May 12, 2016

Marius was intrigued by the exams. Acceptance in Talpiot meant more to him than just the opportunity to be part of this new and exciting part of the Israeli army. It meant he had been absorbed by the country he moved to as a boy; that his intellect had been recognized, though he came from the depressed town of Ashkelon, a town often ignored by Israel’s established elites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

But once he was in the program, he wanted out. “The other guys were very, very smart in terms of math and physics, and I was not at the top of the class as I had been in high school. And it was more competitive than I expected. The five top guys would elbow the others. ‘Come on, why are you asking that stupid question? The professor just said it five minutes ago, why are you asking again?’ We knew that the first class, the year before ours, started with thirty students, but a year later only twenty were left. So I was sure I was going to be kicked out. I finished the first term with a lousy academic average of 65. To me it was evidence that I should drop out – and I wanted to. Why continue? I was just prolonging my military service instead of doing the things I really wanted to do.

“So I went to Hanoch Tzadik, the guy that you have to talk to if you want to leave the program. He was a psychologist. I explained to him that I’m not that good. I was getting a lot of homework and not even getting half of it done by one in the morning.” Tzadik (who later became one of Israel’s best known professors of psychology and a motivational coach to executives) convinced him not to quit. He told Nacht he had put a lot of tension and pressure on himself and that’s why he couldn’t concentrate. He made him promise that every other day he will run around the campus, five or six miles, a minimum of three times a week. Nacht recalls, “Because I was much cooler about it and not pressing myself, my average grades jumped from 65 to 85. I figured if that’s the trend, I might even finish with a reasonable average – and I stayed on. Hanoch Tzadik was a very important person in my life and obviously made a huge impact.”

Tzadik is an appropriate name for a psychologist who helped so many people that would later become crucial to Israel’s security. The word tzadik in Hebrew means “righteous.” It is often a title sometimes given to biblical figures. In short, a tzadik is someone who lives by his faith.

Hanoch Tzadik notes that for most of the Talpiot students, it was the first time in their lives they needed help and to some it was a real crisis. “Their main problem was dealing with difficulty, not the coursework.”

“It was my main job to help them,” he affirms, but there was no blanket-solution for each cadet with a problem. “I didn’t really tell them anything at first, I just listened to them. I had to make them believe they will overcome the problems, and it’s a very personal thing. I really believed that most of them could overcome it. The ones that left generally did very well later, but it wasn’t the right time for them. These were not failures. They just weren’t ready for this kind of thing. “

Getting through Talpiot was never easy, even for those who thrived on the challenge. One such person is Doctor Aviv Tuttnauer, one of a few Talpiot graduates to go to medical school after finishing his army service. He’s an anesthesiologist specializing in pediatric surgery, and he agreed to be interviewed on a busy day of surgery. We meet in the hospital lobby at Hadassah Medical Center and we talk in the locker room as he puts on his operating room scrubs. So that he’d never forget it, Tuttnauer sets his locker combination to the number representing a certain isotope of uranium that can sustain a fission chain reaction. (For him, that’s a memorable figure!)

He explains what would happen during surgery, the goal of the operation and his role. The surgery will be on a two-year-old boy who has an artificial heart valve needing repair. It will be Dr. Tuttnaeur’s job to sedate the child.

Around us, doctors are listening to our interview. The cardiothoracic surgeon stops his pre-operation procedures for a moment and looks at Doctor Tuttnauer. He asks in Hebrew, “Who is the person doing the interview and what’s it for?” Tuttnauer replies, “It has to do with my Talpiot experience.” The surgeon asks in alarm, “Isn’t that all top secret?” Tuttnauer chuckles and the interview continues.

He tells me that in addition to going through the program, he also served as a commander of the fifteenth class of Talpiot. He didn’t quite realize it when he was a cadet – but it hit him as a commander – that educating recruits straight out of high school has advantages. “At that age, you’re not responsible for a family; no kids, no jobs. You can study until one or two in the morning if need be, and it often is need be. The army gets a class of students who are free and able to learn.”

The other side of the coin is that, as youngsters, they have constant complaints. As a cadet, Tuttnauer complained about the same things he’d later have to address as a commander. “We complained that the lecturers go too fast, and it’s unfair because we are tested on more than our counterparts in the university. We cover 30 percent more. And the response was always that the lecturer will go as fast as his class allows him; if you understand everything, he will go on. We would complain pretty freely about things. We were very cynical.”