I came out of my cousin’s daughter’s wedding with mixed feelings and nostalgia for a long gone place in time. It’s mind-boggling, even after all these years, how a tight-knit family from Far Rockaway, New York made the quantum leap to Israel and somehow transitioned into a scattered clan living diametrically opposite realities.
The oldest of the baby boomers in my family, I was also the “black sheep” who strayed from the flock to find my own answers. I have wandered so far that my aunts, uncles and cousins no longer ask me why I don’t come out to visit them in Area C. I have told them that it has nothing to do with the political argument and stated that I am not one of the boycotters; I’m just wary of road ambushes and bullet holes in my windshield. That is how I metamorphosed from the black sheep to the family chicken.
Such cheerless thoughts were driven away by the sight of the bride and groom beneath the wedding canopy silhouetted by a brightly lit kibbutz landscape. Jewish weddings, after all, are supposed to be about high hopes for sweet marital bliss, the next generation and all the naches that implies. The glass was broken and hundreds of mazel tovs perfumed the air as everyone moved from the patio to the banquet hall.
Then I ran into a relative whose outlook on most things Jewish is as distant from mine as a bench player is from some guy watching a ballgame from the bleachers. “I was so sorry to hear about your friend,” I said to him, “the one who was killed in a terrorist attack.” That happened on the road by his yishuv; I didn’t have to remind him where it happened. We traded glances that conveyed our mutual distress with this madness in our lives, and went right back to our contrary perceptions of it: mine, in which we and our problematic cousins, in a Semitic manner of speaking, part ways with an inevitable handshake, each with country and flag; and his, in which we annex Areas B and C.
Scanning the hall, it was plain to see that any random combination of the guests, many of them family and extended family, could make or break an Israeli government coalition: Lots of knitted kipot and just enough black hats to keep me and my kind safely in the opposition.
The only free-thinkers at this religious wedding with its Greater Israel allegiances sat five in a row at the same table, me, my brother, sister-in-law, one and only like-minded cousin and his better half. My dear wife, who couldn’t make it to the event, was with us, me especially, in spirit. Facing us were my favorite uncles, one a founder of a settlement in the heart of Judea, the other a no less right-minded American Jew who staked his claim on a hilltop up north. Both of them had that distracted old timer’s look that strives ever backwards for an irretrievable moment.
My Galilee uncle beckoned me over to the other side of the table and asked me if I heard what he just said to his Judean brother, the pioneer settler. I raised my voice, “The band is so loud I can’t even hear anything at my end of the table.” He shouted in my ear: “I said I’m still voting for Bibi Netanyahu, and I don’t care what anyone says!” To which I came up with an aimless rejoinder: “Bibi doesn’t care what anyone says either.” I could tell that he heard me by the sly grin on his face.
Back in my seat, I took advantage of a break between deafening songs and fell into conversation with my restless cousin, who fired at me a question that was more of a statement. “How are we ever going to get rid of Netanyahu?”
My response went more or less like this: “In the world according to Bibi, guys like us have the media and the High Court in our pockets, but they have God on their side. Look at all the super Jews in this wedding hall. Most of them probably voted for Naftali Bennett, but they know who’s boss.” Whatever I said next was drowned out by the band’s horn section as it went into another dance number, sending the male guests into a rapture of sexless but no less feverish bopping around the hall.
My cousin leaned forward to get in a word edgewise and in-between the high notes of the booming background. “Nothing ever changes with Bibi!” he exploded. “Year after year, one cadentsia after another, one war leading to the next, one scandal to the next, and all these fools have to say is ‘who else is there?'”
I point at the two uncles sitting across the table. “You see those guys? They’re not part of the solution. They’re part of the problem.”
“I know, I know, but tell me Avi, what can I do about it?” my cousin laments, his voice rising. “At least you’re a writer; you can let out some of the frustration. What can I do?”
“Talk to people,” I counseled him. “Keep shouting, like you’re doing right now. Bang your fists on the table. Foment revolution. Someone will listen. Someone has to.”
Later, when the meals were served and relative calm, no pun intended, settled over the hall, I told my brother something I’d been thinking for some time but never actually said out loud:
“You know, bro, this century’s a disaster.”
He shook his head philosophically; I could see that we were on the same wavelength.
“There was so much optimism before the millennium started…”
According to my interpretation of events that shaped our times, it all started going downhill when the Yankees beat the Mets in the 2000 World Series. Talk about bad omens for the Jewish people, what can be more ominous than that evil empire and its patronizing fans coming out on top of the long suffering underdogs of New York? My darkest fears in October 2000 were swiftly proven correct when that very same month the second intifada broke out, one of our most costly wars. In subsequent fiascos, the second Lebanon war and Gaza campaigns 1-3 were more of the same. Each one of them could have been avoided; none of them had clear war aims to speak of or accomplished a damn thing; all of them ended on the sour note that the worst is yet to come.
But the main conversation around the table was about the well-being of the old folks, specifically those who couldn’t make it to the wedding on account of mobility constraints, my parents and a few aunts and uncles. We wished them good health, noted that they were all blessed with long life, and wishfully said that the longevity in our family has been passed on through our genes to our children. No one said anything about the kind of world we will leave for our children. At Jewish weddings you’re not supposed to say anything that smacks of doom and gloom.
Unless you say it real hush-hush to a fellow iconoclast. Aside, I told my brother: “The world situation is only getting worse. With leaders like Trump, Putin and Bibi, where are we all heading?”
He nodded morosely over his salmon, whose response to our furtive off-beat remarks was as lifeless as the stares that some of our dear relatives would send our way if they could hear what we were saying. But I knew that other less muted responses around the table could turn this shindig into a crossfire session.
So to keep the peace I changed the diskette and retreated to neutral grounds. Far Rockaway, that island of Jewish co-existence… Jews with small knitted kipot, Jews with black hats and straw hats and no hats all living in the same neighborhood. Our family was representative of the Jewish community we lived in. We had our latter-day zealots, modern orthodox and “conservadox” affiliations, those who wavered between the temple and the shtieble, others who switched synagogues and black sheep who just stopped going to shul. The old folks had religious values they brought from Europe and we kids had secular enticements. But these disparities didn’t stop us from having a joint Shabbat meal, spending a Sunday afternoon together on the beach, going to a ballgame or talking about how we were doing in school. We talked, oh how we talked, about making the big move to Israel. We dreamed about it. And now we live in our own country with our separate truths on both sides of the green line and security walls and see each other rak b’smachot, only on festive occasions.
As my brother and I wax sentimental over that lost world of our youth I recall the time I spent in the old neighborhood during a recent trip to New York. I took a picture, and now I have to show it to my uncle before he leaves.
I sit beside him, the pioneer uncle who used to invite me for Shabbat kiddush and take me to ballgames, and show him the photo on my cell phone. It’s just a picture of a parking lot with a small brick building at the end of it. The lot, empty in the photo, now belongs to the synagogue across the street, which must have purchased it from the yeshiva my uncle sold his property to when he made aliyah in the seventies. He had a fine old home with a great big backyard for kids to play ball and lots of trees for climbing, and now it’s a parking lot for guests at Jewish weddings, like this one.
“What’s this?” my uncle asked, eyes widening.
“I didn’t know that they tore down your house,” I said to him. “I had a shock when I saw this. The little brick building is all that’s left standing. Do you remember? That was your garage at the end of the driveway.” I reminded him how he used to make a sharp right turn just short of the the dead end sign on his block, haul his Volkswagen Beetle down the dirt path like a cowboy, raise clouds of dust and slam on the brakes to end a thrilling ride.
My uncle has that old timers’ look, frozen in a time that will never come back.
And now it’s time for him to go home. Back to the villa he got in exchange for the old house. Back to the now sprawling settlement that replaced the old neighborhood. It’s like all those other settlements where unfriendly neighbors don’t want to have you around on land they claim is theirs. The settlers close themselves in behind barbed wire and call it Greater Israel. I just call it Area C.