A Novel of Modern Israel
By Ora Mendels
As funerals go, this one was a pleasure. Honoring a man who’d enjoyed a long, productive life and died peacefully in his sleep lent lightness to Lazar Kagan’s step as he accompanied the coffin to its grave on a hillside. Lake Tiberias shimmered below. Lazar’s eulogy for his first commander was saturated by memory and celebration.
Looking around at old friends nodding, smiling in the sunshine at the memories, Lazar found his own kind of comfort. He needed it now when old assumptions had become painful questions.
He talked about Isaac’s daring after the second World War, when he slipped convoys of damaged survivors from displaced persons camps all over Europe onto precarious boats at Marseilles, Venice and La Spezia and illegally delivered them into British-ruled Palestine. Isaac, he reminded the large gathering, had been a founder of their country; his military exploits, followed by long service abroad had enriched all their lives.
People might think he was nuts to feel this way as he helped to bury an icon of his own early days In Israel. But he hadn’t lost perspective, in spite of everything splintering around him. He’d suffered seventeen straight funerals in the past ten days, each one for a child murdered either by a suicide bomber or by a brainwashed youngster running around with a rifle or a knife and the crazy idea he was serving God, Allah, whatever.
For a guy who’d overdosed on funerals, this one was a breath of the bracing mountain air up there on the northern settlement where Isaac had been born to kids from the Russian Pale of Settlement, who’d fled pogroms to drain the swamps and build, with their own hands, a moral haven, a perfect society.
A thick tuft of white hair caught Lazar’s eye and he hurried around a group of diplomats to catch up with Dan Shemtov before he left. Walking down the hillside, Lazar told him what he’d been thinking. He and Shemtov had fought together under Isaac’s command in the struggle for Jerusalem in 1967.
“He was 85,” Shemtov mused. “Quarter century older than us. Never felt like that much, did it?”
“Think about who’s here today. It’s amazing how many of us are still around. What we’ve been through. It’s like a reunion, homecoming on campus.”
Shemtov smiled and punched Lazar’s arm.
“Only if you began as an American. Homecoming’s another story here.”
Lazar didn’t resent being called an American, the way he had years before. No one could doubt that he’d earned the right to be an Israeli; but, born, raised and schooled in New York, he’d always be an American too. Dan Shemtov, though, was a fifth generation Jerusalem native, one of the country’s aristocracy.
“Dan,” said Lazar, slowing and turning to watch him, “I’ve been here for almost fifty years. I’m home.”
“But you’re an American also. Always.”
“That’s fine with me. Dan…it’s getting worse, isn’t it?”
Shemtov drew a deep breath and stared ahead.
Shemtov drew a deep breath and stared ahead.
“All the time. Every day.”
“Worse than it’s ever been, yes? Two sides to the story now?”
“I think so.”
“You know, what bothers me, what I absolutely can’t deal with,” said Lazar quietly, “is that we always knew the answer. We knew what to do. How to handle it. Now we don’t anymore. Well, I don’t. I don’t know the answer Dan. Do you?”
“No, it’s not the way it was. It’s more complicated. We don’t have a consensus anymore, not like we did, not at all. And now we know the other side has claims we can’t ignore. Not any more.”
Lazar thought that it must be even worse than he knew.
“It’s a different country now. We just have to keep trying. Never give up. Never stop. You know that.”
“How do you manage?” Lazar asked.
“Just from one day to another, like we all do.” He shrugged. “Tell me, how is Naomi? Is she any better?”
“Physically, she’s walking now, starting to get around a bit.” Lazar watched the slope beneath his feet. He would not dissemble with Shemtov. “Emotionally, not so good.”
“I’m so sorry. It takes time, she’ll be better,” said Shemtov, hurrying now, he said, so he could get back to his Tel Aviv office and find out if his guys had made it out of the Strip alive.
“How do you stand it, all the time, every day?”
“What choice do I have?” said Shemtov and rushed off, leaving Lazar to make his way south toward home outside Netanya. Even driving home wasn’t simple anymore. The roads had become death chambers no less than the haunted malls and nightclubs. Every time you left home you entered a maze that was nothing but a choice of risks. Keeping alert, watching for movement at the side of the road or for suspicious cars approaching was less reliable than predicting the price of gold. They could get you any place. No one could buy a loaf of bread, send a child to school, go to work, catch a show, buy a coffee, nothing without a calculation. Every little choice was a life and death decision. Those who claimed otherwise were either convinced that God was watching over them, ironic considering what God had been watching lately; or they were damned if they’d give the enemy a victory by exercising caution; or they were immune, another form of lunacy. None of that stuff worked for Lazar. As he saw it, the enemy had come up with a way to give the whole damn country a permanent panic attack.
Lazar felt his customary rush of rage as he drove past the seafront Park Hotel where, several years ago, a suicide bomber had killed forty and wounded a hundred and twenty victims, many of them elderly survivors of the Holocaust. The Passover massacre had resulted in an immediate call-up and re-occupation of the West Bank. Grimly, Lazar drove on toward home. Naomi would be waiting with a steaming strong cup of American coffee and the fruit cake she still made every week, just like she had when they were first married in New York. She’d taught their two daughters-in-law to make it but they never got it quite right. Three daughters-in-law actually, Lazar remembered, and a weight, usually buried, jerked and rolled over inside him. Vulnerable after Isaac’s funeral.
When he turned under the silvery olive trees that lined his driveway all the way back to the orchard and then to the sheltered house, he found there was someone else waiting with Naomi. Ari’s armored Hummer dwarfed Naomi’s ancient Fiat at the side of the stone house. He didn’t often visit his parents in the daytime during the week. Lazar, tensing, hurried to park.
They were sitting outside on the broad verandah in the shade of the lilac wisteria that twisted around weathered wooden beams he’d set in place himself so sturdily they’d held firm over forty years already. Built to last. Their two big sheepdogs sprawled at Naomi’s feet, more protective than ever since her miraculous escape from a bombed out burning bus the year before. Her right leg had been out of its cast only a few weeks, rehab still used chunks of her time, but she was there, basking in the aroma of warm cinnamon and nutmeg and strong coffee. And the pleasure of the company of her older son.
Lazar flicked a hand over her tousled gray curls. Bending to kiss her cheek, he looked over at Ari and saw deeper grooves at the edges of his eyes and mouth, saw him rub, unaware, the site of the old thigh wound.
“What’s up, man?” he said, hand on his son’s slumped khaki shoulder.
“Had an early start,” said Ari. “Had some time, thought I’d stop by. I wasn’t far away. Mom’s looking well.”
Naomi, already on her way inside to bring Lazar fresh coffee looked at him behind Ari’s back, raised her eyebrows and shrugged to alert him. Ari had something on his mind. The hill at the funeral would have been too much for her, so she’d stayed home, but Lazar observed that she hadn’t even asked about it.
“She’s improving every day,” Lazar told Ari. “We’re very lucky. Twenty-two people on that bus died, and another twenty at least would have been better off if they had. These days she’s insisting on doing things around here, like getting the coffee. It aggravates her if I do it. You know your mother.”
Ari nodded but his thoughts were somewhere else, Lazar saw.
“What was the early start?”
“Ah, we captured a couple of terrorists this morning, but ….”
“That’s good news. How…”
Naomi was there with the coffee.
“Isn’t it grand?” she said softly, but Lazar saw that she understood there was something else. “I’m just going next door for a few minutes. I promised Mayer cake in exchange for some lilies he’s separating.”
Lazar waited until the sound of her uneven steps on the driveway receded.
“What’s the trouble, Ari?”
“Not trouble exactly. It’s Rafi.”
“What now?” He sat quite still, waiting for the blow, determined not to flinch. He’d given up expecting anything but trouble, hadn’t he?
“A couple of soldiers picked him up in Nablus.”
“Nablus,” Lazar yelled. ”What the hell was he doing there?”
“Dad, its okay, they brought him out. Calm down. He was hanging round the casbah.”
“He knows damn well there’s a total prohibition since the fighting began.”
“Yeah well, there’s some trading still going on, something like that. The guys were on a routine patrol, they spotted Rafi and grabbed him. They had no idea who he was, of course, so they arrested him. He shouldn’t have gone into Area A. Forbidden. You know that.. Only an idiot would risk going there. Unless he had some kind of meeting. He’s an idiot or a fool.”
“What happened? What the hell was Rafi doing there?”
“He said he was there on business.”
“What?” Lazar shouted so loudly that his voice cracked. He stood up, towering over Ari. “What business?”
“Dad, please, calm down. Mom will hear you. This isn’t good for either of you. I had to tell you about it, there’s more, but sit please.”
Lazar backed into his woven wicker chair, gripping the arms tight to force himself to be quiet.
“Rafi wouldn’t tell them anything else, so they took him in. When he realized they were going to lock him up he told them to get in touch with me.”
“I’m afraid he did, Dad. He produced his papers and announced he’s my brother and they should get hold of me. He told them – listen to this – he was on a mission for me. ”
Lazar groaned and banged his clenched fists on the wicker arms of his chair.
“Dad, you’re not going to like this but I did what I felt I had to do. I told them to lock him up, hold him for a couple of days, I’d get to him in a while.”
Lazar stared at Ari. This was something new.
“You’ve got to understand. He can’t use me like this any more. It’s dangerous all round. If I let him get away with it now, who knows what he’ll say to whoever? We’re at war, Rafi’s a menace. He can’t go around saying he’s working for me, it’s just another way of maneuvering something out of me. Last time he tried it a Palestinian got away, a guy who was buying guns and uniforms from kids needing money for drugs. By the time my boys untangled it, Rafi had helped him get away. I can’t have it any more, times are too tough.”
“What the hell was the damn fool doing in Nablus, that’s what I want to know?”
“I’ll find out, Dad. But for now, just know he’s safely locked up and if anyone comes looking for him, you don’t know anything, okay?”
“What about Lynne?”
Ari blinked. As if he was blinking her out of his sight, Lazar thought suddenly, while Lynne’s image, darkly lush, hovered in his own vision. He’d never known how far it had gone between Ari and Lynne before Rafi took over, though he often wondered about it.
“What about her?” Ari said. “I haven’t thought about her. Not at all. I don’t have to say anything.” Before Lazar could respond, he added, “Don’t say anything to Mom, she’ll get upset.”
“Don’t you know your mother is quite aware there’s a problem? You think she won’t ask about Rafi? Don’t be foolish, I’m not going to lie to her and you shouldn’t either.”
“Well, tell her I had work to do and had to go,” Ari said, getting stiffly out of his chair. “That won’t be a lie.”
On the night after Lazar told her that Ari had instructed his men to arrest Rafi in Nablus, Naomi forced herself to wait until they finished eating the last of the sweet and sour chicken on its bed of saffron rice. They rinsed the dishes. Then she asked him, “Do you notice, Lazar, whenever something’s going on, Rafi’s somehow there, on the edge of it?”
Lazar lowered My Life as a Man, one of several novels he was re-reading for a course he planned to offer on writers who deserved the Nobel. He was also thinking about nominating Philip Roth for the Jerusalem Prize.
“Rafi? What’re you talking about?”
“Remember he was in Washington when they signed the Oslo agreement?”
“Come on, Nome, so what? It was 12 years ago, more.”
“What was he doing there, Lazar, just explain that to me.”
Lazar turned the book over, open on his lap. From the back cover Philip Roth stared up at him, balding, dark and intense. He was only a year or two older than Lazar, they’d grown up 30 or 40 miles away from each other on the other side of the world, but the only time they’d met was when Roth lectured as a visiting professor in Lazar’s department at Hebrew University. Narrators and Their Voices, that had been his topic.
“I think he said he had a case in Washington, Naomi.”
“We only knew he’d been in the States when we caught a glimpse of him on the White House lawn on TV. Otherwise we wouldn’t have known.”
“Yeah, when you asked him he said he’d wangled a press pass from Reuven Agron for the thrill of it all.”
He turned the book over, looking for his place.
“Lazar, tell me, why was Rafi talking Arabic on his cell phone on seder night here?”
“There could be half a dozen explanations, for God’s sake, Nome. Lots of us speak Arabic, including me, what’s the big deal? It could have been a client, someone he works with, someone who did something for him…”
“Yes, but when Yigal asked to borrow his cell phone he gave him a different one.”
“What’s this now?”
“The one he used when he talked Arabic was black and tiny and went into his shirt pocket. It has a button. I saw him button it, Lazar. The one he gave Yigal was silver and he had to walk over to his khaki windbreaker, hanging in the closet over there, to get it. Why? Tell me. And why was Rafi Kagan at Taba, over the border, Lazar? What was he up to in the Mukharta after the IDF ransacked Ramallah?”
Lazar stared at her. She was leaning toward him, over the arm of the black tub chair she insisted suited her better than any other, even since her legs were smashed.
“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “But…”
She was slapping her hand on the arm of the chair, same spot she always slapped. You could see where it pilled.
“You see,” she cried. “Something…”
“The fact that I don’t know the reason for Rafi’s every move, doesn’t mean there’s some deep problem, Naomi. I know you love conspiracies, but I don’t see one. Anyway, I have to work. I have a lot of reading to get through tonight.”
Naomi stared at him, her fist tapping the arm of her chair, legs stretched out as far as they could go. It was hard to straighten them out now; her knees seem to bend all by themselves. At her last appointment at the clinic, the therapist told her they probably wouldn’t straighten. Ever. She hadn’t told Lazar.
He looked up
“Nome, try not to worry so much about the boys. You know, you were right when you decided you need to get back to your own work, get caught up in it again.”
“Yes well, I’ve started back, haven’t I?” Naomi, pulled herself up and hurried from the room as fast as she was able.
She was furious at being dismissed, but it was nothing like the resentment she felt when Lazar was so busy jumping about to help her that he actually got in her way. She had to learn to get around herself again, didn’t she? Surely he understood she had to have some independence? He’d taken wonderful care of her after she was hurt, no one else could have done as much, but he was having a hard time letting go now that she was better. And this business of dismissing her concern about Rafi, brushing it off as just another of Naomi’s interminable worries: she was right, she knew she was right, and when it emerged as it surely would, he wouldn’t even acknowledge that she’d known all along.
Banging the bathroom door behind her, she stepped into the shower stall, just avoiding slipping by clutching the faucets, gasping at the sudden rush of hot water.
The truth was, she was anxious about being back at work after almost a year away. Climbing into her little Fiat was still tricky, but talking about the bomb and her shattered legs was what was really hard. And she had to, didn’t she? Counseling other bomb victims wouldn’t really change the subject, would it? Not at all. But that’s where her skills were most needed, just as they had been before the bomb smashed her legs and shattered her capacity for endurance. Counseling muddled adolescents, as she used to do, seemed pretty much beside the point these days.
She’d been doing that since her own boys were in their teens, all through the years until The Situation demanded changes. Why had she chosen counseling, among all the other work she might have done? She would have loved to be a landscaper when she was young and fit. She increased the temperature of the soothing hot water coursing over her aching legs; she couldn’t help her sadness at all the lost opportunities. Or cooking, she thought, as the tears came, again, dammit, she could have run a restaurant, everyone said so. Or history, she could have studied and written and taught, that’s what she threw away when she and Lazar left the States in the fifties. Chose to leave. Decided to make a new life and build a new country. And now look, just look, at what had happened to them. She leaned against the tile wall of the shower and wept.
She and Lazar, astonishingly old when they looked at each other or, worse, checked a mirror; anxious and edgy, even impatient with each other as they had never been before. And their boys. Ari was loyal and loving, at least most of the time she thought he was, but there was a reserve, a distance she couldn’t bridge with him, as she couldn’t accept the dangerous secrecy of his work; Ari and his wives and his women and his inexplicable strains with his brother. And Rafi, always a little out of step, always marching to some splendid band only he could hear, too charming to trust as a youngster. And now? Rafi was up to something now, she was certain of it, and wondered for the hundredth time why he had invented his own brand of insouciant independence. She could never decide exactly what it was that he was rejecting and here he was, almost forty years old and in jail because his brother put him there. She blamed herself, she’d done a great deal wrong, she must have; but her mistakes were elusive, she was guilty in some foggy, abstract way.
The streaming water pelting on the tile hid the sounds of her sobs from Lazar, didn’t it? She’d soon feel better now she’d started work and thought about others instead of herself; she was a professional and certainly not depressed; did not have post-traumatic stress syndrome; wasn’t any more anxious than anyone else in the country. Tired of herself, gripping the bars Lazar had installed for her on the sides of the door, she limped out of the shower to find him waiting to wrap her in a big white towel.
Copyright © Ora Mendels 2010
Ora Mendels was born in Jerusalem, grew up in England and Johannesburg, South Africa and emigrated to the United States with her husband, Joseph, a research psychiatrist. They settled in Philadelphia with their three children. She won several literary prizes and was a newspaper reporter, feature writer and columnist In Cape Town and Johannesburg, contributing regularly to all South Africa’s English language newspapers. In South Africa and later, after settling in the U.S., she was a freelance journalist, published in a number of mass circulation magazines. She has also written short stories, one of which was published in Antietam Review; another, "The Traitor," will be published in January 2011 in Israel Stories. Ora has published two novels. Mandela’s Children, Little, Brown, 1987, which was translated and published in Holland and sold in Canada. A Taste for Treason, Birch Lane, 1990, won the Atheneum Fiction Award, was translated and published in Poland and was also published in paperback. Ora's web address is www.OraMendels.com.