Identity and amour in an Israeli kibbutz following the Six-Day War.
Image from Flickr via Neta Bartal.
By Sue William Silverman
Bukra fil mishmish.
(Tomorrow, when the apricots come.)
At the same moment Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 mission float across the Sea of Tranquility, I lie alone on the ground beneath stars and planets in an orchard of mishmishtrees. I am in Israel, having recently quit my job on Capitol Hill, my first after graduating college. I’m not actually trying to see Apollo 11 with a naked eye. Rather, it’s as if I sense the pearly skin of the moon invaded—moon dust, silent for eons, startled by thruster rockets—marred by boot prints.
Ari’s boots. I press my head against the ground as if I can feel reverberations of his footsteps patrolling the kibbutz, his military boots circling closer to me.
I’ve been awake since four, just like every morning, except Saturday. From four to eleven, in the cooler air, my group picks apricots. I strap a white canvas bucket over my shoulders and carry a wood ladder from tree to tree. Before dawn, fruit is almost invisible on the dark branches. I search more by feel, my fingers distinguishing fuzz from the slickness of leaves. After filling a bucketful, I unhook the bottom. Apricots, like cataracts of sunbeams, flow into the bed of a truck. Then I return to the ladder: more apricots, more trees.
Soon I am lost to the soft plop of fruit dropped in my bag. Leaves rustle. Twigs snap. I prop my bucket on the top rung to lean against it, resting. I lick the skin of an apricot before sinking my teeth into pulp—leaving my own mark. My mouth wakens to small explosions of sunlit juice. I don’t wipe my lips, craving this stickiness from an apricot that’s mine, that I picked. I grip the ladder, dazzled. As morning rises, apricots become thousands of miniature suns lighting the air—me—my skin flush as fever. My fingertips sense shades of peach, yellow, orange, cantaloupe. The fuzz glows more golden than ancient coins—pale filaments incandescent by dawn.
Apricot: the vowels sound round as fruit. Apricum: The sunny place. Early ripening. Precocious. I split a mishmish in two and consider the pit, feeling as if I should swallow it, as if then maybe I’ll bloom. Israelis, after all, command even the desert to blossom.
I flew to Israel after the Six-Day War. For the first time I’m proud to be Jewish, after wishing, all my life, to be Christian. Growing up, wherever we lived, I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids. I skulked school corridors hoping to be proselytized, changed. I peroxided strands of my hair to look Christian, hoping to pass. It didn’t work. I felt alien. Outcast. All my heroes were Christian. I knew no Jewish presidents, teenage heartthrobs, astronauts, or pop idols.
I cringed in English class in college reading descriptions of Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby. I worried that my own nose, though small, might suddenly grow hooked as his. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake says of Cohn, “He had a hard, Jewish, stubborn streak.”
But now, after only six short days, we are no longer defined as victims, mere survivors, or Shylocks. But do I belong here? Am I of this new sun-drenched nation? Or just in it?
A callused hand grips my forearm. A glint of an Uzi . . . Ari, the Israeli soldier who patrols the perimeter, guarding us all night.
Now my fellow kibbutzniks watch the moon landing on the television in the communal dining hall. Earlier, in broken English, they invited me to join them. I shook my head no, though I long for company. But I’m boycotting everything American because of the Vietnam War.
From this morning’s work in the orchards, my insteps still feel the press of ladder rungs. I stand, turn from the moon, and walk between a row of trees. My leather sandals, straps crisscrossing my calves, etch the fragile soil. I brush dirt from my arms and legs, from my brown shorts and yellow tank top. My filigreed earrings, bought in the Old City in Jerusalem, dangle like silver globes. Through the leaves, I see specks of light from the dining hall, a flicker of a black-and-white television—Neil Armstrong, perhaps at that moment, delivering his now-famous line. Light and sound dim and surge, surge and dim as the unreliable generator drones. Just past the orchard a barbed-wire fence surrounds the kibbutz, protecting us from our enemies.
A callused hand grips my forearm. A glint of an Uzi . . . Ari, the Israeli soldier who patrols the perimeter, guarding us all night. He expects me. Gently but firmly he pushes me back into the orchard, down on the moist soil between the trees. His mouth tastes of Sabra, chocolate, and nectarines. His nose is thin, his eyes green, his hair so blond he could pass as one of my Christian boyfriends.
We don’t speak. I don’t close my eyes. Night spills stars across the Mediterranean sky. The moon presses me to the earth—this Israeli moon, this soil, this man cradling me, our bodies crushing fallen fruit.
When dawn laces the sky I, along with the other kibbutzniks, rest for fifteen minutes. We sit on the ground beside the mish- mish trees drinking water from a tin cup. We are each given a hard-boiled egg and a slice of bread smeared with apricot jam. I rarely speak. I don’t know Hebrew. Few here on the kibbutz speak English. Surrounded by Israelis, I am virtually silent all day. I am taught the word aliyah, however, to make aliyah, to return to Israel, to the homeland, to live.
How am I a Dove at home, against the war in Vietnam, while here I am a Hawk?
“Aliyah, aliyah?” they ask, they ask.
I shake my head, shrug. When I don’t provide a firm commitment to renounce the United States, I am more American than Jew.
At eleven, we pile in the backs of trucks, returning to our bungalows. I grab a bar of soap, shampoo, a towel and head toward the corrugated-tin bathhouse, a short walk from my room. I undress in one of the stalls. I unbraid my long hair that falls halfway down my back, slip the rubber band on a peg, and shake out the strands. There is no hot-water faucet. But by noon, from sun scorching metal pipes, a tepid stream soothes my muscles. I scrub off Israeli dirt, sap, and apricot fuzz from fingertips to shoulders, returning to my more-American skin. I wait until the water chills me, as if I can hoard coolness for the rest of the day.
A scorpion hovers in the corner of the shower greeting me daily, perhaps also seeking water, a respite from heat. The Israelis, with their tough skin, don’t bother to kill it. Its hooked tail, even when sodden, looks lethal, anxious, longing to sting. I admire the simplicity of scorpion, assured of its identity, its function.
Back in my room, I sit on a stool before a rickety wood table beneath the one window. I leave the door open, hoping for a stray breeze to wrinkle the afternoon. I place a blank green aerogramme on the table, a letter—a love letter—I’m supposed to be writing to my Presbyterian boyfriend who also works on Capitol Hill. Dear Graham, Dear Graham, Dearest Graham . . . I think, but don’t write, on the onionskin. Ari . . . his red beret, his Uzi. He speaks only a few words in English, just enough for me to know that, during the Six-Day War, he parachuted from planes to kill the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. . . . tumbles from the sky like a shooting star, billows to earth in nylon clouds, his soundless stealth beneath moons desert-hard and dry, like his knife, its scentless glitter . . . his muscles taut, his breath ancient as sand.
He, too, knows his identity, his function.
Ari is my first Jewish boyfriend, yet I’m relieved he and I speak sparingly to each other. Back in DC, I grew exhausted listening to Graham, to myself, to my friends. All I heard was our shrill self-righteousness, faith by slogan: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
The Six-Day War: the indelible simplicity of capturing territory in less than a week. Now, here, I focus on Israelis planting apricot fields, while America’s orange jelly is napalm, hot and endless.
How am I a Dove at home, against the war in Vietnam, while here I am a Hawk?
I put down my pen.
Beneath my bare feet the floor in my bungalow is gritty with dust and sand. Out the window, yellow-green fields flow to orchards, to the hamsin-hot summer, air brittle with the friction of insect wings. In the distance, a Soviet-built MiG-21 zips open the sky. It plunges toward earth—quick—dropping a bomb on an Israeli town or military encampment before blazing back toward Syria. Too far away to hear. Its silvery light ebbs to black. A plume of smoke hazes the horizon.
This, while a blank aerogramme rustles in a desert breeze.
At home, I watched the faraway Vietnam War on television in bright, primary colors, grenades seeming to explode in my living room. Here, where the war is close, only miles away, it seems distant. Here in the solitude of this small room, I feel safe.
My hair dries. I braid it, fastening the end with the rubber band. I lie on my mattress stuffed with straw and covered by a rough wool blanket. If I press a damp palm against the inside walls, my sweat almost sizzles, even the walls almost too hot to touch.
Shouts of children from the kibbutz school float through the window. A donkey brays. Sheep bleat in a distant field. I drift, my head on the hard pillow, gently rocked by slow concussions of sound. Light burns dust into air.
Should I turn left, right? Should I buy this or that? Live in this city or that one? Myrtle berries or almonds? This man or that man? This country or that one?
All day in my Capitol Hill office, typewriter keys clacked, phones shrilled, bells rang for roll calls, quorums, votes. Once I found those sounds exciting, meaningful. I worked for Congressman Edward Koch and was part—a small part—of the most powerful government in the world. A hippie flower child with turquoise love beads, I answered letters from Koch’s constituents, drafted inserts for the Congressional Record, wrote “Dear Colleague” letters. I researched legislation to halt construction of the Supersonic Transport. Before I resigned my job, Koch was also working on legislation to make the tax code more equitable for single, unmarried people. “Mr. Chairman and members of the Ways and Means Committee, I am pleased to have this opportunity today to testify before you in support of what I believe to be essential legislation correcting major inequities in our present tax system. Unfortunately, approximately 30 million, namely those who are single, are discriminated against . . .”
Congressman Koch introduced resolutions to halt the fighting in Vietnam.
But no words seem to change anything, seem to matter.
Dear Graham . . .
I wonder: Has he burned his draft card yet? Has he decided to go to jail or Canada?
Graham, I never told you . . .
. . .After work, I turned off my IBM Selectric in room 1134 of the Longworth House Office Building. My tasseled Pappagallo shoes tapped marble corridors. In my miniskirt, I took the elevator to the basement, rode the small trolley beneath the Capitol to the New Senate Office Building. Elevator up to the second floor to Senator B.’s office . . . thinking I could find something with him that I’d never discover with Graham. Excitement? Prestige? Power? But the power was all his. Me, only bruising my thighs on the senator’s navy-blue leather couch.
A month ago, my first evening in Jerusalem, I phone a friend of a friend, H., a married American man I never met before. I take the number sixteen bus, Jerusalem stone pink at dusk. We meet for drinks in the bar of the King David Hotel. Too many Scotches. We sway up the elevator and along the corridor to his room.
H. whispers he’ll visit me at the kibbutz when he completes his business in Jerusalem. We’ll get together back in the States.
The door to the balcony is open . . . open to groves of olive trees, the diesel of army trunks, the scent of history, and promises broken all across the Mediterranean.
If only H. weren’t married he could have been my first Jewish American boyfriend.
The next day, waiting for the bus to the kibbutz, I wander the Old City. Serpentine alleyways of dung and opium. Drowsy men recline on Oriental carpets smoking nargiles, water pipes. Merchants shout indefatigably, offering their wares: embroidered Egyptian dresses, camels carved in olive wood, Hebron peaches, bottles of colored desert sand, Turkish coffee and quince, carnelian bracelets, pomegranate blossoms, jasmine, roasting lamb. I am immediately lost in a maze . . . a maze of streets, a labyrinth of scents. I list words for each item I pass in each stall as if this accumulation, itself, can weight me in this place.
It doesn’t. Not yet. Not now.
Rather, I wonder: Should I turn left, right? Should I buy this or that? Live in this city or that one? Myrtle berries or almonds? This man or that man? This country or that one?
Why not all of them, everything?
Because H. and Senator B. belong to their wives. Graham belongs to the Movement—as well as to his WASPy mom and dad. Ari belongs to Israel.
I need to learn to haggle.
At night the skin of an apricot resembles a yellow moon even as its scent is of dawn, waking the Mediterranean Sea.
We don’t pick apricots the morning after the moon landing. As soon as the truck drops us at the field, we are told to climb back on. We return to the common area, shuttled to underground bunkers. The perimeter has been breached, a cut in the chain link fence. Soldiers scout the kibbutz, searching for someone who might be searching for us. I wonder when it happened. It could have been last night while I lay alone in the orchard . . . or when I was with Ari, when he was supposed to be guarding us, keeping us safe.
The bunker is too cool, too damp. We sit on wood benches and are given water in tin cups. The kibbutzniks are stoic. No one cries, not even the children. Conversations I don’t understand. After a half hour, someone switches on a radio. American music. Jesus loves you more than you can know . . . Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty . . .
Dear Graham, today . . .
Homesickness wells up from the base of my throat. Yet if I were home, I’d long to be here.
For months I daydreamed of Israel while sitting in my Capitol Hill office. My fingers paused over typewriter keys, while I glanced out the window . . . imagining the El Al jet landing on the tarmac at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv. Driving to Jerusalem. Slipping a handwritten wish on a scrap of paper between rocks in the Wailing Wall: Let me find who I am, what I seek.
Not long ago when Congressman Koch visited Israel, his Wailing Wall wish was that one day he’d be mayor of New York City.
Why is no one satisfied with what they have . . . always seeking new borders, decisive wars, more apricots?
A few hours later we are released from the bunker. If an Arab was discovered, I am not told. We don’t return to the orchard that day, however.
I wander to a pasture. A donkey, his nose pressed to a wood fence, watches me. I scratch his head, his neck. I pick sweet blades of grass, letting him nibble from my palm. I climb over the fence and lead him to a mulberry tree. I sit in the shade, leaning against the trunk. I sense faint aftershocks, deep inside the bark. Daily afternoon MiGs needle the sky. I wonder if the donkey’s hooves feel the percussive shudder. But he seems peaceful, tranquil, satisfied, just munching grass.
Bedouin women in the Negev say that tea made from apricot pits increases fertility.
Samarian men consider apricot juice good for longevity. Israelis proclaim gifts of apricots to be a sign of true friendship.
Immigrants from Russia insist that apricots are a sign of luck.
At night the skin of an apricot resembles a yellow moon even as its scent is of dawn, waking the Mediterranean Sea.
I hitchhike to the base of Mt. Tabor in order to climb to the top. I stand in a field of sunflowers, gazing at the dome, almost two thousand feet above. All I’ve brought is a thermos of water, an agvaniot, tomato sandwich, an apricot. I could hitch; a road leads to the top. I could have asked Ari to drive me. Instead, alone, I want the soles of my sandals to bear witness. I wander through stands of eucalyptus, pine, and Mt. Tabor oak trees, some six hundred years old. I pass ruins of Crusader fortifications. A snake, at least five feet long, slithers past, pouring over an escarpment into underbrush. I halt, my gaze following its wake, horrified. Most of my teenage years, I lived in the suburbs. My idea of camping is to stay in a Holiday Inn, close to a field, with the windows open. Why did I think I could make it as a pseudo-Israeli?
I am greeted by Franciscans at the top of the summit. They give me orange soda and thick botz in a Turkish coffee cup. I don’t enter the basilica. Instead, sweaty and exhausted, I collapse on the ground beneath cypress, cedar, olive. The colors in the Jezreel Valley far below lie flat, muted, like an Oriental rug faded by centuries of sunlight. Around me stand several churches. One is supervised by Greek Orthodox monks. Another is the Church of the Transfiguration. It is on Mt. Tabor that the prophet Deborah assembled the tribes for the battle against Sisera the Canaanite. Here, too, Josephus Flavius raised fortifications before he deserted the Jews rebelling against the Romans in 66 CE.
If Mt. Tabor were an archaeological site, I would unearth bits of chipped pottery, beads, splintered vessels, tablets on which stories are written—stories of all the armies, marauders, invaders, explorers, prophets, crusaders, rapists, gods, thieves, fanatics, saints—even young American girls who think stories of the Holy Land are their tales to tell.
I eat the tomato sandwich and apricot. I suck on the pit until it is clean before pushing it into the ground.
I rub an olive leaf between my fingers. I shred it, inking the green scent into my skin. Sand grouse trill afternoon winds, soughing grass. Apricots and olives. Are these scents the only stories I know to tell?
After the second temple was destroyed by Babylonians, there was widespread mourning. All the trees shed their leaves, except the olive. When asked why, the olive trees responded, “You, my brothers, show your grief on the outside for all to see. My grief will be carried within for all time.”
Each year the olive tree eats away at itself in sorrow until it’s nothing more than a hollow strip of bark.
In Washington, I felt like a hollow strip of bark. I traveled here to be nourished with olives, with the honey taste of apricot on my tongue. Now I wait to feel the soul of the sand, the fiery slant of sun. The beam of the moon, cooling. The tempering metallic scent of the Israeli sky. The sting of the scorpion, the hiss of the asp. Churches. Temples. Ruins. Olive and oak. Coffee and orange soda. The pit of an apricot.
But I don’t know what, of me, I have found.
Dear Graham, after a long walk . . .
That evening, when the kibbutz darkens, rather than meet Ari, I slip, unnoticed, into the kitchen just off the dining hall. Most of our meals consist of hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, rye bread. Only on Friday evenings are we served roast chicken. I am starving. I crave sugar, something sweet. I scan the cupboards, open the refrigerator. Eggs, eggs, more eggs. There is also a large jar of apricot preserves. I sit on the floor, swallowing spoonful after spoonful.
My parents left Washington DC to live in Haifa for three years shortly before the War of Independence, under the British Mandate. Then the land was still called Palestine. Though my parents weren’t religious, they were Zionists, seeking a homeland. Even before the outbreak of World War II, they felt the sting of anti-Semitism, not allowed, for example, to purchase homes in neighborhoods with protective covenants. Years earlier, during the Russian pogroms, my father’s father fled Kiev after being conscripted into the czar’s army. He left behind his wife and my then-infant father, promising to bring them to America after he’d saved enough money.
My parents would have remained in Palestine except the British made it virtually impossible for Jews to find work. My father, an attorney, couldn’t secure a job. They returned to America, though they always longed to be Israeli. Were, in their hearts, Israeli, and always wanted me to feel this way, too.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” they always said . . .
The scent of diesel reminds me of Israeli army trucks, of air silvery with MiGs.
I am given a four-day vacation from the kibbutz. Ari and I hitchhike south across the Negev toward Eilat and the Red Sea. Between rides, I pluck a red Negev poppy, weaving the stem into my long braid. We are picked up by soldiers, friends of Ari’s, in a green army truck spewing diesel fumes. We sit in the back, protected from the sun by a canvas awning, its flaps tied back. Ari tries to give me a tour. In broken English, he points out desert mountains, rock pillars, cracked mud flats, craters, green ponds. Bedouins ride camels along the old spice route in this stone and sand desert. Using my dictionary, Ari whispers the names sun roses, swamp irises, anemones. He seems to hiss the words desert broomrape, Oriental viper’s grass. The soft vowels of plovers and Oriental skylarks. The harsh consonants of buzzards and vultures winging like black flames across a white sky. I’m not sure which is more beautiful, which words to savor: the language of the moon or that of Uzis? The rough stubble along Ari’s jaw or the fuzz of fruit.
He presents each word to me as a gift, ribboned in gold. Will I accept this word? This language? This country? This boy?
We swim in the Red Sea, skin bronzing in reflected light from the sandstone of the Red Sea Mountains.
“Aliyah?” Ari asks, his voice of salt, sun, sea. “You to move here?”
In the swell of water, his callused hand holds mine tight, as if pressure alone can make me Israeli, or a Jew.
I shrug. I shake my head. Long strands of hair swirl around my shoulders never seeming to root.
My return El Al flight lands at National Airport. My tanned feet and calves, still laced in leather gladiator sandals, are freezing. I buy a Senators baseball cap in the airport and slip it on my head. From my suitcase I remove a shawl purchased in the Old City to wrap around my bare arms. I catch a DC Transit bus, unsure of my destination, not ready to return to my American apartment. An autumn breeze ripples the Potomac. The setting sun reflects off the white marble of the Capitol, all the monuments, but it is almost too blinding. I shade my eyes. I hunch in my seat as the bus lurches from stop to stop; I don’t know when to pull the cord, when to get off. The driver punches the accelerator. The scent of diesel reminds me of Israeli army trucks, of air silvery with MiGs.
When Ari and I said good-bye, he pulled me from the shade of apricot trees into the white heat of the moon. Or so it felt. In one sentence of English, which perhaps he practiced for days, he said I should return here next spring. Or next summer at the latest. I shrugged. I nodded—not sure which was true. With his hands, he pantomimed wings of a plane before handing me a small paper sack. Food for the long journey home. A hard-boiled egg. A slab of bread. Two apricots.
I finished the snack on the bus before even arriving at Tel Aviv. Once in the airport, I went to the restaurant, ordered a Coke and three pieces of chocolate cake.
Then the plane arced away. I touched the two apricot pits I’d put in my pocket, wrapped in a napkin, saving them, as if I could plant them in a ceramic pot on the balcony of my apartment.
As if they’d grow.
Excerpted from The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2014 by Sue William Silverman. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press.
Sue William Silverman is the author of two memoirs. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series in Creative Nonfiction. Her memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction, was made into a Lifetime TV Original Movie. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and has a craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.