Monday, August 3, 2015

The Rocking-Horse Man: Tel-Aviv Beach, August, 1973

The Rocking-Horse Man: Tel-Aviv Beach, August, 1973

By David Hartley Mark
           
The ovenlike Tel-Aviv sun beat down on the beach. It was high noon in August, 1973, the time of the hamseen, the searing scirocco-wind that blows in off the desert. I had just finished oiling Anat’s back, smearing the cheap shemen ehgozim—“nut oil”—that we bought in the Israeli five-and-dime at the corner of Yarkon Street and Dizengoff.     She was dozing off on her back, her fine, high cheekbones darkly tanned, making that odd breathing noise that sounded like a cat’s purring.

I lay back, propped on my elbows, gazing through my California-style Ray-Ban shades at everything and nothing. The blistering heat glimmered up from the sand, as desultory Mediterranean waves lapped at the ragged beach. Our tiny transistor radio blared The Doors’ “Light My Fire” from Ici, Beirut!, the little French-speaking radio station that played the best rock-and-blues in the entire Middle East. Maronite Catholics owned it. Supposedly, they were friendly to Israel, but we didn’t care.

Israel was a tiny island of Jews, surrounded by killer enemies. We lay on Tel Aviv Beach and worked on our tans.

All around us, Israeli mamas and grandmas dispensed hugs, slaps, and kisses to their toddlers, along with brightly-colored plastic shovels, buckets, and sliced, smoked turkey sandwiches on thickly-cut rye bread. Anat’s mom had packed us a “little snack”—tiny matzo balls with a spicy chopped meat filling—her Iraqi delicacy—fresh sliced tomatoes, and bottles of mitz tapuzim, the syrupy artificial orange drink that Israelis guzzled by the gallon—

Strange, coming from a country that exported real oranges by the ton, I mused, as I wiped the orange, paint-tasting stuff from my chin. I slowly rolled onto my stomach and turned to a sleeping Anat, cheered by a glimpse of twenty-year-old cleavage showing out the top of her bikini.

Have you seen your mother, Baby, standing in the Shadow?
Have you had another, Baby, standing in the Shadow?

--asked Mick Jagger and the Stones, as I blinked the sweat from my eyes.

A busty, young Israeli girl walked by, wearing a too-small bikini, her shiny black hair swinging, like a tiger’s tail. I watched her tush wiggling along.

The day was going well. Later, we would take the bus to her parents’ apartment in Ramat-Gan to shower, and then, back to Tel-Aviv for a stroll on Allenby Street, a late coffee, and another walk on the beach. Moonlit, this time. Anat would wear her white miniskirt, my favorite.
Not a bad graduation gift for a hard-working college man: two months in Israel—long enough to see if this long-distance relationship had any staying power. I silently thanked Mom and Dad, who were, no doubt, sweltering away this same summer in the concrete canyons of New York Town. I grinned, a fool in the sunlight, and started to doze off….

Anat sat up, abruptly. “There’s a bug on me!” she cried out, in that charming, British-inflected, language-lab-induced accent of hers.

There was a lot to be said for this girl I had met in Prof. Zev Schwartz’s “Twentieth Century American Playwrights” course at Bar-Ilan University, where I was the only guy in the entire class of twenty-five, and where she and I had been the only students who didn’t return to class pregnant after spring break. (Israeli women generally attended college following army service and marriage; hence, the urge to reproduce.) She had had the chutzpah to leave a note on my sagging dorm mattress on the very same evening I had broken up with my American girlfriend: “As long as you have some time until you go home to America, why not give me a call?”

I snapped to attention from my reverie, Anat’s champion, a gallant knight in swim trunks, ready to fend off any tropical boogers.

“Where? Where?” I asked.

Finally, I located it: the tiniest of sand fleas, poised between her lovely, golden-brown shoulder blades. A quick flick, and I was the hero of the hour. We laughed; she kissed me, and lay down again, closing her eyes.

Near us, a little boy in a TSAHAL-Israel Defense Forces sunhat and drooping diaper was furiously digging a ditch to contain the ocean, but the incoming waves kept collapsing his canal.

What a very Israeli thing to do, I thought, as my eyes began to close again, but then I saw him.

Just a man, at a distance: thin and wraithlike, dragging a worn wooden rocking-horse on springs with one hand, a child’s nursery-toy. He was carrying an ancient-looking camera case in the other. As I watched, he stopped and spoke to one pair of young mothers, pointing first at their toddlers, and then at the rocking-horse. They smiled and shook their heads “No.”

He stopped by a grandmother who was bouncing a fat, pink-brown baby in a bonnet on her lap; she also shook her head, “No.” Then, another refusal.

Finally, he came to us. He was breathing hard, from the heat. Sweat was coating his brow, beneath the worn, woolen fedora.

“Would you like your picture taken?” he asked, hopefully, in European-accented Hebrew. “Only two Israeli lira.”

It was about fifty cents; not much.

“Would you like a drink?” I asked.

We had a spare bottle of mitz. He dropped the horse, whose springs quivered slightly before resting on the sand. Its brown-hair mane swirled lightly in the breeze, and its battered painted-ivory teeth grinned in the shimmering air, as if mocking its owner’s futile attempts to earn a living. Like him, the horse’s best days were done: it belonged in a child’s playroom, not out in the heat of a Tel Aviv beach on a searing summer’s day.

“Thank you, I will,” said the man.

Despite the heat, he wore an old, light-wool suit jacket over a light-blue T-shirt, along with shorts and sandals, the better to tramp long distances over the hot sands. He wearily shifted his camera case to the other shoulder, pulled a yellowish-looking bandana from an inner pocket, and wiped the sweat off the inside of his battered grey fedora hat.

Who wears a fedora on the beach? I thought.

“Sit down for a bit, please, Sir,” said Anat, sitting up.

She pulled back her lovely brown legs and made room for the man on our blanket. This might have seemed strange in another country, but in Israel, where everyone was Jewish (well, nearly everyone, if one discounted the Arabs and the few Christians), it seemed as though everyone was family. The man seemed too old and frail to be dragging a heavy child’s toy across Dizengoff Beach in the heat of the day.

“Thank you,” said the man. His Hebrew had a European accent. “My name is Dorfmann.”

He squatted down nimbly and gently on the edge of the blanket, making scarcely a mark. As the breeze turned, we caught a bit of his smell—not only old-man sweat, but some Old-Worldly smell, like an antique shop with its door left open and the aged contents there to view.

He reached for the bottle, whose condensation left tracks of wetness on his long, worn fingers, and I watched his adam’s-apple move as he drank: long, deep swallows. When he finished, he went, “Ah!” and smiled.

He placed the empty bottle carefully in his pocket—“To save you returning it,” he explained—and I caught a glimpse of the number on his forearm.

“You have an unusual job, Mr. Dorfmann,” I said in Hebrew. “Were you a photographer in Europe?”

“I was,” he said. “In Warsaw. Before the war. Before they came.”

He gazed off over the water. A few miles out, we could see a little sailboat tacking before the wind, fighting to make its way against sea and sky.

“Warsaw?” I asked, “What did you do there?”

“I had a photography studio. Taking pictures of children was my specialty,” said Dorfmann, dreamily. He wiped away a droplet of sweat that had coursed down to his eyebrow. I saw that the tip of his right index-finger was missing.

“Families came to me from all over Poland. Once, I even photographed the Polish president’s children. It was a wonderful career for me: I loved my work; I was building a reputation. People said that I had the gift to make even a crying baby smile, so that my camera captured their true soul. It was not merely a photographic image, they said: it was a work of art.”

His face had gotten a far-away look. Though he spoke almost in a whisper, we could easily hear him over the ocean sounds and the babies playing all around us.

“When they invaded Poland, their air force concentrated their bombs on our Jewish neighborhoods. My studio and home were destroyed, and I was lucky to grab only this one camera. I held on to it through all the days and weeks and months that followed. My wife died in the bombing. We had no children. They sent me and thousands of other Jews to the Warsaw Ghetto.”

We sat silently, and listened. In our Jewish minds, a black pall had fallen over the sun; the day became dead to us. Instead of laughing children and lapping waves surrounding us, enemy tanks growled over the sand dunes, and dive-bombers dropped screaming death.

“They wanted documentation of what they were doing—God alone knows why,” whispered Dorfmann. “They found out I was a photographer, and gave me special treatment. They forced me to take pictures of the women and children who were dying in the street. Children were begging for food. They killed children for smuggling in two, three potatoes.

“But what could I do? I had to take pictures of the dead and dying children, in order to live.

“I could not take it any more. I had gotten a small vial of poison from a pharmacist friend, and was going to kill myself. But then, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began, on Passover of 1943, and I was able to escape via the sewers. I was, again, lucky: perhaps God spared me because I had made so many children happy. I ran off into the woods: I dug a hole with my hands and lived in the forests like an animal. Two years, in a hole, like a beast, fearful of every sound.

“Then, the Americans came: big, strong soldiers, and all dark-skinned—I had never seen a Negro before. I lay on the ground before them and cried, for my wife, for the children, for all the Jews who had died. I cannot remember exactly how it happened, but now I am here.

“Since that time, I have decided to make my teshuva, my repentance, for the souls of those dead children, by walking back and forth along this beach and trying to make these new little children happy. If I can take pictures of happy Jewish children, I will also regain my self-respect. Now, if you will excuse me….”

He rose, and dusted off his pants. I stood up, as well.

“Mr. Dorfmann, it is an honor to have met you. May I take your picture?”

The man took hold of his rocking-horse, prepared to go his way. When I focused my Instamatic, he was already beginning to walk, to resume his job, but waited just a moment to give me a shy smile: the smile of a man who has seen much more than he is telling.

I have the picture still: the Man who Drags the Rocking-Horse day after day, on Tel-Aviv Beach.