Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Cold, Wet Rain on the Gayheh Highway: An Israeli Memory, 1972


            In the early spring of 1972, my year abroad in Israel had reached a plateau, of sorts. I was between girlfriends—the then-Girl of My Dreams had thrown me over; I was not deemed Seriously Religious Enough for her high standards; she wound up the wife of an Orthodox Rabbi, as it turned out, so she was not far wrong. I was not getting along with my Israeli roommate, a six-foot-three-inch-tall, blond giant named Zev, a veteran of the Paratroopers and a Kibbutznik, to boot. I honestly had been unaware of his disliking me; moth-like, I had flitted in and out of our shared dorm room, off to class or to socialize with the myriad females on campus—after the enforced monastery-like atmosphere of Yeshiva University, I was enjoying my newfound, co-ed-spiced freedom.
            Our friction came to a monumental head one day when, after boiling up a cup of water on our ancient, rented hot plate and adding the necessary Elite Powdered Israeli Instant Coffee, I sipped the brew slowly and thoughtfully—I was about to retreat to my Writer’s Eyrie on our dorm room Meerpesset, or balcony, and clack away on my ancient Remington typewriter—what? Poetry to my Lost Love? An Aerogram Home? Or another Diary entry? As the caffeine hit my brain, the ideas were spinning, churning—but not fast enough, it seemed….
            Almost as an afterthought, I mused, aloud: “I wonder if this stuff is real coffee. It tastes like Nestle’s Quik.”
            To my surprise and alarm, Zev leapt up—he had been eating a sad little sandwich of pareve-margarine-and-avocado, while doing his Biology homework, as much to save the money a cafeteria lunch would have cost him, as to get a lead on the next lecture—and flung his tiny, plastic Japanese pen to the floor, shouting in Hebrew,
            “Go home! You spoiled, American brat—we don’t need you here! If you can’t hack it in Israel, get out of here—we don’t need you!”
            I was certainly taken aback. I was well aware that Zev didn’t really like me; he and my American roommate—a chubby troglodyte by the name of Mitchell, who spent his spare time building plastic models of Israeli fighter planes, as well as those of the various Arab air forces, tying them to strings, and dangling them over his bed, like a miniature air show—were always at one another’s verbal throats, insulting one another in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic; this kind of cursing banter, I felt, was beneath me, like young mountain goats banging their horns into one another, and I usually rolled my eyes and retreated to the balcony to Invite My Muse.
            But this was something different: I had had no idea that Zev disliked me. This conjured up all of my long-suppressed Summer Camp Memories, along with Being the Last One on the Choose-Up Dodge Ball (or Baseball, or Basketball) Team, and a host of other ego-reducing experiences. I spent the next two hours with my English-Hebrew Shiloh Dictionary in hand, preparing a Speech of Apology. Never once did it occur to me that, after all, Zev could be, simply, jealous of me: he was 21, and a College Freshman, dedicated to pursuing the Life of a Scientist: I was 19, and a College Junior, dedicated to pursuing Women—at least, for this year; then, I would go home, and see what English Majors could possibly do for a living—probably teach, though I had not yet given this option very much thought. Being around young women, day after day, clouds the mind of any 19-year-old male, especially one who been in Forced Celibacy for, oh, about six years, including high school and early college.
            In the meantime, I was, indeed, occupied with other pursuits: another Israeli friend, Avi, had guilted me into helping out with Community Service: he got me a job tutoring English at a local Middle School—at the nearby town of Ohr Menashe. This was no plum assignment, either: Ohr Menashe was a Depressed Area, and, from the looks of it, known for supplying a steady stream of underachievers into Israeli society, if not ne’er-do-wells and Outright Criminals. My tutoring job was not going well: as an inexperienced teacher, I had thought to make friends with the students, and earn their trust, which any good pedagogue will tell you is Educational Suicide. I customarily went into the classroom wearing jeans and a casual shirt—I ought to have dressed the part, or, at least, worn more professional-looking garb.
            And so, after a few weeks of tutoring, during which I answered such pertinent questions from my ragtag charges as, “Are there giant dinosaurs in New York?” –not an unusual question, since the only New York these children had seen came from Japanese movies like Godzilla, Gorgo, and King Kong—I was harboring thoughts of Quitting the Job. I wasn’t supposed to be working, anyway: I had a Tourist Visa, a “Bet-Shtayim,” or B-2, and, if the Israeli Intourist Office found out, I believed I would be in some bureaucratic trouble. Avi had pooh-poohed this, knowing that the “Burokratya” of Israel would hardly bother itself to look at the record of a one-year university student.
            When I called my parents long distance, my father urged me to press on with the job—“After all,” he counseled, “It will look good on your resume, and you will be able to get a reference from that Avi fellow.”
I knew that this was ridiculous: once I returned home, Avi would fade into the mists of memory, and I could formulate a job on my resume to my own imaginary specifications. But Dad had a strong hold on my Sense of Guilt, even halfway around the world.
            But this particular day, there at the bus station on the Gayhe Highway, all of my self-pitying, sombre thoughts were crowding in: a light rain was falling, the sun was blocked by gray clouds, and there were crowds of Israeli soldiers, all waiting for the bus, or a “tramp,” as it was called: a car or truck to hitchhike on. I knew full well the Israeli custom: soldiers in uniform, going home on leave, got first dibs on whichever bus, car, or truck happened along. As a civilian—worse, as an American student, clearly identified as a “rich American,” although I was hardly that—I was low on the list. I could stand there by the highway, either until a bus came, or Hell froze over.
            It suited my mood: standing in the slowly-increasing rain, fat wet drops hitting my long hair and thick glasses, splashing into the dust around my shoes, as the soldiers laughed, pushed, and talked, waving their hands at any car that happened by. This was 1972, and, following the triumphs of the still-remembered 6-Day War, Israelis were proud to support their soldier boys (and girls, though there happened to be none along this way, this particular day).
            I stood in the rain and dust and moped: I did not belong in this place, this country. My Israeli roommate hated, or was jealous of me. I had no girlfriend to call my own. Dad was pressuring me, even from halfway ‘round the world, to stick with a job I hated. I had papers to write for my Shakespeare course, and, in 20th-Century Theatre Class, I was at once the only male student, the only male in the course besides the professor, and the only student not to come in pregnant that spring—Israeli soldiers married almost as soon as they finished their fulltime hitch in the Army; they had to catch up with Life: babies and Bachelor’s degrees came in swift order.
            It was raining harder now. I had been so into my own self and my own troubles, that I had failed to notice that most of the soldiers—indeed, most of the people waiting—were gone, carried off, lucky passengers of patriotic Israeli drivers.
            This is the way it should be, I thought, and an errant tear streaked down my dusty face, as I inhaled strongly, straightened up, and bore my self-pity like a Man, I’m just gonna stand here, here on the Gayhe Highway, and drop dead, right here. My life sucks. Screw Israel; screw Zev, screw Mitchell, and screw those horrible kids in Ohr Menashe. I deserve better. I deserve….
            One small clump of soldiers remained, about twenty feet down the road. I was standing alone, a distance away from them, miserable in the gathering rain. A small white panel truck, with The Plumbing of Moshe (A novice at Hebrew, I could only translate literally) on the side, had pulled over, and the remaining soldier boys were clambering on. I squinted through my wet glasses, and brushed the soaking-wet hair away from my streaming forehead, as the truck began to pull away. Soon, I would be all alone: when the hell was the bus going to arrive?
 The truck suddenly stopped, and waited. And waited. Smoke boiled out of Moshe’s tailpipe.
Moshe could use an oil change, I thought, foolishly.
            One of the soldiers, a short guy with longish black hair, sideburns, and a mustache, got out. He looked at me, and smiled. And waved.
            “Nu?” he said, beckoning to me, “Ahta tavo, Habibi?—So? Are you coming, Buddy?”
            Buddy?—is that me, he called Buddy?
 I ran through the mud, the rain, and the wet, and jumped into the truck.
The soldiers laughed, applauded, and clapped me on the back: “Amerikai Meshugah--Crazy American! Crazy!”
            And they drove me back: all the way to Bar-Ilan’s front gate.

            I was home.