By Yishai Beckow
The white van was aching to fall apart as it sped down the highway from the Shomron towards the border with the undisputed portion of Israel.The man in the passenger seat was unsure of whether to laugh or scream in terror. At one hundred and twenty kilometers per hour, the panels vibrated noisily and the occasional back-firing of the over-stressed diesel engine sounded like they had hit a landmine.
The driver was a surly Haredi in his late teens who reminded the medic of a troll from a fairy tale. Sandwiched between them was a young religious boy who seemed allergic to his kippah — he kept removing it and placing it on the dash, then replacing it and removing it again.
These were not normal people, of course. They were the pride of Jerusalem’s canine search and rescue service, volunteer firefighters from Jerusalem traveling to the Tel Aviv area to search for a Jewish man who had gone missing two weeks earlier. Joseph, the medic, had travelled down by bus from the north of Israel to volunteer in the efforts. The call had been put out online internationally, and he was the only one who had responded, and the only medically trained person on the team. On his lap, he clutched an old ski patrol fanny pack filled with rescue equipment.
He had known something outside of his experience was happening when the rescue personnel had arrived with no equipment beyond dogs and cans of tuna fish and humus. When the fire captain suggested meeting at Ben Gurion Airport and had been four hours late, it had seemed odd. And when the fire crew didn’t understand why he would bring rubber gloves, a stethoscope, compass or whistles, it seemed even odder.
The fire captain himself was busy shuttling rescuers around the perimeter of the search area. He could not participate in the search, but stayed in the dilapidated Ssanyong truck with the holes in the floorboards.
The first night, they had put Joseph up in a hotel — sparkling and spacious — the nicest room he had seen in two months in Israel. After he had commented that this was the first good shower he had enjoyed since arriving in the country, the captain rebuked him: “You’re going to make the Belgians think Israel is a third world country.” Joseph stared at him and “bit his tongue” to remain silent.
After that first night, he had stayed in a shack they lent him in the Shomron, in the settlement where the fire captain lived. The settlement was as much of a shock to the transplanted Canadian as what he would discover to be the searchers’ total lack of training and motivation, but for different reasons.
The van swerved as the driver, Trollboy, noticed he was halfway across the divider into the oncoming lane. The medic groaned queasily and began reciting psalms. “Please God,” he thought. “I don’t mind dying making some great save, but this would just be an embarrassing way to go.”
As if God enjoyed his joke and wished to join in, Trollboy turned his head completely to the rear of the van and began kissing the unrestrained dog that had been licking the back of his neck.
“Eyes on the road!” the medic shouted, to no effect. Right, he thought. Say it in Hebrew. Struggling with his pathetic vocabulary, he said: “Ro’eh et ha’rechov!”
The driver glared at him like a child who had been told to go to bed early without dessert, sighed and looked back at the road to placate the idiot Canadian. The youth laughed with a manic glee and adjusted his bright red “Fire Rescue” vest. That he looked more like an urchin who had stolen the uniform than a professional rescuer made Joseph wonder if he had yet been bar mitzvah’d.
Joseph noticed the side mirror was invisible behind a wall of food wrappers and empty water bottles. He began removing the junk with both hands.
“What are you doing?” the boy asked curiously in Hebrew. Joseph could almost hear his thoughts: These Americans are so crazy. Already a month ago, he had given up trying to explain that Canada was not part of America.
“I want him to be able to see the mirror.”
“Pah,” the child said scornfully. “We don’t need it.” The van swerved around a slower passenger car, the whole body leaning towards the unrestrained medic, showering him with water bottles and dog food, the diesel roaring in protest.
The search had been a disaster so far. As far as Joseph could see, only he and the two SAR technicians from Belgium had received any formal training. He’d tried to explain grid search patterns to the fire rescue workers, who got so offended they had headed off at a diagonal up a hill and into the wilderness, one clump of black-clad, CamelBak-equipped irritation in expensive sunglasses. They took all the dogs with them as well to search the one single file line through nowhere, with no chance to even record later the area they had searched.
They had left the medic with the civilians, family and friends of the missing man who had been organized to help search the thirty square kilometers of uneven wilderness terrain that bordered Gaza. In Canada, dozens of overpaid, overtrained and disinterested professionals would have worked with scores of dogs and hundreds of volunteers and helicopters equipped with Forward Looking Infrared and possibly with army engineering corps. Forensic pathology trucks would be standing near a tidy incident command center, workers dressed in white space suits.
Here, less than a dozen people had been enlisted to scour an area the Israeli military used for their remote location survival training. He had not seen one police officer or soldier since he had arrived. The only evidence the military had ever been there were empty guard huts, spent 5.56 millimeter casings and bullet holes in the concrete bunkers used to simulate Arab installations.
They marched up and down hills, across dry river beds, along the border of the massive quarry, through scrub brush waist-high. Over and around boulders strewn across the landscape as though giants had been playing golf there and had run to hide when the search efforts began. The medic saw millipedes as long as his forearm, enormous stick insects trying not to be noticed, and some kind of colorful partridge but no missing Jew.
They searched the dozens of huts the IDF used to practice live fire, an exercise halted for two days to let them search the area without being accidently shot. Barbed wire fences, trash heaps, culverts, highway overpasses with wildlife tunnels in them . . . So many hiding places for one addled, exhausted Jew that Joseph’s head had spun. It was hard enough to keep his volunteers in a straight line. Accustomed to Israel’s winding, curving streets, they no longer remembered what a straight line was.
By the end of the first search, Joseph realized they were just going through the motions to make the relatives feel better. Among the Jewish rescue workers, only he was naive enough to think they might find the man alive. The shirtless Belgians were thorough and worked with robotic steadiness in the blazing sun, slowly turning a lobster red that matched their high-visibility pants, but they were blunt about the odds. “Only one in ten searches like this finds us the body,” said the senior technician.
They would never find the missing man this way. Joseph knew they might have walked right past him and never known it, and even if they reached the flimsy fence that separated Israel from the disputed territories and were not shot by bemused Arab paramilitary soldiers, they had little chance of finding a body or a live man, dehydrated and heat-stressed. If they did, there was absolutely no plan for evacuating him.
The driver of the van tapped Joseph on the shoulder, a look of childlike delight on his teenaged face, his one thick eyebrow tenting. Joseph looked at him inquiringly. Trollboy pointed to the floor, where one of the search dogs was curled up, his paw on the accelerator pedal. The dog was, quite literally, driving the van.
The medic began to pray more intently, wracking his brain, without success, to remember the Brisker Rav’s comments on trusting God in times of danger. If I get through this, I’m going to murder that fire captain, the medic thought grimly. Luckily his homicidal musings seemed unnecessary, as the dog began pressing and releasing the gas as though it were a mouse he was toying with as hunting practice. It seemed unlikely any of them would live long enough for Joseph to hurt anyone. Unless his projectile body flying through the windshield struck a driver in a car ahead . . .
He closed his eyes and leaned back into the sagging black vinyl seat, reflecting on how strange the process of emigrating to Israel was. He had been in Israel for two months now, and the whole experience made as much sense as this bizarre search. The national EMS service had told him that if he was lucky, he could take a first responder course and see if he had what it took to then take the same paramedic training he already had over again, so he could have the honor of working for them for sub-minimum wage. The rate of pay had been some kind of state secret he had to get out of them with a “hot and cold” process. “Is it more than forty shekels an hour?” . . . “Cold.”
His two decades of experience as a trainer and four as a professional didn’t matter. Nor did it phase them that they were proposing teaching him from the textbook he himself had helped to edit.
He had been unable to get an appointment to speak to the Rosh Yeshiva at his old school, and, after two weeks of effort, was constantly told to phone ahead, but no Israeli cell phone company would sell him a phone.
Eventually he had travelled three hours to Jerusalem to see him, only to be told the Rosh Yeshiva was away.
On the train back to the bus station, the pride of the modern city of Jerusalem, he had immediately approached security to ask where to pay, as he did on the buses. To thank him for his honesty, four grim-faced security officers seized his passport, escorted him off the train at the first stop and gave him an enormous fine. In a fit of pique, Joseph had shouted his head off at them about their attitude towards Jews and said they were thieves. Three looked at him stonily, as if this was their standard interaction with passengers, and adjusted their opaque sunglasses like caricatures of Miami Vice from twenty years earlier. The fourth, looking sheepish, apologized when his colleagues’ heads were turned.
His apartment had been advertised online as three hundred square feet — tiny by Canadian standards — and had turned out to be less than half that.
“We include the elevators and hallway,” the real estate agent had explained, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“Good,” Joseph said. “I want fifty shekels every time you use my elevator.” They did not understand the sarcasm.
It took him two weeks to get the towel they had promised, and not until they had asked him: “How many towels do you expect us to provide? It’s not a luxury hotel, you know.”
Joseph had bitten his tongue to keep himself from reminding them they’d advertised the building as a former hotel. He snorted, thinking of the heaps of trash and broken condoms and used needles littering the deck of the hotel. It was such a well-known luxury spot that, when undercover police, who looked like juvenile delinquents skipping school, had leaped from the shadows to interrogate him the first time he left his building to get pizza, it triggered the medic’s self-defense training and sent him into a defensive tactics interrogation stance.
When he’d heard they were police, he had laughed openly, much to their chagrin, until they produced identification, and then had tried to stifle his laughter long enough to apologize. He had wanted to say: “How nice you kids have a part time job. What will you do when you grow up? Do they issue you scooters when you are accepted into the narcotics division?”
“The one towel you promised will be fine,” he had answered the real estate agent. “I told you I only brought one of my own since you promised me linen.”
“Didn’t I give it to you?” the agent had asked in surprise.
“Um, no. That’s what we’ve been arguing about for two weeks now!” he’d bellowed at her.
“Be patient with us,” she’d pleaded. “It’s a new country.”
“It’s seventy years old,” he’d retorted. “How long does it take to retro-engineer the towel? And while you’re at it, sponge mops are a fantastic invention. I think they came out in the rest of the world, oh, three weeks ago . . .”
It was a lunatic asylum, this country. Even its yeshivas. The yeshiva he had attended ten years ago in Jerusalem now had signs up advising: Lock your dorm doors. Sadly, thefts increase on Holy Days.
In Tiberias, where the medic lived, he was assaulted in the yeshiva for approaching the Aron Ha’Kodesh and trying to pay his respects. Once he understood that the floor had just been replaced, he tried to descend the three steps from the Aron Ha’Kodesh to the shul’s main floor, but an infuriated worker would not stop shoving and pulling him. He would not walk through the belligerent crowd of aggressive men and motioned for them to move so he could depart. But they were so intent on grabbing him and shaking him around that he had to apply a wrist lock on the ring leader before they got the point and moved. This was the city’s only yeshiva.
“Triumph as a Zionist is to live here like a normal person,” a friend in Haifa had told him. How very true, Joseph mused.
He lived in one of the four holy cities. Rabbi Akiva was buried there, as were Rav Chisda, Rav Chiyya, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, Rabbi Meir, and the Rambam and Ramchal, students of the Baal Shem Tov. This was one of the reasons he had moved there. But the city was a trash can. The only clean beaches were reserved for the expensive tourist hotels. The women, perhaps considering their attire to be chic, dressed like the cheap street walkers from decades earlier in the neighborhood near his inner city high school.
Going into stores, he would kiss the mezuzah, and his brow would darken seeing gaudy three-dimensional style paintings of Christian icons on the shelves.
The crusader walls stood impenetrable and black on the Kinneret, facing the ghosts of long-vanished Saracens. Functioning monasteries still embedded these walls. But the ancient synagogues and even the seat of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court from Temple times, were just rubble, mislabeled by archaeologists who had obviously never opened a volume of Talmud. One “synagogue” was filled with Greek religious mosaic — not a synagogue at all, clearly, but somehow this obvious fact had escaped the archaeology board. The signs described how an earthquake had destroyed it millennia ago, but the Israeli government had labored to restore it.
But the kedusha, the holiness, was still there. Like the heartbeat of a person in a medically-induced coma, it was soft, slow and subterranean.
The same with the emunah, the belief in God, of those in this ancient city, from which Moshiach ben Yosef was to come. Joseph had gone to Shabbos lunch at the house of one of the rabbis at the Yeshiva, who told him gravely: “It’s a great merit that you came now.”
“Why?” Joseph asked, feigning innocence, curious to hear the explanation he already knew. Sometimes understanding people is in how they say things, not in what they say.
“Moshiach is coming very soon,” the man said, and the other guests nodded so seriously that Joseph had almost asked: “What time? When Shabbos goes out, should I set my watch alarm?”
But he loved their seriousness. He did not want to belittle it.
Tiberias is Moshiach’s regiment, he had realized. And like any army, it is out of sorts when civilianized. He was no different. He had come to Tiberias for the same reason. It warmed his heart, but frightened him too.
Thousands of years in exile with no temple, millions of Jews had given up on any reasonable chance of livelihood, peace, contentment or any sort of normality. But not on a promise from God. One day, God would return to them. And He would send them His servant to tell them when.
Thousands of years of Christian persecution and domination, bloodshed, pogroms and wars, being forced to move from country to country, looted, scorned, the women raped so often that Jewish lineage had to descend from the mother to ensure everyone knew that even a raped Jewish woman had a Jewish baby. The fact that Iran was now openly threatening nuclear annihilation of Israel, the perfidy of an American president arming Iran and telling Israel not to shoot back, the obvious suborning of the secular government, the collusion of the whole world — and tiny Israel with it.
Nothing had stopped the Jewish people. Nothing ever would.
Joseph thought of a line from the Talmud: Habakkuk came and distilled the Torah to one sentence: the righteous live by their faith.” The Jewish people are one soul, Joseph knew.
How could God not love them? If they were lunatics, they needed to be in order to do what He wanted them to. God’s lunatics, the medic thought and smiled.
The Shomron had proven it. The settlement colorfully named Kfar Tapuach — Apple Settlement — was a tiny place on a jagged hill surrounded by olive trees— and not one apple tree had he seen— its perimeter a three-meter tall wire fence. It had reminded Joseph of nothing so much as a wild-west pioneer village.
The tiny huts were made of clapboard, the doors so thin you could knock them down with one kick. The two guards with ancient Galil assault rifles did not seem a very intimidating defense. Hardly the terrifying aggressors the world was constantly warned about by sensationalist Western newspapers and Arabs who had to keep stopping to wipe the foam from their mouths while talking about Israel’s refusal to live in peace.
The settlers wore ripped clothes they had worn for years to allow them the privilege of living in this isolated danger, often with no hot water or showers. They lived there because they believed their presence was necessary, both to fulfill prophecy and to ensure the security of the modern state. Their thanks was to be periodically evicted by their own government with no compensation.
Joseph had waited fruitlessly this morning to be picked up and brought back to the search zone an hour’s drive away. Not wanting to waste his time completely, after he prayed, he had (for the first time ever) fed and walked dogs — the two from the captain’s hut. As he did so, he reflected on his odd, mystical dreams of the night before. A friend who was a rabbi in Safed had told him that prophecy was born in the Shomron. He had wondered how he might get to spend a night there. When the fire captain had told him he was to stay there, Joseph knew it was Divine Providence.
While he walked along the huge, humped pipes that emerged from the ground like some ancient serpent, carrying the sewage, with noisy gurgling and intense stench, out of the settlement, he had seen a swarm of moving black shapes near the Arab village across the way.
The Arabs had been painfully close. On erev Shabbat, the muezzin’s call to prayer in amplified Arabic had drowned out the L’cha Dodi song of the settlers. He was unused to the dangerous proximity or these Arabs. In Canada, he had faced dangers in the ambulance, in housing projects, during muggings, while supporting law enforcement, working in mental hospitals . . . But the idea of living a stone’s throw from potential psychopaths who loved their Kalashnikov rifles more than their wives and considered it their God-given duty to kill everyone in the world who disagreed with them, was new and horribly real.
Watching the dark shapes swarming towards him down the hill opposite the settlement, his stomach had lurched. Was this an attack on the settlement? Maybe he was the only person who had noticed. Should he tell the guards? he wondered. He’d rushed to the hut where his backpack of rescue equipment was stored. He had brought a duffel bag of EMS gear with him from Canada, paying an outrageous sum of money to British Airways to do so, and, in the airport in Toronto, had hastily thrown out what personal possessions he could not afford to bring. An entire garbage can filled with half of what little he still owned after his divorce. He was glad now that he had brought the rescue gear.
Looking through his field glasses, he’d focused, with painstaking care, the dogs tugging at the leash in annoyance at the delay in their walk. When he saw what the hubbub was, he’d laughed aloud at his own alarm.
The swarm of hostiles had been a large flock of sheep, minded by a single Arab. The sheep were huge, but not particularly dangerous-looking.
Now the van pulled up to the fire captain’s “jeep,” as he’d called it. It resembled nothing so much as a giant green beetle someone had stepped on but not killed. Against all odds, Joseph had survived the journey. Much like the Jewish people themselves. He almost kissed the dirt road when he got out, but the leaking coolant from the Ssanyong discouraged him.
“What’s going on?” he asked the captain.
“We know what happened,” the sweaty, nervous man said, fiddling with the countless pockets on his heavy red vest.
“The man got trapped in the mud flow from the quarry. Drowned. And buried three meters down. The Belgians say it’s a hundred tons of rock on him now. But the dog is sure.”
Joseph’s face fell. He knew it was unlikely they would find the man alive after two weeks since he had vanished without a shirt or shoes in the middle of a rainy night. But the medic had hoped anyway.
“What happens now?” he asked, looking at the officials from fire, police and the military who had now joined the quarry owner, who haphazardly kicked a stone across the twisted rocky landscape and looked up at the fireball in the sky above him, as if it were his bitter enemy.
The fire captain looked up at the enormous quarry, his gaze an unspoken curse. “We told the police and the quarry workers. We wanted them to dig him out.”
“The quarry owner pulled the cop aside, and they talked. Nothing is to be done. The owner asked me to come up to his office to talk privately. I said, ‘no’.” He leaned back in exhaustion against the rusting hood of his ancient four-by-four.
The quarry had twenty million dollars of vehicles and equipment lined up at the gate, standing idle. The fire captain lived in a three room shack with no real washroom, where he housed various itinerant immigrants in the spare bedrooms and did not appear to even have a bed. The bribe he had been offered would have supported him for years.
“Baruch dayan ha’emet,” said the medic. Blessed is the True Judge.
“Ameyn,” the Captain replied and wiped the sweat from under his kippah, bleached brown from the fierce sunlight. They looked at each other helplessly.
“Now what?” Joseph asked.
“Now you go home. I’m going to keep searching. You never know . . .” the fire captain’s slumped posture belied his optimistic sentiments.
“You did everything you could,” said Joseph. “More than anyone could have expected.”
The fire captain looked wordlessly at the tiny Volkswagen Polo where the relatives waited for the news, then back at the medic. His expression made Joseph want to weep.
Close to midnight, the fire captain dropped him at the bus stop in Petach Tikvah. The bus station was closed and the streets empty except for beggars and small-time criminals. The medic spent the night sitting watchfully on his backpack, his search and rescue knife close by. By morning, he was exhausted and his Crohn’s Disease active. He found a public bathroom minutes before his bus left, carrying dozens of Israelis back to the Galilee.
On the ride home, Joseph could see the tomb of Rabbi Akiva awaiting him silently. He thought of something Rabbi Akiva had said, many years before the Romans had torn off his skin with iron combs.
“Sufferings are precious things.”