First published in The Danforth Review in Canada. Available online at the website of the Library and Archives of Canada. Also published in Danse Macabre, anotheronline literary magazine.
A large rock wedged between two discs and kept the farm machinery from cutting into the hard soil, so I dropped the yellow Caterpillar's throttle, stopped, pulled my eye mask from my face and jumped from the left wheel track to the clodded ground. With my gloves, I pulled the hot iron bar out from by the worn seat and shoved it under the football-sized piece of granite rock, prying it up and out of the discs. As I turned to put back the bar, I saw myself in the Caterpillar's left mirror, looking like a 1930's white comedian wearing black-face only in this case brown-face, a bit of Jewish-face grime darkening my already deeply tanned appearance. I grinned, wiped some of the sweaty dirt from near my eyes, pulled on the goggles, roared up the engine, and the tracks clattered to life, and I drove down the right side of the rolling hill in the 120-degree blowing heat.
The growing furrows aimed toward the white buildings of Bet Shean in the near distance, the town's structures glistening in the glaring sun like white teeth. Beyond them I could see a glint of the Jordan River and then the pastel brown mountains of Moab—now called Jordan—dim in the dusted haze.
I had arrived from Huntington Beach three months before, in April 2006, just after the rainy season, to volunteer at The Fields of Azariah, this Jewish Kibbutz farm in the Galilee southeast of Nazareth. I wanted to experience a little of the Middle East—what I had read about in my Catholic Bible for years--participate in the communal life style, hang out with the 16 other young adults from 6 different countries, and generally continue my world journeying. Soon enough, I would be teaching painting again at Orange Coast College in California.
Once the sun reached noon high and the heat became unbearable, I aimed the rig toward the guard towers of my kibbutz and drove home. Work generally was from 4:30 A.M. until about 10 or 11. 'Heat and rocks' was my daily mantra; though Judaism didn't have mantras, so I was mixing pickles and 'apples,' not being kosher. But Jews on my kibbutz—who called themselves Israelis--weren't religious anyway, having come into these hills from Germany in the 1930's, escaping Hitler only to confront the Bedouin and the Arabs who also claimed this rocky land, going back 4,000 years. These German Jews, illegal immigrants, 'despiting' the British Mandate's rules and the Arab raids, had built a stockade, then their homes—believing in only themselves and nobody else, certainly not Yahweh. No, it was the muhjahdeem, the radical Muslims who lived in the low Judean mountains to the south, beyond the security fence, who were the God-talkers, 'if Allah wills' parsing their every breath.
Even stranger was the knowledge that it was in those very mountains that King Saul in the Jewish Bible had been wounded by the Philistines so many thousands of generations ago. Later the Philistines had hung his body on the Bet Shean wall. I glanced toward the border town, three miles away, its buildings rearing up like stone idols, their walls so pale white in the haze. There was a mantra for sure—rather a Jewish psalm- 'Nothing ever changes in the Unholy Land.'
Six weeks earlier, a suicide bomber had detonated her vest in Afula a town 15 miles in the opposite direction—three Jewish teenagers had died while buying Pepsi and Fritos. 'So it goes,' I mumbled quoting that infamous of all modern war references as I drove the Caterpillar into the barn, signed out for the day, washed up, and hurried to the communal dining hall for some grub.
Because of the tragic attack—in that case by a 17-year-old Muslim girl from Nablus— security had been high of late. Every night three kibbutzim took turns walking our farm's wired perimeter, carrying their short Uzi submachine guns, sometimes their Ipods turned on low, no doubt to an Israeli singer or some Californian band; it made me feel right at home, yeah right!"
I piled my plastic plate high with fish, potatoes, some Jewish 'ham' (turkey made to taste like the forbidden stuff), vegetables, and grabbed a tall glass of milk. Near the eastern windows sat a bunch of the international volunteers--Ruth, Jake, Joel, Naomi, etc. and several kibbutzim. I angled through the crowded tables of a couple hundred eaters and plopped down next to Ruth. She warmed me with one of her rising smiles, not that I needed any more heat. As much as I like warm weather, I was glad for the loud air conditioners burring in the general din of the cafeteria.
Tomorrow was Shabbat and since none of us volunteers were getting any kind of tourist education on Judaism from the locals—all die-hard secularists--we decided we would walk the three miles to Bet Shean and check out a real synagogue. So after I got situated and had swallowed a couple large bites of potatoes, I asked Ruth, "What time shall we meet at the water tower? Maybe 7 or 8, or will that be too hot for you girls and your fabled skin?"
She smirked and said, "Right now I would like to be about 6 feet under in the pool water, and will be as soon as I finish this falafel. As for 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,' let's not think yet."
I laughed at the Shakespearean allusion, bowed in acknowledgment, knowing that a British girl like her—hailing from Edinburgh--had two redeeming traits: a great knowledge of literature and one fabulous bikini. Well, actually, there was so much more than those outward signs; she was like her namesake in the Old Testament, filled with caring and exuberant drive.
We joshed through the meal, then we and many others filled the pool and Ruth her bikini and me my desire. After the sun set, and the temp dropped to a temperate 85, we sat on the lawn and watched Bruce Almighty that was reverse- projected up on a kibbutz screen, drinking Israeli black beer, and carrying on until about 10 when we crashed in our separate volunteer rooms, so tired from the hard work week.
I arrived at the water tower about 6 A.M. Ruth had said, "Why chance being late to Jewish worship? That certainly would not be kosher." And I knew I didn't want to be hiking in any more morning heat than we had to; if early, we figured that we could always walk down to the Jordan River or check out the ancient Roman amphitheater that had been archaeologically restored.
Several Muslim Palestinians, hired to do grunt work on the kibbutz, were already moving irrigation pipe with one of the kibbutzim directing. Close by, the farm's large gasoline truck rested like a red rock near the gate to the Haifa Highway.
Ruth came walking toward me in a sedate blue dress, down the path that passed the dining hall, like some damsel, more likely a debutante on Rodeo Drive in West L.A., her long brown hair flowing about like a ballet in the warm wind; this was the first time I had seen her not in gray kibbutz shorts and a work shirt.
Soon the other five showed up, Jake, Wendy, Joshua, Molly and Naomi. That made 7, the Jewish number of perfection--days of the week, trumpets, sons, and so on, stacking allusions endlessly in my literary brain. And away we strolled down the highway like we owned it. European and American Jews or their descendants did own much Palestinian/Israeli land.
Across the highway, the kibbutz fish crew members were about done drawing their net through one of the large farm ponds; soon loads of fish would be spliced and diced in the sheds to the left of the water tower. They would move the red gasoline truck for the large refrigerator trucks that would haul the catch to markets here and yon. But Ruth and I and the others would be observing another ancient ritual, and hopefully not committing any unkosher goofs.
In the morning heat, we hiked down the lightly trafficked highway, an arrow of cement from Haifa on the Mediterranean to Bet Shean on the Jordan border. Ahead of us, above the white buildings of Bet Shean, were the distant mountains of Moab, menacing high in the distant sky.
We approached the medium-sized town, ancient in its base, low-income in its work, divisive in its religion or the lack there of—for the many secular Jews. The Palestinian Arabs were, at least outwardly, much more concerned with invisible matters, ritualing their speech with "if Allah wills" and "Muhammad, blessed be his name."
Muslim men and women and kids passed us as we strolled into town through the Arab market where everything from goat heads to luxuriant Arab cheese and sweets could be procured. We walked up to several large groups and I asked 'anyone in particular,' "How do we find Judges Street, where the Jewish Synagogue is?" and glanced around for an individual to respond. Several men looked my way, but a boy of about 12 beat them to the hospitality.
The boy, smiling, spoke up, "My brother knows; he'll tell you." He motioned for me to come over to the half dozen people standing behind him. A Muslim young woman in a long dress and a muted scarf, loaded down with three mesh bags of produce, talked rapidly to the boy in Arabic and smiled over at us. Obviously not of HAMAS, whose Muslim women wear dour black on black—blacker than my Catholic Bible. She, of course, was being escorted by the older brother--he incongruously attired in Nikes, Levis, and an old Metalica T-shirt.
He was the one who spoke up, friendly, but guarded, "Salaam! May Allah be praised. I am Abdal-Rahiim and this is my little brother Ibrahiim, and our sister Saara. We are glad to help you. Just walk three streets up north there, turn right past the Roman amphitheater, then go by the Israeli high school, and you will see a low building with a big colored window."
It sounded like the synagogue was very close to the Jordan River, and the security fence, but I noticed he mentioned neither.
"Thanks very much." Then I looked back at Ruth, Jake, and the others.
But he spoke again, "You Americans?"
"Hardly" Jake spoke up, "You think we would want to be associated with that Bush-Crazy?" And he rolled his eyes and twirled his hand, and Abdal laughed, as did some of the other Palestinians, and gave us a warm smile. Jake continued, "We're from Down Under and from Britain; you know where the sun never rises anymore." Then, Jake let out the rest of the paused joke, "Except for this guy," pointing at me, "he's U.S. CIA!"
The Muslim looked startled but then caught the last part of the joke and laughed. I marveled at how much friendlier, superficially supposedly, the Muslims were than the Jews I had worked with for three months on my kibbutz. Islamic hospitality and religious merit versus Jewish reserve and secular caution. The rule of thumb was that Jews didn't start being friendly until they had observed you for months, knew you; in my case, being a Christian, made me even more suspect. Since they had sometimes seen me read my Bible, I was the odd American, while they were proud atheists, secular descendants of European Jews who had escaped the Holocaust.
We continued on into town, not amazed at how many Jews weren't worshiping on Shabbat, but busy about town celebrating in true secular fashion. We walked through a crowd of Israeli teens—all seemed to have sunglasses and ear plugs--in front of a café blaring American pop. I noticed a buxom blond girl in a skimpy halter and shorts schmoozing and more, in the arms of a guy in an IDF uniform, his Uzi under the dainty table piled with cups and bagels.
We seemed to have gotten lost. This time, Jake checked for directions. "Excuse me," he said to the guy and girl, "Could you direct us to the local synagogue?"
The soldier looked up as if we had crashed his bar mitzvah and said in brief English with a heavy Hebraic accent, "Turn right past the butcher's over there," and pointed.
We thanked him, and she in his lap looked quizzically, as if to ask, 'why would anyone want to go to synagogue, but hey, tourists are weird,' then went back to nuzzling.
Sure enough, we got past several sets of stuccoed apartments, the amphitheater, and a modern California-looking high school, and there it was the low, squat synagogue with the outlandish modern-art stained-glass window striking out colors in all of its modern Jewishness.
We sat, I should say, Jake and I sat in the central room with its large Torah replica and Menorah on the front wall; the girls had to go sit with women behind a latticed wall where they could vaguely see through to the sanctuary, while various white shawled-covered men on our side rose and chanted out of Jewish Bibles what sounded like the Psalms—"Praise Yahweh in the Heavens, praise Yahweh…."
At one point I started to doze off to the melodious chanting, but woke and silently prayed, especially for the three peace workers from my church that were in Mosul, Iraq helping at a homeless shelter with the Orthodox Church of Iraq. What an irony, that Christian peacemakers here in Israel were often harassed, even jailed since it was against Israeli law to proselytize—a connotatively negative term for sharing one's religious faith. There may be a lot of rocks here in Israel—thinking about the 30-some I had dug out of the Caterpillar's discs yesterday—but the Rock of Jewish Peter (a Hebrew name meaning 'stone') was only for tourists and Arabs. Yet, Iraq was open to Christ, if you could survive the killings—the thousands of innocent civilians butchered like sheep. Just 6 months before three American Christians had been kidnapped, one executed and dumped in a Baghdad street with the garbage.
After the Jewish worship service, we stood outside talking with several Israelis of Bet Shean; then we heard loud shouting at some distance.
Up the street, many Palestinian youths in a large crowd were coming our way at a run— shouting so loudly the stone walls echoed the Jihad cry of "Allah Akbar!"
I stared transfixed at the angry mob stampeding toward us, yelling God's name like an insult. I wondered why they didn't add more from the Koran, such as the verse, "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate Praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of all Being…"
I thought of the Muslim librarian at my college in Costa Mesa who had escaped from Saddam's Iraq 10 years earlier by paying the dictator over 20,000 dollars, and of how she worshiped Allah every day, yet wanted to kill no one for the God of all compassion and justice, but wanted the world to know of how merciful God is…
Then heavy thuds sounded up and behind me on the synagogue roof. A dozen of the Arab youths in front of the crowd were arching their arms and heaving. More rocks fell from the hot heaven like loaded manna, loud thumping the synagogue roof and nearby cars. A fist-sized rock smashed into the hood of a Toyota Celica and bounded off landing only paces away. The Israelis next to us shouted in Hebrew as they rushed back into the synagogue, obviously to get their guns. Nearly every adult in this violent land was in the reserves or the militias, and his gun was usually only a prayer away—whether to Yahweh, Allah, the Trinity, or even Darwin/Marx.
Then the Marc Chagall stained-glass window shattered, a small purple animal blasted to kingdom come. I twisted in front of Ruth throwing out my arms, hiding her behind me; the next volley hit around us including a large rock bashing into my right shoulder, hurting like hell, like the line-drive baseball that had hit me as a kid. Now the Israelis pulled us into the synagogue and rushed out with guns, firing warnings into the air above the milling stone throwers who kept up the yelling in Arabic as they lobbed every stone they could find.
Dozens of thuds sounded on the roof above our heads. With the usual gallows humor of kibbutz life, a headline appeared in my mind—"Stoned in Bet Shean," and I chuckled until I heard Ruth next to me, crying.
"This is terrible; it's happening again," she whispered.
"Yeah welcome to the Middle East, everyone kills for God here"…and glanced down at her; her face a gash of sorrow…"unlike Scotland"--
She interrupted, "But I'm Palestinian!"
I looked intently into her jade eyes, bewildered…"I thought you were British?"
"Not on my mother's side. My mom escaped from the first Intifada after an Israeli rubber bullet hit and killed her best friend, Sughra; they had been walking home from school in Ramallah. Friends of hers were beaten, arrested…She escaped the chaos...you see, my mom had heard this British journalist speak at her school…for, of course, she couldn't talk to men, being a good Muslim girl from a liberal Palestinian family…but, she ran away…somehow the journalist got her out of Israel and into Britain and then they fell in love, and wed, and had me and lived happily ever after; until she died of a heart attack last year," and Ruth started crying again, "and I've come back to discover what she left…and who I am."
Unlike usual, I was wordless. More loud thumps…more angry shouts in the air…more warning shots.
Then a volley of curse words behind me. Jake, our resident politician from Down Under who knew the news like his Great Barrier Reef, shoved his MP3 Player into our faces. "I've got the BBC! Our kibbutz has been bombed!"
Sure enough scrolling down the little screen were the words: "Suicide bombing at the Kibbutz Fields of Asariah on the Haifa Highway near Bet Shean. Evidently, an Arab worker on the farm drove the gasoline truck into the dining hall and exploded it—many dead and wounded, more details soon.."
Ruth leaned into me and our eyes met and welled open beyond explanation.
Heavy bass thropping--thropping! Israeli copters! Then above the den of Arabic war cries, came a loud speaker from above, as if out of Heaven, sounding a thunderous speech in Arabic—no doubt warning the Muslim Davids to put down their stones and leave.
Ruth was distant now in her eyes, staring up at the ceiling, but obviously not thinking about the loud chopping of the rotor blades or the noise outside. Then she spoke my name with too much tenderness, so much that I actually pulled a way from her close body.
"You know that's why I am called Ruth; my dad named me for the woman in the Bible, a Moabitess who left her religion, her country, her family to join an alien for love…"
Then before I knew it I had kissed her without rime or place...I suppose it was because I knew the Old Testament story of Ruth so well, as I knew many great stories. Our eyes welled together again, living in the now below the thropping and the shouting and the religious cursing—a visual kiss of sorrow, of grace, of, yes, passion…my academic brain adding so ironically, 'in love and war'—so Hemingway-esque….Ruth, a Palestinian from Scotland, working on a Jewish kibbutz in the arms of a California Catholic, and I smiled. And then thought of the weirdness that tragic times almost never are the totally somber affairs that supposedly happen, that always the absurd and the ironically humorous and even the romantic play counterpoint to the endless dirge…
But instead I said, "I'll be Boaz, though I'm not old or rich," and grinned. I also remembered a famous Christian quote, "Our God is a consuming fire of love."
She stared back in bewilderment…obviously didn't remember the rest of the Ruth story, but said, "I hope Naomi is okay, and what of all our other friends and the kibbutzniks?!"
"Yeah." I thought of who might be wounded, who gone for ever like so many others, of the fiery death of another suicide bomber--and from one of 'our' own Arab workers! Then of the secular Israelis back at the café on the main street, of the Old Testament-style Muslim revenge from bombs to stones..and of my recent trip to Bethlehem to see the cave-stable where Jesus is alleged to have been born; only 4 different Christian denominations have walled up sections—no doubt with some sort of rock--to keep other Christians out of their little piece of Heaven!...none of this made any sense.
Then Ruth nudged me. I realized that a synagogue guard was talking to us. The guard's dark eyes were like stones, but he spoke hurriedly in perfect English without the usual Israeli accent and said that we had better leave, walk carefully to the Egged bus station and get out of town as soon as possible.
I asked, "What started all this? It's them"—and my eyes diverted to Ruth's—"that started heaving the rocks!"
The guard paused, "It's complicated; the new Planning Director of Bet Shean is from Brooklyn, New York; he's supporting the fanatical settlers that started up a new Jewish settlement on some confiscated Palestinian land. It's about three miles south of here and the case is to go before the Israeli Supreme Court next week. I think the new director is meshuga!—but those Muslim crazies make him look like the good guy." Then the guard cursed his God in Hebrew as he glanced out the huge hole that had been Chagall's art. Evidently another crowd had started to gather.
I rubbed my bruised shoulder and reviewed the faces of rock from Jewish field to Islamic land and me the Christian 'crusader' and pondered briefly the nature of we three children of Abraham so caught in false faces, like black-face--the racist, religious mockery of it all.
I faced Ruth and said, "Come on Moabitess, you aren't part of these petty stones; your Rock is higher than that." The guard stared confused, mentally reviewing his brain's English dictionary.
While Ruth's smile to me melted all earthly rock to lava.