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The pale of settlement, p.15

The Pale of Settlement, page 15

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  They didn’t think of themselves as expats. They weren’t like the Americans in Paris or the British in Nairobi or Bombay, who wore their nationality like a badge. They weren’t immigrants, either, like the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who’d taken over the old Jewish tenements in Harlem and the Bronx. An immigrant came for good, and they always knew they would go back. They were fiercely proud of their strappy fledgling country, though there were times when they did not let on that they were Jews. Nearly everyone in New York came from somewhere else—the Midwest or Italy or Iran. Ezi had a German accent, after all; Palestine was not really his fatherland, Hebrew not his mother tongue. Even Leah had spoken Polish first. Israel was their homeland now, of course, but their roots did not grow deep. Maybe they were incapable of growing roots at all.

  Or maybe it was the world itself they didn’t feel at home in, this swirling blue-green planet that looked so tiny from the moon. They didn’t feel at home in their own skins, those loose accretions of half-forgotten languages and disparate cultures’ ways. Only the children changed all that, made them feel like something more than particles adrift in space. The children twined around them like ropy strands of DNA, like the ivy that pressed its tendrils into the crumbling mortar of their building’s walls. It wasn’t true that you gave your children your identity along with your genetic code—it worked the other way around as well. It was because of the children—with their perfect English, their Americanness, which rose off them like the sweet smell of their skin—that they moved to larger apartments, applied for green cards and to private schools, accumulated appliances and furniture and toys. For the children’s sake, they stayed.

  Just for now, they said, while the children were still small. When they’re old enough, they’ll go to the army, of course, and meet there a nice Israeli girl or boy.

  They played records on the phonograph, Hebrew ballads and the old patriotic songs, ate the canned olives and tahini sent by relatives from Israel along with glossy calendars decorated with photographs of Galilean wildflowers and native trees. They went back to visit in the summers, socialized with their gang of Israeli friends. They spoke Hebrew at home, for a while, but stopped because they worried the children would have trouble when they went to school. They planned (but never took) a sabbatical year in Tel Aviv. What more could you do? Genes split and recombined. The children were American, as indecipherable as an unbroken code.

  What if? It was a question Leah never asked much when she was younger, but once she became a mother it took hold of her like a stubborn vine. What if Suzi stopped breathing in her sleep, or fell and hit her head? What if she tipped over in her high chair, leaned too far out the window, got abducted, murdered, lost, mugged, run over by a bus? What if there were race riots in the city, or a nuclear attack? Leah clutched the children’s hands in hers as they walked along the street, those moist and pliant little fingers that had once grasped onto her own pinkie so firmly in that reflexive infant grip. Be careful, she warned. Watch out.

  What if? The universe was not a fixed continuum of space and time, as she had once supposed, but cut through with possibilities that could open up like a sinkhole on Tenth Avenue. If her parents hadn’t run away from Poland when they did, if her mother hadn’t died so young, if Ezi hadn’t come to her in Jerusalem—what then? She wrapped the familiar contours of her daily life around her like a shawl. She sat on the beach by their rented cottage at the Jersey Shore and watched the children playing on the sand, Suzi and the little boys. The waves were big today, rising up quite suddenly, then curling over and crashing into foam. Noah jumped up and ran into the water, a plastic bucket in his hand. Before him, the next wave reared up. Watch out! Leah called. The wave folded and broke; the children turned and ran, laughing, faster than the water foaming at their feet.

  Once, Leah had gone swimming late at night in the Mediterranean near Ashdod. She’d gone there with her troop of scouts; they’d set up camp among some Roman ruins—toppled columns, a broken bit of wall—on a bluff above the sea. She’d climbed down to the beach after dark with two of the boys to sneak a cigarette. It must have been a moonless night; she remembered the sound the waves made rising in the dark, their disembodied crash and hiss. The boys went swimming first, whooping and calling out. She stayed on the beach after they’d pulled their clothes back on and headed back up the bluff. Then she stubbed out her cigarette, undressed. The water closed around her, cool as a mother’s hand on fevered skin. It didn’t even cross her mind that it might be dangerous to swim. It was a few minutes before the set of waves came in—she barely registered the pull of the undertow, lifting her slightly off her feet, before the first wave broke and hit her, knocking her beneath the exploded surface with such force that she skinned her knees and elbows on the rocky bottom and came up choking, her hair full of sand. Somehow she crawled onto the shore, coughing, saltwater and mucous streaming from her nose. It would have been a while before anybody noticed she had drowned.

  Suzi might have looked like Leah, but by temperament she was her father’s girl. Like Ezi, she was watchful, resolute. Always asking questions, wanting to know why. At the same time, she gave Leah the impression of a thing closed in on itself, like an oyster around a grain of sand. Even as a little girl, she rarely shouted or threw fits. She bruised in places Leah could sense but couldn’t reach; she shied away, all jutting elbows, knees and chin, when Leah tried to fold her in maternal arms. She offered little information about herself, rarely bubbled over with excitement or dissolved with disappointment or bad news. In spite of herself, Leah felt betrayed. How could her own daughter—her likeness, ally, coconspirator from the start—be so different from her?

  That’s how it is with mothers and daughters, Ezi said, as if that explained it, but he came from a family of boys. Maybe she and Suzi were, in fact, too much alike. It was as if Suzi could see right through her, probing with those strange amber-flecked eyes of hers the places Leah needed most to hide. Suzi had a judgmental quality that must have come straight from Leah’s own father—that same tinge of yellow disappointment in her eyes. Leah couldn’t blame her, really. She herself had hoped for more.

  You must make your own money, have your own career, she told Suzi. Never be dependent on a man. She turned her head away from Susan to exhale, stubbed out her cigarette half-smoked. Tobacco spilled from its split side. She pictured Ezi, standing at the door, his hands stuffed into his pockets, so young and sure in that white light. But then, she’d had no choice.

  As time went on, Leah lost the pleasant jolt of recognition she’d felt in the early days when she spotted Israelis on the street. She no longer smiled when she passed them—the women in too-tight leggings and uncomfortable-looking heels, shopping bags looped over their arms, the men with bellies protruding over cheap denim jeans—but looked away, like a child embarrassed by its parents in front of friends.

  Have a look at your countrymen, Ezi would say, rolling his eyes. They’d become a principality of two, she and Ezi, an island nation of their own.

  Back in Israel, their friends had long ago stopped asking when they were coming back. Those who’d stayed bought houses in the territories, or redid their flats, closing in the terraces and putting in air conditioners and Swedish dishwashers, washing machines, granite countertops.

  We have everything here now, they said. Just like in the States.

  Their kids wore Nikes and T-shirts from the Gap. Israeli shopkeepers now sometimes mistook Leah for an Anglo, though her own kids still teased her about her English, and Americans often couldn’t understand her on the phone.

  It’s not the same as when we were young, they said. Things are different now. There were cranes hovering across the Haifa skyline, high-rises going up, cell phones ringing, fast food restaurants, checkpoints, supermarkets, shopping malls, Russian street musicians holding out their hats. There was crazy talk, of kids refusing to go to the army, of building a fence to keep the Arabs out, or of giving all the land they’d fought so hard for back. Look at he
r nephew Gavi, such a sweet child once; what had possessed him to go and join a cult? Where was that old spirit, that sense of purpose? The world had rotated out from under them, but they had stayed the same. How was it that the soldiers hitchhiking at the bus stops were now no more than kids—just look at those girls with miniskirts for uniforms, their caps set at such irreverent angles on their hair! Could these be the daughters of the women whom Leah had grown up with, those robust, fearless sabras who could bake a cake as well as they could shoot a gun?

  Leah stood in the souvenir shop next door to where the Super-sol used to be, on the merkaz, picking over the plates and vases, knickknacks made from olive wood and colored glass. You could no longer find any good Yemenite embroidery or silver filigree; even the ceramics were irregular and smudged. You are looking for something special? the shopkeeper said in English. Leah shook her head. She’d been thinking of buying a finjan for Suzi, but there were none to be found—everyone preferred espresso machines, apparently, these days. How had everything she loved about Israel become so clichéd, so out-of-date? She was no different from all those tourists staying at their hotel, cameras looped around their necks, accumulating souvenirs. She was a tourist in her own country, like any other Diaspora Jew.

  Leah could never get used to the idea that you could just hop on a bus or plane and in a few hours get off again in Amman, Cairo, Luxor, Sharm-el-Sheikh. Even East Jerusalem, part of Israel for over twenty years, still felt out-of-bounds. It was as if the borders she’d grown up with had remained in place, like the invisible fences people put up nowadays for dogs. Despite all the treaties and reconciliations, the old Green Line still held its power to deliver an electric shock.

  But Ezi wanted to go to Petra. He brought home travel agency brochures for tours to Jordan, full of photographs of the famous striated formations of colored stone. He propped the brochures on the kitchen table in front of Leah, against the potted cyclamen. Everybody says it is something fantastic, not to be missed, he said.

  Leah shook her head. Did he really want to sit on a bus with forty fat tourists with cameras around their necks? Wouldn’t it be terribly hot, down there in the desert, south of the Dead Sea? And what was there to see, anyway, besides a bunch of rocks?

  Petra. It was a place that, to Leah, had never quite seemed real. Back in the early fifties, when Leah was fourteen, five boys had stolen across the border in search of the Nabateans’ two-thousand-year-old city cut into the sandstone. None of them came back. The story made a great sensation at the time—former members of the Palmach, heroes of the war, murdered (everyone presumed) by marauding Arabs, cut down in their prime! The uproar, Leah thought now, was due maybe as much to the tragedy as to the insolence with which the boys had gone and crossed the border—the frontier of civilization as they knew it, the horizon of the imaginable world.

  Maybe that was why Ezi wanted to go. Jewish history didn’t interest him much—Leah knew he couldn’t have cared less whether the walls her brother Avraham dug up dated to good King Solomon or bad King Omri. It was pure romance that he sought in the outsized pillars of the temple of Isis, the ruined amphitheaters and banquet halls, the play of desert light on crimson, rose, and ocher stone. Leah remembered, at fourteen, trying to imagine the five boys sneaking out of Jerusalem on that August night, following the old Roman road to Jericho, crossing the Allenby Bridge, continuing along the abandoned British railway line through Wadi es-Sir, Madaba, Hesbon, Kerak, passing broken tanks, roofless guardhouses, Bedouin encampments, oases, camels, minarets. When they got to Petra, did they climb the canyon track at dawn, looking out over the vast necropolis beneath the white-hot sun, their shirts wrapped like kaffiyehs around their heads? Did they lie at night by the hissing embers of a fire and watch the stars reel through the dark? Did they find what they were looking for? Were they changed?

  Leah took a sip of tea, picked up the brochures. The cyclamen was flowering, and Leah fingered its furled pink buds, pleased—it was a cutting from a plant she’d had for years. Those boys from Petra would have been close to Ezi’s age, well past middle life by now. But they were long disappeared, like all the boys of that Palmach generation, and here she was, still conjuring oases, camels, minarets, desert light, and mystic stone: all the old romantic clichés. She shifted on her chair and looked out the rain-flecked window at the familiar brown brick expanse of the ugly apartment blocks next door. How long she’d lived here! The place she was from had grown as remote as the stone city in these glossy photographs, and equally unreal. She propped the brochures back against the plant’s flat leaves. She’d give them to Suzi when she saw her next. Maybe Suzi would go instead.

  BODY COUNT

  In the morning she pulled the news stories off the wire. There were always a few familiar bylines; the rest scrolled along her screen anonymous as soldiers, every sentence ranked and measured, every voice the same. Today, again, the news was the West Bank. Israeli tanks were rolling into Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin. Arafat’s compound was under siege. Palestinian gunmen were holed up inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the Balata and Jenin refugee camps, there was fighting in the streets. Three Palestinian gunmen, four Israeli soldiers, dead.

  Susan glanced across the newsroom as she finished punching the long string of numbers into the phone. There came the sound of what might have been the muffled rumble of thunder, or workmen rolling something heavy on the floor above. In Israel, Debbie’s cell phone rang and rang with a whirring tone. Then her recorded voice came on the line, first in heavily American-accented Hebrew, then in English, and Susan hung up. Debbie Nelson was a good reporter, well connected after years of stringing for American newspapers, more valuable than ever in this environment of cutbacks and corporate squeeze. Susan had heard that Debbie had once been married to an Israeli, and even though she wasn’t Jewish, she had stayed. Susan had met Debbie a few times on her periodic visits to New York. She was a short woman in her late thirties or early forties, with girlish bangs and doughy, freckled skin. Susan couldn’t get over the feeling that she and Debbie should have traded places long ago.

  Susan picked up the phone again and tried Debbie’s home number, but got voicemail there as well. In Jerusalem it was already late on Friday afternoon, Shabbat. Susan jiggled her mouse to reactivate her screen.

  DATE: April 5, 2002. Israeli helicopter gunships launched a heavy attack on a Palestinian village today, killing the man alleged to have planned the Passover Massacre, the suicide bombing that left 26 people dead at a Passover Seder in the Israeli city of Netanya on March 27.

  Susan wondered if Debbie had gotten through the checkpoints into the West Bank. She’d have to go with what was on the wires for now.

  At six-thirty it was raining, really pouring, the water sheeting off the overhang in front of her building, the roadway rippling with a layer of water pockmarked by the pelting rain. All the cabs seemed to be full or off-duty, sending up sprays of dirty water as they passed. Susan gave up waiting, put up her umbrella, and began to walk toward Ninth. Water dripped off the edge of her umbrella onto her new pointy-toed shoes. She put her head down and picked up the pace.

  A group of them always met at Bellevue’s on Fridays after work, and its only virtue, as near as Susan could tell, was its proximity to work. Susan pushed open the door, shaking off the dripping umbrella, scanning the crowd for somebody she knew. The place was already packed, kitschy eighties heavy metal blaring from the jukebox. Fake rats and rubber heads hung on grimy walls. Reid was sitting at the bar with his girlfriend, Kristin. Susan didn’t recognize anybody else.

  She pushed her way to the bar and touched Reid’s arm. He was wearing an olive-drab photographer’s vest and had a three-day growth of beard. She said, Did you just get back?

  Hey, he said, swiveling around on his stool. Kristin gave a little wave. Susan laid her umbrella and bag on the floor, smoothing her hair with a wet hand.

  Susan had always found Reid handsome, but there was something—the delicat
e symmetry of his almost-pretty face, his greenish eyes, his thick wheat hair—that made her feel at times as if you’d have to peel back the skin of his face, like in a bad movie, to find out what he really looked like underneath. It wasn’t vanity, Susan thought, that gave him that quality of inaccessibility, but the self-consciousness that came from knowing that, even pasty forty, “good looking” was how he’d always first be read.

  There were no free seats at the bar. Susan stood behind Reid and Kristin, feeling her wet nylons sticking to her toes inside her probably ruined shoes. From the back, Kristin looked as wraithlike as ever, her shoulder blades jutting out in two sharp planes beneath the thin fabric of her shirt. She had a mass of frizzy reddish hair and an angular jaw and cheekbones softened by a curvy upper lip. Kristin was getting a Ph.D., writing about something to do with female saints. In some ways, Susan envied her—it would be nice, for once, to write about a subject that wouldn’t change, to write without a deadline, to have time to sit and think. Kristin lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke out of the corner of her mouth, in the opposite direction from Susan and Reid. She gave off a tense, airless quality, a sense of disorder held in check.

  Yuck, put it out, Reid said, fanning the air.

  Kristin raised her eyebrows and looked to Susan, holding out her cigarette at arm’s length.

 
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