue what I was getting involved in, it wasn’t an accident that I decided to leave her.
“Still I was able to acquire that necessary emotional independence which I couldn’t get from my mother.”— Dorit Sasson
Had I stayed in New York City, I would have in fact “become like my mother” without being able to think for myself.
During the two and half years of serving on various army bases, kibbutzim and settlements in Israel, I was able to think, feel, and act without living in fear. By volunteering the Israel Defense Forces, I attained my own goals for happiness and took healthier risks that gave me a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
Dorit Sasson is an Israeli-American writer and the award-winning author of Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service and Sacrifice in the Israel Defense Forces and the upcoming memoir Sand and Steel: A Memoir of Longing and Finding Home (May 2021). Following her military service and graduate studies in English literature in Israel, Dorit taught English before returning to the United States with her family in 2007. Her work has been featured in The Writer, Kveller, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Ravishly, The Wisdom Daily, SheKnows, and, most recently, HuffPost. Dorit is a regular columnist for Bashert Books Press.