Three o’clock on a winter Friday afternoon, with a four-month-old baby in my left hand, I am tacking olive-green fatigues onto a laundry line with my right. My husband needs these uniforms dry in time to pack Saturday night because he’ll be davening at neitz on Sunday before leaving at seven AM for another long week on the base. The double-batch of chocolate cookies I baked Thursday night is already divided between the two-liter container going to the army with my husband, a plateful for Shabbos dessert, and the end of the raw dough, wrapped in a plastic bag, hidden in the freezer door for me to nibble those nights when by eleven o’clock, after finally getting the baby to sleep and not getting through to my husband on the phone, I realize that I didn’t have a single adult conversation all day.
Many religious girls in Israel opt to spend the year after high school doing sherut leumi, national service, volunteering in a school, hospital, or non-profit organization before starting college. This is their way of doing something for the country even though they don’t want to serve in the army for religious reasons. They can be identified on public buses carrying oversized backpacks, filled on Sunday mornings with home-cooked leftovers and Thursday afternoons with a week’s worth of dirty laundry. I also received an exemption from the army when I made Aliyah by myself at the age of nineteen. However, since I was already in the middle of college, I didn’t take a year off to do volunteer work. At the end of my last year of studying, I got engaged to a young man who was studying in yeshiva and planning to do six months of army service at some point in the future. “Not in the first year we’re married,” he assured me. “Shana rishona, I’ll be home.” True to his word, he enlisted in an artillery unit one week after our first anniversary, the same week I was supposed to go back to teaching after maternity leave for our firstborn. Overwhelmed by so many changes at once, I took the rest of the year off to be with the baby. This was my “National Service.”
Spending six months as a single mom for the sake of the nation, you might argue, doesn’t add up to a full year of National Service. Of course not. That’s why there is miluim.
The frequency and duration of my husband’s stints of reserve duty have varied over the past seven years, but they average about twice a year, for about a week at a time. Thankfully, he has never been called up to serve in a battle. During the last “military operation” (which we laymen call a war), in the summer of 2014, I was bouncing on a giant, rubber, exercise ball in a waiting room in Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, timing the duration of contractions, when my husband quipped, “What if I got a tzav shmoneh (call-up) now?”
“Not funny,” I hissed.
In truth, what our nation probably needs the most is good, strong, Jewish mothers. Throughout history, Jewish women have come through in difficult times. In the merit of righteous women, Bnei Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt. A week home alone with one, or three, or five kids forces me to push myself to my personal limits and be the best mother I can be. When I can’t rely on my husband’s help, I know who I really am as a mother, for better or for worse.
My worst mothering moment ever occurred when my husband was in miluim. My oldest, at age three, convinced me to give him hot chocolate in a real mug because after spending three nights with both of us hardly sleeping because his cold kept waking him, I didn’t have the energy to argue anymore that kids drink from plastic cups. When the hot mug smashed onto the floor, brown puddle mixed with broken ceramic spreading under the table and towards the high chair where my one-year-old was kvetching, I completely lost it. I was screaming as I reached for a squeegee to clean up, and tear were streaming down everyone’s faces.
I must have learned something since then because last Chanukah, I took five kids, ranging in age from three months to eight years, by bus and train, to the Jerusalem zoo. When my two-year-old threw up on the bus, I simply wiped her up as well as I could and bought her a new outfit near the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. We had a great day!
Over the past eight years, we’ve done close to forty weeks of army duty. By the time my husband is exempt from the reserves, I’ll have done my year of National Service.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.