Wandering around my home in New Jersey this morning I saw an ant. Very industriously he searched for food, hopefully without success. My mind jumped back to the world’s most capable and intelligent ants. Those brilliant creatures are incomparable and their American cousins have much to learn from them. They are the chosen ants, the ants of Israel.
Did you ever hear an ant laugh? Perhaps it was only in my imagination that I actually heard the chuckles as the wily tiny creatures dodged the American ant traps that I had brought to Israel. They did acrobatics with unique skill as they avoided the useless traps. This was no case of the ants check in but they don’t check out. This was purely a case of the ants not checking in at all.
Now, I am no entomologist. Au contraire. Seeing bugs in my home induces an exaggerated response, terror akin to seeing a colony of rats scampering around my kitchen. I’m constantly sweeping and vacuuming and usually these NJ ants are just no match for me and my dustbuster.
But, the ants of our Holy Land are quite another story. They remain victorious in my battles to murder them, which began in 1973 in a hamlet on a hilltop in suburban Jerusalem. If you don’t believe me, share with me this epic of ants creating havoc in a tiny little home in that place which is called Mevaseret Tzion, herald to Jerusalem.
Mevaseret is perched 750 meters above Route 1, very close to the entry to the city. The little abode was our temporary home for five months. It was simple. Not quite a sukkah since it boasted a roof and concrete walls with real windows, but nonetheless, very simple. Very! But the memories I recall are treasures. Except for the ants.
My husband and I arrived in Mevaseret in March 1973, accompanied by our four very little kids ages 2 through 9, and our mangy mutt who had been with us long before those kids arrived and was then in late, sickly, cantankerous senectitude. The dog, Gringo, was born out of wedlock, a true slumdog. Her survival to very old age and her remarkable round-trip to Israel was not quite of biblical proportions but was surely a contender. Photos can confirm her days in the Holy Land. Her conception and birth I leave to the reader’s imagination. But, it’s worth noting how unpredictable life can be. Would anyone have predicted that this grouchy grumpy mongrel would travel the world?
Returning to the tale, my husband was serendipitously offered a one-year consulting job at the National Physics Laboratory of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With great enthusiasm we put his American career on hold, rented out our house, and carefully made arrangements to spend the next year in Jerusalem…….as it is written!
Our temporary home had been selected for us by the university and their government partners. It was unit 55 bet in Mevaseret’s immigrant absorption center, one of several such facilities scattered throughout the country; unique to Israel where the ingathering of the exiles is expedited by providing newcomers with all of their needs including housing, a little marpeah (medical clinic), childcare, small grocery shopping (makolet), cultural programming (known as tarbut and run by someone with the unlikeliest name, Ruti Tarbuti), and ulpan. Although we were not new immigrants, we fit right in with our neighbors, mainly young professional families from the United States, South Africa, Morocco, Argentina, France, and Russia. The babel of languages was fascinating but, as expected, Hebrew emerged the winner.
The kids immediately started school. The ganenit running the nursery school, Ahuva, took care of our two youngest and about 50 others, with the help of an occasional assistant. As Mevaseret Tzion was situated on a steep cliff with spectacular views but no protective fencing, I worried constantly whether I was a completely, or only partially, negligent mother. The ratio of caregivers to children was absurd. Every day I would tell my third daughter, who was approaching 4, that she alone was in charge of her 2-year-old brother. Each of those other 50 kids survived gan Ahuva very nicely and so did our two.
My husband started work, learning some Hebrew from the sink or swim method, i.e. with no ulpan to guide him. He would work in English anyway.
That left me to attend ulpan on the premises for 5 hours a day 5 days a week, and then to sort things out in the little house. The house was simply furnished with modest, uncomfortable furniture but it sufficed. Lacking central heating a primitive kerosene stove menaced us from the hallway smack in the center of the structure. It belched toxic fumes and growled at us as it got so hot that I cooked on it since a two-burner stove was all the kitchen had and it wasn’t sufficient. Nor was the type of fridge that you might send to college with your kids but never big enough for a family of 6.
There was no washing machine so the laundry was done by me in the bathtub and then hung out to dry. Examining everyone else’s laundry became a course in anthropology but one woman, a well-to-do new arrival from Capetown, stood out. Her French lingerie was enviable and extravagant, not the sort of stuff to be washed in the bathtub with her son’s sportswear.
That same bathtub is where I first met that hardy tribe of Israeli ants. As my laundry water drained out it was quickly replaced by wet ants who must have felt that if Noach could have survived a flood, so could they. But every day? It was pretty much a phenomenon to see them crawling out of the nether land of the tub but they, I’m sure, are still doing it……at least their descendants from who knows how many generations ago? I never tried to eradicate them because I was completely clueless. How exactly does one kill ants in a bathtub? Anyway, those were not the ants that worried me. It was the ones who soon appeared in the kitchen. The tiny kitchen packed with food. And the ants following the dictum to be fruitful and multiply.
Of course, the ants got into everything. But I was prepared, like a true Explorer Scout! I had brought trusty American ant traps with me in one of the numerous boxes that accompanied us. These traps are very effective here in New Jersey. But, did you ever hear an ant laugh at you? This was where it happened. I promise you that it did! I put those nifty little traps in all the right places and those incredible ants circumvented away from each trap. There I was strategizing. And so were they. They avoided those traps as if they posed a grave danger. That was indeed the plan but the ants were too smart and too agile. The only winners in that battle were the makers of the traps.
However, the most remarkable invasion was yet to come. I scrubbed and stomped and sought higher and higher and more remote places to store our food. The creeping critters remained in charge. But I had one brilliant stroke remaining. I was gifted with a large creamy sealed jar of US peanut butter. I was saving it for a special occasion so I had my husband stand on a rickety chair and put the sealed chunky stuff that my kids and husband all adored in a place where even these most athletic ants could never reach, above the door frame into the kitchen. Believe me when I tell you that my husband risked life and limb to put it in place, but he was ready to share the victory of winning one small battle and saving the precious peanut butter.
It was saved for a special day, that day being the conclusion of Pesach. I could boast forever about how we outsmarted fierce creatures and protected our family’s peanut butter against an invasion of unprecedented proportions. There was no way I was going to sell this stuff as chametz. It couldn’t be replaced. It just sat safe and secure on that very very high shelf until the great day came. Chametz!
I suppose you can predict the end of this story. I will never forget. I’m deleting the expletives but the windup is that when, ceremoniously, I opened that jar, the ants had beat me to it. Miraculously. Hatefully. They were the victors and this is being written by me, a loser!