ISRAEL STORIES 2014
Doda Sarah gave me three thick slices of poppy-seed bread – more seed, actually, than bread – made by her flighty aide and they were potent, man. I scarfed them all and weaved along the Shvil in a pleasant fog, my aches and creaks mellowed out like butter. By mid-morning I straddled Tel Azekah, a stronghold taken by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar before his forces ransacked Jerusalem and tore down the First Temple in 586 BCE – but let’s go back further into the biblical gloaming and from Azekah’s heights scan the Valley of Elah and imagine David killing Goliath, step one in his glamorous, grisly destiny, and still further into the Late Bronze Age when ancient Israelites defeated the armies of five, count ‘em, Canaanite kings. After 40 years’ penitential wandering, according to scripture, this ragged lot was gifted with divine logistical support: heaven-tossed hailstones, bullet-proof intel and meteorological mastery in the form of a stand-still sun, all the better for Joshua’s troops to press the slaughter.
Of course, we modern humans know that’s ridiculous because the sun doesn’t orbit the planet; more likely, G-d stopped Earth from spinning and, simultaneously, lifted the laws of momentum that would have sent everything without roots into space.
Joshua had a lot of chutzpah; he called for that intervention. Never before nor since has there been such a day – Joshua, 10:5 – when the LORD acted on words spoken by a man. What’s a rule if you can’t break it now and then? And the Israelites proscribed everything that breathed…as the LORD had commanded. Joshua allowed his men to stomp on the necks of the five kings who led the five armies and then he impaled the royal heads on stakes. Jump to near present: if Syrian armored columns had broken through from the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, there could have been an epic tank clash in the plain below, with Israel’s existence in the balance. Jump ahead: The Book of Revelations predicts that the last battle of the End Times shall occur here with General Jesus leading his righteous troops against the dread armies of the anti-Christ.
Today, Israel enjoys military advantages over several surrounding Arab countries that strongly prefer it not to exist. Thanks in part to American hardware, training and billions in cash, it has the best air force in the region – not the best in the world, chalk such boasts up to Israeli swagger – and that’s a strategic weapon akin to the LORD’s hailstones. It has nukes, too, thanks to the 1950s and ‘60s alliance with France nurtured by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres. Israel’s submarines now cruising the Mediterranean Sea are capable of raining nuclear-armed missiles around the Middle East, thanks to the guilty largess of the Germans. And it sports the vaunted Iron Dome, built by Israeli and U.S. contractors, a missile defense system that in the recent war shot down up to 90 percent of Hamas missiles fired from Gaza, according to the military. No doubt, Iron Dome saved many Israeli lives and allowed the population in greater Tel Aviv – an area known as The Bubble, for its insular devotion to business and pleasure – to continue “life during wartime” in relative comfort. In so doing, Iron Dome damps down political pressure to mount full-scale invasions of Gaza. It saves, one could argue, Palestinian lives. Now go share that bit of geopolitical erudition with the people bombed out of their houses, with those grieving friends and relatives killed in air strikes.
Israel can protect itself. It can, if it wishes, scatter its foes. This breeds confidence and, often enough, arrogance. I’ve met a few Israelis, such as cousin Ruti’s boyfriend, Noah, who try to minimize the support Israel has received, and still receives, from European countries and the United States. An exporter of Jordanian dates, Noah has traveled the world and surely knows the score. Yet, he insisted that the U.S. only gives Israel combat boots, old tanks and Hershey bars – stuff it really doesn’t need. What’s more, according to Noah, we disperse these trinkets primarily to produce jobs for ourselves. Gently, I reminded him that U.S. taxpayers paid for most of Iron Dome, 700 million bucks and counting, and he flat out denied it. Not a penny. But we give Israel $3 billion a year, I pressed on – 120 billion, in fact, since 1948 – and he waved this away. Ancient history, a fiction, whatever. I went silent, not mentioning U.S. philanthropic support for Israeli hospitals and reforestation projects, or the value of our constant diplomatic cover. Perhaps Israelis like Noah are simply prosperous enough to reject their benefactors. They’re embarrassed, in denial. Sick of the dole. Historical revision becomes their defense mechanism. Or perhaps they want it both ways: money from Daddy USA without having to admit it, without having to consider our insufferably naive opinions.
Life in Israel is harder than it is in the U.S., states cousin Alex, the retired fighter pilot. Translation: shut up, you don’t get what’s going on here.
Bunkers were dug into the peak of Tel Azekah, for military training. On the way down the hill, I ran into soldiers going up. They toted full packs, slung rifles. Boker tov, boker tov – we exchanged polite greetings – and I told one soldier that my pack was heavier than his and he laughed, no way, mine’s thirty kilos, and a spattering of Hebrew joshing (I think) emerged from his fellow soldiers. At the bottom of the hill, a cook stirred a giant steel pot. Beside him, a pile of unpeeled potatoes. A mile farther along, I rested next to a school group of jabbering teens. The teacher strove to shut them up – Sheket! she yelled, SHEKET!! – while a willowy girl stared at me as if I were an angel or alien astronaut. Her friend offered me a Bisli chip – I took one, thanks, gobbled it. Look, he eats! Lunch came an hour’s walk later from a small market, a macolet, in the village of Sragim. By mistake I bought raspberry-flavored water, yuk, and poured it on the geraniums in front of a microbrewery.
Today’s plan: hike 15 hot, dusty miles from Kibbutz NHLH to Beit Guvrin. I picked my way down the rocky trail and by mid-afternoon I’d fallen well behind schedule; moreover, my attempts to secure a trail angel in Beit Guvrin had failed. Nor were there any hotels or hostels in the area. Ah well, pick up the pace, and soon I came across three young Israelis making tea over a campfire by the side of the road. They invited me to join them. Shvil Rule #7 forbids passing up tea or company, even when late or homeless, and so I dropped my gear and sat on the ground with Shelly, Tal and Chamid – best buddies, you could just tell.
Tal, tall with a three-day beard, wore a cycling jersey in multiple hues of blue. Across his chest, this data: GM Jersey, Join the Leaders, www.gmjersey.co.il. His mountain bike leaned against a tree; his hi-tech helmet hung from the handlebars. Israel, he said, was getting hotter because of global warming – he could tell, just riding his bike around in the summers. Tal had graduated college as an engineer and gone to work at a desalination plant, but didn’t like it. Now he was building custom furniture. With his hands, he said, and showed me them as if their existence were in doubt. Chamid, an Israeli Arab in a spotless white t-shirt, stayed mostly quiet. Perhaps he spoke little English or felt wary of the hulking American. The gregarious Shelley – barefoot, t-shirt reading “No One is Perfect” – asked me questions about life in the USA. What were my students like? Is Boston a good place to live? The tea was strong and strangely cooling. This was a perfect little stop, and before resuming I took two photos of Shelley surrounded by her friends. In one, she reaches behind their heads and makes peace signs; Tal and Chamid don’t seem to notice. In the other, she stretches her arms across their shoulders; as if activated, the boys smile with her.
Tal asked me to post the photos on a social media site that I didn’t recognize – the trio chuckled at my cluelessness – but, alas, I’ve forgotten to do it. Maybe I’ll try tonight.
With miles to go, I quick-marched through fields of plastic-wrapped melons and baby olive trees, arriving at a convenience store as night fell. The teen behind the counter stiffed me on change by placing the coins face down in my palm and walking away. I sat on the deck bolted to the joint, disconsolate, chowing biscuits and milk and wondering if I’d have to sleep right there. So I called my wife for commiseration and, miraculously, she connected me with Shlomo at nearby Kibbutz Galon. Shlomo sent a car driven by a husband-and-wife team of elderly kibbutznikim. Somehow I crammed myself into the tight confines of their sub-sub-compact and, in the process, accidently closed the door on the man’s hand. Yow! Yow! he cried. I apologized and it wasn’t spoken of again. At the kibbutz, inside an unpainted, half-furnished room that Shlomo dubbed “very basic,” I dropped on the saggy mattress and slept like a log dropped to the bottom of an ocean on a faraway planet.
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Outside in a low, rickety chair, I ate my bountiful Israeli breakfast – omelet, salad, cheeses, coffee, juice, bread and jam. The nearby dining hall had been reserved for a visiting delegation of handicapped children. The wheelchair confined kids rolled past – contorted, mouths open, arms trolling air – each one pushed by a secular or scarfed female aide. These children, said the woman who served my food, are “no good.” She meant to say, in her poor English, that they were developmentally impaired, and I wondered how often my baby Hebrew had produced coarse sentiments. Bees went for my OJ. A mangy, three-legged cat hopped up to beg, and I tossed him a clump of tuna and the softest cheese. A bird-like shrieking came from the dining hall, again and again, and then a snarling, four-legged cat chased off the first cat, winning his grub. The “no good” loser cat returned later for more handouts. Satisfied, he lay on his side in a stripe of sunlight.
After breakfast, from a distance, I watched the disabled children and their caretakers on the kibbutz green. Balloons were strung between trees and zither music from a radio slithered between branches. Juice, snacks and pink-wrapped presents sat on a card table. Some kids remained in wheelchairs, others lolled on their backs in green beanbags. The blue sky beckoned. As if a Polaroid photograph was developing before me, I noticed small animals set before each child – chicks in basket, docile bunnies, statue-quiet parakeets, purring kittens. Some kids responded to the therapy animals, offering awkward pats, but most of them appeared oblivious – of course, who can tell what swims inside? One child, I’m sure, smiled at a white-nosed guinea pig. There was no more shrieking.
I needed to get to Tel Lakish to resume the Shvil, so I grabbed a ride with a kitchen worker to Kiryat Gat and from there took a taxi driven by a Sephardi Jew who spoke little English. We settled on a mashup of Hebrew and Spanish. When he pointed out a cotton field, I responded, Espere un momento! Israel can afford to waste water on cotton? Aqua sucio, said my driver, meaning they use recycled sewage water for non-food crops. He brought me to the base of Tel Lakish, which, on top, was but a denuded landscape littered with soda bottles and chip bags, the goodies of teenage globalism. A lone carob tree leaned over, near death, and big holes had been dug by hunters for Turkish treasure.
From there I traveled dusty, rocky roads for hours, past netted banana fields, a stone war memorial (Israel raises them like crops) and limitless hay fields shorn to stubble. Summer in South Dakota, but hotter, and I met no one and the water in my bottles turned warm and sticky. Finally I cut across a gulley of barbed-wire nettles known as coatzim and arrived at Philips Farm, my destination for the night. It wasn’t so much a farm, actually, as a roadside attraction featuring horses and dogs and turkeys and chickens and ducks and tropical fish, plus exotic birds and paintball and rustic carriage rides, that kind of thing. According to the guidebook, Philips Farm is happy to put up Shvil hikers. According to the young man at the farm’s food stand, they’d never put up hikers and he’d worked here for years. Nonetheless, he led me to a grassy spot beyond the picnic tables and pointed to a tap for refilling water. Then he cooked up a huge pita on a curved, iron drum and rubbed it with zatar, cheese and zesty red paste. Whoosh, he whipped it with bare hands from the hot drum and wrapped it into a cone. Delicious! I devoured it right there.
The night was noisy because of the ostrich. Trapped in his cage just ten feet from my tent, he let loose with periodic skin-shriveling caterwauls of feathery frustration that produced a cacophony of response from the horses and dogs and ducks and geese and exotic birds, as well as the turkey gobble-gobbling about my flimsy enclosure. To drown out the noise coming from every possible direction, from the earth itself, I put in earbuds and listened to Feist on my iPod. Maybe I slept a little; in the blessed morning I emerged into sunshine, shook out my back and watched the Israelis interact.
A middle-aged Arab-Israeli woman moved behind the counter of the food stand, preparing for the day. Up pulled an expensive sedan, newly washed, and out of it emerged three Jewish Israeli women in sun dresses. Another stayed behind, checking her phone. These women – mid-twenties, fit, fashionable – ordered the fabulous pita concoctions. They wanted them exactly so, as Israelis do, with this spice and not that one, with this cheese and not that one, and they were not shy in telling the Arab woman how to proceed. They spoke directly and not rudely unless you’re a soft American who equates bluntness with rudeness. It wasn’t easy for their server to promptly comply because she was still opening the place, taking out ingredients and unscrewing jars and moving stuff about. Was she trying her best, but flustered? Was she stalling, making them wait? I couldn’t tell.
The Jewish women walked over to the cold case for drinks. It was padlocked. They called out and the Arab woman came running, searched her pockets for the key, and opened the door. Then she returned to preparing their breakfasts and one of the young women said something about the choices in the cold case, I’m quite sure, and it was if a cord snapped and a terrific row broke out, a storm of Hebrew shouting between the generations, between three Jews and an Arab, between people who are determined to get exactly what they want when they want it and an individual who, well, who knows, hates them, resents them, wants to be like them, couldn’t care less, and the argument flared and, almost as suddenly as it erupted, flamed out. The blank-faced Arab made the pitas – whoosh, her fingertips snatched each one from the hot drum – and the Jews accepted them and said toda, toda, thank you, and returned to their car.
They rode away. I waited a while before ordering my breakfast.
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Another solitary day of hiking south, with more crew-cut fields and rock-impacted dusty roads testing my body’s shock absorbers. The Shvil gradually rose and fell and every few miles I took cover from the heat in eucalyptus groves strategically placed for foot travelers. Dust devils twisted in the distance. I watched a harvester-type machine plowing stubble under and rocks up, a gushing spray of rocks, and the great, rumbling contraption created such a cumulus dust-cloud that I closed my eyes and mouth and fast-walked through the yellow gale. Around noon I came to a box canyon, a desert oasis stuffed with green and yellow reeds. Quail air-rushed from the depths and a bobcat stared back at me, maybe fifty yards away. The Shvil stayed high on the canyon’s rim; far below flowed a stream, Nahal Adara’im, its dry-season trickle overwhelmed by the wind’s rustle that sounded like a gourd’s rattle, like cereal falling into a bowl, like nature getting its hair combed. I stepped over the bobcat’s wet poop, a delicate pile in the center of the trail.
Beyond the canyon rose three stone puzzle pieces, 20 feet high, the ruins of a railroad bridge constructed by the Turks in 1915. Turkish troops traveled south across the bridge in World War I to fight British forces led by General Archibald Murray. The foppish, old-school Murray evidently thought he was in France and in 1917 launched two frontal assaults, replete with tanks and poison gas, against dug-in Turkish troops at Gaza. His efforts reaped defeat and 10,000 British casualties. Such debacles, of course, could be overlooked in a war killing millions. Overlooked in a land where armies had marauded for millennia.
Next the Shvil entered the Pura Nature Reserve, famous for its migrating storks and carpets of springtime wildflowers. Nothing moved or bloomed on that September day, however, and I came to the verge of a busy road. Here, near the fork of Routes 6 and 40, sat the 215 Reserve food truck emblazoned with giant red anemones and this humble slogan: A Good Place to Stop. In front of the truck, at several plastic tables, men devoured lunch as if it were their last meal on Earth. These truckers, salesman and assorted wanderers didn’t look up for fear of losing their chow-down mojo. I greeted the food truck chef – a burly guy with a 40-watt smile – and scanned the menu: shakshuka, kreek, bourekas…yes, bourekas, that’s the one, and he set to work cutting open a warm boureka and stuffing it with sizzling potatoes, onions and chopped-up, hardboiled eggs. Then splashings of olive oil, zatar, mystery spices, and into the oven. It was his mother’s recipe.
We chatted as he concocted. Business, he said, was good – less or more. (Israelis don’t say more or less, preferring to end their sentences strong.) A convenience store with pre-made sandwiches had opened up the road, he added, but if you want something delicious, food for the soul, this is the place. He was right – my soul squirmed with the comforting smells, the chef’s gentle oratory –and almost too quickly the heaping plate graced my hands like a benediction. I rushed to my seat and commenced. Like my peers I didn’t glance up, not once, and let me assert here that the bourekas at 215 Reserve are beyond compare. What’s the word for food that not only satisfies your desires but is served at the perfect time and place? And you look around at your fellow, happy diners and think, how could any of us ever have a problem with each other? English, I think, has no such word.
I returned my plate and complemented the chef. He seemed pleased and made me a cappuccino with complementary biscotti. As I sipped and dunked, a guy in his late twenties – tucked-in black t-shirt, aviator sunglasses – introduced himself in clear-as-a-bell English. His dad was born in Brooklyn, so he had dual Israel-U.S. citizenship. And he’d hiked the Shvil, too, years ago after his army service. Except, that is, for the section between Jerusalem and Arad – the section I was sweating now. It was too hard, too empty. A bowl of dust. Nobody does this part, he said, and this nobody laughed out loud, and he joined me.
Up ahead, at the convenience store with the pre-made sandwiches, I picked out a couple of tall, cold water bottles. The teenage clerk wasn’t satisfied, though; she touched the water bottles, looked me over in all my pathetic glory, and exclaimed, “These aren’t cold enough!” But in that gruff, Israeli way that also means, “What’s wrong with you?” She went to the cold case, stooped down and reached all the way in there – she almost disappeared she stretched so far – and pulled out two, super-cooled bottles from the back. And so, outside in 95-degree heat, I pressed the bottles against the back of my neck and under my armpits, just as I’d learned long ago from the first aid section of the Boy Scout handbook. It also taught me how to make a spear with a branch, twine and Indian arrowhead.
The trail marker huddled on a wee rock in weeds; once discovered, it sent me forth but the ball of my right foot throbbed with every step. The pain was localized, sharp – had I stepped on something? I checked my boot’s sole and noticed a soft, cracked area in the mid-foot. When did that happen? I hadn’t a clue. (Note to self: next time, bring boots with even thicker soles.) Ignoring the pain – a skill gained with practice – I soon ran into a couple of mountain bikers off their bikes. They asked me how I’m doing and I wanted to respond in Hebrew that the Shvil hurts my feet: haShvil Yisrael koev ha regalim sheli. But I screwed up and said: haregalim sheli korim Shvil Yisrael, which means “my feet read the trail.” They looked at me funny and so I dumb-blurted: haregalim kotevim Shvil Yisrael, which means “my feet write the trail.” The befuddled bikers wished me well and off I trudged into the dusk, reading the trail’s story and writing my own upon it as well.
It was Kibbutz Dvir by dark or bust. Despite the swirl of pain that was my foot, I stopped only to snap a photo of a lone, hillside horse in the gathering gloom. On a rise of land to the west, a freight train choogled by, silhouetted against the gray-silvery sky. The train pulled enormous, rectangular shipping containers, perhaps from Jerusalem to Be’er Sheva in the Negev. I squinted to make out the writing on these mobile homes for sneakers, tinned herring, refrigerators, jumbo shampoo bottles, graphic novels, iPhones, Xboxes, combat boots, Hershey bars and eggs for hard boiling and chopping up and slipping into warm bourekas. And G-d knows what else. They read: ZIM, Cronos, Yang Ming, Triton. That’s what I caught on four consecutive shipping containers from before the train ghosted away. These were the names of shipping companies, Greek and Chinese, and I repeated the words: ZIM, Cronos, Yang Ming, Triton. I said it again and again, an incantation, as I dragged myself and my pain-pierced foot forward: ZIM, Cronos, Yang Ming, Triton; ZIM, Cronos, Yang Ming, Triton; ZIM, Cronos, Yang Ming, Triton.
To everywhere we go, looking for the world. From everywhere, the world comes looking for us. ZIM, Cronos, Yang Ming, Triton.
They’d electrified Kibbutz Dvir’s barbed-wire fence, if signs were to be believed – but eventually I got in. A nice lady set me up in the hikers' room where I put a $20 bill in the “pay here” cigar box and scanned a cork bulletin board decorated with hiker’s happy notes and photos. I fell asleep on a floppy, damp mattress pulled from a pile of floppy, damp mattresses. In the middle of the night I rose to pee like all middle-aged men everywhere and forgot to put on my sandals – damn, shit, fuck! I slammed my right foot against a raised edge in the bathroom, slammed it directly where it already hurt. But I was too tired to fuss so I limped back to bed and fell asleep with the help of a sedative. In the morning, my foot screamed me awake. Only when I lurched to vertical did I notice the horrifying sight of my blood streaked across the room’s dirty Formica floor, a weaving, red river from bathroom to mattress. My life’s blood, dried dark, had swirled in places into little whirlpools. It looked as if there’d been an assault here. As if a crazy man had drawn his jumbled, Middle Eastern dreams with nothing but body and razor.
Ayza Gaza! I said out loud, surprising myself. It’s what Israelis say about a total, unmitigated screw-up when there’s nothing else to say. Ayza Gaza!
I cleaned up the mess with stained rags from under the sink, did it quickly, and then I cleaned up my foot, too, and treated it with antibiotic cream from a little, almost-impossible-to-open packet. I swaddled the mess with moleskin and bandages and slid my right boot over the sock with the care of a surgeon. Before departing, I took a last look at the cork board. The dozens of handwritten notes, on red, green, yellow and white slips of paper, some heart-shaped, some cut to resemble flowers, were mostly written in Hebrew and English, but also Arabic, Spanish, and Korean, I think. One photo, stabbed with a red pushpin, showed a row of hikers making goofy poses at the edge of a cliff, the rolling wastes of the Negev beyond. They were young men and women, short and tall, light and dark skinned, and I could hear their overlapping wisecracks and laughter carried on the desert wind.
What did their restless feet read and write on the Shivl? Where in the world were these hikers now? And what were they doing with their precious lives?
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