We arrived in Jewish Palestine after a mildly stressful flight during which a woman of unclear national origin (but clear ethno-religious identity) spent most of the flight vomiting -- and worse -- in the lavatory right near our son's bassinet. A flight attendant confided to us that the New York-Lydda flight made an emergency landing owing to a sick passenger at least once a month.
We had brought our paid childminder with us. This seemed extravagant to many, but we would have had to pay her salary for the entire time anyway, and we definitely needed the help during this three-week trip. She had never been outside of the United States or the Caribbean, her place of origin. Audra, our paid childminder, had a Muslim-sounding last name, even though she was not and never had been a Muslim. This made me a tad nervous about our arrival in Israel, since I had read so many horror stories, although I had always been welcomed into the country without question, even when I had flown to Amman, Jordan for 36 hours and then suspiciously returned back to Judaea.
It was an era when criticism of and hostility towards the Jewish State was at the highest point in my lifetime. All of the European Left and much of the North American Left saw the state as "usurped land of an occupation authority" or "an illegal entity that should not exist" or "an apartheid state that must yield in favor of a single Palestinian entity between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River" or "the symbol, at least for many Arabs, of Western hegemony in the Middle East". An Egyptian cleric summed up the beliefs of many, or most: on the basis of a horrible Western plot and under the direction of England in the 1940s, an independent country with a clear historical identity called “Palestine” has been taken away from its people through the use of weapons, killings and deception and has been given to a group of people the majority of whom are immigrants from European countries.
I was of course upset about the indignities, humiliation, and oppression of the stateless persons on the west bank of the Jordan River, and also the blockade in Gaza (غزة). But I knew that many or most of the people who fervently advocated on behalf of the Palestinian Arab population were interested in the dissolution of the Jewish homeland, whose existence I supported, so it was hard to join the Palestinian Arab cause.
It was depressing that I had to go to right-wing resources to read about Israel in a way that wasn't based on what I believed were fundamentally flawed premises. Of course the right-wing sites were also full of nonsense (Israel should be supported because it is an outpost of Western democracy; because the Bible says so; because Arabs and Muslims are savages), but they generally were more in touch with the reality of the situation in the tiny slice of land allocated to the Jews. And even though I didn't accept the comparison with South African apartheid, I couldn't remember the same level of anger and hatred directed towards white South Africans during the height of the anti-apartheid movement: white South Africans had been invisible, indistinct creatures. Several times I had seen people post pro-Israel stories or videos on social-networking websites only have anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian commenters become extremely enraged and remove their social-networking connection from the poster. It had almost happened to me on several occasions, even when I posted a video of the left-wing Israeli historian Benny Morris (בני מוריס). One friend scoffed sarcastically when I implied that there was a legitimate perspective from the Israeli side, as if supporting Israel was like believing that Jesus rode to work every morning on a dinosaur.
I thought that anti-Zionism was a bit like Francis Bacon's quote about atheism: "It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." A little history inclined one's mind to anti-Zionism, if one looked at the plight of the Palestinian Arabs in isolation. But seeing the creation of Israel in the context of the mass population movements, transfers, expulsions, and genocides that occurred around and during World Wars I and II across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East made the idea of a small, dismal homeland for Jews seem just and necessary and a small price to pay for their future security. The expulsion of 12 million Germans from their ancestral homes rarely evoked sympathy anymore (no one still wept over Breslau), but the stories of the 750,000 expelled Palestinian Arabs were continually a source of shock and horror. The Republic of Turkey was created in a much more bloody and brutal manner than the State of Israel, utilizing many and various ethnic-cleansing techniques up to and including actual genocide, but few called for the boycott and destruction of this country which took out large, tulip-festooned tourism advertisements on the sides of New York City buses. But people viewed the conflict in Israel-Palestine (incorrectly, in my view) as one of evil European colonists versus virtuous native victims, as opposed to a conflict between two ethno-national groups like Azeris and Armenians, Hungarians and Romanians, Georgians and Abkhaz, Greeks and Turks, or Subcontinental Hindus and Muslims.
In any event, I was biased, not only because my master's thesis was on nationalism and not colonialism (although the Basque separatists I studied would have probably characterized the Castilians as an imperial occupying power), but because now my family was inextricably tied up with the fate of this gloomy patch of land that so many people curiously wanted for themselves.
I arrived for my sixth or seventh visit to the land of supposed promise, goat milk, and date honey with considerable apprehension, since I had been feeling rather fragile, and the natives (or non-natives, from the Arab perspective) were often quite furious. I hoped I wouldn't be afraid to leave the apartment we had rented.
Asaph had paid an outrageous sum for an expeditor to meet us at the plane and to guide us through immigration and customs. We turned down his offer to ride in a small vehicle, since we had to push the babies in the stroller anyway. The guide didn't look very Israeli, but many, or most, Israelis didn't. Owing to their varied countries of origin, Israelis were more readily identifiable by their informal clothing, sandals, and loud and gesticulated manner of speaking.
"Does anyone not want a stamp in their passport?" he asked.
"Why wouldn't you want a stamp in your passport?" asked Audra.
"There are many Muslim countries that you can't visit if they see that you've been to Israel," I said. I tried to think of a country that she might possibly consider wanting to visit. "Like Pakistan."
"Oh," she said. She was considering her future options as we walked through the airport towards passport control. "Maybe I don't want a stamp then. I might want to go to Pakistan one day." I was too tired to worry about what the border officials would think of a woman with a Muslim-sounding last name who didn't want her passport stamped, and too tired to tell Audra that she should or would probably never go to Pakistan.
Later I read that you could travel to Pakistan with an Israel stamp in your passport. Oh well, I thought.
The official asked about Asaph's and my relationship.
"אנחנו נשואים" he said. We are married. No questions were asked of Audra.
We gathered our baggage and said good-bye to the expeditor.
"That was a waste of money," Asaph said.
We went through the customs lanes and out into the airport welcome hall. Asaph's mother and stepfather greeted us in a cheerful fashion. Asaph's stepfather had weird pet names for the children: Gingi and Baruch. Our son, who had black hair, was Gingi (a nickname for redheads); our daughter was Baruch (a man's name). It didn't make any sense.
"Let's go to the cars," said Asaph's mother.
We realized that we hadn't retrieved the car seats from the baggage claim area. Exclamations of disbelief and amazed frustration followed. Asaph went to begin the complicated process of re-entering the customs area. The rest of us walked over to a café. The grandparents were happily clutching the babies.
I went and bought a blended sweet iced coffee drink that I liked to get while in this country. It cost an exorbitant amount, but I had pockets full of local coinage. It was an expensive country, since almost everything, apart from cherry tomatoes and yelling, had to be imported. It was like Hawaii, without the relaxing beauty and friendly population. Whenever I was upset that something seemed too expensive, however, I worried that I was being anti-Semitic.
After 30 minutes, Asaph returned, breathless, holding the car seats, and we headed to our apartment for the next three weeks.
It was a great location, although the apartment was a bit shabby, owing to the lower standard of living in this country. We set up the baby equipment that had been delivered by various members of Asaph's family.
I looked out the kitchen window.
This seemed to be an auspicious omen! (The dove left her nest the next day and was never seen again.)
Members of Asaph's family started arriving for an informal Shabbat (שבת) dinner. Asaph's mother had once been religious, but no longer. None of her children or stepchildren or husband (who were the guests that night) were religious. In Israel, people were divided into secular and religious (and among the religious, the ultra-religious and the regularly religious), but it didn't have much to do with personal belief. You could be secular and believe in God, but secular identification meant you didn't follow the many practices required in the rule-based religion of Judaism. Or you could also be an atheist.
Audra slinked off to sleep. The babies were awake, so they entertained and were entertained by Asaph's two brothers and two sisters on his mother's and step-father's side. Asaph's older sister went to smoke on the balcony. It was oppressively hot. I was eager to go to bed.
Eventually everyone left and we were able to go to sleep. We had a large bed in a sandy bedroom. Our daughter woke up in the middle of the night disoriented and crying so we brought her in to sleep with us. Owing to the time-change confusion, she and her brother were still asleep when we got up.
I took advantage of this rare quiet time in the morning to watch a television documentary about Israel's Circassian (Adyghe: Адыгэ/Adǝgă) minority.
I went out to the store to buy some food. Since it was Shabbat, most stores were closed, but I knew of a certain convenience store that would be open. There was an oppressive stillness in the air.
I was always afraid of anything grocery-related in Israel, because on the first day of my first visit to the country I had been at a convenience-type grocery store and an elderly man had aggressively stepped in front of me as I was waiting in line. It was nothing I had ever experienced before; I was totally nonplussed, in the correct meaning of that word. I then developed a phobia of being outside of a private home or hotel room in Israel.
It wasn't that Israelis were more barbaric or even more angry than other peoples, it was that the society had traditionally recognized little distinction between public and private. So, just as I might reach around Asaph to grab a tub of mini-pickles from the refrigerator without excusing myself, so an Israeli might reach around me at the supermarket to demand a price check on tahini-flavored chewing gum while I was waiting patiently to pay for my hummus. But it was hard for me, a shy and hesitant Midwesterner, to interact with strangers in this way. The positive side of this familial atmosphere was that people were usually quite kind and nice when they were moved to be kind and nice: there was comparatively little phoniness.
That night we took the babies out to the port, since they were too jet-lagged to go to sleep.
Our daughter was clearly pleased to be part of the throbbing nightlife of the city as we sat in an outdoor bar and restaurant. "This is my new life!" she undoubtedly thought. There were plenty of other people there with babies and small children as well, as Israel was a very baby- and child-friendly culture.
Once we got home the babies cried for an hour when we tried to put them to bed.
The next day I looked longingly at a sign from a travel agency.
We brought the babies back to the beach at sunset.
"A lot of these guys look like [our son]," said Audra.
A teen-aged girl ran screaming out of the water, having been stung by a jellyfish, named in Israel after the ancient Greek monster Μέδουσα (מדוזה).
The assembled crowd of young men who looked like our son started debating whether or not the girl's reaction was warranted.
We walked by the filthy non-heterosexual beach. Our daughter couldn't even look at it.
I saw a sign with horrific misspellings of names that were originally written in Latin letters. But their transliteration into Hebrew and then back to Latin script had had disastrous results.
We walked by the Habima Theatre (הבימה), which was being boycotted by British actress, comedian, screenwriter, and environmentalist Emma Thompson, among others, even though it was a left-wing institution. Politics didn't really matter anymore: anything Jewish Israeli was open to protest.
Asaph and I had a rare opportunity to go out to dinner, and the clever logo of the restaurant helped to compensate for the incident with the misspelled names. The name of the restaurant meant "table", and the letter ח (which was not pronounced correctly in Israeli Hebrew, but that was another story) was depicted as a table.
We were to go out to a famous non-heterosexual dance party that had been popularized by muscular entrepreneur and model Eliad Cohen (אליעד כהן) and semi-androgynous performer Uriel Yekutiel (אוריאל יקותיאל). This party was known for only playing Mizrahi music (מוזיקה מזרחית) -- Israeli popular music developed by Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.
We met up with our friend Ron, and our friend Dudi, whose English was a bit spotty. Dan was Ashkenazi to the bone, but Dudi had family from Tunisia. Neither of them had been to this party and they were a tad reluctant. After a long taxi-ride and walk through dark alleys, we arrived. There was a huge line outside, as was often the case in Tel Aviv.
"What? No way!" said Dudi. Dudi didn't wait in lines. On previous trips to Israel he had managed to get us to cut in front of lines at various nightclubs, but I figured he wouldn't know anyone here.
He disappeared to the front of the line for a few minutes and then came back. "Come on," he said. We were brought directly into the club, and even paid a reduced admission fee.
The club was empty, but Mizrahi music -- which all kind of sounded the same to me -- was blaring.
Slowly the place filled up. We kept having to go to an upstairs room so that Ron and Dudi could smoke. "This music makes me feel like I'm at a wedding!" said Dudi. Ron agreed.
Men at Israeli non-heterosexual clubs tended to be extremely attractive, but it was not the case here. I wondered if it was just because I now had a new worldview, owing to the children.
"People here aren't very attractive," said Dudi.
Oh, I thought. Perhaps Dudi and Ron were the most attractive persons present, I wondered.
It was quite fun anyway. People were dancing in an enthusiastic and Oriental or Orientalizing manner. Eventually the singer Zehava Ben (זהבה בן) came out to sing. She seemed very sweet. She had had a famous song about a telephone or something.
Then, I spotted Eliad Cohen!
"He's there!" I screamed. I couldn't believe it. He had become famous among non-heterosexual party-goers and seemed to be constantly appearing at different events all around the world. I hadn't expected to see him at the party from which his fame originated. He was smiling in a friendly way and greeting people like a politician.
"He's actually very nice," said Ron. "He has very little ego."
Really? I thought. Gorgeous non-heterosexual men were often very unfriendly, to fend off unwanted advances from suitors. But I was happy to hear that he was not like that. I had noticed that gorgeous non-homosexual men, on the other hand, were often very friendly, because life was so easy for them.
Zehava Ben started singing another song about how sad it was that she had to go on a trip or something, and Asaph and I left.
Sometimes a night in Tel Aviv seemed like a porkless version of an Almodóvar movie.
The next day, on my way to get pastries, I mistook an advertisement for the latest Woody Allen film as a sign for an Italian restaurant.
Audra was off for the day on a tour of supposed Christian holy sites. We went to visit a friend of Asaph's from the army, along with his wife -- a nutritionist -- and their young daughter.
They had a beautiful apartment. I took a nap.
I woke up to piping-hot bread. I was glad that my grainless days had passed.
Asaph walked back to the apartment to get the car. We had to leave to go meet Asaph's niece at her horseback riding lesson. Asaph sounded the horn for me to come down.
We drove through several industrial and religious suburbs on our way to the stables. We arrived at the end of a dusty, trash-strewn road. Cities were generally very clean in Israel, but when you got out into the countryside, trash was always visible, owing to the dry climate and lack of shrubbery.
We brushed the flies away as we watched her trot around. We were approached by a mildly hostile cat.
Asaph's niece had always been cooly aloof to me, but she was starting to be friendlier. She would even acknowledge my presence with a brief wave of the hand.
The kids were getting hungry, so we headed back to the dusty parking lot.
I felt bad about the kids being continually smushed into their carseats, but there was much more to come.
The next day we smushed them back in again and headed up to Asaph's mother's house.
We received a sonorous welcome.
Audra was off looking at the grottoes of Rosh HaNikra (ראש הנקרה) at the Lebanese border.
The grandparents played with the children while I took a nap.
Our daughter started crying before we were ready to leave. I started walking around the house to try to comfort her, but she kept on letting out loud sobs. As I rounded the south side of the house, I heard a man's voice, in a New York accent, from the other side of a thick, tall hedge.
"?מי בוכה" he said. Who is crying?
Even though I understood I kept on walking. Maybe he wasn't talking to me, I thought.
I came back to the south side of the house.
"?מי בוכה" he said. I kept on walking.
I came back a third time.
"?מי בוכה" he said. "Asaph?"
Now I felt stupid.
"No," I said. I introduced myself through the hedge. It was Asaph's parents' religious neighbor. He was American and had many, many adult children. He was evidently very funny. He came around the hedge and walked with me into the house, after summoning his wife. She looked like the orthodox women one often saw in New York: she was dressed as if it were the 1940s.
"Oh, look at this little jachnun [ג'חנון]," he said when he saw our son. This was the third or so time someone had referred to our son as a jachnun. I wasn't sure how I felt about this. Was it racism? I wondered.
They gushed over the babies and were also very friendly to me. I was comforted, even though they seemed so foreign, despite being American. One of their many daughters arrived. She was wearing a sweatshirt and spoke in perfect American English. She had just come from running -- in this heat in a sweatshirt? I wondered -- so Asaph suggested that she and I go for a run some time.
We stopped at a shopping center on a kibbutz across from a grain elevator while Asaph went in to buy or return something. The children were sleeping in the back as I read from Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, the bisexual Franco-Belgian aristocrat born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour.
We made a stop at Jerusalem. There I took occasion to study the plan for a new capital which I proposed to construct on the site of the Jewish city laid low by Titus. Good administration in Judaea and increasing commerce with the Orient showed the need for developing a great metropolis at this intersection of routes. I had in mind the usual Roman capital: Aelia Capitolina would have its temples, its markets, its public baths, and its sanctuary of the Roman Venus. My recent absorption in passionate and tender cults led me to choose a grotto on Mount Moriah as best suited for celebrating the rites of Adonis. These projects roused indignation in the Jewish masses: the wretched creatures actually preferred their ruins to a city which would afford them the chance of gain, of knowledge, and of pleasure. When our workmen approached those crumbling walls with pickaxes they were attacked by the mob. I went ahead notwithstanding: Fidus Aquila, who was soon to employ his genius for planning in the construction of Antinoöpolis, took up the work at Jerusalem. I refused to see in those heaps of rubble the rapid growth of hatred.
Hadrian's actions against the Jews caused him to be very hated by them. I read on the internet that Jewish sources added the words "may his bones be crushed" (שחיק עצמות) when referring to him. Hadrian had renamed Judaea "Syria Palaestina". "Aelia Capitolina" was named after Hadrian and after Jupiter Capitolinus.
We headed back to the apartment.
We went out to dinner at a nearby mediocre cafe while watching a house being torn down. I joked that it must have been a Palestinian Arab home, which wasn't really very funny. On a social-networking website people took me seriously and I realized that I was helping stir up support for the movement to boycott, divest from, and enact sanctions against Jewish Palestine.
In fact, the house was next to a parking lot that had once been a bus station. But the house was being razed and the parking lot torn up to make way for new luxury apartment buildings. It was just like New York.
The next day Audra went on a tour of the plateau of Masada (מצדה). I took the babies for a walk towards the beach. There were tens of religious girls in front of me.
They were heading to the sex-segregated beach.
The air was too hot and humid to enjoy the sunny day.
The babies slept.
I thought about how childish and shallow it was to feel any regret about no longer having a physically attractive and muscular body.
I stopped to buy some honey-filled pastries.
I returned the children to Asaph, who took them to his father's office. I decided to take a long walk.
I wondered if the owner of a shoe shop knew that Caligula was named after the Latin word for a military boot: caliga.
I saw a monument to an incident involving the Irgun (ארגון), a paramilitary group from before the establishment of the State of Israel. Their logo showed that they wanted what became Jordan as well for the Jewish state.
That would have worked out even worse, I thought.
I saw a monument to the Dolphinarium discotheque suicide bombing, in which 21 Israeli teenagers, mostly new immigrants from the Soviet Union, were killed by a member of Hamas (حماس) in 2001.
The Israelis often cited this attack as a reason for building the wall around the West Bank.
I looked out at the sea, dreaming of Greece.
I walked by the controversial Hassan Bek Mosque, built in 1916 by Jaffa's Turkish-Arab governor Hassan Bek. It was built as Arab Jaffa (يافا/Ιόππη) and Jewish Tel Aviv (תל אביב) were in competition to grow larger thereby blocking the growth of the other.
Tel Aviv won.
There were Arab girls in full hijab (حجاب) swimming and wading in the sea.
I arrived in Jaffa proper.
A tour bus disgorged its Arab passengers. A small boy walked right up to me and gave me a confident salute of the hand. "As-Salamu Alaykum! [!السلام عليكم]" he said. I smiled and waved back but forgot to give the correct classical response.
Quenched, I started walking back.
The beaches were full of foreign tourists.
I walked by a small kiosk where an incredibly gorgeous young man was working. I took a photo.
Progress was made on the demolishing of the house.
Asaph had been showing the children to his 103-year-old grandmother.
I noticed that a street on which we had once stayed had new signage, with a different typeface for the English/Latin. This street had always upset me because Israelis pronounced it incorrectly, taking the Arabic ibn (ابن), meaning "son", and pronouncing it as even (אבן) meaning "stone", since there was no way to write it differently in Hebrew. The street was named after a famous Jewish philosopher from Muslim Spain.
I was sure that the new signs had added his first name, to try to help with this awful problem.
The next morning there was a knock on the door. A woman in early old age was standing there.
"Could you please move your car? You are blocking the gate and it makes it very hard to get out."
Asaph was sleeping, and he handled all of the driving, but I said that we would deal with it as soon as possible.
I went down to look at the obstruction.
Oh, you Israelis, I thought. It was somewhat ridiculous.
We headed off to visit a friend of Asaph in Jerusalem, my least favorite city in the world after Bakersfield, California. The drive was quite pleasant, on new roads through clean and rocky terrain, but the children started crying hysterically while we were driving through the no-man's-land near Latrun (לטרון/اللطرون). We pulled over at a spot where Jordanian snipers shot at Israelis from 1949 through 1967.
"There's a gas station I know where we can eat," said Asaph.
It was a million degrees outside. I was not crazy about eating in a gas station.
"Fine," I said. I wasn't planning on eating anything.
The gas station was next to an army base. We walked in. It was clearly a cafeteria, but Asaph had us sit down and asked for a menu. The entire place was filled with female soldiers.
Asaph ordered a large selection of dishes. Our daughter and I did not approve.
There was a boy and two older men sitting at a table next to us. They asked us, in Hebrew, if we were "the couple from television". Apparently there had been a documentary made about an Israeli non-heterosexual couple who had had twins through surrogacy in India, and who had had trouble with the Israeli authorities when trying to bring the children back to Israel.
Asaph told them that we were not that couple.
The young boy started talking to me, in English.
"Your babies are cute," he said.
"Thank you," I said.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"New York," I said.
"Brooklyn?" he asked.
"No, Manhattan," I said. I wanted to take a nap.
The boy shook my hand as he left.
We drove to the home of Asaph's last remaining friend who lived in accursed Jerusalem. My stomach tied itself in knots as we approached. The city had been completely taken over by the religious, the ultra-religious, and the extremely ultra-religious. Even this friend of Asaph's wore a small scarf over her hair, although her husband was totally secular.
She and her children served us iced coffee with iced cream. It was very pleasant.
We went back out into the heat to head to a birthday party being held for the twin daughters of one of Asaph's old friends. Asaph was using the space-based satellite navigation system to get us to the party, held on a moshav (מושב) in the Judean Mountains. I sat in the back seat between the carseats holding the babies. My anxiety spiked again as we started driving through the damned navel of the world.
Turning a corner, another car sideswiped us, damaging our side-view mirror. I cried out in anguish; Asaph cried out in anger. He pulled over at a bus stop to angrily confront the driver. It was a Mizrahi (מזרחי) woman in a headscarf and a young man, presumably her son. I stayed in the back seat, weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth.
Asaph got back in the car. "There's no way we can prove she wasn't in her lane." We drove on.
Suddenly, I noticed a checkpoint on the other side of the road.
"Where in the hell are we going?" I screamed, alarmed. That checkpoint meant we were entering the West Bank.
"I'm just following the [space-based satellite navigation system]!" he yelled.
I saw a road sign I had never seen before in Israel.
We went through a tunnel and then emerged into a deep valley. The road was lined by tall fences covered with various kinds of barbs. One could see Arab villages on top of the hills above us.
"Oh, I guess that's Beit Jala (بيت جالا)," said Asaph, looking up.
"Why are we here?" I bellowed. I was unhappy. I didn't want to be driving through the West Bank with my babies. I had seen videos of Palestinian boys chucking bricks at the windshields of Israeli settlers. How did we look any different from settlers? And Beit Jala was a Christian town! The irony! I unbuttoned my shirt to reveal the cross around my neck (I kept it hidden in the company of Jews, even though I had recently exchanged my Byzantine crucifix for a Crusaders'/Jerusalem cross, owing to the Jewish prohibition against graven images that applied to my household).
"I want out of here now!" I was having a full-on panic attack. The babies were sleeping.
There was nothing to do but keep driving. The fences were ominous, not reassuring. I didn't care about politics or justice or injustice or occupation or anything; I just wanted my children out of there. We drove alongside a bus depot where Palestinian Arabs were waiting. We aren't settlers! I screamed, telepathically.
We approached and were waived through another checkpoint. We were back in 1949 Israel.
"We are never coming back to Jerusalem!" I said. I meant it.
We arrived at the moshav. The air was almost unoppressive.
We refreshed the children.
Asaph's friends were happy to see them.
We refreshed them further.
We didn't have shy babies, but occasionally they got overwhelmed.
Cakes were brought out for the celebrants.
Traditional Jewish practices were undertaken.
Our son didn't know what to think of it all.
I liked these feisty female friends of Asaph's, but I was slightly afraid of them.
One asked me what I did for work. I was often reluctant to describe my job, since many saw it as somewhat anti-Israel. I explained a bit, using vague generalizations.
"Do you support organizations in Israel?" she asked.
"Yes, but only very left-wing ones, like [an Israeli non-governmental organization whose mission was to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help create a human rights culture in Israel]."
"Oh, that's good!" she said.
I was surprised.
It was a familial atmosphere.
People couldn't believe we had driven on Highway 60. "We never do that!" said our hostess.
On our drive back home Asaph got sick to his stomach, owing to the food from the gas station, undoubtedly. I was worried we were going to have to stop in the town of Beit Shemesh (בית שמש), which had become overrun by religious zealots. I thought they might stone us to death. Later I learned that the town was named after the Canaanite sun-goddess. I wondered if the religious zealots would eventually try to change the name, even though it was mentioned in the Bible. I liked it as it was: "house of the sun".
I walked to the store the next morning, admiring some drip irrigation, an Israeli invention.
There was yet another cute little fancy bakery, this one named after Asaph.
We went up to Asaph's father's beautiful house north of Tel Aviv for a lunch in honor of the babies.
Asaph's stepmother's mother, who was 102 and a Holocaust survivor, was on the verge of death, so the mood wasn't overly festive.
I was happy to see one of Asaph's many sisters, including the one to whom we had granted custody of our children were we both to die.
She had two gorgeous daughters who immediately loved our babies.
I sat in a room with them as they watched the babies unsuccessfully try to take a nap. They kept speaking to me in Hebrew. Eventually I had to say that I didn't speak good Hebrew -- "אני לא מדבר עברית טובה" -- except I made a small mistake and didn't quite say it right.
They stopped talking to me after that.
Asaph had another sister on his father's side -- Yael -- who had come to our wedding. She had a young son -- who had also come to our wedding -- and a new baby as well. Her new baby was too young to do anything but eat and sleep and cry.
Asaph's stepmother was weary and sad. They didn't have palliative care in Israel, so she worried that her mother was suffering. But she was happy about all the babies.
"My mother's roommate in the hospital is an Arab, and she told me she has 100 grandchildren, and she knows all of their names," she said.
I wondered what my liberal neo-Malthusian friends would think of that.
There had just been a terrorist attack in Bulgaria (България) against Israelis. Asaph's father, who was right-wing, was very concerned. He had heard initial (incorrect) reports that the attacker had been someone released by the Americans from Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Later I remembered why I tried to avoid current events, since they were so often inaccurate.
He was also worried about everything that was going on in Syria (سوريا or سورية), and what kind of regime would follow.
"It will be worse. They want to kill all of us. There's going to be another Holocaust!" He threw up his hands. I thought about how those who supported the Syrian president claimed that the revolt was a right-wing Israeli plot. That seemed unlikely.
Asaph's stepmother gave us a bag of lychees from the tree in her garden.
We headed back to the apartment.
Most nights I ate a tub of labneh (לבנה) for dinner while sitting at the kitchen table.
We had initially told Audra that should wouldn't have to work any more hours than she did when we were in New York. The first few nights in Israel, Asaph and I had tried to comfort and quiet the confused and jet-lagged babies when they woke up in the middle of the night crying. By the third night, Audra came into our room and demanded that we give her the babies, since she couldn't stand to hear our failed attempts at soothing them. She took care of them at night from then on. Sometimes we woke up in the morning and the babies had already been fed and changed and even taken for a walk in the stroller.
We headed back up to Asaph's mother and stepfather for another party for the babies.
Asaph's mother was frantically trying to get ready, and complaining about how her husband was wasting time by writing yet another letter to a member of the Israeli parliament. I then learned that Asaph's stepfather supported the far-left Meretz (מרצ) party. I was shocked. I hadn't known that he was so left-wing.
Meretz was still a Zionist party, of course.
A friend of Asaph's who resembled the Spanish actress María Barranco from the Almodóvar film Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios arrived with her hunky boyfriend.
They couldn't stay for the party, which wouldn't start for another two hours.
Asaph's mother needed tubs to store ice and beer, and toys for the children to use in the wading pools. It was Shabbat, but the shopping center on the kibbutz would be open.
Asaph and I headed out. Everything was open in the shopping center, but most of the employees were Arabs. I unbuttoned my shirt to reveal the cross, so they would know I was not a Jew. No one seemed to be looking at my neck, however.
We returned with the overpriced items. Things were ready. Audra had already eaten and was taking a nap. I wanted a nap too.
Asaph's young sister was beloved by our children, especially our daughter.
Guests arrived. Asaph Ben-Artzi had not brought his narghile.
He described a difficult incident in which he had spoken at a conference at Harvard, but because he owned a farm in the Golan Heights, even though it was in the small area that Israel had held after 1949 and was therefore considered Israel proper even by the international community, he was denounced as an illegal settler. He had done nothing to correct this impression, since he preferred to see his opponents look like idiots. This Asaph was left-wing, also.
Our right-wing friend Nadav arrived.
Asaph's feisty female friends arrived.
Asaph's army pal arrived.
Family members arrived.
A cousin who had been a boy with a gigantic blond mound of tightly curled hair the last time I saw him arrived. He was now a young man.
The kids became exhausted.
The religious neighbor was going to come over. Asaph asked the child of two friends of his -- doctors who were secular to the bone -- to stop playing an electronic musical instrument, since it was Shabbat. Once Asaph had asked his older sister -- secular to the bone -- to put out a cigarette upon a visit from the religious neighbor on Shabbat. It hadn't gone over well.
Everyone greeted the religious neighbor and his wife with smiles and nods.
A young woman arrived, dressed in the style of the 1940s. She went into Asaph's young sister's room and picked up our son, who had been sleeping. Then she saw that I saw that she was holding him.
"He was awake," she said. She had a thick Israeli accent.
Who is this woman? I wondered.
She handed me my son as she walked out to the living room. "He was awake. I feel like you are mad at me."
"No, it's fine," I said.
Who was this woman?
"Who was that woman?" I asked Asaph's young sister, who was standing in the living room next to their religious neighbor. She shook her head nervously as if to indicate that she couldn't say anything at that moment.
I went back outside. Asaph's stepfather's sister was presenting Asaph and me with new Israeli-made sandals.
I thanked her profusely.
When she walked away, Asaph said, "I couldn't stand to see you wearing those ugly German clogs. I asked her to buy you these."
What?! I thought. I resolved to keep wearing the German clogs.
The 1940s woman appeared again.
"I feel that you are mad at me," she said.
"No, it's fine!" I said. I smiled my best fake smile.
"Who is that?" I asked Asaph.
"It's one of the neighbor's daughters," he said.
Really? I thought. How could that dark, accented woman who dressed like it was 1940 be the sister of the blond American jogger?
People started to leave. We helped clean up. Asaph's young brother took all of the wine that he could fit in his motorcycle.
We walked out to the car to load the babies. The 1940s woman approached, with her blond jogger sister.
"I feel that you are mad at me. He was awake."
"It's fine!" Good grief, I thought.
We drove back to Tel Aviv.
The next morning Asaph took the babies to meet a friend of his. Audra went off on another tour.
I woke up late and walked to the water.
The heat made it impossible to enjoy the beautiful setting.
I met Asaph and his friend. She could have been our son's mother! She didn't call him a jachnun.
We went to a fancy restaurant to meet another fancy friend. She was pregnant. She knew lots of famous persons, one of whom approached us in the restaurant.
"Are you the parents?" this famous woman asked, in a very politically accurate manner.
Asaph's friend was excited about the babies, since she saw in them a harbinger of her own child.
We went outside for a diaper change.
We walked back to the apartment.
We had arranged to meet Asaph's army friend, his wife, and their daughter at a prominent swimming pool by the beach.
We were late to arrive. We felt bad, because it was a very expensive pool and our friends were only there because of us.
We were only using the baby pool. We weren't even taking advantage of the frigid salt-water pools that were the reason for the extreme expense.
The baby pool was full of French babies and, probably, their Judeo-Gallic urine.
Our daughter loved the water.
Our friends' daughter had her eyes on bigger ponds. But it was too cold -- the salt water came from underground sources, not the tepid, fetid Mediterranean.
We had a nice time, although I felt bad about the cost to our friends.
The next day we all headed up to Asaph's father's office in the northern suburb. There was to be a lunch in honor of our babies, as well as Asaph's sister Yael's new baby. Asaph needed to get something at a pharmacy beforehand. The strip mall was crowded, and, like in many places in and near Tel Aviv, there was no parking. Asaph double-parked, blocking a parked car.
"I'll be right back," he said. He hopped out.
"No!!!!!" I screamed.
Almost immediately the woman whose car we were blocking came out. I tried to make a gesture that indicated that my Israeli spouse had done this and that he would be back soon and that I didn't normally drive in Israel and wasn't sure where I would move the car. She made a lot of angry gestures back. I fumbled with my phone in an attempt to call Asaph. Once I managed, he didn't answer.
She came over to the car and started screaming at me in Hebrew.
I decided to try to disarm her with extreme passivity, something rarely tried in Israel. I rolled down my window.
"I'm so sorry. I can't speak your language." I made a little frowny face.
"Fine. I can speak English. Please move your car!" She looked in the back seat and saw the babies. "I have twins also, and I have to pick them up from the kindergarten." Foreigners often said "the kindergarten".
"He left me here...I don't drive the car..." I didn't explain who "he" was. I felt like a loser, however. Why can't a 42-year-old man drive a car? But there were cars in front of me, and I would have to pull into a single lane of cars moving the opposite direction. I imagined a terrible mess.
"I will watch your children if you go get him," she said. This was a very Israeli thing to say; no one in the United States would ever make such a scandalous offer, since leaving your children in the care of an angry stranger was a guarantee of losing custody.
The entrance to the drug store was just steps away... I made an impulsive decision to abandon my children to a strange woman and to leap out of the car and run to the drug store. Later, I would feel awful about doing this.
When I got to the drug store, I saw that Asaph wasn't there.
I screamed, internally.
As I turned around, the car that had been in front of us pulled away, giving me an easy new space to occupy that wouldn't block anyone.
"I'm so so sorry," I said to the woman, who was still muttering in anger.
I hopped into the driver's seat and moved the car forward a few feet. The children were still asleep.
Asaph came back a few minutes later.
"Where did you go?" I told him the story. "Don't do that again!"
"It's kind of sad that a 42-year-old man can't drive," he said.
I could drive. I just chose not to drive in a foreign country, or in most other settings and occasions.
We arrived at his father's office.
I was surprised that people were dressed in recognizable business clothes. I had thought everyone in Israel just wore sandals and shorts. A very nice young woman with long blond hair helped me with the babies. Our son quickly went to sleep. We wrapped him up like a burrito.
"What a cute little jachnun," said one of the office workers. Again with the jachnun, I thought.
Eventually it was time for the lunch. We went down to a conference room. Both babies were asleep. It was a kosher caterer; the young water wore a kippah (כיפה).
The vegetarian food was surprisingly delicious.
Small congratulatory chocolate bars were distributed.
Asaph still had to stay for a while to attend various meetings. I looked into his pigeon-hole messagebox.
Finally we got to leave. We had a meeting with a lawyer specializing in family law, surrogacy, assisted reproductive technology, and same-sex couples to discuss the Israeli citizenship status of the babies.
Asaph scraped his stepfather's car in several places while navigating the underground parking garage. I was glad I wasn't driving.
The lawyer was surprised that we had brought the babies to the meeting. They were very well behaved and quiet: they loved meetings.
The meeting took many twists and turns, as we realized that our situation was completely unique.
"Whatever happens, you won't set a precedent for anyone!" said the lawyer.
We drove back to the apartment. I hadn't noticed the pretty building opposite. They were doing construction on the street and a grumpy old sunburt man sat in front of our building Sunday through Thursday, scowling and listening to a radio with one earphone. It was unclear what his function was.
I headed out to the supermarket with one of the babies. The babies helped prevent hostile situations with strangers.
Audra let us go out to dinner. We walked towards the beach.
Some American women started talking to us. I walked away.
We admired the volleyball players. I felt fat and old.
We tried to eat outside. It was extremely hot and uncomfortable.
I prefered eating labneh in our kitchen.
The next day I went for a run.
It was hot, and I was weak and old and tired.
I stopped at a charming bridge.
I took advantage of all facilities offered.
There was new French influence in Tel Aviv, owing to rising anti-Jewish sentiment in France. Large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews in France had been killed in the Holocaust, but those French Sephardic Jews who had fled Algeria and Tunisia were now moving to Israel.
I remembered the Maccabiah bridge collapse and the fungal and bacterial toxicity of the Yarkon River (נחל הירקון).
I examined a sign.
I couldn't tell if the so-called Green Line was indicated. I saw where Asaph had gotten food poisoning at the gas station.
I walked through a neighborhood to take a photo for my Hungarian colleagues.
That's clever, I thought.
No one was home when I got there.
We went to Asaph's older sister's apartment. I was skeptical of a sign in the elevator.
The next day we drove south to the city of Ashkelon (عسقلان/אשקלון) to meet our right-wing friend Nadav. I was worried because the forecast called for rockets from Gaza.
"Don't worry," said Nadav over the phone. "[The mobile all-weather air defense system] will stop them."
I was still concerned.
I had wanted to see this city. It was slightly disappointing. It was also very, very hot.
"Your kids are so well behaved!" he remarked. "Maybe because they don't have Moroccan grandmothers."
His family had fled Morocco (المغرب); hence the right-wing perspective.
We sat in a café and were waited on by skimpily attired waitresses. Asaph noted that the bomb shelter was inadequate.
We walked along the beach.
There was a Muslim site that was indicated but not maintained.
The empty playgrounds had a sad, post-Communist feel to them.
I liked the logo for the city.
The beach looked nice. I thought that the location of the city meant it could be an "up-and-coming" kind of place. It wasn't "up-and-coming" yet.
Nadav said that, during the Gaza War, one could watch rockets falling into the sea.
Asaph went to cool down the car before we put the babies in. We said farewell to Nadav and drove to Be'er Sheva (באר שבע) to see Asaph's young sister. I had hoped to see some remnants of the Philistines -- the mysterious Sea Peoples who gave Palestine its name -- in Ashkelon, but we didn't have time.
"Look, there's part of [the mobile all-weather air defense system]!" yelled Asaph as we drove out of town.
"Where? Where?" I said. I looked. It was the lighting system for a soccer field.
"You're a jerk," I said.
We drove into the desert and arrived at Be'er Sheva. Travel never took very long in Israel.
The town consisted of strip malls and military-looking barracks. Asaph's young sister lived in what appeared to be barracks.
Cheerful barracks, however.
She ushered us into her small, shared, student apartment. I noticed some rodent control.
We put the babies down on the hard floor.
I went to take a nap while Asaph, his young sister, and her roommate took care of the babies.
After a horrible vegan meal, we went to a strip mall to exchange some presents. Then we drove back to Tel Aviv. The desert at sunset was beautiful.
I read in Memoirs of Hadrian:
Jewish affairs were going from bad to worse. The work of construction was continuing in Jerusalem, in spite of the violent opposition of Zealot groups. A certain number of errors had been committed, not irreparable in themselves but immediately seized upon by fomentors of trouble for their own advantage. The Tenth Legion Fretensis has a wild boar for its emblem; when its standard was placed at the city gates, as is the custom, the populace, unused to painted or sculptured images (deprived as they have been for centuries by a superstition highly unfavorable to the progress of the arts), mistook that symbol for a swine, the meat of which is forbidden them, and read into that insignificant affair an affront to the customs of Israel. The festivals of the Jewish New Year, celebrated with a din of trumpets and rams' horns, give rise every year to brawling and bloodshed; our authorities accordingly forbade the public reading of a certain legendary account devoted to the exploits of a Jewish heroine who was said to have become, under an assumed name, the concubine of a king of Persia, and to have instigated a savage massacre of the enemies of her despised and persecuted race. The rabbis managed to read at night what the governor Tineus Rufus forbade them to read by day; that barbarous story, wherein Persians and Jews rivaled each other inatrocities, roused the nationalistic fervor of the Zealots to frenzy. Finally, this same Tineus Rufus, a man of good judgment in other respects and not uninterested in Israel's traditions and fables, decided to extend to the Jewish practice of circumcision the same severe penalties of the law which I had recently promulgated against castration (and which was aimed especially at cruelties perpetrated upon young slaves for the sake of exorbitant gain or debauch). He hoped thus to obliterate one of the marks whereby Israel claims to distinguish itself from the rest of human kind. I took the less notice of the danger of that measure, when I received word of it, in that many wealthy and enlightened Jews whom one meets in Alexandria and in Rome have ceased to submit their children to a practice which makes them ridiculous in the public baths and gymnasiums; and they even arrange to conceal the evidence on themselves. I was unaware of the extent to which these banker collectors of myrrhine vases differed from the true Israel.
That night Asaph's stepmother's mother, at age 102, died.
We went to their house the next day. Our children lightened the mood.
I took the kids on a walk around the neighborhood.
Asaph went to take the children to his grandmother. He dropped me off at a large public garden.
It was extremely hot, so I just shuffled around.
As we pulled into the apartment, a group of women stood in front of the entrance to the parking lot, blocking us and totally oblivious.
"I can't believe how people act here!" I said.
"The up-side is that you can do this and there are no hard feelings," said Asaph. He then screamed out the window at the women to move. They looked surprised, and then got out of the way.
That night we went to a trendy restaurant around the corner from our place. We had to sit at the bar since it was so crowded. Our waiter was gorgeous.
The guy next to us was an idiot. The restaurant served large amounts of shellfish and bacon, but he said he was kosher and wanted to make sure his food did not include those items. But he ordered beef anyway, which wouldn't have met the standards of anyone keeping kosher. He also ordered a shot of vodka before his meal, saying he needed it to wake up.
We saved the name of our server for later stalking.
The next day we went to meet Asaph's parents in Jaffa. There was a sign wishing Muslims a happy Ramadan (رمضان).
It was too hot.
Jaffa's charms were adequate.
We found a restaurant in the port.
Asaph's stepfather kept making jokes with the Arab waiters, who tolerated him.
Audra was impressed with and by the food.
Our son started crying, so I took him outside. He fell asleep as I held him. I stood in the shade in an area where there was a pleasant breeze. I felt like I could have held him like that forever.
Later that day we went to meet Ron, with whom we had gone to the Middle Eastern party, at the non-heterosexual beach. There were discarded cigarette butts and other trash everywhere in the sand, and many of the beach patrons had a discarded look about them as well. I felt contaminated just sitting down on the thin blanket we had brought.
We went into the sea. It was as hot as the air. There were little particles floating in the water that looked like bits of plastic. We had also heard that there were chopped-up pieces of jellyfish swirling around the tepid soup.
In the past, I would have swum away from the oily horde out to cooler waters to look into the distance and imagine swimming to Greece, or at the very least Cyprus. But the sea didn't get cooler or cleaner as I got deeper this time.
"This water is disgusting," I said. I retreated to the filthy beach.
We saw Ron. I liked him a lot, so I had to avert my eyes so that I didn't see what he did with his exhausted cigarettes. We sat and chatted for a while. Occasionally a cartoonishly muscular man in a tiny swim brief would walk by, compelling the collective gaze.
Our friend Ron asked about our remaining plans.
"I'm finally letting this one," Asaph pointed at me, "fulfill his dream of going to Greece."
It was true. We were leaving the kids with Audra and Asaph's mother and stepfather, flying to Athens (Αθήνα) the next day, and then taking the ferry to Santorini (Θήρα) for three days. I couldn't contain my excitement. Even though the Hellenic Republic had also been established through ethnic cleansing and population transfer (although not to the extent of its genocidal and blood-stained analog the Turkish Republic), and even though the country had also had a revived and semi-artificial official language until 1976 (Καθαρεύουσα), I imagined it to be a resplendent yet calm place where people sat languidly in sun-bleached plazas drinking anise-flavored liqueurs and eating grilled octopuses as the sun sank over the Adriatic -- nothing like Israel, where people were impatient and tense and working all the time.
I read in Memoirs of Hadrian:
Greece knew better about such things: her resin-steeped wine, her bread sprinkled with sesame seed, fish grilled at the very edge of the sea and unevenly blackened by the fire, or seasoned here and there by the grit of the sand, all satisfied the appetite alone without surrounding by too many complications this simplest of our joys. In the merest hole of a place in Aegina or Phaleron I have tasted food so fresh that it remained divinely clean despite the dirty fingers of the tavern waiter; its quantity, though modest, was nevertheless so satisfying that it seemed to contain in the most reduced form possible some essence of immortality.
Our daughter started coughing and crying at around midnight, so we brought her into our room to comfort her. She was so congested! She finally fell asleep at around 2:00; our alarm went off at 4:00.
We took a taxi to the airport.
As we sat in the waiting area, I read in Memoirs of Hadrian:
I was still a child when for the first time I tried to trace on my tablets those characters of an unknown alphabet: here was a new world and the beginning of my great travels, and also the feeling of a choice as deliberate, but at the same time as involuntary, as love. I have loved the language for its flexibility, like that of a supple, perfect body, and for the richness of its vocabulary, in which every word bespeaks direct and varied contact with reality; and because almost everything that men have said best has been said in Greek. There are, I know, other languages, but they are petrified, or have yet to be born.