You’re a new oleh, aren’t you, a new immigrant? From where, America? England! Good. They don’t have beaches like this in England. Not this time of the year, anyway. By now, Brighton’s all shut down, no? I knew a lot of immigrants from England. Most of them went back where they came from. They’d go to ulpan to learn the language, and then they’d disappear.
I love it here by the sea. After all the years alone in the desert? I could spend the rest of my life looking at water. Everyone puts down Tel Aviv. “Too many people,” they always say. But for me, it’s okay. And besides, the noise of the waves. The wet wind. I love it.
I lived in Mitzpeh Ramon, you know where that is? Nowhere, the heart of nowhere, the very center of nowhere. Thirty years I spent there. The first twenty I taught school. I wanted to leave after I retired, but my wife was the town nurse — we only had a doctor once a week then — and she was still so idealistic. But if I hadn’t started out being such an idealist myself, we wouldn’t have ended up in Mitzpeh to start with. “Southward, southward to Eilat!”
That was the motto after independence, to fill up the Negev with Jews all the way to Eilat. It’s still empty. Mitzpeh is like a ghost town. She wouldn’t leave her post. So I started taking care of the Youth Hostel. Hardly anyone stops there, so I was busy and I was not busy at the same time, a very nice arrangement. That’s where I met the olim. Sometimes a bus full of ulpan students would stop overnight. They were on tiyyul, a trip. They’d show the immigrants the archeological sites, and then Sde Boker, Ben Gurion’s old place. And of course, everyone wanted to see the crater, Ramon Crater.
So, how long are you here now, in Israel? Two months. And you’re going to ulpan. Good, you’ll never make it without Hebrew. Do they still take you on tiyyulim? Yes? And you never went to Mitzpeh Ramon? That’s crazy.
You know, sometimes I can tell about the olim. You know what Tolstoy says about families. It’s true about immigrants. Everyone who goes back goes back for a different reason. The life is too hard. Not enough luxuries. Or the bureaucracy drives them crazy. (It drives me crazy, too. I even knew an oleh from Russia, from Russia, mind you…) Or they come here with such impossible ideals and then they find out that we’re all Adam’s children like everyone else. Ben-adam, did they teach you that yet?
The ones who stay, it’s always the same reason: They have nothing to go back to. I came here from Poland before the War, thank God. And thank my father who had a brain in his head. I had nothing to go back to but death, so I found a way to like this place.
I don’t think you’re going to stay. You’ll pardon me, I’m speaking so frankly. I’m not telling you to go. Stay as long as you want. Still, I know what I know.
There was this one English boy I knew. From Manchester. His father was rich from an automobile shop, a really assimilated Jew. The son was a shmutznik. I mean he was in this high-school group in England, HaShomer HaTza’ir.
Students come over here for summers, and then they’re supposed to come on aliyah, for good. They’re very socialist, you know, they’re connected to the leftist party. They still believe all the stuff we used to believe back in the Fifties, when I went off to Mitzpeh.
I met him when he was making aliyah; he must have been eighteen or twenty. He came in on tiyyul. They were spending the night at the youth hostel. Everyone else was in a daze, the way the newcomers always are. But he was wide awake. He wanted to know all about the crater, and the social conditions in town. He was an idealist and yet he already knew the score, how it was in Israel then, how we were getting fed up with being ‘pioneers.’ This was a new animal, I thought. I admired that.
After ulpan, he got a job in Eilat. He stopped by whenever he was on his way up north on vacation, or when he had to go to Be’er Sheva to see the Interior Department about his visa. He’d tell me all the craziness with the Eilat school system — he, too, was a teacher. Or else the craziness with getting his visa changed. But he didn’t whine about it. He didn’t accept it, but he didn’t whimper all the time the way the new olim do.
He had swallowed the whole party line. About being nice to the Arabs, for example, which I held my tongue about, because he was just plain wrong. But also, you know, the leftist line on the religious people. He kept talking about how we had to put them out of power, how they were forcing us all, the majority, to live like Hasidim. That much I agreed with.
After he got the visa, he still came by on his way to or from Eilat. You know, it’s a hell of a long trip, especially by bus, and he’d gotten used to hiking in the mountains, or the side of the crater. He was interested in the rocks in the area.
You’re not from Manchester, are you? Good.
So one day in December, it was cold already, he showed up at the hostel. He was on a two-day vacation, and he was going to look for new archeological sites in some valley nearby. On his own. He had this obsession with the old places where the Nabataeans used to grow fruits and vegetables in that desert. Here Mr. Evenari and how many others had been spending how many years on Shivta and Avdat, and this one was going to find a new site all by himself. But, nu? It wasn’t hurting anyone, was it? So he dropped off his rucksack, put on his hiking boots, and left.
Toward nightfall, I should have been back at the hostel, but I was still at home, eating, and I happened to look out the window and there he was, on his way back. I got up to rush down to meet him, but then I saw a red shirt out the window, and I knew it belonged to one of the Arabs who were down from Nazareth doing construction work. It’s easy to remember this; you can count on one finger the number of times the government got something built for us in Mitzpeh. I bet I can remember every little kiosk and the day it was put up.
I looked out the window. There was the Arab talking to this English boy. The Arab was standing so close to him; it’s what they do. They kept talking to each other, and the Arab started stroking the other one’s belly with his finger. The English one didn’t actually respond, mind you, but he let the Arab do what he was doing. He didn’t back away, or tell him to stop – at least, it didn’t look like it to me. The Arab even ran his hand over the Englisher’s cheek! I thought sure he would do something then. There’s such a thing as being too polite. And then I thought, Maybe he’s not being polite. Maybe he even likes it.
After a while, the English one turned away and walked off, without waving. It looked like they didn’t say goodbye, but I don’t know. The Arab walked the other way. In a minute, though, the English boy turned around to watch the Arab. He had his own hand on his chest and stomach, where the Arab had just been. His eyebrows were all knitted up. Then he walked off toward the hostel.
By this time, it was dark out. It gets cold there — almost a thousand meters, you know — so I put my coat on, and hurried over to the hostel. This English guy did the wrong thing, I thought. He should have said No right away. The next time, or the time after that, he’d go with the Arab, I was sure of it. Why else would he let him go on like that, right in the middle of the street?
Here I’d thought our English friend was maybe going to pan out, but now I knew different. It’s no picnic being a homosexual in Israel. He’d figure it out soon enough. We just don’t have room for his kind. Men who would refuse to become fathers….
Not that I think we should put them in jail. I even supported that Shulamit Aloni, that crazy woman, when she sponsored the law to make it legal. And I’ll tell you, she’s not the only one like that; there are lots of people who think we should stop bothering the homosexuals. But we don’t have to import them.
When I got to the hostel, he was waiting for me. His coat he was holding tight around him. I opened the door, and put on lights.
He went to his bunk. He’d brought his sleeping bag and a coat and hat, but it was really going to be cold. In fact, no one else was staying there that night.
He came up to me and asked, only he asked in Hebrew, he had a lot of pride in that: “The electric tannurim don’t work. Aren’t there any kerosene ones around?” It had been years since we’d had tannurim — the little kerosene heaters. The electric heaters had been kaput since before I started working there.
I explained to him the whole story. He should have been prepared, I told him, but he said he’d never been there in winter before.
Then he started in on me, telling me all about how the Youth Hostel was supposed to be promoting tourism, and helping Israelis — and new olim, too, I suppose — to learn more about their country. On and on.
“Al tihyeh yehudi,” I told him. “Don’t be such a Jew. That’s just the way things are, and you’re going to have to put up with it. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”
He stared at me blankly for a minute. Then he said, in English, “You know, I didn’t have to come all the way from England just for that. I could have heard it right in Manchester. I did, lots of times.”
I was stunned. We use that expression all the time here. Al tihyeh yehudi. Everyone knows what it means. I must have shrugged my shoulders, I suppose.
“All I’ve been hearing about,” he said, “the entire time I’ve been in the country, is how wonderful it is to be in our own land, where we’re free to be Jews, and how terrible it is to have to live in exile. It seems to me you’re dragging your exile around with you.”
Well, that certainly got me worked up, so I spat out, “Arab lover!” I didn’t even mean to say it; I just had to answer him something.
His eyes grew wide and his eyebrows pinched together again, and then he turned aside and walked back to his bunk. I watched him as he fiddled with his belongings; it didn’t look as if he were actually doing anything with them. After awhile, he comes back to the desk, and clears his throat.
“How late will you be here before you leave tonight?”
“Why?” I asked him.
“It’s so cold. I thought I’d spend some time in town before I have to go to sleep.”
“Are you looking for night life? You know Mitzpeh doesn’t have any movie theaters, no bars. One cafe. How long do you think you can sit at a cafe? I think you should just make up your mind to get some sleep.”
I went back to putting the files in order — not a strenuous task, but something to do — and he was in bed by the time I looked up. When I came back in the morning, he was already gone, and I haven’t seen him since. He’s back in England now, I’m sure. How long can someone last in Israel when he knows he can’t fit in?
He’s right, though. I never said it again. I keep thinking of Mitzpeh, the crater especially. The Americans call it our Grand Canyon. It’s not. The Grand Canyon has trees. You can’t grow trees on ten millimeters’ rain. The other thing is that the Grand Canyon has two sides; you can look right across from one side to the other. In Mitzpeh, there’s just the one side. The ground never comes back up after it drops off.