For a while I thought I could be satisfied simply to read about the place.
Father of Zionism
Before he left for Palestine—he visited only once—Theodore Herzl’s wife requested that he bring back a pair of Ottoman slippers. The morning before his departure, they traced her foot onto a piece of paper. No one knows if he remembered to buy the shoes. We do know from his letters home that Jerusalem was a disappointment to him.
A Certain Wall
In 1919, Chaim Weizmann (head of the Zionist Commission) approached the British military governor of Jerusalem in an attempt to buy the Western Wall. The idea failed. Look what it’s become today: stage set, propaganda hoop, farce, and deadly weapon.
An Arab and a Jew
In Ottoman Palestine, Levine, a well-known Jewish insurance man, wanted for spying by the Turkish authorities, sought refuge with the Arab, Sakini. The two men ended up roped together on a trek into the desert, then shared a single mattress in prison.
One wanted to hear that they had became lifelong friends, inseparable, that over the years the differences in their cultural traditions had melted, leaving them simply and exquisitely two human beings. But that’s not how it went. They learned from each other but they did not dedicate their lives to the friendship.
Both Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence were taken with Prince Faisal’s good looks. He was tall, dark, handsome, intelligent, and of course, as a native of the desert, he contained the thing they both found immensely seductive: a quality of the exotic as well as a stamp of its authenticity.
There is speculation that perhaps Faisal and Gertrude Bell were lovers, though there’s no certain evidence.
Still, entwined in some way, they remain a compelling image of two characters in history, resonant with the keen call of dry desert air and endless sand.
In early December of 1917, Ottoman soldiers walked the narrow, dusty lanes of Jerusalem holding aloft a white flag. Legend has it that they attempted to surrender several times but British soldiers were uncertain how to accept the surrender of a sultan who, in one embodiment or another, had ruled the dusty patch for four hundred years. We read that the men were relieved of their white flag on the seventh attempt.
Was it dusty by then? Had it dragged in the dirt? And where is it now—shreds in a museum?
A Moment in Time (1947/8)
How long did she wait before packing up essentials—cloth for diapers, blankets, soap, dried figs and all the documents that registered their births? How long before she packed up and locked the door, knowing she might never cross that lintel again, a lintel beloved even on a normal day, and more so that night when in the moonless, starry dark, she folded everything in a square of cloth and joined what appeared to be an endless caravan in a race north.
It was no race—speed was proscribed—but the proximity of so many fellow human beings forming an avid, obvious line that stretched west to east offered, if not power, then at least a kind of warmth. The baby slept, so did her three-year old brother. Her breasts, when she’d turned back from checking on the boy, leaked milk.
An Unnamed Village in Israel
He was from a sandy place where people communicated with both voiced language and a hand-concocted one. He moved between the two so fluently that when, in the midst of a conversation, he was stopped by a firm shake and asked to say how he had been “speaking,” he often could not come up with an answer.
The people of the date-infested enclave moved between languages the way sand moves, stacking against doors overnight, blowing free by day.
Razed orchards, poisoned wells
Think of the fury of a man, just-emerged from a boy, at the desecrated image of the father who seeded him.
Our orientation toward certain personages in history seems to awaken in them a glance back toward us that sometimes contains a wink.
Part II: Countdown
As if the place cares about the way it’s sliced up, and the way pine trees (in my name as well as the names of other family members) have replaced the olives that were once cultivated there.
All night, I dreamt an intruder: his face was next to mine, his needs insistent.
I closed a door on him, he found another opening.
There was no escaping him; he kept returning.
Reading, one dreams awake.
Is all olive oil equally kosher?
Put away every book except the Hebrew dictionary and verb tables.
Even in the irreligious, visits there may take on a religious aspect.
Think of Jerusalem Syndrome.
Mourid Barghouti wrote: “To walk in those places is to destroy the version of them that has survived in the imagination.”
And: “Time isn’t a stretch of calico. You can’t sew two pieces together.”
Reading about stolen land and settlements.
It’s easy, from here, to think I know where justice lies.
I first learned the Hebrew alphabet in 1967.
Forty years later, I find the letters still there, calling out their sounds when I trace them with a finger.
Will the land—the desert, the pines, the stones—grasp and throw me into the past?
My cousins wash their hands and recite a prayer before eating, then again after finishing the meal. They clean their plates with a piece of bread and put a hand over their eyes or lean away, murmuring some words.
Time is divided by promises kept (or not) to an invisible presence.
(We’re all trying to divide time into approachable pieces.)
They shouldn’t even use the same word for what I ate in Jerusalem and what I’d eaten elsewhere.
Like dancing but not, you move to the rhythm of your voice and those of others, creating a space within which you may begin to hear something new.
Pets and wild animals
The cat came into the small house with a bird in her mouth, the dog following. It was a brown bird with a black beak that eventually escaped the cat’s mouth. Then both the dog and cat chased the bird as it flew window to door to closet. The cat caught the bird again later and they all went out through the window.
The daily and the invisible, the possible, the unknown—plough into each other with a song, a glance, a thought, a prayer.
A person tries to weave between.
In the Druze village, Daliyat al-Carmel, at 7:40 a.m., my cousin asked which way I thought east was.
While my cousin davened, I asked her friend: “Do you do that?”
There was a faint whiff of complicity as she shook her head.
All that rain rushing against the windshield blinded us. My cousin drove by feel and very slowly. Jenin was just to the east of us. If we’d slid eastward, what would we have encountered?
Because there are no holidays in the month, it is bitter.
Looking under the bed
Before getting into bed in the small house I inhabited alone, I did a quick check—the big cupboard and under the bed—for hidden terrorists and settlers.
The women with their hair covered—a little disgusting. (I guess that’s the point.)
One afternoon, we stood watching as the surgeon made a slight cut beneath the baby’s tongue. The baby howled, the doctor threw him skyward to distract him, and then just minutes later, I could hear milk gurgling down the baby’s throat.
As we waited for the baby to finish drinking, a Haredi walked in, let his sidelocks down and turned away from us. I quietly asked for an explanation. The baby’s mother whispered that he didn’t want to look at women.
Knowing he couldn’t look at women made me think how much he must have desired them—us.
I tend to be interested in what’s most like me but somehow obviously different. In a zoo, I always head first for the monkey house.
I admit: the joy of shabbat brought forth the pain of living only in the profane.
Partial to the idea of a portable religion, I’d always thought that was its strength.
In the airport, at the first touch of dawn, a man put on tefillin, faced the almost-rising sun, and spent a long time praying.
We are made in the form of what’s visible though there always exist unexamined corners. I’m both curious and reluctant to picture the corners of a soul.
Returned from Israel, I had emotional problems: it seemed more sinful to reject eating what my husband ate than it did to eat pork, which may be dirty but isn’t all animal flesh?
Even the smallest attempt at religiosity conflicted with my secular being.
I put away my Hebrew books and flashcards. I put my Heschel, my Soncino Torah, and my Plaut back on the shelf.
The kosher thing ended quickly: I ate part of a pork chop, a little hamburger, and cheese one day for lunch. That was that.
I asked him: “Are you satisfied now? I’m exactly the same. It’s as if I never went.”
Notes from AZ’s lecture on Noach:
Before Noah, the human hand was like a paw. Noah was born with his fingers separate.
All technology is nothing but an extension of the human hand: scalpel, scythe, pencil, asbestos glove.
Does one need to be cleansed for God or is the point that the contemplation of what may or may not be—everything beyond our knowledge but within the possibility of our consciousness—is itself a kind of cleansing?
A plough brings fertility to the surface.
You don’t read Torah on the surface. You turn it over, go down into the depths.
And you never stop doing it—breaking up the crust.
First, I saw from the Israeli point of view, then things switched and I saw from the Palestinian point of view. I was still myself and never Israeli or Palestinian, but as me, myself, perspective kept changing.
The dream was not tiring or dizzying, though I continued to see that way, back and forth, side to side for many nights.
“The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, to which Israel is a signatory, spells out precisely what an occupying power can and cannot do.” (Makdisi)
What creates the world? The worm!
Worm, plough, prayer—three ways of saying the same thing.