MOLL DOLL

“Who’s dat?”

“That’s Loony Luna, Aussie, your cousin, my brother’s dog. She lives on top of a big house in central Israel.”

“I don’t want no cousins. And who’s dat?”

“That’s Moll, Aussie, your Jerusalem cousin, my sister’s dog.”

“Like I said, I don’t want no cousins, including Henry. I want to be an only dog.”

“We all want to be only dogs, Aussie, but we’re not. There are always other dogs in the world, know what I mean?”

“If you’re referring to that spiritual bullshit about how we’re all one family, spare me.”

“Take a look at Moll, Aussie, who lives in a second-floor apartment—”

“Poor girl!”

“—and goes to a dog park twice a day.”

“What’s a dog park?”

“She’s a purebred Anatolian Shepherd, one hell of a smart dog and way more expressive than you are, Aussie.”

“Hard to believe.”

“Do you know how Ruth got her?”

“Do I want to know?”

“She saw an ad by a Palestinian-owned dog shelter in Bethlehem asking for Israelis to adopt dogs from the shelter, and she agreed—sight unseen. Sure enough, they come by one day and drop off this gorgeous and highly intelligent Anatolian Shepherd, whom she named Moll.”

“Did you say she never even saw the dog before she arrived? Isn’t that playing it a little dangerous?”

“I think my sister was surprised by the size of her. My point is, Aussie, here’s a dog that was taken in by Palestinians in the West Bank and adopted by a Jewish Israeli in Jerusalem.”

“So?”

“It’s hard to capture the give-and-take that’s always happening between different people and cultures living together—or trying to—in an area the size of one of our smaller states. Our Navajo Reservation is probably bigger than all of Israel, West Bank, and Gaza combined, and there are 400,000 Navajos on the reservation and almost 14 million in that area in the Middle East. All kinds of things exist there: domination, oppression, apartheid, religious fanaticism, anti-Semitism, denial of self-determination, even racism.”

“Could we stay in the Valley?”

“The point is, Aussie, that even in the middle of all that, other forms of communication and relations spring up. Green plants and even flowers grow in the biggest beds of thorns.”

“Since when do you garden?”

“We can’t ignore the oppression that goes on, but it’s never just one thing. Even single families can be complicated. Bernie and I used to work in Palestine and Jordan, supporting non-violent resistance, and come to Jerusalem to have Friday night dinner with my mother, a right-wing Jewish fanatic.”

“How was the food?”

“Good. The talk, not so much. Another relative belongs to an army unit that destroys tunnels in Gaza, while his rabbi father has worked for much of his life for a two-state solution and participates in lots of interfaith meetings with sheiks and imams. You see what I’m saying, Aussie?”

“That you have a crazy family?”

“That too, but also that life is never just one-dimensional. Even as we think that things never change, the earth does its thing, worms turn the soil, rain and sunlight come down, new life starts taking hold.”

“Again the gardening?”

“In a way, we’re all gardeners. And there are times, like during a drought, when we feel like giving up, throwing our hands up in the air and saying that nothing here ever works, nothing will ever grow. But even as we say that invisible processes are taking place,  working in their own way, biding their time. Even when checkpoints are closed a purebred Anatolian Shepherd like Moll arrives from a Bethlehem dog shelter into a Jewish home in Jerusalem.”

“Was she wearing a bomb?”

“Don’t be stupid, Aussie.”

“Did anybody check her collar?”

“She didn’t wear a collar then, Auss. She has one now with her name, Moll, and a phone number.”

“You never know, maybe they injected her with something incendiary and one day she’ll explode.”

“Aussie, you’ve been watching too many movies. Dog lovers on both sides wanted to save a dog, and they succeeded. Moll brought them together; that’s why I call her Moll Doll. Life has more tricks up its sleeve than all of us together, Aussie.”

 

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THE APOCALYPSE HAS ARRIVED

I came home yesterday afternoon, went out the door of my office, and immediately noticed two things: The smell of lilacs, and a fallen Kwan-Yin.

Seventeen years ago, we had four lilac trees, now we have two. Over the past 17 years they’ve suffered ice damage and fallen wires that have taken down their thin, brittle branches. The lilac season is short here, I wasn’t sure I’d return in time for it after my delay in Israel, but there they were, along with that unearthly, indescribable fragrance.

Then I looked to the left, saw a table, red chairs, new flowers, and a funny opening. Barefoot, I walked out there and she was down on the ground. Henry the Mixed Chihuahua looked up at me, eyes wide, as if to say: The apocalypse has arrived.

“It happened on Wednesday,” my housemate told me. “We all came back from a walk, Henry ran outside, and started barking ferociously. Now what, I wondered. Next thing I know, he comes running inside and up the stairs, his hair standing on end, his eyes all scared, and he barked at me like he wanted me to follow. So, I did, and found her lying like this.”

“What did Aussie do?” I asked.

“She peed on it.”

I’d been in good spirits till then. The flight to New York was squeezed tight but fine, I met a good friend for breakfast and then slowly headed up north. This was a small shock.

“Was there a storm yesterday? A strong wind?” I asked.

My housemate shook her head. “Nothing.”

She’s very heavy so we can’t lift her. I want to see if it’s at all possible to stand her up and keep her up, but I’m not very optimistic.

I’ve written about her before. Kwan-Yin found her place at the Montague Farm when Zen Peacemakers owned it and looked out at many Saturday meals cooked and given to community residents. She was given to us by a neighbor, a teacher who passed away. One of her students was a carpenter as well as a neo-Nazi. Once he asked his teacher if he could carve something for her, and she said: “Make me a Kwan-Yin.” Of course, he had to look up who Kwan-Yin was, saw she was the goddess of compassion, and carved her likeness in wood.

When we transferred the Farm to its next owners they didn’t want her around, so we brought her to stand in back of our home, where she immediately took in every critter in the area. Lines, wrinkles, and crevices widened over the years, but she never lost her smile.

I walk over to her every day to have a talk. “So, you’ve given up the ghost, eh? What’s the matter, job too tough for you?”

“It’s the chipmunks. They’re eating me alive.”

“What about Israel and Gaza? Blacks and whites? The people dying of Covid in India? What are we supposed to do about all that while you lie on the ground, helpless?”

“Leave me alone,” she says. “Compassion needs a break.”

“Have a good rest, girlfriend. But when you’re ready, get back up,” I say. ”Lots of wars out there.”

“You didn’t put me in a war, you put me in this beautiful back yard. I can’t do much for the folks in Gaza or the ones who cling to boats in the Mediterranean trying to make it to Italy. I can only do what I’m needed to do here. I don’t move around much, in case you didn’t notice.”

“Things are so critical in other places!”

“But I’m here, so here is where I work.”

“What’s there to do here, girlfriend?”

“Lots of critters need a home so they come inside me. Now that I’ve fallen it’s even easier for them. Lots of them need food, so they’re chewing up my body.”

“They can’t chew up a couple of trees? We don’t lack for any here.”

“Henry leaves me his toys, Aussie pees on me, I give shade to the daffodils.”

“You’re not needed in the Pioneer Valley, Kwan-Yin, you’re needed along battle lines in the Ukraine and in girls’ schools in Afghanistan.”

“I’m valuable wherever you put me. I’m valuable standing and lying down, I can do my work in any posture or position. I don’t need picture postcards of houses blown to smithereens or mothers crying after babies, I got lots of work right here in your own backyard. You hear me, Eve? There’s lots to do right in your own backyard.”

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.
 

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STANDING-ROOM-ONLY

saying goodbye

“I’m leaving tonight,” I tell my mother. “At least, trying to.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going home, mom.”

“Home?” she asks in bewilderment. “Did you eat something?”

There’s a silver lining to dementia after all. She doesn’t remember that I live in the U.S., which means that if I leave tonight, I probably won’t show up in her home tomorrow. No more I’ll miss you so much!, When will you come back? No more final gaze of parting, her eyes are milky with incomprehension. She feels something, she has some sense of loss. But it’s temporary; five minutes later she won’t recall that I said goodbye. It’s almost a relief.

But I still see her one last time even if she doesn’t see me. A quivering bird has nested inside my  body but not in hers.  Do I let go of that feeling if now it’s just one-way?

An old boyfriend would get angry whenever the name Israel came up in conversation. He looked like a Brooklyn hippy rabbi and loved smoking weed. Weed was sacred to him because a long-ago friend, Brahim, had introduced him to weed as ritual, as ceremony. He grew his own weed (in the back of our trailer) and rolled his own cigarettes. But Brahim, born in America, came from a refugee Palestinian family and my friend wasn’t about to betray Brahim, though he hadn’t seen him in decades.

On and on he’d rant about how sick Zionism made him, how he was ashamed of this Land of the Jews (he didn’t mean Brooklyn), how disgusted he was with those who automatically defended it. One day, when I couldn’t hear it anymore, I said: “You don’t understand how small the country is.”

He snorted. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“Everything is different when it’s small. People stumble and they get in each other’s way. They want space, they want to leave, Arabs and Jews don’t want to look at each other again and again, it’s too close, too personal. Here we have so much space we think we could get away from practically anything. They know better.”

When things get crowded, they get intimate. The streets are jammed, cars  honk incessantly over missed green lights and the lack of parking (“Rega! One moment!” my sister yells at the rearview mirror whenever a car beeps her at the intersection), you can listen to your neighbor’s radio stations all day, and just last night we were in the dog park for my last play with Molly, the dog, when a car sped by and somebody screamed “FUCK YOU!” at the tip of their lungs.

I’m supposed to be a safe distance away tomorrow. I bought a new ticket on the only airline still flying here, and so far, it looks like I’m on my way. Tomorrow I’ll pick up a car that’s outstayed its welcome in an off-site parking lot, paying a week of late charges, and drive a long while to get to a house in the middle of woods. There I’ll sit at the computer and contemplate loud headlines about whether the CDC should have lifted its mask mandate or not, what the latest polls show, big letters about small issues, trying to make us believe that all our lives depend on whether there is another commission to study what happened on January 6 in the U.S. Capitol.

Give me a few days, and in that safe distance I’ll feel free to come up with my own self-important stories and indignations.

In one place, life is space; in the other, it’s standing-room-only.

I once gave a good friend of mine a beautiful, heavy, gold-plated necklace for her birthday.  She called me the next day. “Eve, I can’t wear it,” she said. “I like jewelry, but this just wears me down.”

It’s how I feel about stories. They can make us beautiful (“Mom, I’m going home.” “Did you eat?”), and they can also wear us down.

I arrived early at an empty airport and looked for a seat by the door.

“You can sit here,” a middle-aged blonde woman yelled in my direction . I sat down and thanked her. She then proceeded to shout into the telephone, a foot from my ear,  informing her fifty best friends that she was flying tonight after being delayed a long time. Then she looked at her phone, read the latest bulletin, and quickly pushed a few more buttons.

“Silvia!” she bellowed, “did you talk to Miki? There’s a direct hit on Sderot. Did you  hear from her? Okay, I’m hanging up calling her right away call you back when I know bye.”

My eardrum was doing its own rap song by then, so I moved to an adjacent seat.

She turned to me. “WHY DID YOU MOVE AWAY? THERE WAS A DIRECT HIT SO I’M CALLING MY NIECE TO SEE IF SHE’S OKAY SEE? DIDN’T MEAN BADLY BUT I HAVE TO FIND OUT THERE’S NO CHOICE I HAVE TO FIND OUT! YOU SEE THAT YOU SEE THAT!”

Yes, I assured her, I saw that.

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TAKING OFF MASKS

Spending time in Joseph’s Vineyards, my brother’s home.

I go to the Jerusalem municipal courthouse in Givat Sha’ul with my brother to file guardianship papers for my mother. Standing in the queue next to us is an elderly, dark-hued man in summer work clothes. He speaks fluent Hebrew and tells the young woman what he needs, and my ears pick up that it’s probably an Israeli Arab—the way he pronounces h and a, the higher pitched nasal twang. The woman taking care of his case is much younger, and his tone is peremptory, demanding she put his papers in a manila envelope. She is surprisingly courteous and amenable, hardly the usual case.

It hits me how different are the two cultures trying to live side by side here, especially when it comes to gender roles. At one corner is a Western, European-based culture, women dressing and talking how they like. At the other end is a Middle Eastern culture, women wearing hijab and dressed modestly, speaking softly and demurring to elderly men.

AND THERE’S EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN, a wide range of family-based values and ways of being in which everybody finds their niche. In that range you’ll find super orthodox Jewish women covered from head to toe with 10 children in tow, and Palestinian women speaking eloquently and professionally about everything they want. There is no one way of being Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, or Jew..

Many years ago, after some Palestinian children were killed by an errant missile, I heard an Israeli man declare: “The only good Arab child is a dead Arab child,” and a few men near him chortled. But go to a hospital in Israel and you’ll see an orthodox Jewish midwife with hair covered helping an Arab woman give birth.

Hospitals are Israel’s true melting pots, with doctors and nurses that are Arab and Jew, some covering their heads with a yarmulke and some with a hijab, taking equal care of expectant mothers, children from the West Bank with cancer, sheiks with their fully covered wife at their side, soldiers, and folks who throw Molotov cocktails at each other from either religion. Many are fluent in both languages.

“The violence happening in the Holy Land today, especially in and around Jerusalem Is a result of the systemic racism, fascism, and apartheid that has been building up for decades. To clearly label things as they are is not the end of the road, but the beginning of the work needed to truly heal and move forward to achieve peace and justice in this land.”

The above is a post written by  Sami Awad, a peace activist based in Bethlehem, whom I love and admire. It’s hard to tell quite where Jerusalem ends and Bethlehem begins; the two territories merge one with the other. At least, they did till Israel built a big wall to separate the two—for security, they said, with passport control and young Israeli soldiers manning and womaning the passport controls. Cultural sensitivity is  not a prerequisite in the Israeli army, so I’ve watched these young 18-year-olds talk impudently and arrogantly to the elderly Palestinian men with their special permits. They have guns and back-up so they don’t worry, and I want to warn them about karmic consequences of bad behavior, only I prefer they don’t look at my papers too closely and see that I’m violating Israeli law when I cross over to Bethlehem.

Racism, fascism, and apartheid. These are the words we use to label things, and we have to use words to describe what’s going on, to write newspapers and books, posts and emails. So, I agree with Sami, we have to name things for what they are. In the landscape of words and concepts, there is racism and apartheid here (fascism I’m not so sure about). There are rules and laws that clearly discriminate between Arabs and Jews, only the tip of the icebergs of distrust, fear, arrogance, and anger that seem to reign supreme.

But, as Sami said: “To clearly label things as they are is not the end of the road, but the beginning of the work.” To dismantle the structures of oppression is one thing; to actually see the Other as yourself, as we say in the Zen Peacemakers, is something else.

My nephew, David, a young, orthodox Jew, studied Arabic and now teaches it to Israeli Jews. He also teaches Hebrew to Arabic students in East Jerusalem and facilitates meetings, in Arabic, between his neighbors and the Bedouins living close by. He was distraught when I saw him.

“It’s as if all our work is for nothing,” he said, talking about the riots, burnings and killings taking place inside Israel proper. “I don’t know who they are anymore and they don’t know who I am.”

That’s where the work lies, I thought to myself. So who are you, behind the label of Jew and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, soldier and militant, behind David, Eve, Sami? The only way you’ll find out is in what is truly sacred in this place–its intimacy.

The great Zen master Soen Nakagawa would say to his American students: “I’ll take off my mask if you take off yours.” That is my work.

 

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.

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HAMATZAV

My mom’s sleeping. She never realized that I was supposed to have been gone by now. She lies in bed and a small noise wakes her up: “Did you eat something?” she asks and shuts her eyes again. I can hear Saint Swapna gurgling softly on the phone to her family in India. They’re anxious about her here, she’s anxious about them there.

And me? I’m trying to get home. Canceled. Canceled. Canceled. I’ll be rebooking once again soon because my latest flight, due to leave on Sunday night, is canceled. This time I’ll try for the European airlines, see if I can go home through there. If you think getting a covid test prior to a flight is hard, try to get a covid test before a flight that’s canceled, rebook and get a second covid test, and when that’s canceled rebook and get another covid test.

“Till there’s a ceasefire nobody will fly,” my brother tells me reassuringly. And there isn’t going to be a ceasefire anytime soon.

My niece is the heroic one, with four little children, pregnant with a fifth, and a husband who came home from an elite unit that’s working “somewhere out there,.” as they say here He’s home for the weekend, scheduled to leave on Sunday, unless he’s alerted to come earlier. “Come for dinner,” she instructed my sister and me, guests number 13 and 14. “Only place that you have to watch out for is before the tunnel on Mt. Scopus; they’ve been throwing rocks on cars.”

She’s not the only one speaking with semi-nonchalance about The Matzav, the situation. Still, she didn’t wish to drive herself with her kids through that. Years ago, when she was a young girl and suicide bombers were blowing up buses, her parents cautioned their children to take basic precautions, but they didn’t prohibit them from taking buses. The Matzav was the Matzav, it was what it meant to live in Israel. But now she has children and insists on keeping her children a lot safer.

Israelis pride themselves on their stoicism. Two-thirds of the schools closed, but not the other third. People who’re not in the South and Center go to work, though the streets at night are quite deserted.

Still, after last Monday’s rockets to Jerusalem, which were fairly symbolic in nature, we are safe here. Hamas has no wish to inflict casualties on the large Palestinian population here, never mind a catastrophic hit on the Al-Aksa Mosque. So, Molly the dog gets walked, my sister goes shopping, I go to visit my mom, and we’ll visit my niece for Shabbat dinner this evening, tensing up a little before the tunnel, but not much. Normal life. Normal activity.

“Look at that beautiful university across the street,” says my mother yesterday.

“Mom, I think it’s a luxurious private home that’s still under completion,” I tell her.

“Don’t be silly,” she says, “they already asked me to teach there.”

“Teach what, mom?”

“With my life, you don’t think I have something to teach?” she says indignantly.

At this point in my life, I feel like I’m the opposite of her. I don’t have a clue what to teach; I don’t have a clue what to say.

It’s so easy to get into stories and principles. I had my principles from Day 1 here. I loathed the occupation, was sure it was wrong. I thought the efforts to undermine a 2-state solution were wrong. I watched Israeli settlers speeding through checkpoints while Palestinians waited in a line a mile long, late to work, late to school, and said: “That’s wrong!” “So many checkpoints,” Sami Awad used to say, “you can’t get into 3rd gear or above anywhere around Bethlehem.”

I felt that the way Israel treated Hamas and the Palestinians under its rule was wrong.

Right, wrong, apartheid, discrimination, oppressor, oppressed. Wisdom, enlightenment. One concept follows another follows another.

When you’re in the middle of these things—and I’m not in the middle—principles fail you. Suffering is suffering. People go down to shelters, sleep there with their families night after night, rockets explode all night and people are afraid for their children.

We watch TV a lot. Over and over again, the  spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces tries to reassure the skeptical journalists: “We’re the strong ones. You see what they did to us? We counter that with 10 times more force. We took down their senior commanders, headquarters, internet infrastructure, buildings–we brought that down, so don’t worry. You can trust the IDF, it’s doing its thing, it takes care of us.”

Those declarations fall on deaf ears. Yes, deep inside, Israelis have terrific trust in their army; they know it’s among the best in the world. They and their children have all served in it. At the same time, you can’t get past the existential dread that’s here: here it is, happening again, bombs and rockets and sirens and children crying and people dying.

Long ago I met the Israeli writer David Grossman, who said that Jews in Israel see Auschwitz everywhere. “I don’t know how long it will take.”

This time it’s even worse because of the unrest inside Israel itself, Arabs and Jews facing off each other, stoning, burning, cursing, and even lynching. There is no Hebrew word for lynching, they use the English. A Jewish man was killed on his way to synagogue in Lod? He was lynched. An Arab driver was taken out of his car and beaten to an ounce of his life? He was lynched. An interesting legacy of our own, thank you very much.

They know—I don’t have to remind them—that the scale in Gaza is overwhelming, that what happens on that side is way worse than what happens here. My pregnant niece is bound to wonder what it’s like for a pregnant woman to be unable to get to a hospital to give birth, what it is not to be able to provide safety for your children. People aren’t animals, they’re fully aware that on that small strip of land by the Mediterranean, the densest place in the world, there is horror and destruction.

But there’s also a sense of deep hopelessness and fear: We don’t know what to do. We know those are human beings, but we don’t trust Hamas and there’s nothing more we can do.

Zen truisms come up for me, especially that Zen is about giving no fear. And if and when I manage to get home, a safe distance away, I’ll be tempted to come up with spiritual solutions, with axioms and stories from the past.

But right now, the principles just slip off me. I see how small the story of right and wrong is, how it doesn’t capture the neighbor yelling into the phone about terrorists, the tiredness of hearing explosions in the distance even if they’re not coming straight at you, hearing a siren and wondering if it’s a local ambulance or the warning about incoming rockets, giving you one minute to get to a shelter.

It’s nothing like Gaza, but suffering is suffering. It doesn’t lend itself to comparison (Ours is more than yours!); you’re in the middle of misery. You do what you can, usually it’s closer to home. You walk your sister’s dog, she takes great care of you because you have a cold—what would I do without her?

And though I’d like to get home, I know in my gut that home for me is wherever there is suffering. And for that, I don’t have to rush back to Massachusetts.

I haven’t asked for money for undocumented families in a long time. if you can help, please do so. Thank you.

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.
 

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NOT COMING HOME

 

School girls lining up to enter the Old City on Jerusalem Day.

I’m not leaving tonight, as planned. American airlines are not flying in or out of Tel Aviv for a couple of days, first flight out is  Friday night and that’s what I’m on. But nobody knows if it’ll really happen.

“You suppose El Al is flying and only American airlines are too wimpy?” I ask my sister.

Stupid question. I watched last night as the television showed rockets flying over the airport. Do I want to sit inside a plane while that happens? No, sir. My brother-in-law flew to NY last night and ended up in a shelter 7 stories underground, and finally managed to leave. I’m not so lucky.

There are occasional explosions from far away, no siren warning us of incoming rockets. Tonight is Eid-el-Fitr, the last night of the Ramadan, and fireworks are to be expected, but this is way different. After the initial 7 rockets aimed at Jerusalem on Monday early evening, Jerusalem has escaped the onslaught of rockets coming from Gaza and hitting the south and central parts of Israel.

My brother took a walk with his wife and two missiles hit an uninhabited field not far from them.

I got upset. “Why are you taking a walk outdoors when all the warnings ae to stay in?” When the sirens go off, instructions are clear: Go down to the shelter. If you don’t have a shelter, go into the building’s staircase but avoid the ground floor. And if you don’t have a staircase, stay in an inside room with as few window panes as possible.

The Israeli forces show videos of how their Iron Dome downs missiles. One missile meets the other in mid-air and explodes it, and it looks like a video game. Those are probably the explosions we hear all the way here.

We watch TV endlessly, and the Israeli army makes optimistic announcements and videos of the buildings and Hamas commanders that are going down. But journalists are demanding to understand why is it that with all this damage done in Gaza, Hamas is still succeeding in sending rockets into Israel. Also, how is this going to be different from other battles with Hamas?

There is absolutely no talk of cease-fire.

But for many people, what is happening inside Israel, between Israeli Jews and Arabs, is by far the worst. This is the first time in many years that Israelis see Israeli Arabs rioting in the cities, burning cars, throwing rocks, stones, and Molotov cocktails, rioting especially  in Lod, where a curfew has begun but is not yet enforced, Bat Yam, Tiberias, and other cities. Whereas yesterday Arab citizens rioted against Jewish citizens, with police presence scant, now they ae rioting not just against police but also against Jewish counter-rioters. We can see people with Israeli flags walking the streets, attacking Arab passers-by, attacking mosques.

My sister took Molly the dog to the dog park at 10 at night, and as she was getting the dog out of the car another car passed by and a young man threw a couple of full orange soda cartons hard at her.

I have lots of thoughts about all these impressions, but this is not the time, things are moving way too fast. This is the time to maintain some steadiness and bear witness as much as possible. Take in as much as possible.

Announcement of more rockets coming in in 20 minutes, at 9:00 pm.

Happy Eid-al-Fitr.

 

 

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MORE VIOLENCE

smart

My sister took me to get another covid test before flying home on Wednesday night. We drove close by to an outdoors testing site that’s just 100 yards away from a Palestinian village, either in or close to East Jerusalem, with two drive-through bays where you’re tested without getting out of your car.

By the time we left the house, we already knew about the demonstrations in the Old City. It’s Jerusalem Day, as it’s called here, celebrating the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. A loud, inciting mass demonstration was scheduled to begin at the Damascus Gate (the gate to the Old City most usually used by Palestinians, unlike Jaffa Gate used by Jews) and making its boisterous way through the Muslim quarter to the Wailing Wall. They’d be going up to the Temple Mount if they had their way, but police had already said that was out of the question.

They finally canceled the demonstration and told people to get to the Wall from the Jaffa Gate.

We found the testing site quickly, manned by three Palestinian men, one dressed like a spaceman to administer the test while another examined documents. They worked quickly and efficiently, we were out of there in some 5 minutes flat, but not before a group of young, rambunctious Israeli boys, holding Israeli flags, came down the hill and into the site, going through the second bay. Just moments earlier we’d seen them at a big memorial that I’d never seen before, and now here they were, proudly holding their flags as I shot their picture through the car window.

“Take a good picture!” they yelled, posing. “A good picture!”

I clicked. On the other side of the car the Palestinian medics said nothing.

“It’s like a fist in your face,” I told my sister.

But everything here is in your face. Israel is a very small country, no room for polite maneuvering. Elbows and backpacks into your sides, old Jerusalem alleys masquerading as streets. You have coffee in a café at a table near the cashier and are hit half a dozen times by a skateboard held by kids on line. There’s no reason to take it personally; there’s simply little space.

An old friend of mine used to get furious with the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. From his small, far-away house in rural California, he’d inveigh angrily at the Israeli army and government, the complacency of those who didn’t care.

“Mitchell, I’m not defending anything,” I’d tell him on the phone, “but the country is so small. Everything is so up-close and in-your-face there, it makes a big difference. It’s hard to understand that from here.”

Bernie, too, used to get furious. In all the years I’d seen him, the Israeli behavior towards Palestinians triggered him in the way very few things did. He’d turn sarcastic, which he rarely did, starting with sardonic comments about Bibi, the prime minister, and then getting into serious anger. People learned not to bring up Israel because once it entered the room, it didn’t leave for a long time.

Once I, too, would get into a rage. Inside the family we’d argue and bicker. Most of my family was right-wing, and especially my mother, who long ago was put in jail for putting up illegal placards against the Israeli return of the  Sinai to Egypt.

But outrage and indignation no longer find a home in my heart. Anger was a regular resident, but now less so. Upsets, yes, but they’re one-shot deals and fade quickly. I feel like I’ve lived through a lifetime worth of outrage and indignation, kept on that diet by daily devouring Israeli and Palestinian media, not to mention Al-Jazeera, and I’m not clear what good they did.

I think the Trump years, too, emptied me of those things. I knew from the election of 2016 that I could stay angry for at least four years, or I’d find another way. Helping indigent undocumented Latino families was one thing I decided to do with the beginning of covid. And there were other ways, too.

Mostly, I sharpened my listening rather than my all-too-acerbic tongue. Here, in particular, the country is so small. It’s so easy to get ignited; it’s so easy to explode.

Here is an update full of small contradictions:

Last night I actually took my mother to the local synagogue where they held special services in honor of Jerusalem Day.

Yesterday, my niece, Noga, walked to her car after teaching in the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University and was hit by a rock. Physically, she’s fine.

At 6:00 pm this evening I was out in the dog park with my sister and her Anatolian Shepherd, Molly. Suddenly loud sirens went off, and then several loud explosions. “It’s the first time I’ve heard alarm sirens like this in Jerusalem,” my sister said. Everyone took out their phones to listen to what’s going on, and yes, a number of missiles had been shot by Hamas in Gaza towards Jerusalem.

Hamas promises more rockets at 9 pm, another 20 minutes. “We do have a shelter, you know,” my sister says, but no one makes any move to go there.

My nephew, David, facilitates a meeting between Jewish residents of his town in the West Bank with the Bedouins who live in the valleys. He invited me to join, warning me that there’s no real road, we’d have to climb down. I was going to join up, but he canceled the exchange due to events this week.

Everything is up close and in your face.

 

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STONE-THROWING AND POTTERY

Last night, Friday night, I asked my sister if she’d heard news of violence in the Old City, which flares up reliably on Fridays, after Muslim services, and especially in this period of Ramadan. Young people emerge from Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock and throw rocks down at Jews praying at the Western Wall. The police arrive, violence ensues. This is flaring up again, after the respite afforded by covid.

She looked up the news and said “Shit!” There were hundreds of protesters yesterday, with many arrested and getting hurt, including policemen.

The focus this time is not on the Temple Mount but the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah close by, which is mostly Palestinian and well known in my family as the place to go to get your car fixed. Regardless, nothing happens here that escapes the shadow of land ownership and occupation.

In some ways (not all), I feel when I’m here that I am reliving the Europeans’ take-over of Turtle Island hundreds of years ago. Court orders and judicial decisions provide but a thin legal veneer to what in essence is a land grab. Sometimes it’s for religious reasons (This is our city!), but more often it’s economic in nature. Young people like my nephews and nieces, priced out of living in Jerusalem, see in the surrounding hills of the West Bank potential for big American-style homes, suburban living with cars, back yards, and barbecues smack in the middle of the desert hills.

“We’ll leave if there are ever peace accords,” they used to say. “We won’t stand in the way of a peace process.”

Not anymore. As the years go by they become more entrenched and prouder than ever of the lifestyle they’ve created; they love this place even as the air-conditioning has to be kept on almost year-round. Their small children can’t imagine that these generous schools and kindergartens with parks and safe streets all around, aren’t their true home. They live on top of the hills with a great desert panorama outside their living room windows, looking down on the Bedouins herding their goats in the valleys. They’d be astonished to hearr that their parents had once been slightly uncertain about building their homes here, that once there had been a question about whether this area in the West Bank belongs to them. Of course, it belongs to them—now and for eternity.

It’s sad to say this, but the government’s plans have worked out. They incentivized the settlement of the West Bank. A few settled here for religious or idealistic reasons, but the majority for the lifestyle, and by the time their children go to school picnics and birthday parties, the old questions don’t even arise.

But in the long run, I wonder? What did we win in America? What has happened to the common-sense relationship of human being to land, desert, trees, to other species? What is the loss we begin to realize and acknowledge? I can’t compare that loss to the suffering of the Native Americans—or the Palestinians, for that matter—but I can’t help noticing that losses and gains tend to change over time.

For now, the Occupation has won. Jerusalem is ours forever! say the signs. But what’s forever?

On Thursday my sister and I ventured into the Old City so that I could make my regular pilgrimage to Hagop Karakashian at Jerusalem Pottery. The shop used to be on Via Dolorosa, which we might have avoided in these times, but it’s now in the Greek Orthodox section of the Old City, right opposite the enormous Patriarchate, just a few minutes’ walk from the Jaffa Gate.

We walk through the fancy shopping arcade of Mamila, stopping enroute for a quick lunch, then climb the steps towards Jaffa Gate. Groups of Israeli school youth surround us, out to celebrate the anniversary of the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, but once inside the old walls I don’t see them, and I wonder if, for caution’s sake (never mind Palestinian sensitivities), they don’t even go  inside the Old City.

Jerusalem Pottery was founded by an Armenian artisan who came to Jerusalem a century ago to hand-paint the gorgeous tiles on the outside of the Dome of the Rock. He and his descendants maintained their artistry of hand-painted Armenian ceramics and pottery all these years.

In the 1940s they hand-painted Armenian tiles with the names of the streets in the Old City in both the gorgeous Arabic calligraphy and also in English, which were the street signs back then. In 1967, after the Israelis conquered the city, its new mayor, Teddy Kollek, asked them to add the name in Hebrew, so they added one tile with the Hebrew lettering over each tile of English and Arabic. You can see these tiles all over the Old City, so much more beautiful than the Jerusalem Municipal printed blue street signs.

The history of the city curls through their tiles, you can’t fake it, just as their many imitators try to copy their results but can’t replace hand-painted ceramics with mass-produced goods made in Hebron factories (or maybe even China, for that matter). Usually, I peer in back at the workroom where they paint the cups, saucers, plates, framed mirrors, platters, tiles, and tabletops which are then shipped all over the world. None of what they sell is cheap, but it’s the real thing.

I buy gifts: 2 coffee cups, a small vase, a serving plate, and a few other small items. I love the symbols they use: the peacock for abundance, the gazelle and pomegranate, and even the Jewish Tree of Life.

And I like talking to Mr. Karakashian. Handsome and courtly, he never seems to age. We both recognize each other even with our masks on. His are the aristocratic brow, nose, and dark eyes, unwavering Armenian features that seem to mock the passage of time even as he answers my questions all based on time: Yes, business was terrible during the time of corona, hopefully it will improve now as things open up; his family is well but his brother-in-law in Los Angeles got very sick, was in ICU for 10 days, and then recovered.

“Can I take a photo?”

“Of course, you can, and please add a link to our website.

Regardless of what’s in the news, when you are in Jerusalem you participate in timelessness. I feel that more here, with the sound of buses, cars, bicycles, children’s shouts, trucks and construction, never mind battles, than I do in my quiet New England woods. I don’t need to visit the Wailing Wall or the Temple Mount, too  much historical blood there for my taste. In Hagop Karakashian, all three tenses meet.

We walk back to Mamila and encounter the high school groups again. They ask us to take their photos, they nibble on premium ice cream cones or else crowd into a store that is an Israeli version of Claire’s, full of cheap jewelry and knick-knacks. Their teachers have had it up to HERE! they say, pointing to their foreheads.

HERE! is never up there, I want to tell them; it’s far lower down.

My 12-year-old great-nephew, Avishai, who daily practices judo with his judo-champion father, informs me that the Japanese word for stomach is hara. Everything comes from there, he informs me with a sweet, bashful smile.

I don’t ever give up hope. If anything, slowly, slowly, I feel like I’m falling in love with this place, finally.

A family picnic in the West Bank

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HOW DID I GET CONFUSED?

My mother now thinks that every day is the Sabbath.

A text message comes in early morning on my sister’s phone from my mother’s Indian caregiver, Swapna, who has the patience of a saint. “Mother thinks it’s Shabbat,” the Hindu saint writes, “and is getting dressed to go to synagogue.”

We’re lucky the text didn’t come in at 3 or 4 in the morning, which is more usual. “Here,” my sister says, handing me the phone, “you do it this time.”

I call. “Mom? What are you doing?”

“I’m getting dressed to go out.” Just two days ago her gerontologist verified that she could barely take 10 steps on her own.

“Mom, what day is it?”

“It’s Shabbat.”

“Mom, would I be calling you on Shabbat?” Religious Jews don’t pick up the phone on the Sabbath. “It’s Wednesday.”

“Oh,” she says. Pause. ”How did I get confused?” A question for the ages.

“It’s not Shabbat, you don’t have to get dressed. I’ll see you a little later.”

“Okay,” she says.

An hour later another text from Saint Swapna, this time with a photo, above. “Mother got dressed to go to synagogue and left the house.”

This is a first. She actually unlocked the door and got out into the foyer, walking towards the steps, in synagogue finery with a hat (it’s 90 degrees outside).

I hurry over to her home, mind speeding up: What will happen if she does this again? When will Saint Swapna’s patience run out? What will we do if she says she wants to go back to India where her own family awaits her, plenty of caring to do right there? My mother doesn’t take kindly to other caregivers, and besides, who’d be ready to take this on?

When I get there, my mother has no memory of going out and instead has terrible back pain. We give her painkillers, and after a brief massage on her lower back she dozes off on her bed. The house is quiet. Swapna had a tooth extracted yesterday and she’s in her room, resting, while I sit on the sofa, filling some kind of position I don’t understand. What role do I have here?

I won’t hide the fact that, watching my mother’s encroaching dementia and her physical pains, I think a lot about how I’d like to go, or more often, how I don’t want to go. But that’s a small, private conversation unworthy of this quiet apartment, this particular moment. Outside, hot pink roses blow in a very slight breeze and there’s construction by Palestinian workers across the street. The moments glide by.

I’m aware of the monotonous routine here, the coffee in the morning and a breakfast that’s often not eaten, sitting at the table, sun on her back. When she gets up from her bed she’ll be given lunch, most of which she won’t eat, then the afternoon rest. Sometime this evening I’ll come back to be with her, we’ll watch TV together. Tomorrow she’ll go to a senior center. One thing inevitably follows another.

But there’s timelessness here, too, and that’s what I feel most of all. People aging, houses going up and coming down, hot summers, ancient Jerusalem transformed into modern metropolis, but those things are like nothing in this forever city. Lots of fuss, lots of money, lots of tears, lots of hurrying and running around (Israel is a much younger country than other Western lands), lots of cell phones calling with people’s special songs. And yet, sitting in my mother’s quiet living room, I feel that all this change is no-change, that time has stood still.

“A withered tree blossoms in endless spring” reads a verse on a koan we’re working with back home. That’s my mother, getting dressed and slipping out the door. She, forever disciplined and prudent, is slipping the bounds of logic and order. In response to the chaos in her mind, she creates more chaos.

She’s withered, yes, and at the same time she’s everywhere: in three adult children guarding her last years, in photos of grandchildren’s graduations, bar-mitzvas, and marriages, holding more babies in their arms, smiling at more young children. She’s in the pot of vegetable soup that’s lying on the oven and that she trained Swapna to make. This Hindu caregiver, who never touches meat or fish, will make gefilte fish for our Friday night dinner. She’s in the hot pink roses on the steps outside, in the hat with which she covers her white hair, and even in the letters on the white chalkboard by the table: TODAY IS WEDNESDAY, which she never reads because she knows that today is the Sabbath. Today, and every day, is holy.

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THERE IS SOMETHING SECRET GOING ON

My mother’s neighborhood

“Mom, how was Melabev?” I ask my mother when she returns at 3:30 pm on one of the three days she’s still taken to a senior day center. I am at her home to greet her after spending time with her live-in caregiver, Saint Swapna, who tells me that, at her urging and prodding, all members of her family in India have already had one covid vaccine. They would have gotten the second only India ran out of vaccines.

My mother collapses on the blue living room chair, exhausted, lips drawn back in a very severe line.  “There is something secret going on, and one day I’ll find out what it is.”

“What do you mean, mom?”

“You know,” she explains, “they have lots of secrets at the center. They don’t want us to talk to one another so they put us in a big discussion circle. As soon as we discuss one topic they move on to the next and don’t let us ask any questions. And if someone asks them if  they’ll be open next month during the holiday week—I forget what holiday it’s going to be—”

“Shavuot?” Pentecost?

“– they say they have to check.”

“Maybe they do have to check, mom.”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t know what’s going on but I plan to find out. They fill up the day with so many things just so that we won’t ask too many questions. They have musicians, games, storytellers—”

“That sounds nice, mom.”

“If they want to be sneaky, I can be sneaky, too.”

“What’s sneaky about musicians?”

“I’m telling you, they want to know things about us.”

“Who, mom?”

“Don’t ask me stupid questions. They! And they want to make sure we don’t talk. But I am going to find out. Nobody is going to make my life a riddle.”

Those were here exact words: Nobody is going to make my life a riddle. But that’s what my life is, mom, one big riddle, I almost said out loud. Sometimes I get music, maybe a little singing or stories or even a little (very little) dancing. But always I get the riddle.

This morning, over coffee with my orthodox Jewish brother, he posed the following question: “Where’s our temple now, Eve? Not the old temple where they made animal sacrifices and Jesus got mad at the moneychangers, I mean the new temple, the center for passion and hope, the fire we yearn to touch again and again?”

Walking up to my mother’s home, I found myself asking the question: So, who’s on Vulture Peak now? Vulture Peak is the place in India where the Buddha gave many teachings. I thought of the great chapter in the Lotus Sutra, Lifespan of the Thus Come One, in which the Buddha promises that when people pray to him, he and his monks will be at Vulture Peak expounding the dharma. That, in fact, they never died, that’s just a delusion, but still and always they are preaching the Law from Vulture Peak.

Where are they now? I asked myself, trudging uphill in 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We need them now more than ever, we gasp for breath, we look everywhere for relief from covid, war, from brutality, degradation, and even complacency, so where are they now? More to the point, who are they?

If I work with this question as a Zen koan, then it is up to me to manifest as one of the enlightened beings who preach, teach, do, and dedicate their lives to bringing everyone to awakening. Or perhaps I manifest as Vulture Peak itself, the space where teachings take place one eternity after another, or else as the laywoman among the many gathered at the foot of the peak to listen, learn, take things to heart, practice at home but come back to Vulture Peak again and again.

The students, the teachers, the teachings, all one thing. One big heart.

And when the living have become faithful,
Honest and upright and gentle,
And wholeheartedly want to see the Buddha,
Even at the cost of their own lives,
Then, together with the assembly of monks
I appear on Holy Vulture Peak.

As a young student, I used to dream of a group of grizzled monastics meeting and renewing their vows in moon-drenched nights on Vulture Peak. Where are they? Where am I?

Now, hours later on a warm night, as my sister teaches English on the phone in her office behind a shut door, her Anatolian Shepherd Molly growls stretched out on the cool tiled floor, both of us listening to the brrrr of the ceiling fan, the shouting of a man on the street and the turn of the tires as cars park down below, I suddenly feel that terrible hunger to see the Buddha, to know it deeply in each and every thing and person, manifesting tenderly as a yellow handbag on a dining table, a green apron drooping on an old, careworn chair, footsteps on the stairs in the hallway, the hum of an airplane on its way east to Jordan. It’s always there, I know, only sometimes the yearning is so great.

Nobody’s going to make my life a riddle. That’s what it’s been all these years, this life that isn’t just mine, and isn’t just life for that matter, either. I, who’ve never seen Vulture Peak in India, want to return there, want to spare these lands misery and death. Want to be like the moth that hung desperately to the bedroom wall all night, only to be lifted gently on the tip of a finger and then released this morning into new blue light.

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.
 

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