Can you see Masada yet?

To an IDF unit, their kumta, or beret, is the ultimate goal for most combat soldiers. It is an achievement unlike any other, the mark of the completion of training. Each unit dons their own color, red for the paratroopers, turquoise for artillery, black for tanks, lime green for Nahal, and so on. To earn the lime green, my unit had to hike 65km, beginning in our base in the middle of the Negev desert, and hiking to Masada, the legendary stronghold of Jewish rebels against the Roman Empire.

I always laugh at the preparation process before the masa. A couple hours before the start of the masa and we look like a group of Navy Seals gathered around their gun table, like in the movies. They check their gear, screw on silencers, and change their scopes. Except, for us, instead of weapons of war, although we do have those, our tables are filled with talc, medical tape, antichaffing cream, bandages, extra pairs of socks, snacks, and caffeine pills. We toss things back and forth. “Who has talc,” the cries go. “Anyone have leucoplast!?” As we exit the tent and begin donning our gear, we undoubtedly leave puffs of talc wherever we walk. People wrap Israeli flags around themselves. A few people hold go-pros. When we begin the masa it is a quarter before 5, the sun is low in the sky and 500 soldiers begin their masa kumta.

We hiked all night. By the time we finally arrived at Masada, our feet were hamburger and our sides raw and bleeding from the chaffing know as shwarma. When we were finally allowed to collapse, in the parking lot of Masada, no one cared enough to take off their vests or boots. If you didn’t know better, it probably appeared somewhat like a scene from The Walking Dead. The ground littered with soldiers sleeping and those who were awake, wandered around like zombies, too swollen and sore to walk normally. We arrived the next day at our ceremony. Friends and family gathered to watch us exchange our dark brownish green “Bakum” kumtot for the lime green berets of Nahal. When it came my turn, my commander took his own kumta of his shoulder and gave it to me. He gave me a hard punch to the chest, and considering the fact that my legs weren’t working, I tipped right over. Fortunately, my friends behind me caught me. The tradition of a commander passing on his kumta to a deserving soldier has long been practiced and it is an honor to be a part of it.

My kumta is woven of cheap, itchy wool, $10 at any army store here, yet what it represents is limitless. It represents that first flight from America, leaving my family crying in the airport as I sat reevaluating my entire decision to come here. It represents the first three months in Israel, without friends, without hebrew, feeling the loneliest I’ve ever felt. It represents my first day in the army, standing in Chet, rain dripping off my stiff, dark green “Bakum” kumta, as I looked at the unfamiliar faces around me. It represents my first day in Kravi, feeling overwhelmed and lost with the fluent hebrew speakers around me, and wondering how I would ever get through the next 8 months. It represents every masa, the blistered feet, aching back, burning muscles, and the dread of having another 30km. It represents standing in 120 degree heat, after days of three or less hours of sleep, getting yelled at by the commanders for the fourth time since lunch. And it represents the three nails I’m missing, liters of blood and sweat, and scars that dot my body. But along with the pain and suffering comes the good, the excitement, the achievement. My kumta represents a new family, friends that are like brothers. It represents standing under the Israeli flag, rifle in hand, singing hatikvah. It represents the joy and accomplishment of finishing masaot and field weeks. It represents the evolution of my hebrew and mental strength to levels I didn’t know I could achieve. And it represents every time we supported each other, every time we hugged each other, pulled and pushed each other, yelled at each other, and willed each other to the finish line. And we made it, sweaty and tired, but we still made it. So when I walk through the train station with the lime green kumta on my shoulders, those around me see just that, but I see and feel the weight, emotions, happiness, pain, and love that I have experienced the last 11 months.

Training is over. I am officially a combat fighter in the Nahal Brigade in the Israeli Defense Forces. I will remember the moment for the rest of my life.

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6 comments On Can you see Masada yet?

  • Kol HaKavod. I can understand just how you feel. I know that it was all well worth it though.

  • Noam – Your parents must be very proud of you. Thank you for your service defending Israel.

    My son just completed Michve Alon and is drafting into Nahal next week. He is 25, from San Francisco, and spent the past 14 months doing ulpan before starting Michve Alon Oct. 21. His name is Alex F. Perhaps you will see him in ten months when he is done with his masa kumta.

    Question for you. At what stage in your training did you parents come visit? We were thinking of coming for the beret ceremony, but then I don’t know if he gets any time off between that and active duty. Is there a better time to come when he might get a week or two off from duty?

    I’ll keep an eye out for updates to your blog. Good luck, and God bless you.

    • Hi CaryF, This is Noam’s mom! I was waiting to see if Noam was going to reply. 🙂
      It was hard to figure out when to visit. We ended up having it decided by a friends wedding in August – so 11 months in. It really is up to the commanders to help him decide when a good time is…Noam pushed a lot! Then once we got there, his leave was threatened by the war. But, they really try and accommodate a visit – Alex will “technically” have 8 days off to be with you. I would have given anything to be there at the beret ceremony…some of the ceremonies are at the Kotel – which you can watch via webcam. But, not this one. There is also a social worker on base that can help him figure things out. But, decide on a time – have Alex talk to them and buy tickets. There are natural breaks that happen in the training…and then a week break that they are given at “some time”. Pesach seemed also to be a more relaxed time. I also suggest making sure you go to the base and meet his CO’s…they are all young men and it’s harder to resist a request to make sure you see your son from you than it will be from Alex! We also brought small gifts for his two CO’s…we brought Alaskan “leathermans” – an all in one appliance knife. Bribery?
      I wish your family and Alex all the best in his decision. It is a very selfless decision and I certainly admire that. It’s hard work…but I know Noam wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Stay in touch if you like…it’s very hard to be here in the States when no one can understand how scary it is to have your son guarding the Gaza border or wherever. I really think that they should have a way to connect all of us parents. 🙂
      I continue my prayers for peace and G-d bless you all and Alex’s journey. Kay

      • Kay – thank you. I just read Noam’s latest post, and I see he is on the Gaza border, so I completely understand he didn’t respond.

        Thank you for the advice. Alex still has two more months of basic training before advanced training, so I know I’m probably jumping the gun. I’ve read several blogs by American lone soldiers, and they’ve been extremely helpful for me to understand what Alex is and will be going through. In fact, in some cases I’ve been able to warn him about some things like Krav Maga training! Your son’s blog has helped because Alex is in the same brigade and I think the same battalion.

        When Alex gets to Advanced Training, I will ask him to talk to the social worker and his commanders early so he hopefully can agree on a week to take off and we can come. Even if he only takes four days and we overlap that with a full week, that would work. Our younger son is in college, so he wants to come also, and we really want to be there for the beret ceremony if possible. I feel terrible we weren’t there for the swearing ceremony on Christmas Day at the Kotel – it’s the first milestone in his life that I’ve missed!

        God bless your son and your family for the sacrifices you are making.

        Cary

      • Kay – there is a private/secret Facebook page for friends and families of lone soldiers. If you friend me on Facebook (f you use Facebook), I can invite you to join it.

        Cary

      • Kay – I have another detail question for you. Does the masa kumta end in the Masada parking lot as Noam mentioned, or do they walk all the way up to the top of Masada? I want to make sure we’re at the right place that day!

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