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Ex-Israeli Soldier-Turned Ad Exec Fights His Emotions

Israeli soldiers have a term for the mind-set the military wants them to attain--that state that prepares them to do whatever it takes for the cause. They call it “being poisoned.”

Joe Gelman once drank from the poison and found the taste perversely appealing. Nearly a decade ago, while in an elite volunteer Israeli infantry unit, Gelman saw combat in Lebanon and was honored by his unit for his conduct.

In his early 20s then, Gelman mixed a Zionist’s zeal with the personal aggressiveness that had marked his youth. “I didn’t really think a lot about fear,” he says. “It was not a constant companion at all. To the contrary, I would take it head-on and make a point of challenging fear, and that probably was the way I would overcome it. Whenever there was an assignment that involved the likelihood of action, I would look forward to that.”

The West Beirut of 1982 is a long way from Orange County of 1991. Time and distance mutes the sound of bombs and artillery--exactly what Joe Gelman hoped would happen when he left Israel and moved to Fullerton in 1984 with his girlfriend.

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After four years in the Israeli army, Gelman wanted to dilute the poison.

“I wanted to get on with my life. It wasn’t any kind of act of rebellion. I was basically trying to get a life, get on with life and move forward.”

First, it was the commodities business, in which he made a lot of money. He quit that for advertising and today, at 30, is an executive for an Orange County company, living in South County and married to the woman who came to America with him.

The poison was diluting. It was everything Gelman thought he wanted.

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But last Aug. 2, the near-dormant drumbeat began sounding again in his head. The rhythms and melodies that accompanied his life as an ad exec suddenly were competing with a deeper, more resonating beat.

Gelman was watching television when he heard that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. He immediately perceived the invasion as a potential threat to Israel. And although he had already been working in his free time for the American Friends of Israel Defense Forces, a national fund-raising group, he wasn’t prepared for the sweep of emotions that came over him in the weeks that followed.

The inescapable reality, Gelman learned, is that Israel stirs things in him that no job possibly could. It’s so simple: one is a job, the other is a cause. And in a world where most of us look for something to move our souls, Gelman had his.

“The cause is so overwhelming,” he said Thursday, leaning forward as he talked, speaking crisply and concisely, just like a professional. But a professional what --soldier or ad man?

“It’s become clear to me over the last few weeks that this is something I can’t escape. I’m almost physically compelled to act. It’s almost like I have no control over it. That’s how committed I am, I guess, to Israel.”

A few days ago a Los Angeles radio station interviewed by telephone his mother, who teaches in Jerusalem, right after a missile warning. Speaking through a gas mask, she said Israel would withstand whatever the Iraqis threw at it.

“When I heard that,” Gelman said, “I almost broke down in tears, because it brought back a lot. It’s now very difficult for me to separate myself from what’s going on. In fact, it’s mentally and physically impossible, and I recognize that. It’s been building since Aug. 2. . . . This has ignited a great deal of passion. The reason I’ve been involved (with the fund-raising group) over the years is that I always believed there is something bigger worth working for than just my daily life, paying the bills and coming home and turning on the tube. I wanted to do something that had more meaning to me than just the everyday routine, to work for a cause that was larger than me.”

Thus is Gelman torn. He tells his fund-raising colleagues that he can’t forsake his job. He tells his co-workers he can’t turn his back on Israel in its time of need.

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“When those bombs first fell in Tel Aviv, and that first hour when nobody was sure whether it was a chemical weapon or not, it was probably the worst hour I’ve ever gone through in my life,” he said. “It was certainly more frightening than any military experience I ever had.”

For now, he’s not asking for time off. If his country needs him, however, he has a reserve unit waiting for him.

“I don’t think I have any secret desire to be a soldier again. I’ve proven beyond any question my commitment. But for me, going back would have more immediate reasoning--to protect my family and friends and do what I can to protect the country, in general. No glory there; just very practical.”

Perhaps not even Gelman knows which siren call is stronger--that of his new life or that of his old life. The question of What should I do ? was much easier to answer as a headstrong 22-year-old than as a 30-year-old white-collar ad exec.

“I do have an itch to go back. For me, it’s more difficult to be here than it would to be over there, even if I wasn’t needed militarily. But I have commitments here, I have a life here, and I just can’t pick up and leave on a moment’s notice. For myself, I would be there tomorrow. But if I’m actually needed--and the consulate has my number and knows how to find me--then I would be on the next plane.”

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.


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