It is 1967, and a visiting student in Jerusalem is shaken by the war that is close by. When he opens up to his feelings about Israel, they surprise even him.
I was walking home when I heard an explosion. My gut clenched like a fist as a cloud of black smoke filled the afternoon sky on Bethlehem Road in Jerusalem. The cloud covered the gas station down the street. I figured Jordan had bombed Bakka in its attempt to wipe out Israel. Scared, I scrambled through an open gate at 14 Bethlehem Road. A sign in Hebrew said “Ministry of Health.”
The gate led to a stone path, a square garden and a row of onestory rooms with asbestos roofing. The path ended at a closed door with a sign: “Kabbala” (Reception). I was proud I could read the sign.
“Just heard an explosion,” I told the woman sitting behind a desk, typing. She continued looking at the keyboard. “Did you hear it?” I asked.
“Someone will talk to you soon,” she said, pointing me to the waiting room.
In the middle of the room was a low table with a glass top strewn with newspapers. I could make out a few words from the headlines:“ Jerusalem,”“War,”“Dayan.” Five folding chairs circled the table. Four people sat in the room. On one side, a mother and her daughter leaned into each other. The mother was crocheting a black kippa and the daughter, about eleven, crossed her arms over her chest.
Opposite the door sat an ultra- Orthodox man in his twenties, rocking back and forth, sucking on his peyot. He wore a wrinkled black jacket and pants that swam on his thin body, the fly unzipped. A black fedora sat lopsided on his head.
To the right sat a man, about forty, wearing a clean, plaid shirt. He had his arm around the vacant chair next to him.
I said, “Seliha, efshar la-shevet [Excuse me, may I sit]?” He turned toward me and moved his arm.
“Please, please,” he said. He looked at me and his eyes seemed strange. I sat down.
“Young man, you’re shaking,” he said.
“There was an explosion down the road. How do you say?”
“Yes, pitzutz. Did you hear it?”
The woman crocheting looked up. The ultra-Orthodox guy kept rocking and sucking on his peyot.
“No, I didn’t hear anything,” the man in the plaid shirt said. He extended his hand. “I’m Levi. Funny, because I’m always hearing explosions.” He smiled as if he had made a joke.
I shook his hand. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“See this?” He pointed to his right eye. “Shrapnel took out the real one. This is glass.”
I was afraid he would take it out and give it to me to touch. Instead, he went into this story about how he joined the Haganah to defend the Old City from the Arab Legion when he was fifteen; how he met his wife, a nurse for the Haganah; and how it was illegal for him to fight since he was only fifteen, but nobody cared, not even his parents—“Everyone knew we would lose the Old City if we didn’t fight”—how a Jordanian soldier threw a grenade into his bunker, that it “skimmed my shoulder,” he said, lifting his left hand over his right shoulder as if he had told this story and described this event a million times since that day in 1948. Also, how the grenade exploded against a wall behind him.
You see this,” he said, leaning his head over my lap. I saw only cropped, graying hair. “Two pieces in here, but the doctors couldn’t take them out.” Then he put his arm around my shoulders. “So, I hear explosions everyday, war or no war.”
I didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter. He kept talking. “The Jewish people lose the Old City and I lose an eye.”
His arm around my shoulder made me uncomfortable. I pushed my chair closer to the door.
“First they give me a patch, like Dayan’s,” he said, laughing. “Then a glass eye. All the time I think of Trumpeldor. You’ve heard of Trumpeldor?”
“In ulpan,” I said. “Tov la-mut….” I couldn’t remember the last part.
“Ba’ad artzenu,” he said.
“That’s it. ‘It is good to die for our country.’”
“I figure if it is good to die for our country, it is no big deal to lose an eye for our country. I am a lucky man.”
The mother sitting opposite us pushed her daughter to sit up straight. “Enough already,” she moaned.
Levi continued. “Who knew I would hear explosions everyday? Who knew that nineteen years later we’d be at it again?” He took out a small, white envelope from his pocket and poured pink pills into his hand. “These help, thank God.” Then he poured them back. “This pitzutz you mention—how far down? We live at 41.”
“The gas station, maybe?” I said. “I didn’t want to find out.”
“All we know here is war, young man. But in between the wars, believe me, we have children and a good life, a very good life. You are a new immigrant?”
“No. I just came for six months to study Hebrew at the ulpan.” Levi’s good eye looked askance.
“You’re not staying? Even after we win the war? It’s almost over, you know.”
You’re not staying? How many people had asked me this question since I arrived in Israel, as if I owed them something, as if I didn’t have a life back home—family, law school. Still, I felt guilty when Levi asked. He gave an eye and would have given his life for the survival of the state; I couldn’t even remember the end of Trumpeldor’s famous maxim.
The receptionist came in and told Levi that Dr. Yarus was ready. Levi stood up. “I lost one eye,” he said to me, smiling, “now they think I’m losing my mind.” He winked at me with his glass eye and put his hand on my shoulder. “This place, young man, is the only place for Yidden.”
He could tell I didn’t understand Yiddish. “For Jews, young man, this is the only place,” he said. “You’ll see. We’ll win this war. All the Jews from America will come home.”
I thought of Uncle Nate in Toledo, who saw Israel as a land of rocks, who couldn’t even pronounce cousin Yael’s name, so called her Harvard. I doubted he’d leave Ohio for Israel, no matter who won the war.
“You want explosions?” the woman crocheting asked me. “I’ll tell you a story. You know ’56?”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Fifty-six,” she repeated, raising her voice. “The Sinai Campaign. Those big shots telling Egypt to open the canal, but they don’t, and Israel goes in to save everyone.”
I wondered if the war raging in the Sinai, on the Golan Heights, down the street, was unleashing something I did not understand.
“So my husband, her father”—she pointed to her daughter, who cringed—“he gets called up. They give him and this other guy from Nes Tziona a big, heavy thing full of munitions to drive from Tzrifin to Bir Gafgafa.
“I’m home with two little girls and pregnant with this one.” She poked her daughter with her elbow. “This is November 3, 1956. So on the fifth, two soldiers knock on my door at my house in Katamon. You know this Moroccan slum? You fancy American, you probably don’t know what it means when two soldiers knock on the door.”
I didn’t know why she was insulting me. I could have left, but the black cloud kept exploding in my gut.
“This is how the Israel Defense Forces tells you your husband is dead. They send pisher soldiers, younger than you, even, to say: ‘You are now a widow with two little girls.’” She put her hand on her daughter’s hair and then quickly removed it. “They didn’t know she was inside.” I said “Mmm” to let her know I understood.
“So the whole neighborhood comes to calm me. Everyone is afraid I will lose my baby. I swear on four Bibles, at that moment, I wanted to lose my baby.”
The daughter gave her mother a look that broke my heart, then turned to face the wall.
“I had already lost my mind,” the mother continued.
“But God, He had more plans for me. Every day of the shiva, I sat on the floor and clawed my cheeks until they bled. For five days I yelled at God. On the sixth day, two soldiers come again to my house, if you can call two stinking rooms and a kitchen the size of a sink a house. ‘It was a mistake,’ they tell me. ‘Yes, there was an explosion. Yes, someone was killed, but it was the man from Nes Tziona, not your husband. He was only wounded. We’re sorry for the mistake….’
“I don’t know what to tell God, so I collapse.”
Fortunately, the receptionist came in and said Anita was ready. The woman yelled at her daughter to get up. She refused, so the mother pulled her daughter’s hair. “Get up, you pisher.”
The receptionist put a hand on the mother’s shoulder and helped the daughter stand up.
My heart went out to these people, locked in their wounds from the history of the land. I wondered how the Ministry of Health dealt with such tragedies.
I could tell the ultra-Orthodox guy had listened to every word, even though he never looked up. As soon as they left the room he took out a screwdriver from the inside pocket of his jacket and put it in his mouth. I stared at him and nodded, as if I had seen lots of guys clean their teeth with a screwdriver. He mumbled something.
“Did you hear the explosion?” I asked.
“I was walking down the street with my father,” he said, closing his eyes, “when a mortar exploded.” He kept rocking. “It killed him.” He spoke to the floor, the screw driver resting on his lower lip. “April 14, 1947, 4:45 in the afternoon,” he said, as if reciting the numbers of his ID, “in Geula.”
I didn’t know if this guy’s story was true. If it was, cleaning his teeth with a screwdriver seemed an appropriate response.
The receptionist entered. “Yakov,” she said, “Nechama is ready.”
The man stopped rocking, opened his eyes, rose slowly, returned the screwdriver to his jacket pocket and checked to see if his hat was on his head. His shoulders hunched toward his waist. He looked like a cave.
The receptionist turned to me and said the intake worker could see me now.
“What intake worker?”
“You have a problem?”
“No. I came to—” I wasn’t sure why I came. I wanted to get out of the line of fire. “There was an explosion down the road.”
“Gila is in Room Three.” She walked back to her office. Some Kabbala, I thought.
Classes at the ulpan had been cancelled since mid-May, when Nasser threatened to destroy the Jewish state. All the students had gone to kibbutzim to milk cows, since the kibbutz men had been called up. I hadn’t gone because my mother and father expected me to come home before the verbal war escalated into the real thing.
“This is not what we sent you to Israel for,” my dad yelled into the phone. The connection at the central post office was poor, but I heard: “Come home!”
I was stuck, not sure what to do. While I was trying to figure it out, Israel bombed the Egyptian airfields and Jordan shelled—Bethlehem Road.
It couldn’t hurt to talk to someone, I thought. Maybe this Gila could help me decide. As I left the waiting room, my hands were still shaking.
Gila had short, red hair and a large birthmark on her chin shaped like the Hebrew letter bet. She smiled as if she had been born smiling.
“What happened?” she asked after I sat down in front of her desk.
I told her how I was walking back to the ulpan on Bethlehem Road when I heard an explosion. Then it all poured out: how I had always fantasized about a war, but now that it was real, I was scared; how I had grown to love Israel during the last four months, but I also loved my parents, and they expected me home; how I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to law school in the fall, how I could imagine throwing everything away— my family, education, my future— just to stay and learn Hebrew.
“Why don’t you?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure she understood. I explained that my parents had called the ulpan as soon as Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, that my mother suffered migraines each day I stayed in Israel. “I can’t decide what to do, where to go,” I said.
She smiled warmly, so I kept talking. I told her I wanted to feel connected, to be part of the miracle of a young country. She didn’t laugh when I told her I was memorizing all the words to “Jerusalem of Gold.” The more she listened, the more emotional I became. I started talking about Grandma and Grandpa, and then I began to cry. She handed me a tissue. I told her that staying in Israel was the best reply to Hitler.
“I think so, too,” she said.
“I want to join the Israeli Army.”
The words surprised me. In America, I was a draft dodger. But the words sounded true. One explosion down the street caused me to shake and I wanted to join the Army?
It didn’t make sense, but then, again, none of the stories I had heard in the waiting room made sense.
Here I was, a perfectly healthy twenty- two-year-old American who did not want to die in Vietnam but was ready to sign on for the IDF. In four years, I could work for the biggest law firm in Chicago and here I was in a war zone, panicked by some explosion yet ready to throw away my life for some crazy ideal of a Jewish state.
“Everyone has a war story here,” Gila said, leaning toward me. “Maybe this is yours.” She looked at her watch. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Marty,” she said.
I wanted my name to be Mordechai or Moshe. Marty sounded shallow. I wanted an Israeli name, a name that reverberated with twenty-five hundred years of history.
I thanked her and walked down the stone path out the gate. This time I noticed the small print: “Mental Health Clinic, Southern Region.”
On the sidewalk, I looked south down Bethlehem Road—no smoke. I walked toward the train tracks and the gas station, looking for signs of destruction, but saw none.
“Sounds like it’s over,” the man in charge of the railroad crossing called to me. He held a transistor to his ear.
“What?” I asked, proud that he mistook me for an Israeli.
At the gas station, there were no signs of fire or smoke, only the attendants arguing. At No. 41, where Levi lived, a man in striped pajamas was yelling at the guy who ran the vegetable shop below: “If you don’t move those vegetable crates off the common property, I’ll call the police.”
At No. 47, Avrami, who sold building supplies, was giving a schoolboy a lollipop and telling the child’s pregnant mother that he was going to take his grandson to the Western Wall.
Moshe at the corner newsstand was yelling at some guy in a car to bring more newspapers.
I walked into Menahem’s bakery on the corner of Yehuda Street. Menahem kissed my cheek. “It’s almost over, my friend. Now all the Americans will come home,” he said. His words mixed with the smell of fresh cinnamon rolls.
I was astounded by his excitement and warmth. I had only bought halla from him on Friday mornings and here he was kissing me. “The war’s over, my son,” he said. “Now we will have peace.”
I bought a warm cheese pastry, and on the way home to the ulpan, thought about the people I had seen in the waiting room. There were probably thousands like them in Israel, carrying real and remembered wounds on their bodies and in their heads. Everyone seemed to be a victim, struggling to be a hero.
I thought about Chicago, the brownstone I’d get in Evanston, Saturday afternoons by the lake. In four years, I would take the el to the loop. From my office I would see an inch of Lake Michigan. The doorman would say, “How ya doin’, Marty?” My parents could tell their friends how successful I was. I’d marry an Elizabeth, who would want upscale Winnetka.
As I turned from Yehuda on to Gad Street and entered the compound of the empty ulpan, the idea imploded with inevitable clarity. Of course I would stay in Israel. The unknown would become my home. I would enter another story, carve a role, speak a foreign tongue. The sheer absurdity of the idea forced me to sit down in the garden. I touched my head to make sure nothing had hit me.