The first time I saw a group of men with sub-machine guns was at the rail station in Jerusalem. They were Israeli soldiers. Spirited, friendly, helpful and scary as hell all at the same time, they sported sleek haircuts and Oakley mirrored sunglasses. They were leaving the Old City after helping to quiet a riot in the Arab sook.
We had been warned by Livnot, our adventurous tour leaders, about the riot and told it was best to stay away from the sook. But we were also told that the army had dispelled the riot, and that was Livnot’s first mistake. Their second mistake was giving us a free day in Jerusalem after telling a group of shoppers about the fantastic buys in the Sook the night before – when no one knew there would be a riot. There was no hesitation. We went to the Wailing Wall, the Jewish Quarter shops, and then straight to the sook where the shopkeepers were overjoyed at our presence.
It was magical. At least, it was magical to me, a girl in her early 20′s whose favorite local shop spot was the mall. We turned a corner and there it was.
Rooms wrapped around corners in a maze-like configuration, each one housing a different shop. It was intimate, with one shop on each side and separated by only a few feet for passage. Intimate.
The shopkeepers called out to me from all directions – I was a rare customer on this day of rioting. Many people, especially single female travelers, would have been uncomfortable here and I wouldn’t blame them. These guys (there were no women sellers to be found) were not shy with their requests to come inside and touch their lovely items, the things that only they possess, to lay eyes on the really beautiful things in the back. Sketchy? Yes. Dangerous? To my 20-something brain? No.
I am from New York. I have spent many summers in Manhattan being coaxed or yelled at – sometimes simultaneously – by shop-keepers, taunted by subway riders who make fake Rolexes magically appear, and I have repelled the slurs from guys with card-stands. Feel karmic one day? Casually walk by the guys with cards and talk about how some tourist just told a cop that their stand had taken his money. They disperse into the wind like butterflies before a storm, had the butterflies been adorned in leather and tight corduroys. Fun. During the day.
Goat legs make me run for the hills but pushy salesmen are expected. They’re annoying, but they’re always open to discussing price and value. We’re cool and the gang as long as there’s no touching. NO touching. Since nothing inappropriate was happening here, I strolled along, shop to shop, buying far too many souvenirs.
Upon turning a corner, I saw a friend being led by the hand deeper into a shop by an older man clearly invading her personal space for influence. Alarm bells started going off in my head like police sirens the night before your college Philosophy final (or was that just me?). Our bus was leaving in an hour and we were deep in the maze. It was was time to go.
I took her other hand and, giving the man a look of clear determination and disgust, verbally apologized to him and reminded her of our deadline. I was angry but not unaware of risk. I distinctly remember both of us refusing to let go of her hand and a small battle of wills taking place amongst walls of magnets and key chains. She is an immensely nice human being. She was being an immensely nice human being by going into his shop. But he’d broken the No Touching rule. I’d rather have fed my money to the chickens than buy whatever he was selling.
The mini-mind battle lasted only a minute before he let go. A look of anger found it’s way towards my face from inside the room. I turned my back on him as I saw it, arm in arm with my friend. I seriously hoped she remembered how to get out because my sense of direction would likely take me to Detroit before bringing me back around to the group meeting place by the Western Wall.
We did not wind up in Detroit. She was much better at navigating than I. We were spared an hour of, “So you go left at the 7th incense stand on the right and then right at the camel with the red cloths…” Thank God. We were then joined by another friend who appeared to have a GPS sown into her shoes. Fifteen minutes later we were back through the Jaffa Gate, out of the Old City and heading towards the bus station.
Which is when the machine guns appeared. It was disconcerting at first. No one was nervous or appeared to think this was out of the ordinary. I’m an American. I grew up in upstate New York. Guys in green fatigues with giant guns and Oakleys would be fearful people in my home town. I would run from them like my hair was on fire, arms waving wildly in the air. Or, more likely, I would freeze in place from the shock while they wondered why the little blond was trying to make things easy. The little blond found the calm around the machine guns discordant and disorienting.
But these heavily armed men were giving up their bus seats to old ladies and having jovial conversations with the drivers. They were vigilant, strong, communal and sporting the latest in Oakley shades. And this wasn’t New York.
The camaraderie between the men struck me. In the States there is always the guy who doesn’t quite fit in; he doesn’t participate in the jokes or group fun. He is the ‘excluded one.’ Amongst the soldiers, you could tell who he would be. He was quiet and sat a row away from the others, but he was not excluded. The others departed before he did – he was not included in their outing. But each one paused at his seat as they got off, looked at him through dark oblong glasses and briefly clasped his shoulder. They nodded and a few words were exchanged.
I grew used to the guns because I grew trust and respect for the gun-holders. They had these guns for my protection and the protection of people I cared for. I was just a face in the crowd in jeans and a chamsa necklace. They knew nothing of me. They owed nothing to me. But they would die for me if the need arose. And I was just visiting.
Think of Israel what you will. This was my experience.
Each day, the Israelis did the same – defend. Every citizen is required to give two or three years of service to the State, men engaging in the extra time. Many stay in service longer. Many are ex-pats who start late. But they all know of the sacrifice.
Women are among those required to serve. ‘Defender’ is not a man-only role in the ‘Jewish’ State, and many women serve in fighting units. But Israelis don’t see violence as the only form of national defense. Education and community service are also viewed as vital, and women (only) are given the option of serving in these realms instead of the army.
Our two Israeli tour ‘helpers’ were young women, Lizzie and Jaffa, doing their two years of service through Livnot, educating (mostly) naive young Americans and Canadians about Israeli custom, law, history and security. They made sure we were up at the crack of dawn trying not to pass out in our pancakes and fruit from jetlag and fatigue, they patiently answered our (occasionally ridiculous *cough*) questions about Israeli history and helped guide us on the “hikes.”
It was Jaffa’s birthday about halfway through the trip and what did she want for her birthday? To hike the wadi (a river – dry, in this case). Of course, a hike. I was just getting the feeling back in my legs from the climb two days before, so the timing was almost perfect.
Have your hamstrings ever been so tight you opted to slide down stairs instead of walk? Has your toe ever bruised green and black from pressing hard against a boot for 7 miles? No? Ask Jaffa to take you on a short walk. I adore this woman. She amazes me to this day. But, no more hiking.
Our tour schedule was more fluid than other tour experiences, and it was run by Israelis with little regard for the traditional tourist experience. Whereas other tours stayed at high end hotels like the King David, we stayed in a dorm with rock walls and a resident dog named Mimi with new puppies and a desperate need for a multi-nipple bra.
The others went to Yad Vashem, the large Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem – a solemn place that is a memorial of victims at its core. We did not. Instead, our trip took us to an incredibly beautiful building, glazed in pink roses amongst ancient stones in the city of Akko. We were shown exhibits about fighters, not victims. We saw the best of humanity on display in a stained-glass Holocaust museum.
A wedding was ending as we arrived, and the bride and groom, jubilant and love-struck, danced between stone arches and fallen petals. It was almost magical and entirely un-modern. It was something you wanted to remember, not forget. You wanted to put it in pictures as the background to one of the most beloved days of your life.
The museum was built next to a centuries’ old theatre with a backdrop of ancient stone arches hundreds of feet tall. As the arches connected, they created a bridge on the top with locking keystones, and one member of our tour ran across them in controlled abandon.
Inside the museum, there was turn after turn of pictures in chronological order from the Ghettos to the Holocaust of the Jews who fought back. They wielded weapons carved from violins and broomsticks and the occasional smuggled firearm. They had set and determined stares. They would not lay down before the Nazis. And here, in this little museum, they gave to me the part of a Jewish identity that I was missing. Because I am not a victim.
Let me be clear. It’s important that we remember. Plain and simple, it’s important that we keepsake the horror.
I read an article in New York Times recently of how survivors’ grandchildren are replicating the tattoos their grandparents were given by the Nazis – the numbers that identified them as things and made them easier to track. They were good record keepers, the Nazi’s. It’s a good thing, because it made Nuremberg that much easier during the post-war prosecutions and it made people easier to find for surviving family members.
I support this movement of tattoos. I would join it if I had a survivor as a relative.
But it’s just as important to my identity as a Jew – 1/2 of my very being – that I am a descendant of a fighter too. That my People did not just lay down. They stood up when others would have crumbled.
It was the first time in my life that I was entirely proud to call myself “Jew.” There was no nagging feeling of uncertainty – like there existed some kind of fucked up genetic trait for helplessness and passivity – NO. My people fought guns with books, violins, pitchforks and whatever else they could find, and sometimes – sometimes – they won.
This was my missing piece. The link between the striped pajamas and Mossad. Thank you, Livnot. For giving me back my history.