What Makes Isaac Run?

Red Beret: Isaac Katz in dress uniform in front of the Western Wall. Photo courtesy of Isaac Katz.

March 17, 2014

By Alfred Miller

Isaac Katz refuses to acknowledge his limp. The twenty-four-year-old former cross country standout doesn’t limp. His left leg simply points sideways now.

He ambles down onto the subway platform. His wavy, dark brown hair is starting to recede. Stubble obscures his cherubic facial features. His jacket is olive green and mysterious, with cryptic Hebrew letters and an unfamiliar emblem. The jacket is too big for Isaac, despite his new barrel chest. He wears it anyway, with pride. The rush hour crowd doesn’t notice him or his shy smile.

It is February 2014. Isaac is back in New York City, where he was born and raised, and never quite fit in.

********

There was a time in middle school and high school when Isaac tried to fit in. His parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, worked in engineering and finance. They lived modestly, but sent Isaac to one of the city’s elite private schools, Brooklyn’s Poly Prep. Expectations were high for Isaac, the youngest of three. His much older siblings — his brother was 10 years older and his sister was 15 years older — were model students. Isaac found it easier to run away from those expectations. He avoided honors courses and other activities that would make him stand apart from the crowd.

Known mostly for its football team and strong theater program, Isaac’s school celebrated its gridiron heroes and the champions of its annual public-speaking competition. Too small for football and too shy for the stage, Isaac gravitated toward cross country and computer science. He enjoyed taking long runs after school — often a mile or two longer than the four miles that most of his teammates ran. His route took him past the nearby Verrazano Bridge and along New York Harbor. Isaac enjoyed the solitude. He saw the runs as opportunities to organize his thoughts. Toward the end of his high school career, Isaac maxed out the school’s computer science curriculum and started taking programming courses on the side at Columbia University. He did not tell his classmates.

There was a lot Isaac did not share with his classmates. He kept quiet about his summers spent in Israel with family members. He rarely brought up his reverence for human rights activist Natan Sharansky and the other refuseniks, whose protests and sacrifices had allowed those same family members to flee the Soviet Union for Israel in the 1970s. And he hardly ever talked about the long, creased, and faded piece of paper that hung, framed, in the hallway of his parents’ home — though he pondered its significance daily. The paper was his paternal grandparents’ marriage certificate.

During World War II, Isaac’s grandparents, not yet married, had been interned in a Romanian concentration camp. They wanted desperately to be married, so they found a rabbi who scrawled the necessary language in pencil on a long, white piece of paper. Together the three of them signed their names at the bottom of the now-tattered document. Was it tragic or hopeful?

During his summers in Israel, Isaac learned about the motherland from his cousins. He listened eagerly to his cousins’ stories about life in the Israeli Defense Force — Israel’s military, in which service is mandatory for Israeli youth. The IDF was the guardian against another Holocaust, they said. If it had existed during World War II, things would have been so different. Isaac’s grandparents, for instance, would not have suffered the indignity of being married in a concentration camp, they said. Isaac wondered what it would be like to serve in the IDF.

For college, Isaac crossed the Hudson River into Hoboken, New Jersey to attend Stevens Institute of Technology. The Stevens cross country coach was eager to have Isaac on the team. He had a philosophy that seemed to fit Isaac’s running style. At the start of Isaac’s freshman year, the coach gathered his runners into an auditorium and posed a question. How much does success in cross country depend on mental ability relative to physical ability? The coach ordered them each to write a percentage breakdown on a piece of paper.

Mental toughness was obviously the key to success, Isaac thought to himself, just look at yours truly. Afraid to overstate his conviction, he scribbled 60 percent mental. Others on the team wrote even higher percentages. The coach looked through the slips of paper.

“Why, then, do you train your body, but not your mind?” the coach asked.

The runners spent the afternoon meditating in the auditorium. To achieve success, they had to know how to get there step by step, the coach said. Eyes closed, Isaac visualized himself, in real time, dodging branches, leaping over tree roots, and rounding tight turns at Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, where the team would have its next meet.

Isaac found the visualization exercise useful. The practice spread to other parts of Isaac’s life. Success on an engineering exam? That looked like textbook reading, practice problems, and one excruciating hour with paper and pencil. Success in life? That would require a little more meditation.

********

During summer vacations in Israel, Isaac had always felt more comfortable than he did at home. In Israel, no matter where he went, he was family.

There was a time when he was standing on a public bus in Afula, a city in northern Israel. The bus stopped, the door opened, and suddenly a woman who was trying to board handed Isaac her baby. Then she looked away to wrestle with her stroller. The baby didn’t seem alarmed. He stared back at Isaac. But while the woman was still looking down, the door shut and the bus started to roll away.

Isaac protested in horror. He asked the driver to stop. This was not his baby.

The driver just snickered and advised him to get off at the next stop.

The other passengers tried to calm Isaac down. Drivers in Israel stop for nothing, they said, but it’s no big deal. You’ll find the mother.The baby continued to stare calmly at Isaac.

Isaac got off the bus a few blocks down the road and dashed back to the previous stop. Breathless, he apologized profusely. He hadn’t been trying to snatch her baby, he explained. It all happened so fast.

The woman wasn’t upset. She hadn’t even moved from the previous stop. She knew nothing would happen, she said.

Nothing would happen? In the United States, all hell would have broken loose, thought Isaac. What a country.

********

The more Isaac meditated on the subject, the more he was convinced that his happiness was inextricably tied to Israel. Being there, in the motherland, where he was one of the tribe, made him feel proud. He wanted to run away and escape to Israel.

A thought occurred to him during the summer of 2010, between his junior and senior years of college. Maybe he could join the Israeli Defense Force. The idea of joining the military — of finding new ways to test his willpower and of being part of something bigger than himself — had long appealed to him, but he had never acted on it. Now, as graduation loomed and adult life threatened to quash his boyhood fantasy, he felt an urgent desire to set his own course. He signed up for a two-month long IDF summer prep camp. If he did not enjoy military life, no harm done. He would take his engineering degree and find a desk job in the States. If he liked it, he would join the IDF after graduation and figure out the rest later.

Isaac thrived at the training camp. Cross country had prepared him well for the physical and psychological challenges — the long marches and sleepless nights. When he shot a gun for the first time in his life, he found he had a steady hand. Being a good shot was all about mental focus.

In late-August, when the camp concluded, Isaac announced to his parents that he would be joining the IDF. His mother, a fiery woman with curly red hair and a loud Russian accent, was apoplectic. “Eef you do thees, I veel keel you.” She had left Israel so that her children would not have to experience war, she said.

Isaac joined anyway. He wasn’t asking for approval.

Isaac visualized what success in the IDF would entail. Fluency in Hebrew would be essential. Languages had never come easily to Isaac, despite being exposed to many at home and at school — he would take Java code over Spanish any day. He found a tutor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The tutor was a balding man in his mid-60s who wore glasses and spoke Hebrew with the heavy guttural sounds of a Yemenite Jew. He spoke no English. Perfect. In between engineering classes, Isaac squeezed in time to trek to the Upper West Side from Hoboken for Hebrew lessons.

By August 2011, Isaac had graduated from Stevens, filled out the necessary paperwork to become an Israeli citizen, and found himself making wood cabinets and picking avocados at a moshav (a cooperative community of farmers) in northern Israel. He didn’t much like the woodworking — he hated breathing in the sawdust. But he found the avocado-picking very rewarding — the fresh avocados were delicious. He spent the next three months honing his Hebrew skills further. By November, when tests for the various armed forces divisions were held, he was fluent.

Isaac was pleasantly surprised to receive perfect scores on two of the three exams. He received 97 out of 97 on the physical exam — the old joke is that, post-bris, Israeli men can no longer earn 100 — and 56 out of 56 on the mental aptitude test. The scores put Isaac in good position to try out for Israel’s most elite Special Forces: Shayetet 13 (sea), Sayeret Matkal (land), and Shaldag (air). All that remained was his Hebrew test.

Isaac scored four out of seven, just below the cutoff to be considered for the elite units. Undeterred, he took the test again. This time, he scored six out of seven. It would be too late to try out for Shayetet 13, Sayeret Matkal, and Shaldag, but a spot among the Tzanhanim, the paratroopers brigade, with their trademark red berets, might still be available.

He attended the Tzanhanim tryout at the brigade’s massive base east of Tel Aviv. Whatever happens, don’t stop, he told himself. The tryout, he had heard, was mostly about weeding out those who self-select for failure. At this point, instructors were not kicking any recruits out. The recruits, by giving up, were kicking themselves out. They sprinted back and forth, back and forth, back and forth through the base’s sparsely vegetated fields. Isaac wondered if they would ever stop. Half of the recruits dropped out during the sprints alone. Later, there were crawling races. Isaac’s elbows were ripped to bloody shreds. Don’t stop, Isaac repeated to himself. Don’t stop. At an area with pull-up bars, instructors explained that they would count from zero to ten and back down to zero. On the count up from zero, each recruit was to pick a number on which to start his pull-up. The recruit was then expected to hold that pull-up until he heard his number again on the count back down from ten. They would repeat this exercise five times. Isaac recalled a conversation he had had right before the tryout began. His friend Itai had recently failed the Special Forces tryout and was feeling dejected. Itai just wanted to get the tryout over with. That’s the wrong way to go through with this, Isaac had replied. This was where they wanted to be, explained Isaac.“We’re excited to show off what we can do.” Isaac liked pull-ups. He picked the number zero — five times.

A week later, Isaac was invited to Tzanhanim’s eleven-month training and Itai was not. On the first day, the Tzanhanim issued Isaac a gun — an M16 rifle. A couple of months later, the Tzanhanim issued Isaac a different gun — the sharp shooter’s M4. By the end of his time with the Tzanhanim, Isaac, a crack shot, would be toting a sniper rifle.

To earn the right to wear a red beret, though, Isaac had to complete the final rite of passage — a 120-kilometer desert march in full combat gear. Weary and weighed down by the gear, Isaac’s left knee buckled and came down hard on a rock. He still had 60 kilometers left to go. Don’t stop. The knee swelled up. Don’t stop. He couldn’t bend it. Don’t stop. Isaac arrived at the finish line unable to stand. The Tzanhanim gave him two weeks to recover. The leg healed — crooked.

Over the course of the following year, Isaac would jump from planes, tiptoe through mine fields, and hide out for days in secret desert spiderholes. His guard tower would be sprayed with bullets; his spiderhole would narrowly escape a mortar round; and he would be forced to shoot a man in the knee. More than once, his exploits would make their way into the local papers.

Then Isaac’s time was up. The Tzanhanim discharged Isaac upon his serving the obligatory two years and three months of service. In November 2013, Isaac flew back to New York City, where his parents had saved his old room for him. Isaac knows now that he misses the camaraderie of the Tzanhanim and of Israel as a whole. When IDF buddies come to visit, they reminisce wistfully. Sometimes Isaac does contract work in security and sometimes in engineering. Maybe he will go back to Israel. Maybe he will plant roots in New York. Isaac has yet to visualize where this part of the run leads.


Originally published at hildysnotepad.tumblr.com.

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