Diary From Tel Aviv
Day Four: Offenbach to Ninotchka, with mourning in between
Other wars are taking place behind the scenes of this war. Analysts who teach the government how to run the war, old retired officers who teach the armyeveryone here is an expert. Our first president, Chaim Weizmann, once told President Truman he had it easy, with 60 million citizens. “Me,” said Weizmann, “I have 4 million presidents.”
Television repeats itself. The same pictures over and over again. And blood. And sadness. And women crying. And buildings destroyed on both sides. War isn’t the sexiest thing in the world, though so many movies are made about war that maybe in Hollywood they know better. I sat and watched the news, zapping for a minute to another station that was showing a beautiful, funny, clever production of an Offenbach operetta, and immediately, assailed by shame or maybe even guilt, I went back to the journalist who was showing the same picture he’d showed earlier.
Offenbach was the son of a cantor, and he converted to Christianity, like so many in the 19th century who wanted to be accepted beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world. I hear his cantor father in the operetta, which is the forerunner of the musical, just as I hear him in Gershwin’s jazz, and I hear what my grandfather used to hum when he came back from synagogue.
Yesterday, I went to a shiva for my friend, the Russian actor who, except for the shiva, had nothing Jewish about him. I sat next to Avi Binyamin, the composer for the theater my poor actor friend acted in. He had just come back from the hospital in Haifa, where he’d visited his son, who was injured in Lebanon, but saved from death. We sat there for a while, unmoving. Everyone else was talking about the war. I was thinking that at my age, the only celebrations left to me are funerals and shivas.
I told Avi Binyamin how years ago, some bastard cut off my cousin’s braid, a braid she’d been growing for 20 years, and he did it because he loved her. My father didn’t want to go to see his niece and my mother wasn’t sure, but I was a child, and that was my first shiva, so I went and my mother went with me. Sitting in a room that looked as if it had been moved straight there from Tarnopol were my cousin’s relatives and friends. A lot of them were crying. My cousin was weeping quietly, restrained and very picturesque, the tears dripping very slowly down her cheeks, as she mumbled repeatedly, “Oh God!” who’s always good to call on for everything. (Just remember how they called out to him in Auschwitz.) My aunt was crying, but she brought cookies and snacks. It was extremely hot, the air stagnant. An Arab on a donkey passed by outside, and my aunt said, “that’s all I need.” My mother stopped crying and ate a cookie. I went into the other room to eat some challah my grandfather had baked. He wasn’t in mourning because you don’t mourn a braid. My mother said, “ah, what a wonderful braid.” Hearing that, everyone broke out into heartfelt wailing.
At the Russian actor’s shiva, I shifted my eyes a little, and saw the television in the other room showing a family crying for a loved one. Suddenly, everyone was crying and nobody was running the war better or worse. I went outside. I saw a family standing on the street. They asked me where there was a good restaurant in the area. I showed them. I realized that they were refugees, like most of the people in our city who’d run away from their bombarded cities for a while. I went for a walk. I came back. Through the restaurant window, I saw the family sitting around a table. They were eating as if they hadn’t eaten in a week. The food flew into their mouths. I understood what sorrow it was to be a refugee 62 miles away from your home, and how food heals the pain. I went and bought a slice of pizza, which was awful, but in honor of the refugees in that restaurant, I ate almost all of it.
In Ninotchka, with Greta Garbo, Melvin Douglas orders coffee without cream. The waiter comes back and says they don’t have cream, but could they give him coffee without milk. That was my father’s favorite jokeafter Ninotchka he never went to another movie because he wanted the taste of that joke to remain on his lips. And he was the person who said about our friend, who was always reading medical booksa hypochondriac like most Jews, even the doctorsthat he would die of a typographical error. That was my father.