Once I paid, that was it, no refunds, no changes, we'd fly to Athens on October 20 and fly back from Tel Aviv November 22. The rest of the trip was a blank, a matter of maps, schedules, fares, and fate, probably mixed with heated discussions. I wasn't in the mood.
I envisioned our arrival in Athens: we don't know where to go, and we're hounded by cab drivers who know exactly where they want to take us. The air is polluted, the traffic chaotic, I want to get out as soon as possible, Adolph wants to visit museums. I sit alone in a cafe, pen poised to write about what's going on around me, but I don't know what's going on. I can't understand the language. The bus to Istanbul, if that's how we go, takes 22 hours. Would it be adventure or torture? And how would we get from there to Tel Aviv?
I did look forward to staying with Adolph's relatives in Israel. In fact that was our original reason for going, to visit his cousin Libby and her husband Raffi, who was dying of cancer. Raffi died last March; we decided to go, anyway, spend time with Libby, see other cousins, get a sense of Israel. Then Adolph added Greece to the pot, after that, Turkey, since he'd probably "never get another chance."
We'd really wanted to say goodbye to Raffi, warm and caring, open and fun-loving, that's how I remember him, dancing with us to the exotic background music at the Milwaukee Public Museum, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in his Boston apartment and filling in the details as we watched a videotape of Raffi being interviewed by Phil Donahue about his days as a secret agent for Israeli intelligence.
Raffi and Libby had five sons, raised in Israel, America, and England. Three of those sons, Don, Ron, and Tod live with their families in Israel now. Don is married to Rachel, daughter of Adolph's cousin Judy (his mother's side) and Adolph's cousin Dolph ( his father's side). Dolph, too, died last March. Rachel and Don's four young sons lost their grandfathers within ten days of each other. The oldest son, Avsha, expected both of them at his April bar mitzvah, and instead had none.
As the plane descends, my first glimpse of Greece is of dark land masses jutting out of hazy water. Beautiful, but is this haze the famous overhanging smog? Oh no, it's raining. I guess that's better than smog.
10/22/94, a little after midnight to be exact. I slept for three hours, now am wide awake, gutter dripping, just like the gutter at home. Nothing else like home. I hadn't thought too much about not speaking Greek until yesterday's taxi driver dropped us off, for traffic reasons he said, a few blocks from the hotel we'd selected in LET'S GO GREECE, and we realized we couldn't even read the street signs nor ask directions. After forty minutes of dragging suitcases, we found it, dark and dingy, and four flights up to the first empty room. We tried a hotel down the block and decided to stay for one night, mainly to get rid of our luggage. Then we looked for the Hotel Phaedra, right across from the Acropolis, figuring we'd move first thing in the morning.
Athens streets twist in every direction, meet at odd angles, and so did we, kept meeting ourselves where we'd already been. Adolph hailed taxis, and even the empty ones wouldn't stop. We'd say "Acropolis" to passers-by, hoping they'd point in the general direction. No one caught on. We'd study our map, but without knowing where we were, we couldn't figure out where to go. And the city itself seemed generic, stores selling products that can be seen almost anywhere. Adolph was convinced everything came from China.
Traffic heavy, air unbreathable, our arrival lived up to my expectations. Until we found, as night fell, the Acropolis, that ancient ruins on a hill, and the narrow, winding streets of La Plaka, an old quarter of the city.
At a hilltop taverna next to the Acropolis, we ate mashed eggplant, very tasty until I caught on that the main ingredient was mayonnaise, potatoes, French fried only, chicken breast, flattened and fried, meat fried, and salad drenched in olive oil. Then we slithered out the door to a crash of thunder. I put on my one-dollar plastic raincoat, Adolph borrowed a garbage bag, and we set off, though something in my head kept saying don't. Downward, downward, we and the rain descended. Within two blocks we were sloshing through rapids, streets like rivers, reddened by the red of Greek earth. I stepped into a hole-in-the-wall souvenir store to watch from the sidelines. Adolph kept on wading, until he realized he'd left me behind. We waited in our respective spots within view of each other as the water rushed past. I was shivering, soaked up to the knees and damp above them. I began to suspect that this wasn't going to let up, looked around in the store for something to warm me, considered dish towels, tablecloths, throw rugs, finally found a shawl, bought it, wrapped it around my shoulders, and slogged through the currents to Adolph. Then we waded together, laughing and freezing and walking in our usual circles, asking directions when possible, until we finally found our hotel. Only once before was I caught in a comparable downpour, sixteen years ago in Uruapan, Mexico. Then, as now, I learned the meaning of being soaked to the bones. Then, it was the rainy season, so I decided it must be the rainy season in Greece. Someone should have warned us.
Winding through that rain river was a turning point; it made our first day in Greece into an experience although we were drenched and chilled.
I'm sitting at an outdoor cafe watching a stream of ammoniated water run down the walk underneath the tables towards eaters' feet as someone uphill mops the sidewalk. This may be the off-season, but in La Plaka I see only foreign faces. We're thinking of going to Kastoria, off tourist tracks, though we'd then take a lot longer to get to Israel, which may be good. Frankly, I'm a little afraid. We're headed towards Tel Aviv where, according to yesterday's TRIBUNE, everyone's living in fear. Twenty-two killed, forty-six injured on the number five bus, more to come says Hamas. People hesitate to get on a bus, not convinced they'll ever get off. Then again, is that more dangerous than teaching workshops in Milwaukee's inner city? And I'm not afraid there, or maybe I am. I certainly won't bike where there's gang activity. Israel, too, has gang activity; it's just different gangs. And we might stay with Avraham, Knesset Member from a peace party. It sounds as if it's dangerous there to want peace.
I fell back to sleep last night and woke up at seven; perhaps I can outrun jet lag. I personally am ready to outrun carbon monoxide, get out into the countryside now that we've spent a day in the Archaeological Museum and the Greece of 460 BC. I can imagine, vaguely, the city then, idyllic compared to now. 1990's Athens is not for me.
Too bad garbage is such an omnipresent part of human existence. We're at the Phaedra, second night, second hotel. From our little balcony overlooking a narrow street, I see the Acropolis walls above us, a lovely roof below, composed of curved pipe tiles. A grapevine sprawls, enhancing the roof for anyone gazing down. There are also rusty cans, plastic bags and bottles, various indistinguishable splotches of debris. Do any other creatures manage to transform so much of nature into trash? They all leave droppings and other signs of their appetites and their abodes, and a temporary stench when they die. In a place like Athens, the beauty is still here to remind us of what humans could do.
It's 4 PM, Adolph's snoring, I'm struggling not to, a motorcycle revs, lots of revving cycles around here, dogs bark, lots of dogs, a different language on the tongue of every passer-by, the clop of a woman's boots, almost everyone with a backpack or its equivalent, a fanny pack or its equivalent, the yellow eyes of a black cat, a couple wearing identical eyeglasses, no vehicular traffic on this particular block except for an occasional motor scooter, younger couples hold hands, two women study the same map I've been trying to fathom. I see people who remind me of people I know. Highly unlikely I'd know anyone, not in Greece, not in Turkey. There'll be familiar faces, none will recognize me.
Just when I thought I'd conquered jet lag, it may have conquered me. Not Adolph, who's snoring fitfully. Whoops, he's up too. This Plaka area has lost some of its charm. At night it's a magnet for everyone in Athens who doesn't speak Greek and those who cater to them, shop after shop selling Greek-looking objects, outdoor cafe after outdoor cafe with Greek-tasting food. And now I'm in bed and feel as if I'm in the middle of a drinking party on the tower of Babel. Haunting Greek music fills the street, a record to be sure, but live voices sing along with it, and someone must have been dancing, for everyone claps, then sings, then claps. I don't go to the balcony, merely remain here listening to the moment.
Those rains that saturated our footwear and jeans were unusual, I'm told; in fact the train to Thessaloniki is flooded out, and more rain is expected. I think we'll take the bus north, towards Thessaloniki, and get off if we see a village that appeals to us.
Later. Again I fell back to sleep. That's two nights in a row I've had sufficient sleep, possibly the first time in years.
We found out why the taxis won't take us. We're supposed to indicate to the driver the direction we're going, and if he wants to go in that direction or if his other fares are headed that way, maybe he'll pick us up. Someone helped us get a taxi today. We wanted to go to the station for Thessaloniki buses. At first the driver refused, suddenly changed his mind, drove us through unfamiliar sections of Athens, gave us our only glimpse of the Parthenon, wove through a market of machine-made oriental carpets and gypsy vendors, and deposited us at a bus station. We went to a window, asked for tickets to Thessaloniki, and discovered we were at the wrong station. "The drivers do that all the time, on purpose," said the ticket-seller, who had lived in the States for awhile.
"Why don't we just go to wherever these buses go," said Adolph. So we're on our way north to Kalambaka and Meteora, thus far on a divided six-lane highway through construction, factories, and quarries, sky smoggy grey. Aluminum Systems, Biomechanics, my big accomplishment for this morning was learning the Greek alphabet so I can now read the signs. Piles of dirt, of rocks, groves of olive trees, distant mountains, more factories. Marmara, I wonder if that means marble. Crops every now and then, what settles on them from the foreboding sky? More than mere rain. Earth red, now the mountains, solid rock with bushes pushing through the crannies, no wonder they were sculptors, no wonder their culture endured, though it's no longer enduring as it should. A town on the left-hand hillside, clothes trying to dry in a drizzle. I've learned the alphabet in part by osmosis. Osmosis is a Greek word, so is alpha-bet, beta, barren, land good for goats, all we've seen are sheep, grazing like extra rocks at the hillsides' feet, green green scrub now, colors intensified by wetness. Nothing grows very tall except the electric poles. We're higher than I thought, rocking round the rocks. Being in a foreign country is an osmotic experience, learn by being, now we're down to two lanes, big improvement, gigantic cabbages, mounds of material waiting to be churned into cement, little boy constantly kicking my seat as he sings a Greek ditty behind me. Marblefonia, Marmara. When I'm here, I can't worry about home, that's the good part. The bad part is that I'm NOT home.
Later. And home certainly sounds nice at the moment as Adolph shivers under two woolen blankets in an unheated hotel in Kalambaka.
"Just as the Pindus range begins to form, one comes upon a unique phenomenon of nature: twenty-four perpendicular rocks on which about six hundred years ago Byzantine monks...built Meteora, their monastic community. How the monasteries were built on the top of these virtually inaccessible rocks...." Frankly, I can't even imagine going up there, to say nothing of building a monastery, when I gaze at those spectacular rocks that tower over this third-class hotel. Of course Adolph is feeling so chilled at the moment I suspect he's ready to take the bus back to Athens.
He took a bath before going to bed, only his lower half, but that was one half too many. I'm so cold, I won't even get out of my clothes, and I'm wearing several layers. He swallowed two aspirin, two vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene, in addition to a supper of four lamb chops with accouterments.
I just gave him a massage. He definitely has a high fever, is now freezing under three blankets. I'll bet it was that rainstorm two nights ago. Today we rode through flooded cotton fields. Our shoes haven't yet dried. We did bring spares. Damn, a cat is howling. Adolph is finally asleep.
Adolph had a miserable night. We have no thermometer, which is probably just as well, or we'd have panicked. Actually he did panic when he looked at his ankle. He's had a series of mysterious infections there, and now it's getting red and swollen again. He has antibiotics along, just in case.
So those breath-taking rock formations will not be surmounted by us.
Without breakfast we walked to the station and immediately got a bus to Trikala, where I tried to buy tickets for Thessaloniki. All the buses were full until five. I kept telling the clerk that my husband was sick and we had to leave sooner than that. It wasn't even noon yet. Finally he said to buy tickets for Larissa instead, and I did.
The bus was ready to leave, so still with no food, we boarded and are now passing flooded farmland, now barren mountains. Adolph's ankle is worse, and he's very upset. If he's not better quickly, we'll go right to Israel. In any event, I doubt that Turkey is in our future. No matter how much I try to pre-imagine reality, I never succeed, especially on a trip.
The bus station in Larissa was very small, and I soon found out why. The only buses there went back to Trikala.
I kept my cool long enough to discover that there was a train to Thessaloniki, we got a taxi to the train station, the train was waiting, and we boarded, without tickets, without food, without water, and almost out of drachma. It's afternoon, we still haven't eaten today. Everyone else on the train is picnicking.
When we arrived late in the day, several of us waited at the station's taxi stand, and no taxis came. Though Adolph could barely walk, we left the station. Taxis still refused to stop. Finally I shouted to a driver, "Mitropoleos," the name of the street the Hotel Tourist is on. That was the magic word. Perhaps he hadn't realized Adolph was with me, for after that he picked up only attractive young women with whom he chatted intensely.
At 4 PM we ate the best moussaka either of us had ever tasted.
"Nine people died from flash floods after torrential rains swept through Athens and environs causing millions of dollars of damage..." International Herald Tribune. And several cars floated away, ending up in a cesspool. I guess we got off easy. Three and a half days later, my tennis shoes are almost dry, Adolph's shoes still damp, his sickness considerably better, and Turkey definitely not on our itinerary.
And three and a half days later the sun is miraculously shining, we got a good night's sleep, and perhaps this trip can begin to take on the texture I seek out when traveling. Up to now I've felt dumped into a pot of tourists and of Greeks who live off tourists. We've seen the Archaeological Museum with its incredible art of the past, ancient ruins, spectacular landscapes, garbage-filled landscapes, yet I don't feel I've had the flavor of Greece. In the train yesterday the women across the aisle wanted to converse, and I didn't even have a phrase book. It was the first time it really made a difference. I like Thessaloniki a lot more than Athens, people friendlier, streets more intimate, expansive waterfront, but it's still a big city. I'm still looking in from the outside, and the process doesn't satisfy me. We spent a long time chatting with a travel agent today, a lovely young woman who makes reservations to send people all over the world and never gets to go anywhere herself, three years without a vacation. The farthest she's been is to Athens.
We looked up our one connection in Greece, a friend of a friend in Milwaukee. He invited us to his apartment for coffee at six tomorrow. So maybe we'll actually have a conversation with a Greek in Greece!
Since Adolph's infection is nothing to play around with, the next day we'll fly directly from here to Israel. Although he feels better, his leg is red and swollen. If he hadn't brought antibiotics, we'd probably be in trouble.
I haven't seen a single No Smoking sign in Greece. People smoke everywhere. And as I sit here in the Hotel Tourist's salon, a man (who is smoking) calls across the room to find out if I'm American.
Are you from here? I ask, which seems like a stupid question since if he were from here, he wouldn't be staying at a hotel.
No, I'm from the north.
I'm here on business.
But I live in Athens.
What does this "ahah" mean?
Actually I hadn't even realized I was saying ahah. It was just a sound to let him know I was listening. I tell him it means, That's interesting.
But it's not interesting, he says.
Well, it's interesting to me, I reply. And I guess it is, since I'm not meeting many Greeks who don't clerk at hotels, wait on tables, change money, or run travel agencies.
I ask, What business are you in?
Ladies' handbags, evening handbags.
I try hard not to say ahah.
So I did have a conversation with a Greek, except it's not a conversation, it's a tirade, and he's not merely a Greek, he's a Macedonian, incensed that the United States did nothing when Tito called one of the Yugoslav states Macedonia although this, here, where we are, is Macedonia. And if Scopia tries to take over Macedonia, it could be the start of the Third World War. Even he at age sixty three would fight if called. Peter the Great wanted Macedonia, to have a route to warm water, and that's still the case with the countries to the north, especially Germany. The United States claims to have five hundred soldiers in Scopia, they really have five thousand, or fifty thousand. He once loved all Americans, and now he hates all Americans. I told him I'm not responsible for what my country does. He told me I am.
I don't know what he expected from me, to change our policy in Macedonia? I would change almost every aspect of every policy of every government if that power were mine, so there'd be no wars, poverty, nor ecological disaster.
When, as an outsider, I look at Greece, I see an incredible culture carved into stone left over from two thousand years ago, and I can't imagine what, if anything, today's culture will have left for civilization two thousand years further down the road.
The woman at the next table is a chain smoker, and cars barrel along less than fifteen feet away. Those are the only things wrong with sitting here in the sunshine at an outdoor cafe on the waterfront. Galleys of oarsmen row past, ships rest at anchor, couples of all ages shuffle on both sides of the street, no one rushing. It's Saint Demetrius Day, a drinking holiday in Salonika, the old name for Thessaloniki. Old names tend to be used around here. Istanbul is still Constantinople.
The water in the Thermaic Gulf is streaked, sparkling, textured by the breeze which flutters my freshly-shampooed hair. "Okheemos portokaleeoo freskos," I'm rehearsing so I can request fresh orange juice. I finally bought a phrase book, now that we're leaving Greece. We chat with a young Australian who teaches physical education here, very relaxed, I'd be willing to stay in Greece longer and experience the culture in some other way. This is the first time we've spent two nights at the same hotel.
Do birds ever die in the crooks of trees and remain there till a strong wind or disintegration sends them to the ground? There's a grey bird that hasn't flicked a wing in the past ten minutes. The branch sways, and the bird feels as if it's carved in stone two stories up, outside the salon window. This 1940's salon, with oriental carpets, chandeliers, high, molded ceilings, yellowing walls, lace cloth on the table, sofas, chairs, and unfortunately a TV, is amazing to find in a cheap hotel, a pendulum clock, framed reproductions, coffee tables, artificial flowers, quiet at the moment, free of couch potatoes, only me, a chair potato, and my spiral pad. I'm not much of a museum person. I like to see things in context, to gaze upward at the Parthenon atop the hill or gasp at the crags of Meteora crowned by monasteries. It would be amazing to go to an ancient graveyard and see the stelae from 460 BC as they were. The rhythm and delicacy of the carving would have much more dimension than they have enclosed in institutional settings. I get just as excited when I can read signs written in an alien alphabet or say a few strange words and see that the other person, delighted, understands me.
My first observation about Greeks was that they seemed very annoyed that we couldn't speak the language and didn't want anything to do with us. Once I learned the alphabet and tried a few words, people's tone changed. A woman in the train heard me trying to count in Greek and immediately helped me with my pronunciation. The first glimpse of Greek letters is intimidating. There's a reason for the expression about things looking like Greek. But if I'm willing to reach part way, the Greeks reach in response. Or perhaps it's simply that people in Thessaloniki are friendlier than in Athens.
That bird flew away.
We just got back from a terrific walk. I wish we could stay a few more days, but we're concerned about Adolph's leg, though it's much better. We walked through a park filled with families, and if we stayed, I'd sit there and draw, couples, old men, children playing. Near the park was the ruins of an ancient Roman agora and theater, further on were crowds swarming into Agios Demetrios to be blessed by and leave notes for today's honored saint. We climbed higher and higher through the maze of narrow cobblestone streets, menaced now and then by a motor scooter or by a car too wide to comfortably fit. This was the old city, wonderful view of the rest of Thessaloniki and the gleaming water of the Gulf. I'd love to walk there again, explore still further up, watch the life in the streets, the woman hanging laundry on her balcony, the old ladies walking arm in arm, the strange woman on the hilltop. I first saw her in the distance holding a cat in her arms and stroking it as if it were a baby. A few minutes later I saw her again, walking towards us, carrying several plastic bags and followed by a cat, no two, three, four, and I imagined her living in a filthy apartment with hundreds of cats. She came to a vacant lot filled with garbage and emptied two bags. They each contained a blanket. She partially unfolded the blankets, made a bed for the cats, and called them. They were slinking towards her as Adolph disappeared around a curve, expecting me to follow.
I'm feeling a little depressed. We had our most delightful evening in Greece, and it's also our last evening. We hit it off instantly with Aris and Mary, covered the world in three hours, art, history, contemporary life and the issues people must deal with, like being yourself in a world that's speeding away in a technological revolution. I question what I want from a trip, then one evening provides the answer, leaves me with a sense of overlap.
Travel tends to make me question. Exploring the quiet hilltop streets, I wonder why I'm so intrigued. After all, they're merely more streets to wander through, though more picturesque than most. Maybe it's a sense of mystery, of things to find out that I didn't know before about how others live their lives.
That sure was a quick trip to Greece. Although Thessaloniki is a big city with way too much traffic, we felt comfortable there, felt at home on the waterfront, in the parks, with the people. I enjoyed speaking my little bit of Greek...Rock solid mountains below as I look down on the landscape between Thessaloniki and Athens.
"I only stepped in it with my foot," I just said to 8-year-old Jesse, one of Don and Rachel's sons. We're in Raanana now, outside of Tel Aviv. "You could step into it with your hands." He's a born gymnast who does cartwheels, flips, and handstands non-stop, on cement and stone and marble, in the grass where dogs play. I was referring to last night and our unusually eventful after-dinner walk. First we came upon an unattached black dog, large, who growled at us for no discernible reason, and I'm sure we all had images of mouth-sized holes in various parts of our bodies. Then we came upon a dead cat lying in the gutter, fascinating to Jesse and Amit, 6 years old, who are trying to deal with the deaths of their grandfathers. After that the brightest shooting star I ever saw shot across the sky. And finally, just a half block from the house, I stepped, wearing sandals, into dogshit.
I hadn't thought much about Israel apart perhaps from its relationship with the Arabs, with the United States, with South Africa, hadn't thought much about coming here nor how I'd feel about it. Adolph wanted to come, so we came.
At Ben Gurion Airport we showed our passports, picked up our luggage, followed a corridor, and ended up at the taxi stand within minutes of arriving. Rachel had said to take a taxi if we saw no familiar faces waiting for us. I thought we should call them, Adolph thought we should leave, a taxi was easier to find than a phone, so we left. And while Rachel and Don looked for us at the airport, we spent a wonderful evening talking with ten-year-old Ben and thirteen-year-old Avsha, whom I hadn't seen in almost six years. Avsha's a musician; Ben's very interested in science. Both have such lively, curious minds that I felt as if we were speaking with adults.
When we got off the plane and boarded the shuttle bus to the terminal, the sound system was broadcasting Rabin's address to the Knesset, which didn't seem like the usual entertainment for an airport bus. I wondered if we'd landed in time for the next crisis. In the taxi from the airport to Raanana, the driver was listening to Clinton addressing the Knesset at that very moment.
I had no idea how popular Clinton is in Israel. His visit is a major event. And I had no idea of the emotional tenor of the country. In fact, I had no idea how much I personally would enjoy being here. Part of it is that Rachel and Don and their four sons are a unique family, brilliant, energized, caring, thoughtful. Part of it is that being Jewish, though perhaps not much of a Jew, I'm seldom a member of the majority. And there's something else, too: this place is really interesting. Rachel feels the same way. She's living here two years now, and this country surprises her every day. It may be reminiscent of Miami Beach, its vegetation, its buildings, accents overheard, but Miami Beach it isn't.
It's a small country, smaller than Rhode Island, and whatever happens affects the whole population. That's why newscasts are so omnipresent.
According to Rachel, it's a country of buttinskis, with all the positive and negative aspects of butting in. Of course I can't make generalizations after one day here, can merely describe yesterday, a Friday.
Adolph and I decided to take the bus to Tel Aviv and wander around the marketplace. I asked the driver to tell us when we got to Nachelat Benyamin. As we rode through downtown Tel Aviv, I couldn't help thinking that somewhere nearby less than two weeks ago, on a bus just like the one we were on, a man was sitting with a big bag in his lap, and he blew up himself and almost seventy others, couldn't help looking to see what all the other passengers had in their laps. I wondered if anyone else was thinking similar sobering thoughts. I wasn't filled with fear, the odds were small that this bus would be the next bus. The attack, however, certainly took on a new reality.
Now that I just learned the Greek alphabet, am I going to have to learn the Hebrew? Many people here speak English, but again I can't read the signs.
Since Rachel warned us that bus drivers often don't want to be bothered, I also asked the old man across from me to let us know when to get off. A woman behind us immediately checked with him in Hebrew and promised that she, too, would tell us. The old man was a Finnish Jew living here ten years. In fact almost everyone we met yesterday was from somewhere else, Morocco, Hungary, Yemen.
Our bus ride to Tel Aviv took longer than expected and we got off with three immediate objectives: we wanted to buy the International Herald Tribune, eat at a cafe, and use a rest room. We found a newsstand, bought a paper, and asked the owner about places to eat. He suggested the Moganda, a Yemenite restaurant. Go straight ahead, turn left, and you'll see it, he told us. We followed instructions, but we didn't see it; instead we saw a dug-up road and bulldozer. We persevered, mainly because Yemenite sounded interesting, and found the restaurant without getting hit by the bulldozer. It was closed. The owners suggested the Zion Restaurant a couple of blocks further on. That looked sterile, and not a soul was eating in it. Strange that they'd sent us there when right across the street was a thriving hole-in-the-wall one-dish Yemenite restaurant that appealed to both of us. I guess it was too popular. There was no place to sit down and no food left. We asked if there was anything similar in the neighborhood. "Yes, go straight ahead, then to the left, then to the left again," said someone.
That's how we ended up where we ended up, at another hole-in-the-wall Yemenite restaurant that served the same one dish, fava beans mixed with hummus and hard-boiled egg, which we scooped into our mouths with pita bread; tomato wedges, onion slices, and hot peppers were served on the side. We shared a table with a slim, dark-skinned, rather beautiful, rather stylish middle-aged woman named Maggi, whose parents came here from Yemen sixty years ago. After lunch she invited us for coffee at the apartment hotel she manages. So we went. We sat on the soft dark couches in the lobby and chatted with Maggi's partner, Lea, who, to our surprise, had heard of Milwaukee. I don't know if this was your generation, she said, but do you remember CARE packages during World War II? There was a whole chicken in a can in those packages, and those chickens came from Milwaukee.
I couldn't imagine how she'd picked up that obscure bit of information; I soon found out. Ninety years ago in Russia, her mother's father had a brother who was accused of stealing icons from a church. The family smuggled him out of the country in a coffin, and he ended up in Milwaukee, where he started a chicken farm.
Her mother moved to Israel from Russia when she was eighteen, just before World War II. She tried to get the rest of the family to come, they felt safe where they were, and eventually they were all wiped out. Her mother thought she was the only survivor until, through a twisted route, the Milwaukee family found her.
Her mother last wrote to the Milwaukee descendants in 1953, and she never heard from them again. The name was Zaretsky. Lea couldn't remember at first the name of the man her mother's cousin had married. Then it came to her, "Coopersmith, that's what it was."
"Coopersmith!" exclaimed Adolph, "I had a student named Craig Coopersmith in the sixties."
Lea wrote down all relevant names. When we return we'll see if Adolph knows a member of her missing family, and if not, I'll try to locate them. That would be surreal, wouldn't it, if we met a woman in a tiny Yemenite restaurant on our first day in Israel and it turns out Adolph knows her business partner's family in Milwaukee, missing from her life for forty-one years.
The day continued as it started, everyone friendly and helpful, coincidence and luck on our side. We even got the same bus driver on our return trip to Raanana.
"Zaretsky, Zaretsky," I said to Adolph, "That name sounds familiar."
"Maybe that lawyer?"
"That's Zubrensky." Then I figured it out. To go to Don and Rachel's, we get off the bus at Ravutski. Ravutski, Zaretsky, that's close enough.
"Hope to see you again," said the driver when we got out.
Funny, I wasn't looking forward to this trip, felt I've done enough traveling to last me awhile, and now suddenly there's too much to do and too little time. I'd even be happy just to sit in the Tel Aviv marketplace and draw or write about what's going on around me.
Everything, and I mean everything, was closed for the Sabbath in Raanana, not even a place for a breakfast coffee. Lots of people were out on the street this morning, most of them walking to synagogue.
We spent the day relaxing with their sons while Rachel and Don went to a wake. One of Raffi's cousins was killed in a head-on collision two days before we arrived. When we first got here, Rachel warned us about the driving. She said never to jaywalk, that even the Israelis follow pedestrian rules, about the only laws they follow. Drivers are extremely aggressive; they won't stop, they'll run you down. The number of accidents is appalling; everyone's talking about it.
At the moment Adolph and I are seated at an outdoor cafe overlooking the coastline and some unidentified (by us) ruins in the old port of Jaffa. The breeze won't allow us to wear our straw hats, Adolph wants me to look down on a pigeon on the top of a tree, I want only to write.
Our conversations with Rachel are providing me with an information overload on Israel, and I wish I had time to put it all down. She's someone who's endlessly fascinated by human behavior, and not judgmental, instead looks for the why's.
As we waited for the bus on our way to Jaffa, I was sitting next to a French-Canadian woman dressed rather eccentrically, long dress, long beads, embroidered fanny pack, head scarf. I slid towards her to make room for an Orthodox couple, and the French-Canadian said not to bother, they wouldn't sit with us, they're too religious, she herself is religious but not fanatic. And she made a face. Rachel says that people tend to forget that this religion is three thousand years old. Instead of being contemptuous of the customs, she looks for the roots. If you found the superstitions of religious Judaism in an African tribe, you'd consider the traditions intriguing.
Yes, but the Jews are living right in the middle of twentieth century culture, I put in.
In many places they're not really, she told me. In Jerusalem the more fanatical Jews have walled themselves in, live in isolated enclaves. When they walk in the outside world, they don't look straight ahead nor side-to-side but towards the ground. There's a special kibbutz for young people who want to escape from the religious community. The location is kept secret, like safe houses for battered women.
Rachel, American, married to an Israeli, provides us with the point of view of a highly observant immigrant and certainly affects my perception of Israel.
This is a tiny country, extremely diverse in roots, everyone from somewhere else, yet very close, community-oriented, a collective society in some ways, and not by accident, but by forethought, for survival. Rachel said that teachers are not so concerned with the individual needs of their students, in fact often don't want to hear about them, but rather are concerned about how the child fits into the group. If a child has a birthday party, everyone in the class is invited, no decisions necessary. And this cohesiveness lasts. Many of Rachel and Don's friends here are the people he went to grammar school with.
An Israeli woman told me that when she was growing up, it made no difference where you went to school, Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, everyone had the same curriculum, the same projects. Tel Aviv now has a few specialty elementary schools, one for science, one for the arts, and a "democracy" school, anyway, that's how she translated it into English. I think she meant that it's an experimental school in which the children learn and work at their own pace.
Rachel's descriptions often put what I've observed into context. Like the buttinsky aspect, everyone telling everyone else what to do all the time. It drives her crazy. She says they'll take off their clothes to save you, there's a real sense of community when it comes to helping each other. But no matter what you do, everyone, even complete strangers, will find another way you should have done it, you should have parked here, not there, you'll never survive if you drive that way, you should have told me earlier. I see this operating all the time. Last night Adolph and I asked a taxi driver to take us to the bus stop, he said it's only three blocks away, I told him we already knew, and we wanted a ride anyway. He still didn't want to take us. "It's so close, you could walk there. What do you need me for?" We insisted, and he said, "It'll cost you six sheckels (two dollars), and you could walk." When I explained that my husband has problems with his feet, he finally took us. The 79-year-old woman I was talking to for almost an hour on the bus yesterday grabbed my arm and made me sit back down when I got up before the bus came to a complete stop. She told me there'd be plenty of time to get off, not to worry. Adolph asked a young Israeli woman sitting next to us at a cafe how you say shorts in Hebrew. It's damned hot, and whenever he tries to buy shorts, clerks show him bathing suits or underwear. The woman didn't merely tell him, she wrote down both shorts and Bermudas in Hebrew on a napkin and suggested he go to the bazaar around the corner, it's cheaper there. If people overhear us ask where to get off the bus, they make sure they let us know when we get there. So nooo? It's certainly easy to meet people in this place, as many as we have the patience to listen to.
The problems Israelis have in their social impact on non-Israelis, this reputation for being rude and pushy, come not only from the culture, but also from the language. If you say to someone, "You have a new dress," they'll respond, "Of course," which sounds arrogant or nasty in English. In Hebrew, says Rachel, it sounds fine.
I was speaking with a woman yesterday who's a lawyer for the Israeli equivalent of the ACLU. Right now she's helping to defend the family of the man responsible for the suicide bombing in the Tel Aviv bus. The Israeli army wants to demolish their house. She said that intellectually she had no problem defending them, after all, they aren't the terrorists; emotionally it's another story. Afterwards I said, "Boy, she has a fascinating job," and Rachel replied, "Not fascinating, hard, very hard, this is such an emotional country. Take a normal country and multiply the emotions by twenty thousand." If that's it, I'd say she has a dangerous job.
Ron's wife Sarah taught Hebrew to Ethiopian Jews when they first came here, right out of Africa and a tribal culture. "They all wanted to be like us. I think we ruined them," she told me.
"The Israeli houses are made out of marble and tiles, there isn't much wood here," Rachel is saying, "and they all echo. I'm looking for another carpet to absorb some sound." It would also be good for absorbing impact in this high action household. I hold my breath as Jesse cartwheels down some steps.
Adolph says we'll arrive in forty-five minutes, I say hah. We're in the number 47 bus from Tel Aviv to Raanana, and the ride's almost always an hour, then a fifteen-minute walk. A woman's upset. The back door didn't open. She runs to the front of the bus. It's damned hot, unseasonable, my clothes stick, I can smell everyone's deodorants. People tend to sleep on this ride, half the busload yesterday. I'm too tired to offer my seat to someone older than I am. Actually everyone looks younger, though equally exhausted, plenty standing up, everyone well-dressed, not stylish, just clean, given that it's after four and hot. Well, it's the suburbs we going to after visiting the Tel Aviv Art Museum. This country is amazingly art-oriented, contemporary sculptures all over the place. It sounds as if a woman is crying, loudly, or maybe she's laughing, the bus motor is loud, the radio is loud. Drivers always have the radio on, newscasts, music, talk shows, interviews, all in Hebrew, now some foul smells, sweat, maybe even my own sweat, road construction, Israeli highways struggle to keep up with burgeoning car ownership. Ah, it was laughing, not crying, I can see her now.
"May I ask, vare are you from?" I overhear someone saying, not to me. So many people here speak English, I haven't even tried Hebrew. Of course I don't know many words beyond shalom to try. An old lady offers a younger woman her seat. She refuses. Two men are wearing yarmulkes. Most of the passengers are women, only one with a kerchief knotted at the back of her head orthodox-style. Here's a park with seven or eight sculptures. Even dumpsters have paintings on them, as do water tanks and fences. Here's a housing project, nondescript whitish apartment buildings, clothes-lines across many of the windows. The bus driver announces something on the loudspeaker. "What's he saying?" I overhear someone ask. "He's speaking to the people with their feet on the seats," someone answers.
It turned dark early and quickly last night, and the wind picked up so much I asked Rachel if there are tornado warnings around here. She said no. I should have asked about flood warnings, for this morning we learned that some people were killed in flash floods in southern Israel (we're near the middle) and over four hundred died in Egypt.
Right now Adolph and I are sitting in a cafe. The sky became dark, the rain pounded pavement, a chair skittered about forty feet. We grabbed our possessions and ran inside, and now, ten minutes later, relative calm has returned, though we'll have to wade if we get up the nerve to leave. Adolph is on the last day of antibiotics, and neither of us needs a fresh dose of wet feet. When we called home a few days ago, the first question from everyone was whether or not we were caught in the floods in Athens. They probably knew more about it than we did. That can happen when you're unable to read the language of the local newspapers.
Adolph has been sculpting Rachel and Don's children and needs to find someone to fire the pieces. This morning we visited a ceramist living nearby. The front gate was unlocked, house doors open, no one home but a barking dog. We wandered around, peeked into the windows, called out, and suddenly a large woman came through the gate, eyes narrowed, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" We explained that we needed a kiln, and her eyes remained narrow. So we showed her photographs of some of Adolph's finished sculptures. "These are good, very good," she said, and her attitude instantly changed. She brought us inside, showed us her kiln, and looked up the address of another sculptress when we explained that her kiln would be too small.
The sculptress with the larger kiln looked at Adolph's photos and started to lecture him, he shouldn't paint his sculpture, he loses the subtleties, it's not necessary, you Americans use too much color, on and on, no qualms about telling a mature artist how to sculpt. It's the aggravating side of buttinsky.
The schools fit this pattern, says Rachel, lots of instructions and memorization, rather than teaching children to think for themselves; their opinions are not respected. Sounds like China.
Adolph's distant cousin through marriage, Penina, invited us to dinner, so we're on the bus to Ramat Gan. "There's something unnerving about all these automatic weapons," I just said to Adolph as we watch a soldier get on the bus with one strapped to his back.
"There certainly is," he replies.
I stare while the soldier searches for his ticket. I'm thinking that he's supposed to protect us, though he couldn't do much against a suicide terrorist's bomb. And then I'm thinking that maybe it's the soldier himself who's the threat, maybe he resents my gaze at that awkward moment of going through one wallet and then another. I wonder what would happen if he doesn't find the ticket, whether the driver will make him get off. One thing I know, I shouldn't let my fascination show so plainly.
Penina, a charming, vivacious widow in her seventies, had spent the day cooking, two kinds of fish, chicken, noodle casserole, potato casserole, two salads, peas, baked apples and pears, and two cakes. When there's only three people, the conversation has a more intimate character, and although we'd met her before, in Milwaukee, we now for the first time learned something of her life. A Polish Jew, she lived out World War II in Siberia and then worked her way towards Israel. Two years and several languages later, she arrived. I'm impressed by the journey so many of the people have made to get here, all those trails of travail that meet in Israel and unfortunately created more travail.
"I'm Jewish, but I'm not religious," commented our taxi driver on the way back from Ramat Gan.
"Same here," I said. "Where are you from?"
"I'll bet you're glad you're here."
"If I'm not here, I'm dead."
"How do you feel about the peace process?" Adolph asked him. "Do you think it will succeed?"
"It will take a lot of time, but we have to do it. In war, the winners don't win. If we don't make peace now, we'll have to make it in ten years or twenty years or more, and what will we win? We'll lose more boys, that's all. I have two boys in the army. I don't want someone to kill them, and I don't want them to kill someone."
At first I though it was a siren last night. Then I realized it was a cat howling, no, two cats. I lay there and listened for about two hours instead of getting up and looking for my earplugs, which probably wouldn't have worked against that decibel level. So now I'm in my sleepless mode unfortunately.
Our Israeli visit has been very leisurely. We got here eight days ago and haven't left the Raanana-Tel Aviv circuit, have sat around talking, relaxed in cafes, wandered city streets, have spent an inordinate amount of time in buses, limped through museums, and Adolph has done four sculptures. We like the place and the people, are getting to know the pace, here we are back to Friday again when everything closes early and stays that way for twenty-four hours. Then Sunday becomes the equivalent of Monday, which doesn't sound particularly confusing, but is when you live it, when Monday feels like Tuesday and Tuesday like Wednesday.
We're staying with Avraham's family in Tel Aviv for a couple of days. Last month there was a major fire in the office where Avraham's wife, Ada, works. Two of her colleagues died; and Ada was in intensive care for a week, suffering from smoke inhalation; her lungs are now like those of someone who smoked for five years. We watched a videotape of a newscast that showed her being rescued. First only her arm was visible through clouds of smoke billowing out of a fourth-floor window. Then there she was, making her way slowly down the ladder.
At the moment we're in the car, going to Jerusalem. Avraham has a meeting of the Finance Committee at the Knesset this afternoon, but will show us around this morning. Avraham's party, though tiny, is part of the ruling coalition. It's grey out, countryside hilly and pine-forested.
"So you're pretty happy with Rabin?" I ask.
"Oh, yes, we have the peace process going, treaty with Jordan, treaty with the Palestinians, we have a lot of opposition, extremists on both sides..."
Adolph finished his antibiotics two days ago, and last night he felt as if he was coming down with something, which got me worried. This morning he accidentally cut his toe, exactly what he's supposed to avoid doing...
"This is an Arab village on both sides," Avraham is saying. I'm in the back seat with his son Michael, Adolph and Avraham in front, spectacular hills of rock now, textured like Grand Canyon. A red car sideswipes us. Avraham said about fifty people a year are killed in terrorist attacks, five hundred in car accidents, so the bigger risk is driving with him. People get big fines for not wearing seat belts. Avraham has a car phone with a loudspeaker so he can get work done during his commute. In fact, he's rarely away from his phone. At Sabbath dinner yesterday, Avraham was interviewed by phone about some religious Jews who had placed a portrait on the grave of the man who murdered several Arabs in a mosque a few months ago. "See, my father's working even now," Michael had said.
The news is on, telling about traffic jams, closed roads...
"It says here, Welcome to Jerusalem...," says Michael.
White city on the hills below and in front, incredible sight, even on a grey day. We're inhaling enough fumes to put us to sleep at 9 AM, and we're barely moving. "The press conference with Bill Clinton was right over there last week..." If Clinton were as popular at home as he is in Israel, we'd have a national health insurance plan. They do in Israel. People pay according to their income, it's a kind of income tax. "Now we're bordering on the very religious section. We'll go there later...," says Avraham. We're about to drop Michael off at the university. He just finished three years in the army and now is studying communications, which isn't taught at Tel Aviv University. The buildings here are constructed with large, white stone blocks. Men in long black coats, black hats, beards...We're still traveling at a crawl. It seems as if almost every road is being widened... We're passing Hebrew University, you need a special permit to enter.
"Generally I don't like to go into the Arab part of the city, not that I have anything against the Arabs, but sometimes they'll take it into their heads to stone Israeli cars, and I don't want to take the risk..."
We get out of the car to see the view from Mount Scopus, I hear a woman's voice exclaim "Suzanne!", turn around, and she's standing there with open arms, waiting to embrace me. It's Frances Sherwood, who was writer-in-residence in Milwaukee for a year. She's been here for a week working on a book and likes Israel so much she'd almost like to emigrate, people are so open to conversations.
"Actually this road divides East and West, this side Jewish, this side Arabic..." We get out at all the scenic lookouts to see the view. From the last one we could see the desert, the West Bank, and the Dead Sea... I notice someone with a rifle strapped to his back. "He doesn't look like a soldier to me," I comment.
"He must be a settler, they can carry weapons."
"Here are the walls to the Old City..." I expected this city to be beautiful, wasn't expecting the whiteness of the stone nor the creativity of the architecture.
I'm sitting watching all the women on the women's side of the Wailing Wall, many leaning their heads into it, many rocking back and forth as they read from prayer books, some kissing it. A woman is begging. The lower five and a half feet of the wall is discolored by sweat from millions of brows and hands. Notes on bits of paper are jammed into every little crevice and have fallen all over the ground. That beggar woman pesters everyone. There's a steady murmur of sound from the prayers. No one is wailing.
Adolph said his ankle is starting to feel hot. That's how his infections start. We tried not to walk, difficult when we're wandering around in the Old City of Jerusalem and looking at a major Pissarro show at the Art Museum.
Right now we're in the car on our way back to Tel Aviv with Avraham and the chairman of the Finance Committee, a Labor Party MK...call after conference phone call taking place, in Hebrew, among the two MK's and mysterious third parties. They're running the country, and we have no idea what's going on. Of course if we did speak Hebrew, they surely wouldn't feel so free to say whatever they're saying.
Michael said his father was voted the most liked MK by the Knesset press corps. He is also the MK who gets the most legislation passed. I asked Avraham a couple of times what kinds of bills he'd introduced, and he always sidetracked me. Finally I asked Ada. There's an animal protection act to protect animals from unnecessary experiments and pain. There's an act to lower the rates on high interest mortgages when interest rates go down, a bill for monitoring the health of prostitutes to help prevent the spread of AIDS.
The Labor MK had supper with us, a warm, friendly, unpretentious man who lives on a Moshav, a cooperative farm, outside of Tel Aviv. After he left, Ada said there are some rare people who are just themselves, you like them immediately, and you'd never suspect the amount of power they wield. I think you could also say that about Avraham, who's too modest to elaborate his accomplishments when asked, and who has spent hours and hours as our tour guide, despite his high pressure job.
I can see the mountains of Lebanon seven miles away and Syria's snow-covered Mount Hermon as I sit near the picture window of Tod and Eilene's living room in their hilltop house in Kfar Vradim. Adolph and I arrived here in the Galilee, both suffering from runny noses, sore throats, and exhaustion. I feel very guilty about coming sick into a house full of children (four sons). No one else seems to mind. Adolph's ankle looks fine now.
Kfar Vradim is a relatively new settlement of five hundred families, very secular, many stores open on Saturday.
The work and school schedule in this country is quite different from back home. Children go to school from 8 to 1:30, 2:30 for older children, 6 days a week, no weekend rest, just Saturday...Right now Adolph is doing a sculpture of Tod and Eilene's pet, Nuli, a cross between a dog and a hyena, anyway, Tod claims that's what she is. There are foxes, jackals, hyenas, scorpions, snakes, deer, giant centipedes around here, it's a hyena Nuli resembles, grey body blotched black, large, almost rabbit like ears, skinny snout...The main meal's in the middle of the day when the kids come home, and a light meal at night. Eilene said that many children go to school without breakfast. Everyone brings a sandwich which they eat at 10. When they get home so early, they snack all day.
We're both feeling better today, in fact had a fascinating morning though we visited the last thing that would normally interest me, Teffin, an industrial complex. The buildings, low, painted white, tastefully designed, were surrounded by sculpture, gardens of sculpture. There was a museum on the premises; the whole premises was really a museum. The sculpture was contemporary, innovative, selected by someone with a sharp eye.
In addition to art, the complex is composed of incubator factories. Entrepreneurs start out with a very small manufacturing set-up, take seminars on all aspects of running a business, and eventually, if they're successful, move to a larger space.
There are a number of Druse villages in this area. The Druse are a separate religious sect of non-Muslim Arabs, and only those who commit themselves for life know what the religion actually entails. They are friendly to the Jews, often join the Israeli army although Arabs are not required to serve in the military. They are given preference, even over Jews, if they want to go to college, anyway that's what I was told.
One of Tod and Eilene's friends dropped us in a nearby Druse village this morning. We wandered around, trying to get off the main road; every side road ended in someone's driveway. Our pennywalks lead in circles, which made no difference because we were struck each time by how different a street looked when we walked it in the other direction, seeing the opposite side of every building. And the buildings in this middle-class town on a mountainside interested us, architecture often unusual, arches every now and then, people even more interesting, men with white hats, a cross between a fez and a turban, or perhaps a turban wrapped around a fez, and black pants that balloon at the thighs; women with white shawls covering head and face, and long black dresses. No one seemed to speak English, and we couldn't figure out by ourselves whether we were going towards the center or the outskirts of the town. There was a lot of construction, homes being built or expanded and streets widened. Every now and then we came across a tiny grocery store. At each one we bought something different, cold juice, stale pretzels, lifesavers, coffee candies, yogurt. Still no conversations. We finally decided to head back.
Just then an old man with long white beard, white fez-turban, and cane, motioned us into his courtyard and said, among many unintelligible words, Kaffe? We followed him through his front door and into another world, though it was only his living room. Near the door were some wooden chairs and a settee. The rest of the room had long cushions on the floor, covered by brightly-colored throws, small pillows tossed on. The walls were lined at eye level with photographs, groups of old men, of himself, of a sheik, of his grandson.
We quickly confirmed that we had no common language. In silence he wiped off a tiny table, placed it in front of us, then changed his mind and placed it in front of his own chair, put a gas burner on it, lit the burner with a cigarette lighter, and prepared Turkish coffee. Through signs, sound, and mime, we established that our ages are 85, 61, and 57, that he has six children and we have three, that he's Druse and we're American Jews, that we're staying at Kfar Vradim and would walk all the way back there when we leave.
He rummaged through a cabinet, found a pipe, and offered us a smoke, which we refused, and strawberry-flavored candy, which we accepted. His daughter and grandson came home, seemed quite amused at the language problem, and quickly left the room. The old man was more patient, persistently tried to converse in Hebrew. His wife came home and managed to tell us she and he were married; we managed to tell them we are. I'm beginning to think we should get a phrase book, though I do enjoy nonverbal conversations. The wife brought us pumpkin seeds and tangerines. Her pharmacist came in and said hello in English. That was the extent of his vocabulary. He asked for our phone number in Kfar Vradim, stuffed it into his pocket, then left. The wife showed us her medication, her husband showed us his, and I showed them my Sudafed. I searched through my purse for something to talk about. Ah, my drawing pads, too bad there was only one drawing in each. I passed them around, the old man offered to pose, and that's how we solved our communications problem. We drew him, drew her, and drew the two of them together, all of us loving the process. Eventually I saw they were getting tired, and asked if they wanted to nap. They did, and invited us to nap there, too. I somehow got them to understand that I wanted to use their bathroom and then we would leave. They had a western-style flush toilet with a good supply of toilet paper, squares of newspaper, and a pitcher of water.
They ended up with three small drawings by Adolph Rosenblatt which they immediately tried to put up on their walls, we ended up with three drawings by me, and we all ended up with a special morning.
Right now I'm in the middle of chaos, about ten kids ages three and up, the youngest ones running on stone tile floors. I keep expecting something to crack, either heads or nerves. A couple of mothers talk to Eilene in the kitchen. One is Moroccan, the other American. There are lots of American women married to Israeli men, perhaps because so many American women come to Israel to study. Also, suggested Eilene, Israeli men are somewhat macho and perhaps prefer American women to the more aggressive Israelis. One child has a trumpet-shaped music box that plays the same computer-sounding songs over and over again. His mother, American, doesn't stop him, and I have all I can do to stop myself from stopping him. Still, it is nice that the women gather like this before the evening meal.
In the States, most Jews are Eastern European. Here, however, they're from all over the globe, Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Japan, China, South America, all the Arab countries. Judaism has a different face.
Today we visited the home of Norman, although Norman wasn't there. He's a seventy-year-old artist who makes sculpture out of tree limbs and twigs, turns their natural knobbed and twisting forms into monkeys, elephants, dancers, people screwing, hatchets, the backs of chairs. His studio and living room contain a jumble of meaningful branches.
I woke up about an hour ago and heard something that sounds like bombs in the distance. Maybe it's the heating system, I thought, though my heart beat faster. Tod had told me that a ridge of mountains protects this village from the bombs launched in Lebanon. I tried to go back to sleep. Then Adolph awakened and asked, "What's that, thunder?"
I replied, "I think it's bombs." We heard it again. "That doesn't sound like thunder to me," I said.
"Yes," he replied, "No echo."
"Just a thud."
"Maybe it's thud missiles," he said and fell back to sleep.
Tod went on a field trip with his son Oren's class yesterday; two parents who are licensed to carry a gun must go on every trip. He had to go to the police department early in the morning for his weapon, an old World War II rifle.
Later. That was sonic booms we were hearing. If it's really a bomb, within thirty seconds there's a siren and you have to go into the shelter.
I'm in the back seat as Tod takes Adolph and me on a tour of the area. "How would you like a pair of pants like that?" Tod comments as we pass a Druse man, "No one would ever know if you shit in them, and with a keffir like that, you could get a job at McDonald's." A dead fox lies at the side of the highway. There are lots of them, Tod tells us.
"They're pretty intelligent animals, aren't they?" I say.
It's precisely because they're so bright that they get killed. They go onto the road so whatever is following them will lose their scent. At night they get hypnotized by the headlights and freeze...Banana groves, mangos, avocados, figs. Ibises. We're out of the mountains for now, passing grove after grove of mangos as we curve through the Western Galilee. "We had a mango tree and we used to play games, see how fast we could peel the mango and eat it leaving the pit on the branch," says Tod.
Now we're in Nahariya, lots of Ethiopians. "If you ask me what is the most unexpected thing about Israel," says Adolph, "It's the mix of Jews."
"Hear the fighter planes? Many times when they're bombing into Lebanon, they're flying over our heads," Tod tells us. Those are training flights overhead right now.
"This over here is a country within a country. This guy bought land and he's been trying to make it his own country. Thus far he hasn't succeeded." Sounds like a tax evasion scheme to me. Does he want to issue his own passport? Now we're going through a nature preserve, eucalyptus trees imported from Australia, planted because they're fast-growing. They provided shelter from the Syrians who would snipe from the mountains and pick off the cars. We are now on the Lebanese border.
I looked up hyena in the World Book. Nuli's coloring is that of a spotted hyena, but that's it. She's absolutely not hyena, she's just a weird-looking dog. Tod told us the hyena story before we knew him, or we never would have believed him.
We're now back in the car after wandering through tunnels, gazing at grottos, all part of the railway system that once passed from Cairo to Beirut and may once again, if peace comes about. Here's an ancient aqueduct, an Arab village, the largest caravan park for immigrants. Caravan park does not mean camels, but slapdab corrugated tin mobile homes put up as temporary residences. We're on the way to Akko, one of the oldest ports in the world. Highways are very clean in Israel, says Tod, because prisoners are used to clean them up.
Akko or Acre, next trip that's where I'd like to hang out, in this ancient fortress of a city with a mix of Arabs and Jews, signs written in Hebrew and Arabic, marketplace covered and intimate, sparkling Mediterranean port, or perhaps it was merely the day that sparkled.
In a tiny restaurant in the middle of the marketplace, we ate the best hummus in Akko for lunch, whole chick peas mixed into it, TV on, people as always watching the news, "Look, history's being made," said Tod of the peace treaty with Jordan.
"Our first Jewish train," says Adolph, surveying the car, double seats facing each other with a large table in between, like a dining car with no food. We're on our way to Haifa, seven shekels each (three shekels to a dollar). Travel in Israel is very cheap...going through Akko now, train whistle wailing, not the scenic part however, corrugated caravan park, now the coastline, whistle-wail, factories, overheard conversations in Hebrew, which means they're not overheard at all, not by me. I never really thought of Hebrew as a living language, though I knew that's what they speak here. I thought of it as the language of the bible, the torah, the language our son Joshua had to read at his bar mitzvah, didn't think of a whole country speaking it. Of course there's no other country in the world where citizens speak Hebrew, so it's not too useful outside of Israel. That in part is why many people also speak English...It smells as if some foul chemical is burning on the train. We spent yesterday evening with Norman, the tree-limb sculptor, and his wife, Annie, museum curator at Teffin. Norman doesn't consider himself an artist, though his home is filled with his work. He's quiet, speech hesitant; I'm told he's not like that if he disagrees with someone. He's known in the area of Kfar Vradim for the trails he cuts through the forested mountainsides and wadis, through land that isn't his, and, as he recognizes, land that will one day be developed. Still, his main interest seems to be the surrounding land. He loves sleeping outside in the dry river beds. When Adolph sleeps in the woods, he likes to have a dog by his side to scare away any interlopers. Norman won't bring a dog with him for he loves the feel of the wildlife nearby, very nearby, a swooping owl brushing against him in the dark. He loves darkness in the woods, lets his senses of hearing and smell take over. If we weren't in the train, right now we'd be walking along one of his trails with Norman.
Again, when we showed photographs of Adolph's work, the interest was intense. And Annie mentioned the possibility of Adolph doing some work there, then exhibiting it at the museum.
"This is a barefoot Carmelite monastery for women. They live here for a year, and if they decide to stay, they're committing themselves never to leave..." The information is coming fast now, and I'm trying to write and look simultaneously. Libby's son Ron, a professional guide, is driving us through Haifa. Some demonstrators flash by, signs reading, "Don't leave the Golan," "We don't want to lose Hebron, either."
"Those are the people who prefer land to peace," comments Ron. "Luckily they're in the minority right now...There are a lot of reasons to have a flat roof, to preserve water, for sleeping outside when it's hot, for drying clothes or tobacco leaves...The slanting red tile roofs were brought in by the Germans. They serve no purpose whatsoever here. They're made for snow...The Turks sucked the country dry, then left it...The Germans brought in wagons. They started the transportation system."
Okay, so this is why I am where I am, watching Adolph play checkers with a couple of Arab waiters until Ron and Sarah come to pick us up: We arrived in Haifa feeling grubby and exhausted. I'd been afraid to wash my hair till we hit a warmer climate, which Haifa certainly is. Boring, who gives a damn? Except that feeling clean and refreshed gave us the energy to accept Ron's offer to drop us off at Ein Hod, an artists' colony, at four o'clock while he and Sarah went to a wedding dinner planned months ago. When he mentioned, as they left us in the middle of town, that they'd be back in four or five hours, reality hit. What the hell were we going to do here when what we really wanted was to sleep? Ron had said to wander around and look at the art, that the artists' studios were open. If we liked someone's work, we should introduce ourselves.
We went to the Dada Museum, one of the village founders had been part of the Dada movement. The museum was closed. "Uh oh," I commented, since it's Friday, and I'm getting to know the Israeli Sabbath. We wandered down one street, beautiful hillside gardens and homes, no people anywhere, no open galleries. We finally found an extravagant house built on a steep slope, everything lit up, sign indicating ceramic studio within, and we walked down the steps, across an elegant patio with mountain view, and into a room which seemed to be and not to be a gallery. An old woman rested in an easy chair, someone else was eating, I felt as if we'd wandered into the living room, except that no one asked what we were doing there. I politely asked who had made the ceramic surfaced coffee tables, then asked where the other art studios in the village are, mentioning that we had several hours to look around. The woman became agitated, "What in the world are you going to do here? Everything is closed for the Sabbath." She even offered to drive us back to Haifa. If we'd had a key, known the address, and been able to contact Ron and Sarah, we certainly would have gone.
We looked around the village a little more, sculptures in yards, what was in the houses? Had anything been open, this would have been fun. We still had three or four hours to go, and it was already getting dark. We decided we'd better get to the restaurant where we were meeting Ron and Sarah while it was still light enough to find our way. No one there, either, except for a wiry, bearded man sitting on a couch, drinking beer and watching TV. That seemed like the right spot for us, too. Maybe Adolph could nap and I could write. Or maybe the man was friendly.
Yes, he was friendly, a waiter with no customers, hoping at least to meet interesting people until dinnertime, which probably wouldn't start till eleven on a Friday night. He spoke very little English; Spanish was our common language. A Chilean, he came here twenty years ago, about a year after Pinochet took power. He'd been a Communist, and it was too dangerous to remain. He didn't care about politics anymore, had spent several years in a drunken stupor and had been dry, more or less, for the past year. He was a painter and a sun-worshipper, in the religious sense. That happened when the woman he loved left him; the beauty of the sun saved him. We culled from him his history, showed him Adolph's photos, which as usual had a magical effect, met his friends as they came in, and eventually I got Adolph to admit he was glad we'd come to Ein Hod. Another Chilean artist looked at Adolph's photographs. He was so anxious to see the original sculpture that he suggested a curator for Adolph to contact in Tel Aviv. An Arab man, also artist and waiter, sat down and tried to speak with Adolph in broken English. Much of the conversation consisted of him speaking to the second Chilean in Hebrew, the Chilean translating into Spanish to me, and I translating into English so Adolph could finally understand. This seemed to me to epitomize Israel, where any language is an asset, for every language has it's speakers. I'm amazed at how useful my French has been, a language that's hibernated in my head for years.
Ein Hod was originally an Arab village. When the Arabs fled, instead of razing the village, the Israelis made it into an artists' colony. Later on the Arabs built another village with the same name a few miles away, everyone stemming from the same patriarch.
Eventually the Arab artist invited us to stay with his family in Nazareth, a prospect with infinite appeal for me, not so infinite for Adolph. Maybe next trip.
I'd seen the Arab carrying around a chessboard, so I suggested that he and Adolph play. It turned out that it wasn't chess he plays, it's checkers. That's how we learned that Israelis play by different rules. The game became an event, with another waiter masterminding for Adolph's opponent, with me giving hints now and then to Adolph, and with all sorts of input from other onlookers. There were some shaky moments when Adolph fell into traps that wouldn't be traps by American rules. The onlookers insisted their rules were the real rules, and no one cared that Adolph didn't know that a king could move several spaces at a time, so long as it moves in a straight line, and that an uncrowned piece can move in the opposite direction in the middle of a double jump. In fact, I wasn't sure they believed he didn't know. Still, it was so much fun, I never did get a chance to write, except for the one line I scribbled when I first sat down: "Okay, so this is why I am where I am, watching..."
When the long-awaited arrival of Ron and Sarah came about, we were no longer ready to leave. After the games, Ron, Sarah, and Adolph's Arab opponent were discussing something in Hebrew as Adolph and I watched. I'd hardly noticed the ever-present radio newscast being carried over the restaurant sound system. Suddenly Ron, Sarah, the Arab, everyone in the restaurant became silent, expressions sober. Ron turned away, sucked his lips inward, looking as if someone had asked him a difficult question, and he had to think for a while. I remembered some sinister scenes I'd wondered about on the news a little earlier. Maybe war had broken out, just when everyone's so excited about the prospect of peace.
"What happened?" I asked, as soon as I felt it was prudent to interrupt their shock.
"Another terrorist attack. In the Gaza. Three killed."
There are only six million people, all living in a small area, all feeling at risk. How far is the Gaza Strip? Close.
"Every day of terrorism is a day too much," said Ron.
"We drive very wildly here. The psychologists say it's because we have so much stress," says Sarah. The day has barely begun, and I already have seen a powerful anti-war sculpture show less than a block from Ron and Sarah's, and I've had another unexpected meeting. This one happened when Sarah and I walked their dog this morning. We ran into her neighbor, who asked me where I'm from, then said her sister-in-law from Milwaukee was visiting her. The sister-in-law, it turned out, grew up three blocks from our house and went to school with my children.
Ron heads the local office of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the SPNI. At the moment we're on our way to a demonstration Ron organized to try to save the sand dunes in Caesarea.
And now I'm seated atop a 150-foot dune. Hundreds of people showed up, converging from all over Israel, with dogs, babies, bonnets, bottles of water. They're all trudging upwards, mouths slightly open, then clustering in the shade of scrubby eucalyptus trees, the blue Mediterranean below. A little boy somersaults all the way down the dune, I hope he kept his eyes closed. This is the softest, finest sand my feet have ever reveled in. A young woman is giving a talk in Hebrew. The company that owns this land wants to build a marina and industrial park. The sands would no longer arrive here, the dunes would change. This should be park land, not industrial park. Another swarm of people trudges up, man with crumpling legs, a child riding on his shoulders, a Chinese chow with water bottles strapped to its back. Children have no qualms about crawling up the steep path; I haven't seen any adults crawl. My bare feet are turning pink, though I buried them in sand.
I just decided to look down the other side of the dune, totally different view, even more spectacular, side much steeper, expanse of rolling dunes dappled with desert scrub. Ron had expected to leave by now, but people keep coming and coming, far more than he'd imagined. A little boy races his father up the dune, another is being dragged up between his parents...
I feel as if we're backtracking as we begin a two-hour bus ride to the Galilee, this time to visit Zefat, center of art and of Jewish mysticism.
Traveling on a Sunday brings home the degree to which this country is militarized. Many of the buses, including this one, are filled with soldiers who spent the Sabbath at home. The guides in the dunes yesterday were all soldiers (female); working for Ron is part of their military service.
Instead of sculpting her last night, Adolph gave Sarah a sculpture lesson while Ron and I rewrote a badly translated explanation of the importance of the Caesarea dune area to give to the family that owns the land. Basically it's a very unique area with a mix of desert and Mediterranean conditions, a living laboratory for researchers who come from all over to study the endemic flora and fauna. If development takes place, various species are in danger of extinction. It sounded pretty convincing, and Ron had maps, charts, and graphs from a survey done by the SPNI.
In Zefat the driver lets everyone off right at the rest rooms. He must know that two hours with no available toilet can be stressful. Then we go toward, we hope, the town center. I'm insisting on an outdoor cafe, Adolph says anyplace would be fine. Typical disagreement, I'll keep searching until I find what I want, he'll take the first thing that comes along. A rangy, white-bearded man accosts Adolph. For a moment I think he's cadging for a handout, but no, he has seen the lost look in our eyes and aims us towards Pizza Phone, a vegetarian cafe overlooking a mountain range that seems to go on and on like mirrors reflecting to infinity. And that's where we are.
A soldier sits down with his yard-long weapon and lays it across the table, changes his mind, stands it on end, pointed upwards. Is that the proper direction? I'd think you'd point it down. I wonder if there's some sort of weapon etiquette.
No one we met in Zefat was from Israel. The man who sent us to Pizza Phone was from Pittsburgh. Shelly, a San Francisco actress, moved here four years ago, bought a house a year and a half ago, and is still waiting for the keys. Mike, a sculptor from England, here twenty years, ekes out a living from his art. Running into him was serendipitous, since Norman and Annie had wanted us to meet him. We also met a French sculptor, who we later found out had been Sarah's sculpture teacher.
And then there was the cat lady, that's what she called herself, who came from Australia many years ago. We first saw her walking across a plaza followed by two well-groomed cats, not feral like most of the cats in Israel. "Would you like to come up?" she asked the cat closest to her, and the cat flew off the ground and into her arms. She has over twenty cats right now, lets the males loose in town once they're grown, meets them and their offspring wherever she goes.
"What happens if someone like me, who's allergic, walks into your house?" I asked.
"Most people don't want to go into my house at all," she replied.
I suspected she was isolated from all creatures other than cats, and was surprised when later on she referred to her daughter in the Israeli army. Still, she preferred cats to humans. If people have a cat problem at any time of day or night, they call her. There's also a "dog couple" in the village. They take care of stray dogs and troubleshoot for people with dog problems.
We're on our way to Akko, this country so small that bouncing back to places we've already been is no big deal. Bus-drivers, both local and long-distance, have the radio on at all times, lives hinging on the news. A lot of people have bomb shelters or at least, since the Gulf War, a room that can be sealed off from poison gas.
Half the sky is blue, half is grey, the day could go either way, grey clouds edged with sunshine now. We've been lucky with weather and everything else this trip.
A soldier is standing near the bus driver, involved in intense discussion. His gun is lying on the seat across from me, next to an old lady. If she wanted to, she could pick it up. So could I. With so many automatic weapons around, you'd think there'd be lots of shootings, but there aren't. A soldier went off his rocker, stole a tank, and drove it down the street. People didn't know whether he was a terrorist or a nut. In the end, being the latter, he surrendered peacefully.
Everyone, male and female, has to enlist in the army after high school graduation, to take a two or three year hiatus from real life, just at an age, some feel, at which their lives might need some reevaluation. They undergo rigorous psychological testing before being allowed to carry a gun.
Libby came back from two months of world travel and met us in Haifa. Small, slightly round, full of energy and ideas, she sat on Ron's couch and bombarded us with suggestions, people to visit, places to go. "Slow down, Ma," said Ron with affectionate concern. Everything sounded interesting, and overwhelming. How could I, in my present relaxed mode, survive a week of perpetual motion? We're staying with Libby now, in her apartment in Raanana, and she's placed herself at our disposal, ready to take us wherever we want to go, to introduce us to her favorite people, or to sit around and talk.
Seeing Rachel, Don, and kids again felt like coming home. Certain people become part of my psyche, and stay there. Whatever that means. Words never suffice, so it seems. No matter what I say in describing a feeling, a place, an event, it's only bits and pieces of the whole.
That sensation is particularly strong this trip because we're staying with family, getting involved in everyone's lives, loss and grief, relationships, emotions, major decisions. They're people I care about, some I knew before, some I didn't know. And here I am writing about the trip, and trying to skirt everyone else's personal events. I could have had an expurgated and unexpurgated version, except then I'd do nothing but write. And if I did nothing but write, then I'd have no time to do anything to write about.
It has been raining two days now. Each time we make plans, we cancel. South in the Negev, the roads are flooded, and we have only six days left. My fears of perpetual motion were rained out. Adolph's about to sculpt Libby. He's left a trail of sculpture, his own work and the work of the children we've stayed with, who of course can't keep their hands out of the clay. Clap of thunder, start of Israeli winter, "You can't even see two blocks away," says Libby, looking out the window. She settles into the couch to pose.
"I'm just waiting until you get comfortable," says Adolph.
"I'm always moving," says Libby.
"Nice shapes, I like your shapes," says Adolph.
"If you make it too big, you'll never get it into the kiln," says Libby.
"If you worry about the last step, you'll never get started," my husband replies.
This gigantic, five-bedroom, penthouse apartment, is not, I'm sure, typical Israeli accommodations. Perhaps Ron and Sarah's apartment, one fourth the size, is more typical. This is a country of apartment-dwellers. More thunder. I don't mind being comfortable this trip...
I guess I got too comfortable. I conked out for three hours, woke up in time for midday dinner, Adolph's sculpture almost finished. I could end up with jet lag without taking a jet.
I understand in a different way now how special it is for a Jew, always a minority, often hated or persecuted, to have a place where he's the majority. At the same time, I'm bothered by the degree of separation between Jews and Arabs. That's an Arab village, that's a Jewish village, the Arab quarter, the Jewish quarter. I'm disappointed at how few Arabs I've met here. Much of the land was, after all, theirs. I've heard people say the Arabs were here and didn't do anything with the land. It seems to me they lived on it and didn't have to develop the country Western-style in order to deserve it.
If someone's from this part of the world, I often can't tell whether he's an Arab or a Jew when I see him sitting on the bus or walking down the street, yet whichever he is determines to a great extent his status.
I told Rachel and Libby I was sorry I hadn't met more Arabs. They told me that the Arabs don't want to meet me at this point in history. They're afraid that Hamas might think they're collaborators.
Today would have been my father's birthday. If he were alive, he'd be 94; however he died at 88, which would have been great if his mind hadn't died many years earlier. It was my parents who introduced me to traveling by ear, never with a plan, simply aimed in a general direction. My father liked comfort, my mother's more flexible, and I'll sleep anywhere for a short period. I even slept on cement, once. I woke up thinking I no longer had arms. Anyway, it's my father's birthday, and the people we visited last night would not have gotten along with my left-wing father. They were all the way on the other end of the seesaw. They're related to the president, though they do well not to discuss politics with him, Libby told us. So I was forewarned, kept my mouth closed when they turned up their noses at my mention of Avraham, sealed my lips when they said that any Palestinian who considers himself Palestinian first, should get out of Israel, should move to Palestine. I wasn't clear on the exact location of Palestine. They were angry about the peace process and dealing with terrorists, about the world's attitude towards Israel. Still, they were very interesting people, and not just because they exposed us to a minority opinion in Israel, but also because they were creative and verbal. So we clicked.
She's a renown clothing designer; I'd actually wear her clothes if I could afford them. Or maybe I wouldn't, for she creates very intricate quilted patterns; I tend towards comfortable, simple, brightly colored, utilitarian clothing, lots of pockets, natural fibers, easy to wash. Her husband is an artist, also working with great delicacy and detail, and a terrific story-teller. Their house was filled with artwork and objects, every square inch, patched together like her clothing, and however I felt about individual pieces, I loved the resulting whole. Her garden was lovely in the semi-light evening, one of every kind of endemic fruit tree, mango, orange, lemon, grapefruit, avocado, olive, grapevines, flowers, I'd love to see it in daylight.
Adolph showed them photos of his sculpture. Again I was fascinated at the impact. I suspect Adolph could do very well here if that's one of the things he wants in life, although one sculptor we met described two major commissions that he'd worked on only to have them fizzle for lack of funds. Artists keep telling us this is a poor country; other people say it's a gold mine.
The couple we met last night is invited to view a new archeological discovery, a mosaic floor, in Jerusalem on Friday, and they got permission for us, too, to go.
Drivers must keep their headlights on, even if the sun is shining, whenever they're traveling on the highway. "They're trying in every way. Our accident rate is horrible," says Libby. "People here are so aggressive." We're driving south to visit a kibbutz in the Negev. "When I first came here, the Negev came all the way up to here," she says. We're just outside of Tel Aviv. "It used to be all sand dunes. Now they've built so much that there's practically no dunes left. Some of them are protected in order to save them." The sky is grey again today, at least there's no rain, yet.
"Raffi was in the Mossad, wasn't he?" I ask.
"Yes, yes, originally, originally." Whoops, it's raining, damn. I keep looking in vain for brightness up ahead. Libby takes a wrong turn, stops and asks the men in a parked truck for directions. They can't speak Hebrew, only Arabic. She hadn't noticed that the truck had Arab license plates, even the license plates are separate.
"When Raffi was working in the underground, the CID, the British intelligence, was after him, so the girls in that girls' school right over there," and she points towards some passing trees, "hid him until he had time to grow a beard..."
"I remember Raffi telling us that for a long time you didn't know he was in intelligence."
"Yes, I did whatever he told me to do, I was so dumb I never even questioned it. He says you stand here outside and if anyone at all comes, you give me a signal." She starts to tell a story, and Adolph says he's reading about that right now in CODE EZRA, a novel about the Mossad based in large part on Raffi's life.
And now we're on the way back after spending a rain-soaked day at a kibbutz. "That was a lot of rain," Libby is saying, "Excellent for the country...filled up all the aquifers." We're moving at a crawl, rush hour in Tel Aviv in the rain.
"See that area over there, that's the territories. When people say 'over the green line' that's where they mean," Libby is saying, pointing up ahead. "We're right on the border. You see, all those they want returned, that's the territories, right in my back yard. I don't mind, if I can trust them...the red roofs over there are the Jewish settlements." We're on our way to visit Raffi. "See the blue license plate, that's an Arab car..." Raffi's buried on a kibbutz. The kibbutzim are all in debt and are looking for new ways to make money. Some are building hotels or nursing homes; Negba, the one we visited yesterday, has developed their hot springs; this one sells land for burial. "This is a very nice kibbutz. They make shoes for the army, and they bake health bread. And there's the farm. Here's where they throw weddings. I'm taking you to this kibbutz, but I don't know anybody, I just know the cemetery and the gardener who takes care of it." That's her way of warning us that we won't get a royal tour the way we did yesterday at Negba.
So we visited Raffi, headstone shaded by eucalyptus trees. He and Libby selected the spot together before he died. Then we visited Shantelle, the cemetery's gardener, a non-Jew from Luxembourg who has resided on a kibbutz for thirteen years with her Israeli husband and their children. Her husband is in charge of the chickens, between 75,000 and 90,000 of them.
Chantelle's curiosity about Israel was rooted in the fact that her parents had helped save Jews during World War II. She came here, married an Israeli, and stayed. Yet as a foreigner and non-Jew on a Kibbutz, she feels she's been discriminated against. She does her own cooking instead of eating the communal meals, to avoid people she doesn't want to see.
The sneak preview of the archaeological dig was canceled because everything was covered with mud. It's so new that they haven't had time to properly protect it. In fact archaeologists keep digs secret until they've had time to fully excavate and protect them.
It's 7 AM, in two days we'll be in the air. Libby just came into our bedroom and said, "The news is worse and worse." There are riots all over the Gaza. Thus far, I think, fifteen people have been killed and two hundred injured. They're putting additional security people in the area where Esty's brother and his family live.
Esty is another of Libby's daughters-in-law, married to her son Gil, who runs tours for the Jewish Federation. Their lives are split between New York and Tel Aviv, Gil mainly in New York, Esty and their children mainly here. Yesterday we met several of Esty's relatives. The older generation are all survivors. After World War II her mother was found alive by the Allies in a pile of bodies awaiting burial at a concentration camp.
Now I'm out of the bedroom and sitting at a cafe. I wove through the usual dogshit to get here. This is the doggiest country I've ever been in. Adolph and I have each gotten it on the sole twice. Israelis like light-furred versions of our black-furred Lilac, extra-cute terrier mutts with whiskers on the chin and over the eyes, so Lilac's ever-present in my mind. Maybe that's the Jewish dog. I don't know what the Jewish human is. Certainly people here have histories enough to knock you over, whether or not they're born here. Some are the persecuted or the survivors, or the misfits from somewhere else, some are frontiersmen, that's what Esty's brother is. You can see it in his rugged, determined, yet smiling face which stops you, or anyway stopped me. Son of a survivor, he looked like he, too, would have survived if he'd been in the camps. He and his wife and six children have a farm right on the border, right next to the electrified fences erected to keep out terrorist penetrators. Their youngest son seemed like a hellion, angelic face, fast-moving, unpredictable. When I mentioned the other day that I'd met very few Arabs here, Libby said that that's the family I should stay with, he works with Arabs. And they did invite us. Next time. I have a whole list of want-to's and that's near the top, providing hostilities calm down.
We met the family yesterday when we visited Esty's uncle Zizi, another survivor, a man I liked immediately, large and stout, expressive face and hands, emanator of warmth and humor. He was the youngest of nine children, grew up in Czechoslovakia and took care of his father's collection of birds. The Nazis wanted the birds. From what I understood, the father begged Zizi to give them the birds saying otherwise they'd kill him, and Zizi refused. The whole family died eventually, except for Zizi, who survived a year and a half in concentration camps. He arrived in Israel in 1946, and with the money he had for food, he bought two pigeons. Apparently he also bought food, for he's still here, an incredibly vital personality though his health isn't the best. He has devoted his life to his birds, which are a memorial to his father. He uses them to tell, mainly to groups of children, the story of the holocaust. It was the Eichman trial that suddenly made him feel free to talk about his experiences. He feels it's important, despite the horror of what he tells them, to see that people leave laughing; he has even trained some small green parrots to laugh, extremely contagious when the laughter emerges from birds.
I asked him if it was his humor that enabled him to survive, and he said yes, macabre humor. If you can't see the humor, you might as well die. When it was very cold in a Polish camp in winter, someone might say, "Let's go into the crematorium and warm up."
He has a big, somewhat puffy face, always changing, always intent on what the other person is saying. His arms dance as he answers.
I asked if his birds surprise him after all these years, and he replied yes. Some very old females eventually become male, which made sense to me, given the changes in hormones as we age. He also mentioned that male pigeons sometimes form permanent couples; he hadn't realized there's homosexuality among birds.
He's known throughout the country for his birds. He once had many more flying freely in his garden. Now they're caged most of the time; and he donated the bulk of them to a nearby bird reserve and to a wildlife safari park.
Anyone who devotes himself to birds must speak their language, and certainly he does. Australian, South American, and African parrots sat free on the roosts in the center of the garden. They took off Zizi's cap with their beaks, ate nuts using their claws as hands, and danced when we sang Havanagila.
I'm back in the cafe again today. If I have any regrets about this trip, it's that I didn't do this every day. Sitting down by myself, away from friendly voices, is the best way to pull my thoughts together.
I was reading in the TRIBUNE just now about the riots in the Gaza Strip, looked for Gaza on the map in my purse, wow, it's only about an hour away. Not that that's a surprise.
Avraham offered to take us to the Knesset today; in fact, he'll probably make a speech on Gaza. But it'll be in Hebrew, everything will be in Hebrew.
We spent yesterday with Avraham's mother, her husband, and Ada, who said the problem is two Jewish settlements in Gaza that should have been moved out long ago. If the Israelis move them now, however, it'll look like they're caving in to violence, so the situation is a catch 22. Avraham will be saying that the settlements should go (something he's pushed for from the beginning). However, it's easier to say it when the decision isn't his to make.
We all went to the Diaspora Museum, which shows the history of the Jews, persecution, expulsion, and dispersion, the consistency of the rituals throughout time, the emphasis on culture, the great men, the world's major synagogues, the holocaust, the political organization of the shtetls, from which Adolph's family and my family came in the not-so-distant past. Adolph was depressed because of all the persecution and displacement; I was most interested in the intellectual, artistic, religious, and political impact such a small group could have on world history. Though I'm not involved in the rites nor the religion, certainly my Jewishness has made me, to a large extent, what I am. I could spend many more hours in that museum. Next time. And next time, the kibbutz. We visited two of them. It would be nice to stay at Negba and understand the internal workings a little. I want to know how people feel about living that kind of life, and what "that kind of life" is.
I knew the kibbutz movement was changing and perhaps dying out; I don't know what I expected beyond that. Walking into the common dining hall at Negba felt at first like walking into a senior citizens center. Everyone was my age and up. Later on some younger people came in to eat. Yet it's clear that keeping younger people there is a problem. Food was copious, an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, some very tasty, some overcooked, something for everyone, from the low-fat enthusiast to the glutton. Residents have meal tickets and can eat there or use them to buy food at the kibbutz market. Libby's friend Yoram, the secretary of the kibbutz, said his wife had never learned to cook. Members are also provided with housing, health care, education. Even their laundry is done for them. Of course there's a downside, and it's called work, eight hours a day, six days a week, workload gradually reduced according to age and health. Sarda, Yoram's eighty-year-old mother, works only four hours a day, making clothing. That's what the old people do, sit at the sewing machines or cut the patterns, bibs, tee shirts, dresses, jackets. Sarda is a refugee from Poland and was one of the founders of this kibbutz in 1939.
The kibbutz has a factory that manufactures packaging materials using sophisticated, expensive, computer-driven machines. There are also the schools, the hot springs, and the farm, a real downside for the cows. Yoram said the cows never get to know a field, spend their lives in the barn, get their needs filled without having to take a step. The kibbutz may have had humanistic origins; it certainly isn't run according to the charter of the SPCA. Still, I really like Yoram. He's a man who cares about the world, has tried to live by his principles, seems honest about himself and his disappointments. Socialism was supposed to create a new man, and it didn't work out that way, at least not here. They've found that people need incentives; they've found that people will take unfair advantage of the privileges the kibbutz offers. So members keep modifying their rules accordingly.
"What's that?" Adolph is asking.
"I don't know. Maybe a police blockade. Sometimes they have roadblocks to check, Ramla is a hostile Arab city," Libby is saying as we pass the exit for Ramla. I don't manage to look up in time; I'm too busy checking the map to see exactly where we are on the road to Neve Shalom, a mixed Arab-Jewish village.
"It's a shame it's so hazy," she says.
"I see fine," replies Adolph.
"All these trees you see over here are planted by hand," says Libby as we pass forested hills, "Every tree in Israel is...The sea is over there."
"It's really a very vast landscape, isn't it," says Adolph. We're whizzing along at 110 kilometer per hour. Anyway, I hope her odometer is calibrated in kilometers.
"This is the Valley of Ayalon, the story of Gideon."
"Did he blow a trumpet?" I ask.
"No, that was Joshua," they both say, as if there's only one trumpet to be blown. Beyond that, they're as ignorant about Gideon as I am.
"Ramallah, that's an Arab town ten minutes from here, bitterly hostile," Libby says as we pass a sign.
"Oh boy," I say at the sight of layer after layer of hills.
"You're seeing the side roads on the hills of Jerusalem," says Libby. "You people are good for me, making me go to places I wouldn't go on my own. I used to go with Raffi."
"What a wild, rocky landscape," exclaims Adolph.
"Isn't this gorgeous," says Libby. Fig trees, then a beautiful rose garden, which means we're there.
And now we're in the public relations office. Libby's friend Coral is giving us the history of Neve Shalom, and I'm trying to write bits and pieces of it in my shorthand. "Oasis of peace, that's what it was originally called. The Christians in Israel suddenly found themselves in the middle of a Jewish state. After several years a Dominican monk named Bruno had the idea of forming an ecumenical community in which people of all faiths could live together...leased this barren hill...got some people to put up huts or whatever...From '72 to '78 he really didn't get this thing off the ground but was talking about it all the time. And Abde here (an Arab man who just happens to pass through the room at this moment) was interested...He got his degree in agriculture...He brought two Jewish couples, two Arab couples together in '78, and they're all still here..."
I'm still trying to keep up with Coral. About that time her late husband was looking for an academy. He wanted to find out if peace can be taught as a subject. "He went to the Ministry of Education...The most important subject in the world, and it's not taught..." When building this community they created a special corner of silence for meditation and reflection.
"...first big jump was a three-year grant from the Ford Foundation...The new School for Peace is accepted as being expert in conflict resolution...With the Intifada, that's changed to conflict management...We now give courses at Tel Aviv University...And we wrote the manual, paid for by United States Institute for Peace, creating a basis on which the peace process can go ahead... Learning how to trust each other...very deep and very effective...bringing in teachers to learn how to teach pupils to be good citizens, not good Jews or Arabs. The curriculum in the Arab schools in Israel was devised by Jews in the Ministry of Education... Groups come from abroad with their own ethnic problem and the School for Peace will devise a special curriculum. Abde started a teachers' course for Arab teachers on how to integrate Arab and Jewish curricula...Teachers recently came from Gaza...the most necessary thing is to get the teachers...This settlement is not affiliated to any organization or political party, which makes it hard to get funding.
"When these four couples started to live here, other people became interested... The community is being built on the basis that it's not easy to coexist. It's built on respect, on understanding...If you go into Abde's house, everything is Arab-style...In my house, English style...Our school opened in 1984. Gradually babies were born here, grew up speaking both Hebrew and Arabic. We had no facilities...the Arab kids went to Ramallah, the Jewish kids went to a kibbutz. We had nine children in Neve Shalom in 1984. We started a school for them on the principle that the children at all times have Jewish and Arab teachers who speak only in their own language. That was not a problem until in 1990 we opened the school to children outside...Jews, Arabs, Muslims sit together, they celebrate their festivals together, they all learn everything, yet they each know exactly who they are...no majority, no minority, they're all equal. The school is closed Friday and Saturday...not very many Christian students... ninety children right now... parents who send their children want them to have this special education although it's more expensive and they have to travel every day. At first we brought in twelve children from the Arab village of Abu Gosh. They were not bilingual and had never before sat in a classroom with Jewish children...For the first time we had to start teaching language. It worked beautifully...The next year we brought in Jewish children who only spoke Hebrew... Now they've created a model...just moved into a new building. Now we haven't got enough children to fill the school...student-teacher ratio ten to one. The Ministry of Education then came and said we've got to do this, to do that, build a fence, a road for security, or they'll revoke...we're designated to get one third of our money from the state... We're considered a private school, not a state school... We have so many applications for the School for Peace that we can't accept them all. Now we have two new rooms and have a one-way mirror so observers can see how classes are being taught...This is becoming an international center for peace studies."
[Adolph's Neve Shalom sculptures]
At first I thought it was clouds. Until it definitely wasn't. It's been wild, mile after mile of endless snow, sometimes interrupted by rocky crags, horizon of glowing mists, like the horizon of Lake Michigan on subzero days, as far from the Israeli landscape as I can imagine. And now it is clouds, then ice-and-snow-clogged water, or perhaps more clouds. I wonder if we fly near the North Pole.
That was Greenland, now we're over Labrador.
It was twenty-two hours from Libby's door to our own, and now here I am, early morning at the Oakland Cafe.
My main interest in Israel was to catch up on several years of insufficient sleep, get to know Adolph's family, and relax without worrying about sites, tours, and goals. I succeeded in all that, and more. I never wondered why I was there nor what I'd accomplished, took whatever came at any given moment, and met an amazing number of people I cared about. That, of course, was the crux, all those people with whom I'd love to spend more time. Libby said we should have gone on at least one tour. The guides there are unusual; they have to study two years to qualify. She mentioned a camel trip into the desert to visit Bedouins. Sounds perfect, except that I mounted a camel forty years ago and I still remember how high I felt, two stories. Another thing to do next time.
Of course when we got back I immediately wanted to look up Craig Coopersmith, Adolph's ex-student, to see if he's related to Zaretsky; but there was no Coopersmith in the phone book. Adolph thought our friend Label knew him, so we called Label, who couldn't remember, double-checked the directory, and said, "Hey, there's plenty of them." I thought I must have spelled the name wrong. It turned out Label was looking at Coppersmith. But that gave me the idea of looking for Kupersmith, and there was someone named Dan.
I called. He and his cousin Craig were both Adolph's students in the 60's, but he had never heard of any Zaretsky nor chicken farm nor icons stolen, nor relative smuggled out in a coffin. His father used to be a shoemaker. Too bad, he had a nephew getting married in Israel in December. That would have been nice. He said he'd talk to his father, though; someone in his family had just gotten very involved in tracing roots. I was disappointed. I'd somehow been sure there'd be a connection. After all, that's a very unusual name.
Afterwards I was thinking that the chicken farm would have been a Zaretsky, not a Kupersmith, farm. I rummaged through all my bits of paper from Israel this morning to find Zaretsky's first name, then called back. Dan had already done his own research, and it actually was the right family! His aunt had moved to Lacrosse in 1953 and probably had never gotten that last letter.
The night we left I played scrabble with Libby until about 1. You hear about what's going on only an hour away, she commented, and here we are, playing a game and feeling perfectly safe. But when you're in another country and you hear about it, you think this is no place to go.
That's true and not true, true that we were on a scrabble roll for a week and not in the least worried about being blown up; untrue that Libby isn't worried. She expressed it several times, that once power is turned over to the Palestinians and the Israeli government money isn't there to pay salaries, what's going to happen? There'll be even more desperate people basically in her back yard.
The taxi picked Adolph and me up at 3:30 AM for our 6 AM plane. Tod, who travels frequently, had said there's no reason to go to the airport too early, one hour's enough time, so I kept track. It took almost an hour just to get through security, waiting in line and being questioned, who packed our luggage, was it left unattended at all, do we have relatives in Israel, whom did we stay with, where do they live, did anyone give us anything to bring back. I had a videotape to mail for Neve Shalom which the security agent opened and inspected.
Libby's a live wire, sociable, generous, bright; the range and intensity of her relationships reflect this. Her sons are talented, involved, interesting men with delightful families.
In Kfar Vradim, Tod, playful and full of jokes, reminded me so much of Adolph's cousin Aaron that I felt as if I'd always known him, though I'd met him only once before, twenty-five years ago. We sang Mexican mariachi songs together and laughed most of the time. The foyer of Tod and Eilene's home became a temporary clay workshop for Adolph and their sons. In Haifa Ron was involved with environmental issues, as am I, and Sarah was involved with sculpture, as is Adolph, and we all loved dogs, art, walking on the beach at night. Their apartment was small, yet the close quarters bred closeness, and staying with them was an adventure.
We spent the most time with Rachel, Don, and sons. Rachel and I talked constantly, about everything, though most often about Israel, about learning disabilities, which is her field, about family, especially the loss of her father, a unique, brilliant, loving man. And we played Boggle and Scrabble with Avsha, Ben, Jesse, Libby. Don and Adolph had an ongoing chess match. Don and I did tai chi together and played wild mime games. We all performed for each other: Don did amazing imitations, Ben and Avsha made up plays, Ben demonstrated his karate, Jesse did acrobatics all over the place, Amit choreographed his own dances, we danced as I performed my poetry. Adolph, Amit, and Jesse sculpted.
How much time I had to write and what happened to be at the forefront of my mind at the particular moment determined the content of this journal, so lots of good intentions ended up only in my memory bank. Still, I'm sure it's no surprise that the trip had a strong impact on me, in terms of the growth of my interest in that part of the world and my emotional involvement with the peace process and most of all in terms of the people I miss.