I was born and raised in Jerusalem. My father taught me mostly by example, doling out words of wisdom with the frugality of a prophet. When I was four he mentioned that stealing was a bad idea. A scant six years later he inquired about the reason for the current fight in the children’s room. Rather than simply telling us to stop the uncreative, undecided common parent cop out which left fights festering for another day, he decided it was time to end it all. A man should never raise a hand to strike a child or a woman.
– But she threw the Menorah at me! I protested, sensing that an act of violence should be countered with more of the same. I opted for the toy hammer.
– Then duck.
– She started it!
– And don’t forget to apologize.
He said as he left the room. He gave me a few years to internalize these two messages and completed his teachings with the quote that set strong relationships apart from faltering ones. Know my son, he said, pausing to let me establish an attentive mindset, should you ever see a couple living in harmony, he paused again, as my mind’s eye prepared a living-happily-ever-after image; what a better prospect to look forward to in the years ahead. Rest assured that one of them is suffering quietly.
I was fifteen, disoriented by watching Eliza Doolittle return to Henry Higgins all I could think of was now he tells me. Nevertheless, the Spartan tripod of wisdom from which my character would dangle had been set. My father stepped aside to wait patiently for grandchildren without uttering another word. I have to admit that his timing was perfect. I was a decade away from marriage, with just enough time to finish high school, serve in the military where I learned that defending my people was the greater cause and that stealing was a survival skill. Just think that everything remains in the army, my comrades in arms assured me, as they taught me to open locks without breaking them. They chose a behavioral treatment, at first showing me how they stole my belongings, nothing more significant than a laser range finder and then holding my trembling hand to it forcing me to take it back. Slowly I grew more confident. I completed my theft training by breaking into a tank in another platoon and returning with a pair of binoculars akin to the scalp of an enemy warrior. I was transferred to Sinai to carry on my obligation to defend honor, people and country. After four years I emerged from the desert, took a shower, reported to active reserves duty and got dumped by my high school sweetheart. She was very gentle when she explained the situation to me. Your genes are above average but your upbringing leaves much to be desired. She was as eloquent as the Oracle of Delphi. If it sounded like a complement it meant that it was very bad news. How could harmony be so destructive? We met again at my fiftieth birthday and she took the opportunity to describe how she purchased car insurance on an hourly basis for her youngest daughter. It is so much more cost effective, she explained. I concluded that she was definitely over and done with me.
Facing civil life on my own for the first time, I built greenhouses for a while. I rented an apartment with a former frogman, and forced myself to join a student dance club. Psychology and people skills were not my forte but I filled the void by believing that life was not a watermelon and other such bad metaphors.
Her name was Gallia. She was a wonderful dancer. She could spin, bend, jump, side step, turn, every move smooth and elegant from her toes to her finger tips. Waltz, polka, square, samba, tango, salsa, ballroom and folk, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Jordanian, Hungarian, Russian, and Israeli she could dance them all like a professional performer even the Flamenco. She was fast and she could improvise. So could her partner a married doctor. How bitter-sweet. I could dance as well as the next chair. It was up to the woman dancing with me to lift me up and place me where we both had to be. It was only natural that Gallia paid no attention to me. For two years I practiced with a temporary girlfriend who was also my training dance partner, until one day, she moved to the edge of the floor at the end of a dance and never returned.
I returned to my lifeguard duties, committed to saving others. I walked the pool deck, swam laps and went to math classes here and there. I shared the frogman’s towel until he caught me, and when he did I moved in with a redheaded girl who broke up with the same boyfriend every other week and screamed at night.
When she cried GOD for the first time I was confused. When did a woman scream for god? I had no way of knowing whether she was a screamer or just being murdered. I would have liked to plan my next steps, not to mention that I was not a brave man, but a woman in the next room expressing utmost agony – or pleasure in the middle of the night what would my father say? I opted for the broader interpretation of not harming a woman and rushed to her bedroom door dressed only in a worn pair of underwear that swayed like a loose curtain, self conscious of the fact that I was inappropriately dressed in the event that she was indeed not being killed. On her door was a poster showing a pigeon standing behind an elephant, saying Onto every life a little crap must fall. Whose life was the poster talking about? Training kicked in. Without knocking I burst into the room. We were the only ones there and she was very much alive, blinking and bracing herself on one elbow while keeping the sheet from falling of her bare shoulder with her free hand.
– I heard you… No word seemed appropriate so as not to embarrass her.
– It’s ok, I scream at night, sorry if I scared you.
Oh, how the scene was begging to be developed. I could have sat down on the bed beside her, held her hand while comforting her. She could have had the chance to comment how warm my hands were compared to hers. She was so vulnerable and I already undressed. I could have slowly stroked her hair, as I lowered her head gently to the pillow. I could have offered to be there all week until she decided to return to her boyfriend. But it was not to be. Like a Victorian knight I apologized that I had invaded her privacy, backed my loins out of the room and closed the door behind me. We became Platonic friends and split grocery bills. Eventually she moved out to live with that boy friend. Last I heard they mated and married.
Alone in the apartment, with the rent all to myself, the character building self appointed rewards of my courage and chastity were quickly fading. Surely I deserved better. Had I correctly interpreted my father’s teachings? Was I being put to the test like Job?
Rather than plummeting into the depth of despair, I convinced myself that this had to be the low point of the story, and laid myself down upon its firm bedrock, assuring myself that the work of the righteous was usually done by others all I had to do was subsist and wait patiently for a lasting relationship.
Gallia surprised me at the pool. What would you like for your birthday? She asked.
– Can I meet you outside?
How could she possibly have known about my upcoming birthday? I was sure she was sure it wasn’t me she was talking to. The first course of action was to put some clothes on so I would better resemble myself on the dance floor. Fortunately it was not a case of mistaken identity, I had been invited to a guessing game life had turned a corner.
It was dark outside. Where are you headed? I asked. She pointed in the general direction of the city center.
– I am here with my bicycle, do you mind if we walk?
– You lead, she said as I headed through a hole in the fence surrounding the campus and headed past a soccer goal at the end of a dirt field, onto a path that led past the stadium. Sounds carried far at night. Chirping of crickets and croaking of frogs accompanied the crunching sound of our footsteps. We climbed up the hill towards the Israel National Museum, and down to the valley of the Monastery of the Cross. I took one bad guess after another, without finding a single thread to follow. People in Israel are no more than three or four guesses away from a mutual acquaintance, yet against all odds she remained an enigma and I was becoming a better idiot.
Are you familiar with the olive press? I asked. We were walking along the slope, between the museum and the monastery.
No, where is it?
It’s between the olive trees, below us. I said pointing to a wall barely visible in the moonlight.
Would you like to see it?
Not now. She sounded a bit anxious. The nearest houses were half a mile away lining the rim of the valley. The olive press had been there for two thousand years, it could wait a while longer for a visit. We continued walking. I told her about the home turf, how we used to play in the valley before a road was paved through it, about the caves under the olive trees, about the fruit orchards growing on the other side of the valley, how it lead back to the south side of the campus, where the dorms were.
I lived in those dorms when I first came to Jerusalem she said. These were single story buildings made from pre fabricated walls that did not fit together all that well. Freezing in winter and hot in the summer, farthest from any point in campus they were a place to get out of.
Where do you live now?
We climbed the ridge, crossed Metudela Street, and went up Magnes a small street with stone covered apartment buildings the fungi on the aging Jerusalem stones gave each building its unique leopard skin – towering pines cast their shadows over them.
This is a sweet little place for kids, she said as we passed a small playground between the buildings.
There is a log on the far side with steering wheels attached to it. I replied, happy to share mushy details. My grandmother used to bring us here I continued providing unsolicited information. My grandparents live not far from here. I had no idea that I was telling her things she already knew.
Which way are we headed? I asked.
The president’s residence
The old or the new? I asked.
I hate that building.
It took away the last open field in the neighborhood, and beside I lost my father’s hammer there.
By the time I realized where I must have left it, bulldozers were tearing up the field. I couldn’t very well ask the President to tear down the house just so that I can find the hammer. Time does not seem to diminish the pain of my loss.
She chuckled and I continued my rant. I was happy to make a personal sacrifice so that nation would not have a homeless president.
– I could ask him if for your hammer if you like. Gallia played along.
– Would you do that for me? I had no clue what she was talking about, but who was I to stop the conversation?
– Sure, I’ll ask him next time I see him.
– And when might that be?
For the life of me I could not come up with a national holiday on the morrow, let alone one where people groveled at their leader’s feet and asked to get their hammers back.
– What’s tomorrow?
She was toying with me.
– Let’s head down through here, I suggested, changing the subject and darting into a narrow pathway between the buildings.
– Where are we going?
– You said you lived near the president’s house, this is a shortcut.
She followed me silently, not wanting to disturb the tenants.
My greatest fear in these shortcuts is that someone will open a window to dump the water they just used to clean the floors. I commented, mostly to feed the distraction. We crossed Gaza road, climbed the stairs to Harlap, continued up Itamar Ben Avi and headed right towards the cross roads which forked to the president’s residence. She stopped three buildings short of the junction.
– I am down here to the right, she said smiling. It was then and there that I knew that I had a chance at a lasting relationship.
I knew the location of her apartment. The entrance was on the side of the building. A flight of frayed concrete stairs with no handrail descended from the sidewalk past a huge Yucca cactus, its long saw-toothed leaves tipped with sharp thorns. The vegetative monster towered over a narrow path as if to discourage those who passed by to venture past it. A concrete walkway that ran from the bottom of the stairs along the side of the building, led to a small enclosed patio. My sister lived in the adjacent building. Her window overlooked Gallia’s patio. They were two young women in their mid-twenties. My sister worked as an art treasurer at the Israel National Museum; Gallia, it turned out, was the President of Israel’s personal assistant. My sister studied graphic design. Gallia studied linguistics. They had known each other for quite some time, and it was only a few weeks prior as I was lying on the bedrock – that I came up in one of their conversations.
– You know I saw Yiftah today, my sister’s roommate said, sticking his head in the window, next to hers. He was loyally paying the rent, but otherwise shying away from commitment.
– You know Yiftah? Gallia asked.
– Yes she answered. How do you know him?
– We go to the same dance group on Sunday nights. Gallia answered.
– You know he’s no longer with his dance-partner girlfriend, the roommate pitched in.
– And he has a birthday coming up soon, my sister continued to handout information from a wad of hints that would embarrass a Jewish mother.
– When is his birthday?
– July 28th
– That’s the same day as your birthday.
– There was a baby boom after the Sinai Campaign; a lot of guys came back with bullet holes in their condoms, some were big enough for two.
– The roommate could take it no longer. He’s her twin brother.
– He’s your twin brother?
And then as if enough had been said there was silence. Lucky for me I wasn’t there the suspense would have killed me.
– Well, say something.
– What more is there to say? My sister played my cards wisely. She honestly believed that I had some qualities, but she also knew that the low hanging fruit was not plentiful.
– He’s a nice guy; I’ve known him since he was the size of a peanut. He’s studying for his bachelor’s degree and works at the computer department in the Hadassah medical center, gets called in for military duty for two months a year, captain in the armored corps or something. He was fortunate to be held in what they called ‘strategic reserve’ during the war in Lebanon, spent the time waiting on the Egyptian border nothing happened. Got over the guilt trip I never thought he had to apologize for anything two months a year is crazy if you ask me. She turned to her roommate I don’t know how you guys keep doing it. Her roommate shrugged, someone has to do it.
– What is he studying?
– Computer science and mathematics, fascinated that a machine can be taught to print ‘Hello World’. Quite frankly I fail to see the significance of it. He used to write a lot of funny letters when he was away from home. Rides his bike everywhere; always in sandals.
– A loyal boy scout is what you’re telling me, Gallia commented. My sister left it at that.
I felt confident that I could prove to be loyal. As for bringing more intellectual girth to the table I had to coax myself to believe that things were not as dire as one might be tempted to think. With the exception of arts, literature, music, theatre and cooking I had a wide range of interests. In fact it’s not that I couldn’t hum along when I heard Fur Elise, but the basis for my sympathy towards Beethoven stemmed from the fact that he too had to cope with some hearing loss.
Gallia sensed my anxiety and called it for what it was. Genetically you are a fine specimen, That was the second time in my life that I heard about my genetics being sound. I’ll take it from here, she assured me. Her belief in herself was all I could ask for. I promised myself that I would do whatever it took to disharmonize this relationship. I decided to challenge dress code by banishing shoes and socks. In response, Gallia joined me and a childhood friend for a swim across the Sea of Galilee wearing a bathing suit laced with plastic diamonds and earrings the size of boat anchors. As far as she was concerned she was going for a morning swim with her boyfriend. The fact that in one careless exhibitionist move, she had put to shame our Speedo suits and months of training did not seem to bother her. As a child she dashed into Mediterranean and figured how to get back to Terra Sancta by teaching herself to swim. Indeed she was a worthy adversary. Unlike her, I was not willing to try anything I had not prepared for meticulously. Fortunately she knew who she was dealing with and notified me of our marriage when she was ready.
In-laws are an essential ingredient of discord. It took her father less than ten seconds to hate me. Not saving ourselves until tied in holy matrimony; I made the amateurish mistake of answering the phone in her apartment. I heard a man’s voice. Men did not call me at six o’clock in the morning. It’s for you. I said, handing her the phone ruining the day for two families. Her father was in his sixties, played a violin which he never tuned, operated a lathe in his machine shop for ten hours a day. He rode his bicycle to work wearing a blue overall and heavy black army surplus boots, played chess like a master, listened to Hassidic music on an Emerson record player, took his salami omelet with the burned oil poured over it, washed it down with a shot of Vodka, and spoke eight languages. Like many of his generation, he never complained about what could have been, asking little for himself, but wanting better for his children. And here I was, an ogre on the other end of the line, deflowering his daughter – we were off to a wonderful start.
His loathing of me solidified when he found out that I did not speak Yiddish and did not drink vodka. He waited for me to strike up a conversation and interpreted my silence as a display of arrogance instead of the humble reserve in which I conducted myself in public. So meek was I, that I ate three servings of her mothers stew because I could not possibly refuse, which made her love me as her son. After lunch a reconnaissance team of eighteen family members dropped in to get their first impressions of me. Luckily they were from her mother’s side. They came in six-packs stacked three generations deep, approximately two hundred strong with solid family bonds. I spent the next twenty years learning their names.
My mother returned the hospitality by serving coffee with ants. It was one of the only times in our relationship that Gallia refused to try something new.
– I can’t drink this
When my sister and I left their house after we graduated from high school my parents were left with no one to wash the dishes.
– They’re just little ants. I responded.
My mother went out of her way, put on a convincing act of shock and dismay, took the coffee cup back to the kitchen, and returned carrying a coffee cup with two hands, walking in small steps as one does when hurrying with a full cup of hot liquid.
– I think she just took the ants out. I whispered in Gallia’s ear, eager to keep the calamity alive. Heck, Gallia did not defend me when three full servings were rammed down my throat – tit-for-tat.
Gallia’s father tolerated my presence at our wedding only because he got to stand by the President at the Chuppah. I asked the photographer to leave me out of some pictures so that he would have something to show his friends.
Ten months after she was born, our first daughter began referring to Gallia as Imma. I followed suit and continued to contemplate the meaning of harmony. I envisioned Imma and I spending quality time nuzzling under the sheets, coming out to rear the young as needed. These thought made me smile. Reality forced me to search quite unsuccessfully for more realistic hallucinations, one of which could very well have been a vision of a cloud in the form of a woman with a baby suckling her left breast drifting across the moon. Every few minutes the woman gently pulled the baby from one breast, and offered the other nipple. With the moon behind her I could not actually make out details, except for the silhouette of the baby’s head over the woman’s elbow. The woman in the cloud changed sides three times. I wondered why twice was not sufficient. Almost telepathically the woman handed me the baby. I quickly changed its diaper, and she told me that I should not have that because it awakened the child. I argued that I was only trying to help. Patiently she explained that I tended to change diapers too often and took the baby back to the cloud to nuzzle it to sleep. This time I guided my hallucinations where they should have been going and put the baby to bed very gently. The woman came down from the moon. We stood close as we covered the little darling with her blanket and listened to her soft breathing, waiting for her to settle into deeper sleep. We stood there spooning for a moment, the woman holding gently on to the crib. The cloud moved on. I returned to the bedroom. The soft light of the moon painted the white linens silver. I slipped between the sheets and Imma told me that she had a headache. Nursing is indeed a time of sacrifice. At times I would dance myself to the end of lust, finding solace in the knowledge that harmony should be fraught with imperfection.
The girls were born in Israel; the boys were born in California. As we nurtured our offspring, we perfected a balance of core values and flaws. Neither of us smoked. We never used drugs and neither of us drinks. I believe that children can be weaned from alcohol before they reach drinking age, by replacing their vodka with salt water. Imma argues that it predisposed them to margaritas. The debate is its own reward. Imma watches what I eat. If I don’t eat she is hungry. If I don’t exercise she gains weight, if she doesn’t sleep I am tired, I bring in wages, she takes them out to drive the economy. She cooks, I wash the dishes. She bribes me to attend cultural events by letting me pick compensation films from the repertoires of Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones Harrison Ford, Sean Connery and Jane Fonda – who – I have to admit, is a bit feminine for the part. Going to the opera is no longer volatile. Just recently I dozed off during the third act of Carmen, feeling very uncomfortable seeing two grown men singing during a knife fight. Matadors should fight not sing. I read The Sun Also Rises I know that much. In return, Imma removed her 3-D glasses during the destruction of the tree house in Avatar, rested her head on my shoulder and allowed me to pat her head to sleep. I cherish these tender make-up moments.
I wish she would be next to me on long flights but we do not fly together. She argues that the company should fly me in business class, that people who get to fly that way are not better than me. I respond that flying the mind-your-own-business class is not that bad, that I am thankful for the pretzels and diluted orange juice. Being alone in bed, ten time zones apart, I tell myself that its good to have at least one parent standing watch at all times somewhere on the planet, just in case the kids need anything, after all washing dishes, taking care of the dog, paying credit card debts and picking up dirty socks skips a generation.
To this day I do not wear socks, presumably for historical reasons. Our people crossed the red sea wearing sandals it’s the least I can do. Snow makes things difficult but feet are like fish they don’t smell when frozen. Imma is no longer impressed by my toe freezing. It’s just you she says which is a red flag. Looking down at my white she makes a comment about putting on socks before they turn black. What used to be a point of friction has lost its edge. I wore sandals to our daughter’s wedding it was a new pair. I had to break in the new in-laws, a moderate religious couple, who were relieved to find out that I say Kiddush on Friday, do not eat pork and overall have a lot of respect for our tradition. How could I not Jewish folklore is laced with destabilizing gems and the Exodus is one of them.
When our ancestors arrived from Egypt the land offered milk, honey if you could climb the palms to pick the dates – some wheat, barley, a few olives, grapes and a pomegranate. Imagine arriving at the gates of the Promised Land after forty years of walking through a desert which the tourist buses cross in four hours, sweaty and dusty and smelling like your goats, having eaten nothing but quail, only to find a pomegranate. It was at that moment that kvetching was born.
Yes my children.
Why hath though forced upon us the pomegranate? Have we not suffered enough?
Kvetching is a form of identity; a unique behavioral pattern which projects a state of perpetual discontent, focusing on the empty ten percent of the glass. We kvetch therefore we are. Kvetching mocks the psychoanalysts applied indifferently to satisfaction or disappointment it is the safest form of creating tension.
Moses weighed his options. Schlepping the tablets up and down the mountain had taken its toll. At one hundred and twenty, he looked older than his age. He was tired, hungry and had not showered in years. He did not speak Yiddish, he didn’t want to wait for Freud, and so he died a broken old man.
The people looked up to Joshua to split open the pomegranate. After breaking a few swords the unwieldy berry finally cracked and two camels pulled it apart. The people stared at its innards, not sure what to make of them.
It looks like a clogged artery in a Lipitor commercial, one of the Levites kvetched, and shoved a few seeds into his mouth. The people heard his teeth cracking, as he inadvertently tried to crush the juice from the arils.
Well the people urged.
It seems like the seeds are made of rocks, the Levy managed, holding bits of enamel in the palm of his hand.
We gathered that much, what does it taste like?
Rust sweetened with aspartame. (Imma is strongly opposed to aspartame on the grounds that it is detrimental to something but I cannot remember what it is).
The people were disheartened. Better to build a pyramid than eat pomegranates, someone grumbled. Some started walking back towards Egypt. This was not supposed to happen; you never act on your kvetching. This was for real. It was a desperate moment.
What if we ransack Jericho? Joshua suggested.
When the smoke cleared, the people resumed their kvetching. If we cannot eat the pomegranates, how will we get our antioxidants?
We can make wine and olive oil, answered the toothless Levy. (Imma is big on Olive Oil).
This the people liked. They jumped barefoot like jacks in vats of grapes, wearing thin cotton garments, and invented the wet-T-shirt contest. Chastity was challenged to its limits when they cleaned the grape skins from between each others’ toes. Moralities were overrun by desire when they covered their bodies with olive oil to tan safely, and the people reproduced like rats. The land filled to capacity, and one of the Zebulon tribe fell into the sea, where a fish nipped his reproductive organ. In a gush of anger he caught the fish, threw it to the shore and watched it wither in anguish. Then he trampled it into the sand. A little known part of the biblical story tells of an anger management counselor who suggested that he start a Gefilte Fish business. The story goes on to describe how the angry man went unchallenged to add cooked carrot slices. His death froze the recipe in time. Generations of grandchildren have been forced to praise Grandma’s Gefilte Fish ever since, but every mother of the bride knows that her son in lying when he praises her Gefilte Fish. Not wanting to put our children under needless stress early into their fragile young relationships, Imma started buying canned Gefilte Fish from unknown third parties.
I was suspicious when friends invited us to what they referred to as one of the finest Chinese restaurants in the valley, irritated when the mention of a restaurant revitalized a blissfully dying conversation. The move to California had changed so many of my fellow Israelites. All of a sudden I found myself surrounded by aspiring gourmets, denying their heritage. We all grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean, competing with horse flies for best cuts of falafel, picking perfectly chewable gum from the sidewalks for dessert. Bazooka gum was considered a delicacy. Its sweetness outlasted the flimsy local white sticks offered to the masses. Few people swallowed their gum, so there was plenty on the sidewalks. We could tell by its color whether a piece of gum had flavor left in. The pinker it was, the sweeter it was we could discern shades of pink with the accuracy of a chromatographer – a skill we would not have developed had we lived in Singapore.
Yet here I was being dragged from one restaurant to another. For whatever the reason, rather than trample their fish, the Chinese cook it in their socks and call it Dim Sum. The people at the table did not seem to be bothered by my imagination.
Imma urged me to take a risk for a change. You should try some, it’s good.
I verbalized my concerns. The people at the table looked around nervously.
Don’t you think its time you tried new things? Imma asked.
You’re not new and I wouldn’t replace you for anything.
She put her hand on mine, as if to say I love you too, but please eat the fish.
See how nicely those toddlers are eating? She indicated towards the next table.
It pains me to think how they came to be so well behaved. If ever there was an argument I could make to thwart changing my habits it was this one. The only physical force our children ever experienced was Imma’s hugs and kisses. The thought of disciplining the boys made me shudder hovering somewhere between six and seven feet, bench pressing two hundred pounds, their hormones working three shifts a day it would be wiser to slap a silverback.
You are not a child anymore. Her voice was soft and patient.
I nibbled at the stocking. Years of exposure to Gefilte Fish had served me well, it wasn’t all that bad. Imma was visibly pleased with my progress.
It took me twenty five years to get you to this moment; I’ll bet you that you’ll wear socks before the next twenty five are up.
Now that I knew what the future held in store I could focus on the present. Do you need to send something to the girls? I am traveling to Israel next week.
The four of us ran in the rain towards Rehavia. My daughters’ hair was wet. My feet were soaked. My daughter’s husband held his Kippah in his hand so as not to lose it. We risked walking downtown for a cup of cocoa and the rain started as soon as we stepped out of the cafe. The girls talked as they skipped over the puddles. They discussed the distance, the longing, and the ups and downs, what it meant to live on two continents. By the time we passed the President’s residence the rain stopped. I wondered if they ever thought about how it was when Imma nursed them there. We continued down towards Itamar Ben Avi, past where my sister met Imma. The Yucca cactus was no longer there. The younger one said All I really wish for is that the family stays close. The older thought for a minute – that’s as perfect as it gets she answered. They looked at me. I think we’ll be fine, I said smiling, as long as we keep coming back for the hammer.