So there we are, sitting at the Shabbat lunch table, guests of friends we hadnt seen in far too long. We were three couples, all of us immigrants, each with kids, ranging from 22 (with a boyfriend) to 4 (without a boyfriend). And another couple, parents of our hosts, visiting from the States, both of them well known and highly regarded academics. Sometime in the middle of lunch, the mother of the hostess, whose academic interest is identity, asks us all, without even a hint of irony or condescension, Can you please explain to me why you would choose to live here? What got you to leave what you had and come here?
No one, it was clear, had asked any of us that question in a long time. It took a few minutes for anyone to formulate an answer, though the answers eventually did flow. But well return to that.
A few days earlier This is a complicated country to return to. I landed last Tuesday from a trip to the States, and met my regular driver outside baggage claim. As we started to pull out of the airport, he asked me, Do you want to hear the news?
Thats a loaded question, and he knew it. On one hand, youre home, and you want to know whats going on. So you figure you should listen to the news. But on the other hand, the news is often not very good, and it can be a lot to absorb just after getting off a long flight. But we turned it on anyway, and got the full dose: the ongoing coalition negotiations, the possibility that Lieberman would be appointed Foreign Minister, the ongoing fruitless negotiations to free Gilad Shalit, the number of days hes been held captive (990+ at that point), the ongoing serious water shortage despite the rain, estimations of how close Iran was to getting a bomb and what the (slowly) incoming government might or might not do about that, the continuing investigation of (former) President Moshe Katzav on rape (yes, rape) charges. And maybe some sports I no longer recall.
No wonder hed asked me if I wanted to hear the news. After a week away and a long flight, it was pretty stark reminder of what coming home means. Why, indeed, one could ask, would you choose to live here?
We meandered our way up the hill to Jerusalem, and in the neighborhood called Rechavia, slowed to a crawl in the ever-present traffic. We passed what used to be the Moment Café, where, as Ive described elsewhere, my drivers sister was killed in a bombing. Her picture used to be on his dashboard. Now, its not. But it always gets quiet in the car when we pass that building. This time, he spoke. Five quick Hebrew words. Danny, yesterday was seven years. I didnt say anything. What can you possibly say?
Fifty meters further up the street, a small crowd had gathered. It was the now ongoing protest in favor of getting Gilad Shalit out of captivity, no matter what the price. His parents, I knew, were in the tent. And I thought that the right thing to do would be to stop, to get out of the car, and to go say something to them. It wasnt like there were thousands of people there. I knew I could get to them. And just say something, anything. What, I wasnt sure. But there just had to be something to say.
But there was a lot of traffic, I was hungry from having fasted most of the flight (it had been the Fast of Esther when the flight took off), tired from not sleeping and wanted to shower, and I was sure that my driver was in no mood to wait for me. So again, I said nothing, and he took me home.
But all day, it bothered me. Id driven right by them, and hadnt stopped. What made that OK, I kept asking myself. That I was a little bit hungry? Theyre dealing with a lot more than being a little bit hungry. That I wanted to shower after a long flight? Theyre living in a tent. That my driver might have been in a rush? Surely he, of all people, given what happened to his family only a few yards away, understands how important public support can be to a family.
The next day, Purim in Jerusalem, I kept thinking about the fact that Id driven by and hadnt stopped. And still, I did nothing. And then I went back to work. And then it was Shabbat. I thought of going then, but we had that above-mentioned lunch, it was raining lightly after lunch, and wed promised to walk to my parents for a visit. So I didnt go on Shabbat, either.
By Monday, though, I was out of excuses. I could still see myself in that taxi, just driving by, and with each passing hour, it felt increasingly wrong. So towards the end of the work day, I called my wife. The car, she said, was at home. I walked home, got in the car, and drove to the Prime Ministers house. Surprisingly, and sadly, there was no trouble getting a parking space. Just a few yards away, the protest, such as it was, was in high gear. There were numerous posters, a relative of a terror victim holding a sign that said free those who killed our loved ones to get Gilad Shalit back. And a few dozen people. I didnt see Shalits father, but his mother was there, speaking to someone. I waited a few minutes, and when she was free, went up to her.
What can you say thats not totally banal? I said what I thought was the least absurd thing to say, and we chatted for a couple of minutes. She thanked me for coming, I wished her well, took some bumper stickers from a table, and gave a young woman my cell phone number they wanted to be able to send text messages if they needed a massive rally at a moments notice. Then I went back to the car.
Driving downtown to pick up something wed ordered for the house, I couldnt get Shalits mothers face out of my mind. Though I imagine that shes approximately my age, she looks old enough to be my mother. As I tried to wrap my head around what it would be like to live the lives theyre living, the misgivings that Ive long had (that my wife does not share) about the trade began to dissipate. When I got to the shop downtown, and the man from whom wed purchased the items was wrapping them up, I told him where Id been. Weve known him casually for years, but I dont know very much about him. Hes an immigrant (so he obviously believes in this place). Hes an exceedingly nice guy. He doesnt wear a kippah. And hes an exceptional artist. Thats about all I know.
He was wrapping the items, listening to me, and said, Well, Im probably a minority in this country, but Im against the trade. We refuse to trade, theyll stop kidnapping soldiers. We make this trade, and were just begging them to capture another one. He finished his wrapping, took my VISA card, and looked at me, saying, But thank God I dont have to decide. Its too horrible. And then he basically made it clear that he didnt want to talk about it anymore, that he couldnt talk about it any more. Usually, we chat quite a bit in his shop. This time, almost nothing. After all, what was there to say?
He stamped my parking lot ticket, and I walked out of the shop with a brief thanks.
Micha got home shortly after I did, and saw the bumper stickers on my desk. Where did you get these? he wanted to know. I told him about my afternoon. You talked to his mom? I told him I had. What did you say? What was there to say?, I essentially asked him.
Can I have this one? he asked, holding up the bumper sticker that says Hatzilu, Save Me!, in handwriting that had been culled from the note that Shalit sent from captivity many months ago. Sure, I told him, a bit surprised that he would want it.
What was his mother like? he suddenly asked me again. I looked up from the computer. I didnt really get to know her, I told him. Shes really sad. But today its looking good. He might actually get out. The negotiations are continuing, Ashkenazi [the IDFs Chief of Staff] is returning early from America, so who knows? Maybe hell get out. Shes hopeful, I think. Scared, but hopeful.
He was quiet for a minute. I dont think we should make the trade, he said. Its horrible that hes there, but letting hundreds of murderers out, when we know theyre just going to kill more people? Its dangerous for the country.
I looked at him, and asked him the question that every Israeli family asks itself, usually unspoken. What if it were Avi? [his older brother, now in the army]
He stared at me. That would suck.
OK, so my sons unlikely to make his living as a poet, but he can still think. Thats all? I asked.
He was quiet for a moment. Yeah, he said. That would really suck. And with that he climbed the stairs and went to his room, presumably to do some homework.
And then I thought about it. Maybe his power of expression isnt as limited as Id feared. Perhaps thats just the situation. It would really suck. What more, after all, is there to say?
The evening progressed, and scanning the various news-sites while trying to get work done, I couldnt help but notice a gradual crescendo of optimism on the web. Something was happening in Cairo. The numbers of reporters and photographers around the Shalits protest tent grew a bit. Elisheva, long in favor of the trade any trade, went to sleep, hopeful. I stayed awake, working.
And then, somewhere around 11 or 11:30, it all changed. Nothing was going to happen. The negotiations were over. Hamas had hardened. Or Israel chickened out. (It depends on which web site you read.) But Gilad Shalit wasnt coming home, at least not yet. I could scarcely believe it. I waited another half hour or so to see if the news would flip again, but it didnt. I had an early morning and a long day coming up. I needed to get some sleep.
So I got into bed. But that brief conversation with his mother, and the look in her eye, simply wouldnt go away. Theres a limit to how long you can stare at the ceiling before you know that sleep is simply not going to happen. So I went back downstairs, and back to the web. Nothing. The negotiations were dead. I tried to read, unsuccessfully. And I was too tired to work. So I took out a bottle of scotch, and poured myself more than I probably should have. Half an hour later, having scanned the web again only to see that nothing had changed, I went to sleep.
In the morning, when Elisheva came downstairs, she saw the scotch and now, the Tylenol. Shed obviously heard the news. Shitty night, huh? Hardly looking up from the keyboard, I told her I hadnt been able to fall asleep, that I couldnt stop thinking of that mother, and of that son. I know it sounds nuts, I said to her.
She came over and looked at me. Its not nuts, she said. In some strange kind of way, hes sort of our son, too. And thats why its so painful. But thats what it means to live here. Living here means having an inner circle thats incredibly wide. Life here, sometimes, is simply too raw, too powerful. And thats why youd never leave.
She was right, of course, as she usually is. Finally, someone had said something that made some sense.
And suddenly, I wished that wed had that snippet of a conversation prior to that Shabbat lunch. Because that, more than anything that any of us said to that mothers thoughtful question, was the real answer. You live here, and you feel things that you dont feel anywhere else. You just do. Youre part of things that you wouldnt be part of anywhere else. You care about people you wouldnt care about in the same way anywhere else. Other peoples stories are your stories in ways that they couldnt be anywhere else. You cry, and you laugh, and you mourn and you celebrate, with people who elsewhere, might not matter to you at all.
You may not even be sure that we should make the trade to get their kid out, but you cry when we cant. And given the choice of living life this way, or not, theres really only one question that matters:
Why would I think of living anywhere else?