In a collaboration between Longreads and Columbia University Journalism School’s The Delacorte Review, Michael Shapiro returns to Israel after 35 years to visit a grave and find a country.
Book of Lamentations
I Had a Friend. He Dreamed of Israel.
Michael Shapiro | Longreads | October 2019 | 28 minutes (7,073 words)
This essay is published in collaboration with The Delacorte Review. You can read a longer, complete version here.
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.”