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Israel’s Citizen-Soldiers

How do Israelis go from fighting in Gaza to making lunches for their children, knowing that any day now they are likely to be called back into the army? In Ari Kalker’s case, with help from Maimonides.

Emily Benedek
May 02, 2024
Guard post in northern Israel, April 2024. In Ari Kalker's helmet is a Chumash to study the weekly parashah.

Courtesy of Ari Kalker

Guard post in northern Israel, April 2024. In Ari Kalker's helmet is a Chumash to study the weekly parashah.

Courtesy of Ari Kalker

Ari Kalker fought in the 551st commando brigade in northern Gaza until the end of January. He is an infantryman whose job it is to protect and provide support to the battalion commander and his team of officers (fire support, intelligence, and so on) as they move through the operating theater and direct the operations of the battalion.

“Our job is to help the battalion commander perform his work efficiently, and keep him and his team from being killed,” Kalker says.

Kalker’s specific job, in addition to being a warrior, is to operate the radio for the fire support officer. For 90 days, he called in fire on Gaza.

On March 19, he texted me as he was heading down from the Golan Heights, where he was already serving in reserve duty, this time in preparation for his next deployment. When I figured he’d reached home, I texted him, “Chilling?” He responded: “Chilling, haha. I got home and made dinner and put the kids to bed while my wife went to the gym. Now supermarket. The balance of trying to be a good husband and father while back and forth to reserve duty …”

I had to read the message twice. Though a parent myself, and surely invested in the sharing of parental duties, I was floored at the idea of a soldier who’d just spent three months in heavy battle shopping and cooking and supervising teeth brushing. All I could think of was the scene in the film Hurt Locker when Jeremy Renner, recently returned from his work as an American sapper in Iraq, stares at an endless wall of cereal boxes in the supermarket and loses his shit.

I wondered, how do Kalker and the 300,000-odd soldiers in the reserves, including women, leave the battlefield, go home to the kids, all while counting down the days until they are called back to war? How do they get their minds, and more importantly, their nerves, around it?

‘You’re wearing your father costume, but your army boots are still on. Or you’re playing your husband role, but your army socks are showing. And there’s this constant fight inside.’

When we met for lunch a week later at a restaurant called “Ima” in Jerusalem between the Central Train Station and Mahane Yehuda that catered to English-speaking professors and visiting diplomats with idling black Mercedes, Kalker said he’d like to answer that question. Short version: The IDF was making extra efforts to help returning soldiers with what he referred to as “preemptive first aid.” More on that later.

But he also wanted to tell me about studying a little-known book, Maimonides on War. He was fascinated by Maimonides’ thoughts on a soldier’s need to disconnect from wife and family and community while on duty so as to properly shoulder the tasks at hand. “There’s a philosophical argument that when a soldier goes off to war, he is embodying the entire Jewish people inside of him, and he’s no longer carrying the responsibility of his own life, but that of the entire Jewish people.” Kalker explained that this separation extends to the method and form of prayer—there are different words to say whether you’re in a minyan or not. “So the philosophical argument is,” Kalker says, “if you’re no longer an individual, and you’re the embodiment of all of Am Yisroel, do you pray as if you’re in a minyan, or do you pray as if you’re by yourself?”

Prayer in battle, Kalker found out, was its own daily improvisation. Some days he’d only have time to wrap tefillin, say the Shema, bow, and move on. Once, he accidentally put on tefillin on Saturday, unaware of the day of the week.

Maimonides’ ideas of separation had other technical aspects, “So, there’s a big argument over whether a soldier, when he goes off to war, should write a get—the Jewish man’s release of his wife from marriage—in advance, in case he falls, in case he gets kidnapped, so his wife isn’t stuck in limbo,” says Kalker, who wears the small knitted kippa of a modern Orthodox Zionist.

Kalker says that although the prevailing view is that preparing a get ahead of time “is likely to weaken you emotionally,” he felt otherwise. “I sat with my rabbi beforehand, over the phone, before I went to Gaza, and we did it. And it was sitting in his drawer, and when I came home, we sat down together, had a cup of coffee, and we ripped it up.”

The separation, Kalker told me, helped him while in battle but it worsened his return. One day early on, for example, after sketching out a note to his wife while in the thick of the action, he realized what he wrote would only upset her, so he declined to send it back with the daily truck that brought them supplies of food, water, and ammunition.

Instead, he maintained his own ways of staying connected at a level he could manage. When in battle, he told me, touching his shoulder pocket, he carried his kippa on one side, and, in a pocket on the other shoulder, a photo of his family. He and his wife have four children. The eldest, a boy, had his bar mitzvah two weeks before the Hamas invasion.

There were other things that required adjustments. After three months without a phone, listening to the news after getting home “was horrible, oh my God. There were multiple times I punched the radio in my car while driving.” He yelled at the newscaster, “how can you say something so stupid?” Then, he realized that the country, even the State of Israel, had “experienced something very different in the last 90 days than I had.”

And what were those 90 days like for Kalker?

“There are a couple of buildings left,” he said. “We missed a few.”

Kalker made aliya from Queens after 11th grade, decided college was not for him (“I had a very hard time staying still in class”). The IDF rejected him because his Hebrew wasn’t good enough. “I was highly insulted,” he says. “How could they not understand that I am Rambo! I am going to single-handedly defeat all of our enemies with just my pinkie. My ego was that big.” He went to work at a kibbutz and after three months with Israeli 12th graders in the fields, he was speaking fluently, and reading Hebrew novels. He passed the language test and joined the infantry. That was 20 years ago.

Kalker now runs a construction company in Jerusalem that specializes in high-end renovations. As a reward for his company’s having made it through COVID, and even turning a profit, he bought himself a white double-cab Ford F-250, which he is obliged to move twice during lunch because it’s so big and the lot is so small. He, understandably, loves his truck.

I asked him how much of a role revenge for Oct. 7 played in the devastation we saw in pictures from Gaza. He was very clear. “If it doesn’t serve some greater purpose, revenge isn’t a reason for us to do something. That’s not who we are.”

“Every building we searched had threats in them,” he explained, including weapons, ammunition, and Hamas paraphernalia. “We’re assuming there’s stuff we didn’t find, and we know that there’s probably hundreds if not thousands of tunnel openings that we didn’t find that are still operational.”

The IDF’s “scorched earth policy” was a necessity because if terrorists tried to reclaim an area by crawling out of a tunnel, “there should be no way that they can go back into a building and find the gun that they hid somewhere and then use it against us.” Hamas will use any partially standing building to hide in and attack Israeli soldiers.

Kalker said Hamas’ tactics had improved somewhat since he was last in Gaza for Operation Protective Edge in 2014. “But nothing crazy.” Their communications system was better. Now, they’re “using runners.”

The drill became familiar. “You never go through a front door. Ever. It’s a rule. They’re always booby-trapped. Also, if someone is waiting for you, they’re waiting for you to come through the door.”

Instead, soldiers blast a hole in a wall. At first, the responsibility for taking the booby-traps apart was left to the specialists, but then the soldiers began doing it themselves, as it was straightforward work. Entering multistory buildings is always the same, the soldiers stacked up and around at the bottom of the stairs. At the front is a sharpshooter and right behind, a light machine gunner, then the commander and the radioman.

For this war, after great efforts from the IDF to get the civilian population to evacuate ahead of time, “there was no concept of noncombatants anywhere where we were operating. Anyone who’s there is either us or the enemy. There’s nothing in the middle.” Every room got a grenade before the soldiers entered.

“It made us a little bit calmer and nicer. It’s been a long time since we’ve been allowed to work that way.”

Two observations Kalker made to himself as they moved through northern Gaza: “There were no books in any of the houses we entered except for children’s schoolbooks and a Quran, which was always in the bedroom. No books. No literature.” And there was one more unusual thing. “Every house had one or two drawers full of women’s lingerie.” He had trouble describing it except to say there were all kinds of items, some in five different colors. Very cheap lingerie, he said, something one might buy on

“I couldn’t really put my finger on it,” he said, “but it was just really weird, this huge amount of lingerie. I don’t know how to understand it. And there’s pictures of Al Aqsa in every house.”

And so, the soldiers did their work, following intelligence leads gleaned from the capture of terrorists, from written material and computer files left behind, from the memories of released Israeli hostages. Their vision imprinted now with the color and texture of the bulldozed sand, the cement ruins, and sometimes a glimpse of the sea, they tried to understand their foe, the wound inflicted on their country, and their future. Meanwhile, they tried to perform their familiar rituals and maintain equilibrium all while remaining alert for armed gunmen charging out of holes in the ground. Until, one day at the end of January, they were sent home.

‘Every building we searched had threats in them,’ including weapons and Hamas paraphernalia.

But not immediately. “Instead of coming out and going right back to our logistics space and putting our equipment away that Saturday,” Kalker told me, they took the squad to “an Army vacation village thing in Ashdod.” They stayed the rest of the day there on the beach, and then overnight. “We got a full night of sleep in a bed with a real shower with a real meal beforehand and breakfast waiting in the morning.”

And then on Sunday, they were in “group therapy.”

“That must have been interesting,” I said.

“It was hilarious,” he said. Their therapist was an older man, an army psychologist and former soldier who told them practical things like “you’re not going to sleep properly for the first couple of weeks.” And “you’re probably going to fight with your wife tonight when you go home.” The psychologist pointed out which symptoms would likely go away on their own, and which ones were signs of something more serious—like becoming panicked in a closed room.

As Kalker expertly lifted the spine from his whole grilled fish, he admitted that the treatment was helpful. “Like the fact that I’m sitting with my back to the door right now is a good step. I saw you sat there, and I’m trying to be okay with it.”

I apologized profusely and immediately offered to switch places with him. I know better, as I have another good friend who spent his life in the military and will never sit in a chair that doesn’t afford him a full view of the room.

“No, no, I’m good. Like, I’m doing it on purpose.”

Another useful aspect of their phased reintroduction to life was that they didn’t go back to being civilians right away. For three or four days they slept at home, returning to base in the morning to clean their equipment, reorganize, and “fix all the stuff that we broke, replenish all the little bits and pieces that we lost along the way.” Easing themselves from one world to the other. What did he break? “A few radios, and the handle of my gun.

“You’re not really done with your mission until all your equipment is clean and put back together and ready for the next deployment,” he said. On the level of an entire battalion, he says that can take three or four days.

How did he break the radios?

“By dropping the radio from the fifth floor, and the guy in the bottom didn’t catch it.”

A few weeks later, they met with a psychologist who had a huge effect on all of them; they learned a great deal about war, time, and memory, and how much they had been melded together by the violence and destruction. “We were in a very pastoral setting, in the Golan, with a beautiful view. We sat around the bonfire. It was like a vacation, but it wasn’t. We were getting paid. It was a reserve duty day. It was just us, just the team, just the intimate group of people we worked with. And we had some time to process what we’d gone through.”

He said there are two main things they learned: No one remembers everything, and no two people remember an event the same way.

“Over the course of the 90-plus days we were in Gaza, I can remember in detail like, two events,” he says. “The rest is all a blur.” One day with the psychologist, they were talking about the day a missile hit the room next door to them and blew down a wall.

“I’m like, ‘I don’t remember that at all’,” Kalker said. And another soldier said, “Wow, Ari, how do you not remember? The missile hit the room next to you and the wall fell on top of you. And you were the one screaming to get the pillow off your head, but it wasn’t a pillow, it was a big rock.”

And there was another event. They were in a building and someone started screaming, “get out, get out, get out!” They evacuated and “10 seconds later, the whole building just collapsed.”

Kalker said he asked, “Where was I when this happened?” A soldier said, “I was screaming into your ear, you were standing right next to me, and I pulled you out with me.”

“I don’t remember that at all either,” he said.

Kalker says, “If you asked me, I’d say, yeah, we were there for 90 days, and it was really not that big of a deal. But when we started piecing together all the different stories, it was like, ‘wow, we did some pretty awesome shit.’”

But then he got home, and his wife asked him to put together lunches for the kids. And then he had his Jeremy Renner moment. “By us, the one thing that drives my wife crazy is making their lunches, right? You have to pack them a snack and lunch and all these little things.” I remember very well. A mother’s most hated chore.

“So before the war,” he went on, “she had a WhatsApp message that I saved that said what goes in each kid’s lunchbox, depending on the day of the week. And then I would just knock it all out and put it together. You know, sit there on the counter, this goes in this box, blah, blah, blah. Whatever, we had a system that worked. So, I get back, and what goes in their lunch has changed, because now, all of a sudden, ‘I don’t like this type of cracker,’ or ‘I don’t like that type of yogurt.’”

But he couldn’t do it. No matter how many times she corrected him, he couldn’t remember. This from a man who memorized maps daily in Gaza, with details that might mean life or death for his squad.

He had to admit that the lunch task “just seemed so insignificant and I’m thinking, why am I gonna try to remember? I’m just gonna disappear again pretty soon.” The same was true at work, “I don’t really want to get overly involved in any of my projects. Because today, tomorrow, or in three weeks from now, I’m just going to leave it all again.”

This is the sense he makes of it, based on something a member of his squad said while they were all sitting around the bonfire in the Golan. “We’re like actors on a stage. We’re wearing a costume and playing a part. During our days, we’re switching from father, to husband, to whatever your job is. But underneath all of the costumes, we’re wearing our IDF uniforms.”

That’s the costume that’s always there.

“I walk around with a gun on all day, every day,” he explained. “I have one on me right now. I have a responsibility in the world around me, and this relates back to what Maimonides said about representing and protecting the Jewish people while a soldier.”

Whereas going back into the highly structured setting of the army is easy, almost instinctive, he continues, transitioning home now “is really hard, so like you’re wearing your father costume, but your army boots are still on. Or you’re playing your husband role, but your army socks are showing. And there’s this constant fight inside.”

He explained that one of the things the psychologists recommended was that he and his wife start slowly to reacquaint themselves with each other. One technique was through “mini dates.”

“Instead of going out to dinner, which requires finding a babysitter and all that, we’ll go walk around the block together, just the two of us. Without our phones. We have a 13-year-old son at home, and he can handle whatever comes up for 20 minutes, so we do that every night. Some nights we argue, some nights we talk, some nights we walk in silence, but reconnection is like a process. And I think my wife’s accepted that it’s not going to be 100% for a while. Like, I’m not going to really be back until this is all over, which is why we all just want to get this war finished.”

Which brings him back to Maimonides and the transformation of the soldier into the nation. “You’ve disassociated from the entire world that exists and you’re now very much a cog in a much bigger wheel with a role to play and that’s your only responsibility. But while the specific job may seem small, the fate and future of the entire nation of Israel is on your shoulders.”

Kalker reported back to his unit on April 14. He’s in the north, awaiting orders.

Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.