I have been to the Western Wall, the Kotel, many times but not in the early evening, until now. The Wall by day is filled with tourists who come by the busload, divide by gender, and separate to their respective sections. The Haredim ask if the men are Jewish and if they are offer to help them put on Tefillin, phylacteries for prayer, so that they can perform a mitzvah, a good deed that, in bringing a Jew closer to God, will redound favorably to the one who made the offer. The Wall is different at dusk. The tourists are fewer and the Haredim move among the growing crowd, asking “Tefilas Mincha?” seeking a minyan, a quorum for the evening prayer. “I’m at the Kotel,” a Haredi man says into his phone, trying to find his friend in the crowd. Because where else would he be?
On the plaza above the Wall, young soldiers form a wide circle and chant loudly, which only adds to the din. Groups of young American men cluster together and pray with a fervor that spills over into the theatrical; one shakes his hands, pleading, as if in a difficult conversation with the Almighty. The Haredim, who do this all the time, are more restrained. When their prayers are done, the young Americans dance and sing with such force and volume that on the far side of the Kotel plaza, a teacher leading yet another group of pious Americans must shout to be heard. “Huddle up,” calls out one of his students, and the young men gather close as their teacher poses a series of questions designed to enhance the moment and experience, drawing on his own spiritual journey: “Do you know how I know? Do you know his name?”
There are rows and rows of tables on wheels that the men roll across the plaza so that they can begin their studies, finding the books they need on the shelves on the edge of the plaza. The Haredim gather in the dark tunnel that runs along the Wall. A wedding is taking place in the roof of a yeshiva overlooking the Wall. I make my way to the Wall, and lean against it. I leave a note of prayer for the health of the daughter of friends. I close my eyes press my arm against the Wall. I am not one for communal prayer; I find it oppressive. But there is something about this place, this scene, this noise, all these different Jews gathered in this holiest place that feels as infectious as gospel music. I get caught in the rhythm, but only for a minute or two before I step back, find a chair and plant myself in the middle of the plaza so I can assume my more familiar and comfortable place as observer.
Aliza had reminded me that Jonnie was a journalist, too, and continued to write. But talented though he might have been, I told her, Jonnie was not a journalist, not really. Journalists, I explained, are watchers and listeners and when we have what we need we leave to tell our stories. Jonnie was to be a doer, though what precisely he wanted to do was not always so clear.
Just before he returned to Brooklyn in August of 1970, he wrote to his parents. The letter is far different in tone than the one he would write to me ten days later – “When I get back, we’re going to the Pizza Den, ok?”
To them he writes that he had always thought of making Aliyah, of making his life in Israel but first needed to see if Israel was right for him. “It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I felt as if I really wanted to stay, though I can’t point to a particular place or incident that might have influenced me.”
People tell him “wouldn’t you like to stay” and “you must stay” but he writes that he’s tuned out “the propaganda.” He wanted to give it six months and see how he felt and now he knows.
“I’ve come to realize Israel is not a paradise, and has a lot of shitty people and things in it, but I still think that I could take this country; that my place is here.”
Still, he is torn. He doesn’t believe he will be “labeled ‘chicken’ here” for returning for college and not enlisting in Nachal. (So he did tell them.) He knows he wants to be here, but is not ready to commit. And even if he does, commit to what and how?
He wants to study journalism. But he wants to serve in the army. He does not want to be an archeologist, though he worked on a dig. He does not want to teach. Agriculture is interesting “but I don’t see myself as a farmer.”
Did he tell any of this to me? I don’t recall. Did he want me to see how confused he was, even though his confusion was no different than mine, or most every other 17 year old? Or did he prefer that I see only certainty? The guy’s an asshole. What do you mean what do I mean?
Or perhaps what he did not say, because he did not yet fully appreciate, was that when he returned to Israel, when he made Aliyah, it would have to be just right — that his Israel would have to meet certain conditions, or as his mother might have put it, certain standards. Or else it was not going to work.
Would the scene I am watching from a white plastic chair in the middle of the Kotel plaza have met those standards? Would he have been put off by the displays of religiosity? Or would he have seen and felt something in their communal joy that I did not? He had loved the Simchat Torah celebration – the festival marking the completion of the reading of the Bible before the year-long cycle begins again — in his first year at Yahel: “We circled and wheeled, danced and sang,” he wrote his parents, “in short we had a ball.” I am sure he would have hated Machane Yehuda, a dimly lit restaurant, where the patrons wait outside for tables to open up and the bartender insists on pouring shots even for people who don’t want them. The music, as always, is deafening and thumpy and I suspect, no I am positive, he would have said, “this sucks.” Jonnie preferred Israeli folk music.
Machane Yehuda is named for the nearby outdoor market which is vast and cacophonous, filled with food stalls, vegetable stands, bakeries, fish mongers, restaurants that are little more than a bar with a few stools, and bars where the patrons cluster outside. People crowd into Pizza Bomba, Burger Market and at the outdoor tables at Crave, where three Haredi men are drinking. “What time does Shabbos start?” someone says. “That’s crazy.” Three young girls in short shorts stop to take a selfie before walking inside at Memphis, where five women soldiers sit with a male soldier who is spotted by a friend strolling by with his parents. A settler in a knit kippah and tziztis walks in with his wife, orders a Coke and places his assault rifle gently across two stools.
It is not Jonnie’s scene. It is mine. A journalist’s dream, an unending array of impressions and characters, pieces to be observed, noted, some discarded, others recorded for closer examination. I cannot walk down the street without stopping to watch, listen and write it all down.
I can hear Jonnie saying, “so, big deal.” Because for him, the scene, like the music is too much noise, too much clutter. Perhaps it might have once appealed, when he was first here and wanted to take it all in so he could form an impression and with it decide whether Israel was right for him. But that moment had long passed, because when he returned it was to find something very different, something that existed in the imagination but not yet in reality. An Israel not necessarily of the present, but of the past, the distant past, a harsher place that required pioneers who possessed a quality that he mentions ever more in the letters he wrote to his parents: spirit.
I first came to Hebron 50 years ago with my synagogue group to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs. We believed that this in itself was miraculous, just as being able to walk through the Damascus or Jaffa gates into the Old City of Jerusalem and make our way through the Arab market – check out the goat heads hanging outside the butcher shop! — to the Western Wall was a miracle made possible just two years earlier by the Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. As we first approached Jerusalem, our teacher, Dr. Rohn, asked the bus driver to pull over so we could get off and fulfill the ancient ritual of actually walking into the holy city.
Dr. Rohn had us rise before dawn to climb to the top of the desert fortress of Masada, where two thousand years ago 900 Jews killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner by the Romans. He took us to Tel Chai to see the recreated battlefield where in 1920 the one-armed Zionist hero Joseph Trumpeldor died defending the settlement from Arab attack. We spent seven weeks in Israel, and my memory is of little down time. Dr. Rohn took us to Sde Boker, the desert kibbutz where the aging David Ben-Gurion still lived, in the hope that we might be able to meet him. Dr. Rohn had earned his Zionist bona fides in the 1930s by sneaking European Jews past British patrol boats off the coast of Palestine. He had even stood up to Adolf Eichmann himself, whom he encountered in Vienna before the war, who knew what he was he was up to, and who told him, We’ll get all of you in the end.
We had learned that the Tomb was property that Abraham purchased as a burial place for himself and his family. I remember that it was dark and we were quickly ushered along, making it hard to imagine the graves below. There were Haredim at the Tomb and no Arabs in sight. We did not think this was odd, even though we were aware, notionally, that Abraham was also the patriarch of Islam through his son Ishmael, who at the insistence of Abraham’s jealous wife Sarah was banished to the wilderness with his mother, Hagar. Ishmael is not buried near his father, but Isaac, his son by Sarah, is. Isaac, the son God ordered him to sacrifice as a test of faith that Abraham passed, just in time. Ishmael’s consolation prize for his banishment was the promise that he would become the father of a great nation.
Jews are said to have lived in Hebron since the sixth century BC and remained there until 1929, when 67 were killed in Arab riots. The Orthodox we saw that day at the Tomb embodied a narrative we embraced eagerly: Jews returning to what was once ours. What we hadn’t been taught was that ten months before our bus pulled up to the Tomb of the Patriarchs a group of Orthodox Jews who believed the Six Day War had ushered in the long-prayed-for Messianic Age, had arranged to hold a Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Hebron with the intent of showing up and never leaving. And with that celebration, for all intents and religiously-inspired purposes, began the Occupation.
I walk past a checkpoint on my way to the heavy stone building that houses the Tomb and, as a Jew, am ushered through. I walk up a flight of steps, to another checkpoint, show my passport and am directed to a turnstile. At the top of the stairs leading to the Tomb is a room where Orthodox men are drinking coffee. I ask, in Hebrew, “anyone here from Brooklyn?” Not us, they say.
The Tomb itself is not as I remember it. It is now well lit and feels like the kind of synagogue you find in the most Orthodox communities where the emphasis is on prayer, not the architecture or stained glass. Men are studying. There are locked vaults, above which are the names of the patriarch or matriarch interred in the cave deep below. You cannot descend to the caves. All you can see through the bars are tomb markers that look like small Calistoga wagons. The tombs nonetheless capture something essential about the experience of the return to what the settlers have always called Judea and Samaria: a feeling of proximity to the sacred. This requires faith and imagination. Still, it is enough to know that the patriarchs might well have walked where you now walk. That they might have drawn water from a well that may be close to where you now stand. That their sheep and goats might have grazed on a distant hill. The knowledge and with it the feeling – and I do not question the belief – that the remains of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are buried deep below are why it was imperative that Jews return to Hebron. And if they were not permitted to do so even after the land was conquered in 1967, they were going to find a way back in, and once there, stay forever. As for the Arabs who lived there…
I walk outside past the souvenir stands just outside the area open only to Jews – the Tomb has a separate entrance to its mosque — and walk toward Al-Shahuda Street, which was once Hebron’s wholesale market. In 1994, on the Festival of Purim – which commemorates the failed attempt to eradicate the Jews of Persia — Baruch Goldstein, an Orthodox physician originally from Brooklyn, walked into the Tomb’s mosque and as they lowered their heads in prayer shot to death 29 Muslims and injured over 100 more before the crowd beat him to death. The youngest victims were twelve years old. Riots followed and the army closed the street and market to Arabs. Goldstein’s grave became a pilgrimage destination for those who believed in the virtue of the Occupation, and in his singular role in ensuring that no peace accord would threaten the presence of Jews in Hebron. A “Martyr” read his tombstone. “Clean hands and a pure heart.” The government eventually dismantled the shrine, even as his father prostrated himself on Goldstein’s grave and lamented “He gave his life to sanctify God’s name.”
Al-Shahuda Street is a long road lined with abandoned shops, their metal doors locked. Fraying green awnings cast shadows on the empty sidewalk. Trash is piled in the rare open doorways. The only people on the street are soldiers. It is quiet. A plastered map on the side of a trailer shows an Israel whose borders extend north into Syria, east into Jordan and south into Sinai, across the Suez Canal into Egypt. In 1967, a sign reads, the Lubavitcher Rebbe gave to the Jews of Hebron property purchased in 1912 by one of his predecessors, and that plans are underway for the construction of a seven-story building with twenty-eight apartments, a nursery school, a medical clinic, and underground parking.
I walk into a construction site. Two young settlers with pistols tucked in their belts are at work. I ask where they are from. Paris, says one. Israel, says the other says. The settlement’s new buildings resemble the old buildings in that they are built from the bleached stone that is ubiquitous on both sides of the Green Line. I walk through the site and back to the young settlers. I point to one of the older buildings and ask what they plan to do with it.
“When the Messiah comes all will be good,” says the one from Paris. “In the meantime, we will get rid of all the Arabs.”
I walk back to the street and approach a young soldier heading to the base that occupies what was once Hebron’s central bus station. There are perhaps 700 Jews living in Hebron and 300,000 Arabs. The army has been protecting the settlers for most of the past 50 years. It’s a hot day and there is little shade on Al-Shahuda Street.
I say, “tough work, huh?”
“Yes,” he says. But he doesn’t mind. “It makes me feel good inside.”
Baruch Goldstein attended the same Brooklyn yeshiva that I did, and was in the same year as my brother. Goldstein may have been an aberration in the murderous savagery of his act, but the darker impulses that began to emerge in Brooklyn in the wake of the Six Day War were familiar. In 1969, when my brother was 13, my parents, at the suggestion of my uncle, sent him to Camp Betar, at outpost in the Catskills inspired by the right-wing Zionist ideology of Ze’ev Zhabotinsky, whose followers included the former prime minister and one-time terrorist Menachem Begin. My uncle, who was given to haranguing Israeli cab drivers for their lack of piety and who donated so generously to the Lubavitcher Chasidim that he was granted the rare honor of being allowed to eat the crumbs off the Rebbe’s plate, thought this might be a good experience. My brother recalls being taught to crawl on his belly and shoot a gun, and to tumble while holding a plastic knife so he would be in position to stab a foe. The targets were clear: Arabs. He asked to come home after less than two weeks.
How my parents could have possibly thought this was a good idea is beyond me. But then again, after 1967 Jews were enjoying the new-found experience of flexing their muscles, if only to make themselves feel a bit like Israelis, who before 1967 were more often regarded as brave but beleaguered, hardly the stuff of inspiration, except for families like Jonnie’s who had been there, and lived there, and whose connection was far deeper even than families like mine. My parents, Zionists to the core, nonetheless had no intention of moving to Israel. That was not unusual: there was a wide sentiment, and intellectual and rabbinical writings supporting the idea that in America Jews could live comfortably and safely as committed Jews without making Israel their eventual destination. After all, unlike Jews from Europe and later the Middle East, they had already left their homelands for a new and presumably better destination. In fact, moving to an economically strapped Israel in the 1950s and 60s could be a risky proposition. I recall how friends of my parents moved to Israel in the early 1960s. He was a jeweler and I suppose they thought they’d be welcomed and that he would have little trouble finding work. They returned defeated and when my mother saw her friend, shattered by the experience, she took her in her arms and said, “Eva, what did they do to you?”
It was different after 1967, at least for Jews of my parents’ generation, the first- generation Jews, so different than my grandparents’ generation, who came here poor and grateful to leave behind a Europe to which they would never return, and where so many loved ones who stayed behind would perish. If my parents’ generation felt a survivor’s guilt about having lived when so many were exterminated, their parents, who might have had the capacity and wherewithal to act, retained a profound terror of the dark fate that awaited Jews who spoke too loudly.
Meanwhile, in nearby Crown Heights, Meir Kahane, who himself had attended Camp Betar, founded the Jewish Defense League which patrolled the streets with baseball bats and were known to go after the Puerto Rican kids who were said to have stolen the streimels, the beaver-fur hats, right off the heads of the Chasidim. I remember a friend’s father, hardly a devout Jew, falling all over himself in admiration, mimicking the way they yelled, “Come down you Puerto Rican pigs.”
Benjamin Goldstein of Coney Island, the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Yeshiva University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine would join the JDL, before moving to Israel, changing his name, marrying, becoming the father of four, and establishing a emergency medical practice that denied treatment to Arabs in Kiryat Arba, the settlement built by the government next to Hebron to accommodate the needs and wishes of the Jews who had hosted Passover at the Park Hotel.
There are two ways to look at Hebron: as an aberration – a settlement in the middle of an Arab city rather than, say, a village perched on a hillside next to an Arab village. Or, that Hebron is the apotheosis of the Occupation – a statement that, talk of a two-state solution not withstanding, underscores the undying belief that Jews are here forever, and more to the point, are not to be trifled with. Moshe Levinger, the settler rabbi who arranged for that first seder in 1968 and who was a core member of the religious settler organization Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), was arrested and briefly jailed repeatedly for shooting at and sometimes killing Arabs. “An outstanding example of a generation that sought to realize the Zionist dream, in deed and spirit, after the Six Day War,” Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote to his family upon his death.
The Occupation does not look like Hebron, but that is no consolation. The Occupation is settlements with names like Efrat, Ariel and Maale Adumim that look like Encino if Encino rose up on the side of a hill and was surrounded by a concrete wall. There are red-roofed townhouses, mini-malls, schools, swimming pools and playgrounds. There is ample parking. The big settlement towns of 20,000 or 30,000 residents, bedroom communities for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, are green with manicured shrubbery, unlike the Arab villages just across the ridge or valley, which are brown for lack of water, and where the buildings are cinderblock with sheet metal roofs. The Occupation is well-paved and secured roads for those whose cars have Israeli license plates, and pot-holed roads with spontaneously thrown up road blocks for those who do not. There are no clear lines in the Occupation, except for the separation wall, which bends and twists in ways that, as has been written so many times, have wrecked economic havoc on the Palestinians. The Occupation is trailers on distant hilltops that even the government says are illegal but which remain and grow with populations that are young, zealous and armed.
It is possible to stand in Manger Square in Bethlehem, or the Hebron market just a few yards from Al-Shahuda Street and feel as if you are in an Arab town. And in fact you are. So, defenders of the Occupation will say, What’s so bad? Look how the Jews get their cars fixed by the Palestinian mechanics whose work is good and who charge so much less. Look at the Jews, in kippot no less, shopping at the reasonably priced Palestinian stores.
The Occupation functions like a cruel joke. In what is known since the Oslo Accords of the 1990s as Area A there is Palestinian control, and in Area B there is Palestinian authority with Israeli security. Together they comprise 40 percent of the territory and it is where over two million Palestinians live. Area C is everyplace else and it belongs to Israel, and is home to perhaps 350,000 settlers and, depending on who is doing the counting, between 90,000 and 117,000 Palestinians whose number will not grow, given how many Palestinian building applications Israel rejects. If there is any question as to whom Area C belong, there are Israeli flags and security towers as reminders.
When you leave Area A the roads improve immediately and as you drive along you spot a sign on the fence outside a Palestinian village – Area B — written in red in Hebrew and English warning Israelis to proceed no further lest their lives be in danger. The residents of Areas A and B work in Area C, in the settlement towns. They park their cars outside the fence, and walk through a security checkpoint to gain entry.
The settlement towns remind me of the gated, secured compounds on the outskirts of Johannesburg, only much larger. Palestinians called Al-Shuhada Street Apartheid Street. If you happen to drive around the West Bank and have a map that delineates the boundaries of Areas A, B and C and can determine where precisely a Palestinian State – the second state in the “two-state solution” – might go, your imagination is infinitely better than mine.
In 1977, Jonnie’s army unit was dispatched to a military base that was to be handed over to the Gush Emunim, for the purpose of building a settlement. He was not pleased. “Most of us were less-than-comfortable here,” he wrote his parents, “for we are, on principle, opposed to this sort of settlement.“
He had finally made good on his promise to himself to return to Israel. He had joined the gareen, the seed, to form Yahel. And he had fulfilled his wish to join the Israeli Army. There was much not to like about the army. At twenty-four, he was ancient for boot camp, six years older than the others in his platoon, and older than the officers whom he had to ask permission to use the latrine. Still, he believed he could get used to it; the army was integral to the life he was creating.
“Even though I’ve gotten to hate the army, at least I know the reason for my enlisting in it, and the purpose of my being trained. If I’m already a soldier and in the army – at least I’m in the Israeli army, not the Tsar’s. I don’t think I could stand for it, if it wasn’t for this knowledge and this approach.
“I hope I can get up, some day, and learn that we can all go home, because there’s no further need for guns and tanks. Til that day, however, there’s nothing to do but be as strong as possible, to be the best possible soldier.”
He wrote this to his parents. Not to me.
A couple of years after Jonnie died, his father created a memorial book. He called it “Laughing Wheels and Crying Wheels” after something Jonnie would say when he was three-years-old and saw trucks drive by: “Those are laughing wheels. Those are crying wheels.” The book begins with letters and poems from friends. He had asked me to write something and I did, telling the story of our friendship. But when the book arrived in Tokyo I set it aside, finding the testimonials more than I then wanted to read, and so overlooked what followed: the letters he had written his parents after he returned to Israel in 1976. The letters told a story that I assumed I knew.
November 22, 1976, after a visit returning to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial: “And here I am – born in America – standing in the ancestral soil armed with an old Czech rifle which I can’t even operate; but yet I have a weapon in my hands, and that’s a good feeling; for my blood is boiling within me, and – despite the frustration I sense, that I cannot help the people in the pictures – I feel strong: I have it in my power to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy.”
By now he had committed to a path, one out of step with the times. Kibbutzim, once core to Israel’s founding, agriculture and lore, had fallen out of favor, especially with the push to settle more of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Jonnie did not want the Occupied Territories. He wanted the desert, where few young people were going.
The location was the Arava Depression, a geological split that divides the desert between Red Sea and Dead Sea, and which sat on the Jordanian border. Yahel offered the elements he needed: there was a religious component, one acceptable to him – it would be Israel’s first kibbutz affiliated with the most liberal branch of Judaism, Reform; the land was unoccupied; and he would be present from the start, to do the work with his own hands. The work would be hard and he would be part of the struggle. I cannot imagine him finding the experience fulfilling without a struggle, even if the struggle imperiled the dream.
December 30, 1976: “These are difficult days for our society, and we are duty-bound to hold fast…Our ‘Eden’ will be built out of great suffering, not because of physical conditions but because of the social and spiritual elements involved.”
“There is something interesting and exciting in this challenge, and I’m drawn to it: I’m ready for the test.”
Jonnie always needed a test. Yahel provided it, as well as something more: a place where he belonged. He had not felt that way in college; his letters from Northwestern were for the most part filled with frustration, a sense of not quite finding his place. He had a serious girlfriend, like him a committed Zionist, and joined Jewish groups on campus. He loved playing on his intramural football team; the man did like to rumble. But there is no sense in those letters of any real joy in journalism, of the stories he found, and needed to tell. Looking back, my sense is that he was going to fulfill his commitment to the field, to get his degree and find a reporting job. A test.
I never recall him going on about a story, which by 1976, when I started working as a reporter and he moved to Israel, was all I did.
Israel, on the other hand, offered something that had been there, deep within him, long before he ever learned to type.
“I feel my place is here, in the Land,” he wrote his parents, “and I stand ready for all the obstacles in the way…even to the point of getting used to a way of life that is a bed of thorns.”
I knew of no other family that could trace its connection to Israel back as far as Jonnie’s, back to before the founding of the State, when the revival of a language that for centuries had been reserved for prayer, was emerging as a powerful tool to connect Jews to their past, and to their homeland. My grandfather, an immigrant like Jonnie’s, arrived in New York at the age of 17 and became what was known as a “butter and eggs man.” His dream was America, with a wife and three children and a good business and a brick and stucco house in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, the house where I grew up, a short bike ride for Jonnie’s. Israel was a place where my grandfather sent money to someone who claimed to be a relative.
February 19, 1977: “Electricity is not yet hooked up, and the water still has to be trucked in…but we decided that we’re occupying our homes, using candles, cutting water needs to bare essentials, and holding fast.
“A bit of pioneering?”
If so, it was fraught. Most of the members were younger than him, and their behavior, fighting over which blanket they want, complaining about the food, angered him. He believed new members his age would join. The membership was split between those who want to embrace the religious character of the kibbutz and those interested primarily in establishing a presence in the desert. Meanwhile, he was learning to transplant mango trees.
March 30, 1977: “There has been an increase in tension between the two blocs, and we’ve even had meetings at which some people expressed raw opinions, others threatened to leave, and an overall pall was cast upon Yahel.”
To make matters worse, that May Menachem Begin became prime minister. Jonnie had sided with Labor. He wrote. “It’s a very day for the Jewish State.” That summer he became a soldier.
“To tell the truth, army life is not exactly what I’d like to be in the rest of my days. Maybe this assessment will change after basic training, but I can already understand why so many people hate the army. The stupefaction is monstrous:
STAND HERE! STAND THERE! RUN. SIT! SHUT UP! SPEAK. ASK!
His unit guarded the airport perimeter when Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat made his historic visit in 1977. He was given ever more responsibility, supervising ten men as a corporal’s assistant.
Basic training ended with a ceremony in the rain on a muddy field. He had done well – he was nominated as the top soldier of the 160 men in his unit. His commanding officer told him, “You put your heart into the task, and you helped your fellows. I only wish all the other men in this platoon were like you.” He considered becoming an officer.
January 15, 1978: “It isn’t til you get in the army that you realize what price it is that the people pay for existence in and on the Land. Even if you don’t get to battle – just to be long weeks in the field, lonely, cold, and dead-tired…they’re also part of the price; and really there is no choice til the longed-for day of shalom arrives.”
With the end of basic training, and his success at becoming the soldier he so much wanted to be, he could fully appreciate just how profound a break he had made from the life he left behind.
“You see, by contrast to my life in the US, here I pay for being a Jew, for my wanting to live as a Jew.
“But now I feel the identification in my very bones. Perhaps there is another battle – against assimilation, and for education. But I must point out that throughout my life I showed great interest in the warlike side of our people.”
That April he attended a Peace Now rally in Jerusalem. ”I don’t go along fully with the name of the movement, but I do find interest in its program that demands that Prime Minister Begin try his best to be restrained and flexible…so that if we should have to go to war again, we’ll be secure in the thought that we did our best to bring about shalom, that we did not sour up a one-time opportunity to negotiate with our neighbors.”
He remained in the army until the spring of 1979. Despite his painfully flat feet, he earned his parachutist’s wings and the red beret he had first seen all those years ago, soon after he arrived as a sixteen-year-old. He injured his back when a personal carrier he was driving overturned in a sand cloud. He was mustered out as a lieutenant. It was, he wrote, the conclusion of “bittersweet period in my life. Sweet, for despite all the suffering and dissatisfaction with army life, I’m proud of having been a parachute infantryman in Zahal (the IDF, or Israeli Defense Forces), a soldier in Nachal and I feel great satisfaction in having been able to pass this test for which I had so long aspired.” Another test. Another pass.
The following month he was asked to relocate to Jerusalem to assist other kibbutzim beginning to form. The timing was good: he had, he wrote, considered leaving Yahel. He did not explain to his parents why, only that “in the last analysis I decided that Yahel, whatever its faults may be, has a sturdy hold on me, one that’s difficult to break.”
It is important for Mark in his knowledge of Jonnie to understand how our friendship has endured so long after his death. Jonnie and I did not make sense as friends; he was resolute and physically tough and opinionated to a degree that all but precluded disagreement. I was funny and anxious. I was woefully insecure and I suppose he was, too – all those pained letters about girls. I suspect we complemented one another: much as I needed a friend who exuded strength, he needed a friend who could make him laugh.
Jonnie and I hung out in his front yard imitating the batting stances of different Yankees – Mantle, right? We played touch football which I kind of hated playing against him because he liked to hit too hard. We took the subway to Yankee and Met games, and into “the city” to get $3.95 steaks at Tad’s down the block from the arcade at Times Square. We took the bus to the beach. We went to the movies, and when we were in high school snuck into dirty movies. We spent Saturday nights together talking about girls and had our first beer together, a Ballentine Ale that we snuck from his parents’ fridge. It tasted like a sore throat. We rode our bikes to Avenue J to see who was hanging out at DiFara’s Pizzeria and in the summers rode to Midwood field, to see if anyone was there. We could not wait to get our drivers’ licenses because then at last we could get out of Brooklyn. Out of Brooklyn? Who now would think such a thing? When he came home from college for winter and summer breaks we would greet each other with a handshake ever-harder smacks to the shoulder. Then we would do pretty much what we had always done, which was to hang out, which for boys is a more acceptable way of saying, just being together.
I had asked myself the same question Mark now posed, wondering why we remained so close, even as we saw ever less of one another. I offered Mark the explanation I had settled on soon after he died, and which I included in the tribute I wrote in his memorial book: that at a time in our lives when everything else felt confusing and murky, it was important to know who your best friend was. I knew, and so did Jonnie.
In the spring of 1970, Jonnie was accepted at Syracuse and Northwestern. I had hoped he might go to NYU, which had a strong journalism program. I was heartbroken when he wrote to say that he was moving to Chicago. I remember going over to another friend’s house, where a bunch of guys I knew were hanging out. They could tell something was wrong, and asked and when I told them they were sympathetic but as I recall, a bit confused. Everyone leaves, right?
I don’t remember what I wrote to Jonnie, other than suggesting he consider NYU. Still, my sadness was apparent because, in response, he wrote: “I don’t know where you got the crazy idea that I ever wanted to break up our friendship, but as long as it’s in your head, you might as well get rid of it. No matter where I am, whether here in Israel, or in Northwestern, and no matter how many new friends I make, you can rest assured that are you my best friend. As you yourself pointed out, people must sometimes go on their own paths, but that doesn’t mean we have to break up a great friendship.”
But now I see that the explanation I offered Mark, the one I had held onto for so long, was incomplete. It explained our friendship when we were young, and even a bond that endured through our twenties, even as we made new friends with whom we shared a great deal more about the lives we were living as adults.
The last time I saw Jonnie, our lives, which had unfolded in such different directions had nonetheless found a common path in what mattered most. We were both married. I was embarking on my adventure, just as he had embarked on his. We had been friends for twenty years and for the first time since we were in high school, our lives had finally begun to look very much the same in the ways that mattered. Each of us with a partner – and he with a child. Each of us not just with work, but with a path, a future that I could tell my best friend about because he would appreciate it, and he would be happy for me. Which I did, and he was, even as he lay in his hospital bed, greeting friends from Yahel as I tried to learn Japanese.
Then he died.
And I was left to go on without him.
So I carried him with me. My son is named for Jonnie. My daughter’s Hebrew name is derived from his. When I say the memorial prayer of Yizkor for my mother on Yom Kippur, I say it for him, too. His picture hangs over my desk. Over the years I tried to write about Jonnie but somehow could not. Early on, I suspect, I could not bear to do it, because to write his story would have been to bury him. I was not ready.
I cannot know what Jonnie would have made of the Israel to which I returned. I would like to think he would have felt the disappointment, the anger, the sadness that I felt, if only because I would have hated to argue with him. I’d like to think that he would have told me that yes, there was the Israel I saw in at the cafes on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, or the Kotel at sundown, or on Al-Shahuda Steet in Hebron. There was the Occupation, the rise of the domination of the secular and religious right, the discrimination against the Ethiopian Jews, the second class citizenship of Israeli Arabs, the vanishing of the political left and peace movement, and the official embrace of Evangelical Christians as the support diminished among young American Jews like my son, his namesake. I’d like to believe – and I don’t think it’s wishful thinking – that whatever anger he might have felt about his adopted country’s evolution, he would have insisted on holding fast to his Israel, the one he helped build in the desert.
I understood why Jonnie chose to share his thoughts and feeling about life in Israel with his parents: they had lived it, and would understand it, in their hearts, more than I ever would. He knew it. He understood, that when it came to Israel, it would not be the same with me. Unlike them, I would, in time, be able to distance myself, to stay away, to not come back until now, and even then, only to once again stand close to him.
I do not know when and if I will return to Israel. I do not feel drawn, perhaps except to visit Yahel, to see Aliza, and Mark and their children and grandchildren. I would like to meet Moriyah. She has posted some of her poetry on Facebook, and it is wonderful, evocative and moving, especially when she writes about her husband. Jonnie’s daughter writing so beautifully about his ailing son-in-law.
Jonnie is buried in a small cemetery just outside the perimeter gates of the kibbutz he helped found. His parents, who themselves returned to Israel, are buried next to him. His father, the calligrapher, wrote the lettering for his headstone, in his elegant Hebrew, marking his son’s life by the holiday on which he was born – Passover — and the one on which he died, the harvest festival of Succot.
Jonnie’s grave is surrounded by the open, rocky expanse of the desert, and beyond it, the mountains. The only shade is a tree. It is silent. It is still.
One day at lunch when we were in eighth grade we sat around the table in the school cafeteria and somehow began to talk about what would happen if Jonnie became president of the United States. Jonnie did not shy from the suggestion.
I remember everyone started naming the job they’d have in his administration. When my turn came, I didn’t identify a post. Instead, I said, I knew what I could do. I would tell his story.
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