Sunday, February 4, 2018

No Chance

1.
Tuesdays I volunteer to tutor English to seventh grade kids.  For breakfast before I catch the bus to their school, I’m having an egg, yogurt, and two ears full from an American university freshman. The interviewee jack-hammers her dogma: no one she deems a fascist has the right to speak on her campus. Clear from the written synopsis and comments scrolling under her video, top ranked among fascists would be me, Lady Occupier of Jerusalem. Her hair is different, but her parochial language, her narcotic tone I heard before, decades ago, my freshman year.

The introduction to my campus was an oily, torch lit demonstration against the university administration by students masked, outlaw style, in paisley scarves. They chanted

   DAMN THE FASCISTS CLOSE IT DOWN 
   DAMN THE FASCISTS CLOSE IT DOWN

A leader of the march, I would learn, was Paul; grad student in philosophy, Jew, and the upcoming boyfriend of my roommate, Margo. The school did not close down, and with paisley snaking from his belt loop, I found myself standing next to Paul, waiting for the next spin in a night of international folk dancing. With the last stomp of a Balkan line dance (vest, sash, felt boots), the emcee queued an Israeli song. Paul said, “Oh ick,” lit a cigarette, studied its dirty smoke, and finished his thought, “There is no Israeli folk dancing. It’s all stolen from real cultures.” 

I was too green, too cowed, too dumb to reply. It would be years before I’d learn that a business-like European fascist, who erased all but two smears from the family tree of the future Paul, had said, propemodum, the same thing.

Now Paul’s analogue, this woman on the internet, laces into me, the one with spilled yogurt and icy feet, my socks having slipped off and gone missing in my little apartment in Israel.

2.
The door to Natalia’s English room is locked. I grab a chair and sit in the hallway. A collection of female teachers and students is entertaining a chubby bruiser of a baby. They hand him around, make him say goo-goo words, and coo when he does. Here comes Natalia. The whole school wears sweats and jeans but Natalia dresses for winter Pushkin style, in slate cashmere and black beads. 
“Whose baby is this?” she asks. 
A student kisses Bruiser’s doughy cheek. “Ours,” she replies, and hands him to Natalia. 
Natalia makes a fish mouth and pumps the baby’s cheeks, “Do like this.” The whole group goes goldfish. When Bruiser gets it, his fan club goes wild.  

Two things happen as Natalia carries Bruiser in my direction. First, my face, a smiley emoji, is about to crack. Second, a male teacher, short with a short beard, shouldering an overstuffed brief case on one arm and a diaper bag on the other, locks up the science lab, spots his son, and beaming, accepts his baby from Natalia’s arms.

My favorite kids pop into seats around me, waiting for Natalia to unlock her door. They pick up cold from our lesson last week; we work on comparative and superlative.
Maya, a large boned girl, the tallest kid in the class, leans forward. “I have decided,” she says, “The best job for me will be to program computers.”
Daniel, whose hooded eyes make him look torpid but who is preternaturally lucid, pushes aside his long bangs. On his third finger he wears an onyx ring engraved in silver with a Magen David. “Computers? I’m a technophobe. That would be my worst job.”
“What would be your best?” I ask.
“My best would be to get married.”
Maya rolls her eyes to the ceiling. Moshe, who has high Ethiopian cheek bones, looks at Daniel from under eyelashes like mink, “You only want to get married to build your own football team.” 
“Comparative! Superlative!” I insist.
Moshe restates, “You want to get married to build a better football team.”
Maya examines her fingers, “The only team that will not beat you.”

Natalia’s opens her door. I gather my things and say to my trio, “You guys crack me up.” In unison they peer at me. In Hebrew, as one, they ask, “What?”

I get through the lesson with the manic energy of a standup comic. When the bell rings, I make believe I have to sneeze and bury my face in my hands.

3.
I forego the direct route and take the winding paths of a park. I’ll find a bus, any bus, on its other side. Its hills remind me of a short Riverside Park, except here no one will shatter a bottle and pitch it at my head. 

I sit on a bench. I make believe I’m consulting my cell phone. An elderly couple, the woman steadied by her husband’s arm, asks me in Hebrew if I need help. I say I’m looking for a bus. They ask me which number? and I say, out of nowhere, 15.  They sit on either side of me, pull out their phones, and each finds an app with all the gazillion bus lines in Israel. They say, “One second, one second. We’ll find it.” They click this key and that, “One more second; almost got it.”

I want to tell them not to be kind. I want to tell them that Bruiser will not grow up, that Daniel will never marry, that my trio will not live long enough to have jobs. I want to tell them that none of us has a chance. I sob. The woman pulls me close to her, “Why are you worried? We’ll find your bus.” 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

No Home Depot Here

He’s standing over the kitchen island of my little rental, drawing horizontal and vertical shapes, naming them, and asking me what I want the porch of my new home to look like, this or that? His picture is a disparagement of ladders. The words he’s using, all of them English, mean nothing to me. There’s a communication gap here. I finally get it. My carpenter is from L.A. I will understand nothing he says.  

We go out to the courtyard where I point to the lattice work of a neighbor’s pergola and demand louvered instead. The porch guy pulls his reflector shades up onto his yarmulke, repeats my request, and asks if he got it right. I nod. “You can’t get louvered in Israel.” He looks at me like I’m breakable, and breaks it to me carefully, “There is no Home Depot here.” He waits to see how I take the news, writes LATTICE in large letters on his notepad, and packs off.

I return to the kitchen, gather my purse, water bottle, and books, and blunder out to catch my bus.

The road up from my village is being enlarged. Our bus gets stuck behind a highway construction backhoe. A semi-circle of kids and their fathers stand riveted, watching the backhoe operator lift stones from here and dump them there. I don’t know how it starts, but someone’s opened a super-size bag of cookies and is handing them around to fellow spectators. A parent shouts at the backhoe, shouting goes around, and now the operator applies his brake, jumps down, wipes his hands on his pants, and accepts a cookie from the father with the goods. More fathers step forward, the operator makes wide gestures over the landscape; the men look thoughtful, like they’re pondering a very difficult piece of Talmud. Eventually, our bus continues.

By the time we reach the City, a baby girl’s screaming soprano up front competes with raging tenors in the rear. We stop at an urban traffic light, where an arrow points to “Dead Sea.” I think of a sign tacked to a skyscraper in London pointing south-west, reading, “Staten Island.” Is it really possible to get to the Dead Sea from this intersection?

At the second bus stop in the City, a female soldier, wearing bookworm glasses and looking like she’s on her way to class, steps down. I wait while she helps the mother with the wailing daughter. When my foot hits land, I’m in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Cycle Man

The computer store is my last stop in the mall. Two guys work here, one in a yarmulke and one not. When I enter, they’re poring over a magazine, heads together, and murmuring. I’d be worried about their reading material except they don’t startle, or even note that I’m right in front of them, tapping my nail on the glass display. When I ask for printer ink one smacks his lips, dog ears a page, and reluctantly pulls himself away. I glance at the cover: there, glossy and fungible, a four color spread of motherboards, chargers, routers, and drives. I sit down and wait. 

A bear of a man fills the doorway and enters. Tattoos slither from the slab of one shoulder down a fat arm and drop anchor at his wrist. A red motorcycle helmet dangles from his hand. I’m calculating how deep the pepper spray is buried in my purse when Cycleman pauses, touches his fingers to the door’s mezuzah, and kisses them. The clerks go wild, “Yossi! You’re back!”  My ink is thrown aside. The three shake hands, elbows, and engage in a kind of arm wrestle that to men in Israel must translate as, “Has it been that long? I’m very glad to see you. How are the kids?” Cycleman, in the softest of baritones replies, “Thank G-d.”

I plunk down my credit card. The salesman bags my ink and rings me up, all the time drilling Yossi with questions rat-tat-tat-tat, when from the mall a woman wails, “Mommy, no!” Yossi bounds out, the two sales guys follow.  A tiny Filipina caregiver is struggling to keep an old woman from slipping out of her wheel chair. The woman’s head is bare scalp and white straw; her tongue is lolling to a side. Her eyes are opening and closing in waves, like she’s drowning. 

In the same quiet voice, Yossi says something to the clerks, who pull out their phones. With three fingers of his imprinted arm Yossi palpates the side of the old woman’s neck, turns his watch hand palm up, and counts.  On his inner arm now exposed, in monochrome the color of dusk, a small tattoo of the galaxy spins toward his pulse.

A team from Magen David Adom arrives in a flash. One of the EMTs claps Cycleman on the shoulder, “Yossi. You’re back.”

Monday, January 8, 2018

Western Wall: The X-Ray

 Even in summer, it’s so chilly on the plaza of the Western Wall (or Kotel) at 4 AM that most of the women wear sweaters or shawls. We’re all here to catch vasikin, morning service where the standing silent prayer is said exactly at sunrise. It’s not seeing the sun that counts, vasikin is considered devotional even if it’s said in a windowless building or a dungeon or a cave, which it has been.

 It would take me ten lifetimes to move up one rung from lazy, let alone achieve devotional. But there’s a buzz here at this time that draws me. Often there’s a buzz of chitchat, before prayers begin at dawn, from the ladies who cluster near the Wall to blab while they wait. I’ve ignored them other times but this very early morning I’m a grenade ready to explode; I storm over to them and shush with a nasty hiss. They look startled. After five minutes back in my seat I evaluate; have I acted like a sailor looking for a brawl? Maybe no, maybe yes, and this pain in the neck court martial of self-examination goes on for a while until a part of my brain that operates only in this place says, “Next time shush, but nicer.” Gently, the court martial ends. At home, it would last for days, transforming me from a single grenade to a cache.
 When one of the women who asks for charity comes to me I’m calm enough to give, and to take in her benign warmth. There’s another however who is clearly unbalanced. She pushes her hand out aggressively, and her laugh is so loud it ricochets off the stones. She wears a heavy winter coat and carries a suitcase tied with cord. When prayers start she parks herself on the small stone staircase abutting the Wall. I look up and examine her features, x-rayed by floodlights that bathe the plaza. Praying, she appears neither fanatic nor remote, but focused, and she does not miss a single amen.

 Afterwards I get coffee at the little stand behind Kotel Plaza, and drink it beside a very old man in a pilled stocking cap who has stopped to rest in a chair. He has the nut brown skin of a Jew from an Arab country, maybe Yemen, or Iraq. He declines the men who stop to ask if they can bring him a coffee. Each of these men wears a suit and carries his prayer shawl in a velvet pouch; the old man carries his in a see through plastic bag. Two young guys, one quite tall, are talking close by. Though the tall guy is listening to his friend his eyes are on the old man, until he gives up listening and walks over to the old man’s seat, shakes his hand, then does something I’ve seen only once before. The young guy rubs his fingertips along the back of the old man’s hand then kisses his own fingers, as though he had touched not a hand, but the parchment of a Torah.

 By now it’s 7 AM and the line to enter Kotel Plaza snakes down past the Dung Gate and out to a narrow road. It’s too early for group tours but not for indie tourists. I’m on my way out, to return home, when a finely dressed couple looks up quizzically from a brochure and I’m the human in their line of sight. They’re Swedish. They ask, in elegant English, what, exactly, can they see here. I’m wearing my ankle length denim skirt and work boots. The blazer I needed against the chill at 4 AM looks abnormal in the rising September heat. I have a Brooklyn accent I do not wish anyone to associate with holiness. I address the wife as madam, something I learned from movies. I open my mouth, hoping to sound as refined as Katherine Hepburn, and then, like a strip of film stuck in a projector, I freeze.
 What can they see here? I can’t be flippant, and tell them the Wall is a leftover, the two Temples that were alive here are gone; they can’t see nothing. I can’t get professorial about architecture or archeology; I care for neither. I cannot relay this place’s history, at least not as Clift Notes. When I point to a table with the same brochure they already have, they look disappointed, so I produce.

 I tell them the story of my friend’s six year old son, Tzvi, of South Bend Indiana. Tzvi and his mom were getting into their car when two kids stopped to tell Tzvi they were walking to Jerusalem to re-build the Temple. Tzvi appraised their collection of curtain rods, baby blankets, and floor tiles. Buckled in the car he shook his head, “They don’t have enough tiles.”

 The couple smiles wanly. “But you must understand,” explains the lady, “Children do not know what is real.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Beitar

The son of my lawyer, Dina, is getting married tonight and she has just about obligated me by contract to show my face for the ceremony. The wedding is across the street from Jerusalem’s large central market where a pigua, a terrorist attack, hit this morning. In my evening bag I carry pepper spray which I do not know how to use and which looks as menacing as a canister of breath freshener. I have two sharp pencils. I have the dull pin of an old brooch. I have no chance if a pigua hits tonight.

One route to this wedding is through the town of Beitar. The bus winds past a stretch of trees which reminds me of a parkway on Long Island. When we travel through concrete tunnels erected to postpone bullets blowing off my skull, I remember I’m not headed towards my brother’s Oyster Bay colonial. At a checkpoint, a civilian has another in a bear hug; they’re both giggling. Our driver opens his window and says something that sobers them. On a thin meridian, shoulder to shoulder, soldiers stand guard.

We pass between razor wire fences into Beitar. A life size diorama of ibex, sheep, and deer graze at a giant welcome sign. One large billboard encourages – enjoy Shabbat, from the minute it comes to the minute it leaves. Another warns – you’re bad talking others?  I don’t want to hear it! The only one to jump when two figures in SWAT gear and masks board our bus at the front door and exit at the back, is me. 

I reverse the trip in the dark. My bus is stuck behind a truck that says FedEx International. I imagine the truck plowing the Atlantic, crossing Europe, and landing in front of us, all on a single tank of gas. The driver is tuned in to a radio station he selected in New Jersey. His radio reports that the Garden State Parkway is backed up for miles, the new Miss America can drive a tractor, and nothing about pigua in the soft Judaean Hills.
  

On the hill to my village we halt at a road block. Two soldiers, one a woman with a French braid and a sub-machine gun, examine the trunk of a car. A loud crack terrifies me. It’s the limb of a tree, victim of a recent conflagration.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Curry for Shabbat

The flower store lady is juggling two vases, marigolds, keys, and the tail of her sari. When her husband rushes to help, his yarmulke falls to the ground. In a distant language, she upbraids him. He allows the door of their shop to slam, leaving squashed foliage and the odor of turmeric outside. I am tired of cottage cheese. I have Basmati rice. I will go to Jerusalem, buy spices, and make curry for Shabbat. 

Even before I step up the stone stair to Spices by the Brothers Chamami, roughly, the Hot Brothers, a teenage boy waves his arms like I'm radioactive. He calls out, not taking his eyes off me, to a chubby middle aged man, who intercepts me and leads me to a chair. I plop my stuff down, my Trader Joe's bag on top, and wonder if anyone suspects I'm American.  

I ask for cardamom, cumin, and turmeric in Hebrew, from my cheat sheet. I ask for chili pepper, except I get the vowels wrong. The owner grins over his scooper. I've asked for a Talmudic discourse, chili style. 

Mr. Hot is gracious; he asks me in English how many scoops. I'm confused. Instead of little plastic bottles, he's digging deep into burlap sacks of spice. I buy by the kilo.  

Street noises permeate the scarf shop. I pick out a summer weight blue and grab my credit card. I prepare to ask the proprietress in my best Hebrew what I owe, but she’s busy with a stylish older lady. They’re deep in conversation. In French.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Meltdown

The weather system in Israel is summer. In late October when the temperature drops below 80, parents bundle kids in winter jackets. After the first rain, the smallest toddler wears winter boots, sometimes a scarf.

In Ulpan (intensive speed Hebrew class), a woman from Sao Paolo sits to my left and a troupe of refugees from Lyon to my right. When Gabrielle is called on to recite she sounds like soft slippers turning tiny pirouettes. Translations between Brits and Yanks conflict. What is a car bonnet? Why would I need the services of a clark? Outside, winds kick up; strong rains follow.  Instinctively, we students, from myriad natal cities with apposite weather systems, applaud. 

Shabbat afternoon the cobblestones are wet, but that doesn’t stop the guys in my courtyard from shooting hoops. A ball is on the rebound from the backboard. The shooter leans back in wait. All are silent. I’ve caught a universe in microseconds of suspense.

I knock on Annie’s door. She’s new to Israel, new to widowhood; new to the breathing machine beside her armchair. For now, she’s staying with her daughter’s family. Annie raised her kids in L.A., her grandchildren are Sabras.  One grandson, Levi, is home from the Army for Shabbat. He sits on the couch close to his newly married sister. They disagree about the English translation of a newspaper article. I catch only a few words, but clearly the sister is winning. 

Other grandchildren and Annie’s son-in-law come into the living room, groggy from their Shabbat naps. Her son-in-law buttons his cuff links and tells Levi to get ready for mincha, the afternoon service. Levi’s sister punctuates the air with a final point. Levi rises, stretches, and asks his father if he should bring his machine gun to synagogue. The father considers, then nods and answers quietly, “Yup. Good idea.”

I have never seen a gun up close. The two men leave. Annie notices something on my face. She’s a lovely, slim lady, with bright, kind eyes. She looks at me carefully, and tells me a story from the past year of Levi’s military service.

Last winter and summer he was stationed in a hot zone, danger; he was under heavy shelling, rockets, the whole works. Levi got few breaks for Shabbat and no leave for his sister’s wedding, shocking in Israel. While her family slept, Annie’s daughter, Levi’s mother, drowsed at her kitchen table. As night wore on, the tick of the clock above the stove, the flash of the broken microwave timer, the hum of the fridge, advanced on her like assassins.

One Friday afternoon, exhausted, her hands wet from preparing for Shabbat, Levi’s mother answered a soft rap at the door. It was her son, in uniform, carrying the same equipment I just saw leave for synagogue. “Levi” she repeated, over and over, sobbing, then crumpled to the floor. Levi settled himself on the ground by his mother, saying nothing until she recovered.

Monday, October 16, 2017

F-15

 Even with my modicum of Hebrew I can read the sign in the pharmacy. It says “Medicines only. No food may be stored in this refrigerator.” So I understand what’s happening when Irit, my pharmacist, replies to a scolding voice from the inner office, “It’s fine Grandfather,” she says. The voice roars, “No it’s not fine. Please come here and bring it with you.” Irit fishes out something from the fridge, nods to Esther, her assistant, and crosses into the voice’s lair.  A freckled hand reaches out and takes the lunch pail from Irit’s hand in his pinky. The pail is white, afloat in pink balloons, and features at its center a ta-da sketch of a kitten wearing a stupefying hair bow. There’s an interjection Israelis use when a difficult problem is before them. Grandpa Inspector has to make a case for the danger, in an orderly pharmacy, of the staff confusing Hello Kitty with ampicillin. In a tired bass, the inspector intones, y-y-y-y-y-y.
 Esther comes to where I’m waiting with my prescription. Though there’s a line behind me, she reaches across the counter and takes my hand, “I haven’t seen you all summer. How are you?”
 Esther is a widow. Her eyes do not look worried at the inspector’s reprimand, they look, as always, sad. We schmooze until she asks me what I’m doing for Shabbat. When I tell her I’ll be home with my cat her eyes get sadder. “Irit” she calls to the pharmacist. Esther commutes in from a nearby town but Irit lives in my village. Esther rattles to Irit in Hebrew; both women shake their heads: Shabbat, alone? This cannot be permitted. Irit presses me to join her and her family. When I decline, her eyes become as sad as Esther’s. The people in line behind me make none of the can you believe this? noises heard in New York; they wait. Esther has been watching out for me since my aliya, since I moved to Israel.

 In the supermarket I find myself picking over grapes with a woman who was in line in the pharmacy. She asks me, “Are we shopping together today?” and I laugh. There are a lot of men shopping alone this morning, many with small kids. In my grocery in Brooklyn getting stuck behind a man and his shopping cart in a narrow aisle was nerve-wracking. At the rice he’d call his wife to ask brown or white and then again to ask instant or regular. By his umpteenth call at the yogurt section I’d be shouting into my megaphoned mitts, Take six plain and six with the candy on top and go.”
 Here the man in front of me has a toddler over his shoulder, another in his cart, and is decisive in his choices. When I reach the dairy section I see a stockman plop a yarmulke on his head, hand out white booklets to his co-workers, and take a count. There are nine guys; they lack a tenth for mincha, the afternoon service. The father takes in the scene, adds the shouldered kid to his shopping cart, and accepts a booklet. With his two kids quiet and amazed and the other guys ready, he turns his back on Dairy Products for mincha.

 My last stop is the pizza place. I’ve heard more Hebrew today than usual in my Anglo village. I decide to ditch English. I order two quanta of pizza with mushrooms which must able to walk with me to my house. The fat pizza guy leans forward on his beefy arms. “Madam,” he asks, “Do you want your escorts hot, or cold?”

 Walking uphill towards my apartment with my greasy escorts and my grapes, I wait until the delta between overhead sound and vision converge. It is no passenger plane, no Jet Blue, above me. As the crow flies, I’m the same distance from Damascus Syria as my home in Brooklyn was from the state capital at Albany, a gorgeous drive up the Taconic State Parkway. When the Taconic opened out of its twists, I wanted to drive north for the rest of my life; past the border, past the latitudes of Canadian cities, up, straight up, to Hudson Bay, to meet polar bears.

 Straight up above me now it is noon in the Middle East. I wait until white contrails arc towards the horizon. Now I can see the unmistakable lines of F-15’s. Every time I see them, they’re travelling in twos.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Yom Kippur

It’s the day before Yom Kippur. I have to see my lawyer for round two of purchasing an apartment in Israel. I’m so nervous I throw my sunglasses out with the trash. Now I’m more nervous; I pounce on a boy who’s pushed in front of me to board the bus. Kids here come first and go first. Girls understand queue decorum; I make a mental note to teach the boys.

I return from the lawyer to my rental, locate my rubber gloves, and storm out to the huge orange bin to dig out my glasses. The bin had been overflowing for weeks; last night miraculously it was emptied and my sunglasses are clearly visible, at the bottom, four feet down. There’s only one person in sight, a boy waiting for a bus. I ask him to help, thinking we’ll turn the monster over and I’ll replace its filthy contents. He smiles, jumps in, rescues my glasses, and hands them to me with a grin. I make a mental note to smack myself in the head.

Towards the end of Yom Kippur I re-enter the little synagogue. Nine year old girls are pouring their hearts out in vidui*. I want to tell them they have never done anything to warrant such contrition, but that would be like yelling no fire in a theater; the girls would be alarmed.

The shofar blows. There’s clapping, and singing, Next Year in Jerusalem. I get confused, and want to shout, “The bus stops right outside, why wait?” But the singing refers to Jerusalem restored. The girls file out like royalty. Outside, boys are dueling with bamboo rods ready for the roofs of Sukkot. A tiny toddler almost gets skewered. His brother catches him in his left arm, kisses his curly head, and with his right arm, duels on.


*Vidui – confession, according to Maimonides, the core requirement of Yom Kippur.