ISRAEL ישראל, LITERATURE ספרות

17 Elul 5775; Kibbutznik

It has always been
the restless hope
finding the marauder
at odd hours
during the dark’s
temperate breeze;
a desperate need
grasps us two
under the Negev night
receding caution, our
entwined eyes elope;
mid-desert day,
beyond the gates
and the tower
from where I stand;
holding a strange girl
as my heart beats like
the discomforting report of a Sten
making senselessness of sense,
advancing with passionate hands–
that is how I betrayed you.
but loud is the labor of shared
sacrifice; the psalm
to survival in this strange
and embattled Land;
the hope, the red hymn,
a phonograph to our youth
in whose infant fields we stand;
the howls of night
and the colorful screams
of Semitic words
as they usher the tearing
of the fertile tapestry,
‘y’allah, kadima, aish’!
‘feel the might of our tribe;
pursue Ishmael ’til he dies’
again, don’t relent,
back into the land of Ur
from whose ancient heart
we’ve been heard–
by the declaration that shocked
the world near and far
and those brutal May evenings
with the sounds of armored cars,
whose names like Latrun, al-Quds,
and Mount of Olives
troubled this heart;
on the steep hill
from where my commander fell,
the stampede of boys busting ass
back to the Merkaz
‘Yerushalayim,
O Yerushalayim!
this handless arm
has lost its cunning!
but you and my relatives
I haven’t forgot’;
under the white grace
of the hospital bed
with rows of cots
and dying Yids,
I felt my conscious
regain its strength,
man in the green,
send me back again.
and the sunburnt officer
cold stillness in his eyes
takes my bandaged arm,
stares as I try not to cry
‘you’re staying here, boy’
in an old Hungarian tongue;
it was days later
the song on the radio sung
that which you wanted
me to listen to,
and I remember back
how I did not desire your desire
or thought maybe you were too afraid; but it was I.
I remember how your coffee eyes
used to keep me awake.
I was never able to sleep,
while thinking a boy’s thoughts
and fearing a pauper’s fears
and that sad answer
leaves me restless again
as I understand you
hearing the words that you
so often thought of
I was quick to neglect
and how we came to the end;
it was one sunrise
in petah tikvah
I heard for the first time
an old man pray
the song of first rains
to come down again;
was this the religious longing
your fragile lips once spoke of?
was this the faith
that I had so recklessly set fire to?
I never knew G-d
nor what He could do
with every harvest and
new summer moon
hanging in the purple night
with that lingering citrus smell
that reminds me of you.
now a different hope,
a man’s hope,
festers deep down
walking the streets of holiness.
standing on the hill,
where the shells fell straight
we heard the chief order
us into the Lion’s Gate,
and I could feel the weight of your
distant joy, like heavy water
walking the charred streets
dodging bullets and occasional
explosive fodder; the wall was craggy
to the touch, and I couldn’t restrain
my tears that caused
these cheeks to rust,
I had become iron, so inhuman; incapable of love, and emotionally decayed,
and at the foot of the holy presence
the first prayer in two-thousand years
of my own negligence,
I prayed.
now the restless hope
liberated like the heart
of the Jewish people,
sets my faith anew
as I wait for you
whether by charcoal eyes
or Mediterranean blue
I build, and wait on this temple
for the day I can be true,
lest I lose my left hand
and its vacant finger
ready for a hope fulfilled
in spite of a past omitted–

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LITERATURE ספרות

8 Elul 5775; After Me

I think the dying man
Does not want us to question our dreams
Such as when we protest about life
And cannot remember what life means,
The weight of goodness it brings;

He wants us to be examples
To break the chains and give pursuit to our peace
Whispering gently as the levant’s revenant cyclamens grow
Heart furiously ablaze, eyes welled up like a spring,
After Me

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BRENDAN ברנדן, ISRAEL ישראל

25 Av 5775; The End

The hands of my kibbutz-made watch move slowly, seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. I tiredly work the math in my head as I pace forward in patient blinks at customs; it is sometime past seven here, and mid-afternoon in Israel.

I notice a lone suitcase ahead of me, two women behind me ask if it is mine. We wave down a security guard and he promptly takes it into his custody. A kerchiefed middle-aged woman ahead of me startlingly asks “where did my bag go?” as I try to make contact with the fleeting security guard. She distressfully pursues him, abandoning her post, despite the droves of travelers she gives up her place for; the line is too thick and too constant to save a spot. And in the forefront of grumpy thoughts, I think to myself, “at Ben Gurion they would’ve detonated that case by now, lady.”

Taylor Swift smiles at me from an advertisement, with emboldened letters that seem to strain,
welcome to New York.
You’re home.

The solemn Atlantic skies burst through the terminal windows painting the rooms and its faces gray. I follow the attractive figure of a young woman practicing yoga one terminal away. She seems careless, in wanderlust. She is on her way to the next adventure; the past’s oblivion. I feel like I’ve been assigned to a mundane return that is mandatory. I am overwhelmed, planning out my next exodus.

A taxi driver catches the sight of my hand as I cumbersomely shoulder my overweight luggage into his backseat.
“Where to.”
“The airport. …Ben Gurion airport.”
He raises two fingers, “yes I know.”
The two fingers then reach for the volume knob on the radio.
Being a backseat passenger is a bliss I have almost forgotten. It is even more enhanced that I can gaze at this curious lifestyle I aspire to.

I see the morning life I fell in love with, described in book pages I had read years ago. Israelis are certainly awake earlier than most Americans, I feel, and the consistent sunshine at such early hours is a mirage to this cliché. Black-shirted, freshly showered beatniks are having a post-workout espresso in the hidden coffee shops that can be found at the base of Bauhaus apartments. An old woman walking her numerous dogs; perhaps some are her neighbors? Confident young business people in animated conversations and old retired war buddies enjoying a jog. And it’s only Sunday; the first day of the week.

An impassioned Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in his famous Boston-accented Hebrew on air, accompanied by irritated commentators whose voices rise and fall like the sudden ramps and curving freeways the taxi drives through, custom to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, as I believe Elie Wiesel best described her, “a city that is constantly growing in successive maelstroms of fury and joy.”

The fury of freak traffic started by a man making a food delivery with hazards on, the joy of a young green-bereted recruit kissing her brown-bereted Golani boyfriend. The fury of emergency vehicles constantly driving with lights on in case of a terror attack, the joy of an expatriate in a kippah on cell phone talking with his child abroad.

Fury and joy— a reminder the two can never be alone, nor separate.

The cab driver asks me, again, “AC or window?” It must be routine. “Window is good.”

We come up to Ben Gurion’s security gate. A man with a sharp jaw and Oakley radars covering his focused glare wields a TAR-21, finger disciplined over the trigger, ready for a confrontation with a non-stopping vehicle. As of late, a popular terrorist tactic, the act of ramming vehicles into checkpoints and highly-populated pedestrian centers, has Israelis and soldiers on high-guard. The numerous deaths that have transpired from this disgusting act in the past two months makes this soldier’s stone-cold tact look pious.

A woman questions the cab driver, then questions me. I give her my passport, and she smiles at me, as if trying to mimic my photograph. “What are you doing here?” “Volunteers for Israel, I’m meeting my group.”

We enter without a hitch.

Ben Gurion International is busier than when I had initially arrived a week prior. The Arrivals Hall, when I had first arrived, was anti-climactically placid; it’s tall concrete pillars standing alone, and vast floor space unused. Now, a diverse flag of people gathers, families of a different story standing naked in the refuge of a Jewish dream willed.

Aware that I am going to be living on a base for a week, I withdraw a modest amount of shekels from an ATM. I purchase a phone, and am given my first Israeli number; a blonde speaking in rapid fire Hebrew to one of her customers switches over to California-accented English as she issues me an old Nokia.

I sit, meet Lars, and after a few hours I am united with my congregation of young volunteers for the first time. Not one American in my group; a Dutchman, Hungarian, Japanese-Australian, and a French girl. This is home.

I stand at the pinnacle of the Citadel hostel, taking in my last views of ancient Jerusalem. An amazingly crimson horizon burns in the presence of a gold haze bathing the city in its unique twilight. I am the only one awake at 05:40, weary travelers with disheveled hair peeking out from a rainbow of neon sleeping bags on the roof’s floor around me. I don’t want to leave.

I haul my weighty rucksack of belongings toward Sha’ar Shekem station near the Damascus Gate (Sha’ar Shekem— “Damascus Gate”) as a muezzin’s voice hauntingly carries from a minaret tower.  Another faraway crier joins him.  Another.  The cadence of voices in minor Arab key breaks the dusky morning with a sunrise the color of smelted gold.  

The weekend hangovers from Shavuot’s intense celebrating are apparent aboard this quiet and sparsely occupied train. A soldier of the Kfir Brigade stares a thousand yards into the ugly multi-colored conundrum that is the empty seat across from him.  Is he, too, suffering the consequence of drinking one too many Goldstars with his buddies, relishing the sabbath-breaking East Jerusalem night life?  Or is he shouldering the final stretches of an intense, short-lived service with a combat brigade?  His black M-16 with nickel-colored scars, worn camouflage beret, purple bruises beneath his eyelids and three diagonal bars on his shoulder sleeve suggests the latter.  It’s an attractive sight; I would be in a sore bliss if I were him.  

Jerusalem Central Bus Station is more lively– but not the chaos from a few days prior. A man selling teffilin gestures towards me as I wait in line at the information booth to confirm my ride back to Tel Aviv.

I feel a piece of myself missing as I see the valley of Jerusalem slowly fade from view. Har HaMenukhot, a famous hillside cemetery established as a result of the 1948 Jordanian Occupation, rendering all other Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem inaccessible for the next nineteen years, is the final landmark I pass before experiencing Highway 1’s famous countryside aboard this Egged bus.

As I watch the stone graves shrink and fade, and the beautiful funeral cypresses standing in formation, perpetually watching over the silent rows, I silently, intensely, promise to myself that once I return to this city that has stolen my heart, it will be for good, just like the ones resting upon that hill.

I stare at the cold-colored ceiling of my barracks as the AC rattles over the snores of my American-Israeli madrikh, or group leader. My thoughts are haunting me. I have gone too deep, again.

I am in the country of my dreams, yet I am alone.

I am able to connect with people here, and I love them. I feel a love for them that lights a happiness, unknotting a marred spirit worried of how it would be perceived, accepted. I accept them. They accept me, my dreams. But would my dreams I have worked so long for in America be unchallenging to the average soldier? I mull on my lack of initiative and wisdom. I am by definition a child in my development as a dual-citizen, as a Jew. I am too remote, too behind to contribute to the world; not even the sum of my life’s vigor will contribute one iota to this world abroad, than what the average sabra can do in this country. I then notice the absence by my side; too many years of ruffled sheets where a responsive mind and soul should lie.
Where are you? Who are you? Ma shmek? T’gadi li.

Remember that love, remember the dream. Rise with that hot Judean morning light; feel the powerful blast of the shower head, shave my whiskered jaw with the blade; cuff my fatigues, lace up my boots, and work.

Fury and joy.

Somewhere about Rabin Square, I wait to meet a friend for coffee. I gaze at the monolithic, iron, upended tetrahedron that sits in the middle of this public square of Tel Aviv; residents leisurely sit beneath and around it.

Beyond the monument sits the aged, unassuming City Hall, where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I am greeted by an ecstatic furry black lab, taking leaps on and off the marble bench that forms the base of this great monument, hopping on again, zig-zagging as it sniffs around, just as curious of this place as I am.

I sit and process my final days in Israel. I have tackled and achieved a long-awaiting promise to myself, and have overstepped an intimidating boundary. What is next? How do I join the Paratroopers from here? What sacrifice do I need to make? I know a great one awaits.

The energy that comes with my newfound confidence and love, is like a marvelously prolonged coffee high. I am unstoppable; I have touched ground, now I need to plant my focus here completely, even if it tests my individuality. If I lose who I am in my dream, the chances are great that I shall find myself again here. That sacrifice I am at least willing to make.

I stand and wander toward a grouping of trees.

“Nu, hello?” My friend ambushes me from behind, and I am surprised to find someone like me, at least physically, standing there; completely Jewish, completely Israeli, but completely Eastern European. I shout her name and hug her, and we begin walking in the way of the streets. How to talk with an acquaintance you have known for a long time, but have never met until now?

For those in Israel, it comes easily.

“How long have you been growing them?”
“Well, since I was a child.”
“And how old are you?”
“I am twenty-two.”
“Brendan.”
“Brendan? I’m Benjamin.”

The handsomely dressed man and I shake hands, as a silently sporadic scene of pillow-smuggling and seat-reclining takes place around us abroad El Al Flight 9. Benjamin’s side curls are what attracted my attention toward him, despite seeing hundreds in the past three weeks. And although I may not be able to achieve his length for decades, I think to myself, my children may look just like him as young adults. I entertain more thoughts of the future to get my mind off of the departure.

The long moments before takeoff, the black of night; Star of David on the wingtip, the thrust of being taxi’ed down through the tarmac; the anticipation of take-off; the roar, the lift, airborne.

I watch the confusing horizons shift and sway; a dim view of the many white apartments, as minute as salt-mines; the brilliant desert sky, distant diamonds in the close vacuum of space.

Tel Aviv bids her seductive farewell; my neck hurts as I strain to make contact with its disappearing lights, an ominous Mediterranean blackness now escorting us below.

When my eyes meet the lonely islands of Nova Scotia ten hours later, I cannot fall back asleep. We descend two hours later into the swampy marshlands and crowded brown brick apartments of New York City. Benjamin’s glossy, tired eyes carry a childhood’s wonder. I know that he is home; his clean accent and destination is a dead giveaway that he is a New York City Jew; although we are away from the Land, he has a solid refuge to keep his spirits up. I feel solemn, almost victim. Something is taken away from me, but I try to not exude the ridiculous thoughts that ravage me. It’s time to see my family, and better now, I know where I belong.

Minnesota, as I can best describe the place, is like a crushing Red Sea, racing toward me as I stand on the last dry stretch of the floor. And I realize that it is not an optimistic image, but believe me; I am.

I have learned the great opportunity and spirit that encompasses my faraway home; I can counter the accusations of delusion with this true experience. Israel is greater a place than I had dreamed it would be. And I intend on returning to it, I intend to reach as high as I can in my coming Army service and make as great a contribution to the land and its people as I am physically and mentally able.

And, I have a newfound desire to heal it; its apparent divide, and ancient wounds that keep breaking and bleeding with every new incident.

The evening is fresh as I run past the gold dome of Saint Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. I remember the true Greek Orthodox monks I saw in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; their incense-waving walk and dark beards. I am underwhelmed by the small size of this church’s dome, but inspired by the architecture I know exists six-thousand miles away.

I scale the final stretches of a sixteen kilometer run, the morning run of Matkal commandos. I feel the sinews of my hot muscles bending and fraying, as burning salty perspiration runs into my eyes. The sweat on my back has made my shirt as heavy as a coat; my lungs pulsate sorely as I take in and shove out air.

I recount the fighters who have preserved the land in its genesis; the boys who suffered like me, but with the intense weight of ammunition on their backs and machine guns in their wiry arms, bullet wounds and broken ribs.

I smile to myself while I pant. This is nothing.

The hum of heavy aircraft echoes through the summer air as I watch two C-130’s approach the airport for a landing.

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BRENDAN ברנדן

24 Tamuz 5775 – French Shabbat

24 May 2015

Raspy knocking plays distantly as I struggle to fall back asleep. The noises, the breathing, the nonsensical hallucinations I am convinced are reality, the raspy hook and knock persists as I weave out of deep unconsciousness; an unpleasant outside world making itself known. What is that sound? I forget where I am for a moment, and then come to my senses while passively trying to identify the noise.

Neighbors walking in the apartment above my bed? A machine, gas line, old pipes bringing fresh water from a well? A terrorist trying to get in?

I am convinced it is a man. The owner, maybe? But David said he would be in the Negev for a Shavuot festival. I wake from my bed and slip into gym shorts. Exiting the bedroom, the shadow of a figure with its moving arm convinces me this is Ilan, a tenant mate watching the apartment, as David is absent. I check the time on my phone: 02:25.

A dark-eyed man with the wild hair of Shimshon, I unlock the door in an awkward hurry and apologize while trying to introduce myself. He is a calm, kind man with a gentle handshake. Perhaps some friendship will come of this meeting.

____

Late in the afternoon, sometime past 13:00. Damn it.

Lethargic, still in bed, perhaps a little too exhausted from the walk through the Old City and comfortable in the cool underground, I see gray leaking through the window.

Could this be my first cloudy day in Israel? I peel away the petite curtain to find vibrantly blue, cloudless skies; the ancient white walls mute the colors as they enter the now conscious living space.

I look at myself in the reflection of the bookcase’s sliding glass partition and see empty brown eyes with the faint curl of a smile. Alone, yet alive. Alive in the city that will be the final legacy of my life, someday down a hopefully long span.

I check my Nokia to see if a girl I had been talking to for the lesser part of three months had responded to my message, I am here. I will be exploring. Let me know.

I had first begun talking to this person online, and a mutual romantic interest was building. She was a photographer with brown eyes and an orthodox braid, and immediately I was infatuated.

In the meanwhile we exchanged photographs, she sent me a photo of the Kotel with a companionless Dome of the Rock gleaming over it.

“This is the view from my place,” she would say. Are you kidding me?
She was a motivation, a voice on the other side, as a friend of mine had put it. But it was not long until I discovered that long distance takes its toll, and as the weeks went on, and after pledging that I would be in Jerusalem for Shavuot to meet her, I found I was not learning more about this person, but rather less and less.

I had received a black and white photograph from her one day. Heavily shadowed, with a high winter sun in the corner of the frame, stood the Montefiore Windmill from a queer angle that I had not seen it before. I imagined the photograph being taken from some vista below the mill in a maze of ancient city walls and homes.

jlem1

“Just for you.”
“Montefiore’s windmill. I want to visit so badly!”
“I will take you there.”

Still no response from her. Was I contacting the right number?

____

I decided to visit the Citadel once I left my rental space, a youth hostel I was to be staying at in the heart of the Old City after I left David’s apartment.

Jerusalem is hot, and my clothes, washed by hand with hair shampoo and dried in the sun back on the base, were brittle and beginning to smell. It was the Friday before Shavuot, and I was about to experience my first Shabbat in a city that wholly observes it. And because of Shavuot, Jerusalem would be closed for business during the whole weekend.

I had to think of how I was to eat for those two days, as all grocers, restaurants and stores were to be closed.

____

Ilan is home as I come back from the Citadel.

You have Shabbat plans? I remember him asking me as we met in the Bohemian living space. He invited me for a dinner with his family, and expecting not to hear back from this girl, I accepted.

Close to sundown, Ilan and I walk to his SUV and drive south for Talpiot. Travelling on a highway just outside the Old City Walls, my eyes meet the Montefiore Windmill for the first time. Bottom-lit in a bright white, the mill stands on a hill overlooking a busy valley of streets and intersections across from the Old City; not where I had expected to find it, but I am awed nonetheless.

Apartments with a homage to Victorian luxury rise from the curving streets and stand at the height of the neighborhood’s many trees. Apartment living in Jerusalem is not too affluent, but far from poverty. It’s tasteful, ideal. I am inspired as I walk in, through a courtyard with a garden and an orange tree.

Spiral stairway leading upward to the residence of Ilan’s mother and father, I am welcomed by a French family.

Mother in a headscarf and father stout with glasses and strong arms, I greet everyone with Shabbat shalom as they proceed to speak to me in heavily accented Hebrew. I have to tell them I do not speak Hebrew yet and surprisingly, find it more difficult to communicate with them as many of them are bilingual with communicational English as a third leg. And I am pleased with this.

The apartment, with its dark cream-colored walls, tells a story. A bookcase in the corner, housing two wood-paneled stereo speakers, and a menagerie of aging leather books and light-leak damaged photographs, is distinctively Israeli. Lofty satin curtains weave their way around the apartment’s few living room windows. Aged harvest gold lighting warms the chic wall decor with memories telling of a quaint life interweaving army service, leisurely study, passion and many children.

L’ami de Ilan reads a card on the long table. An old wine bottle of iced water is passed around as I look upon the selection of salad, specially prepared chicken breast in a peculiar sauce, and a shortbread in homemade caramel. More bitter than sweet, perfect, I take caution not to over-indulge, aware of the stigma that Americans like to overeat.

I listen to the conversations around the table more than I speak. It is a happenstance supper, with a people I have never met, but feel an intangible, instant love. I talk with one of Ilan’s cousins, only sixteen, saying he wants to join Sayeret Matkal. Envy of my life, I would join Matkal only if I were a native Israeli, but Paratroopers is the only accessible elite brigade for an American.

I leave with handshakes, kisses on the cheek, and hugs. Enamored by Ilan’s blessing, I tell him how fortunate he is. He is a man atypical of the Israeli in my mind. His long hair and leftist appearance makes me think he is not completely religious, not a Zionist, critical of the army. Yet he wears a kippah, shared photographs of his Israeli subjects at the Shabbat dinner, and responds yes. I am very blessed to be here.

A contrastive glimpse into an Israel I never knew.

____

Travelling alone on the second day of Shavuot, miles from the Citadel, I approach the Knesset, map-less.

I find it, snap a few photos from unflattering angles, convince a persistent cab driver that I need no ride, and begin my walk back to the Old City. I walk through the Rehavia neighborhood, similar to Talpiot, in broad daylight. Jerusalem seems desolate on holidays.

I shouldn’t leave this place. I am prepared to settle here.

Parched, tired, sweating, I detour to a small park where Jerusalem’s vanished residents have all taken refuge. Behind the rows of trees and park benches, a windmill stands.

Silently I walk beneath it, spiteful, taking a photograph from the exact angle she had taken it months before.

sar-el_final

Zeh mah she’aish, ah? That’s the way it is, ah?

I laugh to myself, laughing empty and proud; perhaps more proud than I am disappointed. I did it. I am a man of my word. I stand here on Shavuot.

And I suppose there is the lesson. Never expect too much out of one person, but always demand such a quality of effort from yourself; the quality you dream of in a companion.

My confidence gained is the reward, and I will need it.

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BRENDAN ברנדן

13 Tamuz 5775

“Here the Dawn is gray; in Palestine it is red like fire.”
-Elie Wiesel, “Dawn”

And it is gray. And quiet. And different, here in America. All the memories of this place, my upbringing, they sit like novelties on a shelf behind glass, collecting dust. Waiting to be passed down through the generations; I don’t own it anymore. This is not who I am, this is not where I belong. Tell me otherwise, it will not resonate.

Every morning that I wake I am starting to pray the Shema; throw in a little Hatikvah like I had sung at every flag raising, it gets me through the shower.

Brush away the wet, slip on some clothes. Fashion the golden wings of the Paratroopers around my neck; I’m doing this so I can wear the real thing, I tell myself. Working fourteen hours a day, every day.

Blast some Meir Ariel on my morning drive to work, watch the planes ride up into the sky as I pass the airport, remembering when I left the ground not too long ago. My chest is heavy and hurting from being so tired, but the fire I felt on the 6th of Sivan still burns deep down.

I will return, en brera! No choice.

I fell behind drastically in my writing while I was in Israel. I have been back in the United States for almost one month, and it is beginning to feel like it. I was so caught up in all of the happenings that it was easy to not write for a day, and I wanted to enjoy the experience; let the sentimentality sink in while gazing at every sunset and conversing with people, rather than staring at a laptop’s screen jotting down every memory.

And now I stare at the laptop’s screen, in between jobs, thinking about Ulpan in the late fall. I plan on living on a kibbutz for a month this autumn, taking my first Hebrew courses. And until then, I am going to give myself the body I need for the Army, and the funds to pay my way through the Winter.

It is a sort of discipline that is new to me, I used to be so reckless with my time and money. Now I feel I live in one of the most vainglorious places in the world; I find myself asking so often, do you people even know what is going on over there?

Living in one of the more trendy neighborhoods of Minneapolis once appealed to me, now I need to escape. People will pass you without a word here, absorbed in their iPhone or shopping transit; three weeks in Israel visiting a handful of coffeeshops, I encountered dozens of new friends and had many thoughtful conversations. Not to say I think everyone in America acts this way, but it is far more difficult here. It is a different mindset. Too much comfort to the point of decay.

Although I must say I am feeling more motivated than ever. I have an end goal, a purpose. When I am in synagogue, it almost feels like home. I almost cried as my Rabbi prayed at the open altar, guide our leaders as we negotiate with our historic enemies. He was praying about Iran, and the negotiations surrounding their nuclear program being held in Vienna this week.

An Israeli issue, it almost felt like home.

One of my final nights spent in Israel, I remember walking around the Army base alone. A beautiful Ramle night, the moon hanging in a dark purplish haze. The silhouettes of mountain valleys guarding over a beautiful desert landscape. I was looking at the moon, following its pure contour high above the branches of eucalyptus trees. Thinking to myself, one day this will be my nightly walk. My posterity’s nightly walk. This will be our peace.

I checked into my barracks and stripped down for the night. It was an eventful day spent painting radio parts and repairing signal antennae. Action was brewing forty miles south; three rockets that day had been launched by ISIS-affiliated terrorists into Ashkelon. Suddenly the barracks shook, the shatter and roar of a lion echoed throughout the night sky.

The next morning as I was in Tel Aviv, I learned in the online paper that the Army had retaliated by launching airstrikes into Gaza at midnight, and I realized my barracks was not that far from the Tel Nof airbase when it happened.

On my night runs, I stifle the possibility of not making it as an Israeli citizen and chayal. I follow the moon, and its bright, pure contour, high above the branches of elm trees, thinking to myself.

I will return.

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BRENDAN ברנדן

6 Sivan 5775

23 May 2015 14:51IST

I had arrived in Jerusalem two evenings prior, carrying a duffel bag by the handles since its strap had broken during my transit from the base. I was weary, lost, and the beginnings of a caffeine headache had me desperate for a sandwich and espresso. Yet the scene astonished me. Arriving at the Central Bus Station following a forty-minute transit from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem was chaotic contrast unlike anything I had ever seen.

Religious Jews everywhere among a modern setting; an ancient city with the gung-ho bustle of the West. Exiting the station, mobs of pearl-colored apartments on curving hillsides could be seen in the hazy distance. Hundreds of people in the streets before me, of different colored clothes and families, mostly Jews yet of different movements, all going and coming from the light rail I was about to board.

An old woman sitting on a stone bench nearby begging in Yiddish, “GELT! GELT?”

I was white-knuckled from the journey and wanted nothing more than to sit down, sync the gps on my phone with a café’s WiFi, and find the apartment I had rented out for the night.

One of the light rail workers kindly pointed out that the street I was looking for was just past a park called Gan HaAtzmaut. Before going to Gan HaAtzmaut, I shouldered my way to a coffeehouse on Rehov Yafo, had a reasonably priced espresso (five shekel!), and found my gps marker in the center of Jerusalem. I found Gan HaAtzmaut in no time.

Staggering with my luggage past the green hills and Italian-esque sidewalk shops, what a change in scenery from home, I saw families having cookouts and young lovers perusing the sidewalk wineries and souvenir shops, beautiful Israeli women with headscarves and Milan-style sunglasses, numerous feral cats, when ah! Rehov Gershom Agron.

I walked down Gershom Agron Street and located the alleyway where on I could access my apartment. I found the humble lavender-metal door, which opened to a beautiful outdoor patio. I located the house keys beneath an ashtray, unlocked the glass door, and stumbled into an interesting living space with Bob Marley carpentry and a body mirror with sex-line and escort business cards tucked into its frame. The scene was comical, and at the same time, the place had a Bohemian sophistication to it; the space itself had to have been hundreds of years old.

The communal area was a grouping of floor sofas with half-melted candles, ashtrays, empty bottles of Goldstar and the faint scent of marijuana. My room, which I found in a bordering hallway, shared a space with a kosher kitchen, divided only by sliding door.

The bedroom was romantic; white plaster walls with curving stone ceiling, a bed with salmon-colored sheets, a desk space with a window looking up into the sky, and a bookshelf with a sliding case housing works ranging from Hebrew fiction to modern sexuality. I could rest easy here.

HA’IR HA’ATIKAH – THE OLD CITY

The sun was rapidly setting as I left the apartment to discover the Old City for the first time. Before however, I stopped at a coffeehouse to cap the evening with an espresso.

The shop was quaint; a beautiful olive-skinned barista with perfect American accent, confessing to my surprise that her English was not very good, and serving me the darkest coffee I’ve ever had. A Russian sitting at the bar proved to me why this was one of the most unique, kindred places in the world; especially for the Jews.

“Where you come from?”
“America. This is my first time in Israel.”
“First time? Why do you come here, why here?”

It’s a true trait of an Israeli that they will appear discouraging to you from having any ties with the land or pursuit of the faith, citing valid reasons, such as elaborating a Jew’s strict lifestyle or the anti-Semitism which consumes beyond its borders, why any sane person shouldn’t convert or make aliyah. But after much excavating and perseverance, the smiling Russian explained to me why he too loved the land so much; his mask of what appeared to be self-questioning came off to reveal a man just like me, driven by a mysterious passion whose enigma dissipates the first time you set foot in the land.

He shared that he is a practicing anthropologist with a deep love of the ancients, and what better place could you live in for such a profession? After jotting down some books the Russian recommended, the fetching barista behind the bar pointed in the direction of the Old City, and I left.

I enter through the Jaffa Gate. Tower of David looming over the Old City walls, I am awe-struck as I climb the numerous stairs leading to the Armenian Quarter. The streets are quieter at this hour, I wonder why? The stones of the city eclipse from a beautiful bright gold into an earthly brown, the golden blue sky slumbering into a deep purple.

I am anxious to see the Wall for the first time; in my mind I recall the Israeli paratroopers, my dream unit, who fought in this maze of alleys not even fifty years ago, to allow someone like me to witness this without the threat of death.

And after following this twisted road for a few minutes, down steep glazed steps from where I watched Jerusalem fall asleep, I catch the bright glare of the Wall. Is this it?

For a moment I think I can see the rusty steel dome of Al Aqsa, but I am waiting to confirm the sight with the unmistakable Dome of the Rock. And following these dangerous steps down, slowly, the first glimpse of the Dome has me standing still, the green-lit slabs of the Kotel hoisting the landmark on its shoulders.

I have to walk through security twice, as I forgot the dozens of shekel coins in the small pocket of my shorts. I gather my materials, wallet, cell phones, camera, backpack, and enter the courtyard of the Kotel, the Western Wall.

Children are bellowing together in song, and stampede in my direction as I walk dumbstruck toward the towering stones. I notice the gender barrier between the two sections of worshippers; and it isn’t until I find myself in the women’s section that I realize there is no access gap in the Mechitza partition; I have to reenter on the men’s side, somewhat embarrassed.

I shoot a few photographs but almost feel wrong doing it.

j'lem

Enter the plaza before the Wall. Only forty-eight years ago next week in June, Paratroopers had entered the now-extinct Moroccan quarter, on whose bulldozed ghost I stand, whose houses and shops once crowded along this strip of sandstone Wall, the Wall being the closest structure to the ancient Second Temple.

The Paratroopers led by General Motta Gur were the first free Jews to access their holiest site in two thousand years. Non-religious kibbutzniks in camouflage uniforms removed their helmets in awe and prayed as the Chief Army Rabbi blew into his shofar hesitantly, unsure of angering the Jordanian snipers pick-pocketing the Israelis as they desperately retreated from the Old City.

The soldiers “who don’t cry” had eyes swelled with uncontainable tears. Motta Gur stood atop the Wall on the Temple Mount, yelling for his lead communications officer to fashion the Star of David atop the golden Dome of the Rock, an action prompting then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to utter over radio the famous words “remove that flag immediately. You’ll set the Middle East on fire.”

But a fire indeed burns here. Thousands of years of history, years of my own desire before me, and I stand alone and unsure of how to go about this.

And years of suffering and hardship, which I will elaborate on as this journal progresses, has hardened my heart; vivid emotions of my younger self live in the memory of a man who has not himself cried in years, whose passion remains as dry as a desert.

Covering my face, out of place amid the Orthodox black and white, siddur absent from my hands, not a lick of Hebrew prayer on my tongue, I uttered the only blessing I knew in Ivrit, and cried; I kissed the Wall and left.

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BRENDAN ברנדן, ISRAEL ישראל

27 Iyar 5775

Thu May 14, 2015, 21:26EST

It was wonderful.
It was terrifying.
It was beautiful.

A stern woman had me captive for what seemed like an embarrassing hour as the barrage of questions fired, men in kippot smirking at me in line; was it familiarity? Was it the look on my face?

“How long have you been converting?”
“Two or three years.”
“Do you plan to go to other countries? Jordan? Egypt?”
“No.”
“Did you meet others at the airport? Did they give you anything for the flight?”
I felt a wince of fear, of course I wouldn’t support terrorism, but I had to remain stout and straight-faced.
“No.”
“How long have you been converting? …Do you have any bombs?”

It was such a beautiful procedure, yet intimidating, despite the expectations I had of travelling to Israel…

They’re everywhere, men in coats and women with headscarves… some bald, some with ravenous curls; peyot (side-locks of hair) wild and pampered. Tall hats, small yarmulkes… tan, white, black, kindred beauty at the foot of Sinai.

It’s quiet here. Not unlike the sounds of footsteps… the bold step I’ve waited so long for, one that will fashion me further into the man I feel I am inside and yearn to be…

I met a man with a knitted kippah on his head, as we tried to find a working outlet to charge our electronics. I fashioned my black satin kippah to my head, and we now sit… him focused toward the screen, I, typing… and I realize I haven’t asked his name.

I am not surrounded, but implanted… living together, one heart, international people all wanting to experience what lies hours away, all thinking, eating airport food, preparing one last check of ticket and passport… the winged ark waits outside of the gate.

21:45

Sun May 17, 2015 13:59IST

I have fallen behind in my reports, but really, who could blame me?

A brief recap of my journey here; I originally was supposed to arrive at Ben-Gurion International (TLV) on the morning of Friday, May 14th, but ended up arriving later that evening due to a nightmarish flight cancellation for my original departure out of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Luckily, I was in good hands as the El Al representative on the phone rerouted me for a later departure out of New York City (JFK) instead of Newark (EWR) where I was originally going to connect to from Chicago (ORD), the cancelled flight; from there I also redirected my cancelled flight from EWR to JFK. An eighteen hour journey became over a thirty hour one, but I am glad to be here.

I write now in the Arrivals Hall of Ben-Gurion after spending two stunning days in Tel Aviv, in a hotel I booked two blocks from the Mediterranean waterfront. In those days, recovering from jetlag, I spent evenings and nights walking the streets, learning the life, listening to conversations everywhere (all in Hebrew!), tasting new food, and pausing many times to acquaint my mind and tell myself over and over where I am. The place I’ve worked forever, with strong doubts, to get to.

I remember taking a cab for the first time outside of the airport. A very kind driver, asking me “AC or window?” as I feel the Israeli breeze rippling through the leather interior, the taxi driving past scenes of tropical foliage, foreign pavement and street signs, all in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and distant white apartment high rises supported by cranes, I respond “windows down”. At that moment, a day and a half spent almost all awake and sweaty and grimy and jet-lagged in my Sar-El volunteers’ shirt, there was nothing I wanted more than to feel the precious hot wind run through my dirty hair.

And I arrive at the hotel, the duffel bag I carry rigged with a light strap chaffing my right shoulder to hell, my legs shaking (was it anxiousness? Or fatigue?) as I ascend seven flights of stairs past two elevators I had no patience for (one manual, the other constantly active for Shabbat so observant Jews need not press any buttons), and I arrive at my door affixed with a silver mezuzah, open, and drop everything.

The view from the room’s window was when it truly set in: was it the clear, cloud-free, amber sunset? The rusty Bauhaus buildings planted along shimmering coastline? The copious Israeli flags hanging from balconies, tucked in windows, hanging by the dozens on clothesline?

I stood there for probably a half-hour, watching life pass by as I tried to keep up. I didn’t cry, but I maintained that feeling deep down. I was too happy, I couldn’t stop smiling. And this was just a view from a small seaside road in Tel Aviv.

I will revisit more from my first hours in Israel in a bit, but in about a half hour from now I will be beginning my stay on an IDF base. I arrived back here at Ben-Gurion about three hours ago and have been pretty content about it; waiting is a life I’ve gotten used to now.

I purchased my Israeli phone, an old Nokia using T9 with both Hebrew and English characters (how real it is all becoming), met with my Sar-El representative Pamela, and befriended a Norwegian man named Lars. Lars and I sat for a long while and talked about all there is to talk about, and he inspired me to do Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew language-learning program taught on kibbutzim throughout Israel, where he was coming from.

He is a truly wonderful person, non-Jewish, but in his own words: one with a Jewish heart. I guess that makes us kindred.

Unfortunately he will be with another group heading out to a different base, as Pam wants to assign me to a group of younger volunteers, which ultimately I would feel more comfortable serving in.

14:30

16:35IST Update

Turns out I feel much more fit in this group of youngsters.  All my new friends are from different countries: a Japanese-Australian named Daniel, a Hungarian named Yiyar, a French girl named Jessica, and a Dutch man whose name slips my mind.  I am not allowed to talk about where I am headed to, but satisfaction is an understatement.  I feel at home.

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LITERATURE ספרות

‘Shoah’

The last day comes
Like any other cloudy morn
And its unwelcome cold
Arresting our souls,
The wire
Weaved by thorns
Chases us in circles
like blonde children with guns
taunting any chance of escape
And misunderstanding the hope of the common man
And his secret precious life
Hidden beneath an undesired countenance;
The Versailles weren’t kind
In teaching the famine’s children
That to abstain from strife
You must turn against the Chosen,
Die schweinhundisch kyke;
So the Yiddish children carry the burden
Under the skull men’s
crushing calls,
Fast, yid!  Arbeit, yid!
With no resting at all–
This time
Avraham’s blade has come too close,
and G-d is abstinent
As Nietzsche wrote,
the eight Jewish flames
comatose–.
The gray men enter the courtyard to stifle the weak; or are they too strong?
To hunt Solomon’s gazelle, its prey of Hope
of nationhood and escape;
As the beads sprinkle along the still stone,
that notorious strangler–

One last thought

And its menagerie of many words
From the naked men and hairless women
Courses through my mind like the blood of life,
Never loud enough:
It            Stay     is
 so        I        here    Hear
  forever      dark    O     with
  Love         what    me!
is      you     in   Israel   here
     that     so      sound
       the  where
     is          Lord
    much              it
is               coming      from?
        One.
–.
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BRENDAN ברנדן, ISRAEL ישראל, PRAYER תפילה

12 Nisan 5775

A few months ago I had attended a film with one of my close friends from high school, someone whose interests remained in the realm of my own as I gradually made a split from my younger identity into what I am passionate for today.  The film was a more rational, somewhat inaccurate take of the story of Pesach, and as two with a heart for ancient near-Eastern study and history, we critiqued and marveled at Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”.

My friend was, within a few days, bound to study internationally in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and I hastily wrote a brief prayer on a wastingly large piece of paper (a plea, really) for him to tuck into the Western Wall during his time in the Old City in Jerusalem, a tradition among its visitors for belief that the Holy Presence rests on top of the wall, answering prayers.

And I wonder when the plea will be answered, or realized.

A person will often ask me, “what do you do?”  I will always feel a quick hesitant restraint, a glimpse into the dark shame I have wrestled with that I have no viable education nor an adult’s job…
“I’m trying to leave” I’ll say.
“Oh yeah?  Where’s that?”
“Israel.”  The plea.  Take me.

And I will always receive mixed reactions.  Most will respond with a distant awe, as if trying to remember where Israel is on a map.  Some nod and continue, while a few will respond more negatively.  One man has called me “crazy” with a hostile tone of discouragement, another girl refused to carry on the conversation; as though I was wearing a Magen David armband on a field of crimson, a silver skull on my cap.  I understand the negative perception toward Israel, I am aware of her criticizers; I am tired of the passive, armchair-born resentment toward Zionism in our age of passive-aggression.  A schlepper generation, what are they doing to help?

And lately I have been assimilating myself with this behavior; I am no man.  Not yet.  I haven’t proven my worth in dirt as I flip the pages of a biography on the new Jewish dream; the fighters, the paratroopers and kibbutzniks who would throw themselves over an Arab marauder’s grenade to save their wives and countrymen, only to muster the strength to shoot back.  The Tsabra generation; the strong, initiating, native Israeli who I will never be… but for whom I want my children to be.

So my boiling motivation has taken a plunge forward.  My drugging thoughts have disappeared behind the scenes; I need to begin answering my own prayers.  I need to start giving my objective my all.

I will be applying for the Sar-El program, a volunteering opportunity to serve alongside Israeli soldiers to help ease their burden.  I have a contact and the chance is an optimistic one, I have an interview planned with a local community center regarding the position.

Perhaps with the push of hard work augmented by the trust I had written on paper, in the ink of my very heart’s blood, which my friend had placed in that Wall… maybe this is the answer I’ve always needed.

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BRENDAN ברנדן

16 Adar 5775

I once felt a variant of guilt; pursuing a place I’ve had no connection to by blood, nor faith…

An arresting feeling that I would always be a foreigner, with no claim, settling in a land that was once farmed by the grandfather of a Palestinian orphan living in some Lebanese refugee camp, or that I might one day wander a desert wadi won by the blood, hand-me-down iron, and chutzpah of Buchenwald survivors I’m not related to; a confused boy whose sophomoric broken Hebrew will never compare to even that of a bronzed, native-born Kindergartener… a guilt that had me trapped in the thought I will be damned as a child in a land of men; a place of such renown that it would forever tower over my being, making me feel smaller than a rat in New York City.  

I’ve felt that I could never be present in spirit at the foot of Mount Sinai, a rabbinical legend said of all Jews and converts not yet born during Moshe’s receiving of the Ten Commandments; this variant of guilt that I would never feel Jewish, thus the next muse, would I ever understand, or begin to help others understand, the Dream of my heart?

Depression wraps its unholy hands around my mind’s neck and attempts to strangle it; for years I have been this asphyxiated near-corpse desperate and thirsty for the fresh air of change, change I have been too weak and fickle to realize or attempt. And like change, motivation is never fulfilled overnight; I will not wake up with a green uniform on my closet with “TzaHa”L” on its breast, hard-earned red beret tucked in it’s shoulder loop; I will not fall asleep in America to wake up in Israel.

Countering these unholy hands, I’ve turned to embracing a holier presence. My longtime swaying and trepid faith in G-d has, with a conscious personal decision, matured into a more stable commitment. As time has gone on I’ve desired discipline, and with this discipline came opportunity, with opportunity came motivation, and with motivation– more discipline.

The guilt is decaying, and my decision, once a fish-tailing tunnel-vision, is locked in my sights.

Kadima!

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