The Israel You Don’t Hear About

There are few, if any, countries in the world where Israel isn’t demonized.   Israelis have been accused of practicing apartheid against the Palestinians.  They have been compared to Nazis.  So-called intelligentsia of universities in the U.S. and Europe have called for divesting from Israeli companies.  The only democracy in the Middle East has been portrayed as the most evil country on the planet, surpassing all dictatorships, as well as misogynist nations that practice everything from infanticide to honor killing, where rape is permissible and freedom of speech a capital offense.  Israelis I have met are puzzled.  They ask me, “Why does the world hate us?”  My question is, “What does the world really know about Israel?”

On a Shabbat afternoon, with the temperature feeling more like the New England we had left behind several weeks ago, my husband and I faced the cold, rain, and wind and trudged upwards to the Arnona area of Jerusalem to have lunch with my old friend Gail Glickman White, now Sara HaLevi, her four children, as well as some assorted friends.  In traditional Shabbat fashion, we spent the entire afternoon eating and engaging in lively conversation.  In Israel, no subject or opinion is taboo.  Discussions easily turn into debates that are sometimes heated and passionate, yet disagreements never threaten the thread that binds friends together.   Over ice cream and brownies, I posed the question that I had been asking just about every Israeli I had met on this trip.  Do you think there will ever be peace between Israelis and Palestinians?  Sara’s oldest daughter, Liora, whose wisdom surpasses her 21 years, piped up, “Why does the world always look at the macro picture without considering the micro.”  I translated this to mean that Israel is judged by its government, not by what happens between Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs on a daily basis.

Liora went on to talk about her circle of young Jewish, Palestinian, and Arab friends at the Hebrew University, where she is majoring in mathematics.  Once a month, Sara, her mother, joins a group of Jewish, Arab, and Palestinian women who meet on what is known as the “seam line,” the demarcation line between Arab East and Jewish West Jerusalem.  They gather to study, debate, and discuss religious texts.  She told me of her male Arab co-worker and friend, who makes her coffee, a practice that men just don’t do in Arab culture.  The stories continued long after we had taken our last bites of food.  The experiences I continued to have during my two and a half weeks in Israel testified to the amazing cross-cultural relationships that are happening throughout this country, as well as some additional features of this country that are rarely publicized.  Below are just a few examples:

  • In a Bedouin village, an Israeli nurse works alongside three Bedouin nurses who lead a nutrition group for new mothers to help them care for themselves by eating healthy and exercising.  The group organized by the Israeli Ministry of Health and is funded by the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, as well as private donations.  These women live in a very traditional patriarchal culture, in which women are forbidden from walking on their own.  The relationships forged among the women in this group, however, have resulted in members forming walking clubs with each other, with their husbands sometimes joining them and other times, staying home, while their wives walk and socialize.  The group takes place in a clinic where, as in all of Israel, young children are required to have regular check-ups and all new mothers are screened for post-partum depression, all paid for by Israel’s national health insurance program.
  • The Israeli government will soon be airlifting its last group of Jewish Ethiopian refugees.  Our guide, Nadav, pointed out that this is the only country who intentionally brought 150,000  black Africans to its shores, not to enslave, but to free them from persecution.  The same thing happened in Russia in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1950s and 60s, when Middle Eastern countries expelled their Jewish citizens, Israel gave them a home.  Today, Israel is a mish-mash of cultural diversity, where it’s not unusual for European and Sfardim, black and white to engage in friendships, romance, and marriage.  The Middle Eastern Jews, who a generation ago, were living in tents, have fully integrated into society, as have the Russians, and the Ethiopian community is on the rise.
  • While undocumented immigrants in the U.S. continue to fear discovery and deportation, thousands of non-Jewish Sudanese have illegally crossed into Israel.  I have seen these tall and lean dark people working in seaside resorts and on the streets of Tel Aviv.  In a country of 8 million people occupying an area size of New Jersey, Israel’s urban areas are literally bursting at the seams.  Urban poverty also breeds crime.  In a difficult economy, where prices are skyrocketing and jobs are not plentiful, I have been amazed that efforts are not being made to send the Sudanese back.  The moral dilemma is that there is nowhere to send them, so they stay.
  • In Afula, a struggling, mainly Ethiopian community in Northern Israel, I visited a program that provides educational services to hospitalized children.  The teachers who run this program welcomed our group and showed us the amazing technology that the government provides to make sure these children of all ages, races, and religions, do not fall behind in their academics.  The program also helps alleviate the anxiety about hospitalization by providing multi-media age-appropriate medical information for each child.  The program was amazing, but what I remember most was the story the head teacher, Agnon, told us, about a young boy who had brain cancer.  Even though he lived in Gaza (Palestinian territory), he was treated in this hospital.  Agnon, his Jewish teacher, carries his phone number in his pocket and teacher and pupil speak regularly.
  • There is a large mosque that stands next to the Dan Panorama Hotel, overlooking the Tel Aviv beach.  It has been empty since the 1948 war.  The Israeli government has a policy never to destroy a religious building no matter which religion it represents.
  • The latter is not unusual.  The Israeli government allows Palestinians in need of specialized medical treatment to be cared for in world-class hospitals like The Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, and when they can’t pay their care is free.

These stories are not isolated incidents in a country that is struggling to live its values, while searching for a way to keep its citizens secure.  Before I left for Israel, I saw the Academy-Award nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” which presents interviews of the leaders of Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the FBI, many of whom share their regrets and ambivalence about Israel’s role in the Palestinian territories.  It’s a difficult film to watch.   ‘I think this film shows publicly how Israelis struggle with the moral implications on their decisions and actions, and I think that is a good thing.’  This was the comment made by an Israeli friend, when I asked him his thoughts about this film.

Thank you, Liora, for turning my eyes in the direction of the “micro” Israel.  Maybe someday the rest of the world will notice……

 

 

 

 

From Yom Hazicharon to Yom Haatzmaut – Part 4

In less than two days I will board an airplane to return to my other home, the U.S., where in less than a month we will celebrate Memorial Day.  “Celebrate” seems a strange word for a holiday meant to remember its fallen.  Those who have suffered the loss of loved ones who have served our country, grieve alone.   Those who attend parades marking this day mainly do so to see their children marching with scout troops and school bands.  Veterans’ groups and town mayors attend brief ceremonies.  The President lays a wreath at Arlington Cemetery.  For most of us, Memorial Day celebrates the beginning of summer.  We grill hamburgers, prepare picnics, scan the paper for Memorial Day sales, and celebrate warm weather, giving little thought to those who have fallen.

Memorializing does not come easy in the U.S., where the vast majority of us have not lost loved ones to war.   We live in a country, where most of the economically privileged do not serve, and where too many economically disadvantaged young people enlist to pay for an education and pay with their lives or where the scars of war disable veterans for life.  I am not a flag-waving, “my country right or wrong” American.   I would much rather spend our military dollars on education and health care than on guns and bombs.  Yet, my experience in Israel has taught me the importance of memory and sacrifice.   A country that collectively mourns its fallen is a country that has the capacity to be united in the values that underlie its creation.

Memorial Day can be an opportunity to remember the lives of soldiers that were cut short; flowers that never had the chance to bloom; dreams, hopes, aspirations never realized; and the broken-hearted connections to their world that remain.  As in Israel, this should also be a day to remember those whose lives were suddenly severed by terrorism; whether foreign or domestic, whether madmen who machine gun our children or those who kill innocents to avenge their hatred of the U.S. Memorial Day presents us with the challenge to affirm human life, both in memory and through future efforts to put a stop to killing.   We need a Memorial Day that forces us to put all else aside in order to honor and remember.

 

 

 

 

From Yom Hazicharon to Yom Haatzmaut – Part 3

For exactly twenty-four hours, Israeli radio and television stations broadcast stories of the fallen.   But at the end of the day, grief was transformed into joy.

At Rabin Square, the crowds danced; fireworks, not bombs, exploded over Tel Aviv.  Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence, had begun.   The promenade overlooking the Tel Aviv beach was bursting with energy.  My camera never stopped clicking.  Dark-skinned Sfardic men, with the thick black curled locks that identified them as religious, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, gyrated up and down, in circles, alone and with each other, to techno mizrachi (Middle-Eastern)music blaring from a truck.  Lime green rental bicycles cruised down the bike lane.  Two religious teenage girls, in long skirts, tentatively roller-skated up and down the promenade.  A park below the port of Jaffa was dotted with picnickers roasting kebabs, smoking from hukas, kicking soccer balls.  Ethopian  women, Israel’s newest generation of refugees, in brightly colored garb stood in contrast with the black-hatted, bearded Haredim strolling with their wigged and hatted wives. A young boy, his head a mop of blonde curls ran through the park waving a small, plastic Israeli flag.  Remants of yesterday spread over me, as I pictured him years later in uniform.  Grief and joy are the yin and yang of this country, where every single person has been touched by loss.  This is the sacrifice that has created a place that in spite of its warts, is a safe haven for a people who have been brutalized and expelled from almost every country in the world.  I am alive in a country, that, had it existed a decade earlier than its founding, could have spared my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins from Hitler’s wrath.

From Yom Hazicharon to Yom Haatzmaut: Part 2

The next morning I reluctantly slipped the white t-shirt over my head, which I had paid too much money for in a country where prices have sky-rocketed in the two years since I last visited.  On this day, one and a half-million people, mostly clad in white shirts, would make a pilgrimage to cemeteries, the eternal homes of Israel’s fallen soldiers.   My friend Mira made this yearly trip to Tel-Aviv’s largest military cemetery to remember an old flame who was killed almost thirty years earlier.   Joining her at his gravesite would be an old gang of baby-boomer friends, including one who had served in his unit.  Some were grey, one with pot-belly and thinning grey hair gathered in ponytail, looking more like a Hell’s Angel than the successful businessman he had become; all had become successful professionals,….all, except for the one buried under a beautiful green succulent garden, topped with a headstone of earthen stone,  chiseled in Hebrew.  All I could recognize was the number 24, the age at which his future had been sliced.  The ages on most of the headstones I viewed were no older than “19…” younger than my daughter, so young in my eyes.

Under a late-morning canopy of dazzling sunshine and growing heat, where soldiers handed out fresh flowers and bottles of water, thousands of people flowed like a sea, escorted to a loved one’s grave.  No soldier is alone in death.  For the fallen who had no one, an attempt is made to bring someone from their unit to bear witness.  Otherwise, a soldier is assigned to be present at the grave.   This is a mixed neighborhood of rich and poor; Sfardim and Ashkenzim;  Jews, religious and secular; Christians, and Muslims; Arabs, Bedouins; gay and straight; black, white, and everything inbetween.  Rank is irrelevant.  My friend’s old boyfriend is buried next to a former chief of staff, who died in 1954.

The cemetery looked like a terraced garden of fresh flowers—majenta bougenvilla, scarlet roses, pink azaleas, all plentiful in Israel’s virgin spring.   The crowd was as diverse as those they came to remember.  A step below me, a weather grandmother stood slightly apart from her adult children, focused on the grave before her. Her young grandson, sporting peus (sidecurls), fringes peeking out from the bottom of his shirt, sat on the edge of the stone, playing with an I-Phone.  I could not keep my eyes off an olive-skinned woman behind and to my left, a long-black braid resting against her black dress, her lips continually moving in prayers from a small black-covered book she never let go of.

At precisely 11 a.m. the sirens blared again throughout the country.  All stood silently; some tearful, others blank.  I was overcome.  The ceremony began.  A recitation of speeches by religious and secular dignitaries.  All were about grief.  None mentioned politics.   All spoke of the price this country has paid for its existence.  Nathan Alterman wrote a poem describing Israel as a “silver platter” given to us.  He was not speaking of riches that were there for the taking.  This was the silver platter.

 

From Yom Hazicharon to Yom Haatzmaut in 4 Parts

Part I

Sundays in Israel mark the beginning of the work week, in a country that each Saturday imposes a mandatory day of rest, beginning, as all Jewish holidays do, on the evening prior.  On Friday afternoons in Jerusalem, Shabbat is in the air, as shopkeepers lock their doors by mid-afternoon and by 5 p.m. the café crowd is left with few options.  Flower vendors sell their multi-colored bouquets at every corner, while kippahed men hurry home with challahs under their arms and sprigs of mint in their hands.  By evening, the city is silent.

The late-afternoon air was becoming cooler as I strolled toward Rabin Square on Sunday, April 14th.   Ordinarily, these streets were full of multitudes of people, sipping café afuch in the multitude of cafes spelling out English names like Aroma and Our Café in Hebrew letters.  Tourists would be weaving in and out of shops selling everything from tfillin to bikinis and the streets would be a constant parade of Tel Aviv chic.  On this particular afternoon, however, ordinary unfolded into extraordinary.  By 6 p.m. chairs were stacked on restaurant tables, the corrugated metal door covers of stores concealing their offerings.  Stragglers searching for a bottle of water or a piece of fruit might find an occasional grocer eeking out a few extra shekels before the mandatory closing time of 7 P.M.  when a stillness would unfold itself over the streets of this major cosmopolitan city on this Sabbath-like Sunday evening.

At 7:55 P.M. Kikar Rabin, named in memory of Israel’s assassinated prime minister, was filled with thousands of people, seating themselves on folded chairs, a huge stage before them, with the blue and white Israeli flag draped across each side;  images of votive candles and the Hebrew word, Yizhor projected above the stage, where a few musicians and a couple of men in suits and tieless white shirts conferred near a podium.

A 8 P.M. the sirens began to wail.  All stood in silence.  Their cry would reverberate from the northernmost city of Kiryat Shimona to the southernmost beach resort of Eilat on the Red Sea.  In every kibbutz, moshav, small town, and settlement, people stopped and listened and remembered.  Yom Ha Zicharon is the day when Israel remembers the almost 25,000 soldiers who had fallen in service, as well as hundreds of the country’s victims of terrorism, since the U.N. voted to partition Israel as a state in 1948.

I did not want to make this trip to Israel.  The constant vilifying of the Jewish state in the media and in my own city, where Saturday morning demonstrators stood on Main Street decrying an occupation with signs that read, “End Israeli Apartheid” and “Free Palestine,” had weakened my longstanding passion for this miracle in the desert.   I hated Bibi Netanyahu’s arrogance and could not defend Israel’s increased settlement building, in a country that seemed to increasingly be saying “Fuck you” to peace.  I came to Israel with a suitcase packed with reluctance and disdain, yet still with a kernel of hope.  It was like agreeing to try one more time with a lover who had jilted me.  I expected little, but couldn’t say no to my Zionist heart, as well as my husband, who had recruited three busloads of new and returning Western Massachusetts tourists for nine nights and ten long days of touring in Eretz Yisrael.  I dreaded all of it.

Until Yom HaZicharon…….For an hour and a half I listened to some of Israel’s leading musicians spill their hearts into music that spoke of innocence and longing, of rain and mothers and children and eternal grief.  On a large screen, families and friends remembered their children, spouses, parents, and friends.  All watch a mother recount the dreaded knock on the door in 1973 announcing that her husband would not be returning.  She would hear that same knock several years later, only this time she would learn that never again would she wrap her arms around her beloved son.  A Druze father, surrounded by pictures of his boy, speaks of a longing that is an unquenchable thirst for his parched heart; a longing that even a newborn son cannot quench.   A beautiful, young woman smiles as she recounts through photos her joyful wedding, a marriage that would end weeks later as a news report describes a young man killed in an ambush, throwing his body on top of his friend to save his life.   And in between, a handsome Israeli actor, in an ephemeral voice, read letters and poems written by soldiers to mothers and mothers to lost sons and daughters.

My heart broke.

The crowd sat silently; some holding hands, others watching; an occasional tear, an occasional whisper.  Afterwards, they streamed out and filled Tel Aviv’s nearby hip and high-fashion Rehov Rothchild, lighting cigarettes, sitting on benches, talking in groups.  This was a twenty-something crowd—tatooed, pierced, some with cigarettes between polished fingernails, others sporting hipster fedoras.  It could have been a Sunday night in Washington Square Park.  But this was Israel, where their carefree faces betrayed the reality that every one of them carried inside a loved one’s memory, a flame of grief that was rekindled on this day of collective grieving.  In the crowd were the faces of young men and women in khaki green IDF uniforms; I wondered which of them would be mourned and who would next year mourn a new loss.

It’s all about Flamenco…

Like most cities and towns in Europe, tourist sites invite travelers to explore magnificent buildings with histories that inspire and horrify.  The United States is no different, but a shorter history means less architectural grandeur of the Cathedral sort and fewer stories of religious and cultural takeovers of the barbaric sort.  Isabella and Ferdinand, sporting dreams of global manifest destiny, extended their bloodbath of entitlement to the New World, where our post-colonial, so-called democratic rulers continue to exercise their privilege to oppress.  In Spain, the reconquistas tore open the ceilings of grand mosques like the Mezquita in Cordoba, building Gothic steeples that climbed towards heaven.  Yet, they so revered the architectural genius of the Moors that the 14th century rebuild of Sevilla’s Alcazar, originally a 10th century Moorish palace, home to King Pedro the Cruel, was designed and crafted by Moorish workmen in the intricate, awe-inspiring Mudejar style, that turns stone and wood into delicate lace.

I have experienced the discomfort that is a by-product of historical awareness. in my own country.  Most recently I felt shame walking through the remnants of the slave market in Savannah and seeing statues in Charleston, South Carolina celebrating the “heroes” of the Civil War.

In Spain, I have walked through the winding and mystical “Jewish quarters” of Toledo, Cordoba, and Sevilla, devoid of Jews and experienced the consequentquestioning of my own attraction to this country.  In Granada, I witnessed the remnants of what many Moslems describe at their own Holocaust—-the excisions of all mosques and almost all Moors.

The history of Andalucia and maybe all of Spain contained the hope of a golden age. Christians, Muslims, and Jews, living in relative harmony, exploded with a renaissance of scientific and artful knowledge and creativity that moved civilization forward.  In the end, the urge to conquer rather than respect one’s neighbor gave way to darkness.    In each town I have visited, history is presented through a “saccharined” array of guidebooks, bi-lingual plaques, and audio devices.  Guides memorize, package and deliver it in a host of languages to tourists from every part of the world.  Yet, the intricate plaster lattice-work covering the walls of cathedrals and palaces, the horseshoe arches that lead in and out of city walls, the still-brilliant designs painted on tiles, and words etched in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew reveal their own stories.   My suitcase of memories is overflowing with feelings and questions, as I prepare to fly to Israel in a few days.  Condemning what others have done is easier than confronting the sometimes tarnished past and present of my own ancestors and contemporaries.

***

Ah, Flamenco!  The soul of Spain lives in Flamenco.

Flamenco is a visual and auditory feast,

but it also feeds the heart.

Flamenco has no commas or periods, only exclamation marks.

Exploding in a brilliant symphony of calloused clapping hands,

The sensual clicking of castanettes,

Fingers flying over guitar strings,

Hard-pounding dancer’s heels,

Her legs vibrating into a blur,

and the deep wail of men’s voices,

arriving from a place of mystery.

 

The flamenco dancer struts onto the stage.

Slowly, she looks through you and past you,

Face somber,

A sensual twist and turn of arms,

She caresses,

A dragon’s tail of ruffles,

Intricately laced like the stonework of a Moorish palace,

All eyes on her,

She lifts her chin,

In a whisper of a movement,

Removes her fan hidden in cleavage,

Spreading it across her face,

Like a tease.

In less than a pause,

She takes off like a rocket,

Arms flying,

Raising her skirt, like a theater curtain

To expose

Feet tapping, pounding,

Pivoting, swirling,

The audience goes mad.

 

And then as suddenly as it began,

It ceases.

Clapping rhythmns lighten,

Flamenco voices soften,

the guitar leaves only vibrations,

in this pause,

before a quiet tap of her toe,

the singer’s slowly rising moan,

a hand drumming guitar wood,

the clapping intensifies,

the audience goes wild,

as the passion begins yet again,

and again, and again.

 

 

 

 

Holy Toledo!

I am being followed.  Up and down the narrow, winding streets of Toledo, passing armored mannequins beckoning tourists into shops brandishing razor-sharp knives and swords of all sizes; I feel their presence.

I am flanked by shadows.  Even in the dampness of this cloudy, cooler than what I wished for day; they loom in ancient walls, in the bricks and stones of the Juderia, stretching underground into the remains of eight toppled synagogues, awaiting resurrection.

I am tormented by whispers.  Perched on top of this golden medina,  awestruck by this panorama of cypress, water, earthen domes and homes dotting the rocky hillsides; even in this mountain paradise, their hushed murmurs gnaw at my soul.

I am stalked by history.   I run from the ghost of Isabella the queen, chasing me around massive columns of Europe’s wealthiest cathedral, where I duck behind one of El Greco’s apostles, then flee to a corner of the room of golden treasures that blind me with their brilliance and greed.  Escaping through the door, I run through the maze of the Jewish quarter, ducking into the synagogue turned church, Santa Maria Del Blanca.  My heart races with fear; nonetheless, I continue to elude her, running uphill to the stolen mosque, Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, the burial place of this queen of hatred, the architect of this Juden-free, Muslim-free Christian empire.

I have become invisible.  I go unnoticed by the rest of the walking tour, who listen to descriptions of false converts, who were hunted down, tortured, burned at the stake, strangled by the slow turns of the screw that bolted an iron collar.  “They were discovered,” she says, “by their refusal to eat ham.”  “They were found in the baths, an un-Christian ritual.”  “They were expelled, but they took their keys with them,” she explains as if describing preparations for a family vacation.  “Dominating the vista before you is the grand San Juan De Los Reyes Monastery,” she says talking to the backs of heads turned towards this former mosque, now home to Franciscans, spread over the hillside. “Notice it was built smack in the middle of the Jewish area.”

The tourists “ooh” and “ah” at its grandeur.

I am now the other.  Our guide continues, walking us along the cobblestoned streets of the Sfarad.  “This may be called the Jewish quarter, but there are no Jews here.”  The whispering voices return, their faces form a crowd, wrapped in medieval robes.  One is holding a Torah.  “Tell them, tell them they are wrong.”  “Hineineni.”  I am here.  “Anachnu po.”  We are here.

“Who am I?” I ask my husband over a glass of wine in a trendy restaurant.  The questions fill me more than the mediocre food.  “Why no apologies for the inquisition?”  “Is this what it feels like to be a Native American or an African-American, an Armenian?”

In typical Mordi fashion, he takes a hearty gulp of his beer.  “Just consider yourself part of the “ancestors of the ethnically cleansed who nobody gives a shit about” club.

“An apology….even too late…..an acknowledgement…”  I search Google and discover that on May 6, 2011, a Spanish official made the first start by apologizing for the murders of 37 Jews in 1691 on the island of Mallorca.  “Thirty-four were publicly garroted and their bodies were burned in bonfires. Another three, including a rabbi, were burned alive.”  Their crime—secretly practicing Judaism.   The only public statement of remorse in 500 plus years….

And in Toledo, Jewish life goes on, or at least cashing in on Jewish life.  The souvenir shops are bursting with Damascene Magen Davids of gold nestled in black steel, menorahs and Chai symbols adorn cheap ceramic plates.  Yet, there are not enough Jews to create a minyan.  A Jewish quarter, without the Jews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between here and there

Whoever coined the phrase, “Getting there is half the fun,” never traveled by airplane.

I am on the outskirts of purgatory; precisely 48 minutes of time to sit among the two lines of spartan faux leather and chrome seats in Madrid’s Achoa train station. On the other side of glass doors across the way stand the sleek white Renfre trains, stretched out like long reptilian creatures in parallel rows, red headlight eyes observing us reading, snacking, and wait for the departure sign to announce which of these beasts will carry us to Toledo.

I detest the infinite space between beginnings and destinations.  Airports are a world onto themselves, a black and grey world of departure and arrival times, gates and carrier names that change overnight with mergers and takeovers that create bigger, but never better airlines.  Remember flying Eastern “number one to the sun,” or dreaming of taking a Northwest jet beyond Seattle to the Orient, or imagining a KLM. flight landing in a field of scarlet tulips?   I never enter an airport with expectations; I don’t salivate thinking about saturated lard dripping down my Cinnabun; nor do mages of Sbarro pepperoni pizzas dance in my head as I ponder whether or not Air Iberia will serve me an edible meal in a few hours.  Only in airports do I spend time obsessing whether to leave nothing to chance and get a turkey sub and a bag of chips at The Earl of Sandwich or buy some M&Ms and a bottle of Vitamin Water to tide me over ‘til takeoff and hope for the best.

We are summoned to airports hours early, anxiously removing shoes, belts, scarves, jackets, as if preparing to hop into a bed that we know we aren’t going to see for a very long time.  Instead, sensing the pressure of the long line of travelers behind us, we grab a handful of grey (of course) plastic tubs, responding to the barking orders of the uniformed TSA officers, “All liquids must be in quart size plastic bags.”  “Put all laptops separately in a plastic bin.”  “Notebooks can stay in your carry-on.”  We obediently allow ourselves to be x-rayed, patted down and finally released to make our way back to claim our belongings from the assembly line of backpacks and carry-ons revealing their contents before the not always so watchful eyes of homeland security.

And then comes the shock—-not bothering to tie my shoes, throwing my raincoat over my arm, stuffing my lap top into my pack as I throw it over one shoulder, wondering where I put my passport and boarding pass—I  hurriedly make my way to Gate #4, sure that I am going to miss my flight; let alone have enough time to grab any sort of semi-edible sustenance.  And here’s the irony—-in spite of the litany of check-ins, passport inspections, and body searches, I always end up at the gate with time to kill.  At 63 years old, I spend my life desperately trying to put the brakes on the minutes and hours that whiz by like Olympic downhill racers.  Yet, in the bizarre world of airports, time crawls like an ancient, faded tortoise.   Within this universe where travelers’ eyes never meet and small talk between strangers is the exception and never the rule for the masses plugged in to their own private media.   Our collective consciousness is focused on only one thing—getting out of here.

Yesterday I was lucky.  My flight was on time.  Dinner was edible and two romantic comedies kept me occupied for 2/3 of the flight, without taxing my fatigued brain.  As I end this posting, I am being whisked towards Toledo in a high speed train, surrounded by afternoon nappers leaning on each others’ shoulders.  The early morning cloudy chill has given way to an “azul” sky.  My computer screen, still wedded to Northampton time, tells me that it’s 6:42 a.m.   I do the math, figuring that I have now been awake for precisely 23 hrs. and 29 minutes, when the loudspeaker announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Toledo.”   The doors of purgatory have opened and I am released.

of home and hospitality

At about 4:15 p.m. yesterday we exited I-91 North and drove through a monochrome dishwater grey Northampton, where our dog, Shoshi, not knowing if we had been gone four weeks or four minutes, welcomed us home with tail thumping.  My time away enabled me to appreciate so much of what this New England college community offers that was in short supply in some of our southern destinations—-organic food, beautiful country for cycling, accessible bike paths, food and entertainment within walking distance, and, of course, a progressive and cultured community.

It’s easy from this vantage point to berate southerners as being a bunch of backward, right-wing, homophobic, sexist, anti-immigrant, evangelical hypocrites, who can’t speak proper English and eat too much pork.  However, I need to give credit where credit is due.  We headed south to shed our parkas, hats, and gloves; to trade in black and white for tropical colors; to pedal hard into ocean breezes.   What we didn’t anticipate was how warmed we would be by the graciousness of the people we met.  Southern hospitality is alive, well, and apparently very genuine.  We basked in it wherever we went. On my early morning walks around the streets of Key West, every person I passed greeted me with a robust, “Good Morning!”  This warm cloak of kindness engulfed us everywhere—-from Mordi’s cousins, Sam and Helen, who filled our hearts and bellies with comfort food and lively conversation, to the wait staff at The Cottage restaurant in Siesta Key, who happily offered to trade my first mojito, which turned out to be my last, for a familiar cosmo, which they then doubled when Mordi accidentally knocked our table, spilling a few drops of the pink liquid….The inn-keeper in Charleston, who greeted us with cookies and a smile and the owners of the 1895 House in Savannah, who left me with a hug and chocolates; the receptionist at Tropical Shores Beach Resort in Siesta Key, who chased us down because he noticed our bikes and wanted to make sure he told us about some great cycling opportunities in the area; the retired electrician from up North, now manager of the Ivey House in Everglades City, as an antidote to boredom, who made sure he approached us several times a day just to see how we were doing…. I will never forget the shock I experienced when the owner of the Atlantis House in Key West, who tended to his gardens with the same kindness he showed those who stayed at his guest house, approached us one night as we sat in his lighted gazebo, “I just made some ceviche and fish pate.  Can I bring you out a plate?”  (The previous night, he greeted us with two huge pieces of key lime pie!)

Indifference seems absent from the warm southern breezes below the Mason-Dixon line.  My cynical husband says it’s because we are white.   I do know that “hi y’all;” “mornin’;” and “How ya’ doin’?” were spoken by people in all colors, shapes, and sizes.   I don’t deny the racism that lingers like a humid summer afternoon in Savannah; the statue of a confederate general that adorns a seaside park in Charleston, along with the occasional confederate flag and posters for Civil War revivals, and restaurants where black means your job is filling water glasses and replacing the fork that fell to the floor.  Yet, like the north, changes are happening—a new Savannah monument to the Haitians who fought in the revolutionary war and a black waiter I notice at the exclusive Old Pink House Restaurant are clues that change is in the air.

We’re expecting some more of that heavy, wet late winter snow in Northampton tonight.  I’ve switched back from cotton to fleece and don’t go out without my burgundy wool gloves.  Yet, while I dodge the early morning black ice camouflaged on the sidewalk of Elm Street, I feel an extra layer of warmth, a souvenir of southern hospitality, as real and as comforting as a plate of southern friend chicken, corn bread, and grits.  I affix these memories into my mind’s scrapbook of this most amazing journey.

 

 

Bearing witness

“I was born in Savannah, lived my life in Savannah, and I’ll someday be dead in Savannah,” said Mrs. Levy, in a beautiful Southern drawl, which until recently, I would never have attributed to someone Jewish.  If she could have stood up straight, she most assuredly would not have been more than five feet tall.  Her oversized wire-rimmed glasses magnified brown eyes and her most notable feature, besides a pencil-like, yet warm smile were her perfectly manicured irridescent red nails.  She spoke with quiet authority as she pointed out the wealth of photographs, journal entries, ceremonial objects, letters and other items that chronicled the history of Temple Mikveh, the third oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S., housed in an elaborate neo-Gothic building, more cathedral than synagogue.   When she read the shock on my face as she pointed out a picture of Robert E. Lee, who had paid a visit to the Temple, Mrs. Levy quietly confessed, “I do believe that if I were the owner of a grand plantation, I would probably do everything I could to protect my home too.”  I could feel my own sense of discomfort with her words, which had been preceded by her admitted uneasiness with the idea that Jews had supported the confederacy.

 

Two previous encounters with Jewish tourist sites on this trip have focused on Jews as victims.  While through Francis Marion (a.k.a. Swamp Fox) Park in Charleston a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a large circle of wrought iron posts.  Wandering over to the site, I discovered this was Charleston’s Holocaust memorial.  What appeared to be a stray, crumpled black garbage bag lying in the middle of the site,

turned out to be a huge, bronze tallit, its fringes twisted in three corners—-a silent, yet deafening shroud.  Several days later, on a warm, amazingly sunny Saturday morning in Miami Beach, we walked through two rows of palm trees standing at attention, their roots encased in a beige cement walk-way that opened onto to a huge forearm emerging from a pond of water, its hand outstretched.   As I approached this surrealistic object, I was engulfed with horrific sculpted images of men, women, and children covering the forearm’s surface; reaching for each other in a death grip, their faces etched in fear and horror.  On the ground below were more victims, their expressions and postures frighteningly real.  It was as if I had come face to face with the unimaginable and was paralyzed to help, my camera lense affording the only shield of protection from this almost unbearable scene.

 

As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am compelled to remember.   As part of remembering, my legacy orders me to bear witness to human suffering.  My unease with Mrs. Levy’s confession came from the questions it forced me to ask myself, “What would I do if my Savannah home were threatened?  What would I do if I had been raised by house slaves, who cared for me like their own children?  What would I do if Union soldiers threatened to take it all away?”

 

We left Mrs. Levy as the cloudy Savannah morning gave way to a drizzly, chilled afternoon.   An artist in City Market, who captured my imagination with her paintings of Gulla women, who inhabit the barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina, responded to my curiosity with a  brochure advertising an African-American Heritage tour of Savannah, led by what turned out to be an occasionally arrogant, but nonetheless brilliant Dr. Jamal, who reframed victimization into strength by unearthing a gold-mine of information about slavery, as well as the wealth of African culture that seems to have been kept a secret from most of us, black or white, who walk the streets of Savannah or anywhere else in this country.   I left his van three hours later, wondering what to do with the realization I couldn’t turn away from; that this beautiful town I had been smitten by less than 24 hours ago, was built on the backs of tortured laborers, who filled their mouths with African sand, all they could take with them, as they were yanked away from their homes, to become a commodity, like cattle or cotton, in an alien world.

 

Black and Jew; so much shared, yet we are separated by a gulf of misunderstanding

as wide as the ocean that holds our journeys.   Jamal showed me the hand-made bricks built by black hands that became the cobblestone streets I strolled on today.  I want to take him to Egypt and show him the pyramids made by a mortar mixed with Jewish blood and sweat.  I have learned how slave ships stole children from their mother’s arms, who emerged half-dead from the Middle Passage.  Can I show him the outstretched hand in Miami Beach that holds shaved-headed, starving almost- corpses?  He highlighted survival through underground schools and songs and a culture that revealed itself in secret.  I want to take him to the Savannah temple and show him the menorah sitting in its glass case, with its eight small trays for oil that could be dumped out and hidden when the Marranos heard the sounds of Spanish soldiers bursting through the doors.   We could talk of lost countries and survival and freedom, bearing witness to adversity and triumph, bearing witness, bearing sorrow, bearing pride, bearing hope.