I was on the train to TLV when the woman with the sunglasses and two large suitcases asked me if I spoke English.
“Sure,” I told her.
“Could you perhaps watch my bags?” she said. “I have to use the sherutim.”
I know it well – the mixing, the blending of languages. When you take words from one language and add another, we do it a lot here — “I need to go to the makolet to buy bread and halav.” “Maybe you could stop acting like such a Ben Zonah.”
That sort of thing.
It means she’s half in one place and half in another. It means that she’s a mermaid.
She came back from the bathroom, and asked if I knew where she should transfer if she wants to go to Netanya.
(Suddenly, I’m the expert?)
“Oh, you want to transfer in two stations at Haganah – just check the screen for which platform you’ll need.”
“How come your English is so good?” she asked.
“I’m from LA,” I answered. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from France. When did you come here?”
“Seven years ago – what about you?”
There were two old women across the aisle from us – snow haired, and soft around the edges, faces webbed in wrinkles.
“Do you speak German?” one of them asked me in Hebrew.
“No, sorry – but I speak English and Hebrew.”
“What about Russian? My friend here just came from Russia, but she’s from Germany. No English. No Hebrew. But maybe you can help her get to Netanya?”
“I’m going to Netanya,” the French woman said in English. And then: “I speak a little German,” she said in German to the woman across the aisle.
The matter settled, we rode together.
“Do you love it here?” the French woman asked me.
“Yes, even when I can’t stand it. Do you?”
“Oui. How do you say… it’s all about the experience, finally being free to be Jewish.”
“Was it hard in France being Jewish?” I asked.
“It’s very hard right now, it’s very scary. The French do not like us, the Muslims from the other places do not like us, no one likes us. But here, we have a place that is ours. Here we are free. What was it like in LA?”
“In LA, if you WEREN’T Jewish, you pretended you were. I had this friend who was born in Mexico – completely Catholic – whose ring tone on his cell phone was Hava Nagilla, which kind of sums it up, I guess.”
“Ze lo kacha in France. It isn’t this way at all. If you are jewish, you hide it. You don’t wear your star, or your kipa, and you don’t have Hava Nagilla on your cell phone.”
We pulled into Haganah station.
“This is where you transfer,” I told her.
The French woman said something to the German woman, and she gathered her things, and the two got off the train in step, step by step, toward the escalator, together.
“Where are you from?” I asked the woman who had been sitting with the German woman.
“I’m Czech,” she said in Hebrew. I came here forty years ago already, Baruch Hashem.”
“You must have seen a lot of changes,” I said.
“I have,” she said. “But one thing’s stayed the same. If you’re Jewish, no matter what, this place will take you in. You’re from LA where it isn’t hard or scary, but I’m from somewhere else where it was hard and scary. And so is that woman from France, and so is that woman from Germany. And Israel is a blessing, and we must never forget that.”
And I won’t.