Notes from the Undivided and Eternal Capital of Israel
On the way from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem, our driver, Ofer, asks us where we’re from, and whether we’re Jews. “From the States,” I say, as my husband answers, “From Washington.” And, yes, we declare simultaneously, we’re Jews. “Ah, Washington,” he replies. “May I just tell you your president is weak, very weak?” Yes, he may, but he doesn’t give us time to agree before he launches into a heavily accented but extremely nuanced tirade on the impossibility of “peace” between the Israelis and the Arabs: “Three years ago I drove a group of Palestinians from Jerusalem to Ramallah, and it took us only fifteen minutes to come to an agreement on a peace plan. Today there is not even the possibility! I don’t understand what you’re doing, you Americans. Once I believed we could live side by side with them in peace. Now, not at all. I used to call Judea and Samaria the West Bank. Now I call it Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel]. This is because of your American weakness. This is terrible. How can you American Jews support this?”
I want to defend some of us, to tell him I still call the West Bank Judea and Samaria and no brief for the other side has yet persuaded me to do otherwise; I want to say the combination of asthenia and intransigence so tragically and dangerously in evidence in our own president and equally so in the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, are only partly to blame; I want to argue that there never has been the possibility of peace since the moment Haj Amin al-Husseini’s Judenreinish Arab Higher Committee of Mandate Palestine, in league with Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, rejected the U.N. Partition Plan that would have given the Arabs of then-Palestine their own state and, in an act suggesting a not altogether complete de-Nazification of the Arabic stage, declared jihad and laid siege to the infant Jewish State.
But I don’t say any of it. I keep my mouth shut. Because chances are, even when you want to agree with an Israeli who’s in a disputative, philosophical mood, he won’t let you.
The impossibly annoying wonderfulness of this country: The other day I had to call my Israeli cellphone provider for tech support. Ten minutes of brain-freezing technomusak Israeli-style later, a young woman answered, “Allo.” She listened to my longish explanation of the problem, interjected “Yes” and “Okay” here and there as she did so, and when I’d finished she said, “Just a moment. I don’t speak English.” Eventually I got an English-speaker. He heard me out patiently, then asked my name.
“You’re a Jew?” he wanted to know.
“Yes,” I laughed, feeling what was coming.
“Then why you don’t make aliyah [immigrate to Israel]?” he demanded.
“Well, I’m here now,” I answered.
“NO! You should be live here! Jews should be live here! This is the Jewish State. Israel need you.
“Also, this way you wouldn’t call me every time to add minutes to your phone.”
I didn’t tell him that I’d lived on a kibbutz for two years, that I’d been fluent in Hebrew, that the language comes back after a few days—though as it was always more in the John-Deere/chicken-house(couldn’t eat an egg for five years after)/orange-picking/kitchen-scouring/child-minding line than not, I’m lost in the fabulous tech-explosion lingo—that I try come here twice a year, that I long to live here again. It would sound defensive. Which is how I feel.
Yesterday morning Shyne strolled by our breakfast table at the King David Hotel, all tricked out like a nineteenth-century shtetl Hasid: black hat perched atop his head, beard and payis dangling, black-and-white striped silk waistcoat hanging over black knee pants and leggings—oh, and cool, bad-boy rapper shades. I tried to point him out to my husband, but he was intent and fuming over Haaretz and didn’t look up in time. Anyway, he hates hip-hop and has never heard of Shyne, a.k.a. Jamal Michael Barrow, a.k.a. Moses Michael Levi. But the rapper is a well-known man-about-town in Jerusalem, where he has made his home since being released from incarceration in Dannemora. He spends his time these days studying Torah—in an obversion of the customary prison conversion to Islam, Mr. Shyne Barrow Levi found not Allah there but Hashem—and working on a hip-hop comeback.
There’s no stinting in Israel, not with food and not with intrusiveness. No matter what you order at a restaurant—even a grilled cheese sandwich—your plate arrives with food enough for three. If you don’t finish every bite, you get this: “What, you didn’t like the food? It didn’t taste good? You want something different? You’re not feeling well?”
Jerusalem, always glorious, is particularly so right now. The sun is brilliant and hot, flowers of every variety are in bloom, there’s ancient dust everywhere, and the streets are brimming with life. It feels the way it felt when the second intifada ended—people everywhere crowding the sidewalks in a very non-tech explosion of joy and relief.
But maybe that’s just the elation before the storm the unreliable and peevish American president is doing his damndest to usher in.