“I can’t imagine myself not here,” said Auntie Sarah, who has a knack for simple, profound statements about life and death. Also: “The world is at the tip of your tongue. If you ask, people know.” We stayed for two nights in her cramped but cozy apartment at Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh. Sarah’s son Ashi and his wife Noga live on the kibbutz and help her with her pill box, the computer, this and that. A young woman comes in to do dishes and wipe down the bathroom floor with a squeegee on a long handle. She combs the old woman’s frazzled, white hair. Sarah’s husband (an “unreliable man,” legend has it) is long dead; she keeps a photograph of Hadassah, her younger sister gone to America, on the wall of her bedroom. It’s hung low, close to her pillow.
For dinner she made omelets. Her hands shook. Afterwards Sarah set out for an evening stroll with us, but it was too painful and she turned back after 20 yards. That night we watched her favorite TV show, Downton Abbey, about WWI-era British nobility. Sarah, another auntie who had never left The Land, enjoys the “elegant ways” of the characters, including the servants – and then she talked about her family. She told a story about the eldest sibling Yitzhak, the golden boy, the unstoppable polymath, how in grade school he reassured the rabbi that he recited his prayers at home and promised his mother (Savta, with the sifter) that he did his praying at school, and then one day the rabbi and the mother bumped into each other at the souk…and Sarah told, too, the story of Yitzhak’s illness as a boy, how he almost died and Sarah’s mother made a pact, a binding covenant. G-d, she pleaded, spare my son and I will not hug or kiss my other children ever again. I will deny myself their touch, if only you will save Yitzhak.
I was stunned. Could a mother possibly keep such a pledge? Yes, I learned, she could. After Yitzhak’s recovery she fulfilled her side of the bargain for the rest of her life. She erected an unbreachable, physical wall between herself and her five daughters. Yitzhak translates as Isaac in English and it occurs to me now that Sarah’s tale is a frightful twisting of the biblical story in which G-d commands Abraham to slaughter his son Isaac and then stays the father’s hand at the last extreme. Would Abraham, we wonder, have plunged the knife? Yitzhak’s mother begged G-d to save her son and in exchange offered to make little sacrifices, small and cutting, of her beloved girls. Would G-d have let the boy Yitzhak, who now floats in a miasma of frailty and senility, die without her pledge?
Sarah showed us a photograph of her mother, an obese woman in a head scarf, kneeling ardently in prayer over a relic streaked with candle wax. Somehow the photo had been copied and passed around and ended up as a postcard in a Judaica shop. It was a different time, Sarah explained. People were different then. In life, she added, you have to “go with the flow” like water in a river. Later when I saw Sarah with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she hugged them and kissed them and patted the little ones on their heads, as if in blessing. “Children are everything to me,” she said.
During our stay at the kibbutz, Elahna and I made a day trip to Beit Guvrin National Park, southwest of Jerusalem, one of 60 destinations in Israel’s excellent system of national parks and nature reserves. Located on semi-arid land that resembles southern Arizona, Beit Guvrin is an underground world constructed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE to get people out of the sun and the path of marauders. We toured a labyrinth of subterranean dovecotes, burial caves, cisterns and olive oil factories dug into the soft limestone. The walls of the dovecotes held thousands of bell-shaped cubbies for pigeons, which were a source of meat and, from their dung, fertilizer for the olive fields. I enjoyed myself in the historic caves, but Elahna loved it; she can’t get enough snooping below ground. It was a joy to see her wriggling down curling stairways, in a state of perpetual discovery.
A couple of hours in, we landed among a group of 5th or 6th graders in a chamber with an ancient olive press. The walls were lit by yellow bulbs secreted in alcoves, but the oil press itself shone in white, natural light wandering down from above. Its mechanism was pretty simple: an axle pushed by a beast of burden rolled a heavy, stone wheel around a well filled with olives. I was surprised to learn from the tour guide, a scholarly roughneck, that olive oil was made by crushing the pits, not the fruit and skin. Also, he said, donkeys or slaves turned the crushing stone and “if you had a donkey you had to feed it. If you had a slave, not so much. You swapped him out.”
The kids remained silent as stone. Then the guide asked what the olive oil was used for and a storm of answers echoed about the cave. A skinny, blond boy called out, “To anoint the king,” and the guide gave him a thumbs-up and a hair tussle. The boy broke into a brilliant smile and I imagined that an archeologist had just been born. His course was set, a life of unearthing olive pits, bones, coins, the reasons why…
More curling tunnels, weaving staircases. Elahna and I left the kids and emerged into the sun-scorched world. We hiked through scrubland, passing a Byzantine-era chapel tipped over like a broken teacup. Kotzim stabbed our ankles and we stopped to extract the thorns under a carob tree with long, green pods hanging in bunches. We moved listlessly, the sun slamming down– it’s not hard, really, to see why the ancients burrowed under. At the visitor’s center we bought ice cream, sat in the shade and chatted with a park ranger behind a shaggy beard. I took this opportunity to ask him about Israel’s national bird, the harlequin fellow we had learned about in Jerusalem. Sleecha, have you seen doocheefat?
Ah yes, he said, doocheefat. There are many among the olive trees, and the ranger pointed to a nearby grove. But you know, “it’s nothing special.” He much preferred some bird with a “white shirt” and here my notes are garbled. The white-throated kingfisher? So why on Earth, I asked him, did people elect doocheefat the national bird? Because, he laughed, “We Israelis say things are ours when they’re not. Like the falafel, it’s from Turkey. Doocheefat, it’s all around, in Jordan, but we say it’s ours.”
He may have held fascinating insights into Israeli hubris. We’ll never know. To the olive grove! There we stalked the elusive creature with the pink crest and striped pajamas. A few birds hopped around tree trunks – over there, is that him? Alas, no, just crows (actually the Jerusalem crow, a dour fellow with black head and black wings on a gray body). No doocheefat today. We returned to our shaded bench. A tour bus pulled up and disgorged Japanese tourists. The men toted bulging plastic bags and the women walked under parasols daubed with pastel flowers. Their parade wound around the visitor’s center and out of sight. Then we heard a rising din of voices, like chaotic chimes, and the students from the olive pressing chamber arrived. They spread out on stone walls and under trees, tearing into their backpack lunches. Every kid wore a t-shirt with the name of their school, but the style and colors of the t-shirts varied.
One boy passed by with an empty chips bag covering his raised hand, a plastic-human hybrid. The bag read Bissli, a crunchy snack shaped like rotini pasta. Oh, how she’d loved Bissli when she lived in Israel as a girl, Elahna told me, but her mother wouldn’t pack them in her lunches, not even for a field trip. Hadassah insisted on “healthy” lunches, so there were no Bissli or Bambams for the American child. The Israeli kids all had them, she remembered, while she ate an apricot and a pita sandwich stuffed with vegetables. I was touched by the sadness in my wife’s voice as we watched the kids guzzle bags of chips and bottles of soda. A teacher appeared with a box of popsicles and the children flocked to him like sparrows to a feeder. Elahna had made up for it, though. During college and graduate school, she nearly existed on Hostess Twinkies, Yodels, spongy Sno Balls with Kreme filling and sugar-encrusted Drake’s Apple Pies pulled from university vending machines.
The next day we drove to Nachsholim Beach on the Mediterranean coast. As soon as we arrived, I found the snack stand and bought Elahna a bag of Bissli, barbecue flavored, and she snarfed them down like one of the children at Beit Guvrin, crunched and chomped and terminated their tasty existence with extreme prejudice. Then we went swimming. It was low tide and the waves barely sloshed on shore. “Like bathwater,” said an American girl in a green bikini, hands on her hips, water to her shins. “Like bathwater, just like bathwater.”
We ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Kibbutz Nachsholim. Soccer action from the Euro 2012 tournament in the Ukraine played on a sheet pulled taut between palm trees. The only other diners were three IDF soldiers with pot bellies, ponytails and untucked shirts; they looked like Vietnam vets hanging out in their old uniforms. Back at our bungalow, Elahna sorted through her luggage while I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Mr. Data, the android, overcomes discrimination from human colleagues when he takes command of a star ship and outfoxes the Romulans. In the end, everyone learned a valuable lesson.
There’s a beautiful, sandy cove at Nachsholim. In the morning we laid out our towels and baked, coated in SPF 35. Most of the sunbathers were slouched in collapsible chairs, reading books or staring at smart phones. A barrel-chested muscleman walked along the shoreline, his legs oddly thin, his steps mincing. Beyond him, 50 feet off shore, a group of rail-thin Arab boys played on flat rocks that broke above the water – ten boys in their mid and late teens, all with black hair and bony legs, jutting collar bones and hairless chests. They jumped off the rocks in bursts of crazy energy, executing twisty dives and cannonballs and split-legged leaps and super-whopper belly flops, the full international lexicon, and they pushed each other and laughed and climbed back up the rocks and jumped off again.
These kids, it was fair to assume, came from the Arab Israeli village of Fureidis about one mile behind us, on a bluff across the highway. The name of the town comes from the Arabic word for paradise, firdawis. Founded in the 19th century, Fureidis was left intact after the War of Independence and recently has gained prominence for the remarkable improvement of its high school students on the national bagrut exams which endow college eligibility. In 2006, only 34 percent of Fureidis’ high school graduates gained their “matriculation eligibility.” In 2009, due to an intensive program of longer school days and exam prep, 76 percent passed the bagrut. Fureidis ranked third nationally, only surpassed by two wealthy Jewish towns.
Not far from the rocks, and very far away, another group of Israelis had gathered on a lawn dotted with feather-duster palm trees. They were in their 20s and 30s, about two thirds men, one third women, and they wore red-and-blue caps with a nifty corporate logo. First, they sat under a metallic sunshade and listened to a brief, impassioned talk. Then they broke for fresh fruit smoothies. Next came setting up foosball and air hockey tables. Several banded together to inflate this thing with harnesses and horizontal chutes and a suds machine, a real mystery contraption. Others pulled ropes from a plastic barrel and strung them between palm trees, and then they planted step ladders and climbed them and straddled the ropes while holding onto colleagues’ hands and, well, it was very amusing and bizarre. Ayzeh Keta! Only a team-building consultant could have devised such an exercise. This fandango by the beach, I guessed, was some kind of HR training session or a field trip for top salespeople. At any rate, everyone seemed to be having fun. Disco music blared from giant speakers. The foosball and air hockey tables clickety-clackety-clacked.
“Just let the poor guys go in the water,” joked Elahna. I looked out to sea again, at the bean-pole Arab teens at play. Would these ones, the pride of Fureidis, study hard and ace the bagrut? Would they volunteer for Army service so they could build a network of comrades and contacts, and then would they go to college surrounded by Jews? Would they keep at it, stick by the deal they’d struck even if they were given a hard time, even if they defined themselves as Arabs first, Israelis by I.D.? And someday would the boys jumping crazy from rock to water join a high-tech start-up in the Tel Aviv Bubble and earn performance bonuses and attend a wacky team-building fiesta, an all-you-can-eat-and-drink seaside romp with their lifelong buddies?
Was that in their futures, and did they even want it?
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