Larry and Kate.
Our security attendant had dark hair, tied-back, and the figure of a lingerie model, which I tried to ignore while she studied our passports.
Kate cuddled my arm. "Do we look suspicious?" she whispered in my ear, but the security girl overheard and was not impressed. Her blouse was translucent and one size too small. They do that to distract the terrorists.
"Are you related?" she asked us.
"No," I said.
"How long have you known each other?"
"We met at a party a few months ago."
Kate elbowed me in the ribs. Maybe I didn't have to volunteer that much information.
"A few months?" Another long glance.
"We're together," Kate said, and she almost yanked my arm out the socket.
Big mistake, Kate, because then the security girl gave Kate her full attention. Had Kate been to Israel before? Did she have family in Israel? Obviously, the name McCarthy meant nothing to her. Neither did Katherine. "These are standard security questions," she explained. "Terrorists will try anything to put bombs on our planes."
"That's the Israeli version of 'have a nice flight,'" I told Kate, but she wasn't smiling.
I, on the other hand, had been through the drill before. The trick is to tell them what they want to hear. Yes, the bags belong to us. Yes, we packed them ourselves. No, we haven't received any mysterious sealed packages. But I couldn't explain this to Kate right then and there, so poor Kate told the truth and the security girl said: "We need to open your bags."
Then, as she led us to the side room where they keep the heavy-duty x-ray machines, it hit me: how well did I know Kate? We'd dated only a few months. All I knew about her was what she had told me. I'd never met her parents who lived out in Sacramento. And Kate was an only child. It all seemed too convenient.
What if Kate was a bin Laden groupie looking for a ticket to Paradise and seventy virgins or whatever it was they promised the female suicide bombers?
Come to think of it, Kate's bags had felt a bit heavy, and now airport security weren't the only ones really interested in seeing what she had inside.
After a fifteen-hour flight, one can get a little paranoid.
A couple of beefy security guys in suit jackets scanned our suitcases over and over. Then they started to pull things out: my shaving cream canisters; Kate's kinky stuff from Victoria's Secret. They got a real kick out of that. They opened Kate's lipsticks. They swabbed our bags with special marker pens. They examined my shoes and even Kate's sandals.
Kate made a few comments about missing our connecting flight, but they didn't care. Neither did I. Any second I expected an alarm to go off and the guards to drag Kate away, clawing and kicking and screaming "Allahu Akbar."
Eventually the security babe stuck yellow tags on our bags apologized for the inconvenience and handed back our passports.
We boarded the plane, but I couldn't relax. Everything Kate did made me anxious. Why was she looking around the cabin? Was she sweating? And who was she texting all the time? Was she updating her collaborators? Or enabling a high-tech detonator? I saw that in a movie. I tried to get a closer look at her phone.
"What's the matter, honey?"
"Nothing," I said. "Just a little nervous after that security check. Aren't you?"
"I guess they were just doing their job."
"I guess. Where are you going?"
I decided to play it cool, to act as though I knew nothing. Meanwhile, everything was falling into place.
Like I said, we'd met a few months before at my friend Lorie's party. Some guy was serving little ham savories.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize you ate kosher."
I don't always eat kosher, I told him, but it's the principle. Why serve pork at a party when all the guests are Jewish?
"It's Pete's birthday," he said, "and Pete wanted ham."
"And if Pete wanted Jesus, would you bring him along too?" Then he started talking off the topic. He even called me a fundamentalist. Can you believe that? A fundamentalist!
A little Jewish identity, that's all I was asking. A little pride. What was I thinking? I was probably the only one in the whole beach house who had ever been to Israel.
I guess things must have got a bit loud because Lorie came over, put a drink in my hand and said, "Larry, meet Kate."
And that was that.
Of all the nice Jewish girls at Lorie's, I hooked up with the shiksa. It had seemed a little bizarre to me then. Now it was a conspiracy.
You've got to understand something about Kate. She's hot. Really hot. If Claudia Schiffer's a perfect ten, then Kate is about a nine-and-a-half. She's not the kind of girl you meet at a random party. There had to be more to her.
Lorie hardly remembered Kate from UCLA but she had dropped back into Lorie's life just in time for the party. Coincidence? No. Kate was scouting a target. She was on the prowl for a nice Jewish guy she could lure to the Middle East. Osama had probably picked up the tab for a little cosmetic surgery.
But the trip to Israel had been my idea. I wanted Kate to see that side of me. We'd get some sun and sea and visit a few holy sites along the way. That was the idea.
Also, I wanted to buy a mezuzah.
"What's a mezuzah?" Kate had asked, and it was kind of hard to define.
"It's like a cigar box," I said, "with a miniature Torah scroll inside. We attach them to the doorposts of our homes. It's a reminder," I said, "of our relationship with God." Something like that.
My goal was to bring back a mezuzah from Jerusalem, the holiest city to Judaism. If Kate and I were going to move in together, at least we'd have a mezuzah on our doorpost.
Kate was cool with it all. She liked the idea of touting Israel. She had dreamed of visiting Jerusalem one day.
Now Kate's dream had become my nightmare. I had visions of Kate taking over the plane, armed with a bomb hidden in her electric toothbrush, the Airbus diving toward Eilat on a collision course for the Queen of Sheba.
Kate returned from the bathroom and dug around in the overhead. I almost jumped.
"The seatbelt light is off," she said. "We don't have to sit down."
"Would you sit anyway? Please. These small planes make me queasy." Lame, yes, but it was all I could think of. So Kate sat down and felt sorry for me. What did I care? At least we landed in one piece.
We ordered dinner to our room and got ready for bed. Kate snuggled up to me. She has a thing for hotel rooms.
"Sorry, Kate," I said. "It must be the flight. And jet lag."
Truth be told, the homicidal maniac thing had turned me off. And who knew what diseases she was carrying. They probably contracted all sorts of disgusting things on purpose in order to infect the Infidel. I was probably a carrier already. I decided to get tested in the morning just in case.
The next morning I felt that maybe I'd overreacted. God, I love those Israeli breakfasts! I piled on the fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, cottage cheese and juicy green olives.
Kate hadn't slept so well. I noticed that most of the other guests spoke Hebrew. Kate said, yeah, you could tell they're Israeli by the way they push in the buffet line.
Don't get me wrong. I hate the elbowing as much as the next guy, but all of a sudden, it was us against Kate. They're not pushy, I said, they're assertive. They're upfront and honest. At least they don't smile at you and curse you behind your back.
"You'd think they've never seen food before," said Kate.
"That's easy for you to say. No one ever starved your grandparents in Ireland. They never had to worry about finding their next meal."
Well, that did it. Kate didn't say anything for a while; that's how I knew it was bad. Not "hello." Not "goodbye." Not "pass the salt." Kate could do that. She was a champion at saying nothing. She could do it all day and it would drive you crazy, and eventually you'd have to apologize.
But that morning I was not caving in. Even if Kate wasn't trying to kill me, that didn't mean she could ruin our vacation. Two can play the silent treatment game.
We spent the day on a beach of small black pebbles. We rented two recliners, read our novels and soaked up the sun. Not a word passed between us. I snorkeled over a bit of dying coral. I joked around with the waitresses who served our drinks. To the casual observer, we were a happy couple like any other. But the tension between us weighed down heavier than the humidity and hundred-degree heat.
I checked out the hot Israeli girls in bikinis. Thin and tanned. Easygoing. Uncomplicated. That's what I needed. Not this drama.
At lunch I was taking strain.
By dinner time I gave in.
The thing is, I love Kate. I can't stand to be mad at her for more than a few hours. I told her I was stupid and wrong and her grandparents were probably just as maltreated and undernourished as mine. She smiled.
We dressed up and ate dinner on a boat. The night was perfect. Moonlight shimmered on the waves of the Red Sea. The food was delicious. Kate looked amazing. We ordered a bottle of wine. We danced.
"That's what drew me to you in the first place," Kate told me. We were looking out over the water, listening to the bass tones of the boat's band, which wasn't haft bad.
"Remember when we first met?"
"You were arguing with some guy--"
"Discussing," I said. "We were having an intelligent conversation."
"Whatever. I liked your passion. You really care. That's why you take things so hard."
"Well," I said, "I was wondering what you ever saw in me."
The glow of the shore lights revealed only an outline of her face but I could tell she was smiling. We were silent for a bit, and I guess that would have been the perfect moment to tell her how much I love her.
Maybe if I had, things would have turned out differently.
The next day we traveled north to the Dead Sea. I took photos of Kate floating on the water and then covered in black mud. I slipped on an iceberg of salt and almost broke my leg.
They say the water is drying up, that one day we'll have one big pad of salt and minerals all the way to Jordan. Then again, they used to say that nothing could live in the Dead Sea until they found an amoeba or something that did.
Some poor creatures can survive anything.
That's what Israel is about: survival. Despite hatred and persecution. Against the odds.
I tried to explain this to Kate as we walked up Masada.
"Why can't we take the cable car?" she said.
I told her it was part of the experience, to feel the mountain, to feel the magnitude of what had happened there.
The snake path was hotter than I had expected. We had planned to get up early and reach the top before sunrise, but Kate took forever to get ready. Everything we do requires makeup and a hairdryer, even hikes up ancient mountain fortresses.
At the summit Kate sat on an ancient, crumbling wall, her tank top soaked through. We'd emptied our water bottles on the way up. The desert plains and valleys lay silent below the mountain.
"Imagine," I said, "you're a Jewish rebel two thousand years ago. The Roman camp is way down there. The foothills crawl with ten-thousand soldiers ready to storm the mountain with their shiny helmets and shields and spears."
"How did they hold them hack?" Kate asked.
"They didn't. They knew they stood no chance so they killed themselves. Every last one. The Romans conquered a city full of corpses."
The whisper of a mountain breeze rose and fell as we took this in.
Kate said, "Why didn't they just surrender.
"If they surrendered," I said, "they'd be slaves. They'd stop being Jews and become Romans. There's a line you can't cross, because if you do, you lose what you are."
Kate put her hands on her hips. "They should have made peace and at least gone on breathing."
Sometimes breathing isn't enough.
The next morning we got in a cab to Jerusalem. We'd had enough sun and sea, and the massage at the hotel spa eased our aching muscles. The road climbed up and up from the lowest point on Earth toward the stony white hills of the Holy City. We were ready for something more spiritual.
We talked about mezuzahs. I thought white Jerusalem Stone would look good outside my front door. No gold or silver. Nothing too showy. I wanted a mezuzah that says "I'm Jewish and proud of it" but without drawing a lot of attention.
We dropped our bags at the King David and walked down Jaffa Road. The pockmarked walls of the Old City towered over us.
We strolled through Jaffa Gate and into the Arab market. I looked at the long, curved daggers and oriental rugs. Kate tried on an Arab headdress and struck provocative poses. A few days ago, the sight of Kate in a kaffiyeh would have given me a coronary, but my mind was at peace. I let down my guard.
We entered the Western Wall plaza and stared up at the huge stone slabs eroded and smoothed over by centuries of rain and sun. Pockets of Jewish men swayed on their feet around Torah altars.
We took a few photos together. At the entrance to the men's section I found a pile of cardboard skullcaps. I put one on my head and walked up to the Wailing Wall. I pressed the palm of my hand against the cold stone as countless Jews have done since the destruction of the Temple two thousand years ago.
When I returned, Kate was still gazing at the Wailing Wall now called the Western Wall. She said it calmed her. She pointed to the birds that dived in and out of crevices between stones in the upper rows where little bushes managed to grow. The Wall, she said, was like a living thing.
I had worried that Kate would feel what I had felt the first time. The Wall was historical and significant and all that, but in the end it was just an old wall.
That's my Kate, I thought. Full of surprises. The trip was turning into a major success.
We climbed the stairs to the Jewish Quarter and stopped halfway for a brief final look at the Wall and the Muslim Golden Dome of the Rock beyond.
Quaint little alleyways opened onto the cobbled streets. Stone arches marked the entrances of homes and pokey courtyards. Mezuzahs adorned many of the doorways.
We reached a square lined with tourist shops, and I looked around for a mezuzah store.
A couple of gangly young men with sparse beards loitered beside a group of tourists. They might have stepped out of an old black-and-white photo. Black trousers. Black velvet skullcaps. White button-down shirts. Curled locks of hair dangled from their temples down to their earlobes. They were smiling like it was going out of fashion.
"Who are they?" Kate asked.
"Yeshiva students," I said. "There are a lot of seminaries in the Old City."
"And that?" Across the courtyard a stone arch rose into the blue sky like a white rainbow. Scaffolding stood on one side.
"That's the Hurva Synagogue, the largest synagogue in the Old City. Or what's left of it. The Jordanians blew it up during the War of Independence in nineteen-forty-eight. They're finally rebuilding it. There's a Judaica store over there. Want to go in?"
"It's okay," she said. "I'll wait here."
The store had everything you could imagine: silver Kiddush cups and Shabbat candlesticks; tasseled prayer shawls; round Passover plates. I pored over the display table, wondering which mezuzah was destined for my home. And there it was, exactly as I had imagined. The casing was made of rough white stone etched like the brickwork of the Western Wall. After a few minutes of deliberation, I chose the square one over the rounded. It looked more authentic.
I stepped outside to show Kate my new acquisition. She was having a Deep-and-Meaningful with one of the Earlocks, or rather she was listening, as he was doing all the talking.
This'll be good, I thought.
"Going native, Kate? What's this?" I took the pamphlet from her hands. "Rediscover the Beauty of Judaism," it read. There were photos of smiling rabbis and cleans-haven professors. A list of lectures included "Evolution and Creation," "An Introduction to Kabbalah" and "Hidden Codes in the Bible."
The Earlock said, "Hi, I'm Eli," in a thick Brooklyn accent. I should have known then that he was trouble.
"Larry," I said. "Kate's boyfriend."
It was his smile. That's what distracted me. It said: the world is full of love, wonder, and hope. You have nothing to fear.
"Are you from a Jewish family?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. I could see where this was going. "But we're on a tight schedule."
"Your ma's parents. Are they Jewish too?"
That one threw me. "Sure," I said, and a hazy piece of family history surfaced in my mind. "My mom's dad was Jewish. But grandma wasn't born Jewish."
"So she converted?"
"No. But she married my grandfather."
You won't believe what happened next. The guy totally ignored me! He carried on, pushing his seminar on Kate like I wasn't even there. A Jewish soul is like a flame that can't be put out, he told her. Even those far from Jewish tradition will find their way home after a few generations.
"Hold on," I said. 'You've got this all wrong. I'm the Jew here, okay?"
He gave me an impatient look. The smile was like an old memory. He mumbled that Judaism is matrilineal. "If your grandma isn't Jewish," he said, "then your ma isn't Jewish. And if your ma isn't Jewish ..."
For the first time in years I was speechless. I didn't know whether to knock the guy out or what. How could he say that?
And Kate was buying it.
"Wait a minute," I said. "If I'm not Jewish then Kate here is about as Jewish as a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur."
Not the best way to put it, I know, but I was barely holding it together.
Kate asked whether I remembered her grandmother, Sarah, the one who fled Hungary before the war. Kate had mentioned her before. Well, it turns out that Kate's grandma remembered lighting Hanukkah candles as a child in Budapest.
I said, "What?"
Kate explained it again slowly as though I was a child or stupid.
Then I said, "This is bullshit." I took Kate by the hand and practically frog-marched her back to the hotel. The whole way there I ranted. Who did he think he was, and what did he know! I didn't need any lectures on religion from that jerk. How could he say that to me? The nerve!
I complained through our hotel dinner too. Kate nodded and tried to console me, but mostly she was quiet. She had a lot on her mind too.
When I woke up the next morning I felt better. I didn't need anyone to tell me who I am and who I'm not. To hell with Smelly Eli and his serf-righteous ideas!
I turned over to share my revelation with Kate but her side of the bed was empty. A note lay on her pillow. She needed some time alone. She'd be in touch.
I didn't know what to do with that. I lay in bed for an hour trying to figure it out. I wanted to head for the Old City and find her. And if I got hold of Eli, I'd break his chicken neck. But that wouldn't win Kate back. I had to give her some space.
Then I thought: forget it. I'd carry on regardless. Keep to the plan. The Jewish market. The Holocaust Museum. But what was the point? I had built that itinerary for Kate.
Okay. I'd go to the beach instead. I could also do with some time to myself. But by the time the cab reached Tel Aviv, I wasn't in the mood for sun and sea. I wandered around Dizengoff Street and bleak downtown alleys that were crowded with dirty, peering apartment blocks.
A premonition weighed me down. This wasn't a timeout. Kate was breaking up with me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Kate sent a text message late that afternoon. She wanted to meet for coffee. Coffee! Like strangers. She sat there with her hair tied back and a serious, solemn face. She stared at her coffee mug and avoided my eyes.
It was nothing personal, she said. It was something she needed to do for herself.
I tried to reason with her. What about her job? Her apartment?
Kate had answers for everything.
"Don't be crazy," I told her. "It's like a cult. Rediscovery, my ass. It's brainwashing. They don't even think I'm Jewish. Come on, Kate."
But Kate just gave me that sad look.
"Ever since our flight to Eilat," she said, "I've been thinking about my roots. I sent my Mom a message and asked her to speak to grandma about what she remembered of her childhood. She only got back to me yesterday."
Goddamn text messages! I had known something was up. But it was too late. Kate was determined. No rational argument would budge her.
So I said, "What about us?"
Kate didn't know. Maybe in the future. Right then, she couldn't say.
And that was that.
She came over to the King David to pick up her stuff. She paid me out for her share of the expenses, although at first I refused to take her money.
On the flight back to LAX, alone and still a little punch-drunk, I couldn't sleep. I thumbed through the photos on my camera: Kate floating on the Dead Sea; Kate's smiling face covered in mud; the desert view from the top of Masada; Kate and I standing side-by-side, our backs to the Wailing Wall.
I pulled the mezuzah out of my travel bag. I caressed the rough Jerusalem stone. I turned it over and opened the back. The mezuzah was empty. No scroll. Nada.
I don't know why but that pissed me off more than anything. All the tension of that week merged into one choking ball of pain. Tears slipped from my eyes.
Those bastards, I thought. How could they sell me one without a scroll?
DAN SOFER writes tales of misadventure with an introspective Jewish eye. Born and raised in South Africa, Dan settled in Israel in 2001 where he lives with his lovely wife and daughter. When not writing Dan creates software for large corporations. His upcoming novel, Katamon, is set in modern-day Jerusalem and involves mysterious crimes, secret societies and a desperate bachelor. Find out more at www.DanSofer.com.
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|Title Annotation:||Israeli Fiction|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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