[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
The Tzuk Beach Cafe is probably the hippest beach joint in Israel. I’m guessing of course; I’ve only been in the country for three days. But it’s hard to believe there could be any place cooler.
The cafe is outdoors, under umbrellas, just a few feet above the strand, with sand on the deck, great salads, beautiful people in trunks and bikinis, and barefoot, mahogany-tanned waitresses who all look like a cross between Natalie Portman and Gina Gershon.
There is nobody but Jews on this beach.
When you walk along the sand, you pass Jewish women, Jewish men, Jewish children.
I cannot overstate how unsettling this is to me.
Steve, buddy, there is nobody but Jews in this entire country.
This reality sinks in slowly, but it goes deep. What are its emotional manifestations?
1. I find myself relaxing. I can breathe. In a way, I feel like I’m breathing for the first time.
2. At the same time it’s terribly disquieting. My American bones are used to the melting pot. It’s weird to peer into face after face and feel like you’re looking in a mirror.
Where are the Irish, the Italians, the African-Americans?
My newest friend is Eli Rikovitz. He was a platoon commander in the Sinai desert in ’67.
I’m driving with Eli and Danny now to meet two of Eli’s friends from his outfit, the Recon Company of the 7th Armored Brigade. In the Six Day war, Eli’s company was the first Israeli formation to reach the Suez Canal, having suffered more casualties and winning more decorations for valor than any other outfit of comparable size.
I’m going to interview them for The Lion’s Gate.
I ask Eli about the length and difficulty of the process of becoming an Israeli citizen. How soon could someone from overseas get his papers?
“If you’re a Jew, tomorrow.”
“Israel is the home for all Jews. That’s why the country exists.”
“When you travel out of Israel, Eli, do you ever feel unwelcome or prejudiced against?”
I tell Eli a story that Lou Lenart told me:
When I was growing up in Wilkes-Barre in the 1930s, the place was full of Polish Catholics. These kids used to kick the crap out of us, what few Jews there were, until I put together a gang and started pounding the hell out of them. I’ll tell you a story about when I joined the Marines.
This was in June 1940, well before the war, but there was still a long line at the recruiting table. A Marine sergeant was sitting there signing everybody up. Each recruit stepped forward and put his papers down; the sergeant would stamp ’em without looking up. Until I came to the table.
I could see the sergeant’s eyes settle on the line on the enlistment form that said, “Religion.” On it, I had written, “Jewish.”
All of a sudden the sergeant looked up. He hadn’t looked up for any of these Catholics, but he looked up for me. He eyed me up and down. “The Marine Corps is a tough outfit,” he said. “Are you sure you can make it?”
I was so furious I wanted to tear this sergeant’s throat out. I knew the only reason he would ask that question was because my enlistment form said I was a Jew. But I also knew that I couldn’t get mad or shoot my mouth off or he might not let me join. So I stared him in the eye, as directly and as hard as I could.
“If you made it, I can make it.”
That was it. He stamped my form and I moved on.
Lou is a fierce patriot for America. Here he is, continuing:
I owe the Marine Corps everything. To take a kid from a tiny village in Hungary and not only give him the chance to serve under the Stars and Stripes, but to let him become an officer and a fighter pilot—that’s why I love the Marine Corps and I always will.
We meet Eli’s friends Ori and Boaz. The interview starts at lunch and goes on till long after dinner. Ori Orr was the commander of Eli’s Recon Company in ’67; he finished his career as a two-star general, then went on to serve in the Knesset. Boaz Amitai was a lieutenant like Eli; his father commanded the Jerusalem Brigade, which helped to liberate the Old City on 7 June 1967.
Here’s the thing about sitting with these guys.
You realize how crazy it is being a Diaspora Jew, even in as open and beautiful a country as America. Here in Israel there is nothing extraordinary about being a Jew and signing up for an elite military outfit. Here no recruiting sergeant is going to look up from his papers and ask you how tough you are.
I look across the table at Eli and Ori and Boaz. They are great guys, funny, smart, who take themselves with abundant humor and modesty. But, if you were an enemy of Israel or meant this nation harm, these are the last guys in the world you would want to tangle with.
I’m so used to living in a country where the off-hand slur is never more than a membrane away and where in many places there’s no membrane at all. It’s a mindblower to be here where such bullshit is not only unthinkable but impossible. No one at this table is going to question my papers, or make a crack, or refuse to invite me home to meet their daughter.
If anything, the sensation is the opposite. I feel ashamed not to have been here in ’67. I should be here now.
Would I be good enough? Could I measure up as a soldier to Eli and Ori and Boaz? Would I pass muster in the IDF?
The word Jew has a whole different meaning here.