While in Israel

As my fingers hit the keys to write this, I imagine a reader shifting in her seat, adjusting, resuming a familiar position. If you squirmed a little on reading the title of this post, I guess the reason to be the word, the noun, the divisive name, Israel. When it comes to Israel everyone has a position. The position has been preformed, (too often prepackaged, bought cheaply off one shelf or another, marked respectively, ‘’Approve of Everything” and “Disapprove”.) ‘Israel’, the word itself, is derived from ‘struggle.’ The geography of the place, situated at the very crossroads of the ancient world, determines contest. The land sits plonked in a Valley that has seen every kind of Rift.

In my own way, I’m with you, squirmer; I too have opinions and sentiments. What follows is a list of happenings, little events. The reader can weave with these threads, as I do, the pattern of her choosing. I expect I might affront readers of every stripe.

While in Israel, travelling in the family caravanserai, a thirteen-year old grandson visited Yad Va’shem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, an emotionally hazardous experience for anyone. This is especially true for a child equipped with limitless empathy and less resilience. At the exit the child noticed a black book into which a visitor might register a reaction to the experience: Saba, wait! I want to write something. ‘Writing something’ took some time. A head of dark curls bent over the page, the pencil moved slowly, words were crossed out and replaced as a person of action and quick movement, slowed, stilled and searched within. At last he was done. Saba, you can read it now, he said. I read the following:

On December 15 last year I celebrated my barmitzvah. But here, today, I became a man.

I dedicate this to the person who prepared me for my Barmitzvah.

While in Israel we ate at a beachfront meat restaurant. In Israel ‘Meat’ and ‘beachfront’ both signal ‘expensive’. I decided to choose something affordable; on the menu, Turkey Testicles caught my eye. Do turkeys actually have testes? – I wondered.

No reason why not, I realised. They’d be very small, surely, if all were to be in proportion. More likely than true gonads, the ‘testicles’ would be some oblate spheroid of other flesh, colourfully named. I ordered them.

The family chose the safe and familiar, all the time speculating colourfully on my choice. Grilled meats arrived at table, chicken portions, sausages, kebabs. No surprises, nothing scrotal. Finally, five spheroids of dun flesh arrived on a plate. These would be mine. Breaths were held as I raised my fork, cameras sought, found and aimed as I impaled the first and smallest. It tasted meaty, turkeyish. My teeth struggled for purchase as the nimble little nugget slipped to one side or another. Finally trapped between a couple of molars, the testis yielded and collapsed, releasing a thin fluid (ejaculate, perhaps?) which was not entirely repulsive. The texture? I couldn’t decide. So I ventured a second of the near-spheres. This was unambiguously unpleasant – not the taste but the texture, which was of offal and quite awful. My mouth grappled for gristle, or fibre, for something chewable, but tongue, teeth and gums found only a slippery Gollum of near-solid goop. I cannot really commend turkey testicle. But don’t let me put you off.

While in Israel we went down to the Dead Sea. (Here some exposition of terminology is helpful: from abroad, one goes up to the Holy Land; within the land one goes up to Jerusalem. A spiritual ascent is intended.) But from anywhere on the surface of the planet you go down; the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. We went down.

Nature too goes down to this sea. The Jordan flows from the snows of Lebanon (the name means ‘whiteness’) southward, ever downward, passing through Earth’s many trauma sites – Sodom, Gomorrah, the Cities of the Plain, where fire fell and brimstone rained – down, down to a sunlit sea. The sea is mineral-rich, life-poor. It kills all. All excepting the credulous, who bring their diseases to its waters for the Cure.

With the Negev Desert hulking above you on the right, you follow a road that winds down and down: you have entered and you now descend that storied Rift Valley. Arid Geography from schooldays comes alive in the dramatic silence of that descent. Huge tumbled sandstone cliff-faces on your right fling the gazing eye ever upward. Rugged, broken, appearing ever ready to break open afresh, to swallow you up like the biblical Korach, those Negev steeps keep their menacing silence. In colour the stones of the Negev resemble turkey testes (vide supra), while in sound they resemble nothing at all, so annihilating their silence.

And all the time we whizz and plunge car-bound, so many frantic ants, as if retreating from some dull terror that has no name. All about, on every side, the heat presses down, time pushes down, the brief moment of human history is swamped utterly.

And then the Dead Sea appears below you on your left, its silvery waters silent too, but this the silence of the ineffable serene. You look and you sigh. There on the far side loom the hills of Jordan. Before you on the water, an image of those hills lies reflected. All is still. You, the watcher, feel yourself stilled, your being subsides, the world of cares recedes, quiet rapture consumes you.

Later, as the day begins to die, the waters begin to colour. Pale blue opal appears, giving way slowly, slowly to deepening pinks as the unrippling waters darken and turn metallic. Night falls and your sated soul fills with contentment. Now the moon rises, near-full, and the sea shimmers once more.

Up betimes while the hotel slept, I wandered down to the beach, seeking more glimmer and shimmer. But cloud had settled upon the Rift overnight. I sought sight of the sun that should have been rising above Jordan. The merest glow in the grey was all I saw. The world lay beneath a muted light, lovely beyond words. I wished for a camera and the skill to capture a captured sun. I wished for words I would never find for this moment of deep peace. Alone on the beach I recited the dawn prayers and gave thanks for peace and for beauty.

Had I prayed for a camera and a photographer to operate it I might have found what then materialised, a man and a woman, Nordic blond upon the sand. They too had drunk deep of peacefulness. We greeted each other. I said the sea and the sky and the quiet were beyond capture by word or camera. The man, Johann, produced a telephone and captured these images. Johann and his wife, Gro (pronounced ‘Grew’, Norwegian for ‘Grow!’) were old enough to know we three had stumbled into unwonted moments of gift. The gift bound us in a web of memory. Weeks later, with few words shed, I feel those enduring bonds. The man had photographed shanti.

While in Israel we visited the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Kotel, as it is known, is Jewry’s holiest site. You go up to the Kotel. Going up with me were our two recent barmitzvah graduates, a pair of happy philistines who seldom have troubled their Creator with prayer. (They don’t like to impose.) But on visiting this location the sense of occasion, of significance, falls upon all. Would the boys feel lost? I made a suggestion: There’s no fixed prayer. There’s nothing you have to say. Some say the she’ma, which is the first prayer you boys learned. Or you could think of your dearest, secret wish or feeling. You could say that at the Kotel.

We stood before the Wall, its huge stones creamy in the morning sun. There was room to stand a nose-length from the stones. Antiquity, the weather, and a million kisses have all opened small cracks between the stones. Here worshippers have written down personal prayers and squeezed them in, little letters to God. My eyes closed and I whispered to God what He must already know. The boys were not heard, not sensed. At length I opened my eyes. One boy stood close, bending, posting something in a minute gap. The other was nowhere.

In due course we came together and we blessed each other, the three of us. Later I found written in my notebook, the following fragment, prepared for posting in a crack:

Hey God.

Please try to manage hate, discrimination and sad…

‘Try to manage’ – a modest enough way to couch a heartfelt plea – but my heart lurched to think of ‘hate, discrimination and sad’ hurting one of my tender ones. Did he find a crack?

There is a crack/a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.

While in Israel, we visited the pavilion that honours the Anzacs at the charge of Beersheba. Here, British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers defeated the Turkish defenders of the strategic wells dug by my biblical ancestors the Patriarchs. The respective allied forces took distinct roles in the battle; it fell to Australian horsemen to attack Turkish gun emplacements on horseback in what is described as the last cavalry charge in history.

At the pavilion we bumped into an ocker individual called Colin, a volunteer guide to the place. Colin grew up in Melbourne and came up to Israel forty-five years ago. He’s older than I, taller than Goliath, rounder than Falstaff, utterly devoted to the place and its Australian heroes. He’s also rigorously honest and quite unwilling to gild any historic lilies in his narrative. He doesn’t need to. If you are Jewish or Australian, or if you’ve ever thrilled to the power of horseflesh at the gallop, I defy you to hear Colin’s account of the charge and to watch footage of the re-enactment and to emerge with dry eyes.

While in Israel my thirteen-year old twin grandsons and I accomplished in 45 minutes at Masada what took besieging Roman armies three years: we reached the top of this mesa on foot. The Snake Path takes its name from its serpentine coiling route up the rugged steeps from Dead Sea level. Only Ancient Romans and boys at puberty choose to make the climb on foot in that blazing desert. Others take the cable car.

While in Israel we visited a cousin whose incurable medical condition is so extremely rare most doctors have never heard of it. (I hadn’t.) Of the details of my cousin’s plight I have nothing to say here. Rather, it is of a community that so elevates the care of its disabled that I feel moved to write. I witnessed among Israelis a broad embrace. No-one is hidden away. In the synagogue, in the streets, at tourist sites, in all manner of public places, the ill-formed, the mentally ill, the amputee, the palsied, the intellectually deficient, alongside those extremely aged, ride their electric conveyances and live among their people. Tough Israelis, old and young, include their disabled with tenderness. I saw it on all sides and always I felt thankful and oddly humbled.

While in Israel, at the precise moment of our landing at Ben Gurion airport, the people learned of the results of their elections to the national parliament. We lugged and sweated our way through Immigration and emerged into the dazzle of Israel light. Our cab driver had no words for us; he was listening to the election news.

Mi nitzach (who won)? – I asked.

Bibi.

Our driver discharged himself of those two syllables – that were to comprise his entire conversation – without emphasis or feeling. It was a fact.

In Tel Aviv, on the beaches, in the streets and cafes, on the buses, neither excitement, nor surprise, nor exultation. I sensed a numbness, a resignation: Bibi had gained victory, but respect? Irrelevant question, it appeared.

(An aside, a quiz:

1. Who won five of the last six elections in Israel?

2. Who won five of the last six free, clean elections in the Middle East ?

Answers to 1 and 2: the same person)

While in Israel the New York Times cartoon appeared: Trump in a black yarmulke, led by dachshund–Netanyahu, wearing a Star of David. Oops, sorry, a mistake, said ‘The Times.’ Some readers were surprised, some shocked. I was one who felt both, personally, and deeply disturbed. A violence had occurred in my immediate vicinity; a newspaper like the ‘The Times’ is that territory of thought occupied by people of moderation, of contemplation, of liberal values.

The cartoonist pleads the absolute, inviolable sanctity of free speech. A week or so after ‘The Times’ published the cartoon, someone decided to attack a Jewish house of prayer and study in Poway, California. Only one fatality.

Barely seventy years have passed since the unspeakable. Few remember, fewer know. Memory does not prevent repetition. Where today does the Jew feel secure? As I write this news arrives of four hundred rockets fired from Gaza onto civilian targets in Israel. Illogically, in precisely that place where most attacks occur, a Jew feels safest. Ultimately there exists but one land where the Jew is not the stranger, not dispensible.

On an isolated beach south of Haifa I went running with a friend and colleague, an Israeli Paediatric Emergency Physician. Picking out a ragged path between clumps of ground cover I kept a sharp eye out for snakes. ‘Do you treat much snakebite in Israel? – I asked. ‘Not so much in the cities, but down south, around Beersheba, plenty.’

‘What species?’

‘Viper.’

‘What about scorpion bite?’

‘Plenty.’

I thought about our countries’ respective biters. Scorpion bite in the Australian outback is not common. I’ve not heard of any fatalities.

An old story came to mind; my friend had never heard it, so I told him: A frog was swimming in the Nile when a scorpion called to him from the bank.

Smoking the Peace in the Middle East

We stand on the Tiberias to Tel Aviv highway waiting or the early morning inter-city bus. As we anticipated the bus is crowded with soldiers and civilians returning to work after the Passover
holiday. My wife and the two grandchildren struggle into the bus, informing the driver that we have four suitcases that we’ll need to stow in the luggage compartment below. The driver activates a switch and a hatch opens. The luggage compartment is too full to fit a sandwich. I stand on the pavement with my four suitcases and a thoughtful expression. A soldier just old enough to grow a few whiskers has a backpack to stow. He leans deeply into the luggage compartment, bending his slim back, hefting, pulling, piling, jamming items of baggage together. He has created ample space for his backpack.

But he steps over his own luggage towards my array, grabs a suitcase in each hand and thrusts them into the space he has created. Again he leans, lifts and shoves. Somehow our cases are all aboard. I hoist the soldier’s backpack, find an interstice and widen it, shove the pack in and hope. The hatch closes and we two ascend, the last of the riders. I pay the modest fares for the 170 kilometre ride for four passengers. The driver apologises: regulations require him to charge the two thirteen-year olds full fare. He is sorry, what can he do? – he asks with a raised shoulder.
Inside the bus all seats are occupied. Three young soldiers lie in the aisle, one sleeps while the other two busy themselves with their screens. From the rear seat a figure in civilian red rises, beckons to me, indicates the seat he has vacated. I must sit.

Amused, grateful, mildly embarrassed, I tell him I’m alright mate.

No, he says, I must sit.

I shake my head.

‘Please sir, sit. Next stop, I descend.’

Three recumbent soldiers in the aisle rise with good grace and make way for the old man with his bulky backpack.

We emerge from the two-hour bus trip at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Passover has just come to an end and we are looking forward to eating leavened breads again. We emerge from Security and see before us a huge array of croissants, bagels, seeded rolls and pastries. I take the family’s orders and approach the squat woman behind the counter. ‘Two double espressos, one croissant, one chocolate turnover, one danish pastry, please.’ The woman maintains a studied silence. I stand for a moment, nonplussed. Has she not heard me? Is it perhaps, self-service? Is she perhaps deceased?

After a good time the woman passes me three paper bags. She manages to do this while turning her back to me. She has not spoken. Feeling like a semi-licensed thief I fill the three bags. Mrs Pastry now leans over her ranks of post-paschal breads in my direction, proffering coffee in a paper cup. A second follows. Still, no conversation. 

‘By what sum am I indebted to you?’ – I ask in my courtly, non-colloquial Hebrew.

The oracle now speaks: ‘Forty.’

     

Ellie looks up and laughs through her mouthful of chocolate yeast turnover: ‘Look Saba, Savta!’

We look towards the tee-shirt shop next to Mrs Pastry’s, where Ellie indicates a shirt in pink with the text:
DON’T WORRY

BEYONCE.
‘Ellie, would you like shirt like that?’

Ellie would like a shirt like that.
Ellie and I enter the tee-shirt emporium. Hundreds of tee-shirts of modest price and quality hang from cords suspended from the ceiling. All the shirts are suspended high, beyond human reach. Safe from theft they are also unpurchasable without human help. We look around us. Moving browsily beneath the display a handful of humans considers the merchandise. One sits, cross-legged on stool, like patience on a monument, entirely still. This person is slim, petite, elegantly presented.Her lips are the colour of venous blood. Her skin and hair are of midnight black. I approach her. She does not speak or move.

Hazarding a guess, I ask, ‘Do you work here?’

The merest of nods.

‘My granddaughter wants to buy the BEYONCE tee-shirt.’

Movement now as a slim arm emerges from behind the slight torso. Between two fingers of the hand at the end of the arm sits a cigarette.

The confessed employee inhales deeply and silently.

No verbal response. Perhaps we have visited her workplace during her sabbatical.

‘Can you help us?’

The Queen of Sheba points her cigarette over our heads. We turn and look up and backward for the shirt. We cannot sight it. 

We gather we have made our visit at a time when the spirit of enterprise is not active.

Ellie, richly amused, decides she can be happy without beyonce.

Instead, chuckling, she takes photos of the the tee-shirt in the display.  
At ‘Abulafia,’ the Palestinian bakery in the ancient port city of Yaffo, men in pious black yarmulkas queue to buy pastries from Palestinian men in tee-shirts.

In Hebrew and English the shopkeepers wear tee-shirts reading, ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’ Others wear shirts that read, ‘Headquarters of Israel-Palestine peace.’ As shopkeepers the peacemakers are indistinguishable from Jewish Israelis in their generous disdain towards customers. My wife, an attractive grandmother, speaks a clear and correct Hebrew. The bakery boys affect not to understand her menu enquiries. One shrugs and directs Annette to his colleague. He too affects non-comprehension. He winks at his colleague and turns away from Annette, his face closed.
When a second customer approaches, Annette’s two refuseniks compete to serve her. This newcomer is forty years Annette’s junior. 
Now I try my luck. ‘A toasted pita please, with salad filing.’ The man I address does not look in my direction. Like a magician, he flicks an unseen cigarette from nowhere into his mouth. Exhaling dragon-like he grunts something indistinguishable. I look around, find myself the sole customer and ask, ‘Pardon?’

‘Harif?’

Harif is the Hebrew term for shrewdly intelligent. In fast food places it means, ‘spicy.’

‘A little, please.’

This is the second time I have spoken the P-word. ‘Please’ gives me away as surely as it betrayed Annette. Despite our better than serviceable Hebrew, we have revealed ourselves as that least assertive of all tourist species, the Anglo-Saxon.

A second smoker materialises, slides my pita into a toasting oven, smoking all over my lunch in transit.  

Moments later, seated on ‘Abulafia’s’ dusty stone steps we enjoy our smoke-toasted borekhas, pitot, and pastries. Too hot to handle, ridiculously inexpensive, memorably good. 

   

On the Night Train to Jerusalem

Saturday night. The late train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is sparsely filled and comfortable. Passengers sit and read and stare out at the darkness. They travel in private cocoons of quiet. The small world of the carriage snuggles into the bedtime dark. Children, slumped against parent bodies, rocked and clickclacked, fall asleep.

Tel Aviv, Lod, Ramle. The train climbs, winds, climbs again. Stations materialize in the unsuspecting dark. Doors open, passengers melt away, doors close and the dark swallows all.

A brief stop at Ramle, now the train resumes its smooth motion. A sudden hubbub. Fast footfalls tripping along the corridor, a young woman, fair, slight, twentyish, races, crying, protesting, her voice shrill. She comes to a stop before the closed carriage door. Indignantly, she demands the train go back to Ramle. She missed her stop.
Others follow her – mothers with children, one pushing a pram. All protest, all join in the demand that the train retrace its path. Remorselessly the train picks up speed.

A new arrival, a tall young woman, dark haired, wearing black, makes her voice heard. It is an impressive voice, strong, pitched a little lower than the others’, a voice that rings. Like the others, this woman is unhappy, like them indignant. The younger blonde lady is eclipsed, she and her group are anaemic in comparison; they lack her force, her intensity, her perseverance.

The collector arrives, a small man in a grey jacket, slight, inoffensive. The women batter him with their clamour, their remonstrances. He explains that it is impossible to return, unsafe.
The young woman in black assumes leadership. Decibelling her anger, she details the group’s grievances: the doors in their compartment failed to open; the women and their children were unable to disembark. It was not their fault but the railways’; they had paid for their tickets, there were small children who needed their beds, the night was cold, the train would dump them at Beth Shemesh, leaving them stranded.
The collector offers no defence. He melts away.

The train climbs towards Beth Shemesh where it will arrive in fourteen minutes. The leading lady performs through the fullness of this time. Her face is strong, passionate, her dark lipstick an exclamation mark, her muscular features mobile with the pulse and rhythm of her thundering.

She maintains her rage, augmenting it minute by minute, until it reaches a pitch where violence can be its only resolution. Roaring now, she silences her party members. Nessun dorma: all in the train attend or pretend not to attend to the woman and await a climax that must immediately follow.

The train slows. Women corral their young, hoist their luggage, prepare their escape. The train stops, the carriage door duly opens and the unwilling visitors to Beth Shemesh debouch into the dark.

Their leader makes her final address to the invisible collector, to the entire railway system. Continuing travellers brace themselves for her final explosion. With withering sarcasm she delivers her line: Thank you for kindly opening the door –
Last of all to exit, she stops in the doorway, turns back to face the interior and screams – Darling!

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 29 March, 2013.