I was raised and educated in the Givat Gonen School, founded on “the spirit of the Labor Party.” That slogan was in fact part of the official name of the educational institution. I studied there for 12 long years, with the same people, in the same class—a duration of time that enables one to hate his fellow students to the very core. Fundamentally, from elementary school on.

On top of these fabulous attributes, the school had yet another agenda, no less worthy than the commitment to the values of labor—which meant, unfortunately, the values of the Labor Party—an agenda called “Integration.” Meaning, congregating the sons and daughters of Jerusalem’s intelligentsia and plopping them in the city’s poorest neighborhood to study alongside the locals. This often served as fertile ground for comic situations of explosive potential, as well as random encounters of the third and fourth kind.

For example: One day, the Vigilant Youth center, which was established right by the school in order to keep the restless minds of the neighborhood’s children occupied and steer them away from both idleness and violence, was attacked by local hoodlums, who pelted the stunned vigilant youngsters with stones. The latter were forced to hole up in the shed until the police came to extract and escort them back to their nice homes in the faraway neighborhoods of academic Rehavia, and the bohemia of Baq’a and the German Colony. Moreover, it often occurred that a youngster would dart out of the school and wouldn’t stop running until he reached the bus station because he got into trouble with one of the neighborhood thugs, whose elder brothers would be waiting for him (that was the phrase used for this specific mise en scène) at some unknown spot beyond the school gate. A good friend of mine spent some six months running to and from school. But it was not without reward, as at the age of conscription, when undergoing the grueling selection process for the commandos, he excelled in all endurance tests, both in sea and on land. I always believed his success was owed to those six months he spent in a constant state of fleeing panic.

This next episode also has to do with the marvelous process of socialization all pupils were subjected to when “working and studying at Givat Gonen” (the school’s motto, etched on its gates), because one day, nearing the end of my fifth school year, a scrawny, uncomely boy joined the class. He was a type of mister-in-between—not really a child of the neighborhood, but certainly not of the city’s elite from the slopes of Rehavia or the heart of the German Colony.

He was strange and somewhat resembled an owl; gangly, curly and funny-looking. He always wore the same sweater-vest with a buttoned-down shirt underneath, and wasn’t as unkempt as the rest of the children who went bedraggled—some because their wealth was sufficiently established, others due to raw destitution and want. This kid was too well-dressed, and also wore round spectacles anomalous to the common Israeli accessories of the era.

Needless to say, we didn’t talk to him much. But neither did our silence seem to make much of a difference to him—he kept to the sidelines, shrouded in the loneliness of an only child, or perhaps the youngest in the family born to elderly parents. The silent type, with the look of an accountant. And so it carried on, until one day, out of the blue, the owl in the sweater vest offered to share with me some treasure he had found. It was in the schoolyard.

He retrieved from his pocket a rolled strip of celluloid film and said to me, “Look at this.” I held the strip against the light and peered. I could make out two characters, a man and a woman. Both looked albino. You could barely see anything because there was an area in which the two seemed to coalesce, and some large piece of furniture concealed part of the frame.

“What is this?” I asked him.

“Can’t you see they’re fucking?” he said.

“No,” I replied, “and neither can you, because it’s all a blur.” I wondered why they were both albino, but kept that thought to myself.

“I’m telling you they’re fucking, and I have loads more of films like this. Like dogs, he climbs on top of her from every direction, and each time they do something different, even upside down.”

“Where did you even get this from?” I asked him, and he said he stole it from the apartment of some uncle who had moved to New Jersey. It sounded like a complete lie, and in the finest of Bolshevik traditions I suggested we form a committee that would determine whether this owl was telling the truth and if the exhibits he produced were authentic.

An astute boy named Dotan suggested we hold the proceedings in the bomb shelter. He took a reading lamp from the teachers’ lounge, and together with the owl and his reels, we all went down to the shelter. First Dotan climbed on the table in the dark and located the hidden socket, the plastic slightly singed at the edges from some previous electrical incident. The light went on, and we all huddled around the celluloid. Not me though—I was already acquainted with the material, and waited only for confirmation; our owl had an overdeveloped imagination, and it only stood to reason that he be put to shame by the head of the inquiry committee, Dotan, and the rest of the fellow judges.

But they began to produce gurgles of laughter and murmurs of wonder; holding reel after reel against the light, covering their mouths with their hands to suppress their giggles in case the janitor or some teacher suddenly decided to inspect the source of the noise. The owl—for some reason I find myself reluctant to disclose his fittingly owlish name, Efraim—stood there with his arms folded, as happy as a groom on his wedding day. He was immediately hailed as a hero, whereas I was awarded the cold looks reserved for infidels, even though it was I who convened the committee and told them about the reels. But he was the hero of the day, and that was an indisputable fact.

But then we found ourselves in an odd bind; the end of the school year was a mere few days away, and we had only started to examine the reels and organize them in an improvised archive according to positions and situations—because the owl continued to produce more and more reels of albinos engaged in canine-like acts, in a similar spirit. High spirits, I’d say, since they all seemed pretty happy about what they were doing. But I digress. As I had mentioned, we were faced with a serious problem—we had only just begun to scratch the surface of the illicit material, and now summer break was threatening to force us into scattered exile and take away the shelter with the lamp.

Dotan came to the rescue, and together with his friend Rami they petitioned to the elementary vice principal. They presented her with an argument no educator could ignore. They told her they had formed a student club that served as a wonderful bonding experience for all classmates, and especially Efraim, the poor boy, who was blending in just marvelously, and it would be a shame to let all their work go down the drain just because school was out and the sun was high in the sky. We didn’t know it back then, but the child Efraim was a special case indeed. The school had decided to take the boy on because his father was in jail and his mother had gotten herself entangled in some entanglement or other and could no longer tend to him. A benevolent soul had caught wind of this and appealed to the school, equally benevolent, and the latter let him into its integrative gates. For the common good. Thus, when the teacher heard about the club and how well Efraim was accepted by his peers, she hastily approached the drawer and took out a small golden key. The key to the bomb shelter, which, luckily for the boys, stood outside the school gates.

And so it happened that when summer break rolled around, and to the utter surprise of our parents, we continued to ask for bus fare to school—or more precisely, and unbeknownst to them, to the bomb shelter. Naturally, our parents were even more enthused than our teacher, for we had spared them from the agonies of keeping us busy during the long summer months and of endless living room squabbles with our siblings. The mothers were especially delighted that their offspring—reared on the fine values of labor—had organized a summer camp for themselves, and like good little Bolsheviks willingly adhered to a self-imposed regime even at the height of summer vacation, amidst the swirling dunes of July and August. But I must note that at the time we were already in possession of a television set, which served as an oasis—a babbling brook for the parched drifter roaming the wilderness of idle summer.

All were happy, and so were we. We established a porn club, and attended it unfailingly throughout the summer months, licking it into shape. We foraged the school for defective furniture and when we happened to chance upon the janitor, he gave us a few tables and chairs that had just come back from repair. We also found a couch and two armchairs. We had a first-rate porn club. And that was just the beginning, because we soon expanded our activities; we started to track down lewd magazines and smutty pocket books disguised as something else. Usually, these belonged to the Haredi Jerusalemites, forbidden recreational literature for young Yeshiva boys and horny rabbis.

With the books sprawled across the concrete floor, we created separate cubbies by mounting two tables on top of each other and stretching sheets around them. With pillows for comfort, we each tucked away with the images of his choice, each according to taste and preference. Efraim’s original reels were long labeled an antique archive item; while they had sparked the great summer porn revolution, they were left behind like the Atari cartridges or dice from Dungeons & Dragons, as yesteryear games.

We had made significant progress that summer. With perfect harmony attained, integration was a word consigned to oblivion due to true joint interest. That is not to say that from puppies we had matured into full-grown jackals. No, pups we remained, comparing wieners and showing off meager viscous milky stains and erratic pubes with puerile pride. We also had other business down there, such as spitting contests, aiming at the ceiling while lying supine on the floor. It was an excellent group game since it provided a plethora of surprises. For instance, an unsatisfactory attempt to hit the ceiling could result in the boy’s spit landing on the one lying beside him. We would do this two at a time, while the rest cheered and goaded from the sidelines. Even though I had come dangerously close to being the villain of Efraim’s drama of the reels, in this game, I was the hero of the day—superior by every standard, I spat harder and filthier than everyone else, and at the end of the summer, when we stood counting the now dried lumps on the ceiling, nearly all of them came from my own bodily fluids.

In short, everything was wonderful, until the strange incident in which Dotan got himself electrocuted. A light bulb burned out, and Dotan had to change it. Meanwhile, someone was playing with the switch—perhaps it was even Efraim—since there had been some misunderstanding. He switched bulbs, but the light wouldn’t come on—the good light of interrogation, not the general light of bomb-shelter camaraderie, which was sufficient for the spitting game but fell short for our illicit activities in the cubbies. Since changing bulbs didn’t help, Dotan proceeded to examine the socket, which, as I mentioned, was partially singed, and asked that someone turn off the switch. But since the switch had already been turned off, that someone now turned it on. And in fact—I feel uncomfortable recalling this—that someone was me, and the jolt of electricity sent Dotan flying from the table on which he stood, his body landing on the floor with a loud thud. We gathered around him astonished; those with an interest in physics spoke about the principle of electric circuits and wet hands, while I just stood there with a blank expression as if I had nothing do with what had happened. But Dotan was upset, clearly at a loss. The incident seemed to have slightly changed something in his character, and after several days in which we had continued to frequent the shelter, we arrived one day to find it locked. Dotan had been waiting for us outside and said that when his parents asked what happened to him, he told them about the electrocution, and they demanded he lock the shelter and took away his key. And so the summer came to an end.

But we still clung to the fringes of the fantasy, because we knew that when September came around we would resume our regular shelter activities. The only hurdle was getting our hands on another key, but even that didn’t stand in our way. We knew the janitor had all the keys in the world. Tasked with the mission of procuring the new key, I approached the janitor and told him we had been granted full authorization from the vice principal to use the bomb shelter for our club, but lost our key. He took eight shekels out of the kitty and said, “Make two, so you’ll have a spare if you lose one again, and don’t forget to bring back a receipt.” I exited the school gates—after receiving a permission slip—took my fine time walking to the famous Shevach Falafel, bought half a serving and still had enough money left to make a single copy of the janitor’s key. When I returned I approached the janitor with an expression of Oh no! and said I forgot the receipt. He laughed, patted my belly and said he himself often snuck out at lunchtime for a quick falafel, and that Shevach was the best of the best. I ran away.

We managed to bring the shelter almost back to full use, and only Dotan wouldn’t join, saying he didn’t want to defy his parents. But in truth, he was afraid of the electricity. All worked out perfectly fine and Efrain became a beloved member of every game and party of that school year, until one day, one of the girls claimed that someone had stolen money from her wallet, and everyone started to suspect Efraim, because even more famous than the story of his uncle’s move to Jersey was the rumor of his father’s current imprisonment. Nevertheless, to alleviate the situation and expose her to ridicule, I asked if perhaps she could lend me some money for a falafel at Shevach, and everyone burst into laughter. But she was adamant that it was the boys who had done the pilfering, and even though that wasn’t exactly the case, she hunted down our club, penetrating our holy of holies right in the middle of our innocent spitting game, and even before the end of recess she managed to scamper to the teacher’s lounge and rat us out, blabbing about the books, magazines—the cubbies—and everything else her pretty eyes had seen that day. We were all taken into questioning, and the parents were informed of the debacle. The fathers confirmed, amongst themselves, that certain magazines were indeed missing; the picture had become clear, the mystery solved. Some of the children were reprimanded and duly embarrassed by their actions, and others remained with smiles on their faces.

Oddest of all was that Efrain wasn’t summoned to an inquiry; each day we waited, as did he, for him to be called, but he wasn’t. And several days after the incident, he didn’t show up at school, nor did he ever return—disappeared into thin air, along with his reels and the club’s literature.

The only thing left to remind me of this story, the single evidence to verify our time at the club, are the old three shekels I had stolen from the girl—the evil tattletale. The three shekels that blew our cover. I do feel some residue of guilt there. Not about that girl’s money, which wouldn’t even cover half a serving of falafel at Shevach. My regret is that Efraim had disappeared before I could bequeath him that modest gift for having opened the gates for us to a brand new world.

***

Translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir. Read more stories of Israeli life by Orian Morris here.





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