Aug 8, 2019

Sheer Act of Will

1.
I’m sitting in the shade at the Kotel (Western Wall) waiting for my friend Ruthie who’s standing stock-still, praying. In front of me are Ruthie’s sister-in-law and a woman she’s escorted to the Wall. The woman shakes my hand: she’s Sandra from somewhere Texas; it’s her first time in Israel, first prayers at the Kotel, and as one of the Bnei Noach, (a Noahide), she’s truly moved to be here.

This last part takes explaining.

Judaism not only doesn’t encourage converts, there were times and will be another when converts are not accepted at all. The Torah however puts a requirement on all non-Jews to observe seven out of the 613 mitzvot (commandments). Those who choose to observe these mitzvot are called Noahides.

Sandra has unfolded a blueprint of the Second Temple on her lap. A former sheriff’s deputy, she’s particularly interested, she says, in where the Great Court had been housed. In her twang she recites, with profound respect, the Noahide mitzvah to set up just laws and courts.

I have other interests. Does she have a horse? Where is her holster? Back in Texas does she carry a rifle on her shoulder or pack a set of pistols, one for each hand? Could we see her badge?

Sandra confides, “I managed to hang a plaque in the corner of the courthouse back home without ruffling any feathers: Zion will be redeemed with justice, and those who return to her, with righteousness.”

Her horse trots off, her holster disappears; Sandra has stirred up a two colliding memories.

2.
Inside the old Brooklyn Federal Courthouse there was a relief of Lady Justice and an inscription, an exhortation: Justice, justice shall you pursue. It moved me. I started jury duty one Monday morning feeling I was doing something holy.

The case was this. The defendant, coolly, expensively dressed, was accused of using an ex-girlfriend as a drug mule. He had the girlfriend, mother of three of his children, conceal heroin in her person in Jamaica and fly to JFK, where he was waiting to relieve her of her burden.

The FBI was also waiting; the defendant and his mule were arrested. Why she was in prison and he was free we wouldn’t learn until after the trial. The testimony had a horrible peak. Our jury was led out of court. When we returned the girlfriend, in a pathetic prison dress, was seated in the witness box. You could hear chains clanging whenever she moved.

Five minutes of her testimony was enough to tell me that the defendant’s story (he was at the airport to meet a relative who never showed; the girlfriend had planned the drug deal all by herself) was boloney. This woman couldn’t plan her way into a parking spot. Her kids (his kids) were being raised in Jamaica by her mother; she was looking at decade in jail with no parole. She looked pitiful; the defendant looked at his watch.

Deliberations lasted three days. One of our jurors was farcical: with a roll of paper towel and bottle of blue spray she’d found under the sink she busied herself cleaning the coffee machine, the counter, the mini-fridge, the table. When she finished she’d start again, the whole time mumbling “the man ain’t guilty.” We could not get her to sit with us or explain her verdict.

One of the two male jurors, Thomas, was scary. “Cops, the Feds, the whole damn government lies.” It was because of their lies, he bellowed, that his ex-wife was granted her divorce and sole custody of their kids.

“Same thing here. The defendant ain’t guilty. The Feds,” he explained like we were dumbbells, “set him up – it’s a big damn sting.”

Jenny, a gentle spoken juror who had lost two grandsons to drugs, pulled some pretty little glass vials out of her purse and held them up for Thomas and the cleaner to see. “I found these in front of my house this morning”, she said, “you gonna tell me they were planted there?”

Thomas said “Pfffft” and turned away. The cleaner scrubbed a coffee stain, “I have said it, the man ain’t guilty.”

After it was all over, Jenny and I supported each other arm in arm on our way to the subway. I had a migraine, she was weeping. “They were biased from the get go”, she whispered, “they had no right to be on a jury.” I wanted to tell her about Lady Justice, about the inscription inside Brooklyn Federal Court, but my head was thumping; I had to concentrate on getting home without vomiting.

3.
I come back to the present. Sandra is telling us about the High Court and the stringencies its sages took to judge without bias.

“There’s a whole list of judges who disqualified themselves because a litigant did them some tiny favor! You must know them: ‘A feather blew onto Amemar's head, and a man removed it. Amemar disqualified himself from judging his case. Samuel was walking on a bridge, and a man lent him a hand. The man had a case; Samuel disqualified himself from judging him.’

“That’s what we want! That’s what I look forward to,” Sandra sighs, “someday.”

Sandra, I see, has missed it. She hasn’t seen the scrupulousness of judges sixteen hundred years ago on display today. I share my colliding memory; my sister had a jury duty story of her own.

My sister’s defendant was a pusher charged with selling heavy drugs in front of a Brooklyn high school. The week of testimony was grueling; the week of deliberations worse. In the end however, the entire jury found the perp guilty.

After listening to my sister’s account of the trial I’d asked her what the defendant looked like.

“I don’t know,” she’d said, and shrugged. 

I was baffled. Was the guy masked? Was he behind a curtain? Was he somewhere remote? What?

“How come you don’t know what he looked like?”

My sister explained, “I didn’t look. I didn’t want to be prejudiced by his appearance.”

For one solid week, and part of another, my sister averted her eyes from the center of attention of a packed courtroom. Gluing herself to the gene pool inherited from thousands of generations of Jewish mothers, my sister willed herself to judge with righteousness.


All three women’s eyes grow wide, they ooh and ah. Ruthie knows my family is assimilated way back, so does her sister-in-law, but Sandra and I have just met.

“Your sister must be a very devout woman,” marvels Sandra.

I do not say no.



Jun 12, 2019

Hell Breaks Loose

I’m in this new building in Jerusalem to observe a Torah class for Crypto-Jews (wrongly referred to as marranos) and to see how I can help two of them with the odds and ends of daily life.

With only five minutes before class Rabbanit Raquel, who is both teacher and guidance counselor, gives me a quick lowdown on Miriam, a young Colombian woman, and her mother, Señora Lopez.

Miriam is doing brilliantly. Her mother (Raquel turns a palm up then down), not so well. She’s terrified as ever and now, she’s also bitter. You understand.”  I’m about to say I don’t understand when Miriam flies into the Rabbanit’s office. I hold my arm out stiffly for a good Anglo handshake. Miriam laughs, hugs me, and leads me by my hand to the classroom. Miriam has long loose hair and bracelets of yellow beads on her chubby wrists. The bracelets click as we rush inside.

In the back of the room at a three seat table Miriam presents me to her mother. Señora Lopez wears her hair in a noose of grey braid. Arms marshaled across her chest, she hears my name, says acidly, “Ud. viene de Nueva York” (“You come from New York”), sighs, and turns away to the desk up front where a pile of books waits with Raquel.

The Rabbanit swaps to reading glasses, bookmarks with her index finger a large tome, and looks up.

“I said last week I want questions, challenging questions. If I don’t get them, I’ll sit down in this chair and stop teaching.”

She points to a void where her chair should be. The class laughs. The class is twenty adults from Latin America, two from Spain, one kid erecting a Lego monster on the Rabbanit’s stolen chair, and me.

I have to concentrate hard as the Rabbanit teaches, in Spanish, the Purim story. Her accent is castellano, same as the professoras who taught us the language in our public high school. Each professora, and most of our class, was Jewish. One teacher, Señora Wislitzsky, took us on a class trip to a fancy Spanish restaurant on Park Avenue, where we ate the rice, shellfish, and pork sausage dish called paella. In our Jewish archdiocese of Flatbush Brooklyn, not a single kid had been taught to abstain from chowing down on that perfectly treif stuff.

Miriam passes me a candy. She takes such fervid, galloping notes our desk shakes, and her mother booms out question after question. She interacts passionately, as though the Rabbanit were discussing today’s news rather than news of nearly 2400 years ago.

“Exactly how much time is there from one part of the story to another?” asks Miriam’s mother. The Rabbanit turns to the white board behind her and bullets and dates the events.

Here’s Esther, unhappy winner of a macabre Miss World contest appalled at her prize – she’s booked to marry the boorish king of Persia. Here’s Queen Esther spilling the beans to her husband and Haman, his prime minister: she is in fact, a Jew. If Haman’s plan to destroy every last Jew goes down, so does she.

Dates are written in red, events in black. I see that Esther hid her Jewishness for five years and think “got it, let’s move on,” but this class of Crypto-Jews, in hiding for five centuries, is stunned. Miriam’s hands fall limply over her pen. Her eyes are fixed on the timeline.

Her mother smacks our desk, then like pistols, fires both index fingers at Rabbanit Raquel. “Why did Esther tell? That king,” she yells, “will bury her on fire.”

I expect the Rabbanit to laugh, to explain that Esther lives, that Purim is joyous, a real holiday. Instead, Rabbanit Raquel picks up her book, marks it with a post-it, closes it, and looks up at Miriam’s mother, “.”

When Miriam whispers to her mother, “It ends well for the Jews” her mother shoots back, “but not for us.”

We break. From a tray onto the snack room table where her mother and I have been waiting, Miriam unloads three lemon sodas and three tall glasses of ice. Her mother holds an icy glass to her forehead.

“How easy it must have been to grow up Jewish in New York” she says. There is jealousy in her voice, and menace.

“No,” I reply.

I ask Señora Lopez how she knew her family was Jewish. Her reply is animated.

“My grandmother lived with us. She spent all day Friday cleaning the house and making sure we bathed and changed into clean clothes. By the afternoon she had a pot of beans and potatoes on our hearth. I wasn’t allowed to touch it. No one was allowed to touch it. On Saturday all my aunts and cousins came for lunch. Only then did my grandmother take this special stew off the hearth and serve us.

“She never ate pork, and she never let us eat it either. In fact we ate no meat. One of my friends from school asked her if we were so poor we could only afford vegetables. My grandmother lied, ‘My belly has never been able to tolerate rich foods, so I never cook it and I never serve it.’ That way no one was suspicious when we didn’t eat pork.

“And our names.” Señora Lopez looks at her daughter. “Outside she was Maria, inside, when the family was alone, we called her Miriam.” She pauses, “A name in our family forever.”

Miriam picks up her mother’s thread. “But we didn’t know what it all meant. I started looking on the internet, and found a rabbi in Colombia. When we told him about the Shabbat stew, he grinned.”

I look around. There’s the Lego kid in his yarmulke. On the streets of Jerusalem every day I see thousands of Jews who wear fun masks on Purim, few who wear the disguises of half a millennium.

Miriam must think I’m bored; she shifts the conversation. “Tell us about New York. To go to sinagoga on Shabbat, to fast on Yom Kippur in the open, to buy matzos in a shop – it’s true, right? In New York you buy your matzos in a shop?”

I don’t know what a volcano I’m leaping into. Stupidly, I tell the women the truth.

“My family never went to sinagoga, not once; we watched TV on Yom Kippur same as every other day. But yes, you could buy matzos in the supermarket, which my mother did. We had matzos and we had bread on Passover – both.”

I tell them more. I confess honestly that I was well educated in the civil rights movement but learned about the holocaust accidentally from a TV show, which made me vomit. I tell them my beloved cousin wonders if she was given a Jewish name. Was her mother? Her father?

This all sounds ponderous to me. I want to entertain the two women with funny stories.

I tell them I had the lead part as the Easter bunny in our elementary school play. In Spanish, I sing for them Here Comes Peter Cottontail. I recall my aunt’s yummy meat and cheese lasagna and confess I still miss that forbidden mix. I tell them that at age twenty-one I made embarrassing mistakes at a renowned rabbi’s Passover Seder, the first Seder of my life.

I am about to tell them the dumb things I did at that Seder when I see that Miriam’s mother has turned the color of lava. And now it’s too late.

It’s too late to explain that’s it’s not our fault. It’s been five generations since anyone in my family knew Purim or Passover; we’re not unusual. We’re programmed to throw away what Miriam's family  has struggled to preserve.

Señora Lopez shakes her ice violently, then bangs her glass on the table and opens her mouth to speak. I brace myself. Now I know, when she does speak, hell will break loose.

Jun 3, 2019

Superman's Gym Bag

I’m just over five feet in kitten heels which is what I was wearing the night Mercury flew past me in a CVS pharmacy in a Brooklyn slum. The man, in muscle, was twice my weight. He ran faster than I drive. But when a cashier yelled “Catch that guy!” I jumped him.

I had him around his alpha neck. In retrospect, it must have been hilarious to see a woman in a velvet cape riding this Hulk piggyback up the makeup aisle, out to the parking lot, and dumped, like Superman’s gym bag, on the blacktop. I was all shook up. I was not  particularly safe living in New York.

A decade later I flashed on that cape as I waited one freezing Shabbat afternoon for my elderly neighbor, Mrs. M., to drain a last drop of Kirschwasser from the only household item to survive her Warsaw girlhood, a red lead crystal aperitif. She had disturbing news before Shabbat from a more elderly friend vacationing in Antwerp. A doctor there refused to treat the woman’s broken rib, because, give him H for honesty, she was a Jew.

“Can you believe it?” Mrs. M. asked. I almost said, “You have trouble believing it?” But she was slumped forward, shoes off, her stockings bunched at the toes. It was no time to get mouthy, and it was not the right time to tell her what just formed in my mind, seemingly from nowhere but in truth subterranean years in the making. I would sell my house. I would pack up my furniture, my books, my clothes, and my cat and I would move to Israel, before I lost the choice.

Late after Shabbat was over I peeked through the shutters. The lights in Mrs. M’s bedroom were still on. I turned up the heat, wrapped myself in heavy blankets, and plopped down to make a list of all the things I needed to do to move my New York body and soul to Israel.

At first I thought the abnormal screams were icicles scraping my windows, until I realized they were coming from further outside. In my bathrobe, with no brains and an old flashlight, I threw open the door to my backyard.

On the winter limbs of my only tree swung three skeletal raccoons, raving, howling, staring me down.

My house was sold to an optimistic young couple who planned to expand it and fill it with children. One morning in early spring I handed them my ring of keys.

Later that night I stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion and handed my paperwork to an immigration counselor from Uruguay. Hysterically, we conducted my State of Israel citizenship interview in Spanish. I signed there and there, received a suitcase full of rainbow writing papers and brochures, and have not left Israel’s tiny boundaries since.

May 17, 2019

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 am a lifetime New Yorker; 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 a small 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. 

Apr 17, 2019

Terror Night Wedding


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.

Mar 17, 2019

Heavy Rain

It’s taken five weeks to track Betty from ICU to rehab, until last night after Shabbat our visit-the-sick and elderly (Betty is both) listserv confirmed that her smashed eye and hip are healing. Rehab it is.

There’s only one bus that services her facility from mainland Jerusalem. In a loop it goes, and goes again. Today is the first day of heavy rain. The bus shelters in Israel are made of tiny grille work, so you can watch for your bus. The rain ricochets mud through the grille onto my face. The kid who spent every summer at Brighton Beach finally acquires freckles. There’s something odder. It takes me time to find my glasses but when I do I see it. A doorless red booth with a bygone phone and a woman, leaning against its wet glass, speaking Russian on her mobile.

The rehab ward clerk tells me Betty’s room number in English, and although it’s only an easy left she gesticulates as if I will be walking to Lebanon. I arrive at Betty’s door just as it’s closing behind a twinkly nurse’s aide, who, pulling on hospital gloves, polls the patient, “You made pee-pee? It’s okay, it’s okay.”

Two men in scrubs wait too. One is necklaced by a stethoscope and carries a chart. The other pushes a cart of tubes and tubing, a phlebotomist. The phlebotomist is Arab, I can tell by his accent and red gold wedding ring. Both are chumming away about, this I do not miss, kiduri regel – soccer, which annoys me. Is Canada not the second most humongous country in the world? Is hockey, therefore, not more important than playing basketball with your feet?

As I’m framing my case in Hebrew, Stethoscope is paged and rushes off. Wedding Ring exchanges seats with a newspaper, holds it up, and reads.

Page one center features the female Arab doctor in Cleveland. I’ve read what she threatens to do to Jews. Having an Arab read it three feet away makes me feel, who knows why, embarrassed. I watch Wedding Ring’s response. The lines and colors on his face shift, from engrossed to bewildered, to appalled.

The door to Betty’s room opens. The perky nurse’s aide says coast is clear and tells him something that must be funny. Wedding Ring looks up at her. She asks him slowly, “Do you feel sick?”  He says nothing. He covers his face with his hands and with the downward gravity of despair, slumps in his chair, like a patient not in rehab, but hospice.

Feb 17, 2019

Holiday Honey

Joëlle’s humongous plasma TV takes up a whole high wall of her hairdressing salon. You can’t miss it. And I, not having a TV of my own, don’t want to: an appointment with Joëlle is an appointment with culture. 

Besides French soaps, she favors Israeli cook-offs or the spitfire chat-chat of talk shows. Her natal French and acquired Hebrew lead me through the weird life of chanteur Johnny Hallyday to an ancient and skilled woman teaching her great-grandson to make honey cake. The cake is for Rosh Hashana, which is imminent. 

Commercials wish me Shana Tova, and at last, six glamourosos of both sexes sit in a wide U, mikes clipped to their hip clothes. One woman sports long sleeves but naked shoulders, one curly haired man wears sunglasses nipped into the cleavage of his shirt. All of these people are Jews, and they are all talking at once. I hear them say Rosh Hashana but I don’t know if they’re condemning or celebrating. They talk straight into the commercials. They’re talking when the camera returns. They don’t seem to care that I’m out here; they’re busy.

Another commercial with more Shana Tovas and when we return a young woman, sweet faced, dressed plainly, warm with smiles, is talking about her career. Joëlle tells me the woman is a chef, a new Israeli from New Zealand. 

The panel pelts her with questions ensemble, and gently, smiling at the onslaught, she replies. Black and white stills show her at her pots and ovens. Joëlle says, “They’re asking her what she makes special for Rosh Hashana.” 

She describes a honey upside down cake in English and Mr. Curly Hair translates to Hebrew. “Ha-fuach”; I pause. It’s the word in the Megilla of Purim, where good and rotten, optimism and dread, normal and insane, are tangled: upside down.

They throw her more questions; it’s a mosh pit of noise. She describes a complex dish, then slips back to English to clarify, “Honey coated ham.” No one needs to translate. This panel of hip Jews, to a one, becomes absolutely still. Ms. Shoulder looks down at her shoes, Mr. Curly stares ahead. The director must be nervous with this hush. The timing wildly off, he cuts to commercials, which wish me, again, Shana Tova.

Jan 17, 2019

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 concerned about their reading material except they don’t startle, or even note that I’m right in front of them, tapping my nails 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 inviting, a four color spread of motherboards, chargers, routers, and drives. I sit down and wait. 

A bear of a man fills the doorway. Tattoos slither from the slab of one shoulder down his arm and drop anchor at his fingers, from which a red motorcycle helmet dangles. Wild curly hair goes unchecked. I’m calculating how low the pepper spray is buried in my purse when Cycle Man pauses, touches the door’s mezuzah, and kisses his fingers.

And here I have to do a replay.

It took only seconds, but Cycle Man closed his eyes, paused with the deep concentration of a devout Jew, and slowly kissed the mezuzah.

The clerks look up and go wild, “Yossi! You’re back!”  My ink is tossed 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 you doing?” Cycle Man, in the softest tone replies, “Thank G-d.”

I catch only some of what Cycle Man says: hospital, four months, fine, fine, Thank G-d.

The clerks remember I exist. 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 open and close in waves, like she’s drowning. 

In a 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. I’m standing right there.  On his inner arm now exposed, in the color of dusk, a tattoo of the galaxy spins toward his pulse.

A team from Magen David Adom arrives in a flash. One of the EMTs kisses Cycle Man on the top of his head, “Yossi. You’re back.”

Dec 17, 2018

No Chance

1.
Tuesdays I volunteer to teach English to tenth grade kids.  For breakfast before I catch the bus to their school I’m having an egg, yogurt, and a YouTube harangue 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. She makes quite clear that top ranked among fascists would be me, Lady Occupier of Jerusalem. Her hair is different, but her indoctrinated speech, her militant pitch, I heard decades ago, my freshman year.

The introduction to my campus was an oily, torch lit rally 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 was Paul; grad student in philosophy, Jew, and the boyfriend of my roommate Margo. The school did not close down, and the next weekend I found myself standing next to Paul, paisley snaking from his belt loop, waiting for the next spin in a night of international folk dancing. With the last stomp of a Balkan line dance (felt boots, sash, fur cap), 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 to reply. It would be years before I’d learn that a likeminded European fascist, who pruned all but two twigs from Paul’s family tree had said, propemodum, the same thing.

Now Paul’s analogue, this woman on the internet, laces into me; me 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 jet beads, with a bracelet of dozens of tinkling keys. 

“Whose baby is this?” she asks. 
A student kisses Bruiser’s fat 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 the baby to me. First, my face, a smiley emoji, is about to crack. Second, a male teacher, short with a short beard, shouldering a stuffed 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.

Two of my favorite kids pop up around me. They pick up cold from our lesson last week; we are learning comparative and superlative.

Maya, a large boned girl, the tallest kid in the class, says. “I have decided,” she says, “The best job for me will be to program computers.”

Daniel, whose hooded eyes make him look sleepy but whose brain wins marathons, 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, amazed at this kid’s vocabulary.

“My best would be to get married.”

Maya rolls her eyes. “Getting married is not a job.”

Daniel yawns, “It would be for my wife.”

I’m caught between needing to teach and impatient to know how these kids think. “Comparative! Superlative!” I insist.

“It would be the very worst job for my wife because she’d have to do the maximum amount of work. I will do the least. Is that how you say it?”

“You have the least choice in the matter Daniel,” says Maya. “You will be an engineer or your father will be most happy to kill you.”
She’s put her finger on some button because Daniel starts to retaliate, but Olga’s keys clang, her door opens, and in Hebrew she says something to my duo that scoots them inside.


Throughout each lesson, from day one, I’m aware of how much I love these kids. Today I’m also aware how the world will rip them apart.  I get through the hour with the fake energy of a depressed comic. When the bell rings, I make believe I have to sneeze and bury my face in my hands.

3.
Instead of a direct route to the bus stop, I detour through a weedy park. Its hills remind me of a small Riverside Park, except here no one will crack a bottle and lob it at my head.  

At a turn near the sliding pond I give up and drop onto a bench. I cover up my mood by making 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 randomly, fifteen.  They sit on either side of me, pull out their phones, and find apps 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 duo, living in this country the world detests, 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 to her, tight and close. “Why are you so worried?” she asks. “We’ll find your bus.” 

Nov 18, 2018

Curtain Rod, Baby Blanket, Floor Tile

 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.”

Oct 17, 2018

The Threat of Hello Kitty

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 refrigerated 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.

Sep 17, 2018

Gun Up Close

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. It’s silent. I’ve caught the 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.” The two men leave.

I have never seen a gun up close. A reaction, ten reactions, must be coloring my face because Annie is looking at me carefully. She’s a lovely, slim lady, with bright, kind eyes. She takes my hand 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 – under heavy shelling, rockets, the whole works. Levi got few breaks for Shabbat and no leave for his sister’s wedding, shocking in Israel.

Annie’s daughter, Levi’s mother, would drowse at her kitchen table but she could not lie down to sleep. As night wore on, the tick of the clock above the stove, the flash of the shiny timer on the microwave, the hum of the freezer, advanced on her like assassins. This is how Annie’s daughter lived the entire time her son was in combat.

One Friday afternoon, exhausted, her hands wet from preparing for Shabbat, Levi’s mother answered a soft rap at the door. Pitom, surprise, it was her son, in uniform, armed with 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.

Aug 17, 2018

Hot Brothers Spice Shop

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. 

Only thirty days an immigrant to Israel, this is my first outing to Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market – the Shuk.

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, and make a curry for Shabbat that’s almost too hot to eat.

Six months from now there will be a terrorist attack here smack in the middle of the shopping day. Until then, I’m still on my honeymoon with Israel.

Jul 17, 2018

Smack Myself in the Head

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. 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.