I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it. They specifically warned us not to, and you don’t mess with the army. But how could I not? I peeked over my shoulder and saw the olive drab back of the supervisor. Good. I dropped the paper into the box along with the chocolate spread and watched it continue down the conveyer belt. A minute later the box was sealed. No sirens went off, no soldiers rappelled down the walls of the warehouse, fixing their guns on me. I exhaled. And then laughed. My note was just one of several that had snuck their way into the food packages that day. And the IDF had no clue…
Later that day as I sat outside with the other Sar-El volunteers, TV dinner-esque lunches in our laps, I thought about how fortunate we were to be eating reheated schnitzel and rice. The combat soldiers receiving the boxes we were packing would have died for a bite of that. Instead, four soldiers were handed a box that wouldn’t have fit a pair of shoes. When they opened it they would find a handful of protein-packed necessities like tuna, sardines, halva, and of course, the indispensable chocolate spread. Oh yeah, and this was supposed to last the four of them twenty-four hours.
But a select number of soldiers would find something extra in their boxes during the weeks of January 2009: A small note, handwritten by a girl from America, thanking him/her for protecting the Jewish homeland. My roommates and I had spent a good part of the previous evening writing those notes, asking our madricha for help with some of the trickier Hebrew grammar. And that morning our notes were deposited into the food packages on the sly. I didn’t think anyone would respond to the notes I had written. This wasn’t the first time I had sent a thank you note to a soldier, American or Israeli, and none had ever seen fit to reply.
Once again I was doing something I probably shouldn’t have. I was at work, pretending to be fully immersed in the writing of some report, but in fact I was checking my e-mail. There was more spam than usual clogging up my inbox. Delete. Delete. Dele- What was that? The subject line of one of the e-mails was in Hebrew and simply said “Todah!!” I’m not one to object to being thanked, but a) I didn’t recognize the e-mail address, and b) no one I know writes to me in Hebrew. Did this mean I was getting Hebrew spam now? And yet something held me back from clicking on the tiny garbage can.
I considered the situation. I had never gotten Hebrew junk mail before. And it’s not like they were offering to lower my interest rate if I simply typed in my social security number and mother’s maiden name. I slid the cursor over the subject line.
“Shalom Cheryl,” the e-mail began, my English name spelled out phonetically. So this Hebrew stranger knew my name. Or at least the name I give Israelis when I don’t want to overwhelm them with my Hebrew name. (You try saying Naftalit Eti Chana three times fast). I continued reading. The mystery man told me that he had received a food package that I had prepared for Israeli soldiers. Food package? That must mean… After all my attempts someone was actually responding to one of my notes! But it had been a year and eight months since I had volunteered with Sar-El. What was this e-mail doing arriving now?
The soldier, whose name was Moshe, thanked me for volunteering with the IDF and wrote how excited he had been to find a note hidden in his food box. And then the explanation came. He had gotten my letter over a year earlier, fully intended to write to me at the time, but had misplaced it until now, when he found it while cleaning his room. He ended his e-mail with a quick P.S., asking me to write back so he’d know I got his e-mail.
That report I was supposed to be working on got pushed even farther onto the backburner as I excitedly showed the e-mail to my coworker and reminisced about packing those boxes and writing those letters, marveling at the fact that someone had finally decided to respond. Then I set about forwarding Moshe’s e-mail to my family and friends. This was the most exciting thing that had happened to me in a long time, and of course I was going to write back to him- after all, he had written back to me – but that would have to wait till after work.
The months went by and we e-mailed regularly in a strange mix of Hebrew, English and broken versions of each. We became Facebook friends and sent greetings to each other before each holiday. Moshe’s army service had ended by the time our e-mails began, but he told me what it was like to be a combat engineer, and about that day of training in the desert when, surrounded by the soldiers he was commanding, he opened up a box of food and found a note inside.
We spoke about the differences between living in America and Israel, and about things we have in common despite the continental divide. We swapped songs and poems we had written and argued about whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic food tastes better.
Moshe was studying for the Israeli version of the SAT, the Psychometry, when we first started communicating, and he’s certain that his English improved from the months of writing in English to me. He ended up scoring so well on the English section of the test that he was exempt from taking extra English courses in university. I, in turn, learned lots of new Hebrew words that I was excited to use on my next trip to Israel.
However, despite intense planning efforts over the next several months, none of my Israel trips ended up materializing. I began to wonder when I would ever go back, and if I would ever get to meet Moshe.
And then this past spring I discovered that my family was considering visiting Israel over the summer. I did my share of encouraging/pressuring and finally we decided to make the trip. One of the first people I shared the news with was Moshe. He was excited about seeing me, but realized that his miluim was coinciding with my trip. And to top it off, I was staying in Jerusalem, several hours away from his home in Haifa.
But I wasn’t about to travel 6,000 miles and not meet him. I urged my family to schedule our day trip to visit our cousins on a kibbutz not far from Haifa for one of the last days before Moshe started miluim. We caught an early bus out of Jerusalem and, while my family spent the morning touring around Haifa, I arranged to meet Moshe.
And so, three and a half years after writing a note to an anonymous soldier, slipping it into a box of food behind the army’s back, and forgetting about it until more than a year and a half later, I met Moshe. In the blistering heat he took me for a drive out to Akko, where were wandered around the Arab shuk and strolled along the coast. We laughed as sailors tried to urge us onto their boats for a ride, and invented stories behind the ruins overlooking the clearest water I had ever seen.
But the best part was when Moshe reached into his wallet and pulled out a tiny, folded piece of paper. I knew what it was before even holding it in my hands. It showed signs of wear, having traveled from its origin in a notebook to its place in a box filled with canned food; it saw the plains, the desert and the coast. It survived a messy bedroom and a cramped wallet. It brought tears to my eyes as I read the words I had written three and a half years earlier. Words that began a cycle of hakarat hatov that resulted in a friendship and eventually brought me to this exact place in Eretz Yisrael.
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