Be Strong, Be Brave
It would be our first loss, in our first war, and we wanted it to be a hero’s death. Even if we had no idea who it would be or the exact circumstances, we knew they would need to be elevated. Through each season, the rains that rushed the deep gullies in winter, the hamsin, the hot winds laden with the choke of dried earth of late summer, the constant radio affixed to the wall ticked out for us with the familiar beep at the beginning of each hour, ha sha’a shalosh, ping the hour is three and the news of the hour is . . . and then the newscaster in his serious and compassionate voice listed the heroes of the day, the week, the month. We kept a tally, on a sheet of paper how many from settlements, how many from Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Kfar Saba or Jerusalem. Gadi wrote it down carefully and hid it in the footlocker of his private treasures at the end of his narrow bed. Hands down the collectives produced the bravest heroes. Some were just incursions, incidents without name or international recognition. Others were bombs by the roadside that peeled skin from bone and bone from body. Even if the war was never declared or the even-toned radio announcer gave it a name of a known river or a hill, Litany, Tel Shomer, we wanted to hear how it became a legend so we could understand the process and when the time was right have our own. When we took this to the extreme in our imaginations, we wanted a bronze statue set on a rough-hewn stone base erected either at the main gate by the green wooden guards’ shack or else smack in the center of the collective next to the dinning hall and vast lawn. Our artistic tastes ran toward the ubiquitous Soviet-era style rather than the bourgeois white-marble European. In keeping with all we had been taught, we imagined a winged man, armed with a rifle and a pitchfork, at his feet a bronze shield and broken arrows. Yochai drew a picture of it that Gadi also kept in the footlocker.
In the vast play yards of the collective, where every field and each orchard attracted our daily games, we drew up the myth and began our history the way Rachel drew water for Elizer. Our legend had to be
a story with enough truth and depth to define us in our futures: the way the King David Hotel bombing defined Menachem Begin, the way Sinai defined Moshe Dyan. The way what happened in Warsaw, in Kaluszyn, defined almost all our parents. What we wanted: it would be told ahead of us before we arrived at all the places we planned on going, so that it smoothed our way. Not that we knew our way would be rough, but we wanted it to be rocky enough to give us depth and some stamina. We had not yet imagined what kinds of lives were lived beyond the fields and groves or down the paved roads that lead to the cities, with all their inhabitants crammed together like ants in a colony. And we surely never expected to live any of those lives. We had never even ventured beyond the collective’s outer fields and orchards.
Ours was a small, whitewashed village of one hundred families, called Nachash, after the serpent on the staff, and set up rather hastily in the valley between the Shimshon Junction, (where Samson strode, long locks flowing through the field), and two other older, larger collectives to the east with whom we shared the same ideology, an ambulance donated in 1950s, and a combined volunteer fire brigade. The village sagged on one side and the tiles fell off the roofs of the lower buildings and sprouted deep cracks. The far western buildings with the best view of the fields slid down the hill and needed to be braced.
What did the founders think all those years ago when Abba Perlmutter unrolled the map, spread it on the wooden table, and said “here” will be the collective? A small band of Polish Zionists, the oldest of whom, Avrum Shecter, was 19 and a Yeshiva runaway who’d recently donned the gray proletarian cap. With a scholar’s frown he leaned in to check the location. It did not seem to be near water, or a road, or much of anything. Now, although you can’t see it from the main road, the new super highway runs nearby.
That day Avner traded years of study and prayer for another song on his lips, the Marxist axiom: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Of course in time he learned some people carry a few parasites on their backs, the ones that let the work fall out of their hands exactly when the clock strikes three. Or were nowhere to be found when a cow suddenly jumped the paddock. The shirkers shirked in many ways, a creative bunch. Rather quickly Avrum realized that if you want to know the most efficient way to do a task all you need to do is to watch how the laziest person does it.
We were reminded that Ben Gorian lived in a kibbutz, as did Golda Meir. So it never occurred to us that we were isolated, and in our minds we were at state dinners with foreign Presidents. Most of the founders were Polish, some Lithuanian, and a few German. Our only real exposure to the outside world was limited; the kibbutz took in mostly non-Jewish volunteers from cold weather, sexually open countries like Sweden and Denmark. We also had two Arab brothers, Ishmael and Mohammed from the nearby village of Abu Gosh. They worked in construction and had been with the kibbutz since it was just a bunch of tents on the hillside next to a flock of brown and black goats. And occasionally dispatched from the city to oversee a circumcision, dark-frocked Rabbis would walk through the collective, their eyes downcast, their heads shaking an unspoken denial, muttering mazerim, bastards, at every group of children they passed. They also seemed to show up at burials. So cradle to grave we could not get rid of them. When we saw them we stared hard and then ran off shouting Dati Dati to warn the adults of the impending danger. Then one of the respected founders would walk around the bend to greet them like Yaakov and Esav on Sede Adom, the fields of Adom.
Other than legend there was gossip. And if legend was the heart of the Kibbutz then gossip was the lifeblood. Gal Ben Amotz was seen and heard (you know what he way saying? Nothing. He moaned like one of Moshe’s cows?) with Yoseph Mermelstein’s wife Shira down by the chicken houses. Ruvik Gross, they said, was socking away his mother’s reparations money from West Germany in a bank in England, and he reportedly had a lady friend in London. They said she was a rich middle-aged divorcee, and that he may have fathered a secret child. It was all so sordid that we imagined a little girl dressed in frills and bows and shiny black shoes with golden buckles. Some said Ruvik, the divorcee, and fancy shmancy planned to run away together to South America. We overheard and knew it all, but really the adults did not interest us. We were what was important because we were the first generation on this young collective born in the Jewish homeland. We were the new Jew, unfettered by the shackles of crazy dark corrupt religious Rabbis, unbroken and unblemished by greed, capitalism, or exploitation.
You know that famous photo that appeared in the American Life Magazine, the lone settler walking the border perimeter with a rifle. That was my father. And the perimeter of 1957 is now a cotton field named Muf’kar Shalos.
They arrived fresh off a boat, a steamer, the Dulce Rosa that sailed under the Italian flag out of the port in Rome with hundreds of other refugees, the liberated, the emaciated, the idealists. The well-known story is that when the boat approached the shore a rumor went out on the deck that the British would allow only married couples to disembark. So with one Rabbi they performed thirty impromptu ceremonies—you married the person standing next to you. This would come to cause problems but not for twenty years.
Even as children the specters of ideology and history swirled in our consciousness. In our minds, our legend, we were convinced that we were either spiritually or genetically all related to Mordichai Analevivish, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We believed with our whole being that of course Mordichai spoke only Hebrew, that in fact he could not utter even a phrase in the language of our past oppression, our past ignorance, Yiddish. We based this on the fact that some of our parents were from one town, a suburb of Warsaw and were housed in the same bricked-closed Ghetto housing block as Mordichai. As everybody knew, my own uncle died in the bunker together with him. And no doubt they spoke their last words in the language of free men, new Jews, Modern Hebrew. Starting rather young, I dreamt of him. I would wake flushed and shocked, then look across the room over at the boys asleep and hope they did not know. I learned on those nights for the first time that every few seconds the spotlight on the guard tower swept the fields past the outer perimeter, pouring light for an instant into the rooms where the children of the collective slept.
I shared a room with Yochai, Gadi and Orna. We lived in a low, long building set at the bottom of the hill that the tractors and combines passed every day on the way to the fields. All our parents lived up the hill. In keeping with the ideology of the collective we were raised as a group by caretakers that cooked and took care of us in such a way that no one ever was privileged over the other. We each had our own little hobbies and quirks. After a rain Orna collected ancient coins from one of the freshly plowed fields when the coins shone green against the red earth. She had more than twelve. She said it only made sense that she would be an archaeologist and that it was not a capitalistic occupation and she could still live in the collective. Yochai, small for his age, would listen to music and draw pictures that documented our activities in small frames like cartoons. And Gadi, he questioned everything like he did not believe a single word a single adult ever said. He taught himself Jewish history by traveling back in time until finally one day he stood at Mt. Sinai. He had the craziest imagination.
As children we named our group Rimon because in the yard scattered with our toys and the hull of old tractors and cars painted in primary colors and arranged as our playscape was a lone pomegranate tree. Often we would pull apart the leathery skin and just scatter the little ruby seeds in the yard. We had our classroom in the main central room where we took our morning and midday meals. Our teachers were mostly from the collective, chosen by the federation, but some were sent from the city by order of the Rabbinical branch of the Education Ministry. This had to do with the fact that in order to matriculate, there was a national exam in Bible. We had never even seen a Bible but knew it to be dangerous and stupid at the same time. We awaited the mysterious teacher’s arrival with more than a small amount of bravado and devised clumsy plans to thwart his efforts.
Out of shear boredom one afternoon just sitting in the yard Gadi once counted the seeds inside a fallen pomegranate. Six hundred and thirteen he announced to anyone that would listen. That year the teacher that was sent by the ministry from the city to teach us Chumash was Mr. Shefts, a skinny pale man with a knitted kippah. He took a special interest in Gadi after Gadi held out a pomegranate that had fallen and told the Mr. Shefts he knew how many seeds it had. We all thought Gadi was just showing off and doubted Mr. Shefts cared or knew anything about agriculture. Once when they were both standing alone on the porch Mr. Shefts told Gadi the reason he counted the seeds was because he had a true Yidden Neshama; he explained that was a flickering Jewish soul trying to find its way back. After Gadi told us we all laughed and teased him for days. When we saw a bird swoop down and land on the branch of a tree or tension wire, we could not help but call it Gadi and yell at the top of our lungs, “Your lost soul has arrived again, look it has wings and feathers and a beak and ugly claws — it eats rats, the soul eats rats.” How he did not smack us I have no idea.
We had a game we played called British Policeman. I have no idea how we came up with the name. We would gather all the bikes we could and strip almost naked and then ride through the kibbutz. The point being to not get stopped by an adult and be dragged shamefaced back to the childrens’ house. We flew down the paths past the communal laundry and the bomb shelter, through the center of the kibbutz. Once Yochai even made it right to the dining room just as all the grownups were coming out after the weekly movie — our hearts beating, howling, “British Policeman! We are going to take over.”
The teacher, Mr. Shefts, that took an interest in Gadi gave him things. “What did he give you?” Yochai asked.
“Nothing good, just a book.” Gadi shrugged, meaning it was nothing worth sharing.
From a very young age we had been taught the dangers presented to the new Jew and to the nation itself by the primitive superstitious religious fanatics huddled in dirty black coats in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, not working with their hands or backs, not serving in the army, hiding like thieves in tunnels in the Yeshivas, and sucking the life blood out of the new Jew. But Gadi felt important because he could remember all the begots and he liked skinny Shefts. In addition to Shefts we had several that we ran off by wearing shorts. Still Rabbis showed up to perform weddings, bris, the circumcision, and at Passover to lock down the communal kitchen and haul the bread cutting machine away in the back of an old truck. We learned from our other teacher sent by the kibbutz socialist movement that due to a historic misstep in 1948 the Rabbis and the religious party (parasites one and all) had a certain amount of power in the government and so kept their control over certain aspects of the new Jews’ lives.
We had begun to think of our future service as brave soldiers, in the underground, hand picked for secrete dangerous missions. We had a speckled black and white, machberet, notebook labeled “Documents Obtained By the Underground Fighters-Operation Code Name: The Birds Soar High: We will serve our country with our bodies; we will serve our country with our minds.”
All of these idea flowed into our lives seamlessly. We spent a part of every summer training in the scouts. They sent us out on camping trips with guides telling us the history of hills near and far, these flat topped tells, the grove of date palms. We prepared for the days with earnest seriousness. We talked about it over and over, and we assumed that we would just inherit our parents’ task, our country’s task, and that would be our life, here on these paths.
The collective was not without a social, political, or moral hierarchy. Some of the grandparents, you would not know it to look at them now, were Haganah, Palmach, Nahal, Partisan fighters. Now they rode around on little motorized golf carts. Once they lay shoulder to shoulder in ditches, fox holes. They lived in tents and with their hands, built the first building, the refet, the dairy barn, then the kitchen, (the first one was from wood but it burned down) then the dining room where all the members would eat and hold the weekly meeting — which often erupted into heated ideological arguments — and then the swimming pool that doubled as an irrigation tank.
The rooms were white stucco with red clay tile roofs and little flower gardens in front where everybody planted whatever they liked. Crazy Shadmi had artichokes —for the big purple flowers. Daphna had roses, mostly the red Gabriela variety. Abba had purple grapes on a trellis, all rather idyllic. The sounds would have been the groan of the old John Deere turning up the path, the long trailers rattling behind, a radio up the hill tuned to the BBC, or one of the very repetitive conversation that took place at least three times a day. The oldest couple in the kibbutz were Yochai’s grandparents, both trained physicians from Germany. They owned the first car in Haifa and spoke a rare and perfect Hebrew and sounded like cardboard characters from a grammar book. The ima, mother, wore a red kerchief and a white apron and the father sat on a high hill alongside a tractor or a truck. They had only come to the kibbutz recently because they were old and frail. Now they walked slowly down the path three times a day. We would snicker from our hiding place crouched behind the fragment of an ancient stonewall.
“Where are we going?” ancient Esther asked.
“To the dining hall,” her husband answered.
“Why?” she asked.
“To eat,” he said.
“Are we hungry?” she asked. Then they walked and sat on the bench under the loquat tree. They sat silently until Esther looked up at her husband and said, “Why are we here —are we going somewhere?” We would marvel and mock their textbook grammar, the fussy inflection: “Who talks like that?” Language of dreamers, idealists of law, and humanity, each repeated question lifted whole from Song of Songs — me tum temet, idiots, we shouted. And Yochai looked away hurt because after all, what crime had they committed?
The old timers had their legends also. Carmela’s young husband from a settlement in the north walking across the newly plowed field named the ha’lil because it was shaped like a flute, with two pheasants fluttering in a homemade bent-twig trap, got almost to her bedroom window when he stepped on an old land mine. Our motto was “Chazak Ve’ematz, be strong, be brave." So if all the boys dreamed of being like Mordichai Anielwicz, the brave leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (and as I said I had dreamt of him also but not in the same way), all the girls dreamed of being like Chana Sennesh and parachuting at night behind Nazi lines. Our parents and grandparents had braved the enemies of the Jews and committed themselves equally to founding a country and to establishing an egalitarian society. We were raised to be Ha Shomir Hazier — the guardians of the land. When the teachers dressed in proletarian blue work shirts used to try to test our resolve they would ask, which are you first, a Jew, a Zionist or a kibbutznik. The answer of course was kibbutznik. Second to the kibbutz in importance was the group, Rimon. In truth, we may have been a disappointment, and while our existence was the triumph over all our enemies, by comparison, we were merely a sweet confection, raised on fresh milk and butter; we chased butterflies and held funerals for pets and small wild animals that died all alone in the world.
The collective taught many lessons, and one of the clearest and most consistent was the hatred of religion. The Rabbis did not save the Jews; on the contrary they fed into systems that oppressed. The day of disembarkment from the Dolce Rosa had long been forgotten along with those impromptu marriage vows on deck. And certainly no one standing there that day so many years ago took any of it seriously and just looked at the incident as a funny example of how the Jews outwitted the British. Most people, that is, not being the Rabbis. The names of the sham couples had in fact been recorded and sent to Jerusalem by messenger — where they remained in a manila file in the third drawer of a filing cabinet located on the first floor on a nondescript narrow stone building. How many people forgot about that hot afternoon on the deck of the sagging vessel and never really thought of it again? Hard to say — twenty, forty, who knows — they were young. As soon as they disembarked they were loaded onto trucks. After the trucks dropped them off at the site that would become our collective, they worked side by side and in time paired off and began to raise families. Some did not know the law and others, like Avrum, simply wanted to lodge a protest against the power the government handed over to the religious representatives. What the couples should have been done was to have gotten a Get, a decree of divorce, but they hadn’t.
This took place on the main path of the kibbutz leading to the outdoor amphitheater where the magenta bougainvillea climbed and hung in thick clusters. They stood under the arching carob trees, the two brothers facing each: Avrum, the farmer, no longer a boy fleeing a Yeshiva, or on lark to woo a girl, and his brother the Rabbi. Behind her father Avrum stood Orli, the mamzer, bastard in question.
“There will be no wedding because there will be no marriage,” the Rabbi announced. Avrum must have known or expected this, certainly his prehistoric religious memory could have not been fully erased. Avrum glared hard, wiped his hands across his blue worker’s shirt, stepped back and drew up his clenched fist. His brother held his ground and did not flinch. His beadle, a small wiry dark man with a gold tooth, moved between the two brothers. The Rabbi brushed him aside and casually unbuttoned his black frock coat, lifted his back hat off his head and handed it gingerly to his beadle. Avrum drew his arm back and leaned back and then forward into the blow. The Rabbi lifted his own beefy forearm, blocked the blow and in a maneuver quicker and more efficient, he spun his brother around, twisted his right arm behind his back and bent him over, bracing him with his own knee wedged from behind in his brother’s crotch.
“You want I should break it?” the Rabbi, asked forcing the twisted arm higher up Avrum’s back.
It would not be inaccurate to say that there was bad blood between the two brothers. The story went that Avrum left the Yeshiva in Poland one snowy night, and while out on the street, he saw the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. He followed her to the monthly meeting of the local Ha Shomir Hazatire and listened enrapt while she delivered a speech on the new Jew freed from the chains of religion, no longer weighted by superstition, no longer controlled by the corrupt Rabbis. This just a mere week before Perlmutter unrolled the map and spread out another possible life for Avrum.
Despite the complete rejection of greed and profit and the complete acceptance of an egalitarian view of people in the new society and specifically the new Jew, there were more vast hierarchies in the kibbutz. The founders who came from Lithuania in the 1930s were the most respected; they lived in tents on the rocky crags, drank brackish water, walked with a machine gun slung across their shoulder to take a piss; next came the Polish founders — they arrived after the first wooden kitchen was built, but they proved their resolve in ’48 and ’57; and then there were the Germans. Every cliché you hear about a German Jew is true. They clung too much to their bourgeoisie culture and taste, they had record collections of opera, they had butterfly collections under glass, they collected rocks, they pressed flowers in their expensive leather-bound book collections. All of which we interpreted as they were in essence materialistic. But they inspired us to take an interest in our natural surroundings.
Yochai first presented the mushroom idea. This inspiration sprang from a sense of adventure combined with a notion of questioning; we wanted to see if it worked and how —capitalism. It would just be us four, and we were sure we would not exploit each other so it was limited capitalism. Yes, we knew it was wrong and that if we were caught we would be punished and our parents would be publicly humiliated. As a commodity mushrooms became available after a rain. They bloomed under the trees. We knew they were safe to eat because we had watched our parents gather them on mild evenings.
So that March after the rain when the mushrooms bloomed under the trees, we gathered them in buckets and set up a stand around the blind bend in the road. We planned to sell them to cars that passed by, attracting attention with a sign that read “Wild Fresh Mushrooms.” We discovered that if you soaked them in water they got bigger and heavier, and realized that we could charge for that. So right out of the gate capitalism became a slippery slope. Within an hour on our first day a battered white Peugeot stopped. And a dark man got out.
“You know what they say,” Yochai said as the man peered into the bucket of mushrooms.
“If the camel’s nose is under the tent the hump is not far behind. He is going to buy the whole harvest.” Yochai kept his eyes averted and pretended to watch a gecko on the tree, and then the man took out his coin purse and handed us each a couple of shekels. This was the first currency we ever held in our hands; then we realized if we sold these mushrooms, we would move on to other things that grew around the kibbutz.
Along the northern edge of the kibbutz, near where the Bedouin camped, there were four fig trees and a nasty hedge of cactus bearing sabra fruit. Later that week we debated which we should sell next. While we could charge more, quite a bit more, for carefully cleaned cold cactus fruit; we were all too familiar with the tiny thorns. We settled on the figs.
Avi Amir may have been crazy but he was efficient. He laid chunks of poisoned meat all over, under bushes and behind buildings around dumpsters, in shady spots off the paths to kill the stray cats and dogs. Seeing Avi at a distance bent over brought waves of anger and fear and sadness to some, since many of the victims were personal pets. He had his own private subscription to National Geographic that some rich American relative had bought him. Although this was technically against kibbutz policy, nobody said much. Avi caught us counting the proceeds and turned us in. He had sustained a head injury in one of the wars and nobody would dare suggest he stop killing cats, mind his own business, or deny him the satisfaction of a job well done.
We went to visit with our parents in the afternoon after they woke from the naps they took after working in the fields. Between four and seven was considered “family time,” and we would sit and play in our parents’ tiny rooms with some half-broken toys that a relative living abroad brought as a gift. Puzzles with missing pieces, plastic toy horses with a broken-off leg. When we were younger they would come, showered and changed out of their work clothes, to the children’s house to gather us, but now we made our way to their rooms and we would sit out on the grass eating small treats. We knew that each of our parents had been told by the secretary of the collective and while they had no particular power or method to punish us, their disappointment would be apparent and their humiliation would mean that we would not sit out publicly on the lawn for several weeks.
Our punishment for the mushroom fiasco was that we had to donate all the profits to Biafra, and then each of us had to work two extra hours every day for a month weeding the cotton; which Gadi argued, perhaps rightly, we would have had do anyway. We lost the privilege of watching the communal television with our parents, but we were given books, Tarzan, Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes, to keep us from getting in more trouble. After the punishment was over, Tuesday nights in the communal lounge we could watch the American import, Bonanza. It did not have good values: the boys, Hoss and little Joe, and their Pa had a servant, Hop Sing. They owned all the land around Virginia City, the Ponderosa spread. Yet it captured everything we loved: the western theme, anything western. On the way back to our children’s house the boys would play gunfight. Once they wanted to show that they could break a wild stallion, and of course there was no such animal in the collective. We did have poor Shinfo, a donkey, a kind of useless creature that accepted a burden willingly — until someone stuffed a pepper bullet up his ass —then he became the closest thing we had to a wild bronco, and both Gadi and Yochai took turns trying to break him. So Gadi got away with ten stitches to his head and Yochai — he held on.
Our teachers told us, our parents echoed, and the district youth group leadersreinforced—thegroupwasmoreimportantthantheindividual and conformity was seen as the hallmark of the new Jew, and this involved not looking to show one’s self as better. Even though Yochai chafed at the idea when it came up and took to rolling his eyes, he toed the line. So we dressed always within specific guidelines, plain work shirts, khaki or blue, work pants or a type of shorts for women that ballooned in such a way that they resembled a skirt. Make up was unheard of and no self-respecting daughter of the meshek, farm, would ever debase herself in that way. We gave off a sensible, earthy appearance.
The radio kept bringing in more. Everyday at 4:00 p.m. after everyone had showered and slept the field work off, we all listened to Abie Nathan — The Voice of Peace, kol shalom, broadcasting from “somewhere in the Mediterranean,” a pirate radio station based on a Dutch cargo ship. By then we loved the music, the Beatles and Bob Dylan —he spoke in English, he was American; of course the coolest things came from America even if they were laden with commercialism and materialism.
Completely inspired, some 5000 years later in the little valley where David slew Goliath, we turned the bomb shelter into a disco; we lined the ceiling with egg cartons to muffle the sound. We brought in red lights that were used in the huge community sukkah and fashioned a homemade disco ball out of the lights on the chicken house, then we stocked it with Red Star and Maccabee Beer, homemade wine and bottles people had been given by relatives, bought in the duty-free shops of airports at the last minute. By day we moved around in dark blue work clothes, loose cotton dresses or skirts, brown work boots with ankle socks, but at night we transformed ourselves with Indian prints and American Levi’s that foreign volunteers gave to us. About this time Orna became concerned that her left breast was bigger than her right. And it was too, we had all noticed the difference at least four months before she brought it up to me.
The guys used to plead with the girls. “You have to. What if I’m killed? I can’t die a virgin.” The guys could make the argument quite poignant, based on Nationalism, based on the status of their unit. Now we did not put much stock in remaining a virgin out of a sense of morality. The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen certainly were not virgins.
One afternoon after we had halfheartedly weeded the cotton rows with the old wooden hoes that served our parents and grandparents, Yochai told me he just knew he did not want to stay in the collective after the army. Maybe he would come back some day to raise a family but he wanted to see other places. “Do you know how much we don’t know about?” he asked. I also made a promise. I am not sorry I did it. We were young. We had a last resort pact that we kept from the others. If by the fourth week of basic training Yochai was still a virgin and his orders came through as dangerous, we would have sex. We would use his older brother’s room since it was empty because he was traveling in the Far East.
The act itself was almost unremarkable except for the absurdity. The fumbling, the unrolling of cheap oily gray rubber protection — which we first unrolled and then tried to put on. While we were raised in what has been called sexual openness, we had never been provided many details. So it did not strike us in any moral way. We did not know much. Had The Joy of Sex even been translated into Hebrew we would have known or been able to get a copy. But as it was, we were so unaware that our deficiency did not become apparent until Yochai and I both stripped naked under a blanket in his brother’s bed. At first we went over each other’s scars and their history. He had a long one on his shin from when we were six and he pretended to be Tarzan. I had a burn on my forearm from when we were nine and I wanted to fry potatoes. Then I suddenly had to go to the bathroom, and noticed that my left breast, like Orna’s, was bigger and wondered if we both didn’t catch some disease of lopsidedness. There was nothing erotic or seductive in all that we shared, except to say our whole lives.
“Are you sure this is okay?” he asked. “I mean wouldn’t you rather the first time was with Oren?”
I placed my pointer finger in the corner of my eye, our old sign for, “a deal’s a deal.” Oren, from the Brazilian youth group, played the guitar and was adorned with a headful of loose black ringlets. No doubt I would have preferred Oren, but I had been slow to accept outsiders. The gender lines in the kibbutz had blurred only on the surface, so while I could possibly show Oren how to catch fifty turkeys in an hour for slaughter, I would not have known what to say to him. In those days girls never wore make-up, it was considered frivolous and cheap. Me and Orna figured out that if you held a lit candle under a glass you could use the black soot as an eyeliner or shadow. We only did this late at night, when the adults would not notice if we met them on the path. Our hair we wore in one braid in the back but on Shabbat we wore it free, never styled, never curled. The choice of fashion reflected and embodied the ideals.
The morning that we found out was several weeks after the issue of virginity had been erased from the face of the earth. Moshe from the cow barn was still on guard duty in the little shack at the end of the road that snaked into the village. They arrived that morning in fours, two green soldiers and two officers, one in whites. We had seen this configuration before. Moshe knew what, just not who, as he opened the gate and waved them on, one leaned out the window and the rank officer said out the car window: “Preiss?”
“In the field,” Moshe yelled into the dust and after the car. Yehidah Preiss was in the field. The guard’s shack did not have a phone. Moshe used his radio and told Motke in the cow barn and then he and Shaul Grossman, Razi Klein, and Gadi Tamir made their way over to the field where Yehuda, Yochai’s father was laying a line of drip pipe. From down on his knees Yehuda looked up at his friends and looked down the dusty red earth road at the four approaching and he knew. He stood up, fixed his gaze at the approaching men and then turned to his comrades and shook his head. They say he shook his head for five days. The body arrived about an hour later in the back of a truck that carried the Rabbi and his beadle. The custom back then was always to place the body in a wagon and have a tractor pull it up to the grave yard. And then the whole kibbutz walked behind.
So there is history and there is mythology. Reality is the first thing forgotten— how it really happened; we fill in with hope and loss, fear and pride. What happened: Yohchai was our hero and our loss.
When you are young all truths are there right on the surface of a shiny coin, like an ancient one Orna found waiting to be picked up. You know them and repeat them. You can toss them out to share them or hold them in your palm. This is the story we retell. For me a secret is not something we keep, it is what we have given away or what we have taken from us by life’s forces.
You live here long enough the seasons wear on you. In the afternoon you can hear the children playing in the yard and feel their small rebellions travel in shivers across the expanse, down the paths out into the fields; their mothers’ voices calling them back sound tinny and insincere and you know, have known for a long while that what we mistake for insincerity are ideals clumsily scratchy against young skin; and this is just what we try to protect the children with, not from. And grief is the distant person on the path under the loquat tree that you recognize by their silhouette in the half-light. And since you have shared a lifetime with them you greet them with a wide wave.
At any rate, every year on this anniversary, we meet at Yochai’s stone, simple and flat it lays flushed to the earth. By then whatever rain is left has begun to warm and the poppies wave on the hillside. I say we met together, but this is not entirely true. Gadi would not speak to us or visit us for years. His own army service we all knew had been what they call traumatic these days. He served well — in the paratroopers — and one night in Lebanon before the war even started they were raided. Then after he left the army, he changed his name to Baruch Gud and donned a black coat and beard. He could have had Avrum’s brother’s position, but he turned it down to study in a yeshiva full time. His parents were heartbroken, and they didn’t speak to him for years; it really tore the family apart, but eventually they were reconciled.
Yochai is not alone up there; his parents have joined him, my parents too and the soldiers from all the wars that followed. We never did have our own legend. And there was nothing that we could tell of ourselves to clear the path ahead of us.
It never really was that Yochai didn’t want to die a virgin; he just wanted for one time something shared between just two people, not based on being one in the group or the collective. So what now? Gadi, I should say Baruch Gud, is a grandfather ten times over in Meah Shearim, and he is back speaking to me at least and looks me in the eye. His wife invites me, and we drink coffee. I still live here, married, divorced, both my sons grown and gone. They live abroad. The collective transitioned to capitalism in the 1990s. Everybody has what everybody said they wanted: TV’s cell phones, cars. Orna, she put on a lot of weight for a time but has since lost it, she swears by Weight Watchers. She left after her army service, married, and then divorced; now she leads Zen-centered nature tours. She lived in Safed for a while and had an artist’s studio. The ideological differences have fallen away, we have email and Facebook, and I have the photo albums. The classic is a black and white photo of all of us, maybe five years old, waving from the back of a cart hitched to the back of a tractor.
The main thing that has changed, you know probably better than I, is this: what we say about ourselves does not smooth our way or arrive ahead of us as a kind of emissary, if it ever did. What could I say? I know how crude it may seem and I do not mean it that way, but all I could think was there was a dead boy between my legs and there was our secret. More than that, I don’t know. People say it was a social experiment tried and failed; I read that in a lot of places. So the life our parents had painstakingly built out of their own traumas and on an idealism born of seventeen-year olds in poorly lit basements in Poland, conceived in rebellion and in love, did not work as well as the new mega mall in Jerusalem. vA winter rainstorm wild and brilliant creates small flash floods. The mushrooms still sprout under the trees. I remember the grandmother’s question: Are we hungry? They spoke such a perfect Hebrew, you will not hear it again on this earth. Over and over we watched life: we saw the young dark-haired war widows as they bumped up against their loss at every turn on the path, after the visitors stop coming with cakes from the city. We watched to see if loss meant anything, if we would be missed.