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Dog Days

A hot day in Tel Aviv, a bored child, and a discussion of the Commandments

Etgar Keret
August 20, 2010
A Tel Aviv playground.(Flickr/Keisuke Omi)
A Tel Aviv playground.(Flickr/Keisuke Omi)

If you think you died and went to hell but aren’t really sure, there are a few ways to find out. The first is to check how miserable and desperate you feel. The second is to browse through a newspaper and confirm that every double spread is a story about some horrific crime or a politician’s revolting behavior. And the third, maybe most empirical test: Simply check the temperature around you. If it’s over 104 degrees, you must be in hell.

I am now apparently in hell. Or it’s just August in Tel Aviv. A child’s vacation from school, the unbearable temperature and humidity, the thousands of loud French tourists who fill every public space that doesn’t have a locked door: They all create a critical mass that sucks every drop of the will to live right out of you.

Lev, my 4-and-a-half-year-old son, feels pretty much at home in the depths of hell. He wanders around our house nervously with his blue eyes and a white tank top shirt covered with a huge sweat stain, looking like he’s either about to slap someone or yell out, “Stella!” but he does neither. Instead, he just comes up to me every 10 minutes and asks, “What’s the plan for today?” I don’t answer right away. Stalling for time. The concept “plan for today” usually leads to one of the following three possibilities:

1. Unpleasant rubbing up against 100 kids in the roped off one-meter-square play area in the mall. (At least it’s air conditioned.)

2. Splashing around in the murky liquid of the neighborhood kiddie pool that’s the temperature of urine and smells even worse. (“But Daddy, I didn’t bite. We were just playing dolphin and shark.”)

3. Watching a stupid 3-D movie. (Idea for a startup: inventing glasses that give the plot some depth when you put them on.)

I decide to rebel against my fate and say to Lev, “Today we’re just going to stay home and have fun.” The idea of “having fun” is vague enough to challenge the child.

“How can you have fun at home?” he asks. “That’s a riddle,” I say in a didactic tone, “and you have to guess the right answer.”

Lev thinks for a minute and suggests a solution. “Ambush Mommy with a water gun?” I shake my head. “Play vase soccer again?” I signal that this answer isn’t the right one either. Lev gives it one more try, “Then maybe to dig a giant hole in the living room and cover it with the rug, and when Uncle Ram falls into it, we’ll dance around him and sing ‘We caught a ram!’ ” When that effort doesn’t succeed either, he gives up.

“When I said ‘have fun,’ ” I explain, “I meant that we’d sit together here on the rug, just the two of us, drink lemonade, and talk to each other.” “Talk to Daddy?” Lev says contemptuously. “Talk to Daddy? That doesn’t sound like much fun.” “You say that,” I argue, “because you never did it. Let’s try it for a minute and see.”

Lev likes the lemonade I made. That’s already a good start.

“What do you want to talk about?” I ask him as we sip together. “The Ten Commandments,” Lev suggests. “A good subject,” I nod admiringly. “What do you want to say about the Ten Commandments?” “That Mommy’s silly and makes up a whole bunch of weird commandments that aren’t there,” Lev says. “What commandments, for instance, did she make up?” I ask. “You mustn’t kill,” Lev says. “But she’s right,” I tell Lev. “There really is a commandment like that.” “Daddy’s silly too,” Lev giggles. “There’s no commandment like that.” “Sure there is,” I insist. “It’s the most important one.” “Then how come” Lev asks, still smiling condescendingly, “every time we turn on the TV, they’re always talking about people killing each other?”

I momentarily consider entering into a profound philosophical discussion about the human psyche, but it’s too hot for that. Instead of answering, I shout, “Who wants to see Wonderpets?” and turn on the TV. It’s a shame that you have to go through the news broadcast to get to the kids’ programs, and before I can switch channels, we hear a report about an Israeli who’s been arrested in the United States as a suspected racially motivated serial killer.

“You mustn’t kill,” Lev bellows, laughing, as I zap to the safe haven of the kids’ channel. “Daddy’s silly,” I say, ruffling his hair as the door bell rings. Standing in the doorway is Uncle Ram. He’s holding a 640-page typed manuscript of his life story in rhyme. He’s come all the way from Nahariya to bring me a copy to read. It would’ve been a lot more fun if, instead of talking, we’d dug that hole in the living room.

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer. He writes a regular column from Israel for Tablet.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.