A gentile girl's life in Israel
ISRAEL SURPRISED ME before I set foot on land. As 1 leaned over the ship's rail to watch the crowd on the dock waving to friends and relatives, I was struck by the appearance of the people. Many Israelis (most of them, it seems to a visitor) look more Nordic than Semitic, more gentile than the stereotype of an Eastern European ghetto or the people of Toronto's Spadina Avenue and Forest Hill Village.
I had come to Israel on a research scholarship from the Israeli government. At least that was the practical reason. The real reason was because I was excited about the idea of Israel, just as the last generation must have been excited about the Spanish Civil War. I came expecting to find the same kind of Jews I had known in Canada and Europe and 1 left, a year and a half later, convinced that Israelis and Jews are two quite different peoples.
The only unhappy person among the two hundred immigrants who crowded the rail was a small round woman from Warsaw' who stood beside me with a look almost of panic on her face. Sonia had told me that ever since Israel had become a nation she had dreamed of living there. “Before that too.” she had said. “Since 1 can remember I have been repeating the old prayer. ‘Next year in Jerusalem'." She had saved enough money from her small salary as a bookkeeper to buy passage. With her remaining money she had invested in a complicated Russian-made camera, which she hoped to sell for enough to live on until she found a job. As a further hedge against hard times, she had filled her suitcase (most of her clothes were on her back) with durable Polish sausage, slabs of chocolate and bottles of schnapps.
But from the day she left Warsaw, Sonia had grown increasingly doubtful and increasingly ashamed of her doubts. Now that she was within minutes of seeing her dream come true, she was close to tears. '1 wish I was back in Warsaw," she said.
The last of the passengers came on deck. I hey were the Cohens, the only other Canadians. Mr. Cohen was a middle-aged man whom I had never seen without a cigar. He and his wife were combining a pilgrimage with a look at the possibilities for investment. The Cohens made their way to the rail. Mr. Cohen took the cigar out of his mouth and whistled softly. "Look at all those Jews.” “Such finelooking people,” said his wife. They seemed as
startled at the appearance of the crowd as I was. The native-born Israelis I met during the following months, except for those of oriental parentage, were big and husky, with fair skin, blue eyes and a marked tendency to blondness. The women, better looking than the men on the whole, are tall and strong and beautifully proportioned. They have the shapeliest bosoms in the Western w'orld — including Italy. When I mentioned my surprise at the appearance of the Israelis to Tamara, a fellow' student at the Hebrew University, she shrugged her shoulders and laughed. Then she ofTered this comment: “Everyone is proud of being a Jew but nobody wants to look like one.”
Another of my early surprises was the fact that in Israel the stereotype of Jews as w-ealthy and acquisitive, or at least capable of making money wherever they go. is false. In their own country the Jews are very poor. My landlord, from whom I rented a tiny room, was curator of a museum and one of the top archaeologists in Israel, but he earned less than $200 a month — not much in a country where coffee costs $2 a pound. "I'm afraid,” said his wife, “that we don't have any of the things you would expect back in Canada — no telephone, no washing machine or refrigerator, and hot water only twice a month. But come and see the room. It has one of the finest views in Jerusalem.” I began to revise my opinions about pampered Jewish wives and indulgent husbands.
“NO ONE’S INTERESTED IN BUSINESS’’
Even Mr. Cohen, with his Jewish business sense and genius for speculation, was out of his element in Israel, where resources and capital investment are controlled by the government. When I ran into him a few weeks later he looked worried, but he bought me a steak — a rare luxury. When 1 asked him about business. he wiped his forehead and gave me a wry smile. “Listen kid. I'm going to give you a hot tip. You want to know how to make an easy thousand dollars in this country?" He leaned confidentially across the table. “All you have to do is start with a million like l did.” He shook his head. “Did you ever give a thought what it s like for a Jew to do business only with other Jews? And in a socialist country at that? All I can say is that Karl Marx has a lot to answer for. and he was one of our boys too.”
Although Israel is full of economists, no one is interested in business. When 1 asked Tamara
why she hadn't gone
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Continued from page 26
A gentile girl’s life in Israel
“It surprised my friends the Cohens to discover Jewish garbage collectors, sailors, charwomen”
into her father’s clothing store instead of studying economics, she looked almost horrified. "Who's interested in business? We leave that to the older generation like my father, and to the new immigrants who don't know how to make a living any other way. What this country needs is people to make things, not to sell them. Businessmen aren’t going to reduce the trade deficit. If we have a lot of economists, it’s because we have more economic problems than practically any other country 1 can think of.”
If the native-born Israelis scorn business as a slightly suspect occupation typical of Jews abroad, neither do they favor the traditional Jewish professions of law, medicine or the arts. Tamara explained, "Israel isn’t a country like Canada, big and rich in resources. Israel is more like Switzerland, and if we are going to survive — which is still a good question — it must be through technology rather than natural wealth. That’s why the emphasis is on science and the practical skills. It’s true that we still have more lawyers and doctors per capita than most other countries, but they are mostly Europeans and there isn’t the same prestige attached to the professions here as in Canada. Israel’s future is w'ith her engineers and scientists. Doctors and dentists are important, but equally important is the manufacture of false teeth for export.”
But the stereotype of Jews as businessmen and intellectuals is so prevalent that tourists like the Cohens are faintly shocked (though they won’t readily admit it) at finding Jewish ditchdiggers and garbage collectors, Jewish sailors and soccer players, charwomen and prostitutes; in fact, Jews in every occupation usually considered Goyische arbeit — gentile work. Mrs. Cohen was particularly impressed with the Israeli soldiers. "Such fine-looking boys and girls. It was worth coming all this way to see them. And the policemen on horseback — 1 can’t get over seeing Jewish mounted police.” But when 1 asked her how she would feel about her daughter doing military service, she murmured something about Ruth’s being "so sensitive.”
But Tamara was as outspoken about Jewish young people from North America as she was about most things. “Don’t tell me you go for that old myth about all Jews being brilliantly sensitive violinists or young Einsteins? Well, they’re not. If you stay here long enough you’ll find out that Israel is one country that has stupid Jews, or at least admits it. The Jewish kids from abroad are over-protected. When they're little they are taught to avoid fistfights and colds, and when they’re big to avoid physical labor and insecurity. They are soft and spoiled. No wonder the Cohens are shocked at finding girl paratroopers. I'll bet the only thing their Ruth thinks about is buying new clothes and finding a husband.”
It took me a while to get used to this Israeli outspokenness. My landlord advised me what books to read. The waiter in my favorite restaurant told me what to order. Tamara cautioned me to avoid English - speaking students in favor of Israelis. My Iraqi grocer taught me what
I should know about olives and set out to procure me an oriental husband who would give me many sons.
I was standing waiting for a bus one day when a handsome young man stopped to give me a lecture on biting my fingernails. Finally he smiled and said, "My name is Menachem. I’ve seen you at the university with Tamara. You’re a stranger in town and you’re from Canada and you’re not Jewish. Never mind, some of my best friends are gentiles. Come on. I’ll buy you a coffee and show you the sights. What would you like to see?” “One thing I’ve never seen in Jerusalem is the night life,” I said. “Oh she’s down in Tel-Aviv for the weekend visiting,” Menachem grinned. Menachem, it turned out, was a history student who worked as a reporter in his spare time for one of the Hebrew dailies and he had just completed a first novel based on his experiences during the Sinai campaign.
Menachem and Tamara are typical of the new generation of Israelis called Sabras, after the Hebrew name for the prickly pear—which is tough and thorny on the outside but sweet and soft inside. Robert Graves once said, “A native-born Israeli is the toughest and most vital human being I have come across anywhere.” The Sabras are stubborn, passionate young people, proud of their strength and convinced of their ability to perform miracles. “If you don’t believe in miracles in this country, you're no realist.” Tamara used to say. She thought nothing of walking twenty-five miles on a sweltering day to prove her endurance. Like most other Sabras, Menachem and Tamara are fiercely independent, inclined to be smug and chauvinistic and disdainful of the weak and indolent.
“All they do is complain,” said the Sabra
Menachem persuaded me to enroll in a Hebrew course given at one of the government schools for immigrants. By coincidence Sonia was in the same beginners’ course. She was a boarder at the school and although she was glad to see me. she was obviously worried about the future. The money from her camera was long since gone. “I don’t know what’s going to become of me. I’ll never learn Hebrew well enough to read and write. I’m too old. And how am I going to get a job? Where will I live? 1 can't go back to Warsaw, and 1 thought things were bad there. Oi, it’s hard to be a Jew, even in Israel.”
The next time I saw Menachem I was able to carry on what I felt was already a remarkably fluent conversation in Hebrew. "Shalom Menachem. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. How much costs a hundred grams of olives and one kilo goat’s cheese? Israel finds favor in my eyes, but my friend Sonia is not happy here. She is a new immigrant.” But Menachem was more patient with my Hebrew than with the immigrants.
"All they do is complain,” he said. "They don’t come to Israel by choice. They come because they have nowhere else to go, and yet the moment they ar-
rive they expect to have everything laid on — apartment, job, loans, social security and medical services. And when they get all this, what do they do? Tell you how much belter it was back in Belgrade or Budapest or Bucharest or wherever. But what can -we do? We have to take in thousands of immigrants like Sonia who don’t really want to be here and we have to accept dollars from people like your friends the Cohens to do it."
"What have you got against the Cohens?” I asked.
"I haven’t got anything against them except that they expect to be treated like absentee landlords. People like the Cohens have invested conscience money in Israel and they think that gives them the right to say how the country should be run. If they donate money for planting trees, they want to see every damned tree the moment they arrive. If they invest money in a factory, they want to know why it isn't run as efficiently as the factory back home in Montreal. And an-
other thing — as soon as they set foot in the Holy Land they suddenly become very Jewish. They arrive here in their mink coats and then haggle over the price of a souvenir. They eat pork at home but here they won’t even ride a bus on the Sabbath."
"You can’t have Athens and Sparta”
I was mulling over Menachem’s criticism when I ran into the Cohens, who were with a group of touring fund-raisers inspecting Canada Hall and other buildings at the university. Mr. Cohen, cigar in mouth, stood watching the students. "Well, one thing is sure." he said. "Arthur Koestier was right when he predicted that in two or three generations the Israelis will have lost their Jewish characteristics. Look at these young people. I really don’t know what to make of them. They’re Jewish, but then they’re not. if you know what I mean. They’re like changelings. One good thing is that they have never
lived in a minority. They don’t even know what it’s like to be called a Jew, let alone a dirty Jew. They have none of our complexes; they’re completely normal. But the question is. can a normal people produce men like F.instein or Freud or Marx? You can’t have it both ways. What you lose on the borscht you make up on the potatoes. You can’t have an intellectual elite when you’re trying to create a nation of peasants and soldiers. You can’t build an Athens and a Sparta. You have to make a choice."
"Don’t listen to him." said a publicity man from the United Jewish Appeal. " I he Jews are as bad as the Irish, always quarreling among themselves. I don’t care whether these young people are brilliant or not. The fact that they are happy and healthy is the best recommendation I know. It’s worth the sacrifice of an Hinstcin or a Marx. If I had any kids I’d send them over here. But I'm too old now and too fond of my creature comforts. Besides I can do more good for
Israel back home. Come on. let’s take a look at the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Naturally I repeated all this to Menachem and Tamara. I wanted to see their reaction. Menachem was indignant. "It’s all very well to talk of an intellectual elite in a twelve-year-old country with an uncertain future. Athens was rich anti so is New York, or Toronto for that matter, but you need wealth and leisure for an elite. Besides, we have learned that it isn't the thinkers and the poets and the painters who win battles and clear the land. The heroes in this country are men of action.”
"Just because we don’t speak Yiddish or go to synagogue or care for business doesn't mean we aren’t Jewish.” Tamara put in. "We consider these things — how shall I say it — characteristic of the Jews in the dispersion but not valid here. As for the professional fund-raisers, they’re terribly keen on Israel of course — publicity is their living. But you wouldn't catch one of them living here. Patriotism is all very well until you have to give up something for it. And don’t fool yourself: that kind would be glad of a mild little pogrom somewhere remote if it would give them a new pitch for their next campaign or raise their status in the philanthropic hierarchy. But then I talk too much. If it weren't for the Americans and Canadians we might not even have a university. As for all this talk about being Jewish, what is a Jew anyway?"
Menachem laughed. "A Jew is someone who worries about what a Jew is."
While this kind of tortured self-questioning may seem only a product of Jewish self-consciousness, it actually represents a very important political problem in Israel. Once it nearly caused the collapse of the government. For weeks the debates raged long and fierce in the Israeli parliament over the question. “What is a Jew?" The battle, between the religious and secular parties, was provoked when the Chief Rabbinate, the supreme religious body, refused burial of an Israeli child whose mother was a gentile. The child, whose father was Jewish. was technically a gentile whether Israeli or not. The religious parties argued that Israeli citizenship was not enough for identification cards, that there must be a religious commitment as well, and that "Jewish” must refer not only to religion but to nationality. They threatened to resign from the coalition over the issue. Finally Prime Minister Ben-Gurion hit on the solution of sending out a questionnaire to authorities on Judaism all over the world asking them for a definition of a Jew. Since the answers have not yet all come back (I suspect BenGurion knew they would have a hard time making up their minds), the subject of nationality has been temporarily dropped. to the relief of everyone except the orthodox Jews.
Menachem and Tamara urged me to explore the orthodox quarter of Jerusalem. Walking into this separate community called Mea-She’arim. the Hundred Gates, is like stepping into an eighteenthcentury ghetto in Russia or Poland with its maze of twisting alleys, high stone buildings and tiny courtyards. It was the Sabbath and I passed families on their way to and from synagogue: men with beards and side curls, round black hats and long dark coats; women with longsleeved dresses, heavy stockings and kerchiefs. Usually their heads are shaved at marriage but they may wear a wig if their husbands can afford it. I paused outside a synagogue to listen to the wailing intonation of the prayers for the day. I passed a group of boys solemn as little old men with their long black stockings and pale faces.
Everything would have been all right if I had not been wearing a sleeveless dress. A group of children gathered, scolding me in Yiddish, but 1 walked on until they were joined by their elders, who shouted. “Shameless hussy, how dare you appear like that! Get out!” They looked so menacing that 1 forgot my dignity and ran.
When 1 told Menachem and Tamara, they burst out laughing and I realized that they had deliberately put me up to it. "We wanted you to see for yourself what these religious Jews are like. It's lucky you weren’t in a car — they would have stoned you.”
The orthodox Jews are the exact opposite of the Sabras. The gulf between them points up the difference between the old order and the new. and the only thing they have in common is their mutual intolerance. The Sabras refuse to speak Yiddish; the orthodox refuse to speak Hebrew, the Holy Language, except for religious purposes. The Sabras rarely
attend synagogue; the orthodox avoid .,litary service on religious grounds. The ■^Sabras support a secular, socialist state; the orthodox exert pressure for the theocracy. The Sabras, and the Israelis in general, are passionately devoted to the national pastime of politics; the ultraorthodox refuse to recognize the state, which they believe can come only with the Messiah, and pay their taxes only at gunpoint. The Sabras are modern in outlook. cynical and agnostic; the orthodox cling to their ancient beliefs and practices. The Sabras wear khaki; the orthodox black. The Sabras do the work and the orthodox spend their time in study and prayer and in the strict observance of the 613 precepts of the Law.
The orthodox Jews are heretic hunters. I was drinking coffee one day when Menachem burst into the café. “Come on. the religious ones are organizing a protest march against mixed bathing in the new swimming pool and w'e’re going to see the fun.” We found a vantage point. Down the hill from Mea-She’arim came a stream of black coats and hats. In the middle was a loudspeaker truck promising certain destruction to those who would profane the Holy City. But the marchers were met at the corner by
a crowd of jeering workers and students intent on driving them back. A few preliminary jostlings, a bloody nose, a torn beard, and suddenly there was a riot. The pale, black-coated zealots stood their ground against the tanned, laughing Sabras until the mounted police arrived to break up the fight. Menachem, with a torn shirt and a black eye, was arguing with a policeman.
The pool opened in spite of threats of planted bombs and we all went swimming, but the hotel owner who had built it had his kashrut license revoked by the
Chief Rabbinate. This meant that he lost most of his business from tourists who refused to eat at a non-kosher hotel.
The Rabbinate supervises the kosher restaurants and hotels, but its jurisdiction is more extensive. It is the self-appointed keeper of the public morals. On the Sabbath, the only thing to do is to go walking. No theatre, restaurant or cinema is open. Buses and railway lines are at a halt and people who cannot afford a car (which is almost everyone) or the taxi fare cannot get to the sea on their day of rest.
Though pork is sold only in special shops, presumably for the Christians and the diplomatic corps, pigs are raised secretly on many farms. My landlady bought pork, but in her children’s books the Three Little Pigs became Three Bears and in Alice in Wonderland the Duchess’s baby was changed from a porker to a porcupine.
Rabbinical law also governs marriage, divorce and inheritance. Intermarriage between Jew and gentile is not legally recognized and conversion to Judaism is almost impossible. We were discussing
marriage one day when Menachem said, “If you and I wanted to get married w'e’d have to go abroad. Even Marilyn Monroe and Sammy Davis Jr. wouldn’t have been accepted as converts here, and there is no such thing as civil marriage. But even if we did marry, the children would be technically illegitimate. Now divorce would be much simpler than marriage. Maybe that’s why the divorce rate is so high. We w'ould simply go to the Rabbinate and request a divorce.” Women are as much a chattel today as they were in biblical times, according to rabbinical law. But according to the Israeli constitution, they are assured equal rights with men. Here again there is a vast difference between the Sabras and the women from traditional backgrounds, particularly those from primitive countries like Iraq or the Yemen. Tamara, who w-as studying the integration of oriental women in the Israeli economy, used to get discouraged. “How are you going to teach representative government to women who believe their husband’s word is law? How are you going to convince them that they don’t have to pull
the plow, at least not all the time, and that they’re entitled to the same wages and treatment as men?”
The girl Sabras, who hold important positions in all spheres of national life, accept the responsibility of equality. They have little interest in fashion, cosmetics or jewelry, and they don’t expect to be pampered by the men. Tamara used to put on her own coat, open her own doors, light her own cigarettes and choose her own lovers. She Had kicked over the pedestal long ago.
Weeks after I had finished Hebrew classes and was looking for a summer job, 1 ran into Sonia. Cheerful, brown as a berry, she threw her arms around me. “I have a job,” she cried. “It should happen to me,” I said. “1 guess I was just lucky,” she replied. “I went to an insurance agency and they gave me a job as a clerk to begin with. When my Hebrew is better they will put me on bookkeeping. And that’s not all. I have found one of my family, a cousin of my mother's who has been here many years. I’m living there until I can get my own apartment. I take back everything I said about Israel. It's a wonderful country and I wouldn't trade one stone of Jerusalem for all of Warsaw. I hope my daughter will come next year — 'Next year in Jerusalem’. You must come and see me soon.”
The Cohens left soon after that, poorer and wiser, but before going Mr. Cohen bought a piece of land near the sea to retire to. “I'll see you all again soon,” he said. "Maybe next year.”
“Not me,” said Tamara. "I'm going abroad to see how the North Americans live. Next year in New York for me.” ★