ISRAEL STORIES 2014
Arcing down into Israeli airspace inside a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, my ears perked to the intercom. The polite-but-firm female voice of Air Canada – real-time or recorded, it was hard to tell – warned us not to use the bathrooms or move from our seats for the remainder of the flight. Violators would be “reported to Israeli officials.” And so I imagined myself sitting in a windowless cinder-block room across from a stout, bald man with a Moshe Dayan eyepatch. The message was repeated several times, each time growing, I thought, in severity, but several altacockers didn’t hear or care. They shuffled sluggishly in the aisles. Go ahead, pussy Canadians, report me.
We arrived. Everyone was sprung. It’s sunny in the 80s and I took a taxi from Ben-Gurion airport. Your English is excellent, I complemented the driver, who also spoke Yiddish, Spanish and a bit of Portuguese, too. Along the way he pointed out the Burma Road and the Latrun Monastery, famous landmarks of the 1948 War of Independence that I’d hiked past on a previous trip. The cabbie’s son and daughter lived in Los Angeles and he seemed sad about that. No, he hadn’t visited them, hadn’t left The Land in a long time. Too busy making the airport run decade after decade, tourist after tourist.
His kids are not outliers. In 2015 about a half million Israelis, eight percent of the Jewish population, had been living abroad for at least a year – mostly in the U.S., Canada and Europe. This compares to a U.S. expatriate rate of two percent. The hot new city for young Israelis: Berlin, Germany. Go figure. Elahna’s cousin Yuval was just back from three years in the former Nazi stronghold, where he studied hydrology and dabbled in the Grinberg Method of learning through body awareness. Another cousin has moved to San Francisco to work with a tech start-up and his mom’s worried that he might turn his back and stay there permanently as one of the yordim, the descenders. The 16th century Jewish scholar Maharit believed that emigration from Israel was tolerable for marriage, to study Torah or to make a living. Rambam, the 12th century sage, said only in cases of severe hunger. Like most wandering Israelis, however, the prodigal cousin will return. That’s the pattern so far.
The taxi dropped me in Abu Ghosh, an Arab village known for its hummus restaurants. Jewish Israelis roll in on Shabbat, slurp up the famous hummus served warm and lounging in a delta of olive oil, clean the bowl with shards of pillowy pita, and roll out. Look, there on the main road – a billboard for the famous Abu Shukri hummasiya! It featured the grimacing, elderly face of Abu (father) Shukri himself. He’s in charge, I soon learned, of the “original” Abu Shukri restaurant. Down the road there’s an “authentic” Abu Shukri, product of a blood feud between Shukri brothers, or maybe cousins; I’m not really sure, the story keeps shifting. You can find a third Abu Shukri hummasiya in Jerusalem’s Old City, run by G-d.
I dragged my duffel bag up a steep side street to the Jerusalem Hills Hotel, a destination overrun by American pilgrims. The young woman who checked me in had a southern accent. Arkansas, not the Negev. After napping for a couple of hours, I stood at the railing of the hotel porch and looked east to Jerusalem. The sky was cloudy and darkening, but on the farthest, highest hill I could faintly discern the Bridge of Strings near the bus station; it evokes the curving neck of a bird, supposedly, or King David’s harp. It was Friday night, Shabbat eve. Several stars were already out, and I fired up the iJew App on my iPod, quickie-whispered a couple of brachas into the ether and, tap, tap, lit the candles on the screen.
“What did you say your name was?”
These words drawled from a man suddenly at my elbow. I turned: a middle-aged American with a bulbous belly, standard six-quart model. Clothes purchased at Target. Mild expression, good posture. I ignored his presumptuous introduction and we got to chatting. Greg was a devout, slow-talking Christian from Cleveland, Tennessee. “Never heard of it,” I said, and he betrayed not a twitch or twinge. Yes, he told me, his Cleveland was the “most religious city in America,” with 376 churches. Wow, I joked, do you go to a different one every week? No laugh, no smile from Greg. Everyone gets along in Cleveland, Tennessee, he said. No snarky Jews, I inferred. Folks in Cleveland, he said, pull over for funeral processions. Bible study’s held at the Wendy’s. At the end of the porch, a teenage boy pluck-plucked notes on a guitar. It reminded me of Saturday evening folk mass during my Catholic childhood. Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah…
Together we looked across the hills to the tiny lights of Jerusalem. Tomorrow he and his family were “going up,” as the Jews say, to the Holy City. (Greg’s clan also “did Shabbat” every week – Shabbat, I guess, with Christ and casseroles.) His mission here was “doing the good work of Jesus” and “praying for peace.” For those purposes, they’d be staying in a so-called prayer house just a stone’s throw from the Barrier Wall that cuts the city. Palestinians, he said, are happy to be on Jewish side of the wall because “nobody wants to live under the PLO.” I was in no mood to argue, to muddy his pure certitude. Instead I pointed out a tall, sliver of stone in the distance – the YMCA, where I stay when I go up to Jerusalem. Israelis call it the Imcah. What I like about the Imcah, I mused pedantically, is its devotion to unifying people, not dividing them. It’s an island of calm, I said, amid the tribal craziness. Greg narrowed his eyes – the poker face cracked – and then departed with a comment about how my iPod sure makes Shabbat easy, doesn’t it.
I walked about the grounds and ran into Joy, the innkeeper. She gave me a slice of homemade apple pie. Not bad, green apples. She and her husband Chaim – Hebrew for life – came here from Ohio about six years ago. Abu Ghosh, she said, was the only Arab village that stayed “loyal to Israel” in the 1948 war. The story of this loyalty, stemming from decades of cooperation between Zionists and village elders, is told on the placemat of the Caravan, an Abu Ghosh hummusiya I visited that night. The hummus, the pita – divine! As I gorged, I watched a Jewish Israeli family interact at a long table; the kids, in Tzofim (Israel scouts) uniform, teased and doted on grandma. Savta, Savta, they repeated, reaching for her smart phone, showing off their badges, making poses and funny faces. She loved it.
The next day I visited the Crusader Chapel with its frescoes dating to the 12th century; the faces of the saints, prophets and kings in the frescoes had been rubbed off by Muslims who controlled the town after the Europeans bugged out. Why just the faces? I wondered. To negate individuality? To showcase the insult? I ate dinner at Abu Shukri – I’m not sure which one – and the hummus was a bit dank for my taste, the service unfriendly. That night I had trouble sleeping because my calves were cramping for no good reason and a woman from Oakland wouldn’t stop complaining about ultra-Orthodox Jews through the cardboard walls. When I checked out in the morning, Chaim held his infant son while his eldest boy, in the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, rushed down the stairs with his gun and gear.
@ @ @
This segment of my journey south on the Israel National Trail, the Shvil, began in a parking lot above the Sataf, an ancient farm terraced into a hillside. I gripped my hiking sticks, shouldered my pack – heavy with water, snacks, tent, sleep sack, ibuprofen, sandals, special blister bandages that proved useless, compass and other junk – and zigzagged down the rocky terraces, passing between gnarly olive and pine trees. The trail soon looped around Hadassah Medical Center in its gleaming green-glass shell and, an hour later, came to an old stone dam scrawled with climbing vines. It’s called the Little Western Wall because it resembles the big boy, the Kotel, in Jerusalem.
Ahhh, breathe in, breathe out. Life was quiet there, except for stray bird calls that sounded like kids hollering to each other, and I was blessedly alone: no wailing, no head-bobbing theatrics and no Haredim hassling me to wrap myself with tefillin before I approached the Most Holy Place Ever. No need to write something clever or heartfelt on a slip of paper and shove it between stones. No women herded to the right because they aren’t men, no 24-hour Kotel web cams, no security presence, no Temple Mount looming above where zealots joust over who’s allowed where, when, how and always why. No secrets entombed below, taboo from excavation because someone’s history, someone’s agenda, might not be verified.
Adjusting my Yale ball cap, bones achy and throat parched, I stepped forward and touched the wall. It felt dusty and cold, even as the day heated. Then I said the Shehecheyanu, the classic thanks-for-letting-me-be-here-now prayer, good for any occasion, and who’s to say the divine presence wasn’t encamped there, perhaps taking a vacation from its primary residence hounded by devout hordes?
Hi, Hal. Hi, G-d.
At Ein Hindak I met two young Israelis. We sat at the spring, shaded by leaning tress and marred by chip bags and soda bottles. The woman told me that she wanted to visit my country “before our empire falls,” and I don’t think she was kidding. She had a soft aura and let me speak my bad Hebrew without interruption; nearby, her boyfriend mumbled over a book and at first I figured he was praying until she explained that he was training to lead hiking tours. She described Israel as a balagan, a big ball of chaos, a fiasco. She wanted to get away for a while to see the world, but not for too long. This was home, after all. By the bye I mentioned that my wife’s Doda (Auntie) Sarah lives at a kibbutz along the Shvil. Ah, Doda Sarah, she replied with delight, and maybe it was the corny-American way I’d said the words or maybe she had a Doda Sarah herself. Soon I wished these two well and headed away – “Say hello to Doda Sarah,” the woman called – arriving around noon at a picnic area where I ate cocoa biscuits and salty nuts.
I stretched my calves. A crew of Arab-Israelis and African immigrants arrived to clean up litter – worse here than at the spring; it's a national embarrassment, really – but they stopped after ten minutes and sat at picnic tables smoking, noshing and staring into cell phones. Only one man kept at it, blowing leaves off a walkway with an incredibly noisy contraption strapped to his back. The wind, of course, would blow them back.
I hiked up a steep, curving road to the John F. Kennedy Memorial, or Yad Kennedy. It’s bizarre, really, a gigantic stump rising from the center of a plaza with 50 white concrete ribs, each one representing an American state, flowing down the sides of the stump in every direction. I went inside, into a cavernous room sheltering a fenced-off, eternal flame. There I talked with a man and his elderly, white-haired mother leaning on a walker. They used to hike up here together from Jerusalem when he was a boy in the 1950s. The man asked me if we had a memorial like this back in Boston. Well, there’s a library, I said, and a few statues, but nothing like this, nothing so impressive. He nodded, pleased. I asked him why JFK was honored in Israel and he responded without a hitch that Kennedy took on the Russians and the Cubans and saved the planet, not to mention Israel, from nuclear destruction. A very great man, your Kennedy.
Plaques for the 50 states were riveted to the walls; I snapped a photo of the Massachusetts plaque. “Israel,” said the man, “the 51st state.” We smiled at each other. His mother stared across the room – beyond the room, I suppose, back to those days when she held her little boy’s hand on the steep ascent to Yad Kennedy. When they departed, he walked close by her side as she pushed the walker, shush, shush, across the sun-blasted plaza. Several days later I referred to Israel as the 51st state to my wife’s cousin Alex, a former fighter pilot, and his face reddened and he stomped from the room.
It was a tough afternoon hike on the Shvil, through the tangled woods of Judea, and I grew listless as the temperature broke 90. A headache occupied the far corners of my skull. On a steep stretch I passed a rusted-out Skoda, its windshield, tires, front end and gas cap scavenged. I left the trail at Route 386 and walked along the narrow verge toward the moshav (cooperative community) of Bar Giora, where I’d arranged to stay with trail angels. Shvil Malachim are people who put up hikers for free, either in their houses or yards. They’re a G-d-send, so to speak. Somehow I found the moshav, hidden by fences of trees and chain link, and gratefully crossed inside. My stride loosened, head cleared. Minutes later, three or four madly barking dogs rushed me. This was terrifying – angry dogs are a stubborn, childhood fear – and I backpedaled and stabbed at them with my poles. Di, Di! I yelled, enough, enough! They stopped short, still growling. An obese woman in a black leotard appeared, her face ugly with annoyance, and without a word yanked one of the dog-devils away by its collar. The others hesitated, then followed.
Rivka and Tsahik, my angels, lived in bungalow with a decrepit wading pool, or maybe a coy pond, in the side yard. I got a hot shower and a mattress in the spare room. Rivka, black-haired and curvaceous, was a friendly woman who said I was the first American hiker they’d hosted. She was studying for her Ph.D. in French – that is, when not chasing Alma, her toddler, who stalked the tile floors in bare feet, giggling, grabbing and wiping out. My Irish mother is named Alma, I said, and it means spirit or soul in Gaelic. Rivka liked it that her child’s name was special in another language; in Hebrew, Alma means young woman of a marriageable age. Over tea, Rivka told me about the job she once held at a mechina, a prep school that some kids attend before required army service. There was this “silly girl” who she took under her wing, a girl preoccupied with fashion, gossip and her own comfort, and slowly she taught her to “take responsibility.” I’d heard this phrase several times in Israel. It means, Rivka told me in uncertain English, “to be aware of what’s going on around you.” To look up and give a damn.
Then her husband Tsahik returned home, a young man with a bounce on top of the bounce in his step, and whish, boom, bah, he made omelets. Out popped salad, many cheeses, olives, bread, juice, cookies. Jerusalem came up over dinner and Tsahik asked me what things I’d done there. Since he seemed interested in history, I told him about the visit Elahna and I made a few years ago to the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Devised by an enterprising grad student, it uses citizen volunteers to comb through an enormous deposit of earth bulldozed illegally from a wall of the Temple Mount by Islamic authorities and then trucked to a dump. My wife, I explained, wanted so badly to find an ancient coin – and Tsahik interrupted me. “I am the graduate student,” he said. “It is my project.” As I expressed surprise and admiration, Rivka’s eyes rolled in their sockets. My husband, the celebrity. I asked him: can you reconstruct where the archeological discoveries – Temple-era mosaic tiles, Roman coins, Persian stirrups, Ottoman knives, British Mandate belt buckles, 1970s Tupperware shards – had been located in the wall? Ah, he said, that is a good question, how to recover the story of history bulldozed and blended, how to make sense from the chaos, the jumble of conquered civilizations, and Tsahik tried to explain but his jargon was beyond me and, besides, he had to go now, had to be at a meeting at Alma’s daycare.
In the morning, as I departed, Rivka told me that she wanted to leave this dull moshav. If only she could return to the Negev where she’d grown up, but that wasn’t going to happen with their careers. Meanwhile, Alma tottered about her mother’s legs. Pants-pulling, glee-yelping Alma, the spirit child of a not-quite-marriageable age, explored her world with unbounded gusto. You miss them being babies, I said, thinking of the difference between Alma and my grown-up daughter. Rivka watched her girl as she lunged for the cat.
“I miss it already,” she said, softly.
I wanted to give her a hug, but no, we hardly knew each other. Handshake, thank you, shalom, shalom, good luck. And I set off into the cloudy day – might it even rain? I hadn’t yet seen rain in Israel. Perhaps it never really happens, perhaps nothing here ever gets washed away. It all just piles up, layer after layer, and that’s a lot, don’t you know, for anyone to take responsibility for. Near the moshav gate – oh Christ! – the furious dogs bore down on me again. Behold, the power of nothing ever changing, the triumph of animal barking, man shouting, poles stabbing, scowling-woman yanking. Territoriality reigned and yesterday’s scene replayed itself in surreal detail. My heart jelled with fear. This stranger hustled out of town.
@ @ @