Please see the subsequent excerpts from my short novel, including a fifth excerpt posted in January 2013 - the whole novella is published by Amazon.com and is available from all online bookstores. Here I want to offer the second excerpt from my novella about Israel, tracing certain unrecorded acts of terror and contrition during the first Iraq War:
Rami lowered the receiver into its cradle and sat still in his apartment near the Old City. From the side table he lifted a small pot of thick black oriental coffee to pour himself a cup. When his son first entered intelligence service, Arie had been all vigor and confidence, having already risen to the top of the Interior Ministry. And in his first years at Mossad, his son had helped plan the attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Rami recalled the day he and the world learned of its success. “Everyone, including the Arabs, is glad we took out the reactor,” Arie had said.
“It’s ironic,” Rami said, “Iraq is the site of Eden: Sumeria. You know the Hebrews emigrated from there. So too did the Palestinians.”
Now Rami lifted a cup of the sweet, black liquid and sipped. He looked out the barred windows of his apartment to the narrow, sunny passageway outside. His son disagreed with him about Israel, for Arie was prepared to give up on the open, imperfect process of politics. His son believed in the purity of hierarchy, in the small cell of chosen individuals, each of whom would protect and defend the integrity of the state. Born in the months after Auschwitz, Arie was an issue of the camp itself, and the white haired survivor felt deeply implicated. What would happen to his son, to Israel itself, this stony, star-bound land? No language existed to tell their need. Words belied and cheapened. “Yet I must try to tell him once more,” he said aloud, and his voice reverberated in the dusty motes of light filtering through the old apartment.
* * *
A chill rain swept over the Thames, over the fake Gothic Parliament building, the palaces of culture squatting by the river, and the City with its stony depositories of capital.
Eli walked through the crowd in Bloomsbury streets fighting the rain and the concussion of the wind. A monstrous city. Its tide of surreal billboards and junk architecture was drowning the past, corroding the flesh from imperial London, and grinding the bones of the old city to silt. Breathless, he turned past the pillars guarding the entrance to the British Museum, gave up his coat, rubber shoes, and umbrella near the door, and walked through the arching halls.
He passed the glassed-in manuscripts and glimpsed his own reflection, his image wavering as if in an aquarium window: the tailored jacket, the tie, his own lean face, the eyes glinting like pearls. Arie had said he must visit the British Museum, so Eli took him at his word and used the Museum frequently as a contact point. Now he meandered back to the left and moved slowly toward the door to the Elgin Marbles.
Warm and breathing the conditioned air of the large hall he entered, he gazed at the Parthenon friezes suspended before him, their struggling bodies carved into eloquent, sensual postures. He held his thin frame still and looked at the marble men on horseback gathering as if for a war several millennia distant from the present turmoil. The Greek sculptures were unlike the remnants of Jewish culture, for the Jews had left behind them mostly words, not things. Yet in these stone images, he glimpsed the ancient, struggling men of his own Jerusalem.
An American accent mumbled at his back. He turned to see Deborah, about thirty, plump, her red hair chest high to him.
They began walking about the friezes. “This is lunch for me, so let’s get on with it. Something is strange at the Embassy. There’s an alert, but no one admits it. No one talks; it’s pretty schizophrenic. Since this morning. And they’ve changed codes. Not the usual weekly adjustment. A complete overhaul. They won’t let us near the main frame. Only highest security clearance allowed.” Eli glanced up at the carved bodies surrounding them and then at the taut, white skin of the woman’s face.
“Get a sample of the new code. Even something shredded.” The thin man reached out to hold her fleshy arm. “We can use anything at all, Debbie.”
The woman gave him a quick grimace. “I’ll try,” she said; “I’ll be in touch.” Eli was left alone, standing before the graceful, ruthless stones.
Outside the British Museum he plunged again into the wind-driven mist, and crossed through Russell Square nearby. Branches whipped back and forth above his head, their leaves sweeping down to the grass and stone paths. The London fall gripped Eli’s limbs. What was the use of the sensuous and the beautiful, of bodies and clothes, food and music and drink in such a ruined city?
* * *
Arie played idly with the new information Rachel had brought: reports of unusual movements of Iraqi Scuds, its liquid-fuel ballistic missiles, and of accelerated fueling patterns for the mobile weapons darting across the dessert; also, there were indications of increased alert status among troops throughout the region—and in Europe and America as well. A week ago, General Dugan, the US Air Force Chief, had been right about America’s contingent war plans: they were no longer contingent. Of course, Dugan had been fired for his honesty.
“Saddam will not allow the embargo to proceed without retaliation,” Rachel had said. “It’s clear there will be war. Something will explode soon, and when it does, Scud missiles will rain down upon us, and they will carry chemical, biological, and – it is possible – nuclear payloads.” She believed that Saddam had secretly bought atomic bombs from Pakistan, and that was the reason the audacity of his invasion of Kuwait and his wild threats against Israel.
It was early evening now. About to leave at day’s end, he hunched over the papers on his desk, his aching head in his hands. Perhaps it was a feeling like his own, the impossible knot of exhaustion and curiosity, coming once too often, which drove his father out of the diplomatic service where he had worked for over thirty years.
The telephone rang on his desk. Eli’s thin, careful voice reported his news from London. As he spoke of the American Embassy on alert, its computers quarantined and re-coded, the chief surveyed his littered desk, and a thought coalesced for him, clarifying the besieging ambiguities of the reports he read, the riddle of unexpected events and global alert. As he hung up the receiver, the hunch stunned him: For whatever reason, the United States was withholding intelligence about Iraq’s planning and capacity to attack Israel. Arie foresaw the Scuds raining down on them at 3000 feet a second; out of the night sky, they would plummet, and this time he believed some of them would bear 100 kiloton nuclear bombs onto Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem. The global powers were about to allow the unspeakable to happen.
A fog of secrecy could envelop their computers; a gibberish of codes could erupt from their mouths. He stood over his desk—his heavy body poised as he surveyed the to papers scattered before him. Amid the fluid ambiguities of the crisis menacing his nation, Arie felt the possibility of drowning.
He picked up the phone on his desk and punched in an American code connecting him to William Webster, the Director of the CIA, a number known only to him, the Prime Minister, and Mossad’s General Director in Tel Aviv. The line was silent. He punched in a second number. He reached the Prime Minister’s secretary, and then he waited for thirty seconds.
“What is it?” the Prime Minister said.
“Our phone link to the CIA has broken down, Yitzhak,” he said. “And not only that.” He began coolly to recite the added evidence to his superior, the facts about Eli, Ezra, and Haim.
“You can’t contact the CIA!” the Prime Minister interrupted. “So it’s happened! Factions in Washington have always wanted to betray us. I remember every time they’ve conspired with the vermin.”
“Yitzhak, I’m convinced that Iraq is planning to attack us with Scud missiles, and some may have nuclear payloads. At this point, it seems possible that the United States will tolerate it, will tolerate regional nuclear war.”
“A nuclear attack,” he bellowed into the phone. He would contact Washington immediately. If he were not satisfied with what they said, they would wish they’d never been born. The Cabinet advisory group would meet immediately. Arie must gather and present all the facts for them.
* * *
Two Jews made their way up separate, monumental steps in Washington and Moscow. In the west the statue of Lincoln—martyr to the ideal of racial equality—sat in judgment over the queenly, rounded city of American power. To the east, in Moscow, the monument was the tomb of Lenin, father of the worker’s state, dedicated to economic equality and teetering now on the brink of dissolution. The revolutionary’s corpse lay within, intact though dead early in the last century and a full sixty years after Lincoln returned to earth. Sasha meandered back down to the huge square—Krasaia Proshchad—and he felt suddenly surrounded by the tombs of every variety: Gorky whom Sasha admired, John Reed whom he did not, Krupskaya who was Lenin’s unhesitating wife, Kirov whose assassination helped to bring on the purge of Jews and the rest in the l930’s, and finally Stalin and a city of the dead.
Lincoln was poised in back of Dan Reisman. His hair black in the morning sun, he looked out toward the needle of the Washington Monument and beyond toward the Capitol building. The cement and granite phallus reflected the taste of a Mussolini—the fascist imagination, not the revolutionary spirit of the first American president. He gazed out over the vista of Washington. The city’s power was open and confident, whereas Jerusalem’s force was of necessity secretive and knotted by the millennia—yet it was not frail, as ancient as it was.
Sasha—thin, anonymous, a face of iron beneath his dark lamb’s wool hat—waited near the tomb in the Moscow evening already turning wintry in the last week of September. He was one of the few pedestrians now that the tomb and the Kremlin offices were closed for the night, and he stood almost alone on the walkway, watching the approach of Block, a programmer in the Defense Ministry. Short and heavy, Block too was Jewish, but he had displayed enough conformity, the talent of assimilation, that the bureaucracy seemed to overlook that he was a Jew, and he himself appeared to forget. As a Muscovite descended over the generations from Marranos on his mother’s side and
Odessa Jews on his father’s, Block was as urban, neurotic, and complex a survivor of the city as any Londoner or Parisian. Yet, here as in the West, the schizophrenia of such a life could not obliterate the past; new regime or old, neither his ministry superiors nor he himself ever completely forgot. Indeed, his Jewishness had insured a certain limitation in advancement. That he was a Jew validated the liberal awareness and clandestine contacts that riddled the proper surface of his life. So he had come to the middle of Red Square, this unexpected, therefore safe, place to meet his anonymous friend.
In Washington, the morning traffic washed over the throughways leading to the Pentagon behind Dan and into the central city before him. He watched his contact leave a Volvo in the monument’s parking area, and walk up the stairs toward him. The crew-cut American was dressed in a gray suit, and a thin silver thread in its weave flashed in the morning sun. Barton, on his way to work, was a Pentagon consultant, as rightwing as necessary. The well-off and professorial defense expert would anywhere else be a fascist. Here he was a centrist, with an unexpected sense of loyalty to the land of his Jewish ancestors: such was the idiosyncrasy to which he was entitled.
The Muscovite whispered to Sasha: “I may have been followed. Be careful.” Circumspectly, they slowed the pace of their stroll across the square. They came upon steaming carts and street vendors selling sausages, papers, ice-cream, and before them the high windows of the Russia Hotel framed glimmers of night life. As they walked, Sasha speech was quiet and blunt, as it was whatever the work he took up—as black-marketer, photographer, agent. “Now with the Allied blockade of Iraq, be prepared, Block, for the worse sort of shit.”
Block seemed to turn Sasha’s words over in his mind, and he spoke with sullen fastidiousness: “Marshall Kutsov has been living at his office since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. They say he is detained against his will, is soon to be relieved of cooking up any more maneuvers.” Block smiled, fat faced and urbane. “I thought his quarantine was peculiar because they installed new computer lines and equipment in his top floor suite. This is done to celebrate not a purge but an entrenchment.”
A car’s backfire cracked through the night, and Block crouched awkwardly. “I don’t make a good spy, Sasha. I’m too fat to dodge the bullets,” he laughed.
“Find out more,” Sasha growled. “Why is Kutsov sealed off? Why new equipment?” They soon parted. The Moscow night closed in over them as each turned to walk in an opposite direction.
Barton’s voice was crisp and efficient. Closely shaved and upright in his well-tailored suit, he yet looked exhausted. No one else was standing early this morning before the stone statue of Lincoln. “Something is afoot, Dan,” he began his anxious exposition; “the President has placed the Pentagon on full alert; Secretary Cheney has met with the CIA director in emergency session. The possibility of a regional nuclear conflict is real, Dan. New strategic plans targeting Baghdad have been formulated. There is speculation that Iraq may be equipping their mobile ballistic missiles with…”
A crack came from the grassy slope to one side of them. Barton slapped to the stone, blood spreading red through his white shirt and seeping through his gray suit to the marble floor of the Lincoln Memorial.
* * *
The setting sun had cast a shrine of red up over the Judean hills. Arie drove along a highway threading near the Knesset. Nearby was Hebrew University where he had studied decades before. Since then, like the new city itself, the campus had deepened its roots and grown a sheltering arbor of foliage. Beyond the plateaus of growth, the chasm of suburbs, and the populated hills, Arie glimpsed the Old City beckoning, ancient, surviving, repeatedly razed and risen like excavated Troy.
Moving slowly by new housing projects, his sports car left the city behind. Arie made his way toward the apartment complex in the suburban heights where he and his family lived, beyond the reach of the ancient view, and he accelerated now as he approached his hilltop apartment. The sky was dark purple as the car raced up the incline to the garage built beneath the complex. Swerving abruptly into his parking space and turning off the ignition key, Arie remained in the driver’s seat. Elena waited upstairs, with her eyes of pure blue, her body pliant still after bearing two children. They had first met during the spring of l973—at a concert held in the new garden amphitheater under the shadow of the Montefiori windmill. He picked her face out from the crowd, her red hair. Each of them had come to hear a visiting American singer, and Arie had made his friends sit near her in the audience.
After the concert they met and walked together past new buildings on ancient hills, to Ben Yehuda Street. At a coffee shop, they drank bitter cappuccinos and basked in the calm, late afternoon sweetness of the spring. In May, they had picnicked in the Judean hills, and he remembered her soft beauty as they made love next to the gnarled, exposed roots of ancient trees. By year’s end, when they returned from the Yom Kippur war, they married. Then, with a master’s degree in history, he had begun his early success at Interior. Before the children came, Elena—fluent in English, French, German, Arabic, as well as Hebrew—was a translator for the Foreign Ministry. Rami considered her more an American than an Israeli, though he acknowledged that she had spent much of her childhood on a kibbutz and that, even now as the Intifada had begun, Elena had the courage to maintain her friendships with Arabs. Above all, his father could not deny his bond to the two grandchildren.
Gily, the youngest, had Arie’s thick brown hair and a dancer’s body. Moshe was flying back from American now, after visiting Arie’s Uncle Morris—aged, but still alert—in Los Angeles; his trip was a present for his Bar Mitzvah, an extravagance, yet the boy was growing rapidly: it was time for such a trip. His mind was burgeoning, and his body was on the verge of manhood. Arie used to lift Moshe as a child high into the air above his head: he was reproducing in the new generation the same tie in body and mind which he had with his father, who held his arm even now when they walked. His mother’s anxious hands had always fluttered away from Arie, trying to rest on his shoulder, his arm, trying to reach him yet never quite connecting. Were his hands firm now, or did they withhold themselves from Moshe when in play the boy would buffet himself against his father, who tried to ward him off?
Last April they had driven together out into the Negev during Passover vacation. His son was not quite thirteen then, and already there was a fuzz below his black side-burns. Moshe had walked out onto the desert floor strewn with wildflowers blooming after a wet winter, and set up a small rocket constructed of aluminum with solid fuel he had prepared, a narrow beveled motor, a fuse he lit on the blooming Negev. Moshe had kept a record with their camera: Elena and Arie standing on the desert with the highway in the distance, the rocket in its launcher, ignited, rising an inch, a foot, a yard, and then dropping in a billow of smoke. Not a success, yet it was not a failure, for he had drawn his parents out onto the Negev and revealed his familiarity with images of technology and war. His son had grown restless and possessed. With his war toy on the desert floor, Moshe had stirred his father’s love and his unspoken censure.
Now he parked his car and walked toward the exterior stairs to his second floor flat. The control returned which he had sought as he drove home, the mastery over splintering surmises. Rocky hills rolled beyond him, and in the twilit distance he saw an oasis of machinery and darkening green, a kibbutz far to the west.
* * *
Elena worked her knife over the fresh basil and parsley, which she would add to the chopped cucumber, tomatoes, and peppers, red and green in the bowl. She stood among the white appliances, and occasionally she glanced out the kitchen window. Before her, there rose the crest of a hill and on it a cypress tree, which the contractors allowed to remain standing. Beneath the tree was a play area where the children of doctors, engineers, and government officials would slide and climb. It was getting late, the children had been called in to supper, and the sky was darkening above the tree with its thick limbs and leaves. Arie had said he would be late.
An Arab maid had taught Elena the secrets of the region’s foods, finely chopping herbs and vegetables for the salad, or adding cumin and cayenne to humus. Jena had cooked in her parents’ household through her childhood; Miriam her mother had known only American cooking and a few Eastern European dishes. Elena continued to visit Jena in her tenement near the Old City even now during the Intifada. Garrulous and contradictory, the old woman repeated each time she saw Elena that she was glad to live among the Jews, a warm, sharp people. And after all the state had her pay no income tax. But the Jews would never be forgiven. Her son was landless and consumed by bitterness and rage at injustice; she felt so sad, for she could hardly communicate with him anymore. The Jews denied her people hope—that was the root of the matter, Jena would cry to Elena. No matter what their intentions, the fact was they were assassinating Palestine. And yet the old woman did not allow her views to poison her friendship with Elena, whom she embraced each time she visited. She loved the Milstein girl she had helped to raise.
Elena took up the basil and parsley and sprinkled it over the vegetables. She poured the olive oil with lemon juice and minced garlic over the salad. Elena took up the bowl and brought it out to the dining table.
Little Gily was sitting across the room on the couch, and she peered through an illustrated tale of Chelm, which Elena had read to her daughter late in the afternoon. She sat down and put her arm around the girl, patting her brown hair. Gily kept gazing at the pages. Elena’s love for her children—which made her hold and touch and read and sing to them—seemed so much a dependence, would it be a qualm for them later? What were they doing to Gily and Moshe, bringing them into such a world as this?
The tale of Chelm—with its medieval idiots and savants—sat in the girl’s lap. It was adapted for children by a Yiddish novelist in America, and the familiar tale was here translated into English. Her daughter slowly turned each page with its rainbow of image and color. Earlier the mother had read out the text in English, the language of escape for some—from the tension of Israeli life. Seeking such a withdrawal and escape into English, into American life, was a violation. It contradicted the yearning itself within her. Yet here they were reading the tale of Chelm in English, and it had been translated from the Yiddish, by a novelist who leered and gamboled as a ghost speaking about his dead dybbuks in a dead language. Here they were peering into the past from which the writer spoke, and she saw the Nazis descend on Chelm and level it to the earth.
Elena held her child, awaiting Arie’s arrival. He could protect them; perhaps he would help her now. Her dread must finally mark her as a failure; its cause remained obscure and ever present. It could not be frustration with Arie whom she loved to please and to be pleased by. And it was not the vehemence which they and their friends argued about politics; for she was not shy or suppressed, and even before she had left home to do her term of army service as a general’s secretary, she had thrown herself passionately into politics.
Her dread seemed to loom or recede according to a rhythm other than the personal or the communal. Its cause seemed a shadow over the land, the globe itself, over all their lives, parents and children alike.
She had held Moshe’s hand tightly until the last moment when they took Moshe after his Bar Mitzvah to Lod airport on his way to visit Arie’s Uncle Morris in Los Angeles. Moshe had teased her, saying he wanted to stay close to her until he boarded, to keep holding her hand, and when the time came he just walked straight away. But as he came to Customs, he turned and ran to kiss her and hug his father. Then he left, and the anxiety enclosed her once again. What caused her sense of doom she could not fathom: it was a condition of Israeli life for her.
Gily snuggled at her mother’s side.
“Daddy will be home soon, and so will Grandpa.”
“Will you cuddle me, mama, even when you’re old?” the little girl asked.
Alive in the circle of each other’s arms, Elena and her child listened to Arie as he unlocked the door and boomed hello into the hillside apartment.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]