I’m in bed at our hotel in Jerusalem on Saturday night, with Dan Caspi, the 20-year-old Israeli soldier who joined our trip Friday, asleep in the twin bed next to mine.
Our evening ended about an hour ago with a screening of a short documentary called A Hero in Heaven about Michael Levin, the American-born soldier in the IDF who was killed at 22 during the 2006 war with Lebanon after making aliyah from Philadelphia. Yoav warned us before putting the movie on that if we needed to leave in the middle, we should do so quietly so that we don’t disturb others. The implication was there was a good chance the movie might upset some of us so badly that we would have to look away. “This is important,” Yoav said. The movie told the story of Michael Levin’s early embrace of Zionism, his irrepressible resolve to move to Israel, and the outpouring of mourning that followed his death. The movie was made by Levin’s parents and ended with his mother calling upon young Jews to learn about Israel and the history of their people.
When the movie was over, Yoav told us that we would be seeing Michael Levin’s grave the next day at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl and reminded us that we needed to be up at 7 a.m. to go to the Holocaust Museum. When we got up to our room I asked Dan if Levin was someone everybody in the IDF knew about. He said yes—that in fact, he had seen A Hero in Heaven before. I asked him if he had felt the same impulse to protect the state of Israel when he joined the army two years ago. He didn’t say yes or no. Instead he reminded me that his generation of soldiers joined the army under very different circumstances than previous ones—that in the “old days,” as he put it, there was more of a sense that this young country’s place on the map was not guaranteed, and that it urgently needed to be defended. Today, he said, that sense of responsibility definitely follows young soldiers in the door, but in many cases quickly gives way to a feeling of restlessness, and an acute desire to “break free.”
“When you’re in the army, you’re not living—you’re serving the country. That’s the meaning of serving the country,” Dan said, “It’s important. We need to, we have to—if we want to keep Israel here. But still, the personal feeling is that you wish to be something else.”
Since joining our trip, Dan has used the phrase “break free” over and over again when talking about the day a year and one month from now when he will be allowed to leave the army. It’s not how I expected IDF soldiers to talk—as we saw in that Michael Levin documentary, the culture here is to regard service to Israel as the greatest honor imaginable. For Dan, it sounds like it’s more like a regular job—one in which he feels bored and cooped up. He wants to get on with his life. The plan right now is to move to New York and start a band with two of his friends, who also live in Israel and also want the same thing.
Dan’s job in the army is intelligence. He lives and works on a base in the very north of Israel, on a mountain two kilometers high, where it snows five months out of the year. Dan works in an office with one other guy his age; his job, which includes a lot of sitting around and typing, was given to him two weeks after he started basic training as an 18-year-old, when his unit commander decided he was too skinny for combat.
Dan is tall, probably around 6’1”, and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 145 pounds. He’s been skinny all his life, despite concerted efforts to put on weight, and he hates it. For a moment we bonded over this: Looking at my slight frame yesterday while we were changing for the Sabbath, he asked me if I had ever tried eating weight gain powder, and whether it bothered me how thin I was. I told him that it did when I was younger, and for a moment we commiserated about our inability to ever get bigger. Then I realized, with considerable embarrassment, that the stakes for Dan have always been much higher than they ever were for me: Whereas my main fear when I was a teenager was that I wouldn’t get as many girls to like me as some of the more muscular kids in my school, he grew up with the knowledge that unless he succeeded at overpowering his body’s natural inclinations before he turned 18, he would be denied the chance of ever becoming a true soldier.
He spent two weeks in combat training before his commanders pulled him out and sent him to work in the office on the mountain. There he was relegated to being what’s known as a “jobnik” a sort of housecat who pushes paper instead of fighting. On the night we first met, Dan talked about this with obvious disappointment and enduring frustration in his voice, not even because he so yearns for combat, but because he feels like his skinniness robbed him of an experience that he believes would have turned him into a stronger, better man. Things being as they are, he’s caught somewhere in between being a soldier—and enjoying the glory and sense of purpose that’s supposed to confer on him—and just having a dull office job that’s holding him back from his dream of becoming a rock star with his friends.
He can’t wait to start trying to make that happen: Israel is not just an inhospitable place for the kind of alt-rock he wants to play, but it’s also a place where his favorite American bands hardly ever visit when they’re on tour. The Pixies had a show planned once but canceled it for security reasons, he tells me with some contempt. Pearl Jam, whose music he fell in love with six months ago after hearing “Evenflow” on Guitar Hero, won’t play here either. “Eddie Vedder supports the Palestinians,” Dan said. “It makes me pretty much want to fly to America to see him. No matter what he thinks, I still love his music.”
The fact that Dan’s work for the army prevents him from being able to play his guitar as much as he wants is one of the reasons he’s excited to finish his service. Eighteen to 21 are important years in a person’s development, he says, and compared to musicians in America, he is severely behind. Still, he keeps his acoustic with him in his room, which he shares with five other soldiers, and plays it whenever he can. He has brought it with him on Birthright, and has been playing songs for us by his favorite bands, like Pearl Jam and Queen.
I asked him last night if that phrase, “break free,” was one that everyone in the IDF used.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I do. It’s from the song by Queen.”
Our roommate Adam overheard this from the bathroom and sang the main line from the song: “I want to break free.”
“That’s right,” Dan said. “You don’t know how much, man.” He picked up his guitar and played the opening lick and then started singing the words.
“I want to break free / I want to break free / I want to break free from your lies / you’re so self satisfied / I don’t need you / I’ve got to break free / God knows, God knows I want to break free.”
Sitting here listening to the recording I made of Dan singing this song on my headphones, watching him asleep three feet away from me, I’m fairly certain I’m thinking exactly what the Birthright people were hoping I would think when I met these young soldiers. Namely, that they are not so different from us, but they are.