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.

Flea Market

A hazy day in Jaffa. The Old City is full of blind turns and all turns are the right ones and no crooked street or alleyway disappoints. Galleries abound and every one repays our curiosity. The blaze of sun and the blue of sea have penetrated the local artists like an inoculum. Helpless, they turn out vivacious works bursting with colour. Over a number of hours we come across nothing that is dull or derivative or second rate.
 

Every so often we tumble from a narrow and twisting descent into an open space crammed with broken bric a brac. By one such space, a dusty shop manned by a torpid, pear-shaped man sells old art works of varying mediocrity and unvarying neglect. Here in this luminous place I come across a stark photograph. The image in black and white shows a cinematic scene that surely predates all cinema. In the picture a large man in a formal black suit stands at one side of a square like the Jaffa square at our shoulder. He faces a group of men who wear white suits. These men stand in a rank with rifles raised and trained at the man in black.     

 

We are about to witness an execution. As witnesses we cannot escape the victim’s aloneness. As witnesses we become complicit in something awful, something we cannot comprehend. The photographer has caught the moment, snapping the scene from a vantage above and behind the riflemen. They wear hats that would previously have been white like their suits, but the white is soiled. On closer view the suits do not appear pristine. The faces of the riflemen cannot be seen.

 

Our simple sympathy for the one, who, unarmed faces the many, gives way to complexity. The soiled suits and grimy hats hint at long labour in the field. The raised guns of the executioners rest on slack, uneven shoulders; these weary men are not ready to fire. Do they identify with their victim? War-weary, do they wonder whether when the guns will be trained on them? Do they perhaps reverence the man in the black suit? The victim who stands uncowed, the man who stares at his killers, the human who was sufficiently free only that morning to dress himself with such sober dignity looks older than the riflemen. Is he the father of one of them who fights for an opposing force in some civil war? Is he a burgher, or perhaps (as he too is hatted) even their rabbi?

  

I gaze at the photograph that captures so much. It stands loosely affixed to its frail wooden frame, grimy with age, eloquent of truth. And, importantly to me, the truth here is not easy. Fertile with hints, arid of certainty, the photo invites enquiry. How long has the image waited for its interlocutor?

 

I know I want this photograph that has so much to say to me. Can I afford it? Where in our artcrowded house will my wife allow me to hang such a miserable scene? How will I safely bring that frail and awkward thing home to Australia?

 

My granddaughter dwells in sunshine. She wonders, ‘Why on earth would you want a picture like that?

‘Why not, darling?’

‘It’s cruel, Saba.’

‘What if the man had to be punished, darling?’

‘Saba, do you believe in capital punishment?’ – she shakes her blond head, shocked by her grandfather’s response.

‘No darling, I don’t. I don’t believe in easy answers. And war asks hard questions, this picture asks hard questions.’

Another shake: ’ What, Saba? You know they make mistakes!’

 

I look around. Here is the photo, here the dusty premises, open, apparently abandoned; where is the vendor? I race through the doorway into an adjacent shop with my breathless enquiry. ‘Next door’, says that vendor. Slingshot back to the first premises I collide with the cushioning belly of Homer Simpson. No it’s not Homer. The face above the torso is stubbled grey.

‘How much is this picture?’

The man looks at my shoes, running shoes, tourist shoes. He calculates for a while, silently measuring, calibrating opportunity and innocence. He names a sum of astonishing modesty. ‘Fifty?’ – I ask, incredulous.

‘Alright, forty shekels.’

I hand the man his forty pieces of silver.

 

Hours later my mind floats and thuds to earth. Another sunny outdoor scene, one I witnessed myself in 1995. The location of the latter scene from real life was unambiguous: in the grounds of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, I paused while ascending a slope to read the inscription beneath a cattle truck perched at an angle on a section of rail line.

 

I read a Hebrew text explaining it was in such trucks that millions were crammed during their journey of some days to the extermination camps. There they died, ‘al Kiddush Hashem’, in sanctification of the Name.

 

Labouring up the slope towards me an older couple, aged, I guessed, in their seventies, puffed and sweated. They took a breather at my side. The man, plump and snowy haired, read the inscription and scowled. He grunted angrily. Between breaths he managed to declare: ‘There was no sanctification. I was there. I know!’ In the face of that knowing I stood silent. The man’s wife, younger than he, tried to calm him. Turning to me she apologised; ‘He always gets upset here. He always comes here on the first morning in Jerusalem. Always here in the morning, then the Wall.’

 

By now the man had recovered breath. ‘Nothing holy there. Nothing…’ He looked up: ‘Except once. One time only I saw sanctification. I was in the camp, one of hundreds, all of us there, all hassidim, with our Rebbe. The SS officer ordered soldiers to strip the rabbi. Violently, they tore all his clothes off him, that holy, holy man. His hat they threw down. We looked away from the rabbi, we would not see his disgrace. The SS man screamed, ‘Any one who turns away will be shot!’

We knew they would shoot. We knew because they shot anyone who would not look while they hanged our people in the ghetto.

 

The officer screamed orders to the soldiers who raised their guns ready to shoot our Rebbe. The rabbi turned to the officer. We heard his voice: ‘Will you give me one minute to bless my people?’ The officer laughed. He mocked the Rebbe. ‘You want a minute? Have two minutes old man.’

 

The Rebbe turned away from the officer and the soldiers. He turned to us, his hassidim. He raised his arms and he called out, ‘’How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” Then the soldiers shot him while we watched.’

 

I remember the year of that visit precisely. Two days later an Israeli patriot shot dead his country’s prime minister.