Anyone who has grown up in Israel in the last four decades is intimately familiar with Baruch Jamili. Not Jamili the man: A fighter in the Palmach—the pre-state paramilitary organization that fought for Israel’s independence—Jamili died in 2004, aged 81, a private man. Rather, they know Jamili the myth; or, more accurately, Jamili the work of art. At some point during the War of Independence, perched atop a mud-colored building halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Jamili got hold of some hot tar and scribbled the name of his group; his name; the name of his town, Petach Tikvah; the date, 1948; and an exclamation point. “Palmach Baruch Jamili P.T. 1948!’’ Situated along one of the nation’s most traveled highways, this impromptu graffiti became iconic, its creator commemorated in popular songs and comedy sketches. In 1984, however, the graffiti was deemed an eyesore and removed. But we never stopped loving Baruch Jamili, and this week, after a spirited public campaign, the Israeli government restored Jamili’s marking to its original place.
It’s a, may I say, blessed decision. As insignificant as it may seem, Jamili’s impromptu signature is an important cultural artifact, one that condenses an entire wilderness of meaning into one short scribble.
Take, for example, the most obvious distinction, namely that Jamili’s graffiti commemorates only one man—Baruch Jamili. Israel is a nation that, by necessity and design, has turned commemoration into a collective enterprise. The only people we lionize in monuments are the dead, and the dead are almost always banded together. In each city in Israel, there is a monument called Yad La’Banim, a monument to the sons, an official plaque with the names of the men of that town who have died in Israel’s wars. There’s strength in numbers: Each individual act of sacrifice is rendered meaningful only once it is added to the ranks of all others who have similarly sacrificed, the legions of the dead who, we are reminded each Memorial Day (like this one this Sunday), willed to us our embattled nation. But Baruch Jamili didn’t want to be one among many; he didn’t want to join the other sons. He wanted the world to know that he himself had lived as an individual and that if he were to die, he would die alone as well—shortly after scribbling his famous words, he instructed his friends that, in the event of his demise, they should change the letters P.T.—short for Petach Tikvah—to P.N., short for Po Nitman, or here lies. The graffiti was meant to be one man’s tombstone.
That, however, is not the sole source of the graffiti’s immense charm. The best thing about it, I’ve always thought, was that exclamation point at the end. Baruch Jamili, it tells us, didn’t merely occupy the top of that building on some muggy day in 1948. He occupied the top of that building! In 1948! The exclamation point is half-celebratory—look at me! I’m alive!—and half-disbelieving—look at me! I’m alive still! It’s precisely such a balance of joy and dread that still defines life in Israel, and Jamili captured it in six little words and one grammatical mark.
So if you happen to be driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem anytime soon, slow down and look up. Somewhere on top of some building on the side of the road, Baruch Jamili has left you a very important message.
Israel Restores a Scrawl From Its Past [AP/Boston Globe]