Back in Israel, 1998
Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv, 9 July 1998
Thurday, 6.30pm. Here's the pen, here's the notebook and here's the green bag I carried them in, the bag I've been dragging around with me. People are walking, eating, disappearing into the cinema, emerging from shops, smoking and chatting. It's still light and warm; behind me the traffic rumbles in a heavy monotone.
Inside the bag, hidden from the sight of the people, are: a) a copy of the
Torah translated into English, and; b) a t-shirt, black like most of my
t-shirts, printed with big white letters:
Stefanel. Like Netanel - my father's name. In my fathers words: Our name
means to serve the God.'Netan, to serve, El, the God. To serve the God.
El - a name for God. So my new t-shirt translates as "Stefan is God." The
question is: when to wear it.
Perhaps the Torah can help. Perhaps its passionate God will strike me down
for claiming His throne, for I am a stiff-necked goy wearing a provocative
But as I picture Him rising in anger to strike me, I could, like Moses, lay
down my pen to argue and plead on my own behalf, my hands emphasizing each
point as His divine presence lights up Dizengoff Square with Holy Fire.
But Lord, we all know You are the Lord, the Lord is One, and that's You
alright. I did not make this t-shirt, I bought it from a retail clothing
chain called STEFANEL right here on Dizengoff, right here among Your own
people. They, oh Lord, were having a 30% sale, so it was only 40 shekels.
It's like when I bought the Torah, Your Book, from Book Boutique down on
the other end of Dizengoff Street, translated into English so I may know
Your glory and honor Your Word. It was secondhand but it wasn't cheap
cheaper than the T-Shirt, granted, but it still shows my dedication to
So then the Lord might clear His throat and say: "B'seder then, I won't smite you
this time. Just don't wear it in the synagogue or I'll whip your ass
quicker than you can say YHWH."
So where then do I wear it, oh Lord? (I ready my pen for the answer)
"Anywhere where, one, people don't know your name and, two, irony is a
known form of humour. For though I am an impassioned God, I am a God of
your postmodern age, and my merciful nature recognises irony as a
legitimate form of expression in this land I have given your fathers and
forefathers, even though you're not all that Jewish. Shalom."
As I scribble the fire retreats upwards into the warm Mediterranean air.
The people wander about my park bench, eating and talking, oblivious to the
visit their God has just paid them. I pack my pen and notebook into my
green bag, sling it over my shoulder, and make my way back along Dizengoff
to the bus stop on King George Avenue.
Place: Tel Aviv
More fun in Armageddon
Kibbutz Ma'ayan Zvi, 22 March 1998
'It' is over.
The gasmasks have been stockpiled, the reporters have gone home, and life has returned to normal on the Kibbutz.
Not that things were that different anyway. Sure, the citizens of Tel Aviv panicked a tad. Sure, the government told us that there was nothing to worry about, while they gave us detailed instructions on how to protect our homes from biological nasties. Sure, some people remembered the Scuds of '91.
But up here on Mount Carmel range, people calmly bought their plastic and tape, secure in the knowledge that the fish ponds and fields of this hillside Kibbutz would never be on Saddam's hit list. Why, if we volunteers wanted gas masks, all we had to do was go to Tel Aviv and get one...no need to get upset.
The Ma'ayan Zvi air raid shelter is covered with flowers, hands and patterns painted by an American Jewish youth group. Back during the Gulf War, when it was just bare concrete grey, this shelter served as the hub of the Kibbutz.
But even then, the shelter wasn't the favourite haunt of all Kibbutzniks - some sat on the roof of the dining room and watched the Scuds try to hit the nearby Hadera power station (the missiles, by the way, either landed in the water or were intercepted by Patriot missiles) or the metropolis of Haifa, 35 kilometres away (the Scuds wiped out a building).
These days, the only presence in the shelter is an old black Alsatian who wags his tail and sleeps in the shade of the entrance.
Living in Israel is like living next to a highway - you get used to the noise, and you get on with it. It's a curiously casual place, except when...well, we'll worry about that when it happens.
The news reports, the overhead jets, the bus bombings, the gun carrying soldiers (sons? cousins? granddaughters?); they're just part of the deal when you buy into this piece of real estate. In the meantime, relax, enjoy - oh is that the news? Can you turn it up?
And when the noise does suddenly rise to a loud roar, you remember there's good reason to panic. Unless of course you're in Ma'ayan Zvi where you're a little better insulated, where the cries reach your ears only as soft muffled moans. And so in Ma'ayan Zvi it's life as usual, give or take a few dining room polemics and glances at today's headlines.
* * *
I'm picking avocadoes in the seaside plain below the Kibbutz. Golden sunlight filters through canopies of green leaves, birds pick at insects, trees rustle and clippers snap. White and yellow wildflowers pepper the metre-high grass lining the roadsides. A beautiful, peaceful day.
My co-worker is a 23-year-old biology student, a pretty, friendly girl with a pony tail, braces and light blue eyes. She has a teenage brother in the army. 'What does he do there?' I ask. 'He works with the tanks. A sharp shooter. He's excellent at hitting the target every time'. I ask her what she did during her army service. 'Intelligence,' she replies sweetly.
A loud explosion shatters the air. We look up. Two jets race southwards, their sonic boom resonating throughout the plain. She says: 'You remember yesterday, when we saw four of them? That's a bad sign. That means they're attacking in Lebanon. And if you see helicopters, that's bad too' 'You mean they're carrying home the injured?' 'That's right,' she says, placing a fruit in the bucket as the sun shines on above us.
Place: Ma'ayan Zvi
Crumbling mosaic in the ruins of a Byzantine basilica. Stumbled on this while walking on the beach north of Akko.
Place: Akko (Acre)
The ceremony of Holy Fire in the Church of the HOly Sepulchre, Holy Saturday, the day preceding Orthodox Easter 98 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Fire)
...from the Anglican contender for Golgotha, East Jerusalem
Another cool Yekke and Ma'ayan Zvi oldtimer. He's in the dining room.
Place: Ma'ayan Zvi
The spot in East Jerusalem that is the Anglicans' tenuous claim to the city's holy places. The hill has an ancient cemetery on top, some rocks that look like a skull ('Golgotha') and the Arab bus terminal below. Holy?
...at the Orthodox Easter "night of lights" in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Getting a pizza in Akko, 7 June 1998
It's my last night in Akko, a still, humid night squeezing the tower block
dwellers out onto the wide, poor streets. I cross the road and make my way
to the local shopping strip. People are milling in groups, talking loudly,
hanging out. A line of locals sit on the kerb, waiting impatiently for a
fat Russian woman in a floral dress who squawks into a public phone.
I've decided to celebrate leaving Akko with a pizza from the local bakery.
I pass through the fly curtain and into the flouro-lit shop, where a
dark-skinned boy is sitting at a table. The boy sees me and orders me to
buy him some pizza. The stocky sixty year-old behind the counter waves his
arms at the boy and yells at him to leave, then turns back to the oven,
shouting gruffly behind his back:
I ask him for some pizza in English; there's only one kind of pizza in this
place. Without turning around, he holds up five fingers and shouts "hamesh"
("five minutes"). I notice some numbers tattooed in blue on his forearm.
"B'seder" ("okay") I say. He lets out a barrage of Hebrew. I reply with
"anee lo meveen" ("I don't understand").
He turns around and says in broken English: "What language you speak?" I
answer: "Anglit, Germanit."
"Ich spreche ein bisl Deutsch" he says in angular German. He points to the
cold sore on my lip and jokingly asks me if I've been in a punch-up, a
broad grin on his wide face. I like this man.
He opens the oven door and checks the bottom of the pizza. Closing the
door, he turns around and faces me. We stare at the walls as the minutes
"Yes, I went to Germany once," he says a little while later and points to
his tattoo, smirking. "I was only nine years old, a kid." I look at him,
and am surprised to see that his eyes are still light and sparkling. I'm
amazed at how differently people react to such things.
"Which country do you come from?" I ask. "The Czech Republic." I think of
my visit, five years before, to Theriesenstadt, where they held
Czechoslovakia's Jews on the way to the camps, the exhibition of pictures
painted by the kids in the ghetto. I remember the old Jewish quarter of
Prague, where I'd bought postcards depicting the Golem, the Jews' mythical
manmade monster, a plank of wood nailed over the chasm where his heart
should have been.
"I speak lots of languages," the pizza man says. "I've been in Akko now for
27 years, before that in Russia. I worked in a steel factory." He pulls the
pizza out of the oven and deposits it with a flourish in the box. "Enjoy
your dinner" he says warmly as he hands me the pizza. I thank him, wish
him all the best and, in a daze at this unexpected junction of old and new
worlds, grasping the steaming box and head out onto the teeming sidewalk.
Note...he was the second of three concentration camp
survivors with tattoos on their arms - the mother of my boss in Akko, the
Pizza Man and an old woman at a bus stop in Holon.
Place: Akko (Acre)