Hagada Hasmalit

a critical review of israeli culture and society

Posted by רני On May - 18 - 2007 0 Comment

At the beginning of June, 1967, when my brother Dudu was finally called up, I was tending the bananas. One evening he was there, and the next morning he was gone. I never got to say goodbye.

Nearly all the girls of high school age were sent to work in the bananas after most of the bananchikim (along with most of the other guys) had left to join their units. We tried very hard to be as productive as the regular work force would have been, pushing ourselves to the limit of our physical capacity, and then some. This did nicely for keeping one’s mind off things better not thought about. In that last couple of weeks before the war actually broke out, I sprouted a lot of blisters on my right hand from clutching the curved, round-handled knife that’s used for stripping away the dead leaves to make breathing room for the baby plants to grow. On my left hand, I got blisters of a markedly different configuration from grasping the leaves to be hacked off. I can turn my hands over now and look at the palms and see those blisters gazing back at me like so many blind, yet troubled, eyes.
My mother kept busy – between the laundry, the children’s houses, the removing and stacking of the glass window panes from the old dining hall, the organizing of mattresses and blankets for the bomb shelters, and who knows what else. My father was called away already in the middle of May, to chafe at some hush-hush desk job involving logistics and supply. He knew he was going to be treated as only just barely too old for combat, and it galled him, because he would have preferred to go one more time in Dudu’s place, if such a thing could have been possible, but of course it wasn’t. Still, his train of thought was utterly transparent, and shared by lots of other parents, no doubt, most of whom had better luck at hiding their feelings, so all you saw on the outside when a son’s name was mentioned was the pride, the determination, the discipline. It gets to be a habit after so many wars, I suppose.
Besides the blisters, my other problem was cigarettes. I was already addicted, at seventeen. When we discovered that the units bivouacked along the Jordan River, just behind the meshek, had no cigarettes, we went around collecting everyone’s stash and someone took it all down to the soldiers and so there I was, smokeless. I was glad to contribute mine, needless to say; but at the same time, doing without made me edgy and resentful, and this made me feel a little guilty. My father came back from wherever he was one day for a few hours’ leave, and brought me a couple of packs of Marlboro someone had given him as a gift. He didn’t say anything about my smoking; just handed them to me and brushed off my thanks and turned to my mother, and they went out arm in arm for a walk in the dusky tension of the sweaty Jordan Valley summer evening.
My sister Shula called me whenever she could, but the phone system was a mess, overloaded and plagued with breakdowns, and you weren’t supposed to tie up a line for personal calls unless it was really necessary. My mother worried about her because her unit would be in the front lines when fighting broke out and Shula, because of her job, wouldn’t be far from her unit no matter where they went – although technically she wouldn’t be in combat herself. I suspected that Mom was bitter because the Arabs seemed unwilling to postpone this war for another few months until Shula was done with her army service (she was due to finish in September), but of course we never spoke of it.
Mom was even more of a yekke than Dad when it came to doing what was expected of one; she wouldn’t have considered it patriotic to give voice to such an ordinary maternal sentiment if it had the appearance of begrudging anything to the war effort. Her terror for Dudu she kept hidden best of all. During the latter part of May, when most of his classmates were already gone and he was still at home, restless and uneasy after two attempts to report to his unit had been rebuffed, his orders obviously snarled somewhere in a mass of red tape, my mother would reassure him quietly, dry-voiced and dry-eyed: all right, Dudu, she would murmur, pouring out the coffee with a steady hand, your turn will come soon enough. And suddenly on the last night of May there was a phone call, and almost simultaneously someone arrived to collect him, and he left straightaway, with no time for goodbyes.
Dudu in fact made it almost all the way through and then fell on the last day of the war, on Shabbat, in the final battle for the Golan Heights.
I was standing with everyone else at the northeastern edge of the meshek and squinting into the distance to watch the troops make their ascent against what was left of the Syrian positions on the heights, which had been partially disabled by our bombardments earlier. I saw several of the old-timers standing around gazing up at the Syrian fortifications, toward which our men – their sons – seemed to be crawling in slow motion like so many ants through molasses; and these hard-bitten old vatikim stood grimly on the lawn following the progress of the battle through binoculars, many with tears running down their cheeks. And as if that weren’t enough, here and there someone spoke under his breath about the hand of God – a peculiar turn of phrase when invoked in that way by someone who’d been a devout atheist-kibbutznik for forty or fifty years.
We lost four of our boys in that war: one in Jerusalem, and two others, like Dudu, on the Golan.
What haunted me most was that while I had, in a sense, watched my brother die, I had never had a chance to say a proper farewell – or any farewell, if you come right down to it.
Every year, in June, I would stand at his grave with my armload of flowers and tell him, Dudu, I miss you… and I wish we’d had the chance to say goodbye.
Well, that’s how it went for some years. When Shula finished her army service she had promptly married her boyfriend, a guy from Shaar HaGolan who lost an eye in that war, and they went to live on his kibbutz and started having babies. I did my bit in the army, didn’t learn much but didn’t mind it as much as I might have, and later on I married Dani, a raftan from HaZorea whom I had met on a course the year I turned twenty-four. We started having babies of our own, and my parents gradually began to take it a little easier at work, and to spend more time being grandparents.
Recently, my oldest son Erez turned eighteen, and the week before he went into the army I had the strangest experience one night. I still don’t know for certain whether it was a dream or not – although I suppose it must have been – and yet, it felt so real at the time.
June was almost upon us, which meant that Dudu was more than ordinarily in my thoughts. Dani was away – he’s teaching a ten-week course (on computers in the dairy) at Ruppin and he stays overnight there from Sundays through Thursdays. I don’t mind really – it gives me a bit more time with my adolescents, Sarai and Noa, who are an extra handful, being twins, and my “sandwich” boy Hagai, who tends to get lost in the middle between Erez and the girls.
It began at supper, when the kids were talking about what they would wish for if they could have only one wish. Erez wished that he would pass the pilots’ course; Hagai, the redhead, wished he’d been born without freckles; and the girls, arguing amiably in counterpoint as usual, wished for a magic lantern with a genie who would grant them unlimited wishes whenever they pleased. Hagai turned to me and said, Well Mom, what would you wish for? And because I was busy dishing out the supper I spoke without thinking: I wish I could see Dudu, just once more, I said, adding into the sudden silence around the table, well, you know, I never got to say goodbye…
Erez ducked his head, Sarai said please pass the ketchup, Noa said gee mom, you still really miss him, huh, and Hagai suddenly said, in that half-facetious way he uses to fend off stress: Tell you what mom – I’ll give up getting rid of my freckles and let you have my wish, too; maybe that’ll help. He caught my gaze, shrugged one shoulder, and glanced away toward the opposite wall and the picture of his uncle Dudu, whom he greatly resembles (except for the red hair and freckles): the same square jaw, round cheeks, and cleft chin; but Dudu had brown eyes and Hagai’s are hazel. I opened my mouth to say thank you and found I had a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit.
During the night I woke up – or anyhow I thought I did – and standing there was my old company commander, looking a little older but otherwise just the same, and he said Shalom Kiki (it was my nickname in those days), how are you doing? And I said, a bit taken aback, fine thanks, Giora, but what are you doing here? (Giora died in Lebanon in 1982.) Oh well, he said, they sent me because they figured it would seem more natural that way… why don’t you get dressed and come with me? Okay, I said, still mystified but inclined to go along. I’ll wait in the living room, he said, and went out. I got dressed and went as if to look in on the kids but Giora said, coming into the front hall, never mind, Kiki, the kids will be fine. Come on.
So we went out and got into his jeep – the very same one, it seemed, that he’d driven all those years ago – and we drove north a bit, and around Ein Gev… and then the road seemed to climb steeply and suddenly there was a sort of heavy fog, highly unlikely at that time of year but there it was, and when we came out of it, we were in a place I didn’t recognize. It looked like a cross between an army base and a Club Med.
Listen Kiki, said Giora (a little abashedly, I thought), just go on over there to the picnic area and I’ll see you in a little while back at the jeep, okay? I nodded and turned to go. And don’t worry about anything, he called after me. I nodded again, sketching a half-salute over my shoulder.
I walked in the direction Giora had indicated and as I began to get closer I saw two young guys in rumpled fatigues, engrossed in a game of backgammon, sitting at a picnic table in a shady grove, with dappled sunlight playing on them from above. One, I suddenly realized, was Dudu, and the other was unknown to me. Or rather, someone I had never actually met. A strange sensation in my abdomen seemed to suggest that in some way I did know him….
Dudu looked up and saw me, and jumped up and ran to embrace me. We leaned into one another and the years seemed to peel away and we were young again, and it was the strangest thing I’ve ever experienced, and the most natural. I guess I must have been crying because I got his shirt wet at the shoulder. Here, Kiki, he said, pulling a tattered bit of cloth out of his pocket. Blow your nose. We laughed and I thought, since when does Dudu carry a handkerchief? But it seemed natural all the same.
His friend, who was wearing an insignia I vaguely recognized but could not quite place, favored me with one bright smile and then sat there quietly and waited while Dudu and I sat a little apart and talked – or rather, he asked questions and I answered them. He wanted to know about Mom and Dad, about Shula, about me… I told about our marriages, and children, and about how my Hagai looks so much like him, except for the hazel eyes, the freckles and the red hair, which come from Dani’s side… And I said, Dudu, we never got to say goodbye. And he said, I know sweetie, but now it doesn’t matter anymore. We put our arms around each other and I knew it was time for me to leave; he raised one arm from around my shoulder and waved, over my head, to Giora, waiting over yonder by the jeep.
As I stood up to go, I said to Dudu, your friend is very quiet, and the friend and I kind of nodded, hello and goodbye, the way people do in those situations when they haven’t been introduced. Did you two, I asked, serve together on the Golan? (It seemed a bit more diplomatic than: were you killed there together?) Well, said Dudu, with a faint smile, yeah, kind of, but not the way you mean. I raised an eyebrow inquiringly, and he shrugged, and the other fellow shrugged too as if to say, well, go ahead then, tell her. This is my sister Rivka about whom you’ve heard so much, said Dudu; and this is Khaled, the guy who shot me. As I turned – surprised yet somehow not surprised – to take a closer look at the soldier who had killed my brother, Dudu added, as if in explanation or apology, I shot him too, you see; so here we are. I nodded slowly, trying to take it in. So here you are, I echoed softly. Yes. I see.
Somewhat uncertainly, I offered Khaled my hand and he shook it solemnly; his touch was warm and dry. I remember thinking that it didn’t feel like shaking hands with a dead enemy soldier, or a bloodthirsty Arab, or the killer of my beloved Dudu; just an ordinary young man with a baggy camouflage uniform and a wholesome smile (and perhaps a shadow of something homesick around the eyes, something a mother would notice without really trying), sitting at a picnic table in a shady grove, playing backgammon with… another like himself.
I don’t recall much about the drive home in Giora’s jeep, except that I wept soundlessly, without effort but unable to stop, for most of the way. The next morning I woke to a room so filled with sunlight that every single tiny floating speck of dust appeared to have its own shimmering halo. I felt somehow weightless yet very tired, and I was more than a little preoccupied over the morning coffee.

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  1. Rowan Berkeley says:

    Oh well, he said, they sent me because they figured it would seem more natural that way…

    – ‘they sent me’? alas, how reassuring the appeal to the authority of the elders.

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