Michael Shapiro | Longreads | October 2019 | 28 minutes (7,073 words)
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.”
I was going to visit the grave of my best friend, Jonathan Maximon, who had died in 1984 when he was thirty-one.
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.
Jonnie, who never appeared to doubt anything, who seemed the antithesis of my anxious and self-deprecating self, was always destined for Israel.
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.
1. 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.
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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.
What I did not know, but would soon learn, was that my understanding of Jonnie, whom I thought I knew so well, was incomplete…
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.
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.
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 heals 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.”
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.
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 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 gradesI 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.
You can read the rest of this essay here.
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Michael Shapiro is the author of six nonfiction books. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ and Sports Illustrated. He is a journalism professor at Columbia and founder and publisher of The Delacorte Review.
Longreads Editor: Sari Botton
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The Delacorte Review publishes original works of ambitious narrative nonfiction, and appears three times a year. Each piece is accompanied by a podcast in which authors tell how their stories came to be. www.delacortereview.org