June 26, 2019

Seeing clearly in Tel Aviv

There is nothing unusual about sitting at Café Hemda on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv and spotting your teenage son zip by on a bicycle.

Unless your son does not know how to ride a bicycle.

And is not wearing his glasses.

We visited Israel for a month this summer.  Yes, for that month.  We spent more time in dark stairwells and dusty shelters than should be allowed by law in any country with a Mediterranean climate.  But there was drama before the war as well, before we even made plans to come to Israel, the kind of drama any outsider would observe, listening in on one of our typical family discussions, and sum up with a single symbol: ?

If you are a Zionist living in a small town in Virginia, on a street whose corner is crowned with a liquor store—or heck, even on a street without a liquor store—there are only so many Shabbat candles you can light, so many Jewish folktales you can toss at your children, so many jars of gefilte fish you can go through, before the whole family arrives at the same conclusion independently:  Something is not working.  

But what, exactly?

It would be folly to claim (though fun to try) that because we reside in the Diaspora, my three boys don’t know how to ride a bicycle, swim, fry an egg, or buy a loaf of bread.  But if one’s inner life works in synch with one’s outer life, and the center of the former revolves not around a synagogue or clapping at a klezmer concert, but being hammered at the dinner table with an inverted appeal by Moses Mendelssohn from two hundred years ago to “Be a Jew at home and in the street,” how will one’s posture ever be primed for activities requiring you to stand up straight?

Of course, to avoid getting struck by shrapnel while in a moving vehicle, you should follow the instructions of the Israeli Home Front Command and lie down on the ground, putting off that exhilarating feeling of being a Free People in our own Land for a few more minutes while being prepared to get your pants dirty.  But if shrapnel happens to land on Ben Yehuda Street, a few meters down from the synagogue where your son’s best friend is having his bar mitzvah the very next day, it is probably safe to wear white, as shrapnel is unlikely to fall in the same place twice, and in any case, you will be arriving on foot.

But back to that Something that wasn’t Working:  It could all be a coincidence that within a week of arriving in Israel, one of my sons learned how to ride a bicycle, another to swim, and the third to make pancakes.  Worried sick by this news, my mother demanded a return to the status quo, to their grandchildren with my chin glued to their shoulders and a threat of elderberry extract already in the mail.  But I am not naïve: just as, in Virginia, I instructed my kids not to accept any inebriated bear hugs while sitting on the front porch, so too did I inform them of a recent article I read, locating a large number of assaults on children in the stairwells of apartments.  Do not linger in those places, I stressed.  Even in the Israel that we love.

Of course, if a siren sounds and your friend’s apartment building is not equipped with a bomb shelter, that sinister space will become your savior, Kids, and anyone who had hoped to catch you alone on your way to Emanuel’s or Eitan’s with a carton of eggs tucked under your arm will be deterred by the half dozen people greeting each other like newfound family.  So, yalla, let’s thank Hamas for making Israel a little bit safer and go to the beach.

And Natan?  Put on your glasses.  Now.

Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Agni, The Daily Forward, Mississippi Review, Bellingham Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Moment Magazine, Zeek, Jewcy, and Carve. She lives with her husband and three children in Charlottesville, Virginia.