Guest Blog at Lisa Romeo Writes Sept. 12, 2014
Ilene Prusher interviews Judy Labensohn on Let's Get Lit at internet radio TLV1.fm
I am a city mouse living the life of a country mouse. David and I live in Beit Zayit, a moshav west of Jerusalem. This place was our compromise because David does not like cities and I did not want to move far away from Jerusalem. It took me five years to get used to living in the country. Country living is highly over-rated, in my opinion. Where is the Me who used to love Nature, who lay on her back watching clouds? Now I need more stimulation, people, action. The writing life is quiet enough. I want to go outside and see people of all ages and colors walking to and fro, vegetable vendors and bakeries, pharmacies and post offices, all within walking distance.
On today’s Morning Walk in Beit Zayit, I saw three other humans. One was running with a dog. One was walking with a grandchild who held the leash of a dog and the third drove a Jaguar. The only other stimulation, other than the trees leaning into spring, were painted water pipes and decaying errata.
How did I get here? Why do city folk romanticize country living?
Beit Zayit used to be a farming community, ten minutes west of Jerusalem. Now it’s twenty minutes west of Jerusalem because there’s so much traffic. The Jewish Agency settled Egyptian and Yugoslavian Jews here on rocky terraces in 1949, built each family a chicken coop, gave them a few dunams for plum trees and said Good Luck.
Sixty-five years later, wealthy Jewish businessmen from Israel, England, France and America are buying up the 3-dunam plots and building mansions. These are hubris houses that show no respect for the lay of the land. Beit Zayit is becoming Jerusalem’s Bel Air.
David and I are involved in a group of people aged 50-70 who want to create a co-housing community for active aging somewhere in Israel. I hope we’ll find an appropriate site in a city, soon, before I deteriorate from lack of local stimulation. Though city air may be more polluted, living with people is healthier for writers who close themselves up in rooms for hours on end. This writer needs a vibrant environment for stimulation and human contact, not more isolation.
But that’s just my opinion today at 10:45. What are your thoughts about this matter of isolation vs. engagement, city mouse vs. country mouse, a place full of people or empty streets?
Once I realized that my nose surgery was not going to deform me forever and that I didn’t care if I had an unseemly blackish-brown scab the size of a shekel on the side of my nose, I buckled down to finish my memoir. In November 2014 I had sent An End to Mourning to an editor who put in comments using Track Changes. She sent it back in December. For the last three months, like an ant carrying one seed at a time from one side of a field to the other, I have been plodding (and plotting) through the text. I have been uncharacteristically ambitious and determined to get the thing done, out of the way, off my desk and my desktop. This morning it happened, I sent the manuscript back to the editor!!! She will now put in my corrections and rewrites and send me back a clean copy, I hope.
Recently, I read a quote by someone who said there is a difference between writing a memoir and having written a memoir. I am pleased to be in that second category. I wrote a memoir. Amen. Halleluiah. Pass the brandy. Bring out the cocoa.
For me having written a memoir means I have a usable past. I have a story that works. I can connect the dots between Cleveland, Ohio and Jerusalem, Israel. What my unconscious has known all along for the past five decades now makes sense for my conscious mind as well. The dots are on the page. It is out of my body.
Having the plastic surgeon scrape that cancerous glob out of my nose provided the perfect metaphor for what I had been doing for more than thirty years. It took the doctor no more than ten minutes to clean out the stubborn, tenacious cancer, which had probably been growing in my beautiful, straight nose since 1959 when I had radiation treatments for acne. (This was not an uncommon method of treatment in 1959.) Or maybe the cancer started in the summer of 1953 when, as a child of eight, I swam in the pool at the country club for hours on end, the sun burning my fair skin red.
The cancer in my psyche took more time to locate and extract—thirty-five years, give or take.
Now I am free. Even as I sit here in my house with all my heaters on full force, I feel excitement and anticipation towards the coming Spring. I want to do something new and outrageous, after so many years of obsession. Now the obsession has a home in a book and I am free, free, free. Whether or not An End to Mourning finds a publisher, writing it has achieved its goal. It has given me a life, a past, a story. The rest, if it happens, will be the marshmallow in the cocoa.
It’s 12:22 PM and I still haven’t been able to sit down to work on my memoir. I did my morning stretches, drank hot water with lemon, followed by black coffee, ate my morning oatmeal and millet with date, walnuts and chia, (Forgot to throw in the ground flax seeds.) read the morning newspaper cover to cover, both national and international news and now rather than sit down and work on my memoir-nearing-completion, (It’s been nearing completion for thirty years.) I prefer to write this slice of life. Then, maybe I will take a walk in the wadi, read a few stories in Alice Munro’s Dear Life for the book club and call to make an appointment for an eye examination for my driver’s license, having arrived at the age when annual eye tests are a prereq for renewing the license, and then and then . . . there are the black beans that need cooking in the pressure cooker which demands my standing nearby, lest the cooker explode, the continuous attempt to get my electric space heaters to work in sync so I won’t freeze or sweat during the five remaining hours of daylight, the coughing up of phlegm and blowing my left nostril with silk Kleenex dipped in aloe lotion—winter rituals especially prevalent during a slight cold—and mainly, mainly, the effort exerted to not think about the minor procedure on my right nostril two days ago.
As far as procedures go, mine was a best case scenario: outpatient, local anesthetic, a cut here, a slice there, no big deal compared to invasive intestinal procedures that can take ten hours under the knife. So why this anxiety, this unease, this avoidance of focus on work?
“It looks like a crater,” said the plastic surgeon as he sliced a hole on the side of my right nostril. His tone was comforting and matter of fact. I didn’t digest the content. The local anesthetic may have seeped into my brain. He was an expert on the Mohs procedure, using it to take out a morpheaform basal cell carcinoma. Later, when I got home, crater sounded melodramatic. I needed a more modest metaphor and found it in the shallow bowl in which I serve home-made tehina.
At home I thought I’d reread Gogol’s “The Nose,” but all I could think about were my options after the doctor would take off the bandage next week. I came up with three: 1. Join a freak show; 2. Become a poster woman for the Israel Cancer Association; 3. Lobby for lowering the price of sunscreen in Israel.
David, my wise partner, suggested I wait to see what the nose would look like without the bandage. Of course this made sense, but I was already determined to turn my scar into a PR ploy. I would glue fake diamonds, rubies or emeralds inside the oval bowl on my nose. I would draw attention to it, create a fashion statement with glitter. I would tell everyone who stared at me, “Use sunscreen! Wear hats with wide rims!”
My own skin doctor, who did the original biopsy that came up with “morpheaform basal cell carcinoma,” does not believe in sunscreen and thinks it may cause more problems than it solves, but this plastic surgeon, the Mohs expert, believes in sunscreen with over 30 SPF. Once I’m fully recovered from this current slice, I plan to use both sunscreen and hat and possibly my parasol. And I want to talk to students at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Ramat Gan. I want to ask them to design head gear that covers the nose and whole face.
Why should only Bedouin and Muslim women protect their skin from the sun, wear the niqab? I, being the blonde child of Ashkenazi parents, will wholeheartedly cover my secular face, as long as the covering has some pizzazz.
Many people I know believe in keeping medical issues private, but I am not one of them. I believe we get support from each other and our own experiences can help others. I also have this need to put myself into the world via the page, to turn myself inside out, to make the hidden known, reveal that which is concealed. Why else write? Why else did I run to the skin doctor when I felt a lump inside my nose?
One needs a lot of strength and courage to stand up against the Beautiful-Skin industry, the anti-aging industry, the anti-human industry. But stand up I will, at least on the page. I have earned my wrinkles and I have earned my crater/tehina bowl. A close-up photo, non-photo-chopped, may not make the cover of Vogue, or even Mad Magazine, but it reveals the truth of that face, with all its historical landmarks, scars, sun spots and forced smile.
So why the anxiety? Even though the excision is an out-patient procedure, when it happens on your own nose, the nose that has found comfort in the middle of your face for nearly seventy years, the nose that remembers your thumb sucking and nosebleeds, your blackheads and glasses, the nose that channels every breath of life, then, by God, it is a big deal.
Now, hopefully, after getting my sliced nose off my chest and into your face, I will be able to sit down and write my book.
My inner curious George has been hyper-active over the past few months. The engineering feat developing opposite my kitchen window pulls me and my iPhone camera out of the house on Saturday afternoons. I’m documenting the building of the new Highway One at the Motza curve for my grandchildren, who still love steam shovels and other large vehicles the names of which I know not, neither in English nor Hebrew. Visiting the building site is like a trip to the zoo and the museum all in one. The machines, with a little imagination, resemble dinosaurs; the colorful use of triangles, circles and squares would feel comfortable in any pavilion of modern art.
As a young woman I thought engineers were square. They stubbornly kept their hair short in the mid-sixties, when guys in Eng. Lit. and art history boasted shoulder-length locks. They wore ivy-league shirts, when poets and artists wore dirty t-shirts that said Make Love Not War. I looked down upon the clean-shaven engineering students, but not anymore. Today I have nothing but respect for engineers. They have concrete dreams and know how to make those dreams come true. How else can you explain the amazing work being done at the Motza interchange, where a road is being built high in the air to avoid a curve in the damp landscape below?
Maybe engineers had this reputation of being square because they spent too much time drawing geometric shapes. But what does it matter? They learned how to design and build bridges and roads, structures that, hopefully, will pass the test of time, missiles, earthquakes and whatever other disasters await us here in the valley west of Jerusalem.
The designers of the new Highway One have ignited my curiosity with their colorful equiptment, knowledge of rock and wind, daring and diagrams. All I can diagram is a sentence. I salute the engineers building this project, right in my front yard, to the delight of thousands of drivers who curse the current road leading up to Jerusalem and to the dismay of deer and jackals who are losing a foothold in the valley of concrete. I hope some professional film maker is producing a movie to document the construction of the new road. All I can offer are a few amateur shots from an iPhone.
Even I cried when I just read my last blog post about my late mother. It made me want to document the year of mourning, or at least the first three months. Here goes. After the shloshim I vowed to go to synagogue once a week to say Kaddish for my mother. A noble vow, but making vows isn’t what it used to be. Once, in August 1966 during a visit to a cave on Mount Zion, I vowed to return to Israel, not just for a five-week summer adventure, but for a whole year. I wanted to learn Hebrew and figured it would be easier in Jerusalem than Cleveland. I kept that vow, returned to Jerusalem on August 1, 1967, but instead of staying one year, I stayed forty-seven. Oy. That sounds like such a long time. You would think that anyone who lived in Israel for forty-seven years would not only be able to read Hebrew fluently, but also write it. Instead, I became a promoter of English writing in Israel. But I digress. The point is The Vow.
One drizzly morning at 6:30 I checked out a Sephardic minyan on the moshav where I live. A woman stood near the door cutting sprigs of hyssop. Must have been a Friday and she was preparing the strong-scented herbs for the havdalah service. Or maybe she put them in a cheese spread. I don’t know; I didn’t ask. Rather, I walked to stand behind the mehitza and tried to find my place in the prayer book. On the other side of the latticed barrier stood twelve men of assorted head coverings and shirt sizes praying in different accents. Turns out the Ashkenazim on this moshav go to the Sephardic shul during the week. Yes, Messiah. Are you listening? They pray together! In fact one of the Ashkenazim got up and gave a talk about how the Israel Defense Forces should be run according to Torah law. This riled me, so I muttered the mourner’s Kaddish, not necessarily at the appropriate moment, and rushed home to my left-wing newspaper.
The next Kaddish I got in on Yom Kippur, since I was already there in the Ashkenazi shul. Ever since my bat mitzvah, when I was 65, I’ve lost interest in organized prayer. Nonetheless, I still believed A vow is a vow, though the thought also occurred to me that my mother probably wouldn’t care one way or the other if I said Kaddish, stayed in bed or played golf, as long as I was healthy. The next attempt at Kaddish was Simchat Torah at a Reform synagogue in Mevasseret, but I arrived too late, so only managed a small paper cup of grape juice. The Reform synagogue in Jerusalem where I had my bat mitzvah—the shul I don’t go to on a regular basis—is a 25-minute drive from the moshav. It seems a shame to sit in a car for 50 minutes in order to say a 90-second prayer.
So you see, it was very easy for me to talk myself out of saying Kaddish for my mother on a regular basis, be it an Orthodox or Reform setting, vow or no vow. What I did do last week was visit London. I haven’t done anything this normal in fourteen years, ever since my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Over those years, every time I left Israel I sat on a crowded, uncomfortable airplane for twelve hours, followed by a plastic chair at Newark Airport for three hours and then a narrow seat for a ninety minute flight to Cleveland. Last week, in four and a half hours I was in London! A trip to the Biblical Zoo could not have been easier. My British girlfriend held my hand as she fed my Oyster card some quid for the tube. By Day Two in London I was buzzing around all by myself underground and even above on the Docklands Light Railway. I went to Saddler Wells for a modern ballet and a Methodist church with a wooden dome that serves as a culture venue during the week for an evening of British folk music, but it was only in the National Gallery’s exhibit “Rembrandt: The Late Works” that I thought of my mother.
Standing in a dark room, first cousin to the cave on Mount Zion, I saw an old man blessing a young boy: Rembrandt’s “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph.” All this darkness—a dark gallery totally inconducive to iPhone photography, a painted scene framed by dark, heavy curtains, the only light coming from Jacob’s white pj’s and pillow, a dying patriarch in his bed under a dark red blanket—put me in a dark mood. Jacob got it wrong. He blessed the younger son, Ephraim, with his right hand, a gesture usually reserved for the elder son. Joseph looks on with understanding and tenderness. Whatever, he seems to be saying to himself. My father is old and dying.
And that’s when I said Kaddish in my head, because in almost all of Rembrandt’s late works, he has hands, many hands, hands reaching, hands touching, hands caressing and pointing and all these hands reminded me of the day in June when I put my hands on my mother’s head, frail as a baby bird, and she put her hands on my head as I knelt at her feet, she sitting bent over in her wheelchair like a failed scarecrow, oblivious to the activity around us in the living room of the Alzheimer’s ward, both of us speechless,
tears sitting in the dark corners of our eyes, like the darkness in the Rembrandt gallery of the National Gallery and I was overcome with tenderness from the idea of Generations and gratefulness for Rembrandt’s Late Works and acceptance, too, of God’s strange and glorious Ways.
My mother died the same day all the international airlines cancelled their flights to and from Israel. To get to the funeral in Cleveland, I imagined swimming across the Jordan River, hailing a cab to Amman, flying to Istanbul with Royal Jordanian, then to New York with Turkish Air. It would take less than three days. But before packing my swimsuit for crossing the Jordan, I took the advice of Sherri, my loyal travel agent at Ophir Tours, and drove to Ben-Gurion Airport to stand in line at the only airline still flying to and from Israel: El Al. Never did the national airline look so good. I used my pushy skills honed over the past forty-seven years and in no time reached the front of the line. The conscientious clerk went into emergency mode when she heard me say, “My mother died.” She stood up, raced to the back room and initiated Protocol 077 or whatever code they use for Mourner. I got the last seat on the El Al flight to JFK the next afternoon.
In Hebrew the time between death and burial—that liminal zone when everyday life is suspended for mourners—is called anninut. According to the laws of Jewish mourning one starts to mourn after the funeral. But the psyche has its own laws. According to these laws, as I experienced them between July 22nd and 25th , I reciprocated any act of kindness towards me with tears. This is why, when the lovely welcoming stewardess on El Al told me I had a seat by the door with enough leg room for a person six feet tall, I cried. And when a fatherly steward, who looked like Santa Claus on vacation, brought me a warm fuzzy blanket to counter the freezing air conditioning, I again shed tears. I dared tell yet another beautiful Jewess that I was a vegan and she brought me a fruit salad from first class. Was that not worthy of a cry? By the time we flew over Rhodes, I felt guilty for having deserted El Al years ago, choosing Continental, because of its Cleveland hub. Guilt seemed appropriate on a Jewish airline.
The morning after arriving at JFK, I waited for four hours at La Guardia for a flight to Cleveland. Nobody knew or cared that my mother had died. I tried to make the most of this situation by talking Death to the gentleman sitting next to me. Fortunately, he had flown from Cleveland to his own mother’s funeral in Jamaica several months earlier. We compared mourning customs and concluded there is no one way to mourn. Not only is it individual, as I once learned from Prof. Gerald Kaplan when he came to Israel in 1973 to train us social workers caring for bereaved families from the Yom Kippur War, but it is also determined by culture, geography and religion.
During my week in Cleveland all I wanted to read were obituaries, so it came as no surprise that on my way to the airport on the last day, when my loving son from California and I visited Loganberry Used Bookstore on Larchmere Road, I bought The Mourning Handbook: The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice On Coping with All Aspects of Death and Dying by Helen Fitzgerald.
Given the working title of my (in progress) hybrid memoir, The Mourning After, it’s amazing I had never heard of Fitzgerald’s 1995 book. Timing is everything, to simplify Ecclesiastes. I bought the book on the exact day I needed it. Here was the whole galaxy of mourning in one easily scrunchable paperback that fit into my purse and that would enable me to survive five hours at JFK, ten more on El Al and a year of mourning.
Now, I have been home for a month. Having buried my mother and sat Shiva in Cleveland and observed the Shloshim in Jerusalem, in my periodic visions of grandeur, I morph into a grief entrepreneur. I imagine leading workshops on Unresolved Childhood Grief (Fitzgerald, p. 217), starting at The Writing Pad in Beit Zayit and then taking the show on the road. I now see The Mourning After as a hybrid collection of writings that helped me deal with unresolved childhood grief.
There is nothing like a Death in the family—throwing a shovelful of dirt on your mother’s open grave—to transport you from Fantasy Land to Reality. The dramatic transition feels like crossing the chilly Jordan . . . or some Jordan.
Though ritually I have left anninut and am planted firmly in the mourning year, the psyche still hovers in some liminal, transitional zone. Call it Elul. Call it Orphan-hood. Or Maturity. Whatever it’s called, I want to thank El Al for carrying me in my hour of need from one side to the other and I want to thank Helen Fitzgerald for giving my obsession a name and I especially want to thank my late Mother, Mom, Rita Faye (nee Grossman) Stonehill, a beautiful Jewess who carried me in this world with milk and honey, even as she told me to get the hair out of my eyes and the thumb out of my mouth, and whose memory is . . . and will forever be . . . a blessing.
Only yesterday during the siren did I realize my room of my own is not protected: no metal shutters on the bathroom window, no metal doors on the sliding glass doors. The room of my own was so open to the surrounding Judean hills over which missiles were flying on their way to Jerusalem that I felt uncomfortably vulnerable. The Home Front Command had instructed citizens in a building with neither a protected room, a stairwell nor a bomb shelter, to lie on the floor, face down, arms covering the head.
When the siren sounded I looked at the smooth white pseudo-marble tiles on the floor. I was happy they were not dotted with ants, spiders or dirt from the plant nursery below. Only a film of dust. Though the tiles did not beckon me to rest my anxious cheek, I gave in to the force of gravity and stretched out on the cool floor, grateful this war was not transpiring in winter, when the floor is freezing and damp. Nose into the floor, arms over the head and expecting the worst, I soon realized there was no way I would maintain this position for the recommended ten minutes.
To my right was the fridge, empty but buzzing. If the rocket fell nearby and caused large objects to move, I reasoned, waiting for the faraway boom to indicate I was still alive, the fridge might fall on me. I did not want to be squished by a fridge, so without waiting for any more signals from outside, I took my fate into my own hands and crawled backwards on my stomach, a militant civilian. My clean white shirt and white slacks enabled me to imagine I was in camouflage. Surely no sniper nor missile with eyes would see me on the white floor.
Now my prone body “hid” opposite the sliding glass doors. Even though I’ve never served in the army, I knew this was not a safe position. Flying glass could easily cut my face. I turned towards the wall. But as soon as my hands were covering my brain, I realized this too was not safe. Shrapnel from the missile could easily enter my unprotected writing room of my own and lodge in my back. Didn’t Yossi carry shrapnel in his head from the Battle of Jerusalem in ’48, causing him headaches until his death three years ago? At various times during my long life, the beginning of which I am “celebrating” today, I have suffered from low back, upper back, hip and neck pain. I had no desire to incur any injury to any part of my back, especially the day before my birthday, granted not a big one, but a birthday nonetheless.
It was at this moment that I started thinking about the man, the Hamas man in Gaza, who was pulling the string or pushing the button or covering his ears while another crony was pushing the button or pulling the string. This man, I understood while lying on the pseudo marble floor, vulnerable as the geraniums below me in the plant nursery, would be very happy to see me dead. Why else was he firing these missiles and rockets all the way from Gaza to the Judaean hills?
I was angry at this man, his organization, ideology, his state of terror that he was spreading like a virus into Israel. I wanted the Israeli army to fire back and hoped one of Israel’s missiles would hit him on the run and neutralize him from trying to kill me.
And then I thought of Virgina Woolf, the woman writer who in 1928 verbalized a woman’s need for freedom, peace and a room of one’s own in order to write. She was addressing the women at Newnham and Girton Colleges at the University of Cambridge and probably could not have imagined that some woman in the maniacal Middle East would take her seriously eighty-six years later. And then I wondered if some woman in Gaza who was crouching under a table or next to a glass door, totally vulnerable, also felt from an early age the need to write. How could there not be such a woman there? Or many? And how much more difficult was it for her to achieve her dream.
The boom came indicating the missile had been downed by Iron Dome and in those few seconds after the boom when I stood up and took deep breaths I realized that only when we both inhabited a secure and safe space would we have the freedom and the peace to write. We both needed, not only a protected room of our own, but a protected land.
Upright, I was still angry, but now not only at Hamas who fired the missile. Now I was angry at the stiff, pompous, self-righteous, over-weight, macho Israeli male leaders and all the men on both sides whose imaginations were so narrow, fixed and frozen that they hadn’t been able to come up with a better solution to this conflict over a shared piece of land that demanded we live like neighbors, not enemies, no better solution than this tiresome old game they had been playing for generations like little boys who never grew up, never learned how to respect the other and to share their common ground.
Dear mom and dab,
I’m writing you from book camp. I haven’t been able to write you sooner because I’ve been working on my book all the time. Even when I leave the cabin/cell/room where I actually sit to write the book and go to my bunk even there my head is still in the cabin/cell/room and I’m thinking if paragraf three should become paragraf seven and if chapter five should switch places with chapter six. It’s like building a mall with lego. Too bad I never played with lego.
I know there’s a lot going on in the world – the milkman delivers news every now and then – but I can’t be bothered, not only because I stopped drinking milk. “The world will always offer reasons not to focus on your book.” This is what the senior counselors here say, so they encourage us, i mean me, to stick to what they call GOAL. I know it’s a term used in soccer and football, but I never payed attention back then, so it’s like a new term for me. It’s more than a word. It’s a way to get you to sit in the chair even if you want to jump on the trampolene or paint the peeling wall yellow or plant lettuce or anything else that demands getting up from the chair. Thinking GOAL seems to work, at least at camp. I’m sticking to getting the book ready for an editor if not by the end of camp (august 24th) then by the end of sukkot (oct. 17th)
Book camp isn’t anything like forest acres where you sent me in 1958. At book camp I’m the camper counselor and cleaner. I have to wake myself up in the morning, make my own breakfast, go to the retreat room/cabin/cell for writing, print out a chapter in the print cabin, make lunch, dinner, snacks etc etc. it might sound hard, but climbing mount Washington was hard too. (Did I ever tell you about the blisters that got infected and the mean nurse who opened them and told me I was a cry baby??) At boot camp, I mean book camp, there are other activities too. Everyday I can choose among yoga, tai chi, fold-unfold, swimming, biking, walking, shiatsu and dancing. I try to do at least one of those every day to counter all the sitting. The chief counselor believes in staying healthy while you write your book, because if you get sick then the sickness becomes another reason not to focus. (Sometimes I wish I had mono . . . )
We also have field trips. We?? I’m the only one at this camp, though a friend named Ruthie visited and thought it was “a slice of heaven” and signed up for a few days.
My favorite field trips are to tel aviv and Haifa. In tel aviv I pick up A. from her babysitter and we stroll down ben gurion avenue. A twenty-minute walk takes us two hours because we look at everything from up in the sky: clouds, birds, airplanes, helicopters, moon, kites, etc., to everything down on the ground: cars, cats, dogs, skooters, bicycles, tables, fruit shakes, buses, trucks, ambulances, steam shovels, fork lifts, policemen, babies, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, paintings, sculptures, red lights, green lights, stop signs, sand, dirt, stones, flowers, trees, dead leaves, fences, slides and swings. By the time we reach rabin square with its fountains, I’m wiped out, but I also appreciate all the many words I still have to describe all the wonders we see on ben gurion avenue. Do you remember that dogs come in all shapes sizes and colors, as do trees and flowers? Who needs kindergarten and school with a street like this??
My other favorite field trip is when I go to Haifa and visit my three little munchkins. We swing in the park and eat ice cream and try to figure out how to handle strong jealous feelings without killing each other like the brothers in the bible. It’s not easy, but it’s still easier than sitting down and writing the book. I have to go now because I’ve already spent too much time writing to you and I’m losing my focus. The senior counselor says “Never take your eye off the GOAL. Focus!!” It’s kinda like softball, I think, where you always have to watch the ball so it won’t hit you in the face. Fortunately, there’s no softball at book camp.
So thanks mom and dab for enabling me to spend this summer at camp. After the book comes out and I return from my workwide tour—I mean worldwide tour—I’m thinking of becoming a nursery school teacher. The babysitter says I have talent.
your daughter, JUDY
PS – Say hi to tweetie and spot. Don’t forget to pick me up on august 24th, the earlier the better.
I spent an hour waiting in the hall at the Population and Immigration Authority of the Ministry of Interior last week. I held number 138; 98 was being serviced upon my arrival. I hadn’t been in this hall for a decade and I was happy to see that somebody at the Ministry of Interior cared about Israel’s citizens. The chairs were comfortable, the place clean. In large signs with no spelling mistakes we meandering citizens who valued every active minute of the day were informed, If you’re late, you lose your turn.
Large numbers flashed from all directions inviting 100 to go to clerk number 5 and 101 to clerk number 3. There were enough chairs for the sixty or seventy waiting individuals and even a water fountain that worked on the day that Jerusalemites were told to boil their water two minutes before drinking. The clerks wore clean white t-shirts over their clothes with the logo of the Population and Immigration Authority stamped over the heart. Some even smiled to the citizens they served. They didn’t eat croissants and drink coffee in your face. You could tell that someone with a Masters in Branding and Service had won a tender and devoted at least nine months, if not years, of interior design and personnel training to accomplish the makeover of the Population and Immigration Authority.
Nonetheless, an Ethiopian man left one clerk in a fit of fury and frustration. A Rumanian worker looked confused and shook his head rapidly as the clerk rattled out instructions in speed Hebrew. Miraculously, a security guard gently walked a blind Indian woman dressed in a sari to the head of a line to receive her ID card. Those waiting in the same line did not complain and the woman sitting next to me said, “There are still good people in the world.”
The waiting room was abuzz with babies crying, men speaking to women in Russian, women speaking to children in Arabic, husbands speaking to wives in Yiddish, a father talking to a son in sign language, children screaming with delight as if they were at an amusement park, people eating apples, felafels, chocolate bars, while their eyes went back and forth to the numbers above us, in the hall of changing status.
A twenty-year old American guy in a Hard Rock Café t-shirt swaggered around looking ebullient, but confused. He reminded me of my first visit to this office on Shlomzion Hamalka Street in downtown Jerusalem. I was twenty-two and I had just decided to change my status from student to new immigrant. Delete “decided.” That sounds like I made a mature rational decision. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The year was 1967. I was swept into a flurry of Zionistic zeal, my head bursting with expectations of salvation and desire to enter Jewish history through the Zionist narrative. Rather than sit on the sidelines in Baltimore or Cleveland, I wanted to stay in Israel and, well, just stay in Israel. At twenty-two that seemed enough of a plan for the next twelve months.
Aren’t all “decisions” of twenty-two year olds motivated by passion?
I wanted to belong to the State of Israel, to create a new identity and this was the hall where I got my belonging papers. Easily I received immigrant status and then citizenship, as if I had never stood with tears in my eyes at the Lincoln Memorial, never pledged allegiance at Mount Vernon and Monticello, never fantasized living in a log cabin, walking the Oregon Trail, never fallen in love with Walt Whitman. I was a fickle young American, easily swayed and thus, easy bait for the State of the Jews.
When 124 flashed, a young mother bent over a carriage to kiss her crying baby. I recalled my visits to the Population and Immigration Authority after the birth of each of my three children to apply for their birth certificates and to make sure their names and Hebrew birth dates appeared on the flimsy paper of my ID card. I was so proud that my children were born in Israel.
The longer I sat in that hall, watched and waited, the more Israeli decades passed before my inner eye as though I was watching This Is Your Life and the surprised guest was me. By the time 138 flashed from all corners, I felt comfortable in my Israeli skin. This was the county in which I had forged myself a la Whitman, Neitzche and A.D. Gordon and this was the hall where I received my confirmation papers. I had foregone the PhD in American history. Instead of waving my cap above my head in a medieval graduation ceremony, I glued my Certificate of Immigration above my bed. I would always be an immigrant.
By 2014 I was not afraid anyone would steal my identity again. Nonetheless, to be perfectly safe, I opted for a smart biometric passport and ID card. The clerk encouraged me to do so, knowing my middle name was Suggestible. I knew some Israelis were opposed to the State knowing the exact location and size of their facial wrinkles and sunspots, the labyrinths on their fingers, but I didn’t care. In 1967 I had surrendered to the State, body and soul. She could keep my data in her secure or insecure database now, forty-seven years later. Within ten working days when I would receive my biometric documents—the Passport through registered mail, the ID in a short visit to this hall—my identity would be thoroughly mine, only mine, immune to theft. It was worth the 280 New Israeli Shekels.
Also the memories were mine, the adventure, the leap into the unknown, the living on the edge of the stage of history. These too could never be stolen, though the Ministry of Interior didn’t care about these kishkes. These were solely mine, as were the loss of innocence, the disappointments, lies, shame, fences, frustration and grief. They were all mine. They would always be mine, as would the love of a twenty-two-year old, a love pure and passionate, a love that still flickered, like the soft light one sees after the sun sets into the Mediterranean, those pink and golden wisps of clouds, light shields against heavy darkness.