I got a direct flight back from Israel to New York and had an empty seat between me and the youth on the aisle, till the very last minute, when a small broad shouldered woman in a white eyelet jacket and a white skirt bustled down the aisle and motioned to be let in, saying a few words in Hebrew to the kid on the aisle.
Oh great, two Israelis. Now is the time to be Huck Finn, I thought. If you get talking to her, don’t give her anything. Don’t tell her your real story. There’s no percentage in that. Tell her – and I composed a tale in my head.
I’m an architect in the Hudson River valley. My first wife lives in Israel. Our son wants to go into the army. I went over to try and talk him out of it. My son is troubled.
Not a word about being a journalist or an anti-Zionist Jew. Don’t ask for trouble.
The woman turned out to be a talker. She told me her drama about buying a tefilin as a gift in Jerusalem and making the plane at the last minute.
“I’d be too anxious to be do that.”
She shrugged. “If I make it I make it. Your first trip?”
“Second. The last time was when I was a teenager.”
My first lie. But she seemed to buy the rest of ’em too. When I told her about my son going into the IDF, she said, “Why stop him. Let him. What can you do about it?”
I told her about the drug arrest in college and the gang he’d been mixed up with and the racism I was afraid he’d developed and would only get worse “here.”
She nodded. “It’s his life. Maybe they’ll straighten him out.”
I couldn’t argue with that. And as the plane settled into the long haul over Europe we had dinner and she told me something about herself. I was grateful to have her talking. As Mark Twain said, It’s hard keeping a story straight.
She said she went out on business and to visit her mother’s grave. She’s a Mizrahi Jew, and a New Yorker. They always stop her at the airport, question her.
“Yes and Yemen in the records. They know.”
So she was on to Israeli racism.
“Were they happy in Yemen?”
“Oh yes. Very happy. They did well.”
I took a risk. “I study history; what do you think about the idea that Zionists bombed the synagogues in Arab countries to get the Jews to flee?”
“I believe it. They needed bodies here. That’s all they wanted. Jewish bodies.”
“That’s not a vision. They don’t seem to have figured out a future here.”
“They haven’t. They have no way forward, and they see the world going against them.”
I played dumb. “What about the left?”
She rolled her eyes. “There are no real leftists in Israeli society. They’re all rightwing. I have a friend whose daughter wasn’t going to go into the army. He’s a big liberal. He had a crisis. He said, it would give him a heart attack if she didn’t go in, because it would destroy him.”
“Destroy his reputation in the eyes of his friends?”
“No destroy the ideals, in himself. When you start actually talking to the liberals, they’re as rightwing as the others right under the surface, though they spout all this stuff. The liberalism is a charade.”
She gave me the beef dinner she hadn’t eaten, and the desert.
“A friend of mine explained this place a long time ago. Everyone in Israel is orthodox Jewish,” she said. “And I agree with that.”
“No. Orthodox Jewish. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be there. They believe strictly in Judaism. It goes beyond religion.”
Well I’d never thought about that. I was starting to regret my Huck Finn act. I said, “It can’t go on like that.”
“Because the Palestinians have no rights.”
“Yes. So what?”
“They’re stateless. And they’re half the population. That’s not sustainable.”
“I don’t see why not. The Israelis live easily with hypocrisy. In Reform Judaism, we make the rules for ourselves so then we follow the rules. The Christian religions are mostly like that, they make the rules for themselves. Not the Catholics. They are completely hypocritical. But in orthodox Judaism, someone made the rules, and the people learn to get around them when they need to.”
I liked her. If I hadn’t lied we could keep going into politics. I’d tell her about non-violent resistance and BDS.
In the night when I went to the bathroom I climbed over the tops of the seats not to wake her. She was single and my age. She’d had a tough life. She’d lost jobs, and the person she was closest to. She’d showed me a photograph of her mother, in a Sana’a photo studio as a young bride, and the journal she keeps of thoughts she writes down about her mother.
I always find wise women. I gravitate toward them because they are my opposite. She would forgive me if I got out of my lie. But how? It would be a lot of work. She might think I was crazy.
Alright, so toughen up. There were just 5 hours left. I’d gone too far to turn back now.
I worked on an article on my computer and made the print super small so she couldn’t read over my shoulder and think, he’s a writer.
In the morning she gave me half her breakfast, the bagel and the yogurt, and asked more about my family. I really liked her. I moved from the bullshit to the real shit – because you can tell a wise woman anything. I told her about the worst thing that had happened in my life. A betrayal. A death. A lie. Sleaziness. A lot of pain, things I’ve never written about.
She listened quietly and said, “You have to move on.”
“I’ve heard that from friends,” I said. “And maybe you’re right. But I have to decide for myself.”
“You need to go forward.”
“Wait a second! You visit your mother’s grave and keep a journal of all your thoughts about her – who are you to tell me to move on?”
“It’s all positive, my journal,” she said without defensiveness. “You’re looking back at something awful. There’s a lot of wisdom in the story of Lot’s wife. She turned back to look and turned into a pillar of salt.”
At the carousel I offered to help her with her bags but she was as much of a fairy as she’d been coming on to the plane, her bag came early and she used her entire frame to throw it on one of those barrows and shook my hand. I gave her a big hug and she gave me a jar of nuts from a Tel Aviv deli. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, on BDS grounds. Get her name? Write her the truth. Leave the nuts in the baggage area? Send them back? I took them home and when my friend came over to hear about my trip we finished them off with red wine.
I’d lied to her and manipulated her. What a heel I am. And yet: I’m reading Camus’s last novel, about his family in Algeria, French colonials, and, they’re all unassuming people, the French workers of Algiers. His mother the deaf mute who cleans people’s houses. The teacher who saved young Albert’s life (Jacques in the book). His fierce grandmother who puts her arm all the way into the latrine when he lies and says he dropped a 2 Franc coin down it. The uncle who was in love with his mother and fought off her suitors when she was widowed by World War I. All humble people, and some very fine, swept away by the politics of decolonization.
In a conflict, there are great big-hearted wise people on the other side, but you don’t want to find out about them. That’s what happens in a colonized militarized situation. It’s necessary to dehumanize people in order to rationalize bloodshed. And there is going to be bloodshed. The politics are too imbalanced and inhuman. So if you’re utterly political (and I’m not) it is better to demonize them. Not know anything about them.
My wife quotes the Lot’s wife lesson to me. She wants me to move forward. She and friends had told me to move on, but all the counsel means nothing next to a good story, a parable. There’s more guidance in that story about how to live your life than in any lecture or nostrum. The wise woman on the plane gave it to me. The wise woman, whatever her name is, gave me a diamond of my Jewish life as I was lying through my teeth to her.