The first time one comes to Israel, the star is the country itself. The vastness of the wilderness terrain. The extraordinary wonders of a huge crater gouged into the south of Israel by moving tectonic plates, an extinct ocean and rushing rivers. The clear, fresh waters of the Ein Gedi spring which is less than 10 miles from the Dead Sea, the saltiest water in the lowest point on earth. The Western Wall. Funky, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. The astonishingly gorgeous Bahai Gardens in Haifa.
Of course the list goes on and on; I could count out another ten sites in a second. On the 4th or fifth visit, however, the the scenery begins to fade out and the encounters with the people emerge. Their stories, their opinions, their worldview, are unique and prodigious.
I regularly thank my best Hebrew teacher, Mr Max Kleiman, of blessed memory, who taught me how to read and speak the language. Because of him and all of my subsequent Hebrew instructors, I can actually engage on an intimate level with the people of this country, most of whom are chomping at the bit to share their opinions, some before even being asked.
I took a cab to dinner two nights ago and the driver wanted to know where I was from. He immediately yelled, “What are you Americans doing? What kind of a meshugganeh president did you choose? America will be like Italy with Berlusconi!” On the way back to the hotel another driver wanted to shake my hand. “Thank God, America finally has a president who loves Israel.” When I sheepishly mentioned that I did not vote for him, he couldn’t believe it. “I should make you pay me twice! Once for the fare, once for Obama!”
That’s the way it is here. Everything is turned up to high volume. Every comment inspires a reaction: sometimes a slap on the back and a “Kol hakavod!” (“Right on, man!”); sometimes a look of horror and a “Hishtagata?!” (Have you lost your mind?”).
It’s Isabela, our waitress in a fabulous hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Tel Aviv Carmel Market. I order lunch and she looks at me apologetically. “Please can you speak in English? I don’t know Hebrew.” It turns out that she’s from Barcelona and just beginning to go to an Ulpan for basic Hebrew instruction. She is adorable and hapless…
There’s league night at the bowling alley in Haifa, to which we take our kids and their Israeli high school counterparts. Many of the teams are composed of men in their late 50s and 60s. I imagine their lives and the number of times they may have been ordered to enter combat. And just as I pluck up the courage to ask them some kind of a leading question about the complexity of life in Israel, they look over at me and the kids, and… immediately ask the woman at the desk to put up a mechitza — yes, a curtained barrier between us and the abutting league lane.
I can’t help but respond. “Ad k’dei kach?” (“Seriously?”) “Ken adoni. Ad k’dei kach!” (“Heck ya I’m serious.”) He comes over later to explain that bowling is like dancing and everyone takes a turn and so forth. At this point I’m wishing I wasn’t so fluent… And I’m brushing up against the issue of boundaries that is such a hot issue in a little country, whether in a bowling alley in Haifa or the Green Line between Israel and the occupied territories. Never has the memory of the simple act of drawing a line between siblings in the back seat of a car taken on such depth and emotion.
There’s Omar and Yosef, 2 Arab brothers who own a store inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. I’ve been there before and they greet me like a long lost brother, immediately ordering coffee and tea. They invite the kids in and treat them with a full display of hospitality and salesmanship. The brave kids do the bartering game, and Omar graciously barters back. It’s all in fun. We spend almost two hours with them as they regale us with stories of their store and their lives. Meanwhile our Israeli guide sits apart, scowling. I ask him what’s wrong. “These Arabs are just using you. As soon as you walk away they’ll laugh at you and how they ripped you off.” I’m surprised by his animosity. He doesn’t know these men or their store. But he’s already so sure he understands them and their story.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe these men are as cold and cynical as he suggests they are. Only, I am not a fool. I know the difference between sarcastic glad-handing, and the genuine pleasure of humans connecting. The kids come up to me. “Rabbi. Are these guys Arabs?” “Of course! This is the Arab Market!” “They’re so nice! We didn’t know that Arabs would be nice.” To achieve this sentiment, it was worth every shekel spent.
I have a hundred more examples, a thousand. Joyful encounters. Puzzling encounters. Maybe it’s like this when you go back to the same place time after time. But in my heart of hearts, I doubt it. This IS my place. I may not live here, but my DNA connects me. These are my people: the new immigrant from Spain, our Moslem bus driver, the kibbutznik who filled a paper cup with organic manure to prove it didn’t smell, the bowler and his mechitza… all mine.
We’re leaving tomorrow night and I’m excited to get home. But I will truly miss this sprawling 24/7/365 drama played out with such heart and intensity. I can’t wait to come home again.