the wandering jew
may 13, 1999
hello american pig capitalist swine (and you euro pigs too)!!
ooops, just kidding. i thought i was back in jerusalem, having cute little, trouble-eyed palestinian kids slam into me while walking through the arab quarter, and then curse me out for slamming into them. bringing up the whole macro picture here: who's the aggressor? who's the victim? why, oh why, dear rodney, "can't we all just get along?”
hope you all don't mind this group e-mail. i know it's a little impersonal, but hey, i'm sitting here at an internet café near dizengoff center, sipping arak and paying shekels by the quarter hour. please know that i'm thinking and visualizing each and everyone of you.
well -- tel aviv. capitalistic mid east clone of the evil american and western empire. miami beach on the mediterranean -- with bright neons and sex shoppes at night, hip israeli parents wheeling around their cute israeli babies in strollers headed straight for the israeli army... blunt talk, no parking, high rents, blight condo architecture, friendly people...
a brand new culture shock after five days in modern day jerusalem, the contentious, holy powder keg of a city: everyone segregating and defending themselves against the other; one quarter, one schtetel, arming itself against its neighbor. russian, armenian, arab, jewish, christian, muslim, north african, east european, sacred, secular, sephardic, ashkenazi, sabra, orthodox, old world, new age, every other face wanting Something from you -- money, empathy, religious/political belief.
travel is so full, so intense. only five nights ago, graciously met by my israeli diplomatic hosts, maya and raphael, at ben gurion airport in tel aviv, i make the trip across almost the entire width of the country – in forty five minutes – like LA to long beach! then faintly, as we climb the plateau of the judean desert -- the lights of jerusalem begin twinkling delicately on the horizon. the golden glow of the old city begins to fill the dark sky, and we enter the complicated, ancient, and contemporary city of king david. magnificent. i don't know what the word means yet, but okay, this looks holy. white cut stones piled elegantly on top of one another; it's a city ordinance that the architecture must be uniform. immaculate... conception. moses, jesus, mohammed - prophets each with legitimate claims to the holy land - certainly they warrant the purity of white desert limestone.
we drive around, my friends trying to give me a general orientation at two in the morning: the old city, its four quarters, mea sharim, the ghetto-ized old world ultra-orthodox part of the city, the chic and trendy russian compound, east jerusalem, where the arabs or palestinians are “allowed” to live. my mind is racing. seeing the strange archaic language i had to learn as a thirteen year old fill up huge modern advert billboards – trying to remember how to read it - right to left. so many mixed emotions. the excitement and newness of travel. to the place i never wanted to come to before. actually avoided coming to. too much conformity and expectation for the new york jewish kid to come to israel, plant a tree, live and work on a kibbutz. return to the “homeland”.
with the change of time zone and the international flight, i’ve been awake for two days now. i'm not at all tired, but it’s a work day tomorrow for the moravs; so my eye-opening tour of jerusalem comes to a to-be-continued close in rehavia, the well-groomed and tree-lined quarter of the city where ben gurion and his comrades plotted, golda meir ruled, bibi netanyahu and his children are fortified, and where i will now rest my head and attempt to call home.
the next day i wake up late. the two boys are already off to school, raphy is off to the ministry, and maya has been immersed for hours in lawrence durrell for her english lit course at the hebrew university in mount scopus. "what do you want to do your first day in jerusalem?” she asks solicitously. “and what for breakfast?” breakfast? do in jerusalem? i don't know. i just got off the plane, and i've refused to even crack my 1994 edition of let's go israel & egypt. i like maps, not books. some people are good with recipes, formulas, and guide books; i'm not. i like to improvise, blunder along, make mistakes. i don't mind getting lost, as long as the getting there is interesting. i don't have to see every ruin, museum, monastery, or historical artifact. i mean how many ancient tombs, corinthian columns, or pharonic sarcophagi do you have to see? i'm more interested in people, lifestyle, art, and culture. it's true i like geography and nature, but i also love history - the bloody march and ornate progression of empires and civilizations as they conquer, rape, and pillage their vanquished, replacing one set of symbols with another, one god with another, literally destroying and covering over one house of worship with another. it's an unbelievably cruel, fascinating, and predictable ritual of the evolution of humankind.
do? in jerusalem? an hour later after some home-made matzoh brei, and i still don't know. do i want see where david slew goliath? where jesus bowed under the weight of the cross? the mount of olives? the dome of the rock? saul, david, solomon, john, jesus, mohammed? i mean - where does one begin? i mean - this place - this "holy land" - is where it all begins. right? well, sort of -- if one buys into the judeo-christian-islamic monotheistic, biblical conception of things. if one tends to see the mesopotamian-egyptian-chinese views of history from one's own narrow minded, bible-belted point of view. then, why not? jerusalem, the holiest of holies, center of the world.
the thing is, i never knew that the bible - i mean - the stories told in the bible - were real. you see, when i was about nine years old, i read the bible for the first time. how? in a great big comic book. i soaked up the fantastic stories of samson and delilah (my favorite), moses and the burning bush, joshua and the walls of jericho, daniel and the lion's den, abraham, isaac, jacob, jonah, joseph, ruth, esther, david, solomon, etc. - with a child's imagination. i saw all these biblical figures - illustrated with a animator's pen. that's who i thought they were. like luke skywalker. like superman, batman, wonder woman. to now come to the holy land after fifty-one years (wow, i’m a year older than the state of israel!), and to learn that there’s an historical reality to my comic book figures - well, this is a shock. a little like discovering the world is round, not flat. to learn that moses actually led an exodus from egypt about 1700 bc, that saul united the twelve tribes of israel in about 1100 bc, that solomon's rule came to an end around 950 bc, that a first and second temple were actually destroyed by babylonians and romans in 586 bc and 70 ad -- these are historical slaps in the face. i mean, these dudes and dudettes actually existed! wow again, this is already worth the price of admission.
do? in jerusalem? "i don't know, maya. just take me wherever you want.”
okay -- so it's my first day in israel, my first day in jerusalem, and we walk from rehavia, past independence park, past the new trendy sheraton and gentrified yemin moshe neighborhood, and we enter the old city through west jerusalem's jaffa gate. why not? get right to the crux of the matter.
just inside the entrance, beyond the lineup of yellow taxis and newly arrived pilgrims, is the tower of david and the citadel complex. although today it’s a beautiful museum presenting the three thousand year history of jerusalem, complete with modern, multimedia technology, it has historically been the fortress of the city, where generations of soldiers have spilled their blood in the name of their god, in the name of their leader, in the name of --- . it was here that king david housed his hebrew warriors, that herod built and fortified his roman army, that richard the lion hearted marched his crusaders, that saladin beat back the blood-thirsty crusaders for the last time in 1187, that sulieman the magnificent rebuilt the walls of his ottoman empire in the mideast in the 16th century... millennium and millennium of blood-curdling history. and this only at the entrance to one gate of the city.
just beyond the citadel is the arab quarter of the old city - a chaotic, unwieldy sprawl of endlessly winding streets, wrapping back around themselves like a vast lower intestine, displaying endless arrays of colorful shops, making up the public market place or "shouk". here you can buy a veritable middle eastern smorgasbord of both edible and material delights: glistening olives of endless variety, bruised and dried fruit, fresh, and by the end of the day, not-so-fresh local vegetables, sweet baklava, bedouin rugs, lamps, knives, t-shirts, pots, pans...
the shouk in the mideast is not your quaint provincial weekly santa monica farmer's market, it is a bustling, teeming reality, where both tourists and locals do their everyday shopping - and bargaining. and as everyone already knows, any merchant in any marketplace anywhere in the world- is a negotiator. he doesn't expect to sell something at the price he asks. he expects you to make him an offer. then he will make you a counter offer. and then you make him a counter offer. and then he... and so on and so forth. well, in the mideast, bargaining is perhaps developed into its highest and most ruthless art form. let me just say, it is very difficult, near impossible, to walk through an arab shouk, and walk away empty handed. once you look, once you make eye contact, you're finished.
"allo, allo, come here, my friend, where arrr you frromm? come in, come in, you are most welcome, praise allah, praise jesus, praise the almighty. seet down, have some tea. no, you don’t have to buy anytheeng. just have a look. have a look.”
and before you know it, you're having nana herb tea in the back of his store, where, naturally, he also lives. he's introducing you to his eldest son (never daughter), and you're feeling way too guilty to walk out without at least a modest purchase. a decorative caftan, a provocative, arafat-style palestinan “kaffia” (head dress), a sharp bedouin knife. even on your first day. even with no room in your luggage. and actually, what's the point? you're supposed to spend your money. it's a little like las vegas - it's not a matter of if, just - how much.
incredible sights, history, cultural and ethnic identities. battles for
the hearts and minds of the world. jerusalem. israel. next week, the national election - with the future of the country hanging in the balance. land for peace? or more bloodshed spilled in defense of every kind of fanaticism, provincialism, orthodoxy you can imagine? 33 parties: pro peace, pro war, anti-arab, anti-religious, pro desert, pro/anti-american, pro marijuana, pro bagel -- you name it, form a party, and fight for your piece of the pie. nobody here is detached. life and death are a low level hum under the everyday joy, hate, and passion of daily life.
me, i'm a little shell-shocked, tired, and detached. wondering what the hell i'm doing here for two months. the ambivalent long island jew immersed in this complicated, jewish state (of mind). so many prejudices, so many opinions already formed; i’m already seeing that “jewish” means a lot more than it does in america.
who knows? time will tell.
i hope each of you are enjoying life. appreciating what you DO have, not worrying too much about the imperfections of this imperfect life.
will hear from you soon, i hope.
your wandering jew
Moshe Castel, Nahum Gutman, Ben Avram, Arie Azene, and Victor Shrem
see more of their work here