I wanted to mention how moved I am by the Israeli novelist David Grossman's vivid, sad, and honest new novel To the End of the Land.
Here is the the third excerpt from my political novel about Israel and unrecorded acts of terror and contrition during the first Iraq War. An earlier version of "The Old City" scene toward the end of this excerpt appeared in the journal Ararat, but the novel has yet to be published (if you have any thoughts about how to go about achieving that, please do contact me via Comments):
The little girl sat on her grandfather’s lap, and Arie sat in an easy chair next to the couch.
“I’m coming to get you, Gily,” Rami said as he put his creased hands up to his forehead, like horns, and wiggled them at the seven year old who laughed wildly on his lap. Elena stood watching her daughter and father-in-law; in her hands she held glasses of Slivovitz and ice for the two men.
“When you are ninety-five, Grandpa,” Gily said, “will you go poof?” She threw her hands up in a wide circle.
Rami laughed, repeating her wide arc with his free hand. “Who knows? That’s a long time from now.” Rami’s wiry frame, seated on the couch, seemed undaunted by his years. His face was tanned and wrinkled, its expression off-hand yet serious, smiling except for the eyes which were piercing beneath wire-rimmed glasses. His hair had turned from black to white in the last ten years.
After Elena gave the men their drinks and took her daughter with her into the kitchen, the father and son raised their glasses. “To peace,” Rami said in a ritual gesture.
“Did you solve this afternoon’s problem?” Rami asked.
“No. It only gets worse.”
“‘Everything we’ve built was built on sand.’ Before I go poof, I hope I won’t have to feel that again.”
“Knowing you, you won’t,” Arie said. “I remember the Singer: ‘Dust thou art, to dust returneth,’ et cetera.”
“I only knew that sort of despair in the forties. In the camp. You feel guilty at being a man.”
Gily carried a dish of flat bread to the dining table at the end of the room, and Elena followed her with a bowl of yogurt.
“Just five minutes,” she said and then overheard her husband speaking.
“The camp still haunts us, after almost half a century,” he said. Elena put down the yogurt and took her daughter from the room.
“To me,” Rami said, “the camp is a lens to see beneath the surface of things. Not only Auschwitz and the other concentration camps. There are the labor camps, the detention camps around the globe, our Palestinian camps. Even the kibbutzim.”
“You put that with the others!”
“Each reminds you of the need to endure. To face death and yet to survive. It’s the Jewish legacy. To live in order to explore the kibbutz of death.”
Rami took a long sip of the plum brandy. He eyed his son and nodded. “In Auschwitz, each train load of new victims was a revelation. As they moved closer to the selections, they were stripped of all signs of ordinary life. The Eternal Jew stood naked before us. When I saw that, it seemed to me that only facts retained value. The bits of food, the births, the weather. For months, that’s how we survived; we noted facts. Germans and Germany we mentioned as little as possible.”
“You survived,” Arie said automatically, “and months later I was born.”
“You were a sign to your mother, that we had come through.”
Arie sat silently in his chair. Amid the gassings, Rami and Magda had joined, with a lust to survive, even before their liberation from Auschwitz—and he had been born, a jettison of futurity, compounded of ash and lust, gas and the flame of hope.
“Dinner is ready,” Elena said. She and Gily brought in the rest of the meal. Father and son rose, and Rami gestured for Arie to go first. Then the white haired survivor seemed to dance after his son to the dinner table.
Her simple song flowed through twists of tune, turns, which poured out as if revolving weightlessly in space: “Baruch ata Adonai.” Elena stood as she sang the prayer before High Holiday candles, and then she sat down to serve the meal. There was lamb roasted with garlic and pepper; there were the potatoes, carrots and dried apricots, a dish from Europe which Arie’s mother used to prepare—and then two salads, one of lettuce and the other of finely chopped vegetables.
“I’ll be glad to see Moshe home,” she said. She passed the plates of the food to her father-in-law, her husband, and her daughter.
“Yes, Friday,” Arie said. “I wish I could go to the airport with you.”
“You must. He’s counting on it.”
“A situation is developing. I know I won’t be able to make it.” His wife was silent.
“I can go with you, Elena,” Rami said. “Why not?”
“Moshe will be filled with his trip. Six weeks, my God.” Her eyes began to hint of tears, and she turned to Arie. “He’ll want to tell you about it.”
“I’m going to watch the planes,” Gily said as she ate. “I’m going to see Moshe land.”
“Yes,” Arie said, “you and Mama and Grandpa are going Friday afternoon to see Moshe land. He will tell you all about Los Angeles and Uncle Morris and at supper he will tell me too.” Arie turned to Elena. “It’s a problem. I won’t even be attending Yom Kippur services.”
“Do you regret that?” she said loudly. Then she asked: “Why do we celebrate, Arie?”
“What! We do because we do! In our own way.”
“But we are agnostics. We don’t believe, yet we observe without believing.”
“Yes, without believing.”
“And this doesn’t bother you? It should.”
“It’s the way things are.”
“No, pardon me, we should be bothered.”
“Pardon me, but no. It is just assumed. We are Israelis, we are Jews, and so we accept these customs. It is our identity. No fuss, no fanfare, just like breathing.”
“We don’t have to believe as the orthodox do,” the old man said, “in order to be Israelis. It’s only human.” He smiled at his son’s wife.
“Yes,” Elena’s voice rose into a clear soprano. “I know we should celebrate even when we don’t believe; we must. But I’m sure we should also be bothered by it.”
“Don’t fight,” Gily began to chant, the little girl’s voice bright and relentless. “Don’t fight. Don’t fight.”
“We’re not fighting,” Arie cried out, his hands slapping down on the table. His father stared sharply at him.
“How dare you shout?” Elena said. Her voice was high and pure.
“How dare I! Israel is about to become a battlefield again. The world is about to break apart at the seams. And you tell me I must be bothered by observing the holy days. How dare I!”
“You’re a tyrant,” Elena hissed in a whisper. “Ask your father! You blindly shout and oppress us. You don’t care a bit about your family. God help Moshe and Gily. You don’t care about any human being except yourself. A human being, my God. What is an Arab to you but dirt? You’re a fascist!”
Rami should not have been there. He pitched his voice rudely at them, like a buffoon: “Not bad for an American girl! What do you say about the Arabs, Arie? Are you a fascist or not?”
Elena’s face blanched.
“To hell with the Arabs,” Arie shouted, but then his voice grew quiet: “I did not mean to shout. I’ll tell you why I’m upset, but later, not here in front of Gily. Gilia, Gilia, how are you?” He glanced at his father; then with eyes half shut, he turned to his wife. “Elena, we must survive, we must.”
“Yes,” she said quietly, yet her voice floated away from them. “We must, Arie. But why—if we could know why. Why do we suffer, Arie? If we could only know.” She reached over the table to soothe Gily, who was staring terrified from her chair.
Arie lay on the bed, a crimson bathrobe belted around him. The new apartment’s wall-stucco was already cracking at its prefabricated edges. Through the window, Arie saw a shower of stars luminous above the cypress on the hillcrest. Elena was finishing the dinner dishes, and Gily had been put to bed. Before Rami had left, he had returned again to his memories.
“I’ve told you about the Jewish capos. Each of them had a motto. I will survive. Meaning I will never be selected. I remember especially the overseer in our hut, an impossible person. Well-mannered, religious, quiet, and slovenly, unpredictable, treacherous, murderous.” His father had talked on, and Arie did not tell Rami more about the crisis at Intelligence.
Now, alone in the bedroom of his apartment, Arie was drawn down into the flood of his day, its chaos and mystery. He reached out to each intricacy of the problem and tried to thrust past it. Stretching now full length on the bed, he held his body perfectly still.
Elena opened the door. As she changed into her nightgown, Arie described the day’s events to her, the murder of Ezra in Paris, the report from Eli in London, the call to the Prime Minister, and finally the suspicion that America was hiding the details of Iraq’s threat to Israel, that the region was headed for the brink and was losing control over the movement toward war, and that the global powers would allow Israel to be the battlefield. Elena opened the bedcovers, stretched under the sheet, and both of them lapsed into silence. Arie did not voice his dread that amid the chaos of deceptions, nuclear bombs would obliterate the land of Israel. He lifted his knees and legs to get under the covers and stretched by her, his head against her red hair. He pressed for shelter against the silent woman and kissed her gently. Quietly she murmured her opposition, as she reached her hands into his curly hair.
As they moved into the postures of love, he smiled and called her his name for her. “Sheba,” he called to her. They had walked beneath the canopy of trees in the Judean Hills and knelt together by a cool spring which must have flowed there for thousands of years since before the time when David sang, and they touched their hands cool and wet from the spring water gently to each other’s limbs and joined their bodies beneath the grove of gnarled and ancient trees. Finally memory gave way to the present moment.
Elena held Arie sleeping in her arms. But sleep was withheld from her, and her thin face glowed in the light from the stars.
Before him, Arie saw the cinder-covered plain, where he lay. Nearly naked men and women walked past him, crisscrossing the empty earth. Their bodies and those scattered about the earth glowed white. Next to him he recognized Ezra, bent and bleeding. Arie’s heart went out to him, and as he lifted him in his arms, Ezra crumpled red and black into a wisp of carbon. The wandering bodies crowded around him; he saw their heads were shaved and their bodies were the bodies of animals. A light powder of cinders began to envelop them all like fog. An incessant sound hissed in his ears like the sound of a factory whistle or an approaching rocket.
Arie jerked away from Elena. The telephone was ringing, and he reached to the bedside table to answer the sanitized line.
“Mr. Schneider.” It was the night operations officer.
“Yes.” Arie’s mouth was dry.
“There is a priority message, in code, I’ve processed from Dan Reisman in Washington.”
“Yes. The line is safe. Read it to me.”
“‘New intelligence from Pentagon contact—Revised American war plans—Baghdad now strategic target, possibility of nuclear arms use in region—Barton killed 9 AM Washington by unknown assailant—Await instructions.’“
“No one,” Arie stood naked by the bed, “no one is to see or hear of this message until further instructions from me. I’ll drive down now.”
Arie dropped the receiver onto the phone, and he began to dress. Elena sat up on the bed, as he dressed groggily, with automatic movements. Arie leaned over and kissed her forehead.
“Be careful, Arie,” she said. “Will there be war?”
He coughed and mumbled in a hollow voice, “I don’t know.” When he drove out of the parking lot and down the hill toward Jerusalem, it was half past eleven, and the night sky was pale with a spattering of stars.
* * *
It was a village, only vast and breathtaking; Haim drove through the Latin Quarter in the Parisian twilight and swung his small Fiat through the late afternoon traffic, searching for an opening in the flow of cars heading down Boulevard Saint-Michel toward the Seine. He made the decision to wheel and intrude, and pedestrians popped across the pavement as drivers accelerated. His eyes swept over the pedestrians he passed, the kiosks, the movie marquee near the corner of Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain, the crowded cafés. As much a carnival as it seemed, this village for the bourgeoisie and its fringe was a deception.
There was a parking space on the quay just to the left of the corner fountain, and Haim shot into it. Clouds had begun to threaten rain over-head, and up the Seine loomed the gothic flank of Note Dame. Scores of pedestrians streamed with him over the plaza, stepping around motorcycles and young people who lolled beneath the jutting figures spouting water from the fountain. The costs of this illusory village spoke from the faces he saw, from the corners of the mouths, the eyes: such were the costs of the Parisian past, its imperialism and violence. The blood of each generation had seeped into the streets of the student quarter, the oldest in Paris, so that the wind-blown, river odor seemed to carry the scent of blood. Haim crossed Saint Mutual and walked into the labyrinth of St. Severin streets, walkways with drains like sewers down the middle. These streets without cars housed small restaurants run by Greeks, Palestinians, and the Tunisian Jews.
He cut down an alley to a tiny Tunisian restaurant next to a cinema showing a Palestinian film on the latest unrest. Once inside by the stove, he saw the stacks of red sausages, the half-cooked hamburgers, the sandwiches of tuna, boiled potato, hot peppers, and olives. The odor of charred lamb and semolina for couscous, of cumin and garlic, was in the air. A man waved him to the back. Haim sat down at the furthest table by the short, old, Tunisian Jew, then unbuttoned his coat, and passed his hand over his short-cropped hair. The Tunisian clapped his hands at a waiter who brought flat bread, olives, mashed eggplant with garlic, and a bottle of anise-flavored Arak. He insisted that Haim eat and drink, and the Israeli sipped from a glass of the liquor and tasted the Middle Eastern food. After a minute, the host began to murmur that there was something he should tell his guest.
“What have you seen?” Haim said with calm, careful politeness.
“It’s very bad...the Iraqis,” his voice drifted into silence.
“Yes, I know.”
“Now, Nissim and Ezra...”
“Yes.” Such was the numbing cost of their work. “Please, tell me what you know.”
“Your man, Jaeger, is in the Quarter,” he let out his news. “At noon, he was seen near the Etoile. Now he is holed up in the rue Cujas.”
It had begun to rain lightly when Haim sprinted up Rue Saint-Jacques, past the walls of the old college. He turned down rue Cujas, and he saw the hotel which the Tunisian had specified. He slipped into a small bookstore and glanced at the hotel across the street. In its narrow glassed-in parlor, a thin, unshaven, blond man sat surrounded by what Haim took to be a half-dozen black-haired Palestinians watching a soccer game on television. After a few minutes, Jaeger threw on a jacket, took an umbrella, and drifted outside.
At the corner of Boulevard Saint-Michel, Haim was almost upon him. The American—furling his umbrella—dodged down the street, an athlete jogging in the rain. In the darkening twilight, Haim flew after him, plunging through the pedestrians, racing past the Place de la Sorbonne with its dripping bust of Descartes overseeing the chaos of tourists and students escaping the rain. As he ran down toward the Seine, the Arak pulsed through Haim, insulating him against the pain in his legs and belly and the tight hammering of the holster against his shoulder. What mattered now were not computer codes or Iraqi missiles tipped with nuclear bombs, though he would find out what he could. What mattered was that Ezra had been murdered, that Ezra’s wife and son in Tel Aviv were mourning at this moment, that another Jew’s blood had been spilled, that his friend, always calm when Haim was full of fury, had been murdered by pigs, that Jaeger knew.
Soaked by rain, Haim was almost upon him again as now they fled across a bridge over the Seine. Jaeger slipped through doors into the dark of Notre Dame Cathedral. Haim sprang inside just in time to see him swerve into the darkness of an empty confessional, and he leapt toward the stall, barely grabbing Jaeger in the gloom. They tripped onto the stone floor by the gaping, gothic portal. Both of them were breathless and soaked, Jaeger spread eagled beneath. With a gun in his hand, Haim breathed out: “Questions, only a few questions about the Arc of Triumph.” They heard the noise of a priest approaching.
“Get up. Quickly.” Haim snapped. Together scrambling up, suddenly Jaeger jerked his whole weight into Haim, his knee into his groin, dodging into the dark and rain. Haim heard the echo of the man’s curse in his flat, mid-western accent. He stumbled after him into the autumn storm which earlier had swept over London, inundating Paris on its way east.
Thursday, September 27, 1990
He left his office overlooking Jerusalem, took the elevator four floors down to the exit, and walked past the guards into the parking lot. It was after midnight, and the city lights were extinguished, giving way to a star-lit black. At midnight, he had called his father to meet. Rami was known for late hours, and the habit had grown with age. He stayed up each night until two and three.
As Arie left his office, he had called Simon’s apartment. On the eighth ring, Simon answered. His breathing was labored and barely controlled.
An image crossed the Intelligence Chief’s mind, of a man and a woman locked together. For an instant, he imagined their nakedness, the smell of their lovemaking, the liquid surging in her, his semen, their sweat.
“Simon, there are developments at headquarters. I need you here.”
There was mumbling in the background, and then the aide replied.
“I’ll leave immediately.”
“There will be instructions for you.”
As Arie hung up, he was certain that Rachel was there: his loyal aide coupling with this brilliant and intense policy analyst.
Arie’s gray sports car drove now toward the city to a street bordering Nachlat Shiva. Rami lived alone on the edge of the district, in a street of two story residences with walls of stone, wrought iron balconies, and vine-covered patios. Arie drove up to the walkway, and his father was standing alone at the corner. None of the orthodox was there to observe or harass them late at night. The Intelligence Chief got out of the car.
“Don’t bother,” Rami said as his son walked to the passenger door. The father swung the gray door open as if it were a bank vault or a cache of weapons. Arie stood next to him on the sidewalk, and as his father settled himself in the bucket seat the son smiled with deference at the old man and shut the car door with a click.
“Take me for a drive, Arie, around the walls of the City. There is a place I like near Zion Gate.” The son had wanted to talk in his father’s apartment, yet he kept mute. “This café is quiet and open late; it’s run by Armenians.” They drove out onto the thoroughfare heading down Shivtei Israel, past the entrance to medieval, orthodox Mea She’Arim boarded up and deserted. Father and son did not talk as the Old City wall crowded to the left. The silence between them was broken only by snatches of a song, which Rami whispered, a march in Yiddish. They drove south past Jaffa Gate toward the Mount of Zion with the tomb of David on it and the prison of Jesus nearby; inside the car, the old diplomat long removed from Europe sang softly in Yiddish:
“Kumen vet nokh undzer oyzgebenkte sho
Svet a poyk ton undzer trot: Mir zaynen do.”
The storefronts, the City wall, the clay-domed roofs of houses were blackened in the moonless night, and the City seemed barricaded. Arie parked his car near Zion Gate, and they emerged into the night. The southern wall loomed by them as they strolled toward the gate and the Old City’s Armenian quarter. The passing groups of armed Israeli soldiers—all of them assigned to police signs of Palestinian uprising—halted them only the first time to ask for identification. There were few people out.
“Jerusalem is good at claming up, father; for thousands of years, we’ve been building barricades. We’re good at shutting ourselves in.”
“Mir zaynen do,” Rami softly repeated the song’s cadence. “All week that has been running through my head. You know the Partizaner song? ‘Beneath our footsteps the earth will resound: We are here!”
They walked together down a darkened street, past tiers of homes, and Arie held his father’s arm firmly, as they came upon the café, still open among the thick walls of the Armenian district. The quarter’s closed windows and walls were lit only by the gleams of light filtering through slits in a few shutters and doors. From the café, several yards in front of them there came the noise of laughter and talk and men singing out orders for lahmajoun and beer. Here in Ararat Street there was a pungence to the narrow, walled walkway. The clay, the wood, and the latticework of iron bars absorbed the spice and scent of its inhabitants.
Rami opened the green door of the café, and father and son walked into a kitchen where several Armenian men sat impassive now on wooden chairs. A few yards away were steps down into a shallow hole in the cement floor, and at the end of this recessed area, a massive open oven was flaming. The chef stuck long poles into the arched and fiery opening. Inside the walls of the furnace cooked eggplant, chicken, and dozens of small lamb pizzas—the lahmajoun lay flat on long wooden pallets the chef pushed and then pulled from the fire.
Arie and Rami made their way through the kitchen to the side room with tables and late-night diners; as they walked, Rami resumed their conversation.
“We are here inside these walls. Like these Armenians. And our voices, our souls resound. That is Israel: thick walls and singing souls.” Rami was smiling. His eyes looked briefly askance at his son.
“Mr. Schneider,” the bald Armenian—who was fluent in Hebrew and willing to admit it—asked the white haired Jew, “a sweet perhaps?”
“No, Abrahim, the cognac is perfect. From Armenia?”
“Only for my best customers, Mr. Schneider.”
“Please, call me Rami. You know we have the same name. Call me Rami.” The warmth emanated from his father which was the mark of the man, compelling an acknowledgment even from those who otherwise would dismiss him.
They sat isolated in the back of the dining room. In the front were men playing chess and tavloo and cards, and they ate from small plates of the food from the kitchen. Two lone foreign tourists—a man and a woman—sat by the entrance, and they had a late night snack, cured and peppery basterma, rice filled grape leaves, and glasses of red wine. In back, Rami raised his glass to his son, about to sip the smoky liquid: “Mir zaynen do.” Arie could not smile, and Rami looked full at his son.
“I have to tell you,” Arie’s voice was cold with rage, “there is increasing evidence that the Iraqis have put nuclear payloads on their missiles. And the Americans are withholding intelligence of the threat from us. This afternoon, the CIA even cut our communications link for over an hour.”
“Why would they do this?” Rami asked, having seen a lifetime of hope and nightmare realized beyond imagining.
“Because they want war, father. Everyone is hungry for war—the Iraqis, the Americans, let alone the Europeans, the Russians, the Iranians. I don’t even mention the Palestinians. And they will all risk a nuclear exchange because they want war so badly. It is chaos. The American troops are headed for Saudi Arabia, and they carry anti-radiation gear. I’m convinced they will permit a so-called limited nuclear war in the region, if it seems ‘necessary.’ This means that Tel Aviv as well as Damascus, Riad, Baghdad—all will be incinerated.”
“It may be,” Rami’s words were tentative; they trembled like an old man’s.
“Yes, it may be,” Arie said in a furious voice. “It may finally be world war. Now, of all times,” he said bitterly, “to celebrate the end of the Cold War, there will be a nuclear war. I must act, father. I can prevent it. I have the intelligence, I have the power. There are steps I can take, and I am taking them.”
Rami lifted his glass to his lips and swallowed the remaining half of his brandy in one gulp, tilting his head back like a Russian. “Let’s take a walk,” he said to his son, but Arie did not move. He sat sipping brandy by his father in the smoky, spice-scented room. With distant fury he said: “Who would bring children into such a world?” Arie looked up, and he saw his father’s face staring blankly across the table.
“Be careful,” Rami said as they walked into David Street next to the Armenian Quarter and near the café they had left. The son reached to hold his father’s arm, yet it seemed as if Rami were leading him.
“You know what your mother used to say about you? Almost your exact words: ‘How could we bring a child into this world?’”
“She suffered. A great deal.” In the camp, she had been strapped on the conveyor belt of death. Arie’s sorrow was beyond explanation for him.
“There is a lot we don’t speak of,” Rami said. They were walking past the noisy doorways of cafés and a few occasional pedestrians, some arrayed in Arab gown and headdress, some in shirtsleeves. Then, father and son turned left onto a street of churches, walking toward the Holy Sepulcher, and Rami continued: “Your mother always suffered twice. First she would imagine the possibilities for suffering. Not that there was anything false; she did not fake feelings which were not her own. No, she suffered because she imagined her suffering before the fact. Afterwards, she suffered in reality.”
“She was self-destructive.”
“I have no contempt for suffering, whatever the form. After the camps, Magda had a harmed soul; I felt compassion for her.” They were walking toward the twin-domed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, luminous in the night. “I believe you suffer twice, like your mother. I know it hurts.” He paused as his son maintained his hold on him. “No one can live as they should when they bear a double measure of such pain. We become enraged, and this can only obscure our vision. It can disfigure our humanity.” They passed the Hill of Golgotha buried within the stone shrine and turned up the Via Dolorosa, retracing backwards the Stations of the Cross. “But you’re a strong man; I’ve seen it time and again, how much control you have. Now you must be especially alert and strong.”
“I do the best I can,” Arie said, but his voice was bitter. “Is it enough? I couldn’t stop the Palestinian rocket from killing mother.”
“What could you do?” Rami cried out. Then he said softly: “You remember when she rose in her bed and stared, as if she saw a cataclysm out over the Mediterranean, and then she fell back. Is it awful to say, Arie, my heart broke then not for her death but in gratitude because I knew she would no longer suffer so?”
They walked to the corner of Al Wad road. The peasant-looking Special Operations Chief and his white-haired father silently headed for the Temple Mount, and at the Al Wad intersection they walked by a handful of young Arabs loitering at the door of a café. The black-haired men gestured at the two anonymous Jews and spoke in bursts of Arabic.
To be continued.
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.]