How country music helped me to make aliya

Lois pink

The winter of 76-77 we left Vermont on October 1st to travel to Bisbee, Arizona and arrived there six days later. The first night we slept at my sister’s in New Jersey. Somewhere between Vermont and New Jersey the starter in our car went and we drove across country with a screw driver to jump start the car and never turned it off when we stopped for gas.

I remember when we crossed the border into West Virginia there was a sign across the road: ‘Welcome to Wild Wonderful West Virginia’. The song playing on the radio was Kenny Rogers singing ‘Lucille’.

You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille
With four hungry children and a crop in the field
I’ve had some bad times lived through some sad times
But this time your hurting won’t heal
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille.

I was hooked. I’ve been a country music fan ever since.

The last day or the next to last day, we were in New Mexico. Suddenly desert gave way to pear and apple trees. This was Apache country. We got to Mescalero, New Mexico, where there was an Apache Museum. In a glass case was a display called ‘Apache Battle Dress’ that included a kippa (a close fitting cap worn by religious Jewish men). This fed into my belief that the Indians were a lost tribe of Jews.

So we finally arrived in Bisbee, Arizona. Larry’s friend, Peter, owned a small hotel named The Philadelphia. Peter was a charming host but the hotel was cold. Also, his girlfriend, Carmen, had little icons of the Virgin Mary hanging on the walls. I grabbed my two daughters and we went to the Copper Queen Hotel for breakfast. It was heated there. Before the meal was over I had nailed down a job as a waitress. Back at Peter’s, our older daughter Jenny was reacting to Carmen’s eight or so cats. So I took Jenny and rented a room in another hotel on the main street. Soon after, Larry and Peter arrived. Peter had made arrangements for us to stay in a small house of one of his friends who was away.

It was on a hill and I liked the smell. It smelled of earth. All electric appliances were plugged into one socket on the ceiling. This made me a little uneasy.

Peter had an empty apartment in his hotel and we moved there. I remember sitting on the bed reading a poem by Hillel, a great second century Jewish leader, over and over.

If not me then who
If not now then when

This is how I remember the poem. Looking it up on Google this is the actual saying.

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself,
then what am I?
And if not now, when?

We finally made aliya in 1982. By then we had three children – two daughters and a son.

Part 2

The Copper Queen Hotel wasn’t as warm as I’d thought at first. There were fireplaces but the flames weren’t real. I wore Vermont winter boots, the kind with the felt liners, which the boss didn’t like. Now they’re stylish, then they weren’t.

I used to drive my kids to Tombstone about 20 miles from Bisbee. We’d go to the Birdcage Theatre where a droning voice pointed out the bullet holes in the wallpaper imported from Paris or we’d watch a reenactment of the shootout at the OK Coral. I bought my kids Hanuka presents in Tombstone and my first book of poems was published there. Another reason for driving to Tombstone was that the road was flat.
Larry got a job as a plumber. Since he wasn’t really trained as a plumber he had a few accidents such as once trying to fix a leak at Peters; the water sprayed and flooded all over and he had to run out to the street and turn off the town’s water supply!

Peter opened an art gallery in the Hotel and we put on plays there, Larry’s ‘Sweeping the Desert’ and my ‘Little Dollies’.

‘Sweeping the Desert’ is about a line drawn in the desert that gets erased and starts a war.

I wrote ‘Little Dollies’ in one sitting after returning from a visit to my family. I opened the door, sat down at the kitchen table and wrote the play. In ‘Little Dollies’, set in 1922, three sisters are vying for the love of their mother. My mother was a flapper. Her stories and the music from that period were my mother’s milk.

At first Carina and Jenny went to the local elementary school, which was very strict. Jenny threw up on the principal. So they didn’t go there anymore. Instead they went to an Alternative School, where they didn’t learn anything but had fun.

We had a neighbor in the other apartment in the hotel. One day I went into Tucson with her, wanting to look around. She drove back to Bisbee before I was ready. As dusk fell I made my way to the bus station, which I suddenly noticed was in a seedy part of town. I didn’t have enough money for the bus fare so I wrote a check. They wouldn’t accept it, wouldn’t let me on the bus. I panicked, far from home, nobody knew me. I went into a bar and asked them to cash the check. The men sitting in the bar laughed at me.

In a bar in Toledo, across from the depot,
On a barstool she took off her ring.
I thought I’d get closer
So I walked on over.
I sat down and asked her her name.
When the drinks finally hit her,
She said, I’m no quitter,
But I finally quit living on dreams.

I’m hungry for laughter,
Here ever after
I’m after whatever the other life brings. 

Near the bar was a fish store run by a black man, who cashed my check. I’ve never forgotten that. He understood what it was to be up against the wall.

In the spring we left Bisbee. We’d sold our car and bought a blue 57 Chevy Van. It had a vacuum windshield wiper which had known better days, so Jenny had to sit up front with Larry and move the wiper by hand when it rained, especially if we were going uphill.

One night we were going to sleep in our van in a park in Oklahoma. The wind was picking up and we noticed some dead birds. Not exactly knowing what it meant but feeling concerned anyhow, I said we had to stay in a motel. Later we heard a radio announcement that a tornado was on its way. The next night we slept at a truck stop in Tennessee. Larry and I had a fight and I wanted to move into the bathroom.

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille
With four hungry children and a crop in the field
I’ve had some bad times lived through some sad times
This time the hurtin’ won’t heal.
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille.

In January I’d had a miscarriage in Bisbee, but by the fall I was pregnant again. When we first moved into our sugar house in the summer of 1970, I got pregnant. It was a one room house with a sleeping loft. It was called a sugar house because they used to make maple sugar there. We had no electricity, hauled water from an outdoor well. The house smelled of creosote and wood burning fire. My husband talked me into having an abortion. I’m not blaming him because I did it. The minute it was over I knew I’d committed murder and I spent the next years trying to undo what I’d done, trying to get G-d to forgive me.

By November I was pregnant again. I was so happy. I was pregnant and I took it as a sign that G-d forgave me. Soon after, Larry went down to New York to work and I was alone with the kids. Except he moved some guy in to cut wood for us.

Jenny, Carina and I spent a lot of time together in the sleeping loft. While Jenny went to school, Carina and I would feed Jenny’s rabbits. As a little child Carina was psychic. We’d be sitting in the loft in the afternoon and Jenny would be telling us what had happened in school or on the school bus. On one such day Jenny was relating casual events and Carina piped in, “And Ashley was eating a piece of cake.” Jenny looked at her. “How did you know?”

One morning I climbed down the ladder from the sleeping loft. My long winter underwear was covered with blood. I was devastated. The next years I dreamed of the baby I had to have. I had a coil as a contraceptive, which was advertised as being 95% effective, and I was always hoping I was in the other 5 per cent. I remember listening avidly as a girlfriend told me of a friend who had a coil and got pregnant anyhow. The baby was born with the coil on his head, she said.

Larry and friends built an extension to the house that summer. Now we had a living room and another bedroom. But we never called it the living room. It was always The Extension. Under the extension, there was a basement where we put old toys and I used to hear a children’s lullaby there. Nobody else heard it but I did.

The summer of ‘75 our house burned down.

In ’76 we went to Bisbee.

That fall, back in Vermont, I was pregnant again. Lots of people thought I shouldn’t have the baby. I was 42. In those days 42 was considered old for having a baby. Larry told me: “It’s your body. Do what you want.”

Our son was born on my parent’s anniversary. I called them up and said: “I didn’t know what to get you as a present so I got you a grandson.”

One night there were people at my house, friends from the theatre group. It was my second month of pregnancy. I began bleeding. The blood flowed. I lay down instead of going to the hospital and fell asleep. The next morning someone drove me to the hospital. I was in a room with yellow walls. I’m sorry G-d, I thought. I tried. I’m sorry I had that abortion. I tried.

The door opened. The doctor came in. “You have a break in the placenta wall. The baby’s fine. You have to stay off your feet for a few days.”

My baby held on. A miracle. A gift from G-d!

By this time we had a wood burning furnace, but I’d be off my feet and couldn’t lift the wood. Nor could Jenny
or Carina, so one of the actors, David H. offered to stay with us and load the furnace before he went to work in the woods. Anyhow, Larry was due home in a few days.

After a day working in the woods, David smelled of chainsaw oil. The smell made me sick and I would have to leave the room. One of the first things Larry did when he came back was to buy David’s chainsaw. And then he smelled of chainsaw oil too!

When we bought the sugar house, it had a dirt floor and no electricity. First Larry jacked up the house and laid down a pine wood floor. He was helped by Arnold, an old-timer he’d become friends with. Our friend Dougie also introduced him to Uncle Miltie, who lived somewhere deep in the woods. I think Dougie and Larry used to go to Uncle Miltie’s and sit around with Uncle Miltie and his brother and get smashing drunk. Some guys came over one night and wanted to sell us a stove that was in pieces. Uncle Miltie was there and said: “Don’t ever buy anything in the darrrk Larry.”

A city boy, my husband instinctively knew how to build. After seeing the log house that was built after the fire, his mother declared that he had golden hands. I like men that know how to use their hands. Only that. To be an intellectual with soft hands doesn’t appeal to me.

Once I had a court case I was sure to win, which involved our car. The garage owner towed it off our property because we owed him money. The lawyer said I was sure to win because I was alone with two children and needed the car to get food. The lawyer was wearing a jacket with a purple silk lining. When I noticed that his hands were soft I left the office. End of case.

The car had been in the garage owner’s garage and I saw where the key was hanging. At night me and one of Dougie’s friends went and got the car.

The next day the garage man came and took it back again.

When Larry came back he paid what we owed.

In the mirror I saw him,
And I closely watched him.
I thought how he looked out of place.
He came to the woman
Who sat there beside me.
He had a strange look on his face…

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille
With four hungry children and a crop in the field…

Part 3

We had two wood burning stoves, a Fortress-Crawford that we cooked on and a parlor stove. We read by kerosene light and hauled water from a shallow well. Larry was working down in Lyndonville at the college library. It was winter. Some days the snow and the sky seemed to be one. On Fridays the traveling library picked up last week’s books from the mailbox and brought me the new books I’d checked off. And so I read ‘Never Again’ by Meir Kahane, a book that changed my life.

Israel came into being because it never came out of being. It was the Jewish State in the days of Joshua; it was the Jewish State when there were Pharaohs; it was the Jewish State when Assyrians and Moabites and Edomites and Philistines and Babylonians and Persians and Hellenes and Romans drifted through history and passed out again. It remained Jewish because Jews never left it and there was never a time when Jewish communities did not remain in Zion.‘Never Again’ P. 173

‘Never Again’ got through to me because I was ready for it.

I remember being on a bus in New York reading ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ Later, I toured in the National Company production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ It was the first time in my life that Jews were the central and important people.

Growing up, I lived on a street with a Catholic church. Girls in my building ignored me, looked through me like I was a ghost, pale skinned girls with freckles and red hair. The boys who went to their parochial school once hit me with whips. My mother went and spoke to the boys’ parents. I didn’t have any weapons or defense. I didn’t really know who I was. When the teacher read the Psalms of David at assembly on Friday, I didn’t know they were my psalms, written by my ancestor. I saw Hitler on the Movietone News. He was scary to me with his shouting. I had a recurring dream that we escaped from him in our toaster. My sister and I used to make cinnamon toast in that toaster but in my dream it was a vehicle rolling down the hills of the Bronx.

When we moved to Vermont I still believed in the melting pot – everyone together. And in many ways, especially with the hippy community, that’s how it was.

‘Never Again’ gave me a blueprint of how to act as a Jew. There was a saying I heard in Vermont – “Don’t Jew me down.” It meant, don’t try to get something cheaper. After ‘Never Again’ I would tell people to take it back or I’d knock their teeth down their throat. Everyone always apologized. People didn’t mean anything hurtful by the expression. It was just the way they’d been raised. When I went door to door with a petition not to sell AWACs to Saudia Arabia, it was the Vermont church goers who signed without hesitation.

When I discovered my Jewish identity it was a cloudburst and I had a cloudburst reaction. Jews belonged in our own land, Israel. The U.S. sold the AWACS to Saudi Arabia and I realized countries do what’s in their own self interest. But I, a Jewish woman, didn’t have to be part of it.

During my pregnancy I used to listen to country music and dance around the house.

I had the album ‘Stars of the Grand Ole Opry 1926-1974’. I played songs like ‘How Far is Heaven’ – Kitty Wells, and the Carter Family song, ‘I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.’

Oh I’m thinking tonight of my blue eyes
who has gone somewhere over the sea

Oh I’m thinking tonight of my blue eyes
and I wonder if he ever thinks of me
Oh he promised to love me forever
and he said that we never would part
but a link in the chain has been broken
leaving me with a sad and aching heart.

When I wanted to rest I’d sit in the rocker Donna from across the road lent me, and ponder the question – to move to Israel or remain in the U.S.

I rocked in the chair later when my baby was born and read Jeremiah 31:15-17.

Thus saith the L-rd:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refuseth to be comforted for
her children,
Because they are not.

Thus saith the L-rd:
Refrain thy voice from weeping,
And thine voice from tears;
For thy work shall be rewarded,
saith the L-rd;
And they shall come back from the
land of the enemy.

And there is hope for the future,
saith the L-rd;
And thy children shall return to
their own border.

And then more music.

Kitty Wells:

How Far Is Heaven, when can I go
To see my daddy, he’s there, I know

How Far Is Heaven, let’s go to-night
I want my daddy to hold me tight.

The year was 135. A war – Jews against the Romans. The leader of the Jewish forces – a young man nicknamed Bar Kochba. The beloved, great Rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Akiva believed in him and declared him Moshiah (Messiah). Bar Kochba was a General who followed Torah. And the young General was victorious against the Romans. Until he was defeated. And thus began the long Exile, the banishment of so many of us from our homeland. 2,000 years of exile, of humiliation and death.

Until 1948, when we announced to ourselves and the world that the Nation State of Israel was reborn. And now we were stepping off an El Al plane in the bright sunshine of August 1982 to take part in the Redemption of our ancient, modern home.

Danny was 4. Carina turned 13 soon after we got here in August and Jenny was 16 going on 17. We lived at an Absorption Center at Mevasseret Zion outside of Jerusalem.

A few nights after we got to the Absorption Center some kids invited Carina to go into Jerusalem to see a movie. I couldn’t believe my ears – Jerusalem, movies. I was nervous and made Larry go with them.

Our second day at the Absorption Center I asked, ‘When do we go to Hevron?’ The soldier girl who was telling us about an upcoming tiyul didn’t answer. No one else did either.

The three day trip included a visit to the caves at Arabel. To get to them we had to slide down a rope. I remember a Russian woman and I fell into each other’s arms, glad to have arrived and not be laying below the cliff in pieces. Fighting the Romans in 66 A.D. and 135 A.D. Jews fled to the caves. Some of the cave dwellings were sophisticated. I remember one had designs cut into the walls and a place for storing food that looked like a root cellar.

Ancient Hatzor is high above the road below that leads to Damascas. I stood there imagining myself a mother holding a baby, watching an advancing army, as some relative of mine might have done so long ago.

A year and a half after we got to Israel, Jenny went back to the United States. After six months on the Mercaz Klita (Absorption Center) Larry opened a bookstore in Tel Aviv.

I finally got to Hevron on my own in 1984. That day I also went to Rachel’s Tomb. Larry had no idea I was going to Rachel’s Tomb but bought me a painting of Rachel by the Well at an antique shop.

Once I walked back to Jerusalem from Rachel’s Tomb. On the side of the road I noticed rosemary bushes and I thought, Wow, rosemary must have always been growing here. Rachel and Leah must have picked it on their way to Hevron, just like I’m doing now!

The 1990s was a time of adventure.

A friend and I once slept at Rachel’s Tomb. Between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippor, Rachel’s Tomb is open 24 hours. There’s a bus from Jerusalem at 10p.m. that returns at midnight. But no buses at that hour back to Tel Aviv. We came prepared with sleeping bags. Soon after we got there I spread my sleeping bag on a stone slab and fell into a deep sleep. In the morning I awoke to hear the guard arguing with my friend. “Nobody sleeps here.” he was saying. “It’s not done.” But it was done and we done it! In the end he brought us coffee, and drove us to a bus stop in Jerusalem.
One Tish B’Av I slept at the Western Wall. I saw old women dragging mattresses, young women baby carriages.

In 1990 my poetry book, ‘White Rain in Jerusalem’ was published with a grant from the Office of Immigrant Artists.
Larry’s book ‘A Jew in the House of Harvard’ was awarded first prize by the Israel Federation of Writers for the year 1987.

During our early years Larry drank heavily. I went to an Al-Anon meeting and they told me not to count the bottles.
Our marriage hit a few bumps in the road but we found our way back to each other.

Jump ahead. It’s now 2016. We have seven grandchildren. Five of them live in Israel and two in Vermont. “םבתה את לא מדברת כל כק ברו” my little three year old grandson says to me. “Well you see, I wasn’t born here” I explain. “I brought your father here and he met your mother and they had you.”

I thought of all the other grandmothers like me, Puerto Rican grandmas on the lower East Side of New York, Russian and Ethiopian grandmas in Israel, who can go into the grocery and buy a piece of bread but are baffled by the fast chatter of the news broadcasters on television.

It’s a weekday evening. The restaurant on the beach in Tel Aviv is packed with people. A big television screen is set up so people can watch the European championship soccer match. Bicycle riders stream by, joggers, lovers, guys who swim at night. Joan, a friend, and I have come here to sit at a café and enjoy the evening breeze.

The sun is a huge orange ball slowly dropping into the sea. The waves lap at the sand coming and going, going and coming.

The game is over and things are quieting down. It took the waitress about an hour to notice us and bring us food.
But I didn’t care. I watched the waves coming and going, going and coming.

This thought grabs at me – that I’m doing what my ancestors did – watching the same sun, walking the same land, living in the Holy Land like G-d told Abraham to do.

© Lois Michal Unger 2012

About the Author
Born in the U.S., Lois Michal Unger made aliya in 1982. She is a well known poet in Israel and internationally. She is the author of 7 books including, White Rain in Jerusalem, The Glass Lies Shattered All Around and How Country Music Helped Me to Make Aliya, a novella. Her poems have been published in The Jerusalem Post as well as many literary magazines throughout the world. Her work and has been translated into Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Hungarian. Before making aliya she wrote a recipe column for the Chronicle newspaper in Vermont. Her latest book Back to Back: Two Poets Living Under One Roof is co-authored with her husband Elazar.
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