ISRAEL STORIES 2014
A Scorching Day
The Shvil turned southwest, beginning its long, circular avoidance of the West Bank. I figured I could make it by noon to Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh (NHLH), where I’d have a nice visit with my wife’s Doda Sarah. However the way was densely wooded and rocky, meandering past thickets of prickly pear cacti in Technicolor states of fruity emergence, and soon my timetable was pronounced dead. I reminded myself to take Jacob Saar’s Israel National Trail guidebook and its balmy assertions – easy stroll, quick trip, moderate slope – with a grain of kosher salt. For miles I shadowed high-tension power lines running west to serve the boomtown of Beit Shemesh, where high tensions between the exploding Heredi population and non-Heredis, including Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, had led city councilors to contemplate dividing the place into two cities, ultra-Orthodox and not. Separate but equal, presumably, with one side more equal than the other.
The tomb of Sheik Hubani appeared, its stone roof a gleaming white skullcap, and then I skirted a rectangular grove of towering date palms and vineyards planted with skinny-legged vines. This was the fabled Valley of Elah, where not-yet-King David defeated his lumbering lummox of a cousin, Goliath. An upset, sure, but it’s best to remember that David employed a lethal rock-sling that could fell an ibex at 100 paces, not some Dennis the Menace back-pocket job. Plus, it seems Goliath had it coming.
I rested at the ancient mosaics of Herbat Khanot. They’re self-service ruins and here’s what you do. Walk into the site, bordered on three sides by ragged stone walls. There’s no roof, no fence, no instructions, nobody there. The floor is covered in sand, so kneel down and brush it away from an area. Then splash that spot with water from your drinking bottle. Presto, a beautiful, 2,300 year-old mosaic from the Hellenistic period. I photographed the grapes and goblet pattern, thinking we might use it for our kitchen floor. In another spot, I brushed, splashed and uncovered Greek writing that, according to the guidebook, thanked some muckety-muck for his generous support. Flattery is eternal. Then I covered over both places with a thin layer of sand – it seemed scant protection, but they’d lasted this long – and left these treasure pretty much the way they were before.
A ways down the trail, I passed a mound covering the severed head of Goliath. Well, that’s what the guidebook said; I didn’t notice anything. The tradition is to throw a stone on this supposed mound. Talk about piling on. Back home, I’ve tossed many a stone on the site of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. He lived alone there for years, cataloging plant life, contemplating existence and urging us to simplify, simplify. Oh, the hurly-burly! The trains, the telegraphs! The pockets and buttons bedeviling his woolen vests! On Sunday afternoons, Thoreau strolled to his mother’s place in town for a hot meal. She did his laundry. He read his mail. The rock pile at his cabin site, to my eyes, seems to be sinking into the earth. Maybe stone-crowned Goliath had dived out of sight.
Raindrops fell, just a few, and then the clouds fled and the sun resumed its rule. After crossing Route 375, which was being widened because every last highway in the country was being widened and who cares if gas costs seven bucks a gallon – after crossing Route 375, I hiked a few steps on the excavated stones of the Old Roman Road. Very historical and all that, but I felt nothing. Soldiers marched here long ago. Then I climbed the Shvil into the hills above Kibbutz NHLH; the acronym NHLH refers to 35 soldiers who died in the War of Independence, the story goes, because they chose not to kill a shepherd they encountered on a mission; this shepherd later reported the soldiers’ movements to Arab forces and the 35 were slaughtered in an ambush. By now I’d drunk all my water, but that was okay because I merely had to find the Red Trail, going south, that leads to the kibbutz gate.
Except I don’t think Natty Bumppo could have found the Red Trail on a good day and I kept going and going and it got hotter and hotter and before long I was extremely thirsty, possibly dehydrated. Clueless, I walked a couple miles past the kibbutz. The trail, baked white. My legs, noodles. My t-shirt, striped with salt. The kibbutz, elusive. My mental faculties, hazy. An effective argument, I guess, for carrying a GPS-enabled phone in addition to my trusty paper maps and compass.
Go back or improvise? Improvise. I crossed a stubbly field, keeping my distance from a dog stalking around a farm shed, and then cut around the side of a factory building. I found the entrance to a small lobby area. A guy in black-and-white Orthodox uniform ushered me inside the main hall where, in dim light, prayer books rolled down a limitless conveyer belt. Scarfed women stood along the belt sorting and stacking and stuffing. Black ink on white paper, millions and millions of exultant words gathering together. The Orthodox guy pointed out a metal unit on the wall and I filled my water bottle and took a long, long swig. It was very cold and felt almost like jumping into a mountain lake, but inside out. Then I walked outside and stood in the shade, taking another satisfying draft. I called my wife on my cell. A couple of feet away, a worker dragged on the world’s harshest cigarette. His exhaust floated my way and I gagged violently as Elahna answered the phone in faraway Somerville.
Hi honey, she chirped. The nausea throttled me. “Sorry,” I gasped, “don’t worry,” and I snapped the phone shut and threw up cold, cold water like a fire hose, like one of those fountains with water pouring from a gremlin’s mouth, but faster, blast after blast onto the pavement. It was remarkable – the rapid expulsion, the freezing state of my stomach and throat. What wanted out, got out. I slumped against a fence. The smoke lingered, acrid, but the smoker was gone. There I sat, a Popsicle covered in hot flesh. And my phone rang and rang…what the hell is going on? asked Elahna. You scared me, don’t do that.
I was still thirsty, so I tried to buy a Coke from the machine in the lobby but it wouldn’t take paper money and I was a few coins short. An Orthodox fellow – tall, bearded and skinny like the other guy, maybe the same guy – gave me a five shklim coin. I pushed the magic button, ca-lunk, and grabbed the Coke can and pressed it against my forehead like Mean Joe Green in that commercial with the scrappy kid. My Orthodox friend smiled – a smile, from one of them! – and waved off my attempt to give back a few, tiny coins. Toda, toda. Then I pushed myself out into the blast-furnace and soon stumbled upon the kibbutz, entered through a side gate, its barrier arm raised in greeting, and stamped uphill to the communal green where I threw down my pack and poles under the ancient, taffy-twisted olive tree, and crashed to the grass. I stared at the Israeli blue sky, napped awhile.
Doda Sarah, a stout elderly woman, greeted me warmly at her door; then she wondered what in the world what had taken so long. She’d been waiting for hours inside her little apartment, half of an old concrete house. I said I was sorry, things go wrong. It’s okay, she said, and gestured in frustration at the street. All torn up and blocked with construction debris – she’d been trapped in her apartment for weeks, when would it end? Why, they had to carry her over the rubble just to get to the doctor! Sarah seemed sadder than I remembered, lonely. But the complaints mostly faded and before long our conversation acquired a kind of equilibrium: I spoke my poor Hebrew, she spoke her rusty English, and somehow we understood each other. It was a relaxing way to proceed, shorn of the usual Israeli intensity, and I was pleased to notice Hebrew phrases slipping easily from my mind-throat-lips.
Sarah apologized. Her hands were wracked with arthritis and she could no longer cook, not even her famous biscotti. She held these hands out, as if in proof, and we both looked at the clawed fingers, the red, swollen knuckles. For dinner she heated up a too-salty chicken dish made by her aide; the girl used to be wonderful, but now with that boyfriend…
Doda Sarah on old age: “We want to live a long time and then we pay for it.”
Early the next morning, at breakfast, we talked about her grandchildren. Their photos were plastered about the tiny living room and kitchenette. In the biggest one, a close-up, an Israeli child stuck her tongue out at the camera; she stuck it good, two parts fun and one part fuck-off. How many are there? I asked. Twelve, said Sarah, and I responded “Wow!” “What ‘wow’,” she shot back, “there’s room for more.” I wondered if her three sons, all well over fifty, were ready or able to fill that nurturing space. And then Auntie Sarah corrected herself: “There won’t be any more.” She gazed at a framed photograph of her three boys: Udi, the youngest, who had never remarried after his divorce; Ashi, the middle boy who lived on Kibbutz NHLH and filled her pillboxes; and Yossi, the gregarious salesman.
On parting, I told Sarah that Elahna and I would come to Israel for a longer visit in 2016, maybe for a few months. She smiled and told me that she wanted to be alive for that. It was an incredibly sweet thing to say – but what price would she have to pay to last that long? Then she urged me to be careful and I kissed her and hiked away from the last domain of Doda Sarah – a woman who never stepped foot from Israel, who stopped paying life’s high price, alas, before we could return – down the hill and out the gate of the kibbutz named for young men sacrificed for doing the right thing, for being better, perhaps, than they should have been, and past the churning prayer-book factory and its sea-puddle of vomited cold water by the front door that, let’s say, miraculously defies evaporation, back across the stubbly field with the fierce dog at the farm shed and onto the Shvil.
Another scorching day in The Land.
Several hours later I learned from Elahna that Sarah’s firstborn, Udi, had died the night before. A smoker since age twelve, he had battled lung cancer to a standstill in recent years, or so it seemed, and then he started to cough and couldn’t stop. Inside, something worn-down burst and Udi bled catastrophically in front of his girlfriend. He was dead before the ambulance came. At the same time, Sarah and I watched a sitcom about bumbling soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. The quartermaster, he didn’t know a trench shovel from an assault rifle! And look at that female recruit marching in high heels! Together we laughed and laughed at the heartbreaking stupidity of it all as her family made arrangements to break the news as a group. So in the mid-morning, after my departure, Ashi and Yossi and their wives and many of the twelve beloved grandchildren, plus a doctor and nurse just in case, walked across the torn-up street and entered her home.
For myself, the odd American on the family outskirts, it was a privilege to have kept the old woman company the night her son died, even though neither of us knew it at the time.
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