For Israeli pianist soldier, the truth (finally) strikes the right key

NEW YORK (JTA) — “You have night blindness,” the Israeli army doctor announced unsympathetically at my pre-service medical examination.

“You’re dismissed from your IDF mandatory army service by law,” he said and called the next soldier-to-be.


I was frightened by the diagnosis. I had worn glasses since I was 3, but I never thought I would lose my vision at 18.

It turned out not to be as serious as it sounded: My eyes just didn’t get used to darkness as quickly as they should.

It took me time to digest the enormity of the news: I didn’t need to serve in the army.

As a slim, 5-foot-8 musician, I never wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father, who served in the artillery force and fought in the first Lebanon War in 1982, so I was relieved to be released from combat. But I still wanted to serve my country. Army service was always an inseparable part of being Israeli. I grew up knowing this was something all good citizens should and want to do. And I did.

Having played the piano from age 6, I auditioned with hundreds of others for two spots as pianist in the IDF Orchestra. I was accepted.

The 60-member orchestra represents the Israel Defense Forces for important ceremonies and events, including welcoming foreign presidents and politicians. I performed for dignitaries, heads of state, played with famous artists and even traveled the world three times to raise money for the army.

Performing for hundreds of people in a foreign country made me proud to be Israeli. People paid to see us, and we made them feel more connected to my country.

Unfortunately, none of this helped me find a girlfriend – or even a date.

One night at a bar in Tel Aviv, I spotted a pretty brunette. She seemed a little older than me, in her early 20s.

“Hey, how are you? Is this seat taken?” I asked.

“Are you in the army?” she replied without answering my question.

“I’m a pianist in the IDF Orchestra,” I said proudly.

Silence. Her face showed nothing. I couldn’t read what was going on in her mind.

“Oh, sorry, I have to go meet my friends,” she said, and left me there, standing by the bar stool, surprised, trying to figure out why she left so fast. After all, I said only two sentences.

Did I look bad? Was I not confident enough? Maybe it was something I said?

After the scenario was repeated at parties and bars in Eilat, Jerusalem and Raanana, I came to realize that my prestigious job in the army wasn’t so prestigious with local females. It seemed they were more excited by military men than music men.

I never understood why women were so attracted to combat soldiers with guns. I guessed it made the soldiers manlier, tougher. But was I less a man because I didn’t fight? Why did being an army musician make me less attractive?

Some nights I wondered what I could have achieved with the fairer sex if I only carried a weapon. I felt left out, and it was frustrating.

After my service, I decided to continue my music career in the United States. I was 22 when I moved into an apartment in Jersey City, N.J.

One night at the bar around the block from my apartment, I flirted with a cute American Jew named Danielle. I told her I’d been a soldier in the Israeli army. Since being a soldier was more unusual in the U.S. than in Israel, where everyone must serve in the army right after high school, I had hoped the young Jewish women here would appreciate my military service more than Israelis.

“Have you ever shot a weapon?” she asked.

“Yes, but only in training,” I said. I could see the answer ruined my shot at dating her. I’d moved countries, but was my fate with women going to be the same?

One day on a ski trip to Austria with three other jobniks – the Hebrew term for army geeks, or soldiers who didn’t fight – we decided we had to come up with a new story for our military service. We went to a local bar and the act began:

“Hey there. What’s up? Is this seat taken?” I asked a pretty blonde French tourist.

“No, go ahead,” she replied in a heavy accent.

A few minutes later came the million-dollar question: “So what do you do?”

This time I had a good answer: “I’m a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.”

She liked my story and, finally, success. But I felt weird. It was the first lie I had told about my army years. My friends always said that I was too nice and that I care too much. Maybe they were right.

On the ski trip, I tried the story a few more times — and felt guiltier for every woman that believed it. When the week was over, I realized I didn’t want to lie anymore. I wanted to be myself.

Although the lies got me a few great nights with beautiful women, I wanted to find a real girlfriend – and I couldn’t with a lie.

Just a few weeks ago in New York’s Greenwich Village, I introduced myself to  a beautiful, tall, blue-eyed woman sitting at a bar.

“What are you doing in the city?” she asked. “You don’t sound like you’re from here,” she added before taking a sip of her apple martini.

“I just finished my service in the army orchestra in Israel.” She took another sip. “I’m a jazz pianist now,” I added.

“Wow, that sounds amazing,” she answered enthusiastically. We ended up talking for hours and she gave me her phone number.

Turns out in artsy downtown Manhattan, I had the big guns after all.

(Tal Blumstein is an Israeli musician now studying jazz piano performance and living in New York City.)