’Nice Jewish kid from New York’ now an Israeli soldier

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When I lived in Los Angeles, I had a neighbor by the name of Yitzi Devor.

Yitzi, 25, was born in Far Rockaway Queens but came to L.A. in 2009, just barely out of high school. A self-taught purveyor of the blues, Yitzi favored playing slide guitar in a Mississippi Delta style, and he sought to make a living through musical and artistic pursuits.

Soon, however, he had to move back home to New York. While back home, he actually managed to land a promising gig as guitarist for a female vocalist, but he was simultaneously reconnecting with his Jewish roots. He eventually “found religion,” as he told me, and the rigors of his faith demanded he refrain from listening to any music sung by a woman. His faith further led him to join the army, but not the U.S. army: Yitzi joined the Israeli army, arriving shortly after the Israel-Gaza conflict known as Operation Protective Edge.

“I was sick of drinking coffee and seeing how Israel was doing online and wanted to do my part in the army,” he stated recently via email, “and I was getting older already.

“I moved to Israel because of the Torah learning, holiness of the country, my people, and because I wanted to be around what is really going on here. The U.S. has a way of making you forget/ignore reality.”

Israeli soldier
Queens native and Israeli soldier Yitzi Devor on an army base in Israel. (Provided)
As a result, Yitzi has spent the last eight months as a sharpshooter for the Givati Brigade in the religious unit called Tomer.

“We are a desert-based unit that trains specifically for Hamas,” he stated. “We are also trained to fight Lebanon’s Hezbolla [and] any country that would decide to go to war.

“Thank God I went from being a stoner musician to one of the more physically fit guys in my unit in a couple of years. We are stationed by the border of Gaza right now.”

Yitzi has a year and a-half remaining to fulfill his service. He communicates in broken Hebrew most of the time but also has some English-speaking friends on base.

“I’ve learnt a lot from being in the army. I know more about Israel, her enemies, and myself … most Israelis in and out of the Army just want a normal life,” he wrote. “Even with the ‘gun’ and the training, I still feel like a nice Jewish kid from New York inside. Sometimes I just want to play guitar, learn Torah and have guests over at Shabbas table.

Baruch Hashem I’ve done a lot of things here that I never thought I could have done,” his email continued. “My experience so far has taught me that with God’s help and motivation, you can do anything — it just might really hurt.”

Israeli soldier plays border blues

Although he serves as a soldier on one of the most contentious borders in recorded history, he told me during a conversation July 19 on What’s App that, with regard to the constant threat of danger, “You just get used to it.”

“It’s more dangerous here than it was in New York,” he said, “but it is what it is. It’s the army.”

Israeli soldier
Devor with his classical guitar. (Provided)
That resignation to perpetual peril can leave a man looking for distractions, and, as it happens, Yitzi has a classical guitar with him on base. One day, he decided to try something.

“I found myself with a bit of free time, I had this classical guitar, and I had the magazine from my gun,” he said, explaining the lead-up to the video at the top of this post.

The visual result creates a poignant moment as a tool of war becomes an implement of creativity. Meanwhile, the metaphorical juxtapositions — of a peace-loving acolyte in military fatigues, of a deeply religious young American who joined a fighting force perpetually on the edge of chaos — serve as reminders that the soldiers who fight and die behind the headlines remain complex individuals.

They’re people, just like you and me, regardless of the political borders they patrol.

(Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the amount of time Devor has spent as a soldier. NonDoc regrets the error.)