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Throwdown at the Playground

Mamas who don’t want their babies to grow up to be soldiers

Etgar Keret
July 17, 2009
(Playground by Anke L; some rights reserved.)
(Playground by Anke L; some rights reserved.)

I don’t want to brag, but I’ve managed to earn myself a unique, somewhat mythic status among the parents who take their children to Ezekiel Park, my son’s favorite spot in Tel Aviv. I can’t attribute that special achievement to any overwhelming charisma I might possess, but rather to two common, lackluster qualities: I’m a man, and I hardly ever work. And so, in Ezekiel Park, I have been dubbed “ha-abba” or “the father,” an almost religious and slightly gentile nickname intoned with great respect by all the park’s regulars. It seems that most of the fathers in my neighborhood go to work every morning, so that the inherent laziness that has plagued me for so many years is finally being construed as exceptional sensitivity and affection, showing a genuine understanding of children’s tender young souls.

As “the father,” I can take an active part in conversations on a wide variety of subjects that until recently were alien to me, and I can expand my knowledge of such fascinating topics as nursing, breast pumps, and the relative merits of cloth diapers vs. their disposable counterparts. There is something almost perversely soothing about discussing such things. As a second-generation Holocaust survivor who considers his momentary survival to be exceptional and not the least bit trivial, and whose daily Google Alerts are confined to the narrow territory between “iranian nuclear development” and “jews+genocide,” there is nothing more enjoyable than a few tranquil hours spent discussing sterilizing bottles with organic soap and the red-pink rashes on a baby’s bottom. But this week, the magic ended and political reality crept its way stealthily into my private paradise.

“Tell me something,” Orit, mother of three-year-old Ron, asked innocently. “Will Lev go to the army when he grows up?” The question caught me totally off guard. Over the last three-and-a-half years, I have had to deal with quite a few speculative questions about my son’s future, but most were of the annoying but non-threatening would-you-advise-him-to-be-an-artist-even-though-from-the-way-you’re-dressed-there-can’t-be-much-money-in-it kind. But that question about the army thrust me into a different, surreal world in which I saw dozens of sturdy babies swathed in environmentally friendly cloth diapers sweeping down from the mountains on miniature ponies, weapons brandished in their pink hands, shouting murderous battle cries. And facing them, alone, stands chubby little Lev, wearing scruffy fatigues and an army vest. A green steel helmet, slightly too large, slides over his eyes, and he clutches a bayoneted rifle in his tiny hands. The first wave of diapered riders has almost reached him. He presses the rifle against his shoulder and closes one eye to aim….

“So what do you say?” Orit awakened me from my unpleasant reverie. “Are you going to let him serve in the army or not? Don’t tell me you haven’t talked about it yet.” There was something accusing in her tone. As if the fact that my wife and I haven’t discussed our baby’s military future is on the same scale as skipping his measles vaccination. I refused to give in to the guilt feelings that come so naturally to me and replied unhesitatingly, “No, we haven’t talked about it. We still have time. He’s three-and-a-half years old.”

“If you feel that you still have time, then take it,” Orit snapped back sarcastically. “Reuven and I have already made up our minds about Ron. He’s not going into the army.”

That night, sitting in front of the TV news, I told my wife about the strange incident in Ezekiel Park. “Isn’t that weird,” I said, “talking about recruiting a kid who still can’t put on his underpants by himself?”

“It’s not weird at all,” my wife replied. “It’s natural. All the mothers in the park talk to me about it.”

“So how come they haven’t said anything to me about it till now?”

“Because you’re a man.”

“So what if I’m a man,” I argue. “They have no problem talking to me about nursing.”

“Because they know you’ll be understanding and empathetic about nursing, but you’ll just be snide when it comes to serving in the army.”

“I wasn’t snide,” I defended myself. “I just said that it’s a strange subject to be dealing with when the kid’s so young.”

“I’ve been dealing with it from the day Lev was born,” my wife confessed. “And if we’re already discussing it now, I don’t want him to go into the army.”

I was silent. Experience has taught me that there are some situations in which it’s better to keep quiet. That is, I tried to keep quiet. Life gives me good advice, but sometimes I refuse to take it. “I think it’s very controlling to say something like that,” I finally said. “After all, in the end, he’ll have to decide those things by himself.”

“I’d rather be controlling,” my wife answered, “than have to take part in a military funeral on the Mount of Olives 15 years from now. If it’s controlling to keep your son from putting his life at risk, then that’s exactly what I am.”

At that point, the argument heated up and I turned off the TV. “Listen to yourself,” I said. “You’re talking as if serving in the army is an extreme sport. But what can we do? We live in a part of the world where our lives depend on it. So what you’re actually saying is that you’d rather have other people’s children go into the army and sacrifice their lives, while Lev enjoys his life here without taking any risks or shouldering the obligations the situation calls for.”

“No,” said my wife responded. “I’m saying that we could have reached a peaceful solution a long time ago, and we still can. And that our leaders allow themselves not to do that because they know that most people are like you: they won’t hesitate to put their children’s lives into the government’s irresponsible hands.”

I was about to answer her when I sensed another pair of huge eyes watching me. Lev was standing at the entrance to the living room. “Daddy,” he asked, “why are you and Mommy fighting?”

Since that conversation with Orit, none of the mothers in the park have spoken to me again about Lev’s military service. But I still can’t get that image of him in uniform, armed with a rifle, out of my mind. Just yesterday, in the sandbox, I saw him push Orit’s peacenik son Ron, and later, on the way home, he chased a cat with a stick. “Start saving, Daddy,” I tell myself. “Start saving for a defense attorney. You’re not raising just a soldier here, but a potential war criminal.” I’d be happy to share those thoughts with my wife, but after we barely survived that last clash, I don’t want to start a new one.

We managed to end our argument with an agreement of sorts. First, I suggested what sounded like a fair settlement: when the kid is 18, we’ll let him decide for himself. But my wife rejected that out of hand, claiming he would never be able to make a really free choice with all the social pressure around him. In the end, out of exhaustion, and in the absence of any other solution, we decided to compromise on the only principle we both truly agreed on: to spend the next 14 years working towards family and regional peace.

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer. He writes a regular column from Israel for Tablet.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.