Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Seven Days, Five Years

A week visiting my family in Israel

Print Email
Related Content

Lost in Goa

Part 1: For many Israelis coming off military duty, the Indian coast seems like the right place

Unsettled

An IDF vet with ‘a great sense of discomfort about my own personal behavior’ when he patrolled the Occupied Territories now leads a group called Breaking the Silence dedicated to exposing the messy work of occupation

Promised Land, Golden Land: Why Jewish Survival Depends on Both Israel and America

In his new book, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit argues that without Israel, secular Jewish life will vanish. Six American Jews reply.

The Tablet Longform newsletter highlights the best longform pieces from Tablet magazine. Sign up here to receive bulletins every Thursday afternoon about fiction, features, profiles, and more.

***

“Israelis never accepted the birds as force majeure,” my Uncle Noam was telling me. “That’s the difference between the two countries. Obviously, when you’re dealing with birds and planes, there’s going to be some interference. But Israel has got one of the largest migratory bird patterns in the world—scratch that, we’ve got the largest. Half a billion birds fly through Israeli airspace yearly, there’s no way we could accept that as force majeure. We’re talking whole days of training wiped out because some bird gets caught in the engine. The pilot won’t be in any real danger because these planes have got more than one engine, but we’re talking millions of dollars here. So, we did what Israelis do. We didn’t look at it like force majeure. We looked it at like a problem with a solution. Now, what do birds fly with?”

“Thermals,” I guessed. It was five in the morning, the dawn’s pink light just creeping onto the hills near Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. I had landed half an hour earlier, and Noam had been there to pick me up and take me to my grandmother in Jerusalem. The vast majority of my family lives in Israel: My dad’s two brothers moved there in the late 1980s, and my paternal grandparents followed shortly. My mom’s an only child, and my dad’s two brothers, Noam and Yosef (all changed names), were fruitful and multiplied. Four kids for Noam, five for Yosef, and by October 2013 most of those kids had their own kids. With the scales weighted so heavily, trips to Israel had been part of the summer schedule since birth. My mom had always joked that going to Israel for us was like going to Cleveland, with what should have been a deeply spiritual journey actually a checklist of faces and names and updated files. Less-than-cool international vacations are hardly a real problem, although I once faked being scared of terrorism in an attempt to get out of it. Didn’t work.

Click for  a printer-friendly version

“Thermals, that’s right. So, we started to monitor the patterns of the thermals. You can use a Doppler radar—one of those big, golfball things, I’ll show you one when we pass it—to bounce light off the dust particles in a thermal, measure their speed. And once you detect speed, you can detect a pattern. And from there, you can just schedule flights around those patterns. We reduced the number of bird deaths by the thousands, eventually gave it over to the States. They call it BASH, or something like that.” This was the most interesting story Noam had ever told me, by which I mean to say I’ve always seen him as a sabra at the stereotype’s fullest—someone who had embraced the Israeli concept of toughness in its totality since he had moved there. A glad-handing ex-Top Gunner who mostly communicated via puns, catchphrases, and name-dropping, he was showing here a side of him I had never seen before: the focused problem-solver, moving in that most Air Force way—onward, onward toward the solution. Plus, he had picked me up from the airport at 4:30 a.m., the family’s workhorse.

The bird problems couldn’t last the whole car ride, so Noam started asking me about my writing career, specifically if I was interested in writing any stories about Israel’s status as “Start-Up Nation,” a phrase taken from a 2009 book about how Israel’s mandatory military service improves its high-tech sector. He wanted me to meet his friends at the big American companies. I ignored him, taking in the Israeli terrain. The trip between Ben Gurion and Jerusalem is only about 45 minutes, yet it is filled with grand plains, a hilly forest, and mid-size cities like Lod and Modi’in (74,000 counts as mid-size in a country of 8 million). You practically burst out of the airport into Tel Aviv, which always filled my father with such joy. More than anything, when we’d leave the airport as a family he’d always look for construction sites, especially cranes. He’d always point them out to me as proof that Israel would still be there when I grew up—a permanent homeland, or at least a permanent home away from home.

It hadn’t worked out that way. I went through all the standard Zionist training that any mainstream religious Jewish-American kid goes through: Israeli Army days at school (where the joke was that more kids knew the words to the Israeli national anthem than the American one); United Synagogue Youth after-school programs, including USY Pilgrimage; a summer tour of Israel and Spain, but despite my best efforts none of it stuck. Maybe it was my Asperger’s that kept me from getting a fully internalized sense of nationalism, maybe it was due to feeling occasionally suffocated: Once in high school, an abrasive rabbi broke up a meeting of the Save Darfur club, demanding we put our efforts on hold to help Israel instead. I eventually drifted toward a sort of agnosticism about the place, taking odd comfort in German Jews of the 1920s like Walter Rathenau who had declared the Diaspora their homeland. It hadn’t worked out so great for them, but still! I settled on a sort of liberal Zionism, which I would define as sending my parents a stern email after the raid on the Mavi Marmara. Beyond those occasional arguments, I treated Israel as force majeure, a force of nature to which I had no relation.

Yet there I was, in the passenger seat of a car taking the Golda Meir Boulevard exit off of Route 1, merging soon enough with the Menachem Begin Expressway, the main highway into Jerusalem (the “Golda merging into Begin” joke is one my grandmother delighted in telling me). The ride had been punctuated with phone calls from a few family members, like my parents back in the States, and confirmations that I had landed fine, etc. My grandmother called to let us know not to come so early, she still needed some sleep. So, Noam and I set off for breakfast. He picked a spot near the Montefiore Windmill. The Windmill, if you haven’t seen it, is a good indication of just how weird Jerusalem is. In the 1800s, British banker Moses Montefiore was Jewish Jerusalem’s biggest civic booster and in the spirit of modern philanthropy gave the people of the city an absolutely useless gift that they did not want or need. Meant to be a flour mill, Wikipedia notes, the mill was not a success—“due to the lack of wind.”

Yet it persisted, like everything in Israel persists. The British blew up the Montefiore Windmill in 1948; some Dutch millwrights got it working again in 2012. It’s built out of the same white, coarsely crystalline limestone that they use for everything in Jerusalem. They call it Jerusalem stone. Coming from the States, I find such uniformity jarring. As we ate, I got pitched, yet again, on Israel. Noam would constantly tell me about how much various groups of people owed Israel. This time it was the Bedouins. Israel had built them cities—you’d think that was a misnomer but Israel had found a solution for the nomadic Bedouin, cities that would save their lives. He was referring to the controversial Prawer-Begin Plan, which the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights said would “[decimate the Bedouin people’s] traditional cultural and social life in the name of development.” And did they thank them? No, of course not. But that was the marvel of Israel: Anyone could go to the Supreme Court and complain. The rule of law, he said, made Israel different. The Prawer-Begin Plan would fall apart the next month. He was heavily quoting from Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel at this point.

He then took me to a few vantage points to imagine the ’67 War. We walked into a random Haredi synagogue during morning prayers and stood on its balcony. There was a certain empowering feeling to being able to barge into a room full of praying people and just look out from a balcony without asking. The paratroopers, Noam told me, used where we were standing as a launching site. From there, without any outside communication and in the dead of night, they were able to move past the Green Line and secure the surrounding hills, uniting Jerusalem. A few of them got lost in the darkness, even for days, but they all found their way eventually.

***

We were very lucky to have gotten Grandma a spot in Gan Horim (not its real name). I was told this many times over the course of the trip. The first option had been to get her a foreign care worker, a Herculean task in Israel today. In 2011 an amendment to the Israel Entry Act bound caregivers to specific geographic locations, thus greatly increasing the difficulty of finding a new one in any given area. (It hasn’t been so great for the caregivers either, one of whom told The Jerusalem Post that the point of the law was “to make every worker like a slave and we do not like it at all.”) Add to that the government’s tightfisted approach to doling out assistance for hiring a caregiver, and it was clear that that wasn’t going to work out. We had gotten Grandma a place in one of Jerusalem’s best retirement homes only because she had been looking into it for some time before she approached the rest of the family with her idea to move there, and she had known someone who had known someone.

Noam told me she had changed over the last several years. I had heard bits and pieces from my father, who continued his regular visits, but Noam gave it to me straight. The longest she could walk independently was a few feet; she needed a walker or a chair the rest of the time. She had grown increasingly nervous, with a need to repeatedly double and triple check even the smallest details of her day. And, I learned as we pulled up to Gan, I was going to be taking care of her for the next few days.

She had lost a lot of weight. When I was a child, she was the largest person I had ever met—she wasn’t obese; I had just grown up in Los Angeles. She always reminded me of an apple, rounded with rosy cheeks. With her lost weight, her body had become rectangular, a transformation also seen in the opening scenes of Pixar’s Up. Her old apartment in Kfar Saba had had the worn-in feel of over 20 years of family, and her new place was a crisp, angular one-bedroom that would fetch a hefty price in Brooklyn. She had tried to hoard things from the old place, but other family members held a firm line against it. “Was this men’s shirt Zaydie’s?,” one of my cousin recalled asking her. “No? Then why on Earth would you need it?” My grandmother could only respond, What if someone comes over and needs to change shirts?

When I was 16, my sister had her bat mitzvah. Nearly every one of my Israeli relatives chose not to attend, a fact that enraged me to no end. After all our goddamn trips, they couldn’t make one themselves? They expected to be waited on hand and foot? I realize now that maybe some just couldn’t afford the trip, but what I got back then was a mixture of refusing to admit a bat mitzvah was an actual event (female-centric events aren’t really big in Orthodox circles) and nonchalance. Anyone who couldn’t be bothered to come was dead to me, I decided in a lusty teenage moment.

The one person who showed up? Grandma Avigayil.

She had come to my bar mitzvah years earlier, too. She had taught me to curse (she’s a proficient swearer), wrote a song just for me for my ceremony and shared it with my maternal grandmother when she had showed up to the post-service party with nothing. She had music in her heart, leading choir after choir as my grandfather wandered around the country as a rabbi-for-hire. She and her sister had recorded LPs of Jewish children’s music together. Put her near a piano, and she was impossible to budge. In Israel she had easily moved into the role of matriarch, the one all serious boyfriends and girlfriends are introduced to, the one who knew everything because everyone kept coming to her with problems. Someone who wouldn’t take your shit but would give you a bed and an ear for as long as she could.

She was in high spirits, but age changes things. I had my own room but could rarely get more than a few hours’ sleep at a time, as she would constantly come over or call my rented cellphone to check in on me and my schedule. I’d get her groceries from Gan’s in-house market, fix and re-fix the Velcro flap on her right shoe, grab plates, purses, pillows, remote controls, jars of pasta, copies of the Jerusalem Post, whatever she wanted. At one point she remarked how nice it was to have a “slave boy around for the week.”

I’d tell other family members about this and would get knowing stares. Grandma Avigayil became the filler for all smalltalk: her mood swings, pickiness, how great Gan Horim was. Finally we all had something in common to talk about. But there was tension riding beneath all of these conversations: We’ve been taking care of her for years, they seemed to be saying to me, where the hell have you been? You get to drop in for a week and complain; this is where we live. No one said anything, but that’s the amazing thing about family: Even after years of separation, you can still understand silences better than words from people you’ve known for such a long time.

Which isn’t to say me and my grandmother didn’t have fun. At nights we’d go to Gan’s 10th floor, which had a nice view of the city, and she’d tell me stories about growing up in Fiorello La Guardia’s New York. I accompanied her to the Jerusalem Scrabble Club, which is larger than you’d think and full of angry, joyful yelling and challenging of words (I lost three times, despite getting my first-ever bingo). After several hours of worrying if they’d have wheelchairs or not, I convinced her to leave the building complex and come with me to the Israel Museum, where I pushed her around an exhibit focused on Herod. There was a small family celebration where I got to play with a baby cousin who has my same name. At home, we would split the TV times between France 24 (my choice), Fox News, and shitty movies like Barry Levinson’s Avalon that she just loved.

It was as shut-off from the outside world as I’d been in a long time. There’s only one place in Gan Horim that can access Wi-Fi, and it’s on the bar of a little coffee nook they have in the main lobby. Residents use the space for socializing and activities during the day, so it’s really only socially acceptable to place a computer there after hours. Anytime that I was alone and not asleep, I was reading a New Yorker cover to cover and listening to 2 Chainz’s new album, B.O.A.T.S II: #METIME.

#METIME is both gaudy and Gaudi in how it overwhelms the listener. 2Chainz, if you don’t know him, has a persona similar to what your grandfather imagines rap to be like: A product of Ludacris’ Atlanta rap scene, he originally went by Tity Boi and is huge in strip clubs. 2Chainz is the type of person that Drake turns to when he wants to seem harder than he is. His songs have titles like “I Love Dem Strippers” and lyrics like “All I want for my birthday is a big booty hoe.” The blunt male id. Which is what makes #METIME so surprising. On it, 2Chainz takes that hash-tagged idea to its natural endpoint, with some songs focused on superfluous levels of celebrity and wealth and on quiet, deeply personal matters. It’s a split between two chains, if you will.

He combines these two effortlessly on the album’s first track, “Fork.” It starts with 2Chainz arguing with his mother over money. Then, “I had a dream/ that rap wouldn’t work.” It’s a startling way for one of the hottest commercial rappers to start an album practically guaranteed to go gold. He transitions back to bravado, but not until after another worrying line: “rap don’t work/ records ain’t being sold/ so much money on me it won’t even fold!” It has a Mike Will Made It beat that sounds like drunk, slurred church organs mixed with snapping drum machines; I listened to it about 10 times a night.

Its combination of worry and self-assurance was one I needed. It’s also a tremendously funny song—“I think my wrist deserve a shout out/ I’m like ‘what up wrist?’/ I think my stove deserve a shout out/ I’m like ‘what up stove?’ ” As with any good escapism, “Fork” had enough real for me to latch onto, but not enough for me to start thinking about my own problems again.

Like right-wing politics, for one. It’s been a standard rule in my nuclear family: When visiting Israel, don’t talk about politics. Just grin and bear it. My parents were solid AIPACers, but the intensity of our Israeli cousins made even them uncomfortable. We were family, we just had differences. They’d try to talk to us about it, but we were never to engage—what would the point be? As the political one in the family, I’d always get this speech a few more times than my sister, but it never mattered. When she went to Israel in 2008, she got introduced as “someone we love very much, despite the fact that her brother is working for Obama.” The first night we spent together, Grandma Avigayil told me that if I was left-wing “on Israel, I’ll kill you when you sleep.” She was kidding.

On the fringes of nearly every interaction I had in Israel, I felt a deep-seated racism. My grandmother’s friends, driving us to see other family, would demand to know what I thought of “Obama the Arab.” During a tour of the Old City that she insisted I take, I tagged along with a bunch of other young, white Jewish Westerners who reminded me of myself years earlier on USY Pilgrimage, and while they were pretty bored with what the tour guide (who happened to be an old family friend) was saying, they were really interested in talking about kicking all the Muslims out. Like the vast majority of all Jewish trips and tours of Israel, this excursion was designed to have as little contact with the Arabic population as possible. We went to the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, a place that was once the main Ashkenazi synagogue in Jerusalem and has been destroyed and rebuilt time and again.

In 1836, Rav Shlomo Zalman Zoref, a follower of the Vilna Gaon, traveled from Jerusalem to Egypt to meet with Muhammad Ali, a former commander in the Ottoman army who had seized power in Egypt and the surrounding areas for himself, including Jerusalem, decades earlier. Zoref appealed to Ali to let him rebuild Hurva, which had long been Jerusalem’s main Ashkenazi synagogue. Employing Islamic law and a promise of the support of Baron Rothschild for the new Egyptian state, Zoref was able to convince Ali. Things were a little shifty on both sides: Zoref had lied about knowing Baron Rothschild, and local Arab officials, citing centuries-old documents, demanded constant bribes in order to allow building to actually happen. The building project would bounce around the courts for decades to come, but on some level it stands in defiance of everything in the modern day: Here were Jews and Muslims, in an Islamic state, agreeing on some hypothetical level that a Jewish religious structure should be built.

As I stood on the Hurva’s balcony with these students looking out over the Old City, it was impossible to miss the Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, the Dome of the Rock. The whole place is beautiful, but in a city of white limestone a solid gold roof stands out. Of course, the Dome of the Rock stands on the same ground as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, where it’s foretold that the Third Temple will be rebuilt. As we all looked out at it, I heard some of them asking the tour guide, “Don’t you hate how beautiful it is?” He agreed. It was only a matter of time, he responded. I didn’t know how to get anywhere in the Old City, so I walked behind them until we got back to the parking lot for the Western Wall, where I grabbed a cab and went home.

***

If seeing my grandmother was the first reason for me to go to Israel, then seeing my cousin Talia was a close second. She is the second of Noam’s five kids, and we had always been particularly close on my early, family trips. I was more awkward than her actual kid brother, and she took a strong liking to me. She was a lifeguard in a neighboring town, and whenever she was off work we would hang out together. When I was 12 and she was 15, she was the first person to ever tell me what a sexual fetish was and the things her boyfriends (multiple boyfriends!) liked. She kept pictures of them on her dresser mirror. It’s safe to say that after seeing her at 12, I had a giant crush on her.

Apparently the next year she took some bad street ecstasy in Holland. She’d later describe the first 48 hours after taking it as “seeing the world in pointillism, like the painting of the British people at the beach.” Hard drugs sometimes have a way of uncovering mental illness, and the totality of her life quickly became a transition from hospital to home and back again. The geographic mandates of the Israeli health system kept her close to home, but she hated her hospital. Noam would battle in the courts over and over again to let her go home.

I hadn’t actually seen her since that one summer though, and this would be my chance. We talked a few nights before my trip, and she seemed in good spirits. She knew I loved music and suggested we go to a concert together. She was vague on what we’d see, but that didn’t matter. I already had an idea of how this would play out. I’ve got low-level Asperger’s, A.D.H.D, and depression. I’m the veteran of one suicide attempt, at age 16, and have volunteered for years helping people with mental disorders. We’d go to a concert together, and I would treat her with the type of respect she hadn’t seen in her own family. We’d talk, we’d bond. When Talia told me that she’d show up with Noam to pick me up and take me to their house, I was ecstatic. It was a chance to build family on our own terms.

I want to emphasize that I walked into this situation unprepared. I had only heard second-hand stories about Talia, who I know at this very moment is doing everything she can to get better. I know her family wants to help her with every fiber of their being, and they have been taking care of her for years and will continue to do so because they are family. Maybe I was family too, but that I somehow had the hubris to think that I could be a savior here makes me angry, even now.

As soon as I got in the car, the questions started coming rapid-fire. Did I, in fact, go to college for politics? Yes. Was I trying to be a writer? Yes. “Good, because you need to write about me. I’m Mussolini, I’m Hitler, I’m Einstein!”

She never stopped talking on the half-hour drive, but her tone would constantly change. She would ask if I could remember meeting her over a decade ago, then say forget it, never mind, it doesn’t matter. She’d count the birds that we would drive by and tell us how the day was going to go based on that: Three would mean good, five bad. She talked about what it was like when she was a lifeguard, how she wanted to start driving again, how the doves (all the birds were doves) spoke to her. While she would catch her breath, Noam would explain that Talia was nervous because of an upcoming examination and hadn’t slept in around 24, 30 hours. She suffered from manic insomnia, and everyone was nervous because she had been doing really well lately. “Yeah,” Talia would say in agreement. “They’re all worried that I’m going to be nuts again.”

The car stopped at the mall where we were seeing the show, and I finally got to see Talia for the first time in over a decade. I held down a gasp. She had once stood at 6’2,” towering over my 5’7” frame. Now she came up to my chin, her back shattered by self-inflicted injuries. She moved slowly; Noam told me the doctors said it was a miracle she could walk at all. Her self-consciousness about her body was so palpable on the walk to Club Zappa, a Tel Aviv music venue near the ocean, that also she would mention several times how ugly she was, and when I would try to reassure her, she would tell me not to touch her and bring up my obvious crush on her from when I was 12. “I know you had a boner back then,” she said. “But I forgive you.”

She was nervous about entering the club. It was dark. The greeter was too attractive. It would be too loud. Given the Israeli work schedule, where the weekend goes from Friday midday through Saturday, it wasn’t surprising that the place was packed. I offered up several times that we could leave, that we didn’t need to see whatever act was playing on a Friday afternoon. Noam brushed that aside: We were here, we were going inside.

The club was dark and loud, and Talia felt uncomfortable as walked in. It had clearly been her first time in a place like this in a while, and it took a couple minutes to get adjusted. We sat down at a table at the back, where Talia motioned to the sound guy, asking if he could turn the music down. Noam quickly waved him off. Talia seemed to settle into the situation. I asked her who was playing, it was a David Bowie tribute act. I was surprised but tried to show that I was game. Neither of them believed me.

“If you’re a Bowie fan, name five songs of his right now!” Noam challenged.

I bounced around Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory: “Changes,” “Starman,” “Life on Mars,” “Suffragette City,” “Five Years.”

Noam gave a slight approving nod; Talia inquired about the last song, asking if that was “the one with red shoes.”

I had no idea which song she was talking about. I wasn’t that big a Bowie fan. But I did know the hook to “Five Years,” my favorite Bowie song. An opening song that sounds like an album-ender, it sums up the entire premise of the panic and cacophony of the preceding album: “We got five years, my brain hurts a lot! Five years, that’s all we got!” Strings push into atonality, Bowie’s calm voice goes from being in sync with the slow-paced drums to actively rebelling against it, screaming himself into oblivion by the end. All I could remember was the “five years” part, diving into a low baritone and stretching it out. She laughed, I laughed, she made me promise to write down the lyrics later.

The concert was nice. The guy didn’t sound like David Bowie at all or make any attempts to dress the part, he just wore a black shirt and sang a lot of David Bowie songs. The band played all the songs nicely. It was loud, but Talia didn’t mind most the time. I looked over at her worriedly when they got to “Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide,” but it didn’t seem to faze her. At one point Noam broke out a traditional Jewish dance move, hooking arms with each of us and spinning in a circle.

The history of Israeli folk dancing is a reflection of how Israelis see themselves. It has its roots in the German Wandervogel, a pre-World War I youth group devoted to a back-to-nature philosophy. Gurit Kadman, born Gertrude Lowenstein, was an active member before joining the Blau Weiss, one of the earliest Zionist youth groups. In 1922, she moved to Palestine, and by the time of mass immigration in the 1940s she was creating what she deemed indigenous Israeli dance. The Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia notes that “all the while, Kadman invested much time and energy in the preservation and fostering of the dance traditions and festivities of the diverse ethnic groups in Israel, including the Arab sector and other minority groups.” It’s the Israel mono-myth brought to the movement of the body. And I could see it in Noam for an instant, that willful freedom, that focus on the joy of successful creation.

We struggled to get her in the car; she said there weren’t enough birds in the sky. Noam stressed that it was “the magic hour” of sunset and if we wanted to get a photo taken, now was the time. Now. Right now. It sounded like a horrible waste of time, but Noam was the one with the car. We all got in and drove to the nearby Dan Tel Aviv, which advertises itself as “the first luxury Tel Aviv hotel” and “a prime venue for statesmen, politicians, and artists who gathered here from the earliest years of the State of Israel.” Also known as the Dan Panorama, it might be most easily recognized for its rainbow-colored buildings and Lego-like rooftops. The boardwalk was long and picturesque, buttressed by wooden walkways and glass handrails. The view of the ocean from the boardwalk was like that of any other ocean, a dull sort of endless beauty. Talia yelled again about how she didn’t want to be touched. Noam yelled that we needed to take the picture. We took the picture.

The way back to their home in Kfar Saba goes via Highway 4. Until the 1990s and the withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip due to the Oslo Accords, Highway 4, one of Israel’s longest highways at 127 miles, continued all the way until Rafah and the Egyptian border. What’s left on the Arabic side is known as the Salah al-Din Road. Writing for the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National in 2010, Erin Cunningham described the Salah al-Din as full of “tinkering mechanics and an array of colourful roadside businesses span the length of Salah al Din, from central to southern Gaza. Camels weave aimlessly between its lanes, workers dig for gravel at its edges, and teetering, horn-blaring lorries run up and down the road to ferry smuggled goods and aid assistance to Gaza’s 1.5 million people under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.” The Israeli side is split into five separate sections; we were driving down the Tel-Aviv-Ashdod section, surrounded by desert and the occasional military installation.

Any good feelings from the concert quickly evaporated. Talia sat next to me in the backseat and started talking on her cellphone to someone; I couldn’t tell who. Everyone in Noam’s family speaks both perfect English and Israeli Hebrew, which is spoken with such velocity that my 10 years of Hebrew classes were rendered useless. He demanded she get off the phone.

“Hang up, Talia.”

Louder talking.

“Hang up, Talia!”

Louder talking.

“Hang up, Talia! Your conversation is over! Goodbye, she’s hanging up! Get off the phone!”

It continued in a cycle of escalation like that for about 10 minutes, each one getting louder and more furious at the other. She hung up the phone and he grabbed for it, causing the car to almost swerve off the road. He got her purse, which seemed satisfactory. My body brushed into Talia’s and against the door as we swerved back.

She then started talking about how she knew that Grandma had poisoned Zaydie, my grandfather. How she had slowly worked arsenic or something into his medication when he was alive because she had grown bored of taking care of him. You never want to hate someone for saying something out of their control, when it’s clearly said under the scope of delusion. Noam sighed—he had heard this before. When we got back to their house I ran into the room designated mine, threw the mattress on the floor and cried for a solid hour. I hated myself, I hated her, I hated that I had been dumb enough to think I could throw myself into a situation where I had known nothing and emerge as some sort of savior, any sort of solution.

Later we had a very nice dinner, one with laughing and communal cooking, but then I couldn’t sleep due to Talia’s manic insomnia. The whole house was up, screaming at one another until 5 a.m. The adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, kept me up after that.

***

Maybe I would have held up if I had been sleeping better, but the day had left me in shock. I needed to get out of there. I figured my best bet would be my cousin Yonatan and his wife, Dafna. Yonatan and I had been in regular phone contact since I had landed, and I would finally take him up on his offer to spend the night. About 10 years older me, they were the only Israeli cousins of ours I had known on any regular schedule growing up: They had spent some time as shalichim, the Chabad Hasidic movement’s form of religious and cultural ambassadors, and had worked at small Orthodox day-schools in the Midwest. They had come along with our family for vacations to Las Vegas. Yonatan was garrulous, quick with bear hugs and a joke, and he had always treated me like an adult. I had bonded with Dafna, originally from England, over Yes, Minister, an old BBC show that spoofed political bureaucracy. They were principled, highly intelligent, and just far more relatable than anyone else I knew in Israel, so I figured I’d have safe harbor in their house. We made arrangements, and after being dropped off at a bus stop in the middle of the highway I was on my way to their home in Talmon.

Talmon is located beyond the Green Line, a demarcation line set by Israel and its neighbors in 1949. The Green Line is commonly referred to as “pre-1967 borders,” a reference to the land grab made by Israel during the Six Day War. The commonly held international belief is that everything Israel built on this land is illegal. Talmon was established in 1989, in the midst of the First Intifada, and its founding fathers, according to an op-ed featured on the website of a right-wing group, One Israel Fund, “attempted, for close to three years, to gain government approval but were refused time and again.” The op-ed continues, “Talmon was founded so quickly and without the mandatory preparation, planning, and foresight, a difficult situation came about in which the founding families of Talmon had no running water, no public transportation, one telephone (these were the days prior to cellular service), and electricity from a generator that would crash when demand peaked.”

An article in the Chicago Tribune quoted a blunt adviser to then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir on the need to establish Talmon with such speed: “The fundamental motive is not to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.” Since then Talmon has become a spot of growth, adding a second neighborhood in 2002 and, according to the op-ed, has added families “even during the building freeze of 2010. At the conclusion of the building freeze in September 2010, Talmon immediately renewed the construction of housing units.”

Reading the section dedicated to Talmon in a 2010 Human Rights Watch report about the Occupied Territories, “Separate and Unequal,” brings back memories of Yonatan’s house. The report describes “large, limestone-clad homes and landscaping,” which is a vague yet accurate description of where Yonatan and his family lived. On the inside, the place was cluttered with books about the 19th century and Jewish law. There was a Nintendo Wii, and Internet wasn’t reliable. Yonatan’s oldest, whom I had known as a toddler during his American days, was out rock-climbing, but his second son, Eitan, was home. We talked about his interests, which ran toward jazz. There was a yeshiva with a focus on music that he had hoped to get into, and I asked if he had heard any Miles Davis. Only 13, he hadn’t, so after struggling a bit with YouTube, I was finally able to put on “Concierto de Aranjuez,” which makes up half of Davis’ seminal work Sketches of Spain. Many critics describe Sketches of Spain as having a visual aspect, calling to mind the harsh sun and crisp blues of the Mediterranean. Talmon had exactly one of these attributes, and it wasn’t the Mediterranean. It’s one of Davis’ more subtle major works, where the passion lies not on the surface but in the precision and detail of the sound. I’m not sure how much of it Eitan picked up on, but it let me feel calm for the first time in days.

The Human Rights Watch report describes Talmon’s desirability as a place to live: “The average cost of a home is around NIS 700,000 (US$184,000)—although two-bedroom caravans (trailer homes) are available for rent for NIS 900 per month (US$240). Healthcare includes an HMO clinic and an ambulance. … Talmon enjoys various other services and facilities, including a daycare center, a synagogue, a seminary, a mikvah (ritual bath), a playground, a library, basketball and soccer fields, and a minimarket.” There’s a preschool, five kindergartens, a special-needs center, and a boys elementary school (the girls one is town over in the settlement of Dolev, with “transportation funded by the local municipality”).

The report moves on then to a place I had never heard of: Al Janiya. Writing in the British leftist magazine Red Pepper, Raja Shehadah, a Palestinian lawyer from nearby Ramallah, described the founding of Talmon thusly: “In 1989, 4,000 acres of the land of the village of Janiya were taken over to establish the settlement of Talmon. The fact that they were privately owned made no difference.” Human Rights Watch reports that this number has since gone up to 10,000 acres.

The report then describes a sustained effort by the Israeli government to prevent residents of Al Janiya and nearby Palestinian towns from accessing their land. Abu Muhammed, a resident of Al Janiya, told the group,

I brought in a bulldozer to dig a well on my land. In 2004 settlers came down, saw it and forced me to take the bulldozer away. We planted olive trees. After all this, the settlers came with a new bulldozer and destroyed all the trees and fired tear gas … I used to make 60-70 “tanake” of olive oil (1080-1260 liters). Now I make 2 liters of olive oil. My nine family members consume 12 tanake per year. Now I’m buying vegetable or soy oil for us.

The Israeli government requires the residents of Al Janiya to “coordinate” with the military in order to gain access to these lands. However, this period of “coordination” lasts roughly two weeks a year, nowhere close to the time needed to cultivate a life worth living. As a result, “Separate and Unequal” states, “agricultural yields have sharply declined and … livelihoods have been harmed.” The report goes on to note that the “Israeli military has not attempted to alleviate this near-permanent exclusion of Palestinians from their lands by increasing the amount of time they are given access or by imposing restrictions on the settlers to enhance Palestinian access, effectively forcing Palestinians to bear the entire burden of ensuring settlers’ security.” Shehadah writes that “when I look at night at the horizon north of Ramallah, I can see the lights of Dolev and Talmon with its ‘neighborhoods,’ along with 10 other so-called ‘outposts,’ forming a noose around the city.”

Over my week in Israel, I had come to name my own mental condition slipping. I was constantly walking the line between sleep and consciousness and had to be careful not to slip into the other when I wasn’t supposed to. My eyes felt separated from the rest of my face, and my face occasionally felt like ants were crawling over it. I spent the night on a couch in Yonatan’s home office, for some reason needing to call up clips of the remake of the show V, in which alien lizards secretly plot to destroy America with a drug called Bliss. The clips weren’t very good, but their badness had a calming effect. There was no desire to become emotionally involved; I could maintain a complete detachment. Not caring about art is one of the greatest gifts someone can give themselves. I heard the adhan, probably from the vivisected Janiya.

Soon enough, it was time to go to Ben Gurion Airport for my trip home. It was mid-morning, the sun intensely shining. We drove down Route 463, a long and winding road. A 2004 report by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem notes that it was completely forbidden for Palestinians to use Route 463. Roughly around 2007, access to 463 was eased, along with 43 other access points, by the Olmert government. However, in 2011 B’Tselem reported that “boulders” had been placed at the exits of intersections between Palestinian towns and, consequently, residents “have to use bypass roads that lengthen the journey, although they ultimately reach the part of the road to which the obstruction blocks access (Route 463).” The road remains a site of on-again, off-again intervention. Just days earlier, Yonatan told me, a 9-year-old Jewish girl had been stabbed to death by a Palestinian in a nearby settlement of Psagot, which had set everyone on edge. The incident would later prove to be a home robbery gone wrong rather than terrorism, but this wasn’t known at the time. In his familiar, jocular attitude, he asked me a question that he said he had wanted to ask me for a long time: “David, why do you love the Palestinians so much?”

How do you respond to that? I asked why he didn’t. He went on a long rant that started with the recent murder but extended from the realm of life and death to the mundane. They stole Talmon’s cable, he said. They stole water. Why couldn’t they afford these things on their own? He grew resentful, with bitter sarcasm remarking, “You can steal our cable, fine. Just don’t kill us.” He brought up Israel’s status as Start-Up Nation and wondered why these people couldn’t do the same thing. Why were they so obsessed with murdering Jews? No Jews felt that way about them. I brought up Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who had murdered 29 Palestinians and had wounded an additional 125 in 1999. While refusing to justify Goldstein’s actions, Yonatan said that Goldstein had been a kindly doctor who had come to a region in bad need of them and had offered to treat anyone who needed help, regardless of race or circumstance (after our conversation, I researched this and it proved to be false. Goldstein had refused to treat Arabs). Only after years of being worn down by Palestinian hatred did he suffer some sort of mental snap.

I started to say that the same could be said of the recent murder and leave it at that, but I stopped myself. I thought about that old family maxim of never talking politics with Israeli family members, how it could only lead to trouble. But I was too tired for that. I was also too tired to remember most facts and gave a vague state of my opinions: The IDF had for over a generation been committing crimes against the Palestinian people; the Israeli government had worked for decades to guarantee Palestinian inequality; and the current Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, who has claimed that he speaks “for a hundred generations of Jews who were dispersed throughout the lands” while whipping up a frenzy of violence against the Palestinian people, disgusted me. I wish I had said all that, hyperlinks included. But in fact, I stumbled over my words, confused the first and second Lebanon Wars and transitioned from speaking to babbling for a few minutes, letting the bracing feeling of emotional release guide me.

He complimented me on being eloquent, which was almost certainly a lie. He then called it nonsense and said that if I hadn’t been his cousin, he would have stopped the car and forced me to get out, stranding me on the side of an Israeli highway. He meant it, too. As we pulled up to the airport we tried to reconcile, saying that we would send each other books to read on the subject. He sent his email recommendation as soon as we parked at the Ben Gurion departures terminal, titled “Read This If You Dare.”

There’s a tension that exists between American and Israeli Jews. Maybe it’s also there for Jews around the world, but when you’re talking America everything gets ratcheted up a notch. American Jews wonder, “Do they care?” In their heart of hearts, do they listen to what we have to say and think about acting on it? Israeli Jews wonder, “Do they understand?” Can they understand our lives here, from the comfort and safety of America? Institutional American Judaism has since time immemorial tried to prove that yes, it does, yes, it will forever stand with the Israeli government, and yes, the money will never stop flowing, just please, please care about us like we do you.

We hugged, and as Yonatan drove away from the airport, I decided that I was done playing that game, done with political ideologies that could be boiled down to an abacus measuring Jews against an omnivorous other. Why do I love the Palestinians so much? Because they are people, people who deserve better than to have than the bombs and the water control and the restriction of movement that they have now. I’ve visited Israel over 20 times now, and I love my grandmother as much as anyone, and I have cried and danced and laughed with the entire family for days at a time. To say there’s no escape from the Palestinian issue, though, would be a cruel joke: It’s a metaphor for people who are literally trapped in conditions no person should accept. And until my family, and Israel as a whole, reconciles with that, I’ll never understand.

***

The Tablet Longform newsletter highlights the best longform pieces from Tablet magazine. Sign up here to receive bulletins every Thursday afternoon about fiction, features, profiles, and more.

Print Email
Be a Mensch. Support Tablet.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Seven Days, Five Years

A week visiting my family in Israel