On Palm Sunday I met my friend Stefana in Jerusalem (a Romanian student who is taking Hebrew courses here) and we trekked up the Mount of Olives to the village of Bethpage. As neither of us has exactly stellar navigational abilities and we always have to factor an extra ninety minutes into all our plans to cover the ‘getting hopelessly lost’ part of the programme, I was worried that we might miss the start of the Palm Sunday procession.
I have been dipping into the Velveteen Rabbi blog for at least nine years, which Rachel Barenblat began writing when she was a rabbinical student (“When can I run and play with the real rabbis?”). She is a beautiful writer, covering all sorts of rich and varied topics, from poetry-writing to parenting her young son. I especially appreciate her weekly commentaries on the Torah portion, as many Christians tend to neglect these Old Testament books and we miss out on a lot. And even if her blog weren’t so interesting, I’d like it anyway because of the pun in the name.
I mustn’t be this sad. It’s just a Holocaust. My Holocaust. After all, there are many other things worth living for, such as love and the simple pleasure of existence. Not everyone has a Holocaust…And I got mine by birthright, never had to do a thing to earn it. So it would not be fair for me to mourn its loss. And it still hurts, losing my Holocaust. It hurts so very much.
I am in bed with a chest infection and a wooze-inducing virus, feeling well enough to sit up at last but not well enough to do anything that involves being vertical or going much further than the toilet. Luckily I have a new book, Noam Chayut’s The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust, so wryly and slyly reminiscent of Shalom Auslander in its opening paragraph. It has alternately been making me laugh out loud and causing a lump in my throat (neither of which feel very good when you are coughing so violently that you fear a lung might plop out of your mouth onto the page, followed closely by your coccyx and everything else in between). But this book is worth the discomfort.
Noam Chayut was in the Israeli army for five years during the Second Intifada, which included both combat service in the occupied West Bank and fundraising PR trips to America. He’s now an activist with Breaking the Silence. Although my attention was caught by the quirky title as soon as I saw it in the East Jerusalem bookshop, I hesitated to buy it. The centrality of army service to Israeli life has spawned its own literary and cinematic genre, commonly known as ‘shoot and cry’, and I didn’t want to read yet another sob story from yet another former soldier who decries the occupation while simultaneously employing it as a plot device in his personal epic of catharsis and redemption. But tears are limited in Chayut’s book. The autobiographical element – thoughtful, often funny, cheerfully self-deprecating – is paralleled by an exploration of just how far the Holocaust shadow stretches, the fears it instills and the social environment it creates. Chayut does not treat it as a justification for occupation or ethnic cleansing, but is acutely aware that it functions as one in Israeli society, and in the short final chapter – which shifts sharply into a letter to the girl of the title – he is grateful to the unknown child for divesting him of the excuses that accompany this historical legacy. In his letter, he is also clear that the book is not just an individual tale (“This is not my – or your – personal story…”). The specific incidents that make up his book serve as windows onto something wider: the secret fable of the pine trees that Chayut creates as he hikes across the country, for example, is a not-so-oblique reference to the ethnic cleansing of 1948, couched in his own experiences. The personal is woven seamlessly into the political, with seemingly disparate events (large and small) coming together in a narrative that encompasses more than the autobiography of just one former soldier.
A few days ago I was shanghaied by a desperate hospital administrator into working in a ward for elderly people with neurodegenerative disorders and acute mental health needs. My feeble protests that I’ve never cared for elderly people before and I know hardly anything about dementia were waved aside, and at seven o’clock in the morning I found myself standing in the bedroom of a lady who was more than a little displeased to find me there, trying to work out how to put the brakes on her commode. The last time I worked in an unfamiliar psychiatric ward everyone kept mistaking me for the on-call doctor and thrusting their foot infections in my face, but today it was clear that I wasn’t going to be taken for anyone so competent. After despairing of my inability to make her commode safe for her to sit on, my first patient of the day started yelling, “Nurse! Nurse! Get this bloody woman out of my room!” and, when the nurse came running, she enquired in long-suffering tones, “Nurse, is this girl dead? I can’t do anything with her!” As the morning progressed she became more tolerant of my deficiencies. Having delivering a stinging critique of the way I pulled up her trousers after the toilet, she sighed and said, “Well, one of us is pitiful, and I don’t know which.” By breakfast time we were quite pally, and we were sitting holding hands in the living room, looking at the fish in the aquarium.
O Little Town of Bethlehem is one of my favourite carols. This version is sung by Shaun McDonald, set to a beautifully crafted video that shows the ‘little town’ as it is today.
Enjoy. And merry Christmas.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference on political violence, justice, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, led by members of the Corrymeela Community. One of them read out a poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama, ‘The Facts of Life’, taken from his little volume Sorry for Your Troubles. This poem (and the woman’s reading of it – it was obvious that this was a text that meant a lot to her) caught my attention. I ordered my own copy of the book and yesterday it came. I spent the afternoon absorbing each poem, some of which are bleak and some of which are terrifying and all of which are beautiful. There is one in there that stands out to me.
It is a long-standing grievance of mine that I have been to more funerals than weddings in my life. Over the past few years several of my childhood and university friends in England have got married (it seems to be the fashion) and I haven’t been able to attend a single one of the weddings, even though there are fewer things I like better than the opportunity to wear one of those formal hats that teeter on the brink between the stupendous and the stupid.
Yesterday evening, as the heat was finally receding and the sun dusting the sky with pink, I met my friend Deema. She is a children’s social worker in East Jerusalem, and one of the most creative and insightful specialists in children’s mental health whom I’ve ever met. “I love the way they think, children,” she has told me more than once. “They can take a simple incident, like seeing an ant walking by, and make it into a big story.” As we hadn’t seen each other in far too long, she invited me to join her family for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, and to spend the night with them in their house in Jerusalem’s Old City.
At Damascus Gate she descended on me with the velocity of an avalanche. Being hugged by Deema is enough to get you sent to the spinal injuries unit. “I’m so excited to see you! You look good, habibti! Where have you been? What have you been doing? I’ve missed you!” – and I struggled to draw enough oxygen into my lungs to wheeze out, “Tamam, alhamdullilah,” before she pulled me into the intricate maze of little alleyways and courtyards that surrounds her home.
She lives in a rooftop apartment, the front door of which opens onto a steep staircase that totters unevenly down to street level. As she rummaged for her keys, I noticed that something was different about that door. Half of it was missing. The frosted glass had been replaced by strips of cardboard and matting. “It was the army,” Deema said wearily when she saw where I was looking. She pushed open the dilapidated door and guided me into the courtyard. “Some boys in our neighbourhood were throwing stones, you know how it is. So they came looking for them.”
“It was one o’clock in the night when they came. They wanted to climb on our roof, because we are the highest. We were sleeping. We woke from the crash of the glass when they broke the door. Then they came in with their guns, and we were all here in our pyjamas.” Deema’s ten-year-old sister nodded. “I was in bed,” she added, before losing interest and poking open a tin of crayons. And did they get you out of bed themselves, Zeynab, or did they let your mother do it? I almost asked, but I didn’t. It would have done her no good to tell. It would do me no good to know.
I remembered an incident when a young border policeman had stopped Deema in the street, asking for her ID. She had given him an ominous stare, like the one a python might bestow on a particularly wholesome-looking rabbit, before swelling up with characteristic indignation. “You want my ID! You want my ID!” His commanding officer had hastened over to rescue him, only for Deema to turn the full of force of her attentions onto him. “‘Give me your ID!’ he says to me. ‘Give me your ID!’ He will fall over if I blow one breath on him, and he says, ‘Give me your ID!’ Why do you send this child to say ‘Give me your ID’?! He is like a – “
But what else he was like neither the magavnik nor his officer waited to find out. I imagined the army having to confront Deema in her pyjamas and for once I found some sympathy being diverted to the army. “What did you say to them?”
“I laughed at them. And they said ‘Why are you laughing?’ and I told them, ‘Look at yourselves’.” She shrugged slightly as she pulled off her headscarf. Her usually animated face was suddenly tired. “Laugh. What else can we do?”
Yesterday morning, as I was standing under the shower with my hair a mass of shampoo suds, I felt the flow of water slackening and knew what was about to happen before it did.
I’ve been lucky. This is the first water cut to hit my area this summer. But standing in the middle of my bathroom, with my soapy hair crackling like a bowl of Rice Krispies whenever I turned my head and my body still slippery with shower gel, I didn’t feel particularly lucky. I had some work to do in Hebron. I needed to talk to a school principal about the social and educational effects of trauma on her students. When I do these interviews I try to look vaguely smart and clean, and having to rinse my hair with the leftover water in the kettle gets in the way of this aim. And typically, just now I have my period. To say I was displeased is an understatement. Politically the combination of these things is practically enough to make me want to sign up with Islamic Jihad. As the bus rattled towards Hebron, I stared out at the red-roofed settlements we passed on the way and decided that if the water hadn’t returned by today I would gather together all the smelly residents of this street, storm a friendly local settlement, and commandeer its bathtubs. (I know I sound unusually militant here, but when you’re dealing with 35-degree summer heat and have only two days’ worth of clean clothes left in your wardrobe, some militancy is called for.)
Almost forty-eight hours later, the water still isn’t back, despite my neighbour’s confident prediction that we would have it this evening. Majdi’s relentless optimism is sometimes charming (he is the one who suggested, in all seriousness, that I could smuggle an Israeli friend through the checkpoint without trouble by telling the soldiers that he was a Roman Catholic priest who had got lost on a hike) and sometimes exasperating. When nothing is coming out of the tap and ‘Will I be able to flush the toilet today?’ is your first thought on being woken up by your agonisingly full bladder, it’s both.
People who have been reading for a while will remember that about eighteen months ago I started to raise funds to take teenagers from one of the youth projects I work with to Rwanda. Organised by the Taizé community, an ecumenical community with quite a radical emphasis on justice and reconciliation that emerged during the Second World War, it would have enabled young people who live in very difficult situations to meet with survivors of the Rwandan genocide and explore issues surrounding the fight for justice – and the importance of trust. Unfortunately we could not raise the necessary money in time. So we decided to send them to Taizé itself, in summer, when the community is flooded with thousands of young people from all over the world. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) came forward with a grant that partially covered our costs, and last week it arrived. A few blog readers and friends also donated (which I am very grateful for, as none of the people I know are what you could call spectacularly rich). We have just enough for the teenagers to fly out. All that remains is to raise enough money to cover train and bus travel within France, and hostel costs in Amman. (Being from the West Bank, the teenagers have to fly from there – they aren’t allowed in the airport at Tel Aviv, which adds extra complications.) I’ve created a fundraising page to collect the remaining amount. It will expire in a week, as the trip is to happen in August. If you haven’t yet done so, please donate if you can, or share the page with people who might be able to. And pray for us.
Thank you once more to everyone who has helped. With the exception of the ACN grant, this whole thing really was cobbled together from ten-shekel donations, and it’s pretty amazing that we’ve managed it at last.