Early morning, December 25, 1971. I have just crossed through the Zion Gate into the Old City. It is cold and foggy, though the snow of a few days ago has melted. Cold as I am, and lacking sleep, it feels as though I’m floating in a bubble, though I remember enough to know that these last few steps have brought me across the Green Line. What sleep I had was in David’s Tomb, officially in No Man’s Land. Now, I start down the steps — the Zion Gate is the highest point in the Old City.
Two men, Arabs, are walking up towards me. Two other men, speaking a European language I can’t identify, are hurrying down the steps ahead of me. The Arabs turn to the other two and shout, “Heil Hitler.” They must think the two men are German but they’re not and are clearly embarrassed, even though the greeting is meant as a welcome to them. As for me, the Arabs ignore me as we pass each other.
Later, I will guess that the unknown language is Armenian, because this is after all the Armenian Quarter. I am on my way down towards the Jewish Quarter, re-occupied since the Six-Day War, and to actually see the Wall in daylight and write back to my grandmother that I’ve accomplished this task. And then take the bus back to the desert.
* * *
I arrived in Israel on the first of December, alone, and wandered relatively aimless for some weeks. I knew more Hebrew than most newcomers, and much more of the history, but I was always in a kind of fog, hearing but not really understanding what was going on around me. So the fog of that morning at Zion Gate was only a change in the level of disorientation.
Eventually, the man staffing the qabbalá, the reception desk at the youth hostel at the western edge of the city (well within the Green Line), told me that if I wanted to stick around, the best place to get an introduction and language training was down in the desert in Arad, a tiny development town east of Be’er Sheva. It was a residential ulpán that hoped to attract college-educated Western Jews to acquire the language skills and social norms they would need to immigrate. So I agreed to check out Arad and then return, putting in a reservation with the Jerusalem hostel for the twenty-fourth.
I had been living in New Mexico up till then, so I welcomed the feeling of a desert again. Arad was truly tiny, a few thousand. Its entire water supply was a single pipe from Be’er Sheva fifteen miles away. It was also, and has remained, far from much of the struggle for the land. While the Arabs of the West Bank had recently taken to naming themselves Palestinians, those in the southern desert called themselves Bedouin and did not feel much kinship for the others. The buses out of Be’er Sheva contained a mixture of these Bedouin and Jewish refugees from Russia, Yemen, Morocco, and elsewhere. The bus to Arad stopped at numerous Bedouin encampments, or more precisely at the closest spot on the road to an encampment; people got off at what looked like a desolate location and trudged up and over the nearby hill.
Arad itself was intended as a haven for asthmatics, so it required all plants and flowers to be hypoallergenic. (It would have been impossible in any case to grow, say, highly allergenic plants like citrus in the area.) The town was at a crossroad, one road leading on to Masada, the other going steeply down to the Dead Sea.
I stayed at a pension there; it had the same sandy smell as any room in Las Cruces. The ulpán was about to start a new five-month course in January. It was ridiculously cheap and included room, board, and occasional hikes and road trips through Israel. The other part of the bargain was that I had to promise to stay at least a year in-country, with the school helping to find me a job. I had nothing back home so I signed on. I met with some of the current student residents, mostly from anglosaxi countries, and their enthusiasm only encouraged me more.
And then I made the mistake of taking the bus back to Jerusalem. I couldn’t stay at the ulpán yet, and I was unwilling to waste the intervening time doing an Arad walkabout based at the little pension, though as I look back on it, that would have been much better.
There was a bus route direct from Be’er Sheva to Jerusalem, but it went through the West Bank, and I felt uncomfortable driving through the roads of people who didn’t want me there, even though this was only four years after the War, and there was as yet no organized opposition to Israeli occupation. I suppose people were waiting to see what the Israelis would do. The non-Palestinian King of Jordan had occupied the area from 1948 till 1967, and had made himself known as a deadly enemy to Palestinian aspirations. And Israel had driven the Jordanians out in only a few days! So the Palestinians were at this point just sitting tight.
I got back to town on the twenty-fourth. Of December. A Friday. My reservation at the hostel seemed to have disappeared in the onrush of Christian pilgrims. No room at the inn. I laugh now because I would soon learn how to navigate such an impasse in Israel. I would have argued with the qabbalá until he relented, or I would have said I’d sleep on a couch in the lobby, which would have been asúr, forbidden, but no one would have thrown me out. At the time, though, I hadn’t picked up the hutzpah for that.
So, having no place for that night, I had the idea of going down to the Old City to the Wall for Friday night, to participate in Shabbat services and get invited back to someone’s place. While I hadn’t wanted to travel through the West Bank, the Old City seemed different. After all, it was one of the Four Cities that were majority-Jewish until the twentieth century, and the Jewish Quarter had been maintained until the last moment of the Jordanian invasion in May of 1948.
The combination of Christmas Eve, the entrance of Shabbat, and the Muslim holy day Friday meant that the crowd around the Wall was too hard to navigate, much less penetrate. I began to have a sick feeling in my stomach about where I would sleep.
It was almost dark when I finally came upon a young man from the “Diaspora Yeshiva,” who said I could sleep at their place on Mount Zion. The Yeshiva was opened shortly after the War, and, yes it was in a building known as David’s Tomb. It was certainly cold, dark, and drafty enough to suggest such age. I cannot say how large the crowd was because the newly religious Yeshiva boys hadn’t figured out how to keep lights on for Shabbat, but I could hear a crowd of people. I heard a lot of Russian spoken. I knew that some Soviet refugees had come to Jerusalem to complain about the lack of resources offered them. I would learn later that every wave of refugees had gone through that since 1949, when a million Jews began to arrive from the Arab nations. Ultimately, Israel found places for them, but never soon enough.
Remembering back, I must have slept in my overcoat, with my backpack as a pillow. I never sleep well when I’m cold, and apparently neither could the Russian babies. The mothers began to yell at the Yeshiva boys to allow them to heat their formula, or that was the little I could understand. The boys kept saying it was “asúr,” and it took them a long time to argue among themselves, sotto voce, how to proceed. In fact, I myself already knew: almost any Jewish stricture can be ignored for the sake of piqooah nèfesh, preserving life. Anyone with an orthodox background would have known this, but these kids were only recently religious, ba’alé teshuvá, sort of like ‘born-again Jews,’ and anxious to keep every commandment.
So I dozed and woke, dozed and woke. I don’t remember ever going to a bathroom, something I can no longer tolerate for such a length of time, but a man in his twenties could and did. As soon as light began to seep into the dungeon-like cavern, I got up and left. Once out of the building, I saw the Zion Gate, and passed through it as if by instinct.
The Hitler greeting to the poor Armenians told me how things really stood. Intellectually, I had known it well enough. After all, the centuries-old population of Hebron, one of the Four Cities, was wiped out entirely in a massacre in 1929, long before the men shouting Itbah al Yahud, “Slaughter the Jew,” called themselves anything other than Arab, long before the Holocaust or Israeli statehood. Nor was the other side of the slate truly clean; Jews had also committed atrocities. If the Palestinians had not yet decided if or how to rebel, the hatred was long planted. That greeting cleared the fog for me; it was the moment that I knew exactly where I was.