“Hey Ima, you know, the college scouts come to see the U16 games.”
I felt shivers up and down my spine, the same sort of chill that gripped me in early fall while watching my 14 and 15-year-old sons play together in a competitive soccer match in San Rafael, California. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching them play; or at least I used to.
Both boys are passionate about the game, playing at a high level of competitive youth soccer. Every weekend during our stay in the San Francisco Bay area, I watch them play–two, three, or four games. I spend hours and days gazing at their strong, rapidly growing bodies, their lean muscles, tanned skin and their incredible agility as they chase a ball on a soccer field, somewhere in sunny northern California.
During that game in San Rafael, I was suddenly struck by the thought that their strength–their formidable, masculine physical development–is actually their greatest burden. For my sons, there will no college scouts. Instead at 16, they will receive their first mobilization orders from the Israeli Defense Forces (beginning a two-year process prior to being drafted at age 18). The stronger they are, the higher their military profile and the greater the likelihood that they will be drafted to combat units.
Obviously, this realization is by no means an epiphany. Both boys were born in Israel–one in 1998 and the other in 2000–not the most peaceful of times. Nonetheless, my friends and I succeeded in fully embracing the psychological concept of denial. We saw no connection between our babies, toddlers and children–crawling and running barefoot in the park, chasing each other with sticks and begging for “just one more ice cream”– and the uniformed soldiers, the 18-year-old young men who walked among us and all too often appeared on the news, tragically. Many others return, changed forever, their hearts hardened by experience, their morality altered, skewed by endless hours at checkpoints and the unavoidable surge of power bestowed upon them by an assault rifle.
Today, I am coming to understand how, for so long, I was able to so totally disconnect these two intertwined personas–my giggling baby boys and the young soldier. I am in the Bay Area for a second year with four children ranging in age from 6 to almost 15 and we are living a life of make-believe. I advocate for my kids, meeting with teachers and principals, I chat with other mothers about the mundane and the extraordinary events of raising children in California. My daughter attends first grade at the local public school. My three sons study at a progressive charter school in Berkeley (grades 6, 8 and 9.) I juggle salaried work with household maintenance and an array of “soccer mom” activities: chauffeuring my 11-year-old who has an orthopedic impairment to wheelchair basketball and after-school Jewish education and his two older brothers to competitive soccer practices and games.
The routine is exhausting but as time passes I am increasingly drawn to this lifestyle. America, even middle class, progressive America, is by no means utopia, but it has indeed evolved to a point where concepts of equality are embedded in the public psyche (even if de facto inequality is prevalent) and adolescent boys need not occupy themselves with questions of occupation, compulsory military service and its consequences. As the two year mark approaches, I ask myself whether the future that awaits my children in Israel is desirable or to be avoided. Glancing at my American counterparts, fellow soccer moms, I very much envy those parents for whom this life is real, whose kids anxiously await the college “showcase tournaments” and whose boys will be fretting over AP courses, their GPA’s and which colleges to apply to.