I’d forgotten this feeling: standing in an alternating current of progressivism and fanaticism, enlightenment and unapologetic parochialism. Whiplash doesn’t begin to describe it. The crazy-innovative startup culture…and then the men who won’t shake my hand because I’m female. The motorcyclists beeping through 16th Century byways; the sun-struck stones palpably freighted with all the prayers people have thrown at them over thousands of years; the rocky and inescapably Biblical landscape….and, evidently, some city ordinance requiring that someone, somewhere Jerusalem, must blast this song at least once an hour.
I’ve lived in Israel before, but still love this instant of arrival, when all the contrasts and contradictions are still patent: blunt-voiced adults, schoolchildren acting as traffic guards…people tsk-ing impatiently to communicate no, bunching their fingertips to communicate wait, throwing their hands to communicate everything else. People nodding briskly upon hearing my family’s background (a convoluted escape from Hitler’s Poland via Siberia and Japan and Mexico)—because here in Israel, this type of story, which raises brows at home in the U.S., is just another flavor of normal.
Another week or so, I know, and all these differences will begin to fade into background. But for now each small shock is delicious.
We arrived in Jerusalem recently for a three-month stay. We’re living with friends, and attempting the language-immersion route with the kids: sending them, with their few years of day school education, into the (all-Hebrew) local public school our friends’ kids attend. The family we’re living with is large, warm, with an irrepressible sense of humor and equally irrepressible sense of the possible. They’re politically active and astonishingly generous, opening their doors not only to my family but to a stream of friends. And while I’m the kind of person who’s quite capable of saying no to social invitations—I need my solitary time something fierce—still I’m presented again and again with invitations I simply can’t refuse. Who can say no to joining a rabbis-and-comedians-text-study group? To conversation with journalists who have seen it all? Every day here feels like 5 days…every day somehow tilts and everything rolls to the bottom, leaving me up until all hours trying to make sense of it all. Late at night, I get up from my computer and head to the kitchen to make cup of tea–and en route nearly walk right into a giant fuzzy human-sized letter tzadi–a prop from a campaign video my friend made for the recent Jerusalem municipal elections.
My Hebrew is good enough that I can, given a running start, debate literature or the political news of the day…but it’s also rusty enough that, caught off-guard by a security guard’s simple question (do you have an ID?), I can be reduced to a stuttering idiot. Nor does having lived here in the past make me immune to the recurrent concern that I might be misapprehending, failing to understand some small matter any child here comprehends. But even so, one’s perceptions are, in the end, all one has to work with.
Over breakfast cereal or afternoon snacks, I listen to the kids trading stories. One boy mentions how he accidentally left his backpack at soccer practice a few years ago. He came back to get it and it was gone—someone had reported a suspicious object and it was blown up by the bomb squad. Bye bye math notebook. My kids are agog. Another day I hear a girl telling my daughter, in serious tones, about some kids pulling an elaborate prank. My daughter at first laughs, but the other girl says solemnly: No, it isn’t funny. They used fake blood and pretended they got attacked. Now do you understand? And, after a beat, my daughter does. Here, violence isn’t a movie or a video game, and frightening your parents is no joke. And yes, your parents will fall for it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s not like they haven’t rehearsed it in nightmares.
My eight-year-old, who is bravely trying to adapt to school in a new culture and language, drifts off toward sleep each night in the room he shares with one of the sons in this family: a thoughtful, generous eleven-year-old adopted from Addis Ababa–a kid with a smile of practically unbearable sweetness, and with cochlear implants that allow him to hear despite being profoundly deaf. My son idolizes this boy, and takes comfort in his soft-spoken guidance in this strange new world.
I finish my son’s last bedtime song and linger. The streets outside are empty. We lie there in the dark, the gold-lit city framed by the stone arch of the window. The quiet of the city is, quite suddenly, overawing: a vast silence, large enough to let you take the measure of how very far you are from home. From across the room, the soft red glow of the tiny light on a boy’s cochlear implants is a small, steady beacon.
And another morning, another day…and more meals where people drop staggering stories as though they’re nothing: tragicomic, raucous tales told in a minor key. The week of the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, a friend comments that he knew Rabin—Rabin, in fact, encouraged him to get politically involved in Israel. Evidently my friend was standing near Rabin at one of the events around the signing of the Oslo peace accords, a reception that featured the serving of a giant ‘peace cake’–a blue and white affair with frosted doves on it. Finding Rabin’s piece of cake abandoned on the table, my friend claimed it for posterity. (Another friend, hearing this: The man tries to make peace in the Middle East and you steal his cake??) My friend took it home and put into a basement freezer to save it forever. Unfortunately, his father-in-law, thinking the freezer was empty, unplugged it some time that year. The cake went bad, as did the peace accords.
It all leaves me sitting over breakfast thinking: it’s nice to be in a country where I no longer feel I’m such an intense person. Because everybody and everything else here…