BIRTHRIGHT CITY - Welcome to My Woven Words


“Israel,” my father said. He was an oral surgeon. It was December and I was getting a Hanukkah present. “Two whole weeks!” my mother added. She was a mother. She packed my bags: a two-month supply of tampons stashed in Ziplocs and tucked into my shoes, yards upon yards of floss, a pepper-spray key chain,
and a family-pack of Dove soap, which, she always said, was pH-balanced for my vagina. I was sixteen. I knew by this time in my life that she did not mean my vagina, but a whole community of vaginas in need of balanced cleansing, to which, by virtue of my own parts, I apparently belonged.
It was 1986. It was New Jersey. I had Madonna posters on my bedroom walls, though I distrusted Madonna; she was loud and crass and seemed, well, fake. I was embarrassed by the particular way she put her hands on herself in her videos. But I’d needed something to replace the Kristy McNichol posters I’d had on my walls since the seventies. Kristy McNichol had always struck me as trustworthy: she skateboarded and had played someone named Buddy on TV, and her pain struck me as the real deal. Once, when I was in elementary school, I’d sent her a letter telling her to be careful, since I’d seen some of the kids who had to have dental work done in my dad’s office after they fell off their skateboards, and she sent me a 3-D poster of herself on a skateboard and cellophane glasses I could use to look at her from my bed. But Kristy McNichol was old news. And though I was without doubt a weird kid, I wasn’t stupid or developmentally out of whack or anything. I knew how to masturbate, hypothetically, and even had a name for my vagina. My friend Sarah and I had come up with it in middle school, when we realized that the three girls in our grade named Jodi with an “i” (there were none with a “y”) were totally alike: they all wore frilly clothes, they were all dog-faced, and all the boys liked them and chased them around at bar mitzvah parties. “Just like a vagina,” I’d said, and so Sarah said “Like your vagina,” which is how mine got the name. Jodi.
I’d always liked nicknames. Madonna was not a nickname, but Buddy was—and I thought it was a pretty good nickname, as long as it was attached to a girl. While this is not necessarily true now, at the time, whenever I thought about nicknames, I thought about vaginas. Maybe it was Sarah’s fault, though Sarah had stopped hanging out with me sometime around the start of eighth grade. By then I’d learned the difference between a vagina and the other parts, so I also named my other part: Heidi Clitowitz. I’d chosen a nickname for myself, too. It was Misha. Misha was a Russian bear from the Moscow Olympics, an exclusive bit of knowledge I’d picked up from a girl in the neighborhood who’d been to Tel Aviv when American televisions had banned the games, but they’d been broadcast in Israel over the Jordanian station. I’d never seen Misha; I just liked the sound of it. The problem with nicknames, at least as far as I understood them at the time, was that someone else had to make them up for you—you couldn’t give one to yourself. So, as with the bear, no one knew about my nickname. Everyone called me Michelle.
It was 1986, almost 1987, and I was going on a two-week winterbreak trip to Israel with a whole bunch of other Jewish kids from the Tri-State Region. Somebody was bound to know somebody, though when I waited in line to check my bags at the El Al counter, I didn’t recognize anyone. I found my parents in the waiting area, where they were sitting side by side in a row of those airport chairs that had coinoperated televisions on the armrests. My mom and dad still had their puffy coats on, and they were wedged into their seats so tightly they were more or less immobile from the necks down. Once my parents snagged their seats, they really liked to keep them. When I got closer I saw they were both nodding at a woman in a fur coat who sat across from them on a regular old plastic bench. She needed the space: she was big, and the coat made her bigger.
“Michelle, this is Rhonda Seligson,” my mother said, gesturing with her head towards the fur-coat lady.
“No, Carol, it’s Lowenthal now,” the woman corrected. She lifted her hand and wiggled a few fingers in my direction.
“To us you’ll always be a Seligson,” my mother insisted. To me she said, “Your father and I know Rhonda from camp. Her brother Danny was my wonderful swim instructor for five summers.”
My father’s eyes had wandered to the newsstand just beyond the woman formerly known as Seligson, where a skinny blond girl my age walked her fingers along a row of glossy magazines. She wore a tiedyed tank top stretched over a chest that wasn’t so skinny, and jeans that were more hole than denim, billowing out from her bare legs as if a big wind were blowing through them, somehow, in that airless terminal. Rhonda née Seligson looked over her shoulder and then stood up suddenly, excusing herself.
“That’s Rhonda’s girl, Jodi,” my mother said. “She’s going on the teen tour too.”
Rhonda yanked a magazine out of Jodi’s hands and stuck it in the wrong place on the rack.
I didn’t know for sure then, but I pretty much figured this Jodi came with an “i.” What I imagined saying at that moment was, Jodi’s going on the teen tour too. I imagined jutting my crotch out a bit when I said it, a move that was more Elvis than Madonna. Or maybe I thought of all that later. Regardless, I wasn’t going to do anything of the sort. What I actually said was, “Jodi’s a babe.”
“Michelle!” my mother scolded, freeing one arm to point at me over the mini-television. “Women don’t say things like that.”
Like most of my mother’s pronouncements at the time, this struck me as both very true and oddly unimportant. But the real truth was that even before she’d complained, I’d felt myself backing down, as if I needed to offer an explanation. “I mean, she’s lucky, she’s really thin.” “But her mother turned out zaftig,” my father contributed.
“I see Shlomo!” my mother exclaimed, struggling out of her seat.
Shlomo was our guide, a fact I’d learned from the literature my parents had handed me in a blue-and-white envelope, the tangible evidence of my Hanukkah present. My mother had known someone related to Shlomo, an aunt or something, at her synagogue when she was growing up. I hadn’t met him yet. He was in his twenties, scruffy in his short beard and hiking boots. A pair of girlish leather sandals dangled from the straps of his carry-on—the footwear he would don when we got off the plane in Tel Aviv and would continue to wear until he saw us back to JFK again. He introduced himself and instructed us to say our good-byes; we had to get through security.
I got a window seat, jammed in next to an Orthodox rabbi and his wife who didn’t seem to want anything to do with me. I don’t know why I was surprised to hear the usual announcements not just in English, but in Hebrew as well—maybe because this Hebrew sounded nothing like the slow, methodical language recited by the American teachers at my school. I didn’t understand one word of it. It wasn’t until after takeoff that I realized there were two kids from the tour seated right behind me: Jodi and some boy who had a crocheted Yankees yarmulke attached to his head with a bobby pin. I didn’t see much of them; I just heard them talking. Their conversation primarily concerned Shlomo, who’d started circulating in the aisles as soon as the seat-belt sign was off, just sort of nodding hello to his charges where they were scattered about the aircraft. He was apparently in transitional footwear mode; he’d unlaced his boots and was padding around in socks.
“What’s with his name? Shlomo?” This was Jodi. “It sounds like a clown or a pet ferret or something. Or a word my grandparents would use for penis.
It did sound like a dirty Yiddish word, though I knew it was Hebrew for Solomon, and I figured the boy with the yarmulke knew it too, but he wasn’t sharing that particular insight. He just giggled at the word “penis.” It occurred to me, then, that there was an amazing coincidence going on, what with Shlomo and Jodi and all—and I felt a sudden urge to get up on my knees in my seat, lean over the headrest, and tell Jodi Lowenthal all about it. But as I’ve said, I wasn’t totally stupid. I didn’t do anything. I put my headphones on—they were sort of tubular back then, the kind that just brought the sound up in rubber tunnels, one for each ear. If you wanted, you could skip the earphones, sit on the floor, and put your ear to the armrest, and you’d hear the same thing you’d hear with the contraption on. The music on the El Al channels was definitely not Madonna. I pretty much slept through the entire flight, and for most of the bus ride from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem, which was our home base. The brochure called it our “birthright city.” It said going there would feel like coming home. We’d been on the road for nearly an hour when Shlomo woke everyone up with the bus’s built-in P.A. system and made us pile out at a misty overlook. The wind was strong and there was a light horizontal rain, though everything in the distance still looked parched.
Shlomo led the group to a cluster of stone benches, shouting “Keep up the end, keep up the end!”—a suggestion clearly intended for Jodi, who lagged slightly behind everyone else, her ripped jeans ballooning when she turned into the wind. She shuffled up and immediately sat down, hugging her bare shoulders. I could hear her muttering.
“Fuck, it’s cold. Isn’t Israel supposed to be a desert?”
Shlomo introduced us to Jerusalem: the new city with its glossy, modern white buildings to the west, the Old City with its greasylooking white walls to the east. Even the hills were different shades of dusty white. Shlomo’s arm jumped around as he talked about one mount and then another. He taught us an Israeli army trick: when you want to point out a faraway spot to your buddies, you determine its relative distance from other faraway spots with a unit of measure called “fingers.” He demonstrated this with a small Arab village that squatted in a dry valley, holding up his hand and counting three fingers to the village from the Old City’s sealed Messiah Gate. I held up three fingers of my own, but when I set them against my view of the gate, my hand didn’t reach the village, ending instead at a small Arab girl riding a clumsy donkey down a winding path. The animal was a whitish gray, the girl covered in dust, and I hadn’t noticed the two until I focused on my hand. I inched my arm over to the right so I could reach the village Shlomo wanted us to see. The girl was obliterated behind my fingers.
Behind me on the bench, the boy from the plane had seated himself next to Jodi again. Apparently he had offered her the warmth of his coat, if she was willing to cuddle up under his arm while he continued to wear it. Jodi was willing. The boy’s skullcap rose periodically from his head, flapping in the breeze. This boy, I later learned, was one of the most religious in our group. He refused to light a match on the Sabbath due to the rabbinical prohibition against fire, but would smoke pot on that day if someone else got the joint started. In the days that followed, the boys of the teen tour would seat themselves next to Jodi, shuffle with her behind the others, press their thumbs into her back for a quick massage, and offer her the warmth of their coats while Shlomo pointed out hills of dirt and walls of stone. I wasn’t sure how much of Israel my traveling companions actually noticed. But I wasn’t sure how much of it I was getting, either: Jerusalem, where we spent the first week, was nothing like I’d imagined, though I gathered that was because we hadn’t been to the Old City yet. There’d been a fatal stabbing of a Yeshiva student near the Temple Mount just before we’d arrived, and Shlomo said we’d have to wait to visit that part of town; we would be taken to the Western Wall as a very special finale. The new city, the only place we were allowed to explore, seemed to me full of shabby gloom, its downtown streets lined with squat, dark storefronts featuring the kind of merchandise I’d seen in the most forsaken parts of North Jersey, decrepit housewares and dusty books and bewildered-looking mannequins lost in indeterminate fashion eras. Each morning, our bus would trundle out of the city center to open, manicured, chalkywhite spaces where we’d visit the Holocaust museum or the Knesset or the Great Synagogue or the miniature model of ancient Jerusalem at the Holy Land Hotel, and then, when visiting hours were over, we were trundled back to the center and set loose—to mingle, presumably, with our Israeli counterparts, noisy, aggressive, lively kids who spewed the impenetrable language I’d heard on the airplane, who passed us on the shopping strips or sat one table over in a slightly-offlooking pizza joint, accustomed, it seemed, to a presence like ours, and therefore oblivious to it. I tagged along as the kids from the bus searched for something to do, something to recognize; when they’d given up on that, the girls turned their sights on something to buy, the boys on someone to torment. They’d lead us into the McDavid’s—oddly decorated in red, white, and blue—and complain to the management that the ketchup was seasoned incorrectly or attempt, repeatedly, to order a bacon double cheeseburger. Or, when we’d crowded into a corner falafel stand, where the old men behind the counter handed us heaping portions in soft, warm bread pockets, the boys would shout “Coke? Coke?” and the men, responding “Coca Cola, yes,” would head for the refrigerator until the boys appeared to change their minds, yelling “Pepsi? Pepsi?”—knowing quite well that there was no Pepsi to be found here, since Pepsi, we’d been told, had chosen to maintain its vast Arab market by shunning the tiny Israeli one. When the falafel men hesitated, uncertain how to respond, the boys would ramp it up: “Dr. Pepper? Mountain Dew? Orange Shasta? Mello Yello? Fizzy Jism?” until the old men, clean-shaven and brown in their faces, swift and guttural in their speech, nothing like our German and Russian grandfathers, finally gave up, flustered.
At night, we stayed in youth-hostel rooms, girls on one hall, boys on another. I was always first in bed, the bottom of a corner bunk. I’d pull the blanket up past my nose, nearly but not completely covering my eyes, so that I could feel my lashes against the top sheet when I blinked. I was an only child, and had never slept in a room with anyone else before, as far as I could recall. I wasn’t in the habit of looking at people in those days, either, at least not when they could look back at me, so this method of hiding myself behind the covers had freed me up, without my actually intending it, to take a nightly inventory of my roommates. No one paid me any notice, but even then I avoided faces, scanning instead from the necks down: round bodies with heavy breasts that filled extra-large Benetton T-shirts doubling as pajamas, tall bodies stretched taut and thin over sturdy frames, with long, muscular legs that reminded me of frogs splayed out on dissecting pans. Nothing I could find on myself was either as pronounced or as defined. My own hand searched in vain for the hip bones I saw protruding beneath exposed skin when someone reached up to grab the ladder to an upper bunk. I could not see, when I attempted to consider myself in that mix, what it was that supposedly made us all alike; all I saw, when I peered out from under the starched and stamped youth-hostel bedding, was what I was certain I did not have in common with the rest of them, what I was supposed to be but felt certain I was not, something soft but burgeoning, something gleefully awakened—to what, I hadn’t a clue. Each night the girls primped for bed as if sleeping were a party, until Shlomo popped his head in, never bothering to knock, and declared we’d reached “The We-Bitching Hour”—a term he used nightly, to no one’s particular amusement, or, I suspect, comprehension, except that it meant lights out. Most nights, he’d use the opportunity to usher Jodi through the door from wherever he’d found her. She’d plop into her bottom bunk just as the room went dark.
I was fully aware of the fact that my parents were hoping that, in addition to connecting with the homeland, I’d come back from the tour with new friends—with any friends, actually, since my loss column had pretty much overtaken the gains in the friendship department from the start of high school. It seemed they’d decided to blame it on the fact that my options were limited to my small private school, to our little cul-de-sac community. They’d already made me try all kinds of clubs, stuff for smart kids, stuff for artists, stuff that tried to turn what you did in your room at home into who you were. I’d tried a whole lot of things, but then I finally refused to try anymore. I didn’t really belong to anything. Once I’d overheard my father, when he thought I was asleep in my room, tell my mother he was worried because everyone else my age seemed to have a “thing.” I knew what he was talking about: He always said my generation needed a thing if they wanted to get into a good college, have a good career. My mother laughed and said, “Oh, one of these days she’ll fall in love, and then she’ll find her thing soon enough.” Sometimes I felt like she was speaking a dead language. Still, I harbored a constant, nagging sense that I owed my parents something, so I didn’t complain about the Israel trip. And I was, I suppose, kind of curious, if you could call it that. Israel was so far away, so very old; I figured something really different couldn’t hurt. Once I was there, it struck me as kind of cute that their good intentions were so pathetically misplaced, considering how the kids on the teen tour were exactly the same as the ones at home—only amplified, what with the whirlwind intensity of our Israel adventure. But in retrospect, I understood that my mom and dad weren’t really willing to grant me a true change of scenery. They wanted desperately for me to find my place anywhere in the world, in any little community, as long as it was just like theirs at home.
About a week into the tour, we were told to pack for a few days’ excursion: we were going to mock-military boot camp. This was a place Israeli high-school students went for an entire week, to prepare for the real thing—army service—when they graduated. For us, the youth of the Diaspora, they offered the three-day version. I’d known from the brochure that they were going to give us guns. Not for keeps, of course, just for a session on a shooting range, and a few encounters before that, for the sake of getting acquainted. We arrived at night, in another light rain, and were greeted by uniformed soldiers, who, barking at us in accented English, made us line up right outside the bus and stand at attention, our bags on the damp ground beside us. We were separated—not just for sleeping this time—into platoons of boys and girls, but the soldiers bossing us around were all female, which everyone took as a pretty clear sign of how phony the whole boot camp thing was. After some shouting and leering and warnings about how hard we’d work for the next few days, they gave us each a little stack of army-green shirts and pants and sent us off to our barracks, which looked just like another youth hostel.
I was brushing my teeth in the dorm-style bathroom, jockeying for position at the sink, when Jodi marched in, taking the stall just behind me. A moment later she screamed.
“Goddammit! Does anyone out there have any corks?”
I hesitated, looking at the other girls, who busied themselves at the sinks. In my memory, their faces are clouded in the water-damaged mirror; I can’t remember their names, except for the fact that no one else was a Jodi. None of them showed any indication of having heard Jodi’s distress call. I thought of a few things I might say, didn’t say any of them, and then decided to say something after all.
“Wait a second! I’ll be right there!” I ran back to the room, wiping the foaming toothpaste from my lips with my T-shirt. I was back in a flash, tossing a Ziploc full of tampons over the bathroom stall with the full momentum of my run.
“Holy Jesus, you rock!”
I heard her tear open a tampon behind the stall door. I rinsed my mouth and started to introduce myself, raising my voice above the flushing toilets. I wanted to be sure she knew who her supplier was.
“I know who you are,” she said, coming out of the stall. “My mother told me at the airport. Your mom was Uncle Danny’s swimsuit girl. Michelle, right?”
I said, “It’s Misha.” I stepped aside from my place at the sink so she could wash her hands. She wore her hair in a ponytail with an elasticized piece of flannel that matched her flannel boxer shorts. Her legs had remained perfectly smooth since JFK. She looked up at me, not directly, but in the mirror. I looked away, at myself. It felt stupid. I didn’t know what else to say.
“Decent nickname,” she said. She picked at something tiny on her chin. Then she shuffled off to our room. The lights were out by the time I felt my way to bed.
The girl soldiers were all corporals, a rank they said was called “Rabat” in Hebrew, which sounded a whole lot like “Rabbi” to me. Which made the subtle differences between bat mitzvah tutoring and faux boot camp all the more apparent. For two days, we labored in our single-sex squadrons, cleaning bathrooms, peeling vegetables, lumbering through obstacle courses, learning not to light a match while on night patrol, all the stuff, they said, the Israel Defense Forces were supposed to do. We also studied the guns, and handled them a bit—M16s, a pretty serious-looking rifle that we disassembled and cleaned, with oil and handkerchiefs, right on the mess hall tables. The thing soldiers seemed to do most, though, was stand at attention, and the girls’ corporal, Rabat Osnat, liked to line us up and shout at us a whole lot. I noticed she had a stronger accent than the rest—you couldn’t tell if she was trying to say we should “get over the wall” or the “war,” if she thought we were “hungry” or “angry.” On the morning of the third day, the day when we’d fire our weapons, we endured an especially long and unintelligible lecture. We were all standing stiffly, arms behind our backs and faces straight ahead, when someone broke ranks and headed toward the latrine—I didn’t need to turn my head to know it was Jodi, but I shifted a little anyway, just so I could see what would happen next. Rabat Osnat demanded an explanation, and Jodi spun around. I could see the tie-dye peeking out at the neckline of her fatigues. Her shirt was unbuttoned at the bottom and tied into a knot at her midriff, and her pants were cuffed tightly around her calves, creating her signature ballooning about the knees. An elaborate system of safety pins sparkled at the pant cuffs, just above her thick pink socks and mud-stained K-Swiss.
“I’m on the rag, sister. I don’t suppose you stop the real war for that, but the Fisher-Price version can sure as hell wait.”
I wasn’t sure they’d let Jodi fire a gun after that, and in fact, when they lined us up at the range, each of us standing at the edge of an army-issue blanket on which an M16 sat alongside giant, airfieldstyle earmuffs, I didn’t see Jodi. But then there she was, personally escorted by Rabat Osnat to an unoccupied blanket not far from mine. I figured she’d pointed out to Shlomo, who was there somewhere at the camp, slapping around in his sandals, that her mom had paid the big bucks to let her shoot guns in Israel, and Shlomo had convinced the soldiers in charge to let her stay. We’d been briefed a hundred times, it seemed, on shooting-range protocol: there was a command for waiting, a command for lying on our stomachs by the gun—which had been propped for us on a stand at the blanket’s far edge—a command to load the cartridge, another for placing the blue plastic muffs on our ears and lifting the butt of the gun so it rested against our shoulders, one to take the trigger off the safety setting (and move it to semiautomatic, not automatic), and a command to fire. There were targets across the way—not in the shape of people or anything, just black concentric circles on a white sheet of paper. We weren’t even supposed to hit the middle; we just had to try to get the five bullets we fired to hit somewhere close to each other. I wasn’t really sure what that was all about—weren’t you supposed to hit the right enemy in the right place the first time? But I wasn’t in a thinking mood: after we were reminded, for the umpteenth time, never to lift the guns from their stands, we got the signal to hit the floor. With my face close to the ground and the headset over my ears, I could smell the blanket’s musty scent, but the rest of the world seemed far away. I looked down the row of would-be shooters and saw Jodi, her ponytail high on her head, her jaw working its way around a wad of gum, her painted nails splayed out before her—just some chick in front of a pile of Seventeen magazines. The corporals must have saved their best shouting for the range, because their voices were the only clear sounds coming through the mufflers. The command came to release the safety, and I saw one of Jodi’s hot pink fingernails slide into the trigger. I continued to see it even when I turned to my own target and fired five times. I saw nothing up ahead; I felt nothing but a shove in my shoulder with each shot.
Once we were done, which seemed about as soon as we’d begun, we rested our guns in their stands, pulled off the headsets, and awaited one final command to smile as the Rabats came around for our cameras, preserving the moment on film. I had my old plastic Kodak with me, the one my parents had given me for my bat mitzvah, filled with the same roll of 126 I’d cranked into it at the start of the trip. Rabat Osnat took her best shot—the snap of the shutter sounded small but sharp after everything else—and then placed the camera on the blanket beside me. I sat up and fumbled with it, trying to advance the reel, realizing my hands were sweating. Osnat was making her way down the row, and I watched her wrestle for a while with a complicated-looking 35mm gadget that belonged to the girl next to me. Ahead, Jodi was still prone on her blanket, headgear hugging her blond head. She made eye contact and paused her gumchewing to smile a toothy grin; her hand formed a thumbs-up beside her face, which she tilted toward the butt of the M16. I realized she was posing for me, and I brought the Kodak to my eye and snapped. She winked and stuck her tongue out a little, letting it hover over the rifle, like she was just about to give it a good lick. I snapped again. She wriggled on the blanket, propping herself on one elbow and using her free hand to make a move on the gun that looked something like the Wicked Witch of the West—you know, when she’s going after her crystal ball, poppies, poppies—a kind of air-caress that then reached under the barrel, almost cupping it, and before I could snap again I saw Rabat Osnat yank Jodi’s hand back right through my viewfinder. Then another set of hands snatched my camera.
Somehow I was implicated in this affair, as if I’d encouraged Jodi with my camerawork, as if my little plastic box was as likely to burn my hand—or fire a spare bullet—as Jodi’s rifle. For our punishment, we were to be excluded from a weekend trip down south to the beach, left instead with a host family back in chilly Jerusalem. The tour bus actually dropped us off on the way out of town, taking a winding road that hugged the Old City walls, the closest we’d come to them so far. They were massive, the stones much larger than they’d seemed from the overlook, and neatly landscaped with grass and space-age-looking spotlights. We turned up a hill—the city was all hills—and stopped in front of a public bus stop, with people there—an old woman with a bulging plastic bag at her feet and a long-haired man with a baby in a stroller. I was sitting up front, just behind Shlomo, hugging my overnight bag, but he made cheerful use of the loudspeaker to let us—me and Jodi—know that this was our stop. I didn’t turn around to watch Jodi make her way to the exit from her usual spot in the way back; I just bounded down the steps after Shlomo, nearly tripping over the guy with his stroller. His name was David, and he was a friend of Shlomo’s, and he would be our host. Nobody said anything to the old lady; I figured she was just waiting for her bus. When Jodi caught up, the tour bus took Shlomo and the rest of the kids into the Judean Desert and toward the Red Sea, while we followed the guy with the baby home.
I thought we were going to stay with an Israeli family, but David and his wife were just Americans who had been living in Israel for a while, sort of religious hippies with matching long brown hair; when Shoshanna got home, my first thought was that the two of them looked like brother and sister. It was still a few hours until the sun set and Sabbath began, but they put us to work right away, washing the white tile floors with a squeegee and pushing the dirty water down a drain in the balcony, chopping vegetables for chicken soup. Jodi wasn’t too talkative, and I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say, so I just listened while they told the story of how they’d fallen in love with Jerusalem and with each other all at once, and while they fed afternoon snacks of soup veggies to their little boy, Bentzi, the apparent result of all that falling in love. When they finally sent us into the dining room to set the table, I passed Jodi a stack of plates and whispered “Faux-faux-boot-camp,” and she let out a little chuckle. At dinner they sang but didn’t make us sing; they drank wine but didn’t make us not drink. “No drinking age in Israel,” Shoshanna said, pouring us each a new glass. Bentzi mashed soup carrots into a Sesame Street book I recognized from when I was a kid. He held it out to me with an oily hand. “Grover is a goy,” he said. It cracked his parents up.
Over dessert, they invited us to Sabbath morning services at some kind of do-it-yourself synagogue—a whole group of religious hippies like themselves—that met in the bomb shelter of a neighboring apartment building. I wondered if the wine had loosened up my facial muscles, since David could tell I was pretty alarmed by that last detail, the bomb shelter. He said it was a normal thing in Israel, that there was one in the basement of every building. Mostly kids used them, he said, to have parties or make out. All of a sudden Jodi had something to say.
“Thanks for the suggestion and all, but Misha and I are going to the real synagogue down the street.”
I had no idea what Jodi was up to, since I was pretty sure she wasn’t planning to attend any Sabbath services, but I nodded anyway. It was the first time anyone ever called me Misha. In any event, they didn’t seem to care, David and Shoshanna, where we did our praying. They were clearly all about freedom of expression. David scooped up the baby, probably to go wash the soup off, and Shoshanna showed us to the little room in the back of the apartment where we were supposed to sleep. I’d assumed it would be Bentzi’s room, full of Sesame Street paraphernalia and a crib and a couple of sleeping bags for us, but this room had nothing in it but a wall of built-in cabinets and one full-sized bed. Jodi was apparently done saying everything she was going to say to our hosts for the night, since she dumped her bag on the floor by the cabinets, pulled a bunch of junk out, and disappeared into the bathroom. I was feeling a little woozy, so when Shoshanna left me there, I just sat on the edge of the bed for a while, facing the wall unit, looking at all the different-sized brown laminate rectangles with their matching handles, wondering which actually had hanging closets behind them and which had shelves and which were drawers, and when Jodi got back in her tank top and flannel boxers, her bare legs still looking like they never needed to be shaved, she stood and stared at me for a minute, combing her fingers through her hair to wrangle it into a ponytail, and said, “What’s the matter with you?”
I wasn’t really sure how to answer that, so I just sat there for another minute, which forced Jodi to choose the side of the bed away from the cabinets. I could feel her making little tugs on the blanket, trying to yank it out from under my butt, so I finally stood up and turned around, and as she got under the covers, she looked right at me and laughed, which made me feel even more disoriented, as if I’d never actually seen her before, and now I would have to fall asleep beside her. She said it again, “What’s the matter?” Then she said, “They’re just making us share the covers. No one asked you to get into my haunted house or anything.”
When she said it like that, I really did feel frightened for a moment— like when you’re a little kid and the mere mention of a haunted house gives you the creeps, dread and excitement all at once. But I wasn’t that terribly horribly stupid. I knew Jodi was talking about her Jodi, so I laughed right back, and went to brush my teeth and get into my sweats. By the time I turned out the light and climbed into bed she had her face to the wall. She’d used something for her skin—like Sea Breeze, that mouthwash-blue stuff my mother would never let me try—and the smell hovered over the bed, all cool and scrubbed-clean. I turned my back to her and faced the complicated wardrobe. It was probably the first time I’d ever had bed spins. I could feel the edge of the mattress underneath me, all along my length, my body balanced as far out as it could go without falling off. I felt like I would fall anyway, forward or backward, it didn’t matter—I was sure it would be a long way down, to some place at the bottom I knew perfectly well but still couldn’t see. Or maybe I didn’t think exactly that, not right then. Maybe I thought about all of that later. I’m not sure how long I’d been in bed, spinning, when I felt Jodi shift under the covers. The blankets lifted a little—I remember a moment of coolness beneath them, as if for a second, I was suspended in air, in contact with nothing—and then Jodi was there, pressed against me, a warm body and breath on my neck and back. I could feel her breasts, one nestled just below each of my shoulder blades. Her bare knees fit against the backs of my own, through my sweatpants. I didn’t know where she’d put her arm—not the one beneath her, which I could feel vaguely on my back as well, but the one on top, that was free to move where she liked; it did not wrap around my front, or even rest on my shoulder. I imagined she’d laid it along her side, her hand resting on her hip, or maybe it was folded in at the elbow, coming back up to touch her own shoulder. I wasn’t sure how she’d managed to balance that way. I didn’t dare look. The warmth of her made her visible to me, though, and a thought occurred to me unlike any other I’d had before: to feel a person pressed against you in darkness was to see that person as if in a full, radiating light. I saw her, not as she was in the airport terminal or the firing range or the back of the bus, not even as her particular assemblage of parts that bore a resemblance to one girl’s torso, another’s calves. It was a different kind of vision, one that I could feel on and in myself, with perfect clarity, perfect recognition. It was with that sort of intensity that I felt Jodi lock herself into me, and remain there. I was conscious for a long while of not breathing, so I wasn’t sure how it was, exactly, that I was still alive. I was more than awake. When I was little, my mother used to say you couldn’t fall asleep until you believed you were going to fall asleep, and so I grew to accept myself as the heretic I was always meant to be, a child insomniac of insufficient faith. As Jodi lay there, unmoving but still progressing—the steady pressure of her body an advance further and further into mine—I was more the heretic than ever. I knew I would not sleep a wink. Yet what I knew turned out to be wrong: somehow that condition of complete wakefulness, of illumination, slid me seamlessly into a soft darkness, and into sleep.
When I opened my eyes the room was bright. Jodi was no longer at my back, though I could feel the tension in the blanket where she lay claim to her half of it, somewhere behind me still. I hadn’t stirred an inch from where I’d placed myself, face to the wardrobe, the night before. I lay there and waited. Soon I could hear Bentzi’s babbling, an original mixture of English and Hebrew. Then there was the low murmur of his parents’ voices in the hall, the jingling of keys. The front door had barely clicked shut when I felt Jodi rise; I automatically brought the covers to my lashes. Jodi crouched on the floor beside the wardrobe and riffled through her bag, yanking out an extra-large men’s shirt that she pulled over her head. It fell past her tank top, hitting low on her thighs. She tugged the boxer shorts down from underneath the shirt and stepped out of them, pulling a pair of leggings up instead. She carefully smoothed her ponytail, repositioning it to one side of her head. Then she stepped into her KSwiss, faced the bed squarely, put her hands on her hips, and looked right at me. It hadn’t occurred to me that she could see my eyes. Her voice contained the usual impatient mocking.
“You ready yet?”
I remember thinking, Maybe, yes, wait, for what?
“We’re going to the Old City,” she said. “I can totally find my way. I watched from the bus.”
“What about David and them?” I was having trouble speaking properly. I lowered the blanket to just below my chin. “Won’t they see us from services? They said their synagogue was next door.”
“It’s in a bomb shelter, genius. I’m pretty sure those things don’t have windows.”
When I grabbed my clothes and headed for the bathroom, I thought I heard Jodi’s chuckle follow me out of the room, but I couldn’t be sure; I don’t think I was really sure of anything that morning, except that Jodi had replaced Shlomo as my tour guide, and I was allowing her to lead me into the surprisingly clear day, out of the neighborhood where we’d slept and onto unfamiliar streets, shady, long blocks of office buildings marked ministry of one thing or another, all closed up and quiet, abandoned for the Sabbath holiday. Jodi blazed our trail without hesitation, though it seemed to take us an awfully long time to retrace the path the bus had taken the day before. We walked silently for a long while, until we reached the sunny end of a road that opened out onto the Old City walls. This wasn’t the same spot we’d passed the day before: there were no trimmed lawns, no evenly spaced spotlights. The streets were full of grit and trash, the sidewalks erratically paved, as if there’d been an idea of work that was later forgotten. The plaza between us and the grand gate ahead—a dark, pointed arch between two thick, arabesque towers—descended into the archway in wide stone steps covered by boxes of goods for sale and the vendors who squatted beside them. We both paused, taking in the sudden chaos, and then Jodi plunged into the throng. I followed quickly now, directing my feet around ground-level spreads of salt and pepper shakers, children’s underwear, flashlights, wind-up toys in shrink-wrap, pocketknives. Women shoppers, dark scarves encircling their heads, stooped over cardboard flats crammed with live chicks. We made our way through the crowd and into the gateway, a deep chamber inside the city wall.
The gate did not deposit us immediately, as I’d expected, into the familiar, white open; instead, the crowd thickened and our pace slowed as we moved into deeper darkness. As my eyes adjusted I saw the shops: hardware stores, money changers, produce stands, all tucked into the dank corners that routed us along a sharply angular path, preventing direct access to the city. We had entered a living arm of the Arab market. I found myself unable to direct my own movement, squeezed as I was into the mass of people moving in both directions, somehow, through the gate. An old woman with a leafy branch of figs tied around her in a sling pressed her knuckles into my back, urging me forward, and I tried to oblige, eager to keep up with Jodi’s sideways ponytail. At last I stumbled out of the arch and into an alleyway—there was only slightly more sunlight here, slightly more air—where I hurried to Jodi’s side. Storekeepers sat on low stools on a slim margin of pavement and stared. Some cooked meat on small grills or sipped tea in tiny shot-sized glasses, tossing dice over backgammon sets. Music blared from many radios—string instruments that played in dizzying, descending scales, an accompaniment to wailing voices, Arabic words.
“Cool,” Jodi said. “Hold still a minute.” She rested a hand on my shoulder. I stood perfectly still, just as she’d said, while she lifted one foot to pull a pebble from the bottom of her sneaker. The shoe had barely reached the ground before she continued onward, up an incline, the alley rising on broadly spaced concrete steps that made my gait feel clumsy, halting, as I continued to follow. A boy navigated a cart of sesame breads downhill, riding a tire loosely attached to the cart’s rear, bouncing lightly off each low step. There was something solemn about the market—it was just shopping, of course, almost the same junk you could buy at a second-rate mall back home, but there was something weighty here, like the people took it all very seriously. It was a deliberate mix of Times Square and supermarket and city park and someone’s cousin’s backyard. There were alleyways with flashing string lights and boom boxes for sale and posters of painted, dark-haired, zaftig ladies who must have been someone’s idea of a movie star, and there were alleyways hung entirely with massive pieces of meat, some cut and skinned, some freshly killed; there were rows of stalls with keffiyehs and olivewood crosses, and there were neatly swept aisles with glass-enclosed storefronts, women’s fashions draped elegantly inside. We had turned up another incline when a boy gave a shout; he rode his bread cart much faster than the one before him, and Jodi and I separated, making room for him to pass. As I backed out of his path I felt my head touch some sort of display and turned around to find a dozen hanging mirrors, my blank face swaying gently in each of them. They were framed in black cloth embroidered in deep reds and purples, a pouch of fragrance fitted in on top. Jodi moved to my side of the alley and, parting the mirror-vines, stepped up to the shop window and cupped her hands over her face to peer inside. I stepped up with her: it was an embroidery shop, the entire space piled high with loose fabrics, dresses, bags, all decorated in the same ornate patterns of the mirrors. As Jodi looked, one of her hands left her face and moved again to my shoulder; then it slid down my sleeve, pulling me with her as she swung open the shop’s door and brought us both inside.
The room was filled with the fragrance of the mirrors and with a placid quiet, as if we’d traveled far from the noise of the marketplace just outside. An Arab man—balding, round—sat on a mound of carpets with two tall blond women—German tourists, I thought, from their light coloring and emphatic speech—and fanned a sampling of fabrics out between them. He kept an eye on us as he spoke to them in his own accented English. Jodi didn’t seem to notice; she dropped my arm and ran her hand along the hanging fabrics, unfolding blouses from their stacks and spreading them out against herself, stirring scarves in overflowing baskets. She chose a dress on a hanger and handed it to me.
“Here—hold this up to see if it fits,” she said, spreading her arms out before me, as if submitting to be frisked. I held the dress out, awkwardly, a gown for a paper doll. It dragged a little on the rug. “Pull it up so the collar reaches my neck, silly,” she said, and I obeyed, pushing it closer to her body, grazing her nose a little with the hanger’s tip. She laughed, just as she had the night before, so I just stood there and kept the dress aloft while she lifted her arms farther to unzip it a bit at the back and extract the wire hanger, which she tossed on a nearby stack. She wrapped the dress more closely around her, smoothing it against her chest, her hips. “Hold it there for a sec,” she whispered, and my ears pricked at the softness, the confidence in her tones. I felt a little off balance again, so I inched my feet nearer, steadying myself as I pressed the dress to the places she’d shown me. Jodi wasn’t looking at the dress anymore—instead her eyes met mine, broadcasting a bewildering glint of determination. Which is why it took me a moment to realize that she’d brought her hands behind her, reaching for two fistfuls of scarves from a basket just within reach. I stood there, still holding the dress up high, while she slipped the scarves into the pockets of her blouse, shot a look across the room, and stepped out from behind the curtain I’d created for her, heading for the door. With my back to the shopkeeper, I didn’t see him rise, but I heard his shout, a kind of “Wullah!” that sent Jodi right out the door and back down the alley we’d just climbed. I pulled that dress back toward me then, and just kept hugging it to my own self while the storekeeper rushed past me and out the door, shouting more now, rousing two young men lounging in a doorway across the alley. They took off in Jodi’s direction—I couldn’t see her ponytail anymore, though I couldn’t see much from where I was glued to the carpet. The German women brushed past me next, slowly, staring, and disappeared out the door as the shopkeeper returned.
To me he said, “Sit,” pointing to the pile of rugs. He took the dress from my hands and I sat. He spun around to search the piles behind him until he found the hanger, forcing it back into the dress as he spoke.
“The Israeli bolice,” he said, pronouncing it Is-ra-el-i, each syllable distinct. He hung the dress in its place and paced the room. “I call the Israeli bolice. Your barents—they are at your hotel? They do not know you are here?”
“No,” I said. “My parents don’t know.”
The policeman came, in blue and white, though we’d waited so long, I couldn’t imagine he’d have any luck finding Jodi. He spotted me right away where I sat on the carpets in the back, but didn’t acknowledge me beyond that first glance, speaking instead to the shopkeeper in a steady monotone—Hebrew or Arabic, I couldn’t tell. A few women in headscarves stood outside the shop window, cupping their faces as Jodi had done, staring inside, at me, I figured. My eyes traced the patterns of embroidery everywhere in the room. The perfume felt heavier than before, the store a cavern within a cave. I retraced our steps in my mind, trying to remember when we’d last been fully outdoors, in the sunlight, under an open sky. I wasn’t sure.
At last I heard a stirring in the small crowd at the window, and the door opened: there was Jodi, hesitating at the entrance, someone holding the door for her—a soldier, a boy soldier, fresh-faced, like the more palatable boys at my school, a rifle slung over his shoulder. He stood there, waiting, holding the door open wide, peering about as if he’d brought Jodi in to do some shopping, wanted to make sure they’d found the right place. As Jodi stepped over the threshold she lifted a gentle hand to his arm, the one with the gun, then let go. She stayed there by the front, her arms crossed, her look indignant. I didn’t see any scarves. I imagined them cast off somewhere in the ancient city—bright flecks of color against black, wedged into a crack in massive white stone. It was only when the soldier followed Jodi inside that I saw that with his free hand he gripped the arm of an Arab man only slightly older than himself—I recognized him as one of the young men who had chased Jodi down the alley. The soldier tugged at the Arab, then pushed him into the store in a way that struck me not as rough, but decisive, older than his years. They let the glass door swing shut behind them and again we were enclosed in silence. The young Arab did not move, did not look to anyone; the soldier resumed his grip. Something about the pair made we want to recede into the embroidery, but I did the opposite: I stood. We all stood there, Jodi and the soldier and the young Arab man and the older man and the policeman and me.
The policeman spoke first, to the soldier—in Hebrew, I was sure, because I heard the word freicha, one of the slang words Shlomo had taught us, a word that meant bimbo. The soldier listened, looking in one moment hardened, in another confused, shifting his gaze between Jodi and the man still in his custody. Maybe because I couldn’t understand what it was they were saying, my eyes felt free to wander to everyone’s faces, taking in the look of hesitation in the soldier, and the mute fury in the young man, and the exasperation in the older man, and the fatigue in the policeman, and, in Jodi, the cruelty and the beauty and the fear. I’d felt something, finally, in this bizarre gathering, something strong and undeniable, a commitment at last—a breaking away. I had stepped up, joined in, and though no one paid me any mind, I knew I’d soon find my voice and speak, confess everything, an offering of clarification and exoneration and responsibility that would mean absolutely nothing, not just because it would change nothing, fix nothing, but because it would not include the truth, the one I’d understood right then—and later as well, for sure, for every day afterward, but also, I remember perfectly, right then in that moment, when I began at last to separate in earnest, irrevocably, from everything, relinquishing everything I was supposed to be and everything I was not, turning, at last, far away from everyone, as I would always, infinitely, from then on. I remember that moment better than any other, because it was the one in which I fell, as my mother had predicted, in love—permanently, devastatingly—with my own distance, the thing I finally understood would be my rightful salvation, my rightful ruin.

by Eliezra Schaffzin

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