This story is published in collaboration with Longreads.
I told people that I was returning to Israel for the first time in thirty-five years to visit a grave and this stopped them, mercifully, from asking why I had been away for so long. This was true; I was going to visit the grave of my best friend, Jonathan Maximon, who had died in 1984 when he was thirty-one. It was also true that I could have gone back in all the years since but for reasons I could not explain to anyone, including myself, I had stayed away.
My wife had twice gone for work, and though we had traveled with our children, we did not take them to Israel, nor send them on Birthright. Then, not long ago, my daughter mentioned that she might be going and while I did not want to intrude on her time, overlapping by a day or so felt like the pretext I needed. Her plans changed but by then I had my ticket.
Jonnie was buried at Yahel, the kibbutz at the southern end of the Negev desert that he had helped found in the late 1970s. I had not been in touch with his wife, Aliza, since his death. I emailed the kibbutz and asked if my message could be passed along. She replied almost immediately. “I am still in Yahel,” she wrote. “Mark my husband, and myself will be happy to meet you.” She and Mark had four grown children. Moriyah, her daughter with Jonnie who had been a year old when he died, now lived in the north and was married with two young sons. He would have been a grandfather.
I was 66 and had not made this trip since Jonnie’s brother called to tell me he was gravely ill. I had just gotten married and was preparing to move to Tokyo. My wife, Susan, told me, “Go”. I had last seen Jonnie seven months earlier. Susan and I were traveling in Egypt and Israel. We took the bus from Jerusalem four hours south to Yahel, which then, like now, felt as if it was in the middle of nowhere. I was so excited to see him that I left my leather jacket on the bus. Hanging over my desk as I write this is a snapshot from that visit. He and I are leaning on a white jeep. He is wearing a San Francisco Fire Department t-shirt that is tight across his broad shoulders. He was always nuts about fire fighters. Together with Aliza and Susan, we went on our only double date to see ”Play it Again, Sam” in the kibbutz cafeteria and as we walked back to their apartment Jonnie told me that I’d be an idiot not to marry Susan because if I didn’t someone else would and quickly. I do not recall his saying this with a smile. Nor was he one to elaborate.
The next time I saw him he was lying in a bed in a dismal ward at Tel HaShomer Hospital near Tel Aviv. A tumor in his spine had paralyzed him from the waist down. His hair was falling out and he was skeletal. Another patient told him, “Get out of this place.” He did, but only to a private room.
I stayed in a small apartment with Aliza, Moriyah, his parents and brother, who was overseeing his care. He had given everyone assignments. Mine was to sit in Jonnie’s room. Friends from Yahel came to visit and I sat in a corner trying to study Japanese. One day, a friend from our elementary school came to visit and Jonnie was wheeled outside to be in the sun. The three of us had known each other since we were eleven and my parents had taken us out of the Orthodox Brooklyn yeshiva where my brother and I were on a glide path to the “dumb class.” Our new school was a less religious Jewish day school. There were twelve children in the class, and Jonnie, it was clear immediately, was the leader of the boys. I was not sure I could become his friend. Our friend. Steve, whom I remember as a kid sitting on the back of his father’s motorcycle, had become Rav Shaul, a Chasidic rabbi. Jonnie’s brother wanted to know why after so many more seemingly pleasurable ways of living he had chosen the path of faith. Steve smiled and replied, “I just like the lifestyle.”
Somehow, I remember that moment but only a few others, like the day Jonnie was being taken for a test. A relative was visiting and when he saw an Arab man ahead of Jonnie on line, said, “An Arab before a Jew?” To which Jonnie snapped, “It’s his country, too.”
I remember that on the night I left, I kissed him on the forehead. Or did I? But I do remember very clearly what I said, because the wording was so labored. He thanked me for coming, and I replied, “I only do this for people I love.” That is the closest I would ever come to telling him how I felt.
Aliza said to me, I hope he lives, and I left believing, somehow, that he would. I flew back to New York and soon left for Tokyo. I called the apartment in Tel Aviv night after night, but got no answer.
Then, one night, his brother picked up.
How is Jonnie? I asked
He died two weeks ago, he said.
Susan was sitting across from me and could not tell by the look on my face what had happened.
This would be my sixth trip to Israel. I first went in 1969, with a group from my synagogue. I went again in 1973 when my grandfather, widowed and eager to make the trip before he died, took my brother, our cousin and me. He put us all up for three weeks at the swanky King David Hotel in Jerusalem. My brother and I were so bored we went to work on an archeological dig. I went again the following summer to work on a kibbutz, and then not again until Susan and I made our trip in the late winter of 1984.
The number of trips, however, does not capture how deeply Israel existed at the core of the world in which Jonnie and I grew up. Israel was braver, tougher, and so much more admirable. It was prickly-on-the-outside-sweet-on-the-inside Sabras. It was they-give-with-blood-what-we-only-give-with-money worthier than us. It was the stamps we bought to buy the leaves that would become the trees we planted to help make the desert bloom. It was the pin we each got in third grade when Israel turned thirteen and marked its Bar Mitzvah. It was the Light Among Nations surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs who wanted to drive the Jews into the sea. It was the folk songs and circle dances we learned in school — Mayim mayim mayim mayim (did we have any idea why we were singing about water?) It was the answer, living and breathing, to the Nazis who existed for us with every number tattoo we saw on the arms of the Holocaust survivors who lived in our neighborhood. It was the terrifying sliver of just nine miles from the Mediterranean to the Jordanian border that literally overnight in 1967 miraculously expanded all the way to the Jordan River. The Six Day War and conquest of Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank was for us a sensation best articulated by a classmate in Hebrew high school who looked at the newly drawn map of Israel and said with a glee we all shared: look how big we are. And one day, when it would at last be our turn to go, we would kiss the ground when we stepped off the plane.
If all this seems a cliché, too simplistic by half, I can assure you that in our world this was truth, fact and it was not doubted, any more than Israel, the fact and dream and the superiority of the Jews of Israel was not doubted or questioned.
Jonnie, who never appeared to doubt anything, who seemed the antithesis of my anxious and self-deprecating self, was always destined for Israel. Jonnie, who at our school’s book fair bought “Jews Fight Too,” when I bought “Gimpel the Fool.”
He would first go in 1970. He graduated high school early and spent six months in intensive language lessons at an Ulpan studying to make his Hebrew fluent and plotting how to convince his parents to give their permission to let him join the Israeli army.
He would, eventually, when he went back in 1976 to help found Yahel because his Israel was not to be found in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and certainly not in the Occupied West Bank. It was in the desert. Jonnie was going to be a pioneer. Not a settler. A pioneer who would find his Israel within the pre-1967 borders – in fact, the 1948 partition borders. There he would join others, his soon to be wife among them, in building a home where little had existed but sand and rock. He was placed in charge of the fields — a farmer, a life as far from Brooklyn as could be imagined. It lasted for eight years.
Now I was going back to visit his grave, and also to see what he had helped build, not just the kibbutz but the nation. I needed to see for myself what had become of the Israel that for thirty-five years had existed for me in what I remembered, read and heard, so much of it ever more disheartening, disillusioning, and enraging.
I had company: Jonnie’s letters. A few years ago I discovered that I had saved them. Reading them staggered me; I felt as if I was hearing his voice. There were letters from that first trip in 1970, letters from college and the letters he wrote when he was married and about to become a father. Letters from a sixteen-year-old, and letters when he was thirty. I put them in a folder and placed the folder in my backpack, so I could carry them, and him, with me.
What I did not know, but would soon learn, was that my understanding of Jonnie, whom I thought I knew so well, was incomplete, that my memories and those letters did not fully explain who he was, and how he came to find himself, and his final resting place, in the desert.
I. Tel Aviv
I sit at the bar in a restaurant on Dizengoff Street called La Shuk eating chicken confit with roasted tomatoes and tahini and all around me young people are having fun. They are drinking Aperol and what everyone had been telling me – you won’t recognize Tel Aviv. It’s so…hip and cool and international – feels true. It is Friday night, Erev Shabbat, which means shutdown in Jerusalem, but not here, not even close. The music at La Shuk is The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” and it is very loud. It will be loud every place I eat, and I do not mean conversation loud, as it is in New York, but music loud, as in the volume is at…eleven. A volume that reduces conversation to a succession of shouts. There is a lot of shellfish on the menu. The bartender is shaking two drinks at once. The kitchen is open and the chef looks like Harold Brent who I knew in my first yeshiva, which matters only in that as I sit and drink Italian chardonnay and try not to stare as I look around trying to make sense of this place and the city, the past intrudes, in waves. It is not a matter of nostalgia as much as flashes of memories from fifty years ago, when I came here for the first time and as we walked through the airport it struck me, even as someone who lived in a neighborhood so Jewish that only one family down the block had Christmas lights, that everyone around me was Jewish. Like the Official Airport Photographer (he had a badge!) with a big Polaroid who I have to believe was making a good buck photographing the newly arrived eager for a reminder of their first moments in the Land of Our Forefathers, even if they were still waiting for their luggage.
In Israel in 1969 when I first visited, and in 1970 when Jonnie arrived, the food was bad and the water gave you the runs. The Tel Aviv I recall was a crummy town with buildings from the 1920s that only decades later would become worthy of a walking tour. Bauhaus Tel Aviv.
Jonnie arrived in February. I take his letters out of my backpack, put on my glasses and begin to read.
2/2/70 “Dear Mike, My first few days in Israel have been pretty good. Tel Aviv was very nice, but I’m afraid I didn’t like it too much.”
That would be Jonnie: a statement of fact, with no further explanation. (As in – Jonnie: The guy is an asshole. Me: what do you mean he’s an asshole? Jonnie: what do you mean what do I mean? The guy is an asshole.)
“So far I’ve met a grand total of two kids. This Saturday I hope to go exploring the Old City.”
He writes that he is lonely and wants to meet Americans so he can have people to talk to because his Hebrew isn’t yet good enough to chat with Israelis even though we’ve both been learning it since first grade.
“Write to me about school and home and tell me what’s happening.”
2/22/70 “Yesterday I walked with a friend of mine through some fields and we finally ended up in some Arab village on top of this hill. They live in such poverty…I must say they were very friendly and if they wanted to kill me, they certainly showed no signs of it – Ha, Ha!”
“Guess what? I’ve seen real live tzanchaniz!” Paratroopers. The elite of the elite. Red berets tucked in their epaulets. The coolest. The baddest Jews on the planet.
2/24/70 “Today at the Ulpan we heard a lecture on mines and other forms of bad-bads. We were shown little button mines, and were also warned not to come late to movies because in the dark we might step on a little mine. Actually we laughed through half the lecture since the police officer who lectured us was a pretty funny guy. It was all very reassuring and now I’m going to the drugstore to get some pills for my nerves.”
He writes every week and sometimes more. Sometimes on consecutive days. “You may not believe it, but I’ve been here for a month already. There are times when I wish I could come home for a day and two just to see everyone. I know that that’s impossible so I’ll try to make things better for myself – what I really miss are girls.”
He writes a lot about girls. Girls he meets whom he likes but who don’t like him and girls who seem to like him but whom he is not so sure about. His letters are filled with talk of girls. But then again he is sixteen. He asks after friends from school and about the weather back home.
3/15/70 “About coming to Israel in two summers – I’m seriously considering returning next winter to join the army. There’s one branch called NACHAL – it’s a program where boys and girls – all in the army, start kibbutzim on the borders. My parents have to be consulted, etc.”
4/16/70 “Mike, I’m dying to join the army here. It’s going to be hard convincing my parents but maybe I can do it through my dad’s best friend. He’s a high officer in the police dep’t here and I’m sure that he could help change my parents’ minds. Of course this is between you and me.”
He knew. He could see his future and it was here. I, meanwhile, hadn’t a clue.
4/16/70 “I thought you’d like to know something about the 3-day march in which I participated.” They marched from the Ulpan to Beth-El, just north of Jerusalem. They lived in a camp crammed three to a tent. “The marching part was fairly hard. We had some pretty stiff hills to climb and the heat was unbearable.” But then came the payoff. “On the last day of the march, we had a parade through the streets of Jerusalem…there were about 100,000 people watching the parade which was pretty cool in itself!”
Outside on the fountain in the middle of Dizengoff Square, a young man does wheelies on his bicycle, a risky move that he avoids when the children are close. The children, young and eager to run around the fountain, are with their parents. Everyone has a big dog. The dads wear t-shirts, sandals and cut offs and the moms wear dresses that are not quite as clingy as the dresses worn by the women sitting at the outside tables across the street at La Shuk. It is just before nine and the sun has just set. The weather is warm and dry. There is a quarter moon in a cloudless sky and it is not a stretch to feel that this place, at this moment, feels like the most inviting and pleasant city in the world.
Tomorrow people will be at the beach where it is crowded but not too crowded, where the beach-side cafes are busy, but not pressed, where despite all the many young and single people, the dominant feeling is of families. All these families.
Which reminds me of something else I was told about Tel Aviv: that here is where Israel pulled up the drawbridge, to keep out the troubles and the worries. Gaza is, according to Google Maps, 56 miles south of the café on the sand where I am having a lunch of hummus, pita and San Pellegrino. The Haredim in Jerusalem have made it all but impossible to get anywhere but on foot on the Sabbath. The government is in crisis; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not form a government and there will be new elections. No matter. Here you can avoid seeing an Arab on the beach unless you walk south toward Yafo, where women in abayahs splash in the surf.
Tonight will mark the beginning of the Festival of Shavuot – an important holiday marking the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Law, to a people whom God had granted a do-over after the collective sin of the Golden Calf. Tonight on Dizengoff Street the outdoor cafes will be full and people will give their names to the hostess and wait without even knowing how long. It is Saturday night and tomorrow is a holiday and another day off, another day at the beach where the water is warm and there are no sharp rocks under the gentle surf.
I step out of Otello Gelato and hear chanting coming toward me. In the distance, on the far side of the street I see a band of young men. They are in the uniform of the settler Orthodox – knit kippot, tzizit fringes under their white shirts. One of them carries an assault rifle over his shoulder. Two kinds of people carry weapons in Israel: soldiers in uniform and settlers who, depending on where they live, will have pistols on their belts.
The young men are singing a celebratory song, a song that everyone who has ever attended a Bat or Bar Mitzvah hears when the candy is thrown in the synagogue or when the band plays the Hora set: Psalm 28:9 Hoshia et amecha, Save Your People.
They walk past the people eating and drinking at the sidewalk tables. They want them to join in. The young men, saviors all, clap and chant, ecstatic reminders that out there, in their Israel, on the other side of the draw bridge, life is defined and lived in ways that are at odds with the relative hedonism of Dizengoff Street on a festival evening.
There was no such clutter for Jonnie Maximon in the letters he wrote to me in the winter, spring and summer of 1970, certainly not when it came to Israel and his imagined place in it.
That July he would finish his studies in Jerusalem and travel north to the Galilee, to meet our classmate Steve – yes, that Steve, who’d make his own journey to Israel, settling in the ancient and mystical city of Safed and becoming Rav Shaul – to work together on a kibbutz. He wrote, “It’s really beautiful here, and I’m working pretty hard picking pears. There are 200 tons of pears to be picked in the next two weeks! I’m getting so sick of fruit it’s hard to believe.”
They quit after two weeks and ended up in Tel Aviv, at the apartment of a woman Jonnie has a crush on. He hopes that she will join Nachal with him, if his parents agree. He will travel before coming home, to Eilat, Masada, Ein Gedi, even Beersheva, a dusty desert outpost. He loves it all.
8/14/70 “This will probably be the last letter from yours truly, since I’ll be coming home in a little more than a week. (you should see the whizbang gift I got for you!)
It was really great…”
Do we know the Occupation is three years along? We do not. We are so far removed from even the vaguest notion of what is taking place in the name of faith and expansion in the West Bank and Gaza that when I came back from my trip and my Hebrew teacher at Midwood High School had me stand in front of the room and give my impressions of Israel and a classmate asked, “Are the Arabs treated like second class citizens?” I replied with a certainty that even now, fifty years later still fills me with shame, “Maybe they deserve to be.”
Of course there are no flights to Eilat. It is Shavuot and all domestic flights are grounded in observance of the holiday. No matter that I have a ticket. Who sold you this ticket? A travel agency? Online? There are no flights.
Or maybe there are. Just wait. Someone will be here soon. When? Soon. My flight leaves at 8:20 and lands at 9 and Aliza is going to meet me at the new airport in Eilat named for the Israeli astronaut who died in the Columbia space shuttle explosion and his son whose F-16 crashed over the West Bank.
There is no 8:20 flight. Look at the board. There is a 9:50 flight but that is on Arkia and you are on Israir. There is an 11:50 on Israir. If there are no flights today who are the people lining up to fly to Bucharest and Istanbul? Ah, yes, international. Not domestic to Eilat.
This is the original terminal where I landed fifty years ago. I believe nothing has changed. There is one snack bar and the selection is minimal and starchy. It is 6:30 in the morning; I had wanted to give myself plenty of time. A friendly South African man who lives in Eilat tells me there is a bus at 11. I can get there by 3 or maybe 4.
A young man with a badge arrives and though he is not the person I was told to wait for he sees there are nervous people like me wondering about getting to Eilat. He calls the main terminal and is told that there are no flights. This cannot be. More passengers arrive. So yes maybe they are wrong at the main terminal. He shrugs as if to say, what did you expect? and retreats to the snack bar with a world weariness of an older man.
There are flights. But maybe they will be full. See who shows up. Maybe there will be a seat. As to getting back, very few flights. Last is at 3:10, which was originally 3:40. You got the email, yes?
Too short a visit.
I am told, “Look for the chief ticket agent. She will be sitting to the right.” She arrives and I know this much: Get on line and do not let someone who insists he has a more pressing claim get ahead of you because you will be condemned to an eternal wait list. I am first on line. I speak very slowly, in English, because I do not trust my Hebrew and want to keep my worries about ever getting to Yahel in check. The man behind me insists he was there ahead of me. No chance. There is a seat. 11:50. Arriving 12:30. Sixty New Israeli Shekels to change my ticket. Done. The man behind me checks his watch. Too bad.
I force myself to slow my breathing as the plane climbs. I look out the window and watch the country change below me. We circle over the farmland east of Tel Aviv and then head south, the Mediterranean to our right. Green gives way to brown which gives way to the endless rust of the desert. We leave the coastline. We fly over mountains and valleys and I am looking for the Red Sea, trying to find my bearings. The mountains rise high around us. We bank to the left and begin our descent to an airport that suddenly appears.
We pull up to the gate and I am first off the plane. The heat is dry and baking. I hurry inside the terminal, through baggage claim and the sliding glass doors and there, on the far side of the terminal, waiting, is Aliza.
But first, before we can talk, I need to change my ticket. I am on a 3:10 flight back. So little time. Aliza knows the woman at the ticket counter. Her child attends the school where Aliza is principal. 3:10? No, says Aliza’s friend the ticket agent. There are other flights. Later flights. When do you want to go? Early evening? Later? 6:55? Perfect.
Her daughter, Tamar, is waiting for us in the car. Tamar is twenty-five. Her sister, who is twenty-two, is calling on Whatsapp. She is in Costa Rica, on what is known in Israel as “nikui rosh,” head-clearing after the army. Tamar spent hers surfing in Central America and is now is back at Yahel. Tamar is considering a career in the Israeli dairy industry which, she says, has a long and important history but now suffers from too little government support. Her father, Mark, runs the dairy at Yahel with its 750 head of cattle. This is not the Yahel I remember. The Yahel I recall was a cluster of pre-fabricated homes with a communal dining room, and fields that produced grapes, melons, tomatoes, and onions, cultivated by a man from Brooklyn who arrived not knowing a thing about farming. Mark has been in the dairy business most of his life.
Aliza is preparing to retire as principal of the regional school that serves several kibbutzim. She has not changed, not in any way that matters. I remind her that when we first met – Jonnie brought her to the United States in 1982 shortly after they were married – she told me that she could not understand why all Jews simply did not live in Israel. Israel was a Jewish country, she reasoned, so why live anyplace else? Did I say that? she asks. I suppose I did.
She was the ideal wife for Jonnie. Strong. Clear and unequivocal in her views. I remember Jonnie’s mother saying, “she has standards.” High praise; Jonnie’s mother was as judgmental as she was bright. And there was something more: Aliza was Sephardic; her parents came from Turkey and for Jonnie it mattered that his marriage could connect Sephardic Jews with Jews like him, Ashkenazim from Europe. Their children would embody both.
It would be too fanciful to characterize this as part of Jonnie’s Israel dream, because while Jonnie was a romantic when it came to Israel, he was above all a pragmatist. His father’s father had been an early and esteemed leader and teacher in the revival of spoken Hebrew in America. His father, a calligrapher among other talents, and mother, a teacher, had moved to Israel but returned to New York before Jonnie was born. Everyone in his family spoke Hebrew. The connection, emotional, visceral to Israel was so deep that when his father was enduring a long and difficult period after surgery for the removal of a benign brain tumor in 1976, the moment when his recovery sped up dramatically came with news of the Israeli Army’s dramatic raid to free hostages in Entebbe. That is what Jonnie told me; it was what he saw and, given who he was and how he viewed things, what he knew to be true. He did not say this with wonder or surprise. It happened, and that was the explanation.
We pass rows of date trees, clusters of palm trees planted on the neighboring kibbutzim. The temperature is 100 degrees and Aliza and Tamar assure me that I have chosen a good day to visit because things have cooled off. We have so much catching up to do, and I want to know about Moriyah. The news is not good. A year ago her husband, by all accounts a lovely man twenty-four years her senior, collapsed and suffered what sounds like a massive cerebral hemorrhage and though he eventually emerged from a coma he remains in a rehabilitation center, his responses profoundly limited. The family was there the day he fell and has been with Moriyah ever since. Aliza and Mark take the boys, who are five and two, and they all spell Moriyah so that she can visit her husband and have time for herself and her work as a hydro-therapist. There is no telling when this will end. Aliza tells me about the devastation in her oldest daughter’s life without tears or sighs but rather with a sense of what must be done. Moriyah needs help and her sons need a place to run around and swim in the communal pool and play video games before they conk out side by side in the middle of the day. This is what Aliza can do, along with her children, her sister and her husband who, as we pull into parking spot near their house, is coming in from the pool, where he has been organizing games for the kibbutz children.
Mark is wiry in a way that makes his age difficult to pin down. Sixty maybe? Older? Not a chance. He rushes into the living room from the back yard where he has started a fire to grill the fish we are having for lunch. His grandson, Moriyah’s five year old, follows. Mark is in shorts, a t-shirt and over his kippah a big floppy hat that I make the mistake of admiring too much because before I leave he will insist, futilely, that I take. Please, a gift for you.
The living room spills into the dining room, which spills into the kitchen. Two of their children are here, as well as their son’s girlfriend, their two grandchildren and Aliza’s sister. No one stands still except for me, who turns to the wall near the door that is filled with photographs. There are old photos of Aliza’s grandparents, taken in Turkey, her grandfather in a fez. There are Mark’s Moroccan parents. There are photos of the children, and grandchildren. There is Moriyah, in the army, grinning, her face smeared with black ink. There is Moriyah when she is one. She is with Jonnie. There he is, on their wall. He is wearing a baseball cap and a New York Fire Department tank top. He is already getting thin. He is smiling at his daughter, who looks so much like him.
Mark tells me that it is important that Jonnie – he calls him Yoni – not only be a presence on the wall, but a part of their home. Mark will want me to tell him all about Jonnie, and how it is that I feel a connection to him so long after he died.
But first lunch. I excuse myself and go into the bathroom, and shut the door behind me so that no one sees me cry.
There is grilled fish for lunch. There is hummus and babaganoush and carrots and salad and, what am I drinking? Wine? No. Then water. You must drink water in the desert.
I mention Tel Aviv and their son, Yiftach, says that he lived there for two years and had to leave. He made money and spent money and after a while life felt empty. Then I make another mistake: I ask about Netanyahu’s failure to form a government and the new elections; my journalist friends and spouse all assumed that this would make for a fascinating time to be in Israel, what with the split between the religious and secular right. Mark waves this off and says this is simply more of the same. There is always a political crisis of one form or another and so he is not terribly worked up.
Which leads to a discussion of Netanyahu himself. Aliza’s sister says, in English, “I love Bibi.” And Mark smiles and says, me too. “I am a right winger.” A right-winger who reads the left-leading Ha’aretz because he feels it is a good newspaper and he is curious about their points of view, even though he disagrees.
I like Mark almost immediately and do not want to know that he aligns with the right and likes Bibi, who to my mind has succeeded in almost single handedly turning a generation of young, idealistic and liberal American Jews like my son against Israel. I feel I must make my views clear. I begin. Someone says, Let him finish. Mark leaps in to explain his embrace of the right, doing so by making a statement followed by a rhetorical question: give me an alternative. The left? Please. The left is hollowed out, empty. So give me an alternative. You see my point.
It is a familiar rhetorical gambit, and not exclusively Israeli; it was how Jonnie argued. I remember his reaction when in my late 20s I was dating a non-Jewish woman. Jonnie did not approve, no matter my feelings. To his way of thinking I was committing an act of betrayal. He did not convey his displeasure and disappointment by first saying that of course I was entitled to my feelings, but there was more to consider. He said I was wrong and that the relationship had to end. My parents, for their part, said no such thing, though I knew that they were not pleased.
At such moments I did not argue back. I listened and let it go. Easier that way, or so I felt, even more than I reasoned. I did not want to fight with Jonnie, because I knew that Jonnie had a temper and that an argument would quickly escalate. And maybe I was afraid of getting angry at him.
So it was that with Mark I held back. But there was something more: Mark was making an argument that I myself had made, years before – but not so long ago that I would not wince at the memory of the case I would so assuredly and wrong-headedly make. I was in college, and one day found myself in the middle of the quadrangle arguing with protestors about Israel’s right to exist – who even thought such a thing in 1973 in Brooklyn? The answer: more people than I was aware of. How could you say that the Zionists encroached upon a land already peopled if, how foolish could I have been, there were so few people there? Tell me what cities existed in Ottoman Era Palestine? I remember saying. Tell me who was there? If the response was: Jerusalem and Yafo I don’t recall. I was 20 years old making a case with an absolutism cultivated by my school, my home, and my best friend.
The conversation around the lunch table turns to the Palestinians. Mark wants me to know he has no animus toward Arabs, and I do not doubt him. He spent his early childhood in Morocco, which his parents left when he was eight. All his other relatives moved to Canada, and prospered. But for his parents, there was only Israel. Mark offers an argument that is by now too familiar: that the Palestinians were failed by their leaders – in 1948, and again in 1967 when they would not make peace, after Oslo, after Camp David in 1998, after the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada. Maybe because I am a bit back on my heels and maybe because there is a part of me that does not wish to argue – I am here, after all, for reasons other than politics – but what I do not say is what I feel: that even if we concede that every argument Mark makes is valid, that time and again the Palestinians have been let down by a leadership that was corrupt, that the violence especially of the Second Intifada left Israelis terrified, that the leadership did not prepare their people for a peace that would come with disappointment, even if all this is true, so too is the fact that in 1967 Israel conquered the land where millions of Palestinians lived and has remained there, prominently and permanently, ever since.
So we stop. And we begin to talk about Jonnie. I have his letters with me. I ask Aliza if she would like to read the one he wrote after Moriyah was born. But first, I feel the need to make sure I am not upsetting them. Not at all, she says, and begins to read his letter of December 19, 1983.
“Where do I start? Being a papa is really fine, made especially so by two important facts. First, Aliza really knows what she’s doing and that helps immensely because I don’t know the first thing about raising a child, although I’m learning fast. Secondly, Moriyah has got to be the easiest baby in the world. She wakes up in the morning (having slept the whole night without a peep) with a grin and a great mood.”
He continues. “In two days she’ll be five months old and watching her turn from a baby into a person is amazing and, simply put, a wonder. I know I sound like some sentimental fool, but seeing something that you produced actually growing up makes one get sentimental.”
Aliza reads the letter through, puts it down and smiles. She does not comment on how it opened, and for that I am grateful because this letter is heartfelt on a different score. It begins, “We haven’t heard a word from you in such a long time that, frankly, we’ve begun to worry about you. This was enhanced somewhat by the fact that we didn’t hear a thing from you after sending you a combination New Year’s card and announcement of Moriyah’s birth last July.”
There was nothing wrong, nothing that would have prevented me from writing. I was back in New York, after working for four years in Chicago. I had met Susan. I was fine. Why hadn’t I written?
I have so many letters Jonnie wrote from Israel in 1970, and so many more that he wrote from college. But there are only a few from the time he moved to Israel in late 1976. Did I lose them? Or had I stopped writing as often, which meant fewer replies?
We had seen each other every summer in college, and during winter breaks, too. But over the next few years I saw him only twice – when he returned unexpectedly in 1981 after his oldest brother died suddenly, and when he and Aliza visited me in Chicago the following year. It was on the first visit that he admonished me for the woman I was seeing. But I recall nothing but good feelings, though almost no details, from the second visit with Aliza.
After his first trip to Israel he had gone to college at Northwestern to study journalism, and after graduating in 1974 was hired as a reporter at the daily paper in Daytona Beach. I had visited once in Evanston, and in Florida, too, where I remember our seeing “The Greatest Story Ever Told” on a sultry Christmas Day. His parents were also visiting, and I recall his father asking me about life at the journalism school at the University of Missouri. I told him how I had to write my stories out in longhand because my typing skills were poor.
That was the extent of any conversation about journalism with anyone during that visit, which was odd given that Jonnie was a reporter, which is what I very much wanted to be. After shuffling between majors and interests, skipped classes and woeful grades I had discovered journalism in the fall of my senior year, doing so in a moment that came with a force and clarity unlike anything I had ever experienced: squatting next to a gas station attendant as I interviewed him for a story about the 1973 oil crisis triggered by the Yom Kippur War and knowing there and then that this was exactly what I wanted to do, and be.
Looking back, the curious thing was that Jonnie, always so certain, did not. He had written how much he wanted to be in Israel, to get his parents’ permission so he could become a soldier. But when he was accepted at Northwestern that spring there was no question he would come back for college.
It would be six years before he returned to Israel, and even then it would not be easy to find and make right his place in the world.
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 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 sad 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 you are 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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Listen to a conversation about this story with author Michael Shapiro and editor Cissi Falligant on the Delacorte Review Podcast.