It was prickly-on-the-outside-sweet-on-the-inside Sabras. It was they-give-with-blood-what-we-only-give-with-money worthier than us. It was the stamps we bought to buy the leaves that would become the trees we planted to help make the desert bloom.
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It was the pin we each got in third grade when Israel turned thirteen and marked its Bar Mitzvah. It was the Light Among Nations surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs who wanted to drive the Jews into the sea.
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It was the folk songs and circle dances we learned in school — Mayim mayim mayim mayim did we have any idea why we were singing about water? It was the answer, living and breathing, to the Nazis who existed for us with every number tattoo we saw on the arms of the Holocaust survivors who lived in our neighborhood. It was the terrifying sliver of just nine miles from the Mediterranean to the Jordanian border that literally overnight in miraculously expanded all the way to the Jordan River. The Six Day War and conquest of Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank was for us a sensation best articulated by a classmate in Hebrew high school who looked at the newly drawn map of Israel and said with a glee we all shared: look how big we are.
And one day, when it would at last be our turn to go, we would kiss the ground when we stepped off the plane. Jonnie, who never appeared to doubt anything, who seemed the antithesis of my anxious and self-deprecating self, was always destined for Israel. He would first go in He graduated high school early and spent six months in intensive language lessons at an Ulpan studying to make his Hebrew fluent and plotting how to convince his parents to give their permission to let him join the Israeli army.
He would, eventually, when he went back in to help found Yahel because his Israel was not to be found in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and certainly not in the Occupied West Bank. It was in the desert.
Jonnie was going to be a pioneer. Not a settler. A pioneer who would find his Israel within the pre borders — in fact, the partition borders. There he would join others, his soon to be wife among them, in building a home where little had existed but sand and rock. He was placed in charge of the fields — a farmer, a life as far from Brooklyn as could be imagined. It lasted for eight years. Now I was going back to visit his grave, and also to see what he had helped build, not just the kibbutz but the nation. I needed to see for myself what had become of the Israel that for thirty-five years had existed for me in what I remembered, read and heard, so much of it ever more disheartening, disillusioning, and enraging.
A few years ago I discovered that I had saved them. Reading them staggered me; I felt as if I was hearing his voice. There were letters from that first trip in , letters from college and the letters he wrote when he was married and about to become a father.
Letters from a sixteen-year-old, and letters when he was thirty. I put them in a folder and placed the folder in my backpack, so I could carry them, and him, with me. What I did not know, but would soon learn, was that my understanding of Jonnie, whom I thought I knew so well, was incomplete, that my memories and those letters did not fully explain who he was, and how he came to find himself, and his final resting place, in the desert.
I sit at the bar in a restaurant on Dizengoff Street called La Shuk eating chicken confit with roasted tomatoes and tahini and all around me young people are having fun. It is Friday night, Erev Shabbat , which means shutdown in Jerusalem, but not here, not even close. It will be loud every place I eat, and I do not mean conversation loud, as it is in New York, but music loud, as in the volume is at… eleven.
A volume that reduces conversation to a succession of shouts. There is a lot of shellfish on the menu.
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The bartender is shaking two drinks at once. The kitchen is open and the chef looks like Harold Brent who I knew in my first yeshiva, which matters only in that as I sit and drink Italian chardonnay and try not to stare as I look around trying to make sense of this place and the city, the past intrudes, in waves.
It is not a matter of nostalgia as much as flashes of memories from fifty years ago, when I came here for the first time and as we walked through the airport it struck me, even as someone who lived in a neighborhood so Jewish that only one family down the block had Christmas lights, that everyone around me was Jewish. Like the Official Airport Photographer he had a badge! In Israel in when I first visited, and in when Jonnie arrived, the food was bad and the water gave you the runs. The Tel Aviv I recall was a crummy town with buildings from the s that only decades later would become worthy of a walking tour.
Bauhaus Tel Aviv. Jonnie arrived in February.
I take his letters out of my backpack, put on my glasses and begin to read. That would be Jonnie: a statement of fact, with no further explanation. As in — Jonnie: The guy is an asshole. Jonnie: what do you mean what do I mean? The guy is an asshole. They live in such poverty…I must say they were very friendly and if they wanted to kill me, they certainly showed no signs of it — Ha, Ha! The elite of the elite. Red berets tucked in their epaulets. The coolest. The baddest Jews on the planet. We were shown little button mines, and were also warned not to come late to movies because in the dark we might step on a little mine.
Actually we laughed through half the lecture since the police officer who lectured us was a pretty funny guy. He writes every week and sometimes more.
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Sometimes on consecutive days. There are times when I wish I could come home for a day and two just to see everyone. He writes a lot about girls. His letters are filled with talk of girls.
But then again he is sixteen. He asks after friends from school and about the weather back home. My parents have to be consulted, etc. Of course this is between you and me. They lived in a camp crammed three to a tent. We had some pretty stiff hills to climb and the heat was unbearable. Outside on the fountain in the middle of Dizengoff Square, a young man does wheelies on his bicycle, a risky move that he avoids when the children are close.
The children, young and eager to run around the fountain, are with their parents. Everyone has a big dog. The dads wear t-shirts, sandals and cut offs and the moms wear dresses that are not quite as clingy as the dresses worn by the women sitting at the outside tables across the street at La Shuk. It is just before nine and the sun has just set.
The weather is warm and dry. There is a quarter moon in a cloudless sky and it is not a stretch to feel that this place, at this moment, feels like the most inviting and pleasant city in the world. Tomorrow people will be at the beach where it is crowded but not too crowded, where the beach-side cafes are busy, but not pressed, where despite all the many young and single people, the dominant feeling is of families.
All these families. Which reminds me of something else I was told about Tel Aviv: that here is where Israel pulled up the drawbridge, to keep out the troubles and the worries. The Haredim in Jerusalem have made it all but impossible to get anywhere but on foot on the Sabbath. The government is in crisis; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not form a government and there will be new elections. No matter. Here you can avoid seeing an Arab on the beach unless you walk south toward Yafo, where women in abayahs splash in the surf. Tonight will mark the beginning of the Festival of Shavuot — an important holiday marking the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Law, to a people whom God had granted a do-over after the collective sin of the Golden Calf.
Tonight on Dizengoff Street the outdoor cafes will be full and people will give their names to the hostess and wait without even knowing how long. It is Saturday night and tomorrow is a holiday and another day off, another day at the beach where the water is warm and there are no sharp rocks under the gentle surf.
I step out of Otello Gelato and hear chanting coming toward me. In the distance, on the far side of the street I see a band of young men. They are in the uniform of the settler Orthodox — knit kippot , tzizit fringes under their white shirts. One of them carries an assault rifle over his shoulder. Two kinds of people carry weapons in Israel: soldiers in uniform and settlers who, depending on where they live, will have pistols on their belts. The young men are singing a celebratory song, a song that everyone who has ever attended a Bat or Bar Mitzvah hears when the candy is thrown in the synagogue or when the band plays the Hora set: Psalm Hoshia et amecha , Save Your People.
They walk past the people eating and drinking at the sidewalk tables. They want them to join in. The young men, saviors all, clap and chant, ecstatic reminders that out there, in their Israel, on the other side of the draw bridge, life is defined and lived in ways that are at odds with the relative hedonism of Dizengoff Street on a festival evening. There was no such clutter for Jonnie Maximon in the letters he wrote to me in the winter, spring and summer of , certainly not when it came to Israel and his imagined place in it.
There are tons of pears to be picked in the next two weeks! They quit after two weeks and ended up in Tel Aviv, at the apartment of a woman Jonnie has a crush on. He hopes that she will join Nachal with him, if his parents agree.