Archive for the 'Story' Category

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Yelling With You?

A story today – one of the best illustrations of typical Israeli behavior that I’ve ever heard. A friend of mine made aliyah with her family when she was 10. She had 3 sisters (one older, two younger) and their father stayed back in the U.S. to finish up some business stuff, intending to join his wife and 4 children as soon as he could. Their first apartment was 7 floors up, in an otherwise empty building that (as luck would have it) had the electricity and water turned off. (Let me emphasize for any readers out there who are not familiar with Israel: Israel has a first-world infrastructure. This was an oddity.) The mother of the family called and tried to get the city to turn on their utilities, as they were supposed to, but despite promises she received, nothing changed. This, in addition to dealing with everything a new immigrant has to deal with, on top of having 4 children under the age of 13 in a country fairly foreign to them, with her husband over 6000 miles away, was more than a little stressful.

So one day, she was driving the car they had rented for the first couple of weeks, and she accidentally turned the wrong way onto a one-way street. It happens to the best of us, especially when we’re stressed and preoccupied. She encountered another car driving the correct way, who responded in typical Israeli fashion by honking his horn vigorously, to alert the poor woman that she was wrong and he was right, and she should therefore get the heck out of his way. He soon escalated. He got out of his car, walked over to hers, and started yelling at her, a far more effective way of informing her in no uncertain terms that she was driving the wrong way and what the heck was wrong with her and was she an idiot and so on and so on. It was too much. She got out of the car and started yelling back, letting all of her troubles out, emphasizing that she wasn’t an idiot, she just had no power, no water, 4 daughters underfoot, an absentee husband, and she was a new immigrant. The other driver still worked up, just got angrier, but this time on her behalf. “You have no power, and no water? That’s just unacceptable!” He promptly marched down to the city offices with her and yelled at enough people till they turned on her power and water.

That’s Israelis. They’ll yell at you about the small things, and yell for you about the big things.

Dreaming for a Day

So I wrote about Yom HaZikaron and put off writing about Yom HaAtzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) for almost two weeks. But I really should write about this one. Here goes.

I was walking back home from Yom HaAtzma’ut festivities with a (new) friend at 3 in the morning. Like all Jewish holidays, it started in the evening and would continue until the next evening. I had spent all night in town and I was exhausted but elated. It had been a good night. She, who’d made aliyah several years ago, turned to me and asked, “So what do you think of your first Yom HaAtzma’ut as an oleh?”

I was too jumbled to answer properly. “Ask me again in a few days,” I replied.

But she pressed me. “Come on, what’s your first impression?”

“Ummm….” I hesitated for a moment and thought back on the evening’s events. I thought back to Yom HaZikaron, and how it worked as a lead-in. The siren sounded, and the country became one organism and that organism held its breath for a minute. And this? Well, in some ways, this was the opposite. Lots of noise – people singing, dancing, teenage hooligans crowding the streets and having shaving-cream fights. And the following day? I knew what was coming: barbecues, hikes, and family time. Religious Zionists said a special set of prayers, as the day has both religious and nationalist significance. And most Jews – religious or not – were joining in the festivities in one way or another. Myself, I prayed the evening prayers with Bnei Akiva, the Zionist youth organization that had some influence on my decision to move here. It was really nice. It was right and good and appropriate. Afterwards, they showed us a video, a typical “Israel is great, look at all of our accomplishments” presentation. I found it odd, and I got the sense that those around me just weren’t that interested in it either. Because this all seemed very after-the-fact, very much preaching to the choir. We were there already, living in the Land of Israel, contributing to the State of Israel in one way or another. We didn’t need to be told how great Israel is. And in any case, if we wanted to see something to be impressed by, we could just walk outside, and marvel at everything around us that wasn’t here 60 years ago, and how it’s connected to everything that was here 2000 years ago.

Normally, while watching these presentations, I kind of get a little uncomfortable. Because when you get right down to it, they’re propaganda. They do more than put Israel in a positive light. They don’t mention all the problems we have here and therefore (1) give people a distorted image of Israel (as distortion in the positive direction is still distortion) and (2) prevent people from grappling with the issues more with the aim of resolving them.

But amid everything I was feeling, that uneasiness wasn’t there this time. I thought maybe that we could lie to ourselves just a little bit, just that day. For a moment, I focused on the positives and only the positives. For a moment, the problems – and boy, do we have problems – faded into the background.

For a moment, Israel was perfect.

I think that that moment extended for the rest of the day. I saw a friend later who I had corresponding with about political issues. It was her turn to respond. When she saw me in person, she said, “I haven’t forgotten you. I’m still thinking of what to respond.”

“It’s ok. I don’t want to talk about politics tonight anyway,” I replied, and as I said it, I realized just how true that was.

Then I saw rikudei am. It means “folk dancing,” and the closest thing we have to it in the U.S. is square dancing. But in the areas I come from, at least, it’s unpracticed and obscure. But in Israel, it’s more a part of the fabric of life. And so I found myself in Kikar Safra (Safra square, a large plaza near a bunch of the government buildings in Jerusalem) watching hundreds of people dance in synch. Most people seemed to just know the steps – at least well enough to fake it. It was surreal, like I had just walked into the middle of a musical. But the Israelis didn’t find it the least bit odd. Yes, they realized it was campy and quaint, but no one was bothered by the campiness. Rather, they reveled in it. For a moment, I could see in that group of dancers the children and grandchildren of the chalutzim, the pioneers, who hold a legendary status in Israeli cultural memory, as the original kibbutznikim, who proudly worked the land by day, spoke of a glorious future at night, and joyously danced the hora somewhere in-between. Oh, they had problems themselves aplenty, and in our day, we see some of their legacy in that regard as well. But not the night of Yom HaAtzma’ut. That night, I just saw the legends. And somehow, that felt right.

I turned to my friend to answer, and these thoughts came pouring out much more articulately than I had formulated them in my head. It was something like this:

“I think it’s a day of escapism. Normally, escapism is bad. It prevents us from dealing with the reality as it is, and excuses us from responsibilities we should be facing. But for one day, it’s inspiring. For one day, we let each person see Israel as an ideal, whatever that may be for that individual. For one day, we let people believe that Israel is as it should be, to remind them what it could be.”

And for me, that’s as it should be.

Apart At The Seams

I moved here to Israel two weeks after the Second Lebanon War ended, when the bitter taste of it still lingered. As the nation now prepares (or braces itself) for Lebanon War #3, people are looking back to last year and what happened then. I recently stumbled across this article (via Good Neighbors) and it threw me for a loop:

Together, Helen and I had tried to create a tidy little universe with a population of two. In this universe, it didn’t matter that I was a Jew and Helen was an Arab. We were beyond the politics….

Politics slumbered alongside us. Sometimes it spoke in its sleep, sometimes it rolled over, but it did not wake up.

And then, the war.

When the morning newscast announced that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped along the border of Lebanon, I felt the dream world that Helen and I had constructed around ourselves begin to evaporate….

As the war raged on, our morning ritual of listening to the news on NPR became agonizing. Helen still hadn’t heard from her aunts and uncles and cousins, and she feared the worst. I switched my alarm clock from “radio” to “buzzer.”

One morning, about a week after the conflict had begun, the tension was especially palpable. All of a sudden, Helen threw down her boots in frustration. Her fingers balled into fists.
“We have to talk,” she said.
“I know,” I replied.
“You are so distant,” she said. Helpless and angry, she stared out the window.
I picked up Helen’s boots and brought them to her.
“I don’t even know what to say,” was the best I could do. I was afraid that if we talked, we would discover that we just could not be together. I was afraid of discovering that love had failed to elevate us to a place beyond politics. “Please,” I begged, “give me some time.”

….I was terrified. Terrified that someone from Helen’s family could get killed by an Israeli bomb. Terrified that every time I saw her Caller ID, I thought it would be our last conversation. I kept imagining her carefully chosen words, her contrite tone as she whispered through the tears, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore.”

My friends were supportive, and a few admitted to being inspired by us, framing our relationship in hopeful, hyperbolic terms, a microcosm of the peace process itself. When I expressed my own doubts, one overzealous friend scolded me, “You can’t give up! You owe it to humanity to make this work.”

As if I didn’t have enough on my mind. Now world peace hinged on my ability to find common ground with my girlfriend.

And so on. They go through some really rocky times, and the emotion is real and needs no hyperbole to validate itself. (Read the article itself to see how it turns out.) My issues with intermarriage and interreligious couples aside, it was touching.

In any case, after reading it, a memory bubbled up from the depths of my head – something I’ve hardly thought about in 3 years, even though at the time, it seemed like one of those moments, the ones you remember in a very real way. Back when I was in college, during my sophomore year, I was hanging out in my room in the CJL, the Jewish living house on campus. My door was open, and I heard (or maybe saw) a girl about my age wandering around cautiously. She clearly was looking for something and was not familiar with or particularly comfortable in our house. Being the friendly guy I was (am?), I walked out of my room to help her out. She her name was Tori (I think) and she was looking for the Hillel and I explained (as we often did) that we were not the Hillel, but I could show her where to find it. She dismissed my offer wearily, too emotionally drained to go wandering around another unfamiliar building. I invited her to sit down, she collapsed on the couch and started breaking down in tears.

The story came out: she was Jewish and going out with an Arab guy, I think a Palestinian. At some point, The Conflict came up. One of his friends said something negative about Jews, and she protested. Her boyfriend said “your people are f-ing unpleasant.” She was floored. She hadn’t expected this at all. From what she said, it seemed like that, and the brief fallout afterwards, were the last words they’d exchanged. He and his friend called several times during our conversation, but she hung up on them each and every time. There was no bridge-building here. It wasn’t even a consideration.

Back to her sitting on the couch, crying. Here I have a girl crying because politics and bigotry reared their ugly heads in this place she thought was safe. Tori felt so helpless, she told me, since she didn’t know much about The Conflict and couldn’t argue with them. I started to explain the issues and complexities of the whole messy situation in Israel, but it was clear (or at least, it’s clear to me now) that she didn’t need a history lesson. She needed a friend. She didn’t need someone to solve this; there was no solution. She needed someone to listen. And I did somewhat, and I hope it was sufficient. She left, with nothing resolved, nothing accomplished, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just missed an opportunity. But for what, exactly?

This story has a postscript. I emailed her shortly after her visit, offerring to help if I could. She didn’t reply in any meaningful way, and I didn’t hear from her again. Months later, I was leading a seder (among many others) at school, and who should show up at my table, but Tori. But not weeping, uncertain Tori. This was dressed-up, confident, sorority-girl Tori. And since I hadn’t met this version of her, she acted the part. There was a flicker of recognition, a brief nod, when I started pointing out that we’d met before, but then it was gone. We went through the whole seder and throughout, no one but us could’ve guessed that here was a girl who’d broken down crying and poured her heart out to me. I was like her psychologist; I had seen her at her most emotionally vulnerable. We’d been strangers from the moment she’d walked out of my room that day.