Diary From Tel Aviv
Day Five: At the crossroad of picnic and nightmare
In Israel, which winds around one lake—the Sea of Galilee—a one-centimeter change in water level is a national calamity or a cause for joy; you write something and you’re immediately criticized or praised in the streets. And Israel is, after all, a crossroad of nightmare and picnic.
Israel is also a situation. I have a friend who edited a newspaper in Denmark and lived part of the time in Israel. Every time he came back, I’d ask him what the situation was in Denmark. He’d tell me that there was no Danish situation. When an Israeli meets another Israeli in the Nevada desert or in the South Pole, he asks what’s new in Israel, what’s the situation. The Israelis are the only people who have a national situation.
We’re surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs who are not ardent members of the Zionist movement. Our whole story is one long war. Only in Israel do people occasionally feel that this experiment—an independent Jewish state, which many of the ultra-Orthodox consider merely an episode in Jewish history—has no chance of lasting. Arafat used to say that he’d beat us with the wombs of Arab women. Because of this situation, we’ve lost much of our humor, which has saved the Jewish people more often than the Torah.
The Jews knew how to laugh at their suffering, and that’s why, laughing and crying, they outlived all the empires, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the ancient Greeks, the Assyrians and the Romans, all of whom stepped off the stage of history, and we and the Chinese—what a pair!—are the only ones who’ve survived for thousands of years with the same language, the same culture, the same lousy character, the same humor. Today, the humor in Israel is slightly worn out, but it’s flourishing in America.
There’s another historical concept that’s helped us for 3,000 years: guilt. It started at the dawn of history, when Jewish mothers realized that love doesn’t last forever and no one would come to Friday night dinner if his mother served only from love. There are more interesting things to do. That’s why the Jewish mother invented guilt. From the moment you’re born, you’re guilty. You’re guilty that they gave birth to you. That you’re alive. That they fed you. And with feelings like those, Jewish mothers don’t have to know how to cook. However repulsive the food she cooks, guilt will upgrade it to five stars in the Michelin.
On the home front, this is the strangest war we’ve ever had. We’re starting to get used to it. To complain. And it is truly hard to sit in a shelter for days on end and get killed on our own balcony. The home front is the front in this war. Soon we’ll be sleeping in bed with anti-rocket rockets instead of a sweet woman, and she’ll be sleeping with her rockets, and the rockets will converse.
I’ve been thinking about the fact that Abraham, the father of the nation, was a great man, but also, not a big one. He came to the Land of Israel at the age of 75, with an old wife, and as soon as he arrived, famine struck. He went down to Egypt, which was the USA of the time. He came back a wealthy man. He argued with his God. His mistress bore him a son and his wife was jealous, so he threw the child out, into the desert. He sold his old wife twice to save his skin. One of those times, he told her he was selling her because she was beautiful, and that might stand him in good stead.
King Abimelech, the second man Abraham sold his wife to, was probably his son Isaac’s father, because it’s hard to believe that a man almost one hundred years old could have a child. With the Philistines, who Abimelech ruled, anything was possible. They were pagans, therefore they were happy. The Jews were sad from the beginning because they had a language and they had a God and they had a sky before they had a land. And then Abraham took his beloved son to sacrifice him, and the Jewish people adopted Abraham as their father. They wanted a father who knew how to beat children and how to steal life with the help of a woman. But even after all that, Abraham was a great man because, although he might have committed crimes against his sons, he established a nation and fought with God and survived.
Moses was the first person in history who, when he died, was buried in an unknown place so that no one would ever worship at his grave and so God would remain unknown. It’s mystical. An invisible giant. A spirit. Go tell that to today’s rabbis who worship trees, stones, and graves. Because there is only one situation in Israel: the less Jewish we are in character and humor and in many other traits, the more pagan we become.
So what’s the situation in Israel? Either we’ll be here another few hundred years, or less. Only after that, will we be able to be Jews again. And then, like most Jews in the past and in whatever future there is, we’ll march to Auschwitz, which taught us how to swim in the sea when you’re tossed into it, but not what you do a day after that.
Next week is the ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av. We’ll weep for the two Temples that were destroyed. The next one is on the way.
Goodbye, and may we meet only on joyous occasions.