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Having a Ball

A writer tries digesting the reasons that anger eats away at him

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“The line” is a fairly simple concept. Here’s how it works: the person who is first in line (he is known as “First”) goes first. The next person in line (he is known as “Second”) has to WAIT BEHIND the person who is First, until the first person is done. Then, and only then, does it become the turn of the Second.

“Excuse me,” I said to the elderly woman as I prepared to board the plane to Tel Aviv, “there’s a line.”

She elbowed her way past and growled at me in Hebrew. I am not as fluent in the ancient language of God as I used to be, but I can still understand the profanities.

“Hebrew Hebrew Hebrew,” the elderly woman said, “you filthy son of a whore.”

“Excuse me,” I said to the middle-aged man as we waited on line at Israeli customs, “there’s a line.”

“Hebrew Hebrew,” he said, shoving his way past. “Go have sex with your mother.”

Three cars cut us off on our way out of the airport, and I counted at least four obscene hand gestures before we reached Jerusalem.

Excuse me,” I said to the young woman cutting in front of me in the taxi line outside Ben Gurion Airport.

“Hebrew Hebrew,” she said. “Go to hell.”

That last part was in English.

I stepped into the next cab. The driver’s name was Maamon. Three cars cut us off on our way out of the airport, and I counted at least four obscene hand gestures before we reached Jerusalem.

“Tell me something,” I said to Maamon. “Is everyone around here always so pissed off?”

“What is pissed off?”

“Angry.”

Maamon nodded.

“Why?” I asked.

“Very busy,” said Maamon. “All the time rush.”

* * *

It was a few weeks away from Israel’s 60th Anniversary, but that’s not why I was there. I was there because I was angry.

I have been for some time. I can’t help it. I sweat the small stuff. There’s a fly in the chicken soup for my soul. I don’t lash out at strangers or argue with my wife, but life gets to me. Cogito ergo pissed. To make matters worse, I live in a country that despises anger. Anger is to be conquered, suppressed, healed, usually with the self-help of hastily published books. And so, for most of my adult life, I have been trying to deal with it, to understand it, to Free Yourself From the Grip of Anger (Thomas J. Harbin, $14.95), to Take the Grrr out of Anger (Elizabeth Verdick, $8.95), to Quiet the Storm Within (Matthew McKay, $16.95).

I started therapy 15 years ago, trying to understand my anger, to find a cause for it, an origin. In the course of that treatment, I’ve blamed my mother, I’ve blamed my father, I’ve blamed God. And you know what I discovered about blaming other people for your problems? It works. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. But I’m still looking for the source of my anger, for that underground spring that feeds my darkened well, and I’m getting angry that I haven’t found it.

* * *

One day some weeks earlier, I was in a taxi in New York City on my way to Penn Station. My driver’s name was Kassim, and I asked him where he was from.

“Lebanon,” said Kassim.

“Ah.”

Twenty years ago, when I was 18 years old, I spent a year in the Middle East.

“You’re going to love it there,” said my mother.

I hated it. I come from a family whose chief dysfunction is violence, and a region full of people ready to throw down was not my idea of a good time.

As Kassim headed across 37th Street, I checked my wallet and realized I didn’t have any small bills.

“Goddammit,” I mumbled.

Kassim slammed on the brakes.

“NO,” shouted Kassim, “Goddamn YOU! Goddamn YOU!”

“What?”

“No goddamn me!” he shouted, shaking an angry finger in the rearview mirror. “Goddamn you!”

“Chill the fuck out, dude,” I said.

“No, chill YOUR fuck out!” he shouted. “Chill YOUR fuck!”

And that’s when it hit me. Kassim and I shared more than just a debilitating amount of pent-up anger that ought to prohibit someone from acquiring a taxi operator’s license—we also shared a common geographical past: the Middle East.

When I was young, my mother told me that Israel was my homeland, my past, my future. When “Holocaust 2: Ishmael’s Revenge” came around, this was where I would go to find safe haven. She told me I was descended from King David—there was a family tree in the foyer to prove it—and in hindsight, I suppose that should have been a clue to my wrathful roots: that guy capped his honey’s husband. Perhaps my mistake had been looking only as far back as my parents; perhaps I needed to look beyond them, to the past, to the land from which my ancestors came.

It was as if the enormous dark cloud above my head had suddenly become a slightly less enormous dark cloud over my head. As Kassim pulled up to the curb outside the station, I reached through the divider, patted him on the shoulder and handed him a $20 bill for a $6 ride.

“Thank you,” I said sincerely. “Keep the change.”

“Up yours,” said Kassim.

Exactly.

And that’s when I decided to visit Israel.

* * *

Perhaps it’s the overwhelming influence of organized sports, or maybe just the overwhelming influence of reality television, but the world likes to view the Middle East as a conflict between teams—Israelis and Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis, Maronites and Druze, Arabs and Iranians. My experience revealed something more nuanced if not more worrisome—everyone there is angry with everyone. There are no teams. Settlers are angry with secular Jews, Hamas is angry with Fatah, Sadrists are angry with Badrists, and Ahmadinejad is angry with everybody.

Were the roots of my fury buried in the hot sands of the region? Was my problem genetic, rather than emotional? Had I wasted all that money on cognitive behavioral therapy when I should have been pursuing genealogy?

It made me angry just thinking about it.

* * *

The plane had landed in Israel later than expected; it was 10 p.m. and I was hungry, so Maamon and I stopped at a spare, noisy restaurant on Agrippas Street and grabbed a table in the back. A couple nearby waved their menus and shouted something at the waiter, who shouted something at the cook, who shouted something back. The waiter shouted at the couple, the couple shouted at the cook and the cook shouted at the waiter.

“What’s good here?” I asked Maamon.

“Jerusalem stew,” he said. “Best in the country.”

“Does it have balls in it?” I asked. “Testicles.”

“What is testicles?”

“Eggs,” I said in Hebrew, pointing to my crotch. “From a turkey.”

Twenty years ago, during my stay in Jerusalem, I stopped at a kiosk in the Central Bus Station to get lunch.

“What’s ‘Jerusalem stew?’” I asked the man at the counter.

“Meat,” he said with a shrug, “beans, eggs . . .”

I nodded, and put a 20 shekel bill on the counter. The customer waiting behind me nudged my elbow and shook his head.

“Those aren’t eggs,” he said to me in English.

“They’re not?”

“No.”

“What are they?”

“Testicles,” he said. He pointed to his crotch.

“Eggs,” he said. “From a turkey.”

The man behind the counter began shouting at the man beside me, and the man beside me began shouting back. As I took my money and backed away from the counter, the woman beside the man beside me began shouting in agreement.

“Oh,” said Maamon. “Yes, very good this—make you ready for sex.” Maamon explained that testicles are popular throughout the Middle East, and that many people consider them a delicacy. The waiter came by to take our order.

“Does your stew have testicles?” I asked, pointing to my crotch.

“Eggs,” I said in Hebrew. “From a turkey.”

The waiter shook his head no—“Tel Aviv,” he said—and we ordered two plates of the stew. The waiter shouted at the cook, who shouted at the waiter, who shouted back at the cook.

“Five minutes,” the waiter informed us.

As we waited for the food to arrive, Maamon and I spoke about our lives, our jobs, and our pasts. Maamon was Palestinian, I was American, and both of us were fallen—he had been born into and left Islam, I had been born into and left Judaism. We shared stories of our family’s reactions (furious, both), and afterward, Maamon offered to drive me to the restaurant in Tel Aviv the waiter had mentioned. It was famous for its barbequed kabobs.

“Testicle kabobs?”

“Very good.”

I thanked him and passed, but briefly wondered if there was some connection between the consumption of testicles in the region and its seemingly negative disposition. Wasn’t there testosterone in testicles? Was this whole region experiencing unintended ’roid rage? A few minutes later, the waiter returned and dropped the plates in front of us.

“Enjoy,” he muttered.

“Tell me something,” I said to Maamon. “Is everyone around here always so pissed off?”

Maamon nodded.

“Why?” I asked.

“Very poor,” he said. “All the time work.”

After we finished, Maamon drove me to the hotel, handed me his card, and told me to phone if there was anything that I needed.

“Got any hashish?” I asked Maamon.

Maamon wagged his finger and shook his head.

“No, no,” said Maamon. “No, no.”

I’d already asked him twice before.

Inside the hotel lobby, the manager was shouting at the bellman. The bellman was shouting back. The watchman was shouting at the bellman.

* * *

The following morning, I decided to go for a walk. I turned left out of the hotel and headed up Nablus Street to a small pastry shop I had noticed the night before. It was a warm day, unseasonably so, and there is a rare beauty to a sunlit Jerusalem that no other city can equal: the dark, yawning archways, cool and mysterious beneath the white rippling heat of the desert air; the softness of the ancient stones that seems to glow, illuminated as if from within.

“How much for one?” I asked the boureka lady.

“30 shekels a kilo,” she said without looking up.

“Can I buy just one?”

“30 shekels a kilo.”

“I don’t want a kilo.”

“Why not kilo?”

“A kilo of bourekas?”

“30 shekels.”

“One.”

She looked at me and scowled.

“Two shekels,” she said.

I dropped two coins on the counter, and took a cheese boureka from the tray above the counter.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Up yours,” she muttered.

Exactly.

My homeland seemed to be inhabited by millions of Inigo Montoyas: you asked me for decaf, prepare to die; you walked slowly in front of me, prepare to die; you sent back your burger, prepare to die.

I continued on my way up Nablus Street toward Road #1, and turned left in the direction of the Old City. Men sitting along the sidewalks gave me dirty looks as I went by. Women leaned out their shop windows, looked me up and down and sneered. Three young men—teenagers in blue jeans and black sweatshirts—walked with their hands on their belt buckles and stood defiantly in my way.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“Arabic Arabic Arabic,” one said. “Arabic Arabic!” They all laughed.

Is this really me? I wondered. My homeland seemed to be inhabited by millions of Inigo Montoyas: you asked me for decaf, prepare to die; you walked slowly in front of me, prepare to die; you sent back your burger, prepare to die.

I crossed Road #1 and headed into the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim; in a region of angry people, the ultra-Orthodox seemed the angriest of all.

“GROUPS PASSING THROUGH OUR NEIGHBORHOODS SEVERELY OFFEND THE RESIDENTS!” read the billboard at the entrance to the neighborhood. “PLEASE STOP THIS!”

Maybe it was the clothing. In the blistering heat of the 21st-century Middle East, these folks were wearing the heavy woolen garb of frigid 18th-century Russia. The four-cornered garment mandated by the Old Testament, the long black coat, the fur hat, the woolen prayer shawl; it was 95 degrees in the shade, and they were layering. I briefly imagined a reverse history, in which Jews, after thousands of years of exile in the Middle East, finally made their way to their homeland in Siberia. Would the religious there feel compelled to wear the garb of their Middle Eastern ancestors: shorts and flip-flops and t-shirts that said “Coca-Cola” in Hebrew? Wouldn’t they be freezing? Wouldn’t they be pissed off?

Two young students began to follow me. They were dressed in black suits, white dress shirts, and black fedoras. I stopped at a street poster—“GO AND GATHER TOGETHER ALL THE JEWS! OUR ENEMIES THREATEN OUR EXISTENCE!”—and took out my camera.

“Tut-tut,” they said.

They continued to follow me. Soon they were joined by two more young men. They were dressed in black suits, white dress shirts and black fedoras.

“DO NOT PASS THROUGH OUR NEIGHBORHOOD IN IMMODEST CLOTHES,” read the sign over the archway. I took out my camera.

“Tut-tut,” they said.

I took one more photo—“HOMOSEXUAL=FILTHY” read the graffiti on the wall—and left.

“Yiddish Yiddish Yiddish,” they called after me. “Yiddish Yiddish.”

Must have been Testicle Day at the yeshiva, I thought. Guess that means tomorrow is Pizza.

I walked back to my hotel, lay down on my bed, and closed my eyes.

I come from the angriest place on earth. Marvelous.

Afghanistan? That conflict only goes back to the 1980s. North Korea/South Korea? Please. The Middle East has had 10 wars in the time these guys have been working up to one. Kashmir? Three countries fighting over a piece of useless land? Get another dozen countries in the mix and then we’ll talk.

I phoned Maamon.

“You want to go to Tel Aviv?” Maamon asked.

“No,” I said. “Got any hash?”

I heard Maamon tut.

“You already left me two messages,” he said.

* * *

Golda Meir looked pretty pissed off before she even got to Israel, I doubt Yasser Arafat was a happy-go-lucky kid, and long before there were Israelis and Palestinians and the 1967 borders, there were Canaanites and Hittites and Amelikites.

Friday mornings, Mahane Yehuda, the Jewish souk in the center of West Jerusalem, is bustling. Later in the afternoon, all of Jerusalem closes for the Sabbath, and it doesn’t reopen again until Saturday night, so everyone is at the market gathering food for the weekend. I turned up Jaffa Street and headed there.

If the source of my anger could be traced back to the Middle East, what was the source of the anger of Middle Easterners? It would be simple enough to say that the regional conflict was the cause of the region’s anger, but what if the region’s anger was the cause of the regional conflict? Golda Meir looked pretty pissed off before she even got to Israel, I doubt Yasser Arafat was a happy-go-lucky kid, and long before there were Israelis and Palestinians and the 1967 borders, there were Canaanites and Hittites and Amelikites—and those guys were even more pissed off than the people today. I had traveled 6,000 miles and looked into my past, where I had found confirmation but no answers.

Which is why I ate the testicles.

It was worth a shot.

As I was making my way through the market, a young man came through the crowded alleyway, pushing a tall steel bread cart, yelling and shouting for everyone to move aside, when he knocked the cart into an old lady who had been too slow getting out of his way. A man nearby began shouting at the young man for hitting the old woman, and the young man began shouting back. A third man joined in, shouting at the cart pusher as the cart pusher shouted at the old lady. I had stopped to watch, and when the young man started pushing the cart again, he pushed it right onto my foot and the cart began to tip. Without rolling the cart off my foot, the young man began shouting at me—my foot, he argued, was tipping his cart—and now the man who had been shouting at him earlier began shouting at me, too. I looked around in amazement, and that was when I noticed, in the meat case just behind me, a plate of raw, bloody testicles.

“How much?” I asked the man behind the counter.

“90 shekels a kilo,” he said.

“Can I buy just one?”

“90 shekels a kilo.”

The young man pushed the cart off my foot and continued shouting at me, until he pushed the cart into another old woman and the shouting began again.

I limped back to the hotel and phoned Maamon.

“In the mood for a romantic testicle dinner?” I asked.

“What is this romantic?” he asked.

“Just get over here,” I said.

Emron, the chef at Katy’s Restaurant, was a friend of Maamon’s, and had agreed to cook me some traditional testicles. “It’s not so popular in restaurants,” Emron explained, though a fair number of people cooked them at home. Testicles in Jerusalem are like pornography in America: nobody admits to consuming it, but it seems to sell pretty well. The meat shops in Mahane Yehuda are usually sold out by 2 in the afternoon. In Jerusalem, the early bird gets the sperm.

“Very popular with the religious,” said Emron. “For Shabbat.”

There are many ways to prepare testicles. You can put them in stew, you can grill them, you can sauté them. Emron preferred them Morrocan-style: sautéed in olive oil, bit of garlic and butter, heavy on the red paprika. Two hours, a dozen testicles, and a bottle of wine later, I was back in Maamon’s taxi.

“Good?” he asked.

“Tasted like mini-franks,” I said.

“Did they make you,” he asked, “how you say, pissed off?”

I wasn’t sure. I thought so. I felt a little agitated, but that could have been anything. Or everything.

It was already the Sabbath, and we took the long way back to the hotel.

“That over there?” said Maamon, pointing to a group of houses on the hilltop to our right. “Palestinian.”

“So an Israeli can’t go there?”

“Yes, he can.”

“What’s that there?”

“That’s Jewish.”

“Can a Palestinian go there?”

“No, he can’t.”

“But an American can.”

“Yes.”

“Can an American go the Palestinian area?”

“Yes.”

“But the Palestinian can’t go out of that area.”

“No.”

“Do you have any hash?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I am Palestinian.”

“Palestinians can’t have hash?”

“Yes. But our hash not good.”

“The hash in East Jerusalem isn’t good?”

“No.”

“Where’s the good hash?”

“West Jerusalem.”

I took a deep breath.

“Those balls are making me angry.”

* * *

I am not a politician. Maybe people here are angry because of the conflict; maybe people here are in conflict because of their anger. Until more research is done, though, perhaps everyone should just lay off the balls for a few months, see what happens.

I am not a psychologist, either. I am not a biologist. And I’m not whatever kind of ologist it is who would know if eating turkey testicles can raise a man’s testosterone levels. I’m just a guy who went to his homeland to see if he could find some answers to his own anger, and in the process found out his homeland has some anger issues of its own. This should be one of the world’s wealthiest, most vibrant regions, but this self-defeating rage has left it one of the most violent. If they can’t find a cause for it, perhaps they can do something more constructive with it.

May I suggest blaming someone else?

I mentioned the success I’ve had in blaming my own parents; if you go back far enough, everyone in Middle East comes from the same father—Abraham—and he was a pretty lousy father at that, encouraging as he did the venomous rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael that continues with their descendants until this day. Perhaps everyone can direct their rage toward him? The area seems fond of pilgrimages—how about hiking over to his tomb once a year and really telling him off? If not, maybe we can direct all the anger towards Ahmadinejad. Frankly, I think it’s what he wants—perhaps it makes him feel needed—and it might make everyone else feel a bit better, too. Then we can all sit down—Palestinians and Israelis, Shiites and Sunnis, Arabs and Iranians—and have a big laugh about the last 6,000 years over a piping hot bowl of vegetarian Jerusalem stew.

On my last evening in Jerusalem, I headed for Ben Yehuda Street. The Sabbath had ended, and the cafes and bars were already open. In the middle of the square, a street performer in purple swashbuckler pants placed some orange safety cones in a wide circle, stepped inside the circle and began to juggle. A little girl came by and started to clap. The juggler missed one of the balls, chased it down the sidewalk, came back and began lecturing the little girl. Her parents began shouting at the juggler. A man on a bicycle came by and rode between the cones. The juggler began shouting at the bicyclist, who started shouting back at the juggler, who was making obscene hand gestures at him just above the little girl’s head.

I returned home as soon as I could. But I’ll go back to Israel. Not because I particularly like the place, and not because I now know where to get the good hashish. But because it was nice, if only for a few short days, to be the least angry person in the country.

Next year in Jerusalem, baby. Next year in Jerusalem.

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Having a Ball

A writer tries digesting the reasons that anger eats away at him

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