Through a Glass, Darkly

 

“A statement may be both true and false at the same time: true for one, false for another, when people value their own interests and their enemies’ differently.” –Mao Zedong.

I.

When I was in second grade, my teacher told me I was too loud, and then, just for a moment, stared at my mouth, and said, “you have very black person teeth,” whatever the fuck that meant. When I got home, I begged and begged my mother for braces. She, exhausted and confused, finally said, “What’s this all about, chickie? Your teeth are big and healthy and strong.”

“That’s the problem, Mama,” I cried, “They’re too big! And I have this gap in the front, and it’s so ugly.”

“Your gap is beautiful,” my mother said, turning back to her Organic Chemistry textbook. “You’re not getting braces.”

That night, when I brushed my teeth before bed, I put a little of the white paste between my two front teeth to see what they would look like without a gap. I laughed in the mirror at my perfect smile until one of my older sisters walked in behind me and asked what I was doing. I swallowed the toothpaste and said nothing.

I have eleven siblings. Even the few of us that have the same two biological parents look different. Our father is mixed race: black, white, maybe some Hispanic. Our mother was Ashkenazi. I look the most like our dad. Teeth and all. At night I prayed to look more like my sisters. During the day I begged to be allowed to straighten my hair. My mother didn’t tolerate this whining. She just didn’t have the time.

She did the best she could, after she and my dad split up, she really did. She got into a midwifery program, and rarely slept, between clinical hours, labs, cooking, homework, laundry. We were poor, but not so poor that we went to bed hungry. We were couponing poor, food-stamps poor, hand-me-downs poor.

The-anxiety-that-notched-my-mother’s-brow-as-she-waited-to-see-if-her-card-would-go-through-at-the-store poor.

Can’t-pay-for-health-insurance-so-my-blood-disorder-goes-untreated-till-I-almost-died poor.

It’s not my fault we were poor, I know. Not my fault my mom, a literal angel clad in old Birkenstocks and Goodwill tie-dye, endured so much financial and emotional stress. I know. It hurts, anyway, remembering the looks she got paying for groceries with WIC checks, four of five of us kids gathered around her at the checkout.

None of this mattered on Friday evenings. We weren’t religious, but my mom would bake a huge challah, turn off all the lights in the dining room, and give us each our own candle for Shabbat. Sitting around that busted-up table, looking at the faces of my siblings lit up by a glow that seemed bigger than all of the pettiness and judgement of the outside world, singing prayers in a language none of us understood.

I still remember that. Decades later.

 

II.

“Hey! Shalom! Yeah, you, lady! Need a cab?”

The sidewalk outside the train station was bleached with hot summer light. If I closed my eyes, I could be back home in the humid freneticism of Miami. Twenty cab drivers swarmed at the curb, coalescing, moving toward me, shouting in Hebrew, and so I did close my eyes for a moment. A cab driver yelled out again in English, my eyes opened, and I moved toward him automatically.

“Where you need to go?”

“Tel Aviv center. The U.S. Consulate?”

He nodded, and flung my bag into the trunk.

“I take you anywhere you wanna go,” he said, and then looked at me slyly in the rearview mirror, “as long as you’re not an Arab!” He laughed, then paused. He looked at me closer, at my skin and my hair and my eyes.

“You’re, eh, Jewish, no?”

Instead of answering, I looked down at the stack of papers and notebooks on my lap. They said that I was in Israel to do research on collective memory and Jewish identity. This seemed like a great idea back in Hanover, NH, USA. I had no trouble formulating the proposal for the grant committee: I am a Jew but not Jewish. Or am I Jewish but not a Jew?

I ran the proposal by my girlfriends multiple times. We always proofread one another’s work: essays, grant proposals, text messages to boyfriends and crushes. Sophomore year of college, I’d been — thankfully, luckily, warmly — folded into a tight-knit group of mixed girls, who taught me how to take care of my hair, to be gentle with my curl pattern and patient with my frizziness, and to fall in love with its tendency to softly inflate on humid evenings. Whom I could call after a bad date (this Brazilian guy telling me, you’re lucky you’re light skinned, it’s prettier, or this Jewish dude saying, I never dated a mixed girl before, then, can I touch your hair?), or an argument with a racist professor who didn’t realize I wasn’t white. Those friendships brought me into a world within myself that I didn’t know existed.

None of the girls were Jewish. I had no Jewish friends in college. The closest I got was Ranya, who was Arab and Muslim. We joked that we were tribal cousins; Hagar’s and Sarah’s great-great-great-(& on)-grandaughters.

Ranya read the proposal with some skepticism. “I just don’t know what I think about Zionism, Eli. Honestly, it seems messed up. You’re smart. This goes deeper than you trying to figure out whether or not you’re Jewish,” she said.  

“I just want to see, Ranya, you know? I want to see what it’s like over there.”

Ranya might have been right, though. Things suddenly felt more complicated. Something I kept wondering my first week in Israel: Weren’t there supposed to be hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian Jews living in this country? Where were they all? I tentatively mentioned this to the cute bartender at the hostel I stayed at while I look for an apartment. He said, very casually, “Oh, the kooshim? They all live in the ghetto,” and laughed.

“Don’t you think there’s something wrong with that?” I asked.

“Why?” He was genuinely shocked. “Listen, I know Ethiopian families and I know Russian families. The Russian families just have a better work ethic. If you work harder, you get rewarded. That’s why things are the way they are.”

There was something so ugly lurking beneath the surface of his smile. The next morning I came across a photo set on a Facebook group for apartment seekers in Tel Aviv. The apartment was promising: furnished, with AC, beautiful kitchen, lots of light. The original poster added a caveat to the top of the post, above age requirements: “Whites only.”

Then there was the hijabi at Jerusalem’s central bus station who was speaking Arabic with her friend. A group of young Jewish boys followed them, taunting them in Hebrew. In the States, I was used to being teased and casually looked down upon for being Jewish. Here, it seemed, the Jews looked down on others.

 

III.

“The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” –Genesis 4:10-11

Bethlehem was a ten-minute drive from Jerusalem, on the other side of the Wall, in the West Bank. It seemed that before we’d even left Israel, we were in Palestine. Driving through the outskirts of Bethlehem, and I was confused, and then embarrassed by the confusion, because the West Bank didn’t look anything like what I thought it would. It looked a lot like the parts of Jerusalem that I managed to explore in the first month that I’d been there. The trip was pleasant. At end of the day, I took a cab back to the Wall. The cab driver was talkative. His name was Wallid and he was 28 years old, he had a wife (Lama, 22) and three children, and he was earning his teaching degree. He talked nonstop in an easy, friendly way, as the cab wove in and out of the evening traffic jams. He asked me what I was doing there.

“In Bethlehem, or in the Middle East?”

“Both?” He shrugged, and then said, “Traveling around. When Lama was your age, we had two kids already. You have a husband?”

“No, I’m doing research on Jewish identity and culture. Israeli Jewish identity and culture, I guess.”

Wallid clicked his tongue. “You want to hear my thoughts on Israeli culture and identity?”

I nodded.

“It has to do with the land, ‘Eretz Israel!’” He was sarcastic. “You want my thoughts about the Israelis and their land?” There it was. He paused, looked at me, and said, “What do I care. I don’t care. I drive my taxi around, I meet Americans, Germans, Spaniards, Israelis, Arabs…we’re all the same. Just let me live in peace.”

Wallis drove in silence for a few seconds, and then he spoke again. I looked at Wallid. The tourist-smile was gone. He looked tired.  “I want to teach, you know? I just want to teach some high school kids Arabic literature. I want to support my family, and I want my sons to grow up safe.” We pulled up to the Wall. Wallid faced me. The tourist-smile was back. “A new satellite dish would be nice, too. It was nice meeting you. You gotta walk through the wall here. I’m not allowed to drive through. Then catch the sherut bus on the other side.”

“Why can’t you cross into Israel?”

Wallid shook his head. “Only women are allowed through. And old men.”

I looked outside. We were on the side of a highway, and a huge cement barrier loomed over the cars and buses whizzing past. I got out and stood for a moment on a pile of sand, looking for a place to cross. I started across the road, dodging cars, catching glimpses of other pedestrians doing the same. Someone screamed in Arabic, and car horns wailed from all sides. Sand swirled and shuffled up in a cloud of dust, obscuring everything. What was visible flashed in an out of the dust: an older woman dragging a grocery trolley; a car swerving right, barely slowing down as it navigated the scattered pedestrians on the highway; an Israeli soldier with a gun slung over his shoulder. I made it to the checkpoint and looked back. A breeze wavered across the highway, and the dust cleared. Wallid was gone.

 

IV.

“It’s them or us.” –Ze’ev Jabotinsky

Lior’s friend Maisa was over, and she was telling me the story of her life.

“You wanted to know how I ended up in Jerusalem from Jericho? My father is a cruel man, that is how all of this began.” Maisa said he wanted her to marry a man twice her age,  who’d spent half of his adult life in prison for killing his sister.

“But it was for honor,” she sneered, “So therefore he is a suitable groom for my father’s only daughter.”

Lior said, “And so you ran away from home to the big city of Jerusalem, where you are now friends with the evil Jews. What would your mother say!”

Maisa wiped her eyes and laughed. “I am the evil one here — the evil Arab girl!”

Lior laughed as well, but later that night, he told me seriously that it’s quite true, she is the Evil Arab Girl — at least, to some people.

“When my sisters found out that I was friends with Maisa, they told me to watch my back.”

I thought about Maisa’s little hands, and how they pulled me close for a hug before she left.

“But why?”

“They said you can’t trust an Arab. It’s absurd. My parents are American, you’d think they would be less partisan.”

I was confused, and disturbed.

“I don’t understand. Why the hostility and hatred for Palestinians? The terrorism is on behalf of the government, right? What about the normal citizens? They didn’t do anything wrong.”

Lior looked at me for a moment. “How old are you, nineteen? Twenty? When I was twenty I was in a tank in the West Bank that got hit. My best friend’s legs were blown off so I put a tourniquet on them, and held his hand and talked to him so he’d stay conscious.”

I hated myself for not having the right words to respond to these stories, these brutal bits of life. Lior swallowed the last of his beer. “When you watch your friends being killed by Palestinians, when your little sister’s had PTSD from surviving a terrorist attack on a bus, what love can you have in your heart for them.”

The way he said them made the hair on the back of my neck stand up: he sounded angry, and a little sad, but mostly, he sounded pragmatic.

 

V.

08/15/12 12:14:05AM Eli wrote: I don’t know if I can be here much longer. There’s this intensity & tension between Jews and Arabs, brown/black and white people … it’s exhausting. But I love this country. That’s the thing. I’m completely surrounded by Jews, and I love it. There’s a part of me that I think will always want to come back. And a part of me that will feel like coming back will be wrong.

08/15/12 12:15:10AM Ranya wrote: Word. That’s messed up. I warned u. It sounds complicated, confusing. But I bet it feels good to be around people who have similar backgrounds as you. So do you feel like you found yourself?

08/15/12 12:17:04AM Eli wrote: I dunno…Yeah. In a way. But I think I’m still looking for some missing pieces.

 

VI.

My last night in Jerusalem, Lior, his friend Natan, and I hiked up to one of the many natural springs outside the city. We played with Nina, Lior’s huge, stupidly sweet dog. The sun began to sink. Lior and Natan brewed Turkish coffee on a camp stove, and by the time the light bled deep purple across a fuchsia horizon, we sat in a row and watched the sun set over Jerusalem.

From where we were, I could see two hills, right next to one another. Both were densely populated. Lior pointed out a line snaking its way across the lower part of the right hillside, and asked me if I could guess what it was. It looked like a road, and I said so. He shook his head.

“It’s the Wall.” I looked again. It still looked like a plain, harmless flat line, weaving around bushes, going from Point A to Point B.

Lights flickered on in buildings and houses on each side, and both hills glowed with human movement and activity.

So we sit and drink coffee and watch two countries go to sleep.

 

VII.

“For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I am known.” –1 Corinthians 13

I do end up going back to Israel, eventually.

On a miserably hot day in July, I’m standing outside the departures gate at Ben Gurion, next to two other mixed Jews, Zach and Chandra. They’re going back to the States, and I’m staying in Tel Aviv — for now.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have finally begun to understand something very fundamental about my own existence. It has never before occurred to me that my experiences weren’t, perhaps, some strange neuroses or deficit of character, but rather, an intersection of cultures that has resisted stifling, and moved insistently — perhaps even poetically, in some sense — to create something entirely new.

I had been raised with a sort of grotesque and disorienting view of the world, constantly at odds with myself — black, white; Jewish, not-Jewish — and therefore doomed to splinter. The encounter with Zach and Chandra was eerie, almost like looking innocently into a mirror and suddenly understanding what I looked like. One Shabbat, after we sang prayers together, Zach cried, then tried to explain to a curious, confused Ashkenazi Jew who’d joined us: “I’ve never before seen a woman who looks like me pray in Hebrew.”

Who looks like me. Out of a culture that had told us we were either black (but not black enough) or white (but not white enough) or Jewish (but not Jewish enough), a third entity emerged. A tertium quid. Because identities, and the cultures they belong to, do not develop independently from one another. They grow symbiotically, feeding each other’s capacity for being spoken to, and being listened to. And us, the children of mixed race, we struggled every second of every day to straddle assimilation and conservatism, in the very masculine, dichotomous sense. We had not realized until we found one another that we could discuss (let alone construct!) our identities within the feminine discursive, and be more comfortable with less dichotomy, less polar opposition. Instead of discordant, shattering notes, have a comfortable flow that wasn’t one or the other, just was.

We reclaimed our identity in a way that was neither oppressive nor victimizing, which consequently allowed us to be tangible. In other words: human. Not mere symbols, or the Other, or assimilated or conservative, or frizzy hair or loud voices, or English or Hebrew, but–women and men. Ourselves. Isn’t that what every person wants and hopes for?

Months later I met Khalid, a charismatic teacher who had started a school in Umm Al Fahm for Bedouin Arab students. One night we went walking down the beach, in the sticky briney twilight. Khalid had recently returned from the States.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with your country, Eli. But I could feel it. The racism. The ghettoization of non-White people. It was so uncomfortable.”

It wasn’t funny, but I laughed a little. “Yeah, it’s a problem.”

“How do people of color deal with it?”

I paused. “Well, I guess it’s complicated. Because people of color often have all these different identities, and a lot of times they have to let go of their ancestral roots and assimilate, in order to survive. It sucks.”

Khalid nodded. “That’s why I won’t stay here. I’ll emigrate to Canada. I don’t want to raise my future kids in this atmosphere. This confusion I experience, every day. They call me ‘Israeli Arab.’ What is that? I’m Palestinian. But most Israelis won’t even say the word Palestine. Like it’s a swear word or something. I couldn’t force that on my children.”

“So that’s it? You’re just going to give up?” I said. I felt a little bad for saying it. I knew it wasn’t as simple as that. I had come to terms with my own tertium quid, but it had been a lucky break.

“No, I won’t give up on liberation. I think that we could have peace. One state, a pluralistic state, where everyone has equal rights. That would bring peace.”

“Do you think that’s realistic? You think that will happen?” I asked. Khalid tilted his head back and looked at the stars. Took a deep breath and smiled gently.

“No. Absolutely not.”

And continued down the beach.

 

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