By Hana Julian
My youngest daughter doesn’t look like anyone else in the family, but she has her father’s eyes, and she has my father’s grin.
My father never talked about Korea, or about his time in Tokyo and the South Pacific islands. In fact, I didn’t even know he was in Kawalajin until I saw his discharge papers, 30 years after he died.
But my mother, who shared his membership in the Jewish War Veterans, was hugely proud of their joint military history. You know that saying, “Your mother wears army boots?” Mine really did. Every freezing winter in our Connecticut neighborhood she fiercely shoveled snow from our sidewalk in those scuffy brown lace-up boots while my father chuckled with his own shovel in the driveway, grinning at her attitude.
After my father’s death my “little” brother, only 18 at the time but already a foot taller than me, sidled up to me and quietly handed me a package.
“Dad wanted me to give this to you,” he mumbled. “He said you would know what to do with it.” A revolver, a semi-automatic pistol and a BB gun with some ammo wrapped so well that no one could have guessed its contents. Of course I knew what to do. I did what had to be done with such things.
I later found my dad’s military award while going through my mother’s things after her funeral 20 years later. My sister and brother decided I should have it, festooned with medals for sharpshooting, combat medic symbols and others I still don’t understand.
I was the one my dad took fishing at dawn and dusk. We sat in silence along myriad rivers and ponds around metro New Haven and outlasted the bigger fish overnight on the West Haven beach, with me staying warm in dad’s old army sleeping bag. He taught me how to clean the fish (my mother once was horrified to find me dissecting the brains of a mouse on our back porch) and I learned to plant blue gills and sunfish under the tomato plants in our garden for fertilizer (they weren’t “good eating”). Dad and his best friend Ted, an Italian, taught me self-defense, street fighting, basic security and gourmet cooking.
But my father – a combat medic and sharpshooter, among other things – never said a word about what he’d experienced during the war. The one day I asked him, his eyes darkened in a way I had never seen. When I finally pushed him too far, he described a torture technique – unmentionable here – that I have never forgotten. He said he would use it on a North Korean if he ever caught one. I wondered then as I wonder today which of his friends “bought it” in that war.
He requested a discharge when he and my mother became engaged despite her pleas that he consider a professional military career, insistent that children need a stable life. Both were proud of having served the country and neither respected draft dodgers; in our family, it was understood that one defends the homeland, regardless of gender.
All this came back to me the day my 16-year-old daughter brandished her first Israeli draft notice. She was a tomboy all her life to that point, and now had matured into a beautiful, tall girl with caramel-colored blonde hair nearly to her waist, sea-green eyes and a faint sprinkle of freckles dusting her cheeks. Dimples when she flashed a grin that family members recognized as a red alert for mischief.
By now we had been living in southern Israel for more than a decade and I was a widowed mother of seven; this was my second-to-last child in a modern but nevertheless Chassidic Jewish family, rebellions notwithstanding.
We celebrated the notice. My Chassidic friends told me I was crazy; my more modern Orthodox Jewish friends were cautious in suggesting perhaps this was not quite a good idea. The Israeli army is, after all, a very active military force. Did I really want to take the chance my daughter might actually have to … uh … stay on base with other soldiers during a war?
Well, yes, actually. That was the general idea, I thought. In the Bible, the Jews defend their Land and their People. In 1948, the women weren’t at all squeamish about having to do the same; it was a matter of survival. Frankly, I didn’t see today’s situation differently, as long as the genders were respected by the authorities appropriately. (My daughter was shocked to discover that modesty is expected up to and including a rule against nail polish.)
We decided I would not accompany her when she went in; that would be the privilege of her sisters. At the gathering grounds, family members say “goodbye” and some make a real ceremony out of it. (I later saw videos with Moroccan parents bringing and banging on bongo drums, showering their daughters with special candies, boyfriends hugging their girlfriends goodbye, daughters clinging to parents with tears flowing on both sides.) That night my daughter called and informed me that she had not disgraced herself. I was quietly proud.
The next day her sisters laughed themselves silly and told me she was a train wreck in the car all the way to the base, weeping and hysterical and not knowing in which direction to fling herself first.
Neither of her older sisters served in the military; they both were in religious schools at the time and exempted by the government. Their younger sister in uniform faced her fears that day, experienced and conquered them. By the time she got to the gathering point, she was indeed calm, they told me later with surprise.
But that calmness has since deepened into a shell, similar to the one her grandfather used to wear.
As a journalist, I report on the terror attacks that take place during my shift. Many are horrific and some are beyond description, breaching the defenses I long ago learned to build.
Not my soldier daughter.
“Ma, what’s wrong?”
“Attack. A 19-year-old female soldier stabbed to death, about 15 times.” (I don’t point out the victim is her own age, size and rank.)
“Okay.” Exaggerated sigh. “You know the drill. This is not new.”
“That doesn’t make it okay.”
“It’s another attack, Ma. Get past it and keep going. You know she’s a soldier. A civilian didn’t get killed because she was there. Keep moving.”
She is impatient with her mother, whom she knows as really strong.
But I don’t tell her that in my belly I see my green-eyed daughter covered in blood, her body ripped in shreds on the ground, a triumphant terrorist exultant in his jihad victory. I see the mother of that young Border Guard Police woman bent over her daughter as I have seen dozens of others throughout my career. I wonder if or when it will be me. My stomach muscles are twisting like fire and I can barely talk, but I tell my kid “goodbye” and get back to work.
Next year it will be my son.
Ann Julian is an American-Israeli ‘Mom x 6’ who works as a radio newscaster/digital journalist and as a licensed psychotherapist. She is the News Director at Israel News Talk Radio and an Editor at JewishPress.com.