Friday, June 20, 2008

Stuck on a Bus In 1968

My father told me that because and only because I am Jewish, every single solitary gentile, in their heart of hearts, wants me dead and if I'm going to die, I should die in Israel.  So, when my mother announced that we were going on a UJA tour of Israel in August 1968 "whether you like it or not", I was all, what's her problem?  Land of Milk and Honey, Paul Newman in khakis, L'Shana HaBa B'Yerushalayem and the place where I'm supposed to die: hey, what's not to like?  And who knows, maybe I'll have some great super Jew experience, I mean, if you can't find God in Israel, you can't find God, right?

When we landed in Israel and got off the plane, I seriously considered getting down and kissing the hot, black tarmac, but my enthusiasm quickly waned after we got through customs and got on the tour bus.  It was as if we'd never left home, filled as it was with loud middle-aged Long Island Jews, my always-warring parents and an older sister who was pissed off that she’d been dragged along when all she wanted to do was stay home and hang out with her friends.  So mostly my sister sulked, except when she was making out with the only other kid on the tour, Ira, a geeky wiseguy whose main attraction was that he was there. She was seventeen, Ira was sixteen, and I was fourteen so by rights he was mine, but that summer I was still a four-eyed geek and my sister was a high school hippie, so naturally Ira preferred my sister if he could get her, which he sort of could, in a stuck-on-a-bus-with-our-parents kind of way.  It was not fair.

I was 14 and i thought Israel was soooo boring. We didn’t meet any real people or go to anything that wasn’t for the tourists. When we weren't seeing some dreary site with the tour guide yammering away, we were in a hotel or on the bus.  And no matter where we went—to Crusader castles or to a kibbutz, to Roman ruins or to the Negev, to the Galilee or to Yad Vashem—the middle-aged men took photographs of each other in front of the bus and the middle-aged women bought amber beads, the same amber beads at every single stop.  Emmis.

Our tour guide, Rafael, had served in the army during the war, and he spent Day One of our nine days in Israel telling us all about it, and Days Two thru Nine telling us what fat lazy disgusting Americans we were for only sending our money instead of putting our bodies on the line and dying for Israel. The successful middle-aged Long Island Jews, guilty, I’m guessing, about surviving the first half of the 20th century in relative comfort and safety, loved this manly Sabra and his tips got bigger every time he insulted them.   

But I hated Rafeal.  It's not that I disagreed witH him, like I said I was fourteen, so to me the Long Island Jews WERE big fat lazy disgusting Americans.  But honestly, only sending our money?  Only??  Where would this Manly Jew and his hot boring country be without our money?  And anyway, I was an American and I wasn't going to die for any place but America and even there I had my doubts.  And yeah, maybe they were big fat lazy disgusting Americans but they were MY big fat lazy disgusting Americans, so screw you!

Mommy at The Kotel
Rafeal took us to the Wailing Wall.  I thought, wow, I mean, it was THE Temple, the one in the Torah. For a nice Jewish girl only one year out of her bat mitzvah, this was big, like meeting the Beatles.  If the super Jew experience was going to happen, if God was going to be found, I guessed it would happen there.   So I went with my mother to the women's side, which in those days was the same size as the men's, and I wrote down on a piece of paper what I wanted from God.  I stuck it in a crack in the wall.  

In the summer of 1968, this was what I requested of God:  
  1. Safety for Israel
  2. End The War In Vietnam Now
  3. Ira Will Make Out With Me And Not My Sister

Need I say that none of these wishes came true?

After the Wailing Wall, we went for a walk in East Jerusalem, which had only recently come under the control of Israel. The Long Island Jews were ecstatic. East Jerusalem had been forbidden to Jews since 1948 and now, here we were, at last, face to face with the Arabs who had just tried to push Israel into the sea and failed. 

First we went to an open air market.  I’d only ever seen food laid out in an antiseptic supermarket and it kind of grossed me out to see raw meat in big slabs hanging on hooks, covered in flies.   Fish were laid out in stalls, spices were in open bags, fruit piled up, garbage on the street. Now I glory in such open air markets and shouks, but then all I noticed was that it smelled. My America rarely smelled. It made me a little nauseous.

It wasn't just that.  
Ever since I can remember, my father always called all Arabs, “The Animals”. It was like he was talking about anti-Semitic Neanderthals—capricious sub-human beings who hated Jews because they were literally incapable of rational thought and civilized discourse and normal human motivation.  So when we walked into the busy open market place, I was confused.  These Arabs looked like people to me. 

I saw this one old guy wearing a black and white scarf on his head, he was standing by the meat and glaring at us, really angry, maybe even glaring directly at me. I worried that he could tell I thought the market wass smelly.  Then I though, no, he hates me because I’m a Jew, because Israel won the war.  Well, I’m glad he lost, I want Israel to exist but he must think he’s right and we’re wrong, this man who just lost this war and we’re walking around his neighborhood like it’s ours, It IS ours, I guess, now, so he must feel bad, and I’m in his neighborhood, making him feel worse. 

And suddenly I understood, walking around here, lording it over the Arabs of East Jerusalem, taking a tour of their defeat, that we are being very rude.  More than rude, kinda mean.  I wanted us to leave, I asked my mother if we can go.  But my big fat American tourists were laughing and having fun and she ignored me.

I looked around and saw, or thought I saw, that every non-Jew we passed on these streets really, really hated me, hated us, and wanted us dead.  My parents and their friends either couldn't see or didn't care that they were hated, they were in fact glorying in their ability to degrade the locals, and I was not imagining that, because the whole time we were walking through the market, Rafeal was telling stories in a very loud voice of the taking of East Jerusalem by the Israelis, rubbing it in, watching the Arabs' reactions as he boasted of the victories.  But I had eyes and I could see that they’re not animals at all, that this was bad behavior on our part and that we shouldn’t be there.  I was embarrassed for my big fat American Jews, I wanted to dive into the garbage and disappear.

And this moment in East Jerusalem when I smell raw meat and defeat and garbage and poverty and shame and fish and invasion and pain and smugness, when I want to puke from it all, this moment is the actual moment, no joke, the actual moment when my life gets changed forever, the very moment when received truth loses much of its power over me, when I realize that just because my parents or my rabbi or my teacher tells me something is true doesn't make it true and I realize, oh shit I am on my own and moreover, and you may not believe me but it's true,
I knew it was that moment and being aware that you have just become aware is very disorienting, a lot to take in when you’re fourteen and stuck on a bus with a bunch of middle-aged Long Island Jews only twenty-three years away from the Holocaust who see themselves as victims in every scenario and there I am, beginning my rejection of my parents' suburban Judaism and Jewishness and having, though I won't realize it until about thirty years later, that super Jew and God moment I was looking for when I landed on that tarmac, that all this emotion and and resentment and fear and shame was only possible because of how much I cared and wanted from and for Israel and my people and my God and somehow, in a line that would end up being extremely jagged and interrupted, this would somehow nevertheless lead to me entering rabbinic school at the age of 58.

I threw up.

Later, in our hotel room, I tried to talk to my father about my revelation that Arabs were people and not animals and he yelled at me, literally foamed at the mouth. For years after that night, he'd introduce me to his friends, “Hello, have you met my daughter, Patricia The Anti-Semite?"

Anway, after that my parents had a screaming fight with my sister and she stomped off somewhere to sulk and they went out to dinner and I was left in the room to think about the error of my ways. Ira came over looking for my sister. She wasn’t there but I was and we spent the evening throwing water balloons off the balcony at passing tourists.

We laughed and laughed and laughed.