End of Trip/End of Year

Fitting to be leaving this summation of the last 48 hours in Israel to the last day of 2011, a year that began with a month of Israel immersion courtesy of the Cameri Theatre’s coming to DC to launch our “Voices” Festival and share the moving majesty of their Hebrew-Arabic production of Return To Haifa. How amazing and strange that Israel wrapped itself into our mindset, our work life, our art and politics in ways it never has before. It divided us, maddened us, gladdened us, became a third rail, a political football, a touchstone, a tour-stop, a creative fount; just what the Founding Fathers of Modern Zionism had always dreamed of; Israel With You All The Time!  That’s kinda what it felt like, whether we were on the blog or not.

And how interesting to come upon this 2011 New Years Resolution — to write “a blog a day” — well, that didn’t quite happen, and this space became contesting territory for a time, and it’s so fascinating to read the appeal from a year ago — that this blog become “an affirming space” — like Facebook — when in fact, by March, it became just the opposite — a place where our fiercest critics (who shall from now on remain nameless) could shamelessly cherry-pick and falsely contextualize to suggest that our agenda toward Israel was malevolent and destructive. No need to return to that place, even as I remember the difficult passages — the movement toward silencing and censoring a response, and the losing of this blog as a place to share the love (of what we do; the making of stimulating, thought-provoking art) and share the struggle (of bridging painful divides — of envisioning a better, more peaceful, more just co-existence)… We lost a piece of our soul as a Jewish community this year, through the ravages of angry argument, but it never went nuclear (thank God – not yet, and not ever) and there’s been significant reclaiming too; of voice, and of community, and internally, a piece of making whole with the soul, which is a good thing to take stock in as any year comes to a close; especially this one.

So let’s return, back to Tel Aviv, returning from Ramallah, December 12. I’ve checked out of the Hotel Cinema and taken a cab up to Ramat Hasharon to stay with Tami and Motti Lerner for the night. I’m to stay in Noam’s room. Noam doesn’t live at home anymore, but he’ll be coming back for one more night, the night before his wedding, which is December 15 — the same day I’m scheduled to leave back for the States! And I can’t change the flight because December 16 is a big, important reading for us back at the theater (Broke, by Janece Shaffer – I know, always over-scheduling…) So the time with Motti and family will be sweet — the first son sets off to start a new family — and I’ll be returning for that final night where it’s just the family,

Motti and Noam Lerner

huddled in the living room, watching Israeli TV, a docu-feature on an 18 year old getting ready for military service, we’ll all be together until I leave at 2 am for the airport… In between which, I’m to scamper about the country.

That’s what renting a car in Israel means to me. I’m on the clock, with a country to cover, relatives to visit, friends to stroll with, and a GPS to navigate me when I don’t know where I’m going. Alas, this GPS fails early on into my trip, as I rent a Chevy Cruze and head to places I know how to get to, having been there all before. First stop is Beit Yitzchak, outside Natanya, a moshav (or, as Wikipedia explains, a type of “Israeli town or settlement, in particular a cooperative agricultural community of individual farms pioneered by the Labour Zionists during the second aliyah”) where I have an early lunch with my third cousins, Rafi and Irit, and Rafi’s brother Doron, and Irit’s best friend stops by with her new (60 year old) boyfriend. Rafi and Irit live in one of my favorite places of all of Israel, and they’ve been hot-house cucumber farmers, sheep farmers of a heard topping over 2,500 sheep for almost two decades — they’re sailors who’ve sailed to Cyrpus, Turkey, Greece, and even once to the Galápagos Islands — and I love their work ethos — Rafi started in the hotel business, having studied it in the States, but he chucked it all to work the land and raise a bounty of sheep — but then he sold the business, in the middle of last decade — it was too much — too much of everything — and he got a good price and sold the livestock, kept the land — there’s still some sheep behind the house but they belong to the new manager of the business — and now Rafi drives a cab — it was first a cab service to and from the airport, but now it’s a high-end cab-by-appointment service that caters to the silicon corridor business crowd — and Irit’s driving a cab too, after more than a decade in the food catering and (goat) cheese making business. You gotta love these industrious Israelis who know how to work, and how to follow their whims and their business instincts, and how to change and adapt, and mostly how to have wonderful times with their children, and their children’s children. It’s Rafi’s oldest daughter Limor who uttered that wonderful phrase I referred to earlier (“L’orchim me-vatrim” — “for guests we sacrifice”) and the two hours together pass quickly. Rafi and Irit have been with us this summer in Germany, having tagged along on our family roots trip, and they’ve been to Italy with us in 2004 as well, for the sojourn back into my mother’s WWII hiding history — so they’re close, like family. They are family and that connection informs so much. Before you know it, however, they’ve got cab appointments, and I’ve got an afternoon meeting in Haifa, so we’re off. It won’t be long, I know, before the next time. (but alas, no pictures).

Onto Haifa with Maha, who meets me from Nazareth. Her real name’s Zuhaira–no clue where the nick-name “Maha” comes from–but it’s remarkable that our friendship has endured a full 9 years, since we met when she was volunteering with the Arab-Israel Orchestra of Nazareth, a group we wound up bringing to DC to perform at Georgetown University back in 2003. Maha’s a PhD in education, teaching at Haifa University and running their internship program. She’s one of 7 siblings — the only one not married, and so has been the compelled or forced to care for her aging parents — whom I stayed with during one trip to Nazareth some years ago. Since then her father has died and her mother is severely slowed by advancing Parkinson’s Disease, and Maha gets away for only the shortest of breaks — she tells me about a 4 day trip to Greece last year that was pure misery, for manifold reasons, including the persistent worrying about her mother, compounded by the fact that no one from her family checked in on their mother the whole time — too consumed with their own kids and their own lives. What an interesting and terrible situation she’s in — how her siblings get away with this behavior, forcing so much responsibility onto the one unmarried one in the clan — and Maha puts up with it? She’s confronted her brothers and sisters over the years, but her love for her parents wins out — she assumes the role. It’s kind of the saga of her life, in addition to being a totally dedicated teacher, so intwined in the lives of her students. I’ve been on trips to Um Al Fahm with Maha, all as part of my researching and writing the travelogue play about Ali Salem (where he spent a memorable night in Um Al Fahm as well) — a trip led by one of Maha’s devout Muslim students. Maha’s Christian, and very modern — extremely educated and she’s a fighter for young women’s liberation in their struggle to emerge from behind the veil — but the irony, of course, is that Maha’s stuck in her own snare of family responsibility, and the tether of caring for her mother holds her back perpetually.

We had Maha over to our house in DC for Rosh Hashana some years back and she said that it was the first time, in all her life, when she’d been invited into a Jewish home for a holiday. We blessed the new year together and she showered us with presents from the Old Market in Nazareth. No presents to exchange this afternoon in Haifa. Instead we run into relatives in the cafe where we’re enjoying our lattes. Maha has relatives everywhere it seems, as her siblings are a big brood. Here’s one of her nieces…

The rest of the trip is the trip is the most meaningful, but I’ll say the least. Because it’s mostly about grief. I drive up to Kibbutz Sasa, just in front of the border the Lebanon, and I stay with Lynn and Jon, dearest of old friends — Lynn was our “metapelet” or baby-sitter in Chicago from 1965 to ’69 and then with our family’s help, she went to Israel, moving there by 1970, getting married, settling on Kibbutz, having a son, Yaniv, divorce, new relationship with Jon, four wonderful girls (one set of identical twins in the mix), a brilliant career as a teacher at the regional high school housed at Sasa, their lives expanding and enriching as the kibbutz transformed from an agricultural work-horse producing apples — ah, the famous Sasa apples, now receding into memory — Jon in charge of irrigation for so many years — to become the economic juggernaut it’s changed into thanks to Plasan — a kibbutz-owned factory with a plant now in the US as well, manufacturing “state-of-the-art lightweight ballistic protection and survivability solutions for the war fighter, the peacekeeper and law enforcement personnel alike” — essentially, armored cladding for jeeps and hummvees, and so much more — it was the Bush-initiated war in Iraq which spawned the development and success of Plasan, as our ill-fitted fleet of US vehicles found itself unprepared for the IED’s of the battle-field — hurried orders came from the Department of Defense to Israeli contractors and Plasan emerged as a winner, expanding at a rapid clip, opening up a factory plant in Vermont to secure more orders from the US DOD, and with that expansion came the transformation of the kibbutz. Wow, there’s a story there. So much to tell. And things have quieted down, of course, in the scaling back, and now the cessation of the War in the Persian Gulf.

But the story to tell of this visit to Sasa, and we’ll tell it short, is, again, the story of grief; of losing Yaniv, Lynn’s oldest, at the age of 39, to cancer.  A particularly difficult cancer, that came and receded; treatment and retreatment; only to return and, in the end, take a wonderful young man, always kind, stoic, calm; a leader of his family.  And losing Yaniv 18 months ago has, of course, been devastating.  It’s my first time with Lynn since then.  Only my sister Judy was there for the funeral, though we all wanted to be.  As we wanted to be together with the family at the one year anniversary.  I walk with Lynn the next morning to the kibbutz cemetery, a fifteen minute walk away.  It’s a beautiful walk together, and Lynn wants to tell me about those last months, weeks, and days — about the last day she was with her son.  She didn’t want me posting a photo of Yaniv’s grave on Facebook, even as it moved me so.  But I will publish this picture of her, because we so love Lynn, and her warmth has been such an inviting, embracing fixture in our lives; its wrapped into our collective gestalt of Israel — returning to Sasa; staying over at Lynn and Jon’s — Yaniv, who worked as an electrical engineer at the airport, so frequently meeting visitors like us at Ben Gurion, so generous with his time.  So I’ll remember Lynn sharing all those wonderful memories of her wonderful son, and of the enduring beauty of that cemetery, so close to Lynn’s home, just where any cemetery where a loved one rests should be; close by.

And finally, after the morning at Sasa, there’s the drive to Kibbutz Maayan Baruch, where Katie volunteered and where we’ve continued to go back, which is now also the home of our 2nd cousin Yudah Huberman — who, together with his wife Ruti, decided to build a 2nd home on a part of the kibbutz’s property that was designed to be a kind of retirement community with villas constructed in  a Greek Isle motif.  Ruti and Yudah bought in some 6 or more so years ago and construction completed in 2007.  They split their time between the apartment in Kfar Saba, and this idylic spot in the north.  

And then, quite suddenly, quite tragically, this past July, Ruti died, of an auto-immune disease that none of us knew she had.  Initial reports were that it was cancer, diagnosed at an advanced stage, and that Yuda and Ruti wanted to keep it all very quiet.  In fact, when we were with Rafi and Irit in Germany in June, we didn’t know a thing about it.  At least I didn’t — Irit and Rafi did, but they weren’t telling most of us yet because Yuda hadn’t hardly told anyone.  And a few weeks later she was gone.  And Ruti was spectacularly generous, sweet, and warm.  A wonderful woman, and mother of three.  And before you knew it, she was taken, at the age of 66.   What to say?  

She oversaw the planting of some 60 different species of fruit trees in their new garden.  I munch from a star fruit tree, as does Yuda.  We have a wonderful time looking at so many different trees — there will always be a tree that’s bearing fruit, no matter what the season, he tells me.  Japanese pomegranate; Asian pear… No pesticides of any kind… 

The cemetery is a five minute walk from the house, closer even than the Sasa cemetery is to Lynn’s home.  Yuda can walk there everyday, but he doesn’t.  But he feels close to her on Maayan Baruch, surrounded by her plantings; eating their fruit.  It’s a beautiful place to be.  And with two “tzimmerim” — or small guest houses — “Villot” — we’re sure to come back there to stay from time to time, as paying guests, or as family.

That same day, I update my Facebook status for the last time in Israel:

Ari Roth (Like · · Share · December 14 at 6:39am)
Today is a moving day – visiting two graves of wonderful people who’ve passed much too soon – and spending beautiful times with dear friends and family. it is the centering piece of this trip that makes this place feel a lot like home. and there’s much love here, of land and of people and our history, collective and private. and so soon, to hit the road, but not before remarking, and sharing, that in the end, it’s all about family, and it’s all about love, and taking the time to remember that…

That follows the previous day’s posting about Ramallah that read, in essence “Back from Ramallah… It’s bleak out there, boys and girls, men and women; lots of bitterness sown over the past decade and the estrangement between the Palestinian and Israeli cultural communities is defined by a boycott meant to hurt (the feelings) and impose pressure. We were greeted warmly, openly, all the while having spirited debate about the efficacy of sharing narratives and life stories under the current conditions… Intense!” Indeed.

Later that night, back at Motti Lerner’s preparing to leave, I have this Facebook Instant Message exchange with one of our local DC theater critics:

PM: What a trip!

AR: truth is, my time with the Palestinian theater people in Ramallah yesterday was so sobering – so bitter runs the antipathy toward Israel and now Israelis – Palestinians still accept Jews, that’s fine – but their abject rejection, not just of the Occupation, and not just of the State, but of its best inhabitants… well, that was bracing, and new…

PM: It certainly complicates the impulse of a Jewish theater to embrace some notion of ideological neutrality. One wants at least some sense of good will to come from some of those whose point of view will be dramatized.

AR: it’s all importantly eye-opening, and to understand how hatred become embedded – and to wonder whether it can be lifted by a change in political reality we only needed our South African colleagues at the conference to represent the hopeful answer that, yes it can…

PM: Sounds as if this was a rich + disturbingly clarifying trip. I don’t mind confessing, I’m envious of your hybrid writer/artistic director role. The trip has to enlarge your grasp of the mission of finding a way to continue to bring all this to the stage.

AR: well i kinda think that if you came here, you’d do it in a hybrid theater critic / political cultural observer – Frank Rich in the Promised Land kinda thing

PM: I’d so love to. I wonder if I could convince the paper. Ok, stop, don’t get yourself worked up (now I’m doing Quentin’s internal monologizing…)

AR: Go for it – and if they don’t have the money – I’m sure you got frequent flier miles on Amtrak, right?

PM: ahaha. If you cast me as lede in revival of Schlemiel I could go as Theater J resident artist.

AR: Now that’s bitter humor!

And so goes the correspondence. As the trip runs out of experience, and now turns into the material of reflection, I’ve been living with this sojourn for the past 15 days, blogging and talking and reliving the many stations along the way — many of which, I didn’t yet write about, but they were enriching all the same.

I’m late for tech now; day #2 of THE RELIGION THING, which will be wonderful, just as OY, VEY IN A MANGER was last weekend (and how great to read of our wonderful experience with them one year ago as well. They’ll be back soon enough as well.)

It’s all a circle. And so many good things to remember. But it’s also moving and sad, to remember who’s not here anymore. So we hold tight, to these wonderful memories, all our dear people, and this very precious community too.

A tad too purple? Perhaps. But what the hell? Happy New Year. It was an enriching one, in spite of so much…

Oh, and let’s leave with this final photo from Israel — from Noam and Dana’s wedding!