Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Jews and I

At age sixteen, two years after my arrival from Cuba in 1962, I got an after-school job as a bagger at a Safeway grocery store in Long Beach, New York that paid one dollar an hour plus random tips of dimes and quarters from shoppers impressed with my expertise at keeping the cantaloupes and canned goods from smashing the eggs and  the tomatoes.
     
 Long Beach is one of the barrier islands on the south shore of Long Island but it was not a posh destination like the Hamptons or Fire Island. Rather it was a middling-class commuter town, the terminus of one of the Long Island Rail Road lines, and it had a large population of Jews, a good portion of whom lived in mid-rise retirement buildings along the boardwalk.
    
Bagging groceries has never been a brain teaser but it was exciting enough for me because the money I earned paid for my weekend escapades to New York City, just an hour away by train. The monotony of the job allowed me to plan my jaunts too, which usually consisted of walking around Manhattan gaping at the skyscrapers and the huge avenues choking with people and cars.
While bagging groceries I also noticed that a couple of the women shoppers had numbers crudely tattooed on their forearms, something I thought strange until later, when I learned about the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps. I wish I had asked the women about their tattoos. Despite the horrors they memorialized these older ladies seemed kind enough I suspect they would have held my hand and told me their stories.
    
Later, at my next after-school gig at the Long Beach Public Library my hourly pay went up to $1.25 an hour and I met Alfred Linsky, a paunchy, gregarious Jew who supplemented his retirement income by doing odd jobs, such as driving around town delivering packages and emptying the book-return boxes.
Perhaps because he and his wife were childless, Al virtually adopted me, guiding me through such initiation rites as learning how to drive and the meaning of trenchant all-Americanisms like, "Kid, in this country there's no free lunch."

But by far their kindest gesture was to sponsor my parents—total strangers—so they could get out of Cuba. In effect the Linskys guaranteed that my parents would not become "public charges." I guess Al liked me enough to assume my parents would be nice people too. One of my countless life-regrets is that I never properly thanked this couple for their generosity.

Living in Long Beach through junior and senior high school was my introduction to Jews, a group I never heard about growing up in Cuba except in Catholic school, where we read about an exodus from Egypt that somehow led the Jews to Jerusalem or thereabouts.

A few years ago, though, I learned that in my hometown of Santa Clara there was a tiny Jewish community whose members were called "Polacos," which in Spanish translates as Polish, not "Polacks." They must have been Polish Jews who fled Nazi Germany.
Surrounded by such a large Jewish community in Long Beach I learned about Jewish holidays, menorahs and yarmulkes but the more I learned the more questions arose in my mind. Why did so many of them seem to be so generous, like Al Linsky? Why didn't the horrors of the  pogroms, ghettoes and ultimately the Holocaust turn Jews into a introverted, hateful or at least resentful tribe?

How could the couple of ladies with concentration camp tattoos etched on their skin survive such abysmal experience and still go shopping at Safeway—indeed, go on living— and smile gently at the Hispanic bagger and give him a quarter tip?

And most of all, what was the obsession with Israel? In Long Beach, fundraising for Israel—bonds, Hadassah, hospitals, universities and Israel-whatever—seemed to be a perpetual chore.

Such questions, even allowing that I was a seventeen-year-old Cuban immigrant, now seem terribly naïve or plain ignorant. Except that today, even after ingesting considerable amount of prose and films about Israel and the Holocaust, and visiting Israel twice, such questions still resonate in my mind. They are not naïve questions after all.
Early May Stew and I are going to Israel and Jordan, his first trip to the area. In preparation we've both been doing some synchronized reading, most notably Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel."

Shavit's love of Israel comes through his eloquent writing along with the profound moral dilemmas that led to the creation of the country and its development into a mite-size superpower whose internal and foreign policies affect certainly its Middle Eastern neighbors but also Europe and the U.S.

Last Sunday, halfway through our reading, Shalom San Miguel, the Jewish community center in town presented a discussion of Shavit's book, led masterfully by Sharon Leder and Milton Teichman. Combined with the comments by the 30-odd attendees, it turned out to be one of the most enlightening discussions about Israel's history and the Jews that I've ever attended.

Palestinian Arabs fleeing the town of Lydda, 1948. Photo by David
Boyer, published in the Oct. 21 issue of New Yorker magazine. 
On the way back to the car Stew said that combined with his reading of Shavit's book, so much information made his brain hurt. Mine too.

My two trips to Israel, both as a journalist, were nothing if not a study in contrasts—the first was guided by a Zionist group and the second by a spokesman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The first kept me safely on the Israeli side, visiting kibbutzim, archeological sites, and various sites illustrative of the history of the Jews and Israel, and the country's astonishing economic and scientific accomplishments.

The second trip took me to the mirror, or perhaps shadow side of Israel, on the occupied territories of the West Bank, the Palestinian refugee camps, the Gaza Strip and the Israeli settlements.

The latter gave me an idea of the difficulty of implementing a two-state solution: Most Israeli settlements are not improvised pup-tents-and-kerosene-lamps operations but full-blown cities built on occupied land formerly held by Palestinians.
The stereophonic, reductionist and often hateful rhetoric that I heard was distressing. When I asked one of my Israeli guides what happened to the Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel, he blandly, and somewhat disingenuously, answered that "they were afraid of the Israelis and fled."

Then again the resentful Palestinians I found on the West Bank did not fit the image of placid sheepherders who were pounced on by the rapacious Israelis. Their hatred for the Jews was scary.

Neither scenario is entirely true, Shavit points out. During the war that preceded Israel's independence, the Jews carried out a policy of "transferring" Palestinians out of Israel and wiping out Palestinian villages. His vivid description of the deportation of the Palestinian population of the city of Lydda, around the time of Israel's war of independence and within a 24-hour deadline, is wrenching and horrifying.

But on various occasions the increasingly resentful Arabs also engaged in random acts of murder and terrorism against the growing Jewish population, in a cycle of violence that persists today.

In Gaza's teeming refugee camps, presumably populated by Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel, the loathing for all things Jewish seared my eyes and mind. Faded, hateful graffiti and posters of young men who earned the honorific  "martyr" by killing some Israelis or blowing something outside Gaza's fence seemed to be the only adornment on the crude concrete buildings housing the refugees.
Worst of all, the situation seemed totally static: Many of the refugees have known nothing but life in the sixty-year-old camps—and hatred of Israel and Jews. And that stench of hatred that envelops the Gaza Strip has nothing if not thickened following the merciless bombing by Israel last year, which killed hundreds of both Palestinian combatants and civilians. And so on.

Indeed, the two-state solution that would allow Palestinians and Israelis to leave peacefully side-by-side—always a Kumbaya-like pipe dream—has been pushed further into the future by the apparent reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu who during the closing hours of the race declared his opposition to a Palestinian state.

So off we go to Israel and Jordan in May, which I assure Stew is a dream trip, particularly for a history and archeology fanatic like him, despite all the bad political karma.

But I don't expect any epiphanies or answers to the questions about the Jews I wondered about when I was a teenager and still swirl in my mind today, unresolved.


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3 comments:

  1. I still need to visit Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon -- especially, after my visit to Egypt and Jordan. I grew up on tales of modern (and ancient) Israel, to the point that Israel is the only other country than The States with which I feel a patriotic affinity. But, like you, even though a two-state settlement seems to be the no-brainer answer to the area's problems, I know it is a pipe dream. I have attended enough Palestinian meetings to know there is little common ground upon which to build. But I thought the same thing during the Northern Irish troubles.

    I hope you enjoy your trip, and I look forward to any insights you might bring back. Maybe we can sit down on my next trip to your part of Mexico.

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  2. Replies
    1. That's what Shavit suggests Israel might be on the verge of becoming, if it hasn't already.

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