Israel Stories

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Angry Man

I knew I was in for trouble the moment I saw him and he caught my eye. As I was trying to work out how the self service petrol pump worked I could see he was spoiling for a fight. No good, I said to myself and pressed the intercom for an attendant to come and help me. Smiling she bounced across the forecourt and then spent a few minutes swiping my card, entering by number plate and pressing the correct fuel. Nothing! Relieved at the reprieve from a sarcastic ‘you idiot waist of time’ stare, she continued, quite bemused, too wrestle with the pump.

Then the Angry Man turned towards us, a cross between John Wayne and Frankenstein, and all the other movie characters with very slow but purposeful swagger, hands menacingly clenched into fists and the ‘I know what you did last summer stare’. We knew we were in trouble.

“What are you wasting time with him when you should be serving me?” he literally screamed, garlic and bits falafel spraying over a large radius. Unfazed, my trusty attendant ignored him and continued battling with pump. “I fought for this country, lost all my family in Europe; I pay my taxes, is it too much to ask for some help?” “Look, I am helping him, when I have finished I will help you”, she turned and smiled at me. Not sure why but I didn’t think anything of it. I of course smiled back and in the movies, the sun would have set and we’d be half way to Vegas on the back of my Harley. But reality set in rather quicker than I’d hoped as Mr. Angry yelled again, “help me now!”

He walked back to his van and kicked the bumper as hard as he could, shouting and swearing and promising to do all manner of nasty things to the Prime minister.

“Why don’t you help him?” I suggested to the attendant, (Anat). “He doesn’t need my help, he needs someone more qualified” she grinned.

Suddenly out of the restaurant, a man came running out at top speed towards Mr. Angry. “What are you doing?” he screeched. A huge argument exploded and shook us to our very core (to be dramatic) the anger levels were like Vesuvius and Mount St Helens erupting simultaneously. The situation reached critical as fists were clenched. Anat looked at me and we decided it was better not to intervene.

Then, suddenly, Mr. Angry stopped shouting, walked to the front of the van, stared, mumbled something and walked over to an identical van parked by the next pump.

Anat looked at me and laughed, “He kicked the wrong van, he kicked the wrong van!”

As insurance details were exchanged, Mr Angry, eyes heavy with shame and despondency, walked back to his van.
Then head held high again shouted across the forecourt, “Help me now!”

The Doorman

Knock, knock, what do you want? I want to see the shul. Knock, knock, yes what is it? Can I come in? Yes hold on. Knock, knock, I’ve been waiting for five minutes can I come in? Just wait. Then I heard the lock slide open but instead of the shul door open, a small side door adjacent to the shul opened. It was an outside toilet.

“Look I’m really sorry”, I said looking down at the floor, in fact looking everywhere to avoid his eyes. Without a word he removed the most enormous bunch of keys I had ever seen. I actually marveled how it was possible to remove such a large bunch of keys from such a small pocket, and then I remembered something someone had once said to me about childbirth, and kept quiet.

“In you go”, he said. “Don’t touch anything, don’t remove any of the books and don’t stand on the bima or open the aron hakodesh or any of the windows. Keep all the seats upright, don’t mess up the carpet and don’t touch the light switches!” “Anything else?” I mumbled, “Yes” he said to my utter disbelief, “this is a privately funded shul, we rely on donations, please don’t forget to give!”

The Kairo shul (spelt several different ways) is one of the famous shuls in Sfat (also spelt several different ways). It may not be the most beautiful of all of them but it holds a certain charm and mysticism that makes a trip to Sfat worth it, oh, and the Canaan Spa Hotel.

“Have you finished yet?” he called. “No I’ll be a few minutes more”, I called back, frantically taking photos of every nook and cranny. “Ok” he called, “take your time”. He’s’ changed his tune I thought but then didn’t think anymore about it.

“I’m all done here, thanks”, I called, no answer. “I said I am all done here, thanks”, still no answer.

I left the shul taking one last photo of the door, then turned to go. As I did I heard a rush of water, and the small side door to the outside toilet opened.

“Oh your off then, did you leave some money?” he asked. I nodded. “Good, thanks for coming, oh and one last thing, don’t eat at Rami’s falafel today, bad batch!” Then he disappeared back through the side door.

The Hunter

Darth Vader approached me in the street the other day. Actually it wasn’t really Darth, but the guy was huge, dark, large protruding jaw, pointed cheeks and large insect like eyes. He was even dressed in black. All he was lacking was severe asthma and a black cape. Menacingly, he held out his hand, I braced myself for the lighting that would shoot from his finger tips. “Do you have the time?” he asked in a very high pitched, almost soprano sing song. “Er, yes”, I said, offering my wrist as proof that I had a watch and wanted to make sure he could tell the time. ”See, its three fifteen”.

Then trying to make conversation he asked “are you shopping”? “Urm yes as a matter of fact I am trying to buy an elephant.” Reacting to my obviously sarcastic comment, said something about my lineage under his breath and walked away. Shocked I shouted “I’m serious, I want to buy and elephant!” He turned and obviously thinking I wanted a fight, shouted “try the zoo where you belong (then something in Amharic which was probably to do with my mother)!”

It was only then that it dawned on me, telling an Ethiopian (and a big one at that) you want to buy an elephant could, in certain circles and with a certain malicious attitude be construed as a racist derogatory remark.

“Look friend, it’s my anniversary tomorrow, and I have a tradition of buying my wife an elephant, not a real one, just something small to fit in our display cabinet.”

He looked at me, eyes blazing. What did I say? “Do you think I am stupid as well? I realize you don’t want to buy a real one!” Then he laughed an high pitched squeaky, wheezy laugh, the sort that only cartoon characters or people sucking helium do. “You want an elephant? I find you one.” “Th, th, thanks”, I stammered.

“This, your car?” he asked pointing to my car. Now I may be friendly but I am not stupid. When a 2 meter Ethiopian takes you on a trip to find elephants, its better to go on foot. “No”, I lied, “I walked”. Obviously seeing through my lie he shrugged and we set off together. The conversation was strained and not wanting to bring up anything that could be misconstrued as racist or a personal criticism or insult, I stayed quiet for most of it, just nodding at the appropriate time, smiling on cue and nodding even more.

“They kill elephants for their bones, you know. Hundreds and hundreds of them until there are none left. I tried to help stop them, I am a lawyer in Ethiopia, but they don’t respect me, so I came to Israel, where they don’t respect me, but at least they are Jewish and won’t beat me! The law exams here are very difficult, so I have another job now, I am a driver and delivery man. I make more money in a week here than I did in a month in Ethiopia, so I am happy, and my family eats.”

I stared at him and saw the tear in his eye that no self respecting African man would admit to. “Let’s find your elephant”, he chirped.

So off we went into the Bet Shemesh sunset, hunting elephant.

The Crusader

The shop was dark apart from rays of light peeping through the window in between books piled high in straight columns that any Roman would be proud of. I reached for a thin volume called Palestine, Land of Promise, blew off the dust and began to read.

“I’m a Crusader”, you know, a voice behind me called. “Of course you are”, I thought. I turned to confront my clearly insane Knight. There is a character in the book Jerusalem Poker, called Haj Huran, who claims to be 3000 years old and the sole defender of Jerusalem. He walks the streets of the Old City wearing nothing but a loin cloth, yellow cape and a crusader helmet. “I suppose your name is Haj Huran”, I sarcastically suggested. “Oh you’ve read it”, he replied and slightly despondent went back to labeling books.

“Do you know about the ‘enchanted forest’”, he called over. “Which enchanted forest?” I replied, trying to leave the shop. “The Crusaders cut it down you know, very sad”. “Yes, very sad”, I said and ran for the street. “Somewhere in between where Tel Aviv and Netanya stands today”, he called after me excitedly. I gave in, returned to the shop. “That’s a large area, could you be more specific”. “Well”, he continued, picking up the book I had just put down. “According to Walter Clay Lowdermilk, who wrote the book you were just reading but didn’t buy, even though it’s a good book and cheap, the Crusaders cut down the enchanted forest located in the Sharon area”.

“So what your saying is, that its not there and in fact if its under Netanya, or Herzliya or even Tel Aviv, you’d never find it anyway”. “’Spose you’re right”, he answered despondently, but I reckon if we found it we could be famous”. OK, I thought, time to go. I smiled, made my lame excuses and left the shop, walking very quickly, not looking back and remembering not to look into his eyes like all the fairy stories warn you about.

He called after me but I didn’t look back until I realized I was holding the book. So reluctantly I returned to the shop, money in hand. “Page 57”, he whispered and then returned to his book labeling.

On page 57 there is a vague reference to the Crusaders chopping down an area of the Sharon area called the Enchanted Forest. Time for an internet search.

Then I found it. Rehov Hanasi Street in Herzliya is called, by some, the enchanted forest. It fits the bill. In the Sharon area, close to Crusader settlements, even the trees look like a vaulted roof from some Crusader church as they form a high canopy over the road. But, well it’s not quite old enough, in fact its 800 years too late.

So I guess we’ll never know. I resigned myself to never seeing fairies flying around Tel Aviv (behave) or even a Unicorn grazing in downtown Netanya. Except, well, there is another legend that states that the symbol for the tribe of Joseph was a unicorn. His two sons were awarded his territory which just happens to encompass the Sharon area. So not only was there an enchanted forest, but Unicorns as well! All I needed now was Pegasus, Phoenix and maybe a Minotaur to complete the set.

I returned to my Crusader friend and told him my theory. He looked at me as though I was mad. I was certain he would swallow all of this. Then he said “of course we have a Pegasus but it appeared further north”. “Further north?” I asked, slightly confused.”Yep, Elijah ascending to heaven in a fiery chariot with fiery flying horses, but it was further north than the Sharon, and while I’m on the subject, what about the legend of Abraham surviving death after being thrown into Nimrods fiery furnace, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, eh? But that was in a different country.”

I probably shouldn’t have returned to the book shop. My Crusader was clearly one chapter short of a novel. As I returned home I rushed passed the most surreal sight. I slammed on the breaks and had to look again and again before I realised I wasn’t delusional. A bulls head with human legs, the Minotaur!! My rear view mirror was a little dirty so I undid my seatbelt for a better look. Then I saw it in all its glory - an Arab tying a rope around a bull’s neck!

I wondered if all myths and legends started life as something innocent, but concerned not to lose my faith, I plugged in my seatbelt and left the Arab to it.

Maybe in two thousand years someone will read this scribble and tell his friend who will tell his friend until eventually someone will write it down again. And so a legend is born.

The Mountaineer

Would you rather lose all your hair or all your teeth?’ ‘Not sure, without my hair how can I go out to the shops, but then I could wear a hat.’ ‘Without my teeth how could I eat, but them I could have everything liquidized, but then how could I smile?’ ‘You’d have to swallow first’, I interjected. The old lady scowled, ‘I mean with no teeth how can you smile?’

I looked at her ancient face. A hundred Yemenite summers had shriveled and molded her face into a relief map of the Himalayas with her strangely European nose acting as Everest. ‘When you get to my age’, her friend continued ‘you have to preserve your looks’. I looked at her perfectly preserved face, like a pickle in a jar.

‘Young man, when you are as old as us, you’ll understand the dilemma, teeth or hair’.
The other lady, laughed, ‘like we have a choice’, here, I have another question, what would you rather lose your fingers or your toes?’ ‘I know someone who lost 6 fingers and he’s OK,’ I piped up.

‘But could he draw water from a well, or cradle the water from a bucket into his child’s mouth, or be effective with a stick and drive his sheep across the mountains, or even bake bread?’ One nil to the Andes twins, I thought. ‘But without toes he couldn’t walk to the well, or drive his sheep, but he could bake bread,’ Triumph, I though, got them just where I want them.

‘When I was a girl, I knew a man with no fingers or toes, amazing story, how he coped with life’. ‘What happened to him?’ I asked eagerly anticipating a story of courage and hardship. ‘Oh, we thought he was a freak and he starved to death, very, very, sad!’

‘Tell me,’ I asked, ‘How did you two come to live in Israel?’ ‘Well,’ answered Himalaya woman, ‘In the 1950’s we trekked hundreds of miles through desert and mountains, under a burning sun, to reach the Holy Land. The journey was fraught with all types of dangers, the heat, the cold, the robbers and marauders, but we arrived’. ‘And you,’ I asked the pickle, ‘how did you get here?’ Well my brother-in-laws cousin had a factory in America, so he sent us money for a plane ticket to join the family in New York. It was hard to travel in those days as my friend told you. We got to Greece and I got on the wrong boat which docked at Jaffa and the rest is history’.

‘I have a question for you,’ pickle women smiled, then winked at Himalaya woman, ‘anything’ I said preparing my aliyah story for them, ‘what would you rather lose’ she continued,’ your goat or your cow!’

The Butcher

Grosny, I think that was his name, was a butcher. ‘Was’ in the past tense, because now he works in a hardware shop. What is immediately noticeable about Grosny is his lack of fingers. According to doctors and I know this because I’ve seen it, the average number of fingers on a human hand is five. The average human therefore has ten fingers and that covers most of us, but not Grosny, he has six fingers, three on each hand. Grosny is ‘digitally’ challenged.

Back in Mother Russia, Grosny was a butcher. Quite a good a butcher as it happens. He claims to be able to identify any meat from any animal, the cut and the average price. He includes in his repertoire of animal facts, pigs, rabbits, game bird and most other delicacies alien to the average Israeli menu.

Finger number one was sadly and brutally severed during the old Russian butchers favorite pastime of, what can only be loosely translated as ‘speed mincing’, how much meat can you mince in five minutes. Grosny was in hospital for five weeks while they desperately tried to save his minced finger. Needless to say his little joke with people is ‘I am Israeli now but they’ll always be a part of me in Russia’.

Finger number two was amazingly lost in exactly the same way a year later. Trying to beat his own personal best he forgot that fingers were actually disqualified and subtracted from the total weight of mince.

Unable to handle a meat cleaver affectively and not being ambidextrous, Grosny found a new job at a sawmill. At this point I let out a huge laugh only to be met by Grosny’s irritated look. He obviously had received many laughs at this point of his story. The Ukranian sawmill had no need of fingerless Grosny and I suspect the insurance was crippling, two more fingers gone; ashes to ashes sawdust to sawdust.

When the chance came for aliyah, Grosny couldn’t get here fast enough. Armed with his mothers Ketubah (yes, he’s the one) he went to the Jewish Agency to start the process. Unbelievably, he told them his profession was a surgeon! The poker faced pen pusher looked at Grosny and at his fingers, told him he obviously wasn’t a very good one and stamped his application papers! At this point when I laughed he joined in.

Fingerless Grosny made his way to Bet Shemesh, first he worked as a general laborer for a local car mechanic and it was lehitra’ot to finger number five. Apparently he misjudges the weight of a car engine, thought he could catch one as it somehow fell to the ground. Very messy, but I am told the ceremony was very touching.

Finally finger number six gave up the fight when Grosny unaware of his inability to chop vegetable without all five fingers on one hand said shalom to another digit.
Maybe that’s how it happened, maybe not but it’s a great story.

Grosny smiled, you don’t believe me do you. Well believe this. Aliyah was the best choice I ever made. In Russia I lost four fingers here in Israel only two. Things are looking up!