What Was Once a Dream: A Conversation with the Author
This past winter, my friend Jonathan Sidlow asked me to edit the rough copy of his now published book: What Was Once A Dream, which documents his service as a Lone Soldier in the IDF as a Paratrooper. Sidlow delivers the brutally honest truth with a combination of sarcastic wit and introspective detail that culminates in the crushing intensity of his depiction of the 2014 war in Gaza. We recently sat down to catch up since his book’s release last month.
Hillel: What are you up to these days in YU?
Jonathan: This is my third year at YU as a music major and Pre-med student. My plan is to obtain an American medical license, so I could live in Israel but remain flexible to work both here and there. I fence often with Spencer Brasch, am doing my utmost to take advantage of the many exceptional professors on staff here such as Rav Hayyim Angel, Dr. Beliavsky, and Professor Kurt Nelson, and am very pleased with my overall college experience.
H: What's more rigorous, Tzanchanim or Pre-med at YU?
J: (Laughs) They're different disciplines, but I'll go with Tzanchanim nonetheless. Professor Feit gave me a run for my money during my first year on campus though.
H: What was your original inspiration or motivation to draft into the IDF?
J: The complete answer to that question is the chapter of my book. My main reason for joining the army was striving to create harmony between my beliefs and my behavior. Other reasons include wanting to grow up after living a relatively sheltered and pampered life, wanting to immerse myself in Israeli culture before making Aliyah and wanting to test my beliefs in general to ensure they were concrete. In the first ten pages of my book, I talk about how post high school, I was very close to dropping religion entirely. I made a compromise with my parents that I'd go to Yeshiva and give it my all.
I went to Yesodei Hatorah, and quickly underwent epiphanies and humblings in rapid succession. With any question I had, there wouldn't be some quick, go-to answer that I wouldn't find intellectually satisfying. The rabbeim built the program to force students to boil down their question to the basic assumptions and evaluate their substance. It was the first time I asked myself those kind of questions and took serious time to evaluate my belief system. In “answering” a question, rabbeim taught us how to navigate the seforim stacks and conduct research so we would get comfortable with investigating our questions independently. Gaining this skill set made the process of learning much more fulfilling and enabled me to feel a connection with the texts I was immersed in.
I was very arrogant at that time, and I still struggle with that part of myself. The first big change that happened at Yeshiva was gaining the humility to understand that the Halakhic system wasn't vapid or arbitrary, but based on rigorous thought. I realized that the Mishnah and Gemara are blueprints for the Halakhic system, and that these are the texts that define us. That's not to say I was always satisfied with the answers I discovered, or that I always understood them entirely despite my effort, but I came away impressed with the sincerity of dialogue that took place in the documented discussion of the Halakhic process.
I was also very much an absolutist at that age, thinking in terms of right vs. wrong and valid vs. invalid. At the beginning of my time at Yesodei, I didn't recognize the possibility of a plurality of truths, and that a sugya could be a documentation of two equally valid truths based on the Halakhic process, each reached through a different creative process. When I realized that matters were not so simple, and that my understanding of a halakhic decision is not the litmus test for whether it is legitimate, I began the ongoing struggle of pushing ego aside to make room for faith. This in turn led to my seeing myself as part of a continuum, and recognizing the responsibilities implied by such a relationship, as opposed to an individual in a vacuum.
H: It's interesting, you say that because many people would be turned away from religion because of reasons such as saying that there is a plurality of truths, while you embraced it for this reason.
J: Right, I actually found religion to be more inclusive in this way. I don't learn straight shulchan aruch because the discussion leading to the law is not included. In masechet avodah zara, an idea stood out to me somewhere in the neighborhood of daf lamed vav, which reads "gemarta gmar, zmarta tehe?" Paraphrased, this means “Are you learning the gemara at a superficial level like a song, or will you confront the complexity of the sugya squarely? This idea was constantly espoused at Yesodei Hatorah and has become part of my still evolving approach to learning and self-discovery. When I found that the law was decided in favor of a certain opinion, I would always try figure out why that was the case, why the socio-cultural environment at a time would make a p'sak more fitting, but also investigate why the differing opinion was substantive enough to be included in the discussion. This is what provides me with spiritual fulfillment, as opposed to performing mitzvot by rote because a book told me to, without supplying the logic which led to said conclusion.
H: Do you think the fact that Yeshiva was the first time you felt like you were in a non-stifling environment points to a fault in the Jewish educational system you experienced growing up?
J: Yesodei Hatorah catered to the goal oriented and internally motivated, and my year in Yeshiva was the first time in my life in which I made a conscious effort to have those adjectives apply to me. I don’t feel comfortable pointing fingers, so I’ll say that while there is always potential for improvement, I accept partial responsibility, and admit that I may have been too arrogant and cynical in my youth to be able to glean that which was being offered by the private school system.
H: So it sounds like becoming religious was more of a personal journey for you?
J: Yes, in many ways What Was Once A Dream is about how I became religious. At Yesodei, my rabbeim supported Israel and Tzahal, but were worried that despite the progress I had made spiritually, since I’m not the most outwardly 'frum' person given my dress and diction, that Tzahal would beat what I had learned out of me. To the contrary, I found my service in the IDF to be very enriching spiritually. In the crucible, my beliefs were concretized. When things got tough, I would ask myself the same thing every Lone Soldier asks themselves: "Why are you doing this?" To regain perspective I would always open my weathered Artscroll Tanach and continue my seder in tanach to remind myself of my beliefs and what I'm a part of.
H: Going back to what you said about the army being a spiritually beneficial experience, is that a major message you want to get across in your book?
J: For sure. I give multiple examples in the book of the IDF bending over backwards to accommodate religious soldiers. For instance, I found army kitchens to be excellent when it comes to Kashrut. On Pesach, even the secular soldiers were forbidden to bring in Chametz. One time we were at an outpost on the northern border right outside an Arab village for Shabbat, and they still managed to bring a Sefer Torah there. During training we were almost always given time to pray three times a day. There are numerous more examples that I can't think of off the top of my head. In short, I never felt disrespected as a religious Jew, and appreciate the tremendous progress that has been made since the IDF’s more secular beginnings.
H: What motivated you to begin this project of writing your experience down in the first place?
J: There are three reasons. The first is offering an in-depth explanation of what it means to be a Lone Soldier for anyone interested in the program. I wrote the book I wish I could have read before I began my service.
Second, I offer my book as a factual document to counteract the negative attention espoused by various media organizations against Israel. There is truth, exaggeration, blatant falsehood, and then there are certain media organizations which I won’t mention here. I want to show the reader that we, as soldiers, do not want conflict, and do not enjoy having to guard our communities and relinquish our freedom in order to ensure the survival of our people. What we really want is peace, and for our time in uniform to end so we can return to our families.
Lastly, when I came back from Israel after my service, it was almost immediately after Tzuk Eitan (Operation Protective Edge), and three days before starting the semester at YU. The transition was rough. There was a residual numbness that I still find difficult to explain. I was happy to be home, but felt like a fish pulled out of water. My service left me primed for privation, responsibility, violence and being part of a team, but all that was suddenly replaced the banalities and freedoms of civilian life as an individual. Looking back, to suddenly have my family, my freedom and relative safety reminds me of refeeding syndrome, it was too much to take in so quickly.
There were other feelings I couldn’t understand at the time. I'd hear something like the sound of a foot crunching broken glass on the ground, and my train of thought would be totally interrupted. I'd feel an adrenaline dump akin to flight-or-fight response. Noticing this, my parents suggested I see a PTSD specialist, who recommended that I start writing about my experience.
Initially, I wrote about my experience in Gaza, and felt adrenaline rushes while writing certain events. Various epiphanies occurred in rapid succession, like realizing that the sound of a foot crushing broken glass was reminding me of the alarm system we used in Gaza. We would surround our positions with broken glass to warn us if someone was approaching, which saved our lives a number of times. When I hear broken glass being crushed, I think my mind automatically primes my body for the approach of a threat. Writing has helped me recognize the cause of these bouts of anxiety and has brought me to a point where I can better control myself in these situations, though the transition is not complete. Fourth of July is still tough. I have plenty of experience being shot at with mortars. Consequently, the sound of rockets being fired in the distance still sets off a visceral sense of vulnerability to this day.
H: What’s the meaning of the book's title?
J: Israel itself is what was once a dream. Obviously this wasn't the case before we were exiled as a nation, but after 2,000 years of dreaming, our home is now a reality. I hope to communicate to the reader exactly what's entailed in making such the case.
H: How did the day-to-day process of writing this book generally go about?
J: The rough draft took about seven months to finish. It’s what I did during my study breaks while studying Bio for Professor Feit’s tests during my first year on campus. The remainder of the time involved subsequent editing cycles, IDF censorship, and publishing, for a total of two years to the date (of the interview). It's kind of eerie because my friends from my platoon were discharged a month and change ago. You could say this book is a present to them in a way. It gave me a sense of closure, and I hope it gives them a sense of closure as well.
Initially, when I realized that writing about my experiences was so helpful, I would camp out in the YU library late at night, and a security guard would have to kick me out. Last summer, I was writing up to seven hours a day and taking a chemistry, so I didn't sleep much. I wrote when I could and just made it into part of my routine. This past year involved more waiting through editing cycles and integrating edits. I was less involved, especially during the censorship process, where I had to sit on my hands and remain patient.
It's important to note that I consider myself an author, not a writer. Writers know how to write, authors make books. Exceptional authors are also writers. I’m a hack with great friends, who helped me turn a word document, on which I bled my soul, into a book. I took two writing courses in YU with Professor Schwabe, who unknowingly edited a small section of the book and gave me a B (laughs). That’s the full extent of my formal writing education. I owe the cohesion of this project to the editors.
H: Did you write any original content before this book?
J: I dabbled in high school, but that's about it. I'm currently working on a compendium of short stories.
H: So it sounds like you had no intention of writing a book when you first started the army?
J: Correct. My adoptive family in Israel suggested I keep a journal, claiming the insignificant details of my service would become very important in retrospect and that I would want to look back at these details at some point in the future. I'm certainly glad I kept it now. The only reason the book is so detailed and honest is because of what I documented in my journals.
H: I'm sure people will appreciate that honesty.
J: I was hesitant at first, but I felt that I'd be cheating the reader if I didn't write about times when I hit a wall inside myself. A lot of the 'test readers' who gave me initial feedback on the book said they felt like I was 'naked;’ that I revealed a lot about myself, including my failures. I wrote about times where I felt pride, and also about times where I failed myself and my friends. I find it important to do away with the fallacy that soldiers possess superhuman strength and are made of steel. We too are human and have weaknesses. What makes us soldiers is that we stand in the way of threats despite this fact.
H: Based on what you said before, it sounds like your target audience is much broader than just those looking to join the IDF.
J: For sure! I write in the introduction that my goal is manifold. I write for those interested in the IDF to get a sneak peek on the experience. I also write for those who are not interested in drafting but are still curious, as well as parents of combat soldiers who want to know what their children are going through. I hope everyone will pick up the book and find something valuable in it, even those against the state of Israel.
H: Obviously YU is a very Zionistic campus, but do you think there are some aspects of Zionism that could use increased attention in our community?
J: I appreciate that YU takes active measures to engender Ahavat Ha’Aretz. Such measures are necessary to counteract complacency, which may corrode one’s bond with the far away speck of land which is the seat of our legacy.
There is an elephant in the room when you ask this question that I feel obligated to address. Readers will think that I’m practicing hardcore diplomacy unless I follow up on this. To be clear, I don't feel comfortable pointing my finger and claiming that everyone should draft. That’s not what I believe. There are many ways to contribute to Israel. I chose my method. Others choose theirs. My choice was based on a refusal to ever be in a situation in which I would have to watch from the sidelines as our destiny was shaped, given what the Nazi’s did to my grandfather. I believe God has given us the tools necessary to resurrect our dignity and pride as a nation, and I want to be part of the process. I use the word “part” deliberately, because I believe it is only a part. Great support work is done all over the globe by various organizations which support Israel in a myriad of other arenas.
H: What did your grandfather have to say about your service?
J: He’s a quiet guy, so not much. Three years in the camps can do that to you. I handed him a Paratrooper beret when I saw him after my service. He looked me in the eye, gently took it from my hand and nodded. He’s not the kind to tear up easily, but made an exception then. My grandmother tells me he keeps the beret in his tefilin bag and holds it before prayer every day.
What Was Once a Dream is available on Amazon.com in paperback and to download for Kindle.