By Mitch Ginsburg
School started on September first. It was a brutally hot day, the city still firmly in the claws of summer. Outside our house, dog piss, the very scent of Jerusalem’s summer, radiated up off the hot sidewalks. Every strip of grass was cooked beyond yellow into brown, and our dog, Samson, a basset, clung to the patches of sidewalk shade.
In the covered section of the parking garage, in a spot he had to fight for after buying the apartment, my father waited with the motor running and the radio on. He was smiling, still high off the fact that the six o’clock news program began with a reading of the Shema prayer. I showed him the leash, indicating that I would run Samson upstairs and then be back. He consulted his watch and wrinkled his forehead.
On the way up the stairs I composed myself. The worst that could happen was that they would ridicule me and I would not understand a thing. I was big for my age and Israeli kids weren’t very menacing. The way I saw it, it was just a sentence. All I had to do was the time. Four years. After that it was college. That’s the deal we’d reached. Finish high school in Israel, and then, at eighteen, I could do what I want. I’d already done the research. Most of my fantasies for when I got out, fueled by my sisters’ old brochures and, especially, this photo of a blond girl in a man’s plaid shirt reading in the soft light of her dorm-room bed, were situated on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College.
My mother popped out from behind the door, backpack in hand. Her whitish blond hair stood up in tufts on the side of her head. Her perfect cheekbones were touched with a comical stripe of blush and her neck held a heavy strand of gold. My father got it for her, a snake with an emerald eye. She’d been wearing it since we’d moved to Israel in the summer. As though this piece of jewelry, purchased in the lobby of the Laromme Hotel, made her, in her floppy sun hats, pleated jean skirts, and brownish-red nail polish, fit in. This was during the apex of the breakdown period. Everything was too hard for her. She could not work the stove, could not convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, could not drive—this from a woman born and licensed in NYC—could not go out during “the hot hours,” could not find anything beyond the synagogue around the corner, could not shop without the help of our home designer, could not reach a decision about carpet vs. parquet, could not go more than twenty-four hours without speaking to her sister.
“Good luck,” she said, and shut the door. She even guided me through it, her red manicured nails slipping down my back as I left.
At school, during the endless summer of 1990, I was pegged even before I got the chance to open my soft capitalist mouth, because the American, dressed in Lands End rugby shirt and Air Jordans, stepped out of his father’s air conditioned Volvo smack in front of the school. I asked my father to stop on the corner but he wouldn’t hear of it. As though the unwritten commandment to bring thy son to school could only be fulfilled if thy son was driven from door to door.
As we pulled to an excruciatingly slow stop right alongside the main walkway, students crossed on either side of the silver vehicle. Just opening its heavy door was tricky without slamming into someone. I put my hand on the plastic armrest between the seats and said, “Thanks, Dad.”
He put his pale hairy fingers on my forearm and said, “I know you don’t know the language well yet, but you’ll be fine.”
Kids were streaming past, looking into the car, admiring the tan leather interior and the ridiculous Americans within. I was keen to put some distance between myself and the boxy Swedish vulgarity—the car, I later learned, that each government minister received upon taking office—the very symbol of excess. But still I asked, “How do you know?”
And he said, “Because you’re smarter than they are. You are very, very smart, Duvi.”
I didn’t look him in the eye. I never did. My mother’s were a soft, sun-rinsed blue, but my father’s were small, brown, and unknowable behind their thick circles of glass. I do remember the feel of them on me, though, the sudden rise of a soft warmth radiating from them as he bestowed what remains the only overt compliment I ever received from him—one that I keep with me, unwrapping it every few years, gazing at it anew.
But in school it did not do much good. I understood little. We began the day with Hebrew studies. There at least the texts were familiar. Same Bible, same Mishnah, same Talmud. Only real difference was that the Israelis were interested in it. In America, in my school—a big, glass, sunlit triangle that sat high over the Hudson River in Riverdale—it was basically understood by all that we spent half of our days studying these texts in order to satisfy our parents; no one really thought they were important. In Jerusalem, though, in a school that more than anything else reminded me of a penitentiary, with its wire-coated windows and time-slicked floors, its flickering fluorescents and cracked urinals, the kids seemed downright hungry for the material. Hands stretched to the ceilings. Asses arched eagerly out of desk chairs. I caught one out of every four words and prayed I would not be called on to read— which, if anything, hastened the inevitable. Our Bible teacher was young and mustached and he carried himself like an older man. His back was prematurely stooped, his dress shirts ballooned beneath his thin chest and his ass was nowhere to be found inside of his dark navy work pants.
“Daveed,” he said, “Please read.”
The kid next to me had thick wiry hair that, like a tied-off theater curtain, grew well beyond his temples, leaving a small window of forehead and a nose that dwarfed everything else on his face. He had begun doodling the second we sat down, drawing a comic likeness of the teacher, with his long belt wrapped halfway back around his waist and his oversized kipa tilted off to the side, but somehow he also managed to know exactly where we were, and he put his finger on the verse for me: Jeremiah 1, verse 11.
I cleared my throat and started to read. In Riverdale it was understood that, without English translation, we would have no idea what the verse said, but here I could feel my tongue mangling the words. As soon as I began, laughter bloomed. The teacher, whom we called by his first name, Yair, tried to snap it into silence, but it persisted, just below the surface, for the entire time. I struggled through the words and he corrected me each time I slipped. Twenty-five words was all I was asked to read. Two verses. But by the time I finished them, rushing across the hot sand of the text, I vowed to learn the language. To dominate it. To devote myself to it. To finish the year with the sharp, hard-edged speech of the local boys. But the laughter continued to gurgle as Yair addressed the central word play of the verse, and I, wishing there were something I could hide behind, felt a rush of affection for the kid with the enormous nose, whose name I didn’t yet know, and who stroked the blank paper at the front of his Bible with his pen, creating, in his nonchalance, a small island of calm on which I could perch.
His name was Miki. I learned that in math class, where he did significantly less doodling, and I did even less understanding. Math and physics were taught by a certain Mr. Mokovsky. He gave a test each week. An eighty was considered a noteworthy achievement. Many of the students got fifties and sixties. I often found large red 17s, 11s and 23s on the tops of my pages. He took the questions out of old hard-covered notebooks that he kept—notebooks from which, it was rumored, he wrote the national matriculation exams. There were ten points to be had on these tests for neatness, and so sometimes when the hour was up I’d erase my bewildered scribbling, my stabs in the dark, and my attempts to match the few formulas I knew to the numbers provided, and try, with the help of the eraser, to at least snare the low-hanging ten points for neatness. Usually the eraser denied me those too, leaving lurid gray marks on the page.
Mokovsky was an old Russian with thick bifocals and smooth boyish arms. He governed the classroom with fear and intimidation. Kids were dragged to the board and out of the room by their collars and their ears; ignorant and unprepared faces were ground deep into graph-paper notebooks. I kept my head down and tried to recreate the havoc on the blackboard in my notebook, hoping that once it was down in front of me it might reveal itself to me. Miki drew faces. Worked on expressions. Angry, surprised, idiotic.
His open-laced Adidas bounced as he worked. I leaned in, around his long arms and sinewy fingers, and asked him if it was true that his brother was in the Naval Commandos. I don’t know why I asked it. I didn’t even know what the Naval Commandos were, but I heard the way the guys talked about them at recess. It was the first thing they said about Miki. His brother was the only religious guy in the unit.
“He’s a cook,” he said. “His meatloaf is famous throughout the Navy.”
I was happy that I understood that he was joking. It may have been my first Hebrew joke.
He wrote me a note on the top of a page. You don’t know anything about the army, do you?
I knew some. I knew that the paratroops had taken back the Wailing Wall in 1967, twenty years before. I’d seen the picture of the soldiers looking up at it, teary-eyed. I knew that they’d taken the Old City of Jerusalem and that the walls were still pockmarked with bullets. I knew that the rest of the army had taken the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. I knew that generally speaking they were righteous and courageous. I knew that The New York Times could not be trusted, and that Thomas Friedman was a self-hating Jew. They were the worst. My father could spot them from a thousand yards away in a deep fog.
Not really, I wrote back.
He flipped to the centerfold of his notebook and made a big bubble, into which he wrote the Hebrew letters ZHL. Tzade Hey Lamed. Then he whispered to me in English, Israel Defense Forces. Under that he made three smaller bubbles. Army, Navy, Air Force. The Air Force bubble birthed many more bubbles, of helicopters with passengers and helicopters with blazing guns, of transport planes and fighter jets, of fighter jets with bombs coming out of the bottom and fighter jets with sleek missiles under their wings. The army broke down into Infantry, Paratroops and Tank Corps. The infantry soldiers had mud on their faces, the paratroopers came sailing down through the sky, and the tanks featured a little man in the turret with a helmet. The navy had gunboats, submarines and sleek little rubber rafts. Miki put six little figures in the rubber raft, bent them into the oncoming wind, and then wrote, Shayetet 13, whispering to me in English again, “the Naval Commandos.”
I nodded appreciatively.
Then he drew the symbols of the Israeli Army’s top units. He flipped over a new page for this and headed it: The Best of the Best. A fox with wings and a sword; a castle surrounded by wings; a sharp sword and black bat wings; a sly, silvery kingfisher, head cocked to the side; a tiger, teeth bared, bracketed by stubby wings, looking menacing and ridiculous at the same time; and the secret and unworn wings of the boys from the Unit. He drew those wings carefully, with his tongue sticking out, pink and muscular, shaping them around what looked like a fleur-de-lis, showed it to me with both hands, and then promptly erased it.
As Miki worked the eraser, Mokovsky came over to our joined desk. He walked down my side of the aisle and though I knew him to be advancing on me, I could not lift my head. I just watched his feet approach. Old leather shoes that seemed worn and yet stiff, polished to a shine and still revealing the musculature of his small feet. Hideous things, with a silver-colored buckle on the side. Almost certainly from the old country. Most probably crafted by his mother. He took both of us by the shirts and pulled us to the front of the room. “You don’t listen when you’re sitting, so maybe you’ll listen when you stand.”
We were placed on either side of the blackboard. Those positions were made our permanent spots in class. I hated the attention, felt self-conscious of my every movement. But Miki was a changed person up there. Denied his page and his doodling, he suddenly became a clown. He spent his time at the head of the class aping the teacher. He flailed his arms like Mokovsky, scrunched his face up like someone who’d eaten rotten food when an incorrect answer was given, mimicked his pigeon-toed progress around the room. One time, Mokovsky slapped the numbers and signs on the board so hard that he broke his chalk. It kind of exploded, with the biggest piece trickling into the corner. Mokovsky went to retrieve it and Miki followed him across the room, arms paddling at his sides. As Mokovsky bent down to retrieve the chalk, Miki began air-fucking him from behind. The class erupted. Miki backpedaled to his spot on the far side of the blackboard, accepting a low five from me on the way.
Mokovsky approached, hand held over his head.
Unsure of whether to punch or slap, he karate chopped Miki across the side of the face, bringing his soft, white, chalky hand down across the beak that would, later, be partially responsible for his army nickname – Witch.
Miki, born with an innate knack for slapstick, immediately doubled over and clapped his hands over his face. I was pretty sure nothing much had happened, and so was Mokovsky, who went back to the board and was about to resume the lesson, but Miki uncupped his big beautiful hands and revealed a pool of blood, which he let fall, almost audibly, on Mokovsky’s floor.
We were sent to Mr. Schiffman’s office. After a long wait in the hall we were escorted in. The principal had a shock of silvery hair and a pattern of thread veins across his cheeks. He held a phone receiver tucked between shoulder and ear. He said nothing for a long time. Showed us to our seats in silence. I kept my head straight, looking not at him but toward him and the barred windows beyond. The sky outside was a flat white. His desk was littered with stacks of paper and hole-punching instruments and beneath it I saw he wore black orthopedic sandals and thin blue dress socks. Beside me Miki had his head tilted up to the low ceiling, squeezing his nose and stanching the flow of blood with coarse, tan paper towels. Focusing on Schiffman, I heard a female voice emerge from the receiver. It spoke long and without pause and as I focused more intently on it I recognized the language as English. Schiffman was just nodding. Finally, he said, “Mrs. Marks, he’s sitting right here. I’m sending him home to you now.”
“You’re suspended,” he said to me. “Go home. When you come back, the day after tomorrow, you’ll start in the Humanities class. Same for you Micha-el,” he said to Miki. “Maybe you’ll learn some manners there.”
There was no discussion. No inquiries. Just a verdict. As I pushed out of my chair, under the shadow of Schiffman’s veined and bulbous nose, I saw Miki sitting there unmoved. Even though he had long ago been dismissed by the principal, who had moved onto other matters and was sifting through paperwork, Miki sat there as though enjoying a recital. The blood had stopped. His hands were clasped together. He seemed to be in no rush. Finally Schiffman turned to him in malevolent silence.
“Dreyfus,” Miki said. “The Dreyfus Trial. That’s what this is.”
Schiffman had been in the field for a long time. He knew how to say things with his eyes. And the soldering look he gave Miki sufficed. Miki hopped out of his chair and scampered out ahead of me.
On the way to the bus stop, I learned what Schiffman meant by Humanities. “It does not mean that you love Agnon and Hugo,” Miki said. “It means that you suck in math, and you have absolutely no chance of going to university, and no one in your family has ever gone to university before you, and that you are at least fifty percent Mizrachi.”
“Mizrachi?” I asked. “Eastern?”
“No,” he laughed. “From the Middle East.”
“Yes,” he said, mimicking my pronunciation, “Sephardic.”
The Sephardic kids I knew in America were cool. Rich and smooth and well-dressed. More Italian than anything else. Miki assured me that this was the case here. “Moroccans,” he said, weighting the word.
I shrugged. I was more concerned about my mother. She’d be waiting for me when I got home. This was precisely the type of small drama she lived for. This was the type of development she needed to disrupt the tedium of her days. Not going to school the next day meant staying with her and listening to the long spooling soundtrack of her frustration. The tiles were wrong. The vegetables made her sick. The fruit was tropical—a word she used as an epithet. The meat was inedible. The chickens were tiny, the showers had no pressure, the water texture made her hair flat, there were salamanders in the bathroom, dust in the windowsills, cracks in the marble. No respect for pedestrians, no shade on the streets. Irregular garbage pick-up. No respect. That’s what it boiled down to. I should have known then that this kind of thing was going to lead to an extramarital affair. But since I had no notion of love, sex, or fidelity beyond what I’d seen on movie screens, all I thought about was spending the day with her. Being dragged on her faux errands. Or worse, being marched back to Schiffman’s office, magnetically tugged behind her down the hall, noting her perfume as I advanced toward certain humiliation.
“This is his,” I heard Miki say. He had stopped and was tapping one of his long fingers on the trunk of a white car, a station wagon, with a pine-green fragrant tree hanging from the rearview mirror.
I wondered how he knew, but said nothing.
Miki circled it slowly, looking for a chink in its armor.
“We could let the air out,” I said, kicking a tire.
Miki laughed. It was a short, angry chuckle, and its sound, when the silence returned, underscored how vulnerable we were. There were only about two hundred yards between us and the school gate. No cars. No people. Just a wide sidewalk, sloping down to us, and the big box of the school in the middle of the sky. Lots of unpolished windows looking down at us.
He stopped in front of the car and put his hands on the hood. I thought he was going to lift it up and cut some wires.
If the hood opens, I told myself, you’re out of here. That kind of thing would land us somewhere way worse than the Humanities track. But instead he picked up his knapsack and set it down on the smooth white shiny hood. He rummaged inside for a while till he found a small tin case. Then he tossed me the bag.
“Let me know if someone’s coming,” he said.
I said, “Okay,” and leaned against the fence, looking back up at the school.
“Get down,” he said, “so they don’t see you.”
At first I lay down, platoon-style, on the hot sidewalk, but it cut into my elbows and I felt like an idiot. So I scurried over to the car and sat beside the passenger door, on the curb, turning my head from Miki to the deserted sidewalk.
He had two sticks of vine charcoal in the box. He picked the bigger one, spread his feet wide, and started to draw. My hands were clutched around my knees, my head swiveling back and forth.
His first two strokes were long, straight, and effortless. The lines were roughly parallel and close together. At the top, close to the windshield, they formed a point. My best guess at this stage was a penis. I waited approvingly for the big hairy balls. But instead he made a few shorter strokes and a hand grip came into view. Then he lightly shaded the middle and it was clear he’d drawn a long sword. He stepped back for a second and looked it over. Then he switched to the stouter piece of charcoal and laid a shield over the sword and began making choppy lines that stretched out on either side of the shield. He filled in the wings with the flat side of the charcoal, leaving a few thin cracks of white so that they took on a fibrous, webbed quality.
“The Shayetet?” I whispered.
“Yeah,” he said, offering nothing else.
Miki went back to his other chalk and began crafting what I quickly recognized as the lower torso and bare ass of an elderly man. Pock-marked and hairy. It was amazing the way he could bring a sketch to life with a few touches of the charcoal. A wisp here, a few short strokes there, and all of a sudden it was clear that the ass, with the gaping hole, was on its way downwards, toward the sharp end of the sword. He wrote the name Mokovsky, in boxy Hebrew caps, across the small of the back.
I came around to stand next to him and admire the work. Looking through the windshield and out through the back, I saw it. We both saw it together. The walk, the thick glasses, the old leather briefcase.
Mokovsky seemed not to be sure where he had left his car and, in his moment of confusion, the two of us set off at a low crouched run. There was almost nowhere to go. Keeping the cars between us and the sidewalk, we made it farther down the hill, but the corner, some thirty yards away, was too far and too exposed. He’d see us from the back, running, and he’d know. Even walking wouldn’t work once he saw the hood and started to look around. Instead we got behind the trunk of the last car and lay down on the asphalt, creeping forward into the shade. The road was hot and sticky. We placed our chins on the back of our hands. The proximity and the shade felt good, like we were in this together.
Mokovsky approached the car from the street side, pants a bit short, shoes clapping loudly. We heard the door open, then silence, then a loud slam. He was directly up ahead of us. I imagined his hands on his hips, neck extended, bursting forth from his shoulders, as he looked at the drawing, but my ears revealed nothing. After some time, we heard the car start and felt the wind of the tires on our eyeballs as the car sped past, lurching into second gear.
I started to shimmy out from under the car, but Miki turned his head to me, his cheek spread on his hand.
“My father,” he said.
I slid back to my old spot. Everything had changed under the car. We were not in this together. There was nothing I could say that would make that better. The man was a monster. The classroom was not a stage. It was who he was. We lay there for a while, absorbing the thick heat from the asphalt and the stillness of the day. I waited for a sign from him, for something that showed that his anger and humiliation had died down. I considered mentioning his last name, Meirom, which indicated to me there had been a divorce. Perhaps even a new father. But in the end I left by myself. It seemed like what he wanted.