Harvard Review, Fall 2002
Wind thrashed the stony hillside and its downslope house, slamming a front door and a side door, a porch door, a bedroom door, a bathroom door. I was trying to hang laundry in the yard. More banging, air blasts, a sweater whipped out of my hand. The line broke, dragging jeans and T-shirts in the dirt. My hosts had tied their socks to a folding metal drying rack, the only way to make them stay; sleeves knotted together, their shirts hung on for dear life. My underwear flew onto rosemary bushes, catching on scraggly branches. The levers of clothespins snapped off in my hand; plastic shards clacked on limestone. I pried clothespin mouths open with my fingers and felt bitten.
Everything dried in no time at all.
“Dear life” is not always a cliché. The previous night, a Saturday, a suicide bomber had detonated himself in Café Moment in Jerusalem, taking eleven bodies and souls with him, though some apparently clung for a while to what they knew. Dozens were blackened in the blast. An arm gone here, a leg there, a hole in the side. I have talked with friends about what constitutes “light injuries,” “medium injuries,” and “mortal wounds.” Pounds of flesh. Inches, perhaps. Moments. One young woman was saved because she went to the bathroom at the right time. The next day, members of the Orthodox burial society’s emergency branch were still picking bits of flesh off the stone façades of buildings across the street. The Hebrew for “mortally,” as in “mortally wounded,” is anush, but it’s a past participle, something like “mortaled.” It comes from the same root as enosh, human being; enoshi, humane. Enosh, in the biblical genealogy, was the grandson of Adam and Eve, though we pay him little mind in our preoccupation with the succeeding matriarchs and patriarchs through whom we distinguish Us from Them.
The newspapers were full of stories about the victims of this latest bombing. An engaged couple ended up side by side in the cemetery; photographs showed two shining faces, two neighboring graves. Even in the more liberal Israeli press there was little space left for mortaled Palestinians, for the effects of checkpoints, barricades, and house-to-house searches, tanks and bulldozers on engaged couples of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The previous Tuesday, in Jerusalem, I had met someone for coffee at Café Moment. Neither of us had known the name of the place, recently under new management, but in making the date we described it to each other: the one with outdoor seating in the triangle between Gaza Road and Ben-Maimon Street, right near the Prime Minister’s House. Having been at the site of a bombing four days before the event is not considered a close call, only an occasion for a wry exhalation, a shaking of the head. Still, I pretended to bravery in retrospect.
The term for the coffee we had at Moment is hafukh, literally “upside-down” or “reversed.” It’s something like cappuccino, with foamed milk, though it was a staple long before Italian beverages gained cachet in Israel. The name refers to the effect of the milk, turning dark into light.
In Jerusalem of the ’70s and ’80s, terror was somewhat predictable. There were periods when I would avoid taking buses on Fridays because they were the peak days for attacks. When I did get on a bus I would stoop slightly and scan the floor beneath the seats as I walked toward the back, checking for suspicious packages. During the ride I would eye passengers as they got on, engaging in what Americans now call racial profiling. The stereotype of a potentially dangerous Arab (“Palestinian,” a term that implies a national entity, came into currency slowly among Israelis) was a slightly dusty-looking man carrying a much-used plastic bag and wearing dark pin-striped trousers that lagged well behind what passed for fashion in Israel. My personal warning system was far from foolproof: sometimes the “Arab” I’d identified from a distance would lower his head as he moved into the bus and I’d see a skullcap on it. That was in the days before terrorists “borrowed” Orthodox dress and Israeli army uniforms.
Suicide bombers of the new millennium have induced a type of avoidance more geographically defined. First Jerusalemites stayed away from the heart of downtown, where most of the attacks had taken place, or ducked quickly in and out. Gradually, other neighborhoods were added to the no-go zone. As paralysis set in, so did philosophy: to what extent are you willing to shrink your life in order to remain alive?
Lucky and Smarty were taking a long walk down a road in the woods. Smarty (sekhel) was telling Lucky, as usual, that he was too impulsive and ought to look before he leapt. Lucky (mazal) was telling Smarty, as usual, to loosen up and, besides, mind his own business. They walked and walked; night fell and they were tired. Time for a few winks. Lucky stretched himself out in the middle of the road. What are you, crazy? said Smarty, who walked a few paces farther and laid himself down on some grass under the trees. Midnight, and along came a car and ran over Smarty. Omigod, said the regretful driver, I saw a hump in the middle of the road and swerved to avoid it.
I tried to stop knowing more about impending disaster than it knew about itself. Despite high alerts on the northern Sharon plain, the coastal area north of Tel Aviv, I took the commuter train from Binyamina into the big city to see a couple of friends. I hadn’t been on this train since the rail line was modernized, and, once I’d figured out the ticket system, my excitement over the smooth ride recalled the old-time Israeli response: this is just like hutz-la’aretz, just like being abroad. Against the blue upholstery were white paper antimacassars with a logo that might translate as RAILWAY, THE ONLY WAY or (I experimented) SAIL BY RAIL, RAIL IS REAL, GET BACK ON TRACK. It was a consolation to think about ad copy instead of wondering why terrorists were targeting buses but sparing the trains.
Down the aisle, picking his way among the cell-phone conversations, came a young man with a stud in his upper lip, wheeling a rack of sandwiches and soft drinks. Up the aisle came another man, railway insignia on his jacket, walking and looking. The jacket was the lightweight, short-sleeved, open type one comes to recognize in Israel as the garb of a goon. It accommodates a gun in a holster under the arm. The snack man came through twice, the security man three or four times during the half-hour trip.
One of the friends I was visiting in Tel Aviv is an architect now working on the city’s projected subway system, the first in the country. She’s designing stations for the line, which might be ready in about seven years. Sitting at her desk, waiting for her to emerge from a meeting, I saw a map labeled with the name of an Israeli town in the West Bank. I didn’t ask her if she was planning new buildings there; she is one of the few people in Israel with whom I rarely discuss politics.
The architect’s parents were adolescents in Poland during World War II. Her father fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Her mother, with light hair and blue eyes, caught the attention of a German officer when Jews were being rounded up in a school. You’re not Jewish, he told her, and pulled her out of the group. About a hundred people, including her four siblings, were burned alive. My friend’s mother acquired a permanent smile; my friend learned only in her thirties that it is permissible to cry. Now she’s worried about whether her daughter has inherited these acquired traits.
At the time of my visit, the daughter, eighteen, had just gone into the army. She’s safer there, my friend said, with a grin. Shortly before her induction, the daughter had been on her way to a late-night hangout in Tel Aviv when it was attacked by a suicide bomber.
Zichron Ya’akov, the town where the wind thrashed everything in sight, lies on a ridge above the coast. My friends’ apartment is on the eastern slope. The panorama, when the fog lifts in the morning, includes the briefly green hills of spring, with Haifa to the left, then Daliat el-Carmel and Issafiya, towns long inhabited by Druse, members of an Arab sect that broke away from Islam about a thousand years ago. A small white dot farther east is a cusp of Mount Carmel where the prophet Elijah faced off with the prophets of Baal, and the Hebrew God, according to the Hebrew Bible, was more gracious than theirs, sending down fire to consume an offering. Moving right, the eye meets Umm el-Fahm, the second-largest Arab town in Israel, and then the low buildings and fields of kibbutzim.
Down the hill in Zichron is a grove of huge vertical stainless-steel cylinders, fermentation tanks for the Carmel Mizrahi winery, a major industry here almost since the town was founded in 1882 with the support of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Off to the right is the plainspoken building of Beth-El, a German penitent sect that came to Israel in 1963 to make amends for the Holocaust and to be on hand for the Redemption. Its members live peaceably in their own collective community while producing, according to my Zichron friend, eiderdowns, jam, and gas masks. They now make air filtration systems designed to protect Israelis from nuclear, biological, and chemical attack. Neighboring yeshiva students who suspect the Germans of missionary activity occasionally resort to more traditional expressions of hostility: they stone them.
We ventured into the landscape for a wildflower outing one afternoon, bringing my friends’ five-year-old granddaughter with us. In the car she slid her purple-framed sunglasses down to her nostrils in anticipation: So I can smell better, she said.
Wildflower-viewing is a national pastime. The season is short, squeezed between the rainy winter and the long, dry summer, and you have to get to the flowers before a hamsin, a spate of drifting desert heat, finishes them off. In the twenty years I lived in Israel, mostly in Jerusalem, I rarely managed to get out to the right wilderness at the right time. Or the wilderness kept receding, as white stone buildings filled in the gaps on the Judean hills, and landscaped gardens, fed by thin black irrigation tubing, replaced the purple downy thistles and bright red anemones of vacant lots.
Our first destination, down a winding road east and south of Zichron, was a hillside covered with cyclamen resting in the shade of pines. The hillside abuts the cultivated fields of Kibbutz Gal-Ed, full of sprightly serried pea plants bordered by wild mustard and mallow. Beside an improvised parking lot, entrepreneurs took advantage of the influx of flower addicts to hawk preserves to the adults and seduce the children with billows of cotton candy. Cyclamen seem to me an inside-out sort of flower, like blossoms that changed their minds in mid-growth. These were more delicate and a paler pink than the cultivated variety.
Fifteen minutes away, on another hill, cars were parked alongside the highway and flower connoisseurs stepped carefully among dense clusters of purplish blue lupines, small petal towers, with here and there a tiny tulip or iris thrown in. A tortoise lumbered under the leaves, tracked intently by the purple-framed sunglasses. Botanical terms wafted by like seeds on a breeze. Similar comments could have come from New Englanders assessing the foliage in mid-October. But here the love of flowers, the drive to learn their names and behaviors, enhances a sense of national identity. The land to which the scattered Jews returned in growing numbers in the nineteenth century is not to be taken for granted. Knowing it is owning it. The ban on picking wildflowers, passed in the ’60s, is one of the few rules unruly Israelis gladly observe. Songs about the landscape, traditional radio fare, ooze with nostalgia, and these days are the balm applied between updates on terror attacks: a grove of eucalyptus (a tree transplanted from Australia), the fragrance of shore plants hovering over water. On this visit I found the songs more cloying than soothing. Their landscapes are conveniently free of the people that the halutzim, or Jewish pioneers, encountered here along with the flora and fauna.
Gal, as in the name of the kibbutz, means “wave,” of the radio, water, and heat varieties. Translated into a solid state, it means “mound.” A gal-ed (“forever-mound”) is a monument formed in ancient times by fighters going off to war. On their way out of town, each soldier would pick up a stone and place it in a heap beside the road. As they returned, each would remove a stone. The stones that remained represented the fighters lost. Gal might even apply to Lucky, lying there exhausted in the middle of the road: a gal atzamot is a bag (heap) of bones.
It was my fifth visit since leaving in 1990. I felt near and far. People insisted on paying for my coffee or dinner, treating me as a guest. You’ve come for the worst two weeks, friends said on a couple of occasions, and I said I hoped so. You deserve a purple heart, they joked, making me even more of a stranger.
One analysis of The Situation, as it is called, predicted that it would continue to degenerate until there was something really terrible, until some red line was crossed, whereupon Israel would launch an invasion of the territories to get the perpetrators, and then there would have to be peace talks because it can’t go on like this. Defining really terrible is like distinguishing between light, medium, and mortal injuries. Twenty Israelis dead, fifty, one hundred? In the event, really terrible turned out to be a suicide bomb attack on a Netanya hotel where people were sitting down to a Passover seder. Twenty-six people died on the spot; scores were maimed, eyeglasses lost their faces, ceremony was undone. In response, the army launched its incursion into most of the major cities of the West Bank. Tanks have since pulled back, then gone in again. But so far there is no evidence that it can’t go on like this.
The first Saturday night I was in Israel I went to a demonstration calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza Strip—back to the Green Line, so called from a ceasefire map of 1948—and resumption of negotiations. These demonstrations were becoming a weekly event, signifying a gradual revival of the political left after a year and a half of bitterness and hopelessness over the birth of the second intifada and the death of the peace talks. A couple of thousand people filled the streets around the Prime Minister’s residence and Café Moment, which would be destroyed a week later.
I know a twelve-year-old in Jerusalem who is a seasoned skateboarder and aspiring photographer. On his family’s kitchen table, he spread out some black-and-white shots he’d taken of friends on wheels at a local park with ramps. One showed two boys who had leapt off their boards into handstands on a stone ledge. I have the same sense of trying to record a moment in precarious balance.
I remember the standard schoolbook diagram showing how an image enters the eye and registers upside-down on the retina. The brain has to reverse the image. Then in Psych 101 I read about an experiment in which people went around wearing mirrors that inverted their visual field. After a while the brain adjusted to that, too, and a world turned on its head was perceived as right-side up.
I took a taxi across Tel Aviv to meet an editor friend. The traffic was worse than I’d ever seen, and a trip that should have taken ten minutes took almost an hour. We sat unmoving as lights changed, with traffic still turning incrementally across our path, and the driver fumed and swore and asked if he could smoke. (The ban on smoking in public places, even the intimate space of a taxi, is a second law that’s respected to a degree I never believed possible.)
It turned out that streets had been blocked off for a demonstration supporting the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—at the same square in the heart of the city where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 for his peace efforts, the square that now bears his name. Huge banners read COLLAPSE THE PERMISSION, which in this context, I slowly figured out, was DEMOLISH THE AUTHORITY, meaning the Palestinian Authority. My editor friend and I found ourselves walking down a street empty of traffic but swarming with police as crowds began to gather. It was Ibn Gvirol Street, named for a medieval Jewish poet who flourished in Hebrew and Arabic in Muslim Spain; the street seems to have become a shopping venue for European designer labels.
We walked down to a pan-Asian restaurant—the range of ethnicities had widened since my time in Tel Aviv—trying to block out the patriotic music appropriated by the settlement movement and now blaring from loudspeakers hung high on streetlights. This was not going to be the couple of thousand stalwarts and the single bullhorn of the Jerusalem protest. But what would be the purpose of destroying the Palestinian Authority? It was a political body that might once more become a negotiating partner—even though groups it supported were now vying with the more radical and religious Hamas and Islamic Jihad in blowing up Israeli civilians.
A few weeks later, when I was back in Boston and the incursions started, it seemed clear that the banners’ message had reached an attentive ear. Not only were the Palestinian bombers and those who sent them being hunted down in Nablus, Jenin, and elsewhere, but records in Ramallah were trashed or removed from the offices—education, health, land registry—that are necessary to the function of a civil authority.
I read about it in The New York Times, sitting in a café in Harvard Square. At about the same time I was receiving e-mails from my Zichron friends, who wondered aloud whether they should go to a demonstration in Tel Aviv demanding withdrawal from the territories. Their son and son-in-law had been called up. Searching house-to-house for perpetrators and planners of the suicide bombings, soldiers were themselves risking booby-traps—to avoid, as Israelis pointed out to me, the kind of civilian deaths the Americans caused through aerial bombing in Afghanistan. Would my friends be undermining their own children by protesting the army’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza?
They went to the demonstration.
Israel is a thin strip at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, its area about that of New Jersey. At its narrowest, a bit north of Tel Aviv, the country is nine miles wide. It’s easy to imagine Israelis taking the message very seriously when Arabs threaten, as they periodically do, to push the Jews into the sea. It’s also easy to imagine Arabs regarding the Jews as a problem Europe shoved eastward in a variation on the theme of imperialism. It’s easy to grow ill from so much imagining.
The bulging West Bank is far more than land alongside the Jordan River. For Israel it provides what the military calls strategic depth, a buffer between Israel and Arab nations to the east. The argument for withdrawal is based not only on respect for the Palestinians’ need to determine their fate, but on the Israelis’ need to, as the latest peace-camp slogan puts it, “return to ourselves.” Morally as well as geographically. A different kind of strategic depth.
My father was a child on the Russian-Polish border during World War I and the Russian revolution. In 1918 power shifted between the Poles and the Bolsheviks, both of whose forces commandeered young boys to fetch and carry. My father and some friends ran off into the woods to hide. Several days later, three of them ventured back toward town to get food. Seeing movement on the road, they crept into a ditch, without realizing they’d been spotted by two Polish soldiers surveying the scene from a windmill.
We heard them scream, “Get up, you dirty Bolsheviks,” aiming their guns at us. “We’ll shoot you down like dogs.” Up we went, our hearts in our boots. “What are you doing here?” We were shivering and told them we were taking a rest. “Oh no, you dirty so-and-sos, you saw us, that’s why you’re sitting there.” Then they asked the oldest of us, “Did you see us?” His answer was no, because we really didn’t. “You’ll change your mind when we get finished with you,” and they hit him with the gun right smack in the face and he started to bleed and lost some teeth. The same fate got the second boy. It was my turn next. I closed my eyes and said, “Yes, I did see.” I guess I was a coward but don’t forget I was only fourteen, and I saved my teeth.
Then they marched us ahead of them into the village. “Where do you live?” they asked me. I pointed to my house. “Wait out here.” One soldier went in and asked my mother if she had a son of about fourteen. “No,” she said, “I don’t have any sons.” He came out and brought me inside. My mother turned all colors and fell on her knees and covered his filthy hands with kisses. Then rubles. In the end he let me go.
There were rumors that the Polaks drafted Jewish boys at seventeen and took them to the lakes, frozen lakes in wintertime, barefoot, and they suffered all kinds of trouble there. “Rather than I should hear all this and worry,” my mother said, “you’re better off going to America.”
Real estate I
The person I met with at Café Moment was a potential buyer for my apartment in Jerusalem. After eleven years back in the US I was finally acknowledging that my center of gravity had shifted west.
My first glimpse of the apartment, in 1987, had been arranged by a fabled neighborhood real estate agent, a woman who, with her husband, ran a hole-in-the-wall café with a couple of tables. She was well-known for sniffing out peculiar real estate and inventing appropriate deals, and was rumored to have, in the old country, bludgeoned a Nazi with an ax. In one creative transaction, she sold a house around an old woman who owned a one-room flat inside it, with the understanding that when the woman died her room would go to the family that had bought the rest.
The flat she showed me was owned by a couple who had come to Israel in the late ’40s or early ’50s. I walked down a narrow hall to a small room, and through that room to a larger one. Both rooms were filled with dolls on shelves; one child-sized doll stood on the floor, gripping the handle of a small baby carriage with a vinyl infant inside. The first thing the woman told me was that she made the dolls because she couldn’t have children. She was from Czechoslovakia, was not Jewish, had fought with the partisans. The first thing the man told me was that he’d had his bar mitzvah at Auschwitz. They explained that they hadn’t been able to make a go of it in Israel, talented as he was at playing the piano with one hand and the trumpet with the other. It was too tough for them here; they were going to Germany, where they would be eligible for pensions and be able to live in some degree of security. They showed me around and we sat down at the dining room table. So, the wife said to me, do you think we should sell?
Real estate II
The apartment is in a house built for an Arab family in the neighborhood of Baqa’a in the ’30s or ’40s; like other houses in certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem, it ended up within Israel after the 1948 ceasefire. The Israeli authorities took the buildings over as “abandoned enemy property” and divided them into apartments to house Jewish immigrants coming in vast numbers, first from Europe and then from North Africa and the Middle East. Arab houses are considered desirable: attractive and well constructed, with thick walls and high ceilings, good protection against the long, hot summers.
My apartment has some of its original painted floor tiles, many of them cracked, and a tiny gem of a balcony with ornamental grillwork. The stuck button in the crackled white tile of the bathroom wall was apparently for summoning servants. The plumbing, now ancient, is periodically stopped up by the roots of cypress trees alongside the house, and the smaller room is actually half a room, divided from the adjacent flat by a thin cinderblock wall that let through the noise of the neighbor’s TV. I had a layer of acoustical insulation installed.
Before buying I considered whether I wanted to own an apartment that had belonged to an Arab family displaced by the war. I concluded that my not buying it, thirty-nine years after the establishment of the state, would not return it to its original owners. But the question seems more complicated to me now, over time and distance. Once, in the ’80s, I got a lift into Jerusalem from a Ramallah physician whose maternity clinic I was writing about. Coming into town, he pointed to a few stately properties and said they’d belonged to his family. Yes, the family had been offered compensation, but such a laughable sum that they refused to take it. And of course, I think now, accepting compensation means abandoning the intention of return.
I had more choices than my parents did; I went to Israel from the US not as a refugee, merely as a self-perceived outsider. I was drawn to a community of outsiders trying to evolve a cultural identity; a community with a Jewish calendar whose public holidays I could choose not to celebrate; Theodor Herzl’s old-new country with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s reinvented language; a community striving desperately for normalcy and afraid that normalcy would be meaningless when achieved.
Without believing in divine revelation, I could, in the course of an ordinary day, use a word for “electricity” that came from the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a heavenly chariot, with four winged creatures and four wheels, and a glinting metal—electrum—amid flashes of fire.
Real estate III
As it turned out, I moved into my new apartment on December 9, 1987, the day the first intifada broke out, triggered by an accident in which an Israeli motorist struck and killed a Palestinian in Gaza. I was oblivious of the news at first, puzzling over how to plug in a space heater when the wiring was insufficient. Among the workmen who came to do repairs on the place in the next several months, sometimes sneaking around Israeli barricades to get from the West Bank into Jerusalem, was a young carpenter whose first name was Arafat. Without articulating it to myself, I was a little afraid that instead of fixing the warped wooden window frames he was going to claim the apartment. But no: he stepped into the entryway, looked around, and said, in Hebrew, Can’t you afford anything better than this?
To make a place your own, you not only learn its flowers, but you change its names. Beit Jalla, the Arab village south of Jerusalem, may be the site of the biblical Gilo. The J in Palestinian Arabic corresponds to the hard G in Hebrew. When, after the 1967 war, Israel annexed East Jerusalem (unlike the rest of the West Bank, which it occupied), a new neighborhood was built on the southern fringe of the city: Gilo reestablished. The Arabic and Hebrew versions of the same place are easily within visiting—and this year, shooting—distance of each another.
My neighborhood, Baqa’a, which means “valley” in Arabic, since 1948 has been labeled Ge’ulim, a biblical word for “redemption,” on Hebrew maps. But the new name, like many linguistic impositions, hasn’t stuck. A neighborhood across town has long been called Ge’ula, a more common coinage for the same concept, so maybe it was too confusing. How many times can one city, even Jerusalem, be redeemed?
In the ’80s a fringe theater group put on a play called Us/Them in Tel Aviv. The performers were Jews and Arabs, and the structure was something like that of a game show. Each side had a prescribed amount of time to recite its litany of massacres, expulsions, and humiliations, and then the other side got a chance. As I recall, the rounds grew shorter and shorter and the pace dizzied. I can’t remember what they had to do to win.
Like my father, my mother grew up in a small village, hers in what is now Ukraine. To describe the size of such a place they used to say in Yiddish that when a wagon came into the village, the horse was already out. There were only a couple of Jewish families in the village, and one day marauders, probably supporters of the Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petlyura, came looking for them. They shot through the wooden door of her house, splintering her father’s arm. Since no one knew about tourniquets, he bled to death. The house, with a thatched roof and earthen floor, was burned to the ground, and neighbors cooked eggs in the embers. My mother was five or six at the time. My grandmother moved her four children to a bigger town nearby, where they had relatives.
So then another regime came to the big town. They took over a post office and made it into what they call in Russian a kazarme, with a big kitchen, and they needed women, to cook and serve and what else. There was a man who came with them, like something the wind blew in, a soldier, who came in and sat near the little china closet. Not a word. We thought for sure he would be the one to kill us. They broke windows, they grabbed whatever we had, pillows, quilts. And he didn’t budge. When they all left, he took cardboard, paper, and nailed it over the windows. I can’t remember if it was raining or snowing, but it was winter, very nasty. Then he said to Mom, “You know, I’m hungry. Can you make me something to eat?” And Mom was so happy to hear that. So she made him something to eat and then he said he was taking a walk. He takes a walk and comes back in no time and says, “You better put towels around your girls’ heads, and whenever they ask for women, tell them they have typhoid.” And that’s what Mom did. Sure enough, soldiers came in saying they “need help” in the camp. We had only two and half rooms, and they saw my sister lying on the couch, and said, “What’s with her?” and Mom said “Typhoid.”
He was like an angel, he was sent from somewhere. To this day we don’t know why. When we got to America Mom couldn’t stop talking about it. And the way he came with them, that’s how he left with them.