[“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.
Thanks for this Steve. I am reading the Book Thief presently, with a deeper sense of the tension in 1939.
“I should be here now.” Hmmm…is there an announcement forthcoming that you’ll be moving to Israel? What a profound sense of homecoming to have at this stage of your life…thank you for sharing it with us.
Wow, you really make me think a lot about what it means to me to be a Jew. Up until this reading: “Not much”. I will have to read this a few times more and think about this a bit. Thanks so much for making me think more deeply about so many things.
Right on, Steve. My dad had no problem making it through Camp Lejeune during the Korean war.
. . . And he was a Jewish guy from the Bronx.
Yeah, it’s a mind-blowing sensation. Have you seen A Gentleman’s Agreement? Such a great film. So often it’s not the open anti-Semitism – the threats and assaults – but the veiled comments, the slurs that one does not belong.
And culture. There’s such a shock to realize that one is not inundated with things foreign. Israel is home. Simple things like the calendar – “Jewish time” becomes real. Not being on the defensive for just being you.
There’s diversity in Israel. Ashkenazi-Sephardi; economic classes. Religious-Secular. Left-Right politics. “Peace” process. (Historically, and militarily, land for peace is neither.)
Israel’s not perfect. It makes mistakes, like any country. But it exists, and has a right to exist. It IS home to the Jews. That is the existential imperative that must be accepted. Not only by the nations, but by Jews themselves.
This entry is beautifully descriptive. My uncle had an experience to Lou’s. Platooned in the deep South after basic training, he also stood up to a sergeant – although that confrontation might have been more than verbal.
You absolutely captured the emotions of a Jew visiting Israel for the first time. A combination of wonder, pride, a bit of confusion, regret and even a touch of shame.
You oughta feel more than just a “touch” of shame.
Thanks for lending me your eyes. They help me to see things from a new perspective. But one that our hearts share in common.
Looking forward to reading “Lion’s Gate” and broadening my perspective.
It seems it’s always the Catholic boys who are the bullies. Have to know why that is. Love the vintage photos. I’m transported to another time and place. Thanks, Steve.
That’s what a sociologist would call a bigoted statement.
I really enjoy your writing, and am forever indebted to you for “The War of Art”, which has become my bible. But “…there is nobody but Jews in this entire country”?? Um, Steve, Israel is full of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, as well as other assorted non-Jews. Our blindness to their existence has been a major source of the difficulties in the region. By no means the only source, but one we Jews too often fail to acknowledge. I’m sad to see that view replicated here. Please look harder and see – really see – the other peoples who live in Israel and also have a claim to the land.
Finally. I thought I’d left the real world and entered something akin to the world of the “Stepford Wives” here of late.
“Wonderful Steve” – “Fascinating” – “What a beautiful picture you paint”.
I find these posts, and robotic comments, quite disturbing. Only Jews, eh?
So you get to be an LA writer, and play at being a “liberated” Jew in someone else’s country too. How convenient.
There are MANY others there besides Jews – FYI. The fact that they can’t go to the beach in the land where they – not you – were born should disturb you, and your fans.
Having been born and raised in the US it was a strange feeling to visit Japan for the first time in the 60’s. I am Japanese but felt like an outsider. Strangers recognized that I was different, whether it was my clothing, my hair style or my strange sandals I was never sure but they stared at me as if I were an alien. Some came to meet me because they had never met a Japanese who didn’t speak the language. (sadly I was never raised to speak Japanese) When I visited Singapore, I was just another Asian amongst a sea of Asians and that too was unsettling, coming from the melting pot of the United States. I rather like standing out in a crowd despite some off-handed remarks or outright prejudice. Somehow I have seen these as challenges. I definitely relate to what you have written here and as usual your writing continues to make me think long and hard about the world and all of its intricacies. Thank you.
Welcome to Israel Steve!
I know exactly how you feel about it being easier to breathe here in Israel.
It just makes sense for Jews to live in Israel. The pomegarnates grow at the time of the Jewish New Year and the wheat is harvested during the Omer. What you read in the Bible is happening in the land itself.
But keep in mind though that not only Jews live in Israel. There are also Arab Israelis, Druze, Beduin, black Hebrews, Bahai and more.
Often the only difference between an Arab and a Jew is the language they speak and their religion.
The emotional understanding that evolved from your “Steve, buddy, there is nobody but Jews in this entire country” realization is stunningly insightful. Also, I’m so impressed with the economy of words with which you’ve conveyed it at the start of this post.
Thanks so much for sharing these insights and stories in the new Monday/Friday posts. Might you someday incorporate them into a book of their own someday, similar in some way to how “The Authentic Swing” explicates your personal journey with the writing of “The Legend of Bagger Vance”?
So if you declare yourself Jewish – you can move there from LA tomorrow. However, if you were born and raised there, but happen to be non-Jewish, forget it.
And you support this?
I guess Secretary of State Kerry was right yesterday to warn about the encroachment of apartheid in Israel.
Enjoy your “holiday”.
I so look forward to reading just about anything you write. Your style of writing and thinking grabs my attention and clings to it until the end. I especially like “Do the Work” audible book. Play it every day. Thanks, Steve.
Apparently the most important creative concept of my life is wrong. Hopefully the following does not project my anger and anguish onto what Steve wrote.
1. This first: The Holocaust validates the Jewish people’s moral claim to a homeland. The Shoah is not the only reason for a homeland but it is sufficient reason. I support Israel in what it deems necessary to preserve its security.
2. That said, does Israel have other concerns besides external threats and the domestic issues other commenters have mentioned?
Yes: Israeli arrogance and the overreaching which could ensue. Hubris isn’t a Hebrew word but maybe it should be.
3. My parents were refugees and I value my ancestral culture, but I am American, occasionally identifying as hyphenated-American, but American. I increasingly wonder whether dual citizenship should be permitted. If you don’t like this country… I never liked that saying and still don’t—living abroad is fine with me—, but nowadays I see a point to it.
The Holocaust was perpetrated by Germans on European Jews. It was horrible. But why do the Palestinians have to pay for it? If the Holocaust is the reason for a Jewish homeland – then take it from the Germans. I hear Bavaria is nice.
1. If resistance during the founding of Israel had been nonviolent, you might have a point. Instead, the Arabs, including the Palestinians, tried three times to annihilate Israel.
Existential assaults have existential consequences.
2. To paraphrase a Jewish former colleague: We’ve been kicked around for centuries and in 1948 we just got out of the ovens. When we returned to the land of our ancestors, the Arabs tried to drive us into the sea. We took the land and we’re keeping it. For once, let somebody else ruminate whether or not that’s impeccably fair.
Yep – most people tend to resist when European settlers boot them off their land while waving a religious text as justification. Funny how that works.
Just remember – “Live by the sword …
Well – you know how the rest goes. Always been true – always will be. One never truly owns what they possess by force.
Oh yeah, because who wouldn’t want a Jewish homeland surrounded on all sides by the people who brought you the holocaust. And there was no one in.Bavaria that would have been displaced?
The war is over. No jew in Germany need fear persecution because of their religion. Meanwhile, using that as an excuse to impose Apartheid in a land unrelated to that conflict seems – at best – unwarranted.
Good writing always gets a reaction. Well done.
I’m a white male Roman Catholic of Scottish and probably also Irish heritage, by name – and three quarters French heritage through my other three grandparents …. Aw hell, I’m an American southern mutt. And From where I stand one of the world’s greatest and most persistent destabilizing forces is the ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians. And it seems rooted in unmoving positions. Unmoving positions seem to be a growing trend in today’s overtly polemical American politics. I wouldn’t want that to be my legacy.
I am neither American nor am I Jewish, in fact, I’m a German Protestant. I was in Isreal once in my school days with a group of Christians lead by a Christian Arab who lived in the north of Isreal. I was there only for two weeks and had a lot of fun there. But still, the emotion I remember the most intensely when I think back to that time is sadness. I feel sad in view of the horrible things that happened to the Jews, I feel sad for the Palestinians who had to pay for things that were not their fault, I feel sad for those who picked (and pick) a side in this conflict and start to accuse the other side while excusing what their side has done (and does) and I feel sad for those who try to recreate a past while ignoring the present situation and problems. But most of all I feel sad when I think about all those vitcims in this conflict, let them be innocent or not.
Of course, it is easy for me to talk like that. I mean, “my land” was neither stolen nor given to someone else and there has been no attempt to kill anyone I love and I pray that this will not happen.
Finally, Steve, I enjoyed reading this short text. I am currently reading “The War of Arts” which even though I haven’t finished it yet had already some impact in my way of thinking. Thanks for that and sorry for my English.
I love your posts and regularly re-read The War of Art. This series, however, leaves me feeling uncomfortable with your seemingly narrow focus on Israel’s Jews. May I suggest a side trip to Quneitra, on the Golan Heights part within UN purview, just beyond the part Israel still illegally occupies. There you will see a village bulldozed by the Israelis in 1967 and a ruined hospital the Israelis used for target practice. A further trip of the area will show you the shouting place, where Arab families split by that 1967 war and that illegal occupation of the Golan Heights can yell at each other over the israeli fence that keeps them separated. I’m sorry, Steve, but reading about your anxiety and emotions while seeing you so far ignore the feelings of the underdog in this area and the ones who lived there before the Jews founded Israel leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
I was surprised to read that in a country full of Jews you missed seeing Irish, Italians, and African-Americans. I live in Jerusalem, and I see all races and colors every day. I see many blond blue-eyed children and freckle-faced redheads. One of our best friends is Irish (complete with Ulster accent); our downstairs neighbor speaks Hebrew (and English) with a German accent. Four of my students are Ethiopians, and the afternoon clerk at the market across the street is Yemenite. Every time I get on a bus, visit the local medical clinic, or stop at the post office, I stand in line with Moslems. This is a country where Christmas is celebrated on three different dates for Catholics, Orthodox, and Armenians.
The diversity is here–you just have to keep your eyes open to it.