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Why Would You Live Here?

March 1, 2009

So there we are, sitting at the Shabbat lunch table, guests of friends we hadn’t 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 we’ll 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?”

That’s a loaded question, and he knew it. On one hand, you’re home, and you want to know what’s 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 he’s 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 he’d 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 I’ve described elsewhere, my driver’s sister was killed in a bombing. Her picture used to be on his dashboard. Now, it’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t like there were thousands of people there. I knew I could get to them. And just say something, anything. What, I wasn’t 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. I’d driven right by them, and hadn’t stopped. What made that OK, I kept asking myself. That I was a little bit hungry? They’re dealing with a lot more than being a little bit hungry. That I wanted to shower after a long flight? They’re 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 I’d driven by and hadn’t 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 we’d promised to walk to my parents for a visit. So I didn’t 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 Minister’s 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 relativeRelative of Terror Victim 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 didn’t see Shalit’s 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 that’s 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 moment’s notice. Then I went back to the car.

Driving downtown to pick up something we’d ordered for the house, I couldn’t get Shalit’s mother’s face out of my mind. Though I imagine that she’s 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 they’re living, the misgivings that I’ve 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 we’d purchased the items was wrapping them up, I told him where I’d been. We’ve known him casually for years, but I don’t know very much about him. He’s an immigrant (so he obviously believes in this place). He’s an exceedingly nice guy. He doesn’t wear a kippah. And he’s an exceptional artist. That’s about all I know.

He was wrapping the items, listening to me, and said, “Well, I’m probably a minority in this country, but I’m against the trade. We refuse to trade, they’ll stop kidnapping soldiers. We make this trade, and we’re just begging them to capture another one.” He finished his wrapping, took my VISA card, and looked at me, saying, “But thank God I don’t have to decide. It’s too horrible.” And then he basically made it clear that he didn’t want to talk about it anymore, that he couldn’t 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 Bumperstickerthat 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 didn’t really get to know her,” I told him. “She’s really sad. But today it’s looking good. He might actually get out. The negotiations are continuing, Ashkenazi [the IDF’s Chief of Staff] is returning early from America, so who knows? Maybe he’ll get out. She’s hopeful, I think. Scared, but hopeful.”

He was quiet for a minute. “I don’t think we should make the trade,” he said. “It’s horrible that he’s there, but letting hundreds of murderers out, when we know they’re just going to kill more people? It’s 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 son’s unlikely to make his living as a poet, but he can still think. “That’s 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 isn’t as limited as I’d feared. Perhaps that’s 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t. 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 wouldn’t go away. There’s 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. She’d obviously heard the news. “Shitty night, huh?” Hardly looking up from the keyboard, I told her I hadn’t been able to fall asleep, that I couldn’t 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. “It’s not nuts,” she said. “In some strange kind of way, he’s sort of our son, too. And that’s why it’s so painful. But that’s what it means to live here. Living here means having an inner circle that’s incredibly wide. Life here, sometimes, is simply too raw, too powerful. And that’s why you’d 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 we’d had that snippet of a conversation prior to that Shabbat lunch. Because that, more than anything that any of us said to that mother’s thoughtful question, was the real answer. You live here, and you feel things that you don’t feel anywhere else. You just do. You’re part of things that you wouldn’t be part of anywhere else. You care about people you wouldn’t care about in the same way anywhere else. Other people’s stories are your stories in ways that they couldn’t 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 can’t. And given the choice of living life this way, or not, there’s really only one question that matters:

Why would I think of living anywhere else?

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