The Lake of Galilee
By Ephrat Huss
The waves of the holy Galilee Lake in Israel rhythmically leave and return to my veiny old ankles that are sunk into its shallow waters, as if their attachment to my feet is as ambivalent as the Jews’ attachment to Israel. And now we are also thinking of leaving Israel. We have to decide this weekend while at the Jacob’s Ladder Irish folk music festival. We are old but we have been offered one more job in Europe; it will be our last chance to leave here, before the final leaving.
There is a fleeting cloud above my head that makes the lake momentarily modulate into Irish gentleness, but we are in Israel, our own troubled land, and the cloud moves on and the Israeli sun re-conquers the lake, shattering it into violent broken-glass blues. My old husband sits next to me, but with his shoes on. He is scrolling through his phone—there has been another terrorist attack. We check that the children are okay. He gets up to go in to the kibbutz hotel to get ready for supper and the music, but I sit a little longer on the receding beach mesmerized by the rustle of the last spindly birds soaring above the eucalyptus trees on their way somewhere else—Africa, or Europe, I don’t know. The trees whisper back to them in the sorrow of departure. On the beach, an old Israeli woman in a muted hippie dress sits by me and starts to strum a gentle Irish folk tune into the sunset. She is a little familiar, older than me even, and she is staring over the lake dreaming of other places, the way Jews always do, split between east and west, even when living in Israel, the homeland—especially then. This east-west thing, hearts in one place, bodies in the other, or vice versa, is prominent in our poetry and Biblical narratives. Every child in Israel knows about the first and second destructions of the temple, about Nebuchadnezzar and Titus, the Babylonian and Roman exiles, Jews leaving the land, some staying, some returning (it was good in Babylon, but we wept as we remembered Zion). Then there is The Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain, and more leaving and returning, and then the pogroms, the emergence of Zionism and the halutzim, and then the Holocaust topping it all off—so we officially returned. I have listened to my three kids prepare for their matriculation exams so I have learnt all of this history of our fatherland, or is it motherland, three times, and still it feels that my real history is in the English words of the folk song that the women next to me is strumming, her long grey hair moving in the breeze, it’s the same song that my mother used to hum around our house in London when I was little, humming to the scratchy record player playing Peter Paul and Mary.
“I gave my love a chicken, that had no bone; How can there be a chicken that has no bone?”
I look at the woman in surprise, how did she know? But all of the English-speaking people who come to this festival grew up on these songs.
My personal history feels far removed from the fanatic, bearded biblical people hiding in caves and fighting in the desert, or fleeing pogroms in black and white clothes, which my children learnt by heart, notebooks spread out on our kitchen table, as if memories were being artificially planted into them, the way we turned the yellow desert into a defiant, unnatural green.
And yet my own life started with leaving Israel—and my own history is one of leaving and returning. I was born on a kibbutz, raised by my two English Zionist socialist parents who made aliyah to the kibbutz from London, in the days when Zionism and socialism, Jews and victims, were words that fit together. We left the kibbutz when my grandmother from London sent me red patent leather “little girl” shoes in a parcel of brown wrapping paper. She had saved up from her housekeeping to buy them in a dingy London High Street shop, rushing to buy string and stamps in the post office, clutching her purse to give her faraway granddaughter a shiny red start.
But the kibbutz education lady would not let me have them. “It wasn’t fair,” she explained—not all of the children had them. I imagine my mother’s knotted-up mouth contradicting her huge brown eyes, a wild animal caught on a clipped lawn with a new baby, a brown parcel, and a gruff short haired kibbutz education lady whose Holocaust wrinkles pull her face into mean vertical lines. I picture my father approaching from the work tractor, stopping to talk to a neighbour, to set a time for a meeting, to stoop to pull a weed out of the straight paths that were distributed evenly on the lawns, in his dusty blue work clothes that smell of leaves, earth, and human sweat.
“I am leaving, they won’t let her have the shoes my mother bought!”
“Now just you listen to me!”
But she didn’t. She left the kibbutz, left Israel (it was the same thing in those days), left him, and leapt like a tiger over the rooftops of London, to university, filled with the blood smell of a second chance, with me, her cub in my shiny red shoes clinging desperately to her back. She, embracing big universal ideas not grounded in one land, one home, one family. My father disappeared behind a rosebush into a semi-detached house in Golders Green with a new wife and children, and he opened a real estate business.
“A chicken when its hatching, it has no bone,” strums the old lady,
But now I am an old lady, I remind myself—nearly as old as Israel—and we are on the shore of the Kinneret, our one holy lake. Kibbutz Ginosar, where we are staying, twinkles on the shoreline. The kibbutz I was born on is not far from here. Now that the kibbutz movement has fallen, Ginosar is a row of motley villas with strange extensions reaching out over the water, as if the houses want to turn into boats and sail away. Their guest house, mediocre rooms with white plastic chairs, is very expensive, as if to punish us for their own capitalism. But still it is so peaceful here, and the waters and sky merge and the small waves approach and recede from my toes, and the old women sings my childhood lullabies. I sigh. The waters of this lake are receding, they say, like our own hairlines. Here, there is always this danger of everything drying up, unfurling, unravelling. There is always a need for miracles, but they are scarce and the small waves lapping my old toes magnify their wrinkles, like the spotted brown archaeological pebbles shining under these waters that Jesus walked on, dividing loaves equally, like the kibbutz dream.
Leaving the kibbutz as a small child was the destruction of my first temple, but when I was a primary school girl, we returned to Israel with a new husband and a stepfather, a South African apartheid-fighting doctoral student who made us yellow dal next to yellow rice, nothing white, white was bad, we were white, but with a dusting of brown freckles, and four huge, brown, Jewish, scared, single-mother-daughter eyes. We met him at the university launderette in London, where my mother showed him how to put money in the slots to make the washing machines whirl around with a clean optimistic smell of no servants. We were good. He decided to save us first. A new baby, my half-brother, was born, and was sick and up all night, so that now the new father didn’t drink beer in revolutionary anger, or wine in love; he had to try to get the squeezed orange juice exactly into the cups. And then the Six Day War broke out in Israel, and I couldn’t watch cartoons anymore because he watched the news.
“But we are against wars!”
“Yes, yes, but we are not against people defending ourselves. Please be quiet, I am trying to concentrate... ”
The new father was thrilled to see a clear fight between good and bad, while here at home with the piles of laundry, the sick baby, the sad little girl, the tired mother—and of course no servants—it was not clear whose side anyone was on. That's what is wrong, he decided, like many Jews before him: We need our real roots, we need to find our homeland. The word Israel floated into the morning arguments, and moving men came and packed our scraggly, spread-out life into one compact box. We went for a last British walk at the edge of the Brighton Sea, the high waves rising and parting like in Egypt when the Israelites fled, like us in search of freedom and self-fulfilment (the new stepfather had started reading me Bible stories).
“Everything’s brand new in Jerusalem,” said my mother, and “also very ancient.” My mother’s red hair flashed in the wind, and she giggled in her duffel coat with the adrenaline of moving, struggling forward over the beach’s shifting pebbles, with me always trying to keep up behind her. Maybe the soil of the holy land will be new enough, ancient enough, to keep us all together—away from the cracks, from the edge.
“I gave my love a cherry that had no stone, how can there be a cherry without a stone?” sings the women in her hoarse old voice.
But there were so many stones in the Jerusalem hills where we settled. We started in an absorption centre for immigrants in Jerusalem. There were the Morgans and the Zades and the Singers and the Epsteins. We all, the Anglo Saxon immigrants of those years, had arrived on planes, not escaping pogroms, wars, persecution, or hunger, just the empty spaces of our own lives. All night the rain sighed around the absorption centre, rocking it like Noah’s ark on the black Jerusalem hills. We all came down to the dining room two by two to be redeemed. And from there, we built a house in the swirling, spicy hills of Jerusalem, we had, after all, come to build and to be built, “livnot u’l’hibanot.” My stepfather planted a garden, working side by side with the Arab workers, but his spade hit only rocks and his face filled with sweat.
“Sir, habibi, we can make a very nice garden for you. Why should you bother? Why should you work hard? For another thousand lira, we can make the garden..."
No one had told the stepfather there were Arabs here, like the Blacks in South Africa, building our house. The new third baby started screaming from inside the leaky stone house.
“Mummy, they’ve opened the roof! it's raining in the toilet!” I screeched, but I stopped when I saw my mother’s face.
“You have to do something!” she screamed at my stepfather, who had showered and was escaping with his leather briefcase for a consoling coffee at the Hebrew University where he worked, where his doctoral student listened adoringly to his theories of oppression. The Arab laborers laughed, threw down their work tools, and sprawled on the ground for their coffee break. They took their time. He would not return soon. They laughed at the holes they had made in the Jewish roof of the house that is on top of their Arab house, their hammers destructing this fragile second temple. The redeeming light faded, leaving only the dust and the stone floor that had to be washed with a special stick, leaving murky marks. I watched the freckles multiply like a wild energy on my mother’s pale English face when we returned to England. The second destruction.
“I gave my love a baby with no crying, how can there be a baby with no crying?”sings the woman next to me here on the Kinneret, as if she was there in the taxi with us at Gatwick airport—as if she knew that my brother had cried so much when we arrived with the English drizzle pressing around us like an inverted aquarium, and my grandmother of the red shoes and worried face clutching her handbag, saying “It’s the change, he’ll adjust.” The stepfather is back where he started, in the launderette, a soon-to-be divorcé.
“You know, Israel is unbearable, we just couldn’t stay there,” says the mother. “The Palestinians are the true victims,” she explains, her feverish energy filled with the hope of yet another beginning. She turns and smiles at her mother in the taxi, talking louder and louder, about the injustice of the occupation trying to catch her mother’s eyes—that most elusive of Holocaust-destructed homelands. “Oh, sorry! Don’t you have enough space?” asks her mother, and moves away from her, staring out of the window at the English squinting eyes and scowling faces hid behind net-covered windows, who also say sorry all the time, like her.
“A baby when its sleeping, has no crying.”
How did I return? My mother and her next husband put up “Free Palestine” stickers on their door, and adopted two poor kids. And me, a straggly Israeli teenager already, I didn’t fit into England anymore, so I joined the same youth movement that my mother had danced in years ago—that had led her to the kibbutz where I was born and that she had left, spawning me in the colonies so that I was a second-class British citizen. In Habonim, everyone admired my Hebrew. I rushed on the heaving red London bus away from the split-open mother, the adopted children, the ghost-fathers hiding in the London mists, the drunks swaying out of the pubs, the Latin-snorting, grey-knickered, blonde-haired grammar school girls at my school. I rushed up the steps of the Habonim “bayit,” our “home,” on 365 Finchley Road, where the whole circle started again, with me enfolded into folk dancing circles and singing messianic secular songs of redemption about home lands.
The woman next to me shifts to Hebrew, as if remembering that she is also Israeli, and starts singing in Hebrew, “You and I will change the world, they’ve said it before, never mind…”
We sang that song in the youth movement, and that made me forget, the way women, after childbirth, forget the pain, the way the Jewish people forget each time, that the real Israel belongs also to the Arabs and the real desert wouldn’t grow a simple garden, let alone a Garden of Eden, and nothing changes.
But because of the songs, I returned again, alone this time to Israel, after my second diaspora, for my third aliyah. I was eighteen, a young adult, running from my mother the way she had from hers. Third time lucky, third time ice cream, as they say in Israel. I joined the army, having been born in Israel, and I had a whole country of proud parents driving me around in their cars, giving me food. I was home in my homeland.
After the army, I worked as a developmental social worker in an orphanage in Jerusalem. We were funded by American Jews who were prepared to pay a lot of money to annihilate the dissonance between broken children and the hope and renewal of Israel—but not to live here of course; they stayed in Babylon. We worked in a draft-filled, beautiful old Arab house. We believed in those days in small miracles based on hard work. We used Erikson’s developmental psychology, in which each child is a temple that can be rebuilt at each stage. We discussed the impact of divorce, of immigration, of trauma, sitting on tiny chairs like children, noting the parents who leave from, and return to, their children in confusing back and forth waves. We used Bowlby’s theories of the three attachment types: anxious, ambivalent, and secure. He coined these terms in a dark, Victorian English orphanage, like the one in which my grandmother grew up, and based them on his famous experiments to see if children preferred wire monkeys that gave them food or furry monkeys that gave them hugs. What a choice.
In the Arab building that we occupied, the plastic toys in primary colours were strewn on the intricate Islamic patterns on the tiled floors that the sheiks’ forefathers had laid down on the land within their own circles of leaving and returning, of history and holiness, and these swirl in the shapes of the patterned floor like mirror images of what is rifted and trapped inside the core of the broken children, Jewish and Arab like Siamese twins. The Palestinian sheik who was the former owner of the house looked on from afar, from his own diaspora, at these crazy, Jewish psychology women who have occupied his home—destructing him to save others.
I have been here since then, for so many years, but the leaving talk has returned, and now here by the lake I can see my grandmother’s red shoes, the ones she sent me that were the start of my ambivalent attachment to Israel. I sit, gazing over this holy one-and-only lake of ours from the distance of age, and I can see that the great Jewish themes of homelands, and of building and destructing, and leaving and returning, are there in my own personal life, in this decision of whether to leave or to stay, like in my now grown children’s textbooks. I cannot say that the stories of Jewish history that my kids learnt belong to “them and not me,” like the bad son at the Seder table, and yet the circles of wars are the exact opposite of the songs of peace I grew up on.
“I’m going to lay down my sward and shield,” sings the woman.
When are you coming? I’m hungry, texts my husband.
Soon! I text back.
Have you decided?
No! I answer.
I start to gather my things. He is waiting. I do not want a domestic war, but I pull a cardigan out of my bag and sink back into the plastic chair that is too low. I cannot leave this water. The woman smiles at me and strums her guitar, both of our eyes on the blue sky falling into the water of our one lake, as if all will be revealed if we look hard and long enough.
And then, in Israel, after I’d studied, I met my husband, who is now waiting for his supper, and we moved to a village with a lawn like the one on the kibbutz where I was born—a village surrounded by the desert, and by the high-pitched rage of the muezzin in the background. A village where my husband walked towards us in the park at the end of the day in his work clothes, bending over our small children, pulling out weeds that had colonized our sandy earth—a correction of that first picture of leaving Israel, leaving my father. The few plants thrived, and we held between us three children, two jobs, and an old car. What could have been more of a tikkun? A rebuilding? Except that that most central of altars in temples, the offerings of holy wars, remained, and when the kids were in the army, there was another war, and Noam, our friends’ son, was killed.
The woman next to me stops strumming her guitar.
That last war, Tsuk Eitan, was the first that was not abstract. It had our own children folded inside it, like the raisins in the batter of the white coconut cake with a blue Magen David flag of Israel that I used to make every Independence Day for all the children running on our green lawn. Within a week, Noam, our friends’ son, went from alive to dead; This was not a cake, or a game, or a dance; this was a the sacrificing of our children on the slabs of politics like burnt offerings, the way pagans do, and no symbolic animals appeared to take their place. The wars that were folded into their history lessons—raging prophesies, caves, battles, and blood—came storming out of their textbooks into our own day-to-day lives. This refusal of peace left no room for histories like mine, which were based on gentle folk songs about cherries with no stones and chickens with no bones. It laughed cynically at my own puny story of leaving and returning. It pushed us way into the margins.
I should go in, my husband is waiting, and who wants to remember that awful day?
The woman next to me looks over the lake in silence, remembering her own dead. We all have them here, Arabs and Jews. Now in the dark blue waters I see Noam’s funeral, with the fathers slapping arms around each other, the women blindly offering trays of food, checking that no one is thirsty or hungry, as if we are all toddlers who need just food. The religious fathers sway in prayer; the secular fathers murmur confused “Amens” because they also needed words to wrap around this new word, dead. We, the secular mothers, have just experienced our first miracle: our own sons being alive due to a one-centimetre shift in a bullet’s direction. We’d brought up free children but then we sent them to fight for little bits of holy land, and it is very confusing. We entered, by mistake, our children’s history books of dying for Israel. We try to breathe in and out and say “namaste” from our yoga classes, but our faces are split open. The young soldiers murmur to Noam’s parents heroic stories about their son, like when he led them the wrong way in the desert but made them all the best chocolate mousse; how he was a hero, always cheerful. They use their good, free childhood to hold up the broken parents who gulp down their words like oxygen, and the soldier-girls with long hair and guns flowing proudly from their ballet-trained young shoulders hug them once again. And then everyone leaves, and the parents become orphans. It was then, after that war, that my husband, for the first time, talked of leaving Israel.
A group of barefoot Israeli youth gather in a circle on the lake’s shore and open beer bottles, breaking into a rousing Irish gig that drowns out the old woman’s gentle lullabies. They play with the intense concentration they learned in the army, but with their Indian trousers and long matted hair, like Jesus about to walk the water. Except that something in the quickness of their playing becomes stuck in manic repetitiveness, as if they are trying to outpace their own memories.
“When will they ever learn?” sings the woman.
The young people join her, but no one is listening. The word peace has left Israel, and our grown children talk of Babylon—or at least of London, of Berlin. So yes, I understand why my husband wants to leave, on top of his own army, on top of the government, on top of being old, with three snow-white hairs in his beard, like Moses. He wants to watch this raging homeland from afar, from a calmer, cooler, hill like most sane Jews, from the diaspora.
The beach is filling up slowly with festival goers. Some smile at me; from over the years, they are my English-speaking tribe. Some were with me as children in the absorption centre; some I know from the youth movement. Many have become religious since that last war, with bits of cloth tied around women’s white hair, the bossy swish of long skirts, and a set of grandchild ducklings behind them. Everyone has taken a political step to the right, like in a folk dance, with that last war. I understand the need to make sense of it all, but I cannot. The few who stayed on the left stare out at the water like me, as if they have lost something, with their spindly small families because their children have left. Their bald spots, their kippa-less heads points of vulnerability, their bent old bodies covered by moulting Marks and Spencer’s sweaters, like dishevelled feathers. Their bushy eyebrows search the horizon for what has disappeared. Maybe he is right.
Nu! he texts me.
Coming in! I answer.
“I gave my love a ring, that has no end. How can there be a ring, that has no end?”
But you could answer him that we are gradually leaving. First, we left our semi-detached, fawn-coloured house in Ben Gurion’s desert with its three kids and the daily dervish dance of bringing them up, to an apartment in Jaffa. The days passed of swivelling through their rooms to sweep up their adolescent cigarettes, of wobbling high school desks and pock-marked posters, and their rooms became empty wombs. I wept and swept the salt grains of desert dust under my feet like Lot’s wife, trying not to look back. We moved to our new gentrified apartment in Jaffa in hypocritical leftness, joining Arab-Jewish dialogue groups to calm our consciences. Now I have only one room to dust, and one transparent glass vase for my husband’s potential flowers, which stands next to the silver Kiddush cup of my biological father, who left, as you know, when I was small. They have all left—so should I cleave to my husband, following him like the women in the Bible always do?
“A ring when its rolling, it has no end.”
But I love our balcony in Jaffa that is a small space woven between inside and outside, encapsulated with plants and two spindly bird-like chairs. You can watch leaves falling on the unknowing heads of scolding mothers, or lovers, all those past stages of our lives walking under our balcony, while my husband’s profile next to me reads the paper and grumbles about Bibi and the ultra- Orthodox and the occupation, the rights of Reform Jews like us, the rights of gay people, like my son, our very own rights, that have eroded in the archaeological layers of this fanatic holy land. And I nod. There is hope, I remind him, while concentrating on my women’s magazine that recommends flowy tops to counteract old ladies’ wrinkles and sacks and ashes, and also positive attitudes, and we balance our supper plates on our crumbly old knees. The women on the Jaffa beach smile at each other over Ramadan and Passover, I remind him, both sides transfixed by the romantic sunset. It is not the south, and when I say that I always feel the guilt of leaving Beersheva’s huge anxious hovering moon caught in the dense desert sky, leaving the grey buildings mushrooming and its one café, and one train, and leaving its lack of leafy, merciful shade, a swaying junkie, a hijab’ed woman with a wriggling child who cuts her feet on glass-covered sand and lives off our dregs in tin huts, so that their sons pace the malls in tight black clothes planning riots. We have left that. But also in Jaffa, he reminds me, after the wars came the bombings and the riots—chemically mixed in politicians’ test tubes with the cynical alchemy of religion, nationalism, poverty, and lack of hope, so that young men—Jewish and Arab—explode, bashing the delicate curves of cars, as if the cars were mere women. Jewish and Arab youth used our carefully written articles in Haaretz to start their red fires in their black tires, leaving behind them a rash of burnt cars and cut down olive trees—the yearning for homelands brewing and bubbling like strong black coffee.
I sigh. My feet are cold and the pebbles harsh, and the lake has become a black line under enemy hills and the moon has fallen into the water. Maybe Jesus walking this lake gave loaves and fishes, but we will not give up one grain of sand. The birds have gone silent, the music has gone silent, and people are gathering their grandchildren and walking towards the warm yellow hum of the dining room to eat before the evening performances. The woman next to me, who is like my mother (who had me young), zips her guitar into its fraying old case. It seems to me that she smiles an ambivalent sad smile as she leaves our one shared lake’s forgiving shore.
“A ring when its rolling, it has no end,”sings the woman, because we both know that leaving and returning are a spiral that we can only roll forward on, one small circle at a time. And don’t forget, I think, that my mother, who sang those songs of impossible hope in circles, was so young when she had me there on the kibbutz lawn, with the red shoes that her mother used like a siren to call her back to her motherland. And don’t forget, I think, but it is time to forgive, on the personal level first (that’s part of our Jewish thing, not to forget; the forgiving is more complicated). It is time to make peace with the past, and creep gradually up to the present.
And don’t forget, I think, as I gather up my things, don’t forget the true shared sunsets and Arab and Jewish women’s smiles. And don’t forget that before breakfast in Jaffa, my husband and I walk down the hill to the huge sea that is like an animal, two old people flaying in the wet rioting cold, but I have learnt to keep my balance because for so many years I have tossed and swayed in this conflicted sea, with its ragged shoreline fragmenting into tinselled Ramadan and Pesach lights. My arm’s freckles, like my mother’s, multiply in the sun, each freckle worrying about the plastic bag that may be a jellyfish. Each morning I float past small, grey, lost fish, past the coarsely flowered swimsuit of an immigrant, past a muscled, brown Arab youth. We all swim together in wet companionship, thinking about bombs, riots, the government, illness, death, enemies, the children, and of course, love. The sea licks me tenderly but then slaps me over the head with a surprise wave, like a puppy’s grin, and I flip like a fish onto my side, to see the ridiculous old man doing yoga on the beach, like Ben Gurion’s statue come into focus through my misty goggles. He is my husband, and his upside-down back is glad I am here, and we walk home to the kitchen table in our small Jaffa apartment, that has its usual plants, jugs, and cloth, bathed in the usual oblong of light from the window, that is called home, and it is still here. Israel is still here, my husband is still here, and also the cloth and the flowers and the jug, they are all here, and this is home. It could be anywhere, but it is here.
I smile at the raging hippie Israeli youth singing Irish songs, my fellow travellers at a different stage of the journey, I put on my red hiking sandals, the same red as those first patent shoes that my grandmother sent me, but they are not the same shoes. I head inside towards the buzzing dining room, which is not a kibbutz dining room anymore, but that is still full of light and music. I walk away from our one clinging lake, away from the lullabies that want impossible things, I walk slowly towards my husband. I want my supper.