It began last February, when my wife, my daughter, and I went to Israel to visit my son, Max, who had been studying in a yeshiva in Jerusalem for his gap year between high school and college. It was a long-anticipated trip, for which we had planned a fun-filled week. What we hadn’t planned was the sea change in our lives that was about to ensue.
No, Max didn’t — as they say in our circles — flip. That’s the term used to refer to the extreme religious changes that some teenagers experience while studying in Israel. We were glad, however, that he did become more serious about his religious observance.
One night in our rented apartment in Jerusalem, my wife, Debbie, was talking with Max about his plans to attend McGill University next year when I noticed that Max was uncomfortable, and thought I understood why. I, too, had spent time studying in Israel, and remember how difficult it was to even think about that time coming to an end.
“There’s something I want to talk to you guys about,” he said.
Debbie and I looked at one another. Were we about to embark on the infamous shana bet discussion in which he hits us up for a second year in yeshiva? Not quite.
“You know I’ve talked about joining the Israeli army in the past,” he continued. “Well, I want to talk about it again.”
In the past meant as far back as his first trip to Israel for his bar mitzvah. Throughout high school he had often repeated this ambition, and when it came to deciding where he would spend his gap year, he again had raised the issue. This time, however, it was different.
I must confess that I was both proud and jealous of him — proud that he was a young man firmly committed to something bigger than himself, and jealous that I had not been so when I was his age. I was also frightened, but I found solace in knowing that Debbie would never go for it. Max had made it clear that he wouldn’t do this without our blessing.
Max expressed that this was both an existential and religious obligation, that it wasn’t right that only Israelis were required to serve in what he called the Jewish army. Debbie, on the other hand, insisted that Max’s priorities should be college and graduate school. They had come to an impasse, and the discussion was put aside.
It arose again when Max came home for Pesach, and this time I played a more active role.
Max had previously expressed to me his disappointment, as well as his understanding, in my not fully backing him when he knew what was in my heart. I explained that there were many things in my heart, not the least of which was shalom bayit, maintaining tranquility in one’s marriage and home.
At this point I told Debbie that I can’t turn to my son, whom I sent to Zionistic schools and camps his entire life, and tell him that I didn’t really mean it, or that I didn’t really intend for him to take it so seriously. I couldn’t tell him that this was the right thing to do, but not for him, not my son. Debbie became tearful, expressing that she was never prepared for this. She was correct. Israeli parents anticipate this the moment their children are born. For us, this was a shock. It still is.
Debbie eventually came around as well. As she put it, “I realized he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t go, so I would have to figure out how to live with letting him go.”
Reactions of our friends have been telling. My fellow fathers, with rare exception, have been supportive and encouraging. Debbie’s fellow mothers, also with rare exception, have been much more apprehensive. She hasn’t been finding this helpful. She’s still struggling.
Max started basic training July 1. He scored high on his profile, and wants to be in a combat unit. I can’t remember his ever being so certain about anything. His mindset is refreshing, and scary.
I now know how Israeli parents feel and, more importantly, how they pray.
Andrew Kane of Lawrence, L.I., is a clinical psychologist, ordained rabbi and author of two novels.