Raining in the Holy Land
By Elan Barnehama
The closest I came to seeing my father walk was on Saturday mornings when I helped strap him into braces. As he lay on the bed, I manipulated his body and methodically secured the four straps around each leg, the two that held each knee, buckled the waistband, tied the black high-top leather shoes, and re-checked everything. When all was secure, I spun his body, straddled his knees, and with outstretched arms grabbed hold of his hands and pulled him into a sitting position. Then, with crutches tucked underneath his arms I walked backwards pulling him into a standing position which always made me notice how tall a man he was. We shuffled as one across the three feet between his bed and the bedroom wall where we turned around so my father could lean back against the wall and be vertical against the earth.
I backed up and sat on the edge of the bed and tried to act casual, as if this were the kind of thing all fathers and sons did together. But I was ready to spring into action and catch him if he leaned too far, unable to counter gravity. That never happened, though. What did happen was that my father asked me questions about school and friends. But mostly he told me stories.
Immediately after Abe and his parents survived Vienna's night of shattered glass, the community gathered their youth and hastily shuttled them out of the city and out of the country to meet a ship that would take them to Palestine. When the boat docked in Haifa each teen was handed a tourist visa. Those with relatives in Palestine were shepherded into various vehicles and dispersed to predetermined meeting places. Those with no one in the country, like Abe, were taken to a youth camp on Mount Carmel.
During the days, Abe studied Hebrew and performed chores in preparation for joining one of the many kibbutzim forming to the north. At night he played chess or read and waited for news about his parents. It was more than two months before Abe heard confirmation that his parents were among a handful of Viennese Jews who did not survive the spontaneous mobs during the days that followed Kristallnacht.
Abe stood still in the same spot where he heard the news. As long as he didn’t move, his life would remain unchanged.
When the sun set, Abe returned to his bunk and packed. Without parents, he no longer belonged in a youth camp. Without parents he was no longer a child. With a suitcase in each hand, he walked down the mountain into Haifa to the newspaper office. The offices were empty and the door locked so he sat down and waited. The next morning Chaim, the paper’s editor, was the first to arrive and found Abe asleep.
“I arrived one season ago,” Abe said. “Right before the rains, while a dust storm rolled across this holy land. The newness of this ancient land, it's new to me,” he told Chaim.
“It never goes away, the newness, the sense of wonder, of miracles, those feelings never go away,” Chaim responded.
Abe would not leave until Chaim agreed to give him a job, any job. Chaim relented and Abe sorted mail, answered phones, and helped wherever needed. One day, without asking permission, Abe answered a phone call, and instead of handing it off to a reporter, he asked questions and took notes, which he handed to Chaim. Without looking up, Chaim said, “Keep doing that.”
A month later, Chaim handed back one of the notes and said, “Okay.”
“Okay, this one is yours. Go out and get this story, and if it’s good, I will print it with your name.”
It was, and he did, and Chaim continued assigning Abe stories. One year later, on his eighteenth birthday, Chaim made it official. Abe was a reporter.
It had rained all day in the Holy Land, typical for December, when Abe returned to Haifa. He had been gone for five days on an assignment that began with interviewing newly arrived Polish refugees at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Chaim extended his trip when word came that the Knesset had left Tel Aviv and was going to hold its session in Jerusalem. He sent Abe to cover the historic moment.
Stepping off the bus and into the rain, Abe stretched, glad to be freed from the confines of the three-hour bus ride. He walked the six blocks back to the newsroom and got to work at the desk he shared with Amos, the Theater critic. Satisfied with his story, Abe pulled the last page out of the typewriter. After carefully returning the carbon copy sheet to the top drawer, he jumped up, grabbed his coat, and dropped the article on his editor’s desk.
“I’m done, Chaim,” Abe said slipping on his coat. “I’ll see you on Sunday.”
Chaim said, “Sit. Wait till I read it.”
“I’ve got a date tonight and I haven’t changed clothes or bathed in three days. It wouldn’t hurt you to go out on a date. Women like powerful men.”
“If I’m a powerful man, why can’t I get you to sit?”
“I’m not a woman.”
“Who is it this time?” Chaim asked.
“Really?” Chaim asked, still reading. “Again?”
“Why the surprise?”
“No surprise. Are you serious about her?”
“Possibly. I’m not sure yet.”
“This is the fourth time she’s cooking for you.”
“Is that a record for you?”
“I don’t keep count,” Abe said. “Yes.”
“When a girl cooks you meals, and you continue to eat them, you’re saying that you’re serious.”
“Maybe I’m saying that she’s a seriously good cook?” Abe smiled. “Maybe in Vienna it meant something,” Abe continued. “Things are different here.”
Chaim stopped reading and looked at Abe. “We’ve known each other how long?”
“Ten years,” Abe said.
“Yes, ten years. And in those ten years, how many times have I had to remind you that I was born right here in Haifa?” Chaim resumed reading. “Things are not so different anywhere,” he said.
“That is a pity,” Abe said. “But I am different and Miriam is different. We will make things different.”
Chaim put Abe’s article on his desk and tapped it with his right hand. “This is good,” he said. “Okay, get out of here. But I want details on Sunday.”
“Then details you shall get.”
It was still raining when Abe left the building and began to run toward his apartment. He had always loved running in the rain. He loved how everything smelled during a rain.
Back in Vienna, Abraham had been a runner for his upper secondary school. During his second year he’d won the city championship in the steeplechase. The following year he was no longer allowed to compete or attend school.
As Abe turned onto Jacobi Street, his legs felt strong and responsive. He leapt over puddles, maneuvered around pedestrians, avoided vehicles. The rain washed away the fatigue of travel and turned Abe’s thoughts to the next day’s pick-up soccer game. The Saturday game had become a regular gathering of the neighborhood’s European immigrants. Soccer was their common language, but swearing happened in each person’s mother tongue. Abe was on a mission to learn them all.
Abe arrived home drenched and was greeted by Shlomo and Liora, his Orthodox roommates, as they prepared their Shabbat dinner. Abe declined an offer to join them for prayers and started his bath.
“You should invite Miriam here for a Shabbat dinner,” Shlomo said through the bathroom door.
“She has as little interest in religious ritual as I do,” Abe said. “Possibly less.”
“Less?” Liora chimed in. “That’s not likely.”
“Just ask her,” Shlomo said.
“That too is unlikely. I’d like to keep seeing her,” he laughed.
When he arrived at Miriam’s apartment, he was greeted by her disarming smile and the smell of lamb stew. Miriam, a blond-haired sabra and Haifa native, worked as a history teacher and was writing a history of Mount Carmel.
After dinner, Abe lit cigarettes for himself and Miriam as they lay on the couch. It’s strange, he said, putting a cigarette in Miriam’s mouth, I can’t taste much this evening. Not even this cigarette.
Miriam touched Abe’s forehead and suggested they take his temperature. When the thermometer read one hundred and two, they decided to skip the movie, and Abe headed back home.
Shlomo and Liora were reading and quite surprised to see Abe return home so early. He explained that he had caught his usual winter cold. “I’ll be better in the morning,” he told them and went to bed.
The next morning, after sweating all night, he was surprised that his temperature had not fallen at all. Shlomo and Liora stayed home from shul despite Abe’s protests. After lunch, Liora walked down the block to fetch the doctor who seemed annoyed when he said it was just a cold, and gave Abe some pink pills to reduce the fever. On Sunday morning, fever still unbroken, Abe called Chaim and told him he wouldn’t be in. When Shlomo and Liora left for work, they left Abe on the couch so he could be near the phone. Later, Abe needed all his strength to walk to the bathroom. He would forever remember that moment when he stood unsteadily in front of the toilet peeing. It was the last time he ever stood on his own.
When they returned home from work, Shlomo and Liora were surprised and concerned to find Abe on the couch. Liora made Abe some tea while Shlomo brought the daily paper over and sat with him and read the news.
“Some day,” Abe said, “we are going to have to figure out how to co-exist with the Arabs. It’s not a matter of justice or ethics—well, it is that, too—but really it’s a matter of practicality. If we don’t find a way to co-exist, we, both Jews and Arabs, will spend most of our resources, and spill much of our blood, fighting each other. And the world will, once again, have an excuse to hate the Jews.”
“Really Abe,” Shlomo said, “you know the world never needs an excuse to hate the Jews. That’s why Israel needs to be more than a safe place for all Jews.”
“I fear we’ve made Israel less safe for Jews by handing over so much power to the rabbis.”
“But Abe, it’s observant Jews who are the future of the Jewish people.”
While Abe usually enjoyed debating Shlomo, and often initiated these discussions, that day he felt too weak to continue.
“Have some tea,” Liora said, offering Abe a cup.
“I think I’d like to go to bed,” he said. “Can you help me?”
The next morning Shlomo called the newspaper to say Abe would miss another day. Chaim told him to leave the door open as he was on his way over.
“You haven’t missed ten minutes in ten years,” Chaim responded when Abe laughed at his concern. Chaim sat for a few minutes without removing his overcoat before suddenly standing up and heading out. He shouted to Abe to stay put.
“Where would I go?” Abe asked. “I can hardly move.”
But Chaim didn’t hear. He was already running to the office of his friend, Dr. Meyer.
“But Chaim, I’m a heart specialist,” Dr. Meyer said when Chaim insisted he follow him back to see Abe.
“Ralik, I don’t care if you’re a heart doctor or a horse doctor: I know you, and I need you to look at my friend. Immediately.”
Dr. Meyer followed Chaim on foot through the streets of Haifa. After the briefest of greetings, he started to examine Abe. He ran a pin down the middle of his belly and along the soles of his feet. Abe searched the doctor’s eyes for a trace of reaction, a hint of a diagnosis, but found no clues. Dr. Meyer lifted Abe’s eyelids and pored over his eyes with a flashlight. Abe understood that the doctor was concerned.
Abruptly, Dr. Meyer stood and took Chaim into the living room. He instructed Chaim to get Abe to the hospital right away where he would meet them so he could order more tests. “But mostly,” Dr. Meyer said “we will have to wait and hope.” With that, Dr. Meyer left for the hospital.
Chaim returned to Abe’s bedside, his overcoat still on. He sat down and took Abe’s hands in his. “Dr. Meyer isn’t sure what you have, but he wants you at the hospital where they can run some tests.”
“Is that it?” Abe said. “Should I be worried?”
“You shouldn’t be worried.”
“But you’re worried,” Abe said.
“It’s nothing. I always worry.”
Abe, who was born at his parents’ home in Vienna, had never been to a hospital. He decided that he would not go. By then, two large men had entered the apartment and were moving Abe onto a stretcher to carry him downstairs to the waiting ambulance and it was no longer his choice. Besides, as he looked closer into Chaim’s eyes, he knew there were things he was not being told. They had never spoken of it, but the whole office knew that Chaim thought of Abe as a son since the moment sixteen-year-old Abe had shown up on the steps of the newspaper’s office.
Abe had never seen fear in Chaim. Not when armed British soldiers entered the newspaper after a particularly nasty editorial, claiming to look for illegal immigrants. And not when Naomi, the Arts editor, went into labor right at press time and Chaim had had to help deliver her child while they waited for the ambulance. He’d never seen that look on Chaim’s face but it needed no explanation.
Abe gathered his strength so he could tell Chaim that he would fight, that he would be stronger than any disease. He would make his body do more than it was supposed to. He had, after all, survived Kristallnacht, made the trip from Vienna alone, slipped past the British blockade into Palestine, survived random bombings, occasional gunfire, and the War of Independence and he wasn’t going to let some invisible bug, the smallest of living cells, take it all away. He owed it to his parents, to Chaim, to himself. No matter how weak he felt, no matter how tired he was, he was not going to give in. He had seen men let themselves die. He had seen others give up hope and wither away. He was not one of them. There were great things to accomplish and he had hardly begun to do his part. He had always been certain that he would have a part. He was young and he was not yet done.
“We made it to the precipice,” he told Chaim. “We’re a nation and I’m not going away without taking that leap forward.” But Chaim heard none of this as Abe had already drifted off.
The Government Hospital in Haifa was a large stone building on the Mediterranean Sea. Abe’s room had a view of the water and its windows let in both the sound and smell of the waves. He didn’t wake for three days. During that time, Dr. Meyer had his suspicion confirmed. Abe had polio. He would never walk again, that was certain. If he would live, that was less certain. While he slept, there was an explosion at the newspaper building, killing all seventeen people in the office at the time. Had Abe not been near death, Chaim would not have been sitting by his bedside, and both of them would have been killed.
When his fever broke and Abe finally awakened, he saw Chaim sleeping in the chair by the window. Blood, he thought, is not necessary for family. Abe tried to move but his muscles had lost most of their strength.
Chaim heard Abe stir. He sat up. “You’ve decided to join us again,” he said.
“I don’t follow,” Abe responded. “I took a nap and you fell asleep in the chair?”
“Three days, Abe. It’s been three days.” Chaim stood. “And now you’ve come back. I’m going to get the doctor.”
The doctors all agreed that if Abe were able to regain some strength, he should be sent to New York, where the polio treatment was more advanced. Till then, Abe would be transferred to the rehab hospital in Jerusalem. Chaim expressed disappointment that this would make visiting more difficult, but he would come on his days off. “Don’t worry,” Abe told Chaim. “I’ve always wanted to live in Jerusalem. Now I get to.”
In Jerusalem, Abe had a nurse named Hannah. She sat by his bedside and spooned soft foods into his mouth. At first he did not look at her, preferring the view through the windows overlooking the ancient city. Maybe it was the reporter in him, maybe it was her demeanor, or maybe it was simply his way of retaining dignity while being spoon fed that made him ask Hannah questions while she nourished him. After the usual biographical exchange, Abe moved on to questions about news of the State of Israel. He asked her about new movies and theater openings and he asked her about her life. Hannah found herself returning often and staying longer by Abe’s bed. He made her laugh.
Hannah worked nights, and after her rounds, if the hospital was quiet, she wheeled Abe out onto the roof garden of the hospital. Up on the roof, high above the Jerusalem heat, they shared cigarettes and looked out over the ancient city and the surrounding Jerusalem hills as Hannah recounted her youth in the city below. Every so often Hannah leaned over to remove the cigarette from Abe’s mouth and tap the ashes off before returning it to his lips. With his strength returning, Abe sang to her. He sang songs in his native Austrian and his adopted Hebrew. He dictated poems and Hannah wrote them down and then he read them to her. By the time he was ready to be sent off to New York, Abe had convinced Hannah to stop complaining about the doctors and become one. In every situation, he told her, there were always two possibilities. And for each of those possibilities, he continued, there were two more.
“So, while I have polio,” he told her, “it’s not my only possibility.”
And just like that, one decade after Abe stepped off the boat and onto the Port of Haifa, Chaim and Dr. Meyer helped carry him onto the ship that would take him from the land he loved. The polio that should have killed him exiled him.
Abe was admitted to the Center for Joint Diseases in Manhattan where he received the latest care and treatment. They moved Abe into a ward full of Israeli soldiers who had been sent to New York to receive treatment for severe battle wounds. It was there that he met Leah, a woman from Jerusalem who was visiting Yaacov, her friend who had stepped on a land mine. Yaacov and Abe had become chess rivals and their games quickly attracted an audience. When Yaacov returned to Israel with his replacement legs, Leah continued to visit the floor, and found herself lingering by Abe’s bedside, a fact pointed out by all the guys the moment Leah went home.
Then, one year after my father was released from The Center For Joint Diseases, he and my mother were married. Which is how I became the progeny of refugees with thick accents who passed on a heritage of the gloom of war and the promise of peace.