The Way to Jerusalem

I am on my way to Jerusalem. I am heading to the Jerusalem Cinematheque on an invitation to attend a screening of a movie produced by a friend. I drive from Tel Aviv, and chose to leave a bit earlier for the trip. Three and a half hours early to be exact. That is a long time. Most days this drive takes about an hour. But this is holiday time, and I chose to play it safe. My early departure proves itself worthy as soon as I leave the neighborhood. Traffic is a nightmare all around. Swarms of cars congest every street, merging in a slow and tense crawl into intersections and struggling to exit them. When I finally make it onto Netivey Ayalon, the highway that crosses Tel Aviv, I find it too overcrowded with traffic. More than an hour of stop and go traffic passes before I get on Highway 1, the road to Jerusalem. The situation there does not fare better. Traffic is mostly a standstill. The logjam gives rise to road stress. Drivers cut in traffic, change lanes, and tailgate for the mere illusion of getting there faster, anywhere they might be heading.

The pilgrimage to the holy city is a ritual thousands of years old. From a time when the Holy Ark stood inside the Temple on Mount Moriah, and a succession of kings ruled Israel and Judah. Taken three times a year, during the holidays of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, the pilgrims went up to offer sacrifices to God, and tend to some stately matters such as paying taxes. In those times pilgrims from the port city of Jaffa area would travel several days to the city gates. Today, the only standing remain from the Holy Temple is a portion of its retaining wall. The Western Wall, the most sacred place for Jewish people, attracts thousands of daily visitors. Many come to visit or pray. Some leave notes of personal wishes between the massive stones. The times are modern, but the tradition of pilgrimage is popular as ever, and it is in full force tonight.

After another hour of a slow crawl I reach Sha’ar HaGai, the first uphill portion of the road. Traffic is at a standstill again. Blue lights appear behind, and a police car zooms by on the right shoulder, rushing to address whatever is blocking traffic ahead, or so I hope. Three lanes of bumper to bumper traffic climb the hill at a walking pace. Quiet music on the radio and red taillights for as long as the eye can see. Tall pine trees lean in from the hills on both sides of the road, hover like dark giants against the silk black sky. I look at them and my thoughts drift away.

During the war for independence in 1948, this path remained dangerous and bloody. Many supply and rescue missions to Jerusalem, the besieged city, were defeated by armed Arab gangs hiding in the hills. When I was a kid I loved this road. Every time I would put my nose to the window and look for the armored vehicles remains that sat here as monuments to the people who risked and gave their lives trying to reach the city. You still need to know where to look in order to catch a glimpse of those vehicles, but it is nearly impossible to see them in the dark.

News flash on the radio. I raise the volume to listen.

The time is a quarter to seven. Less than an hour to T-time, and I am still in Sha’ar HaGai. I begin to doubt I will ever get the Cinematheque on time. There are no exits off the highway anytime soon, no alternate routes to take. I am certain that even if there were any, they too would be crowded with traffic. I do not remember highway traffic this heavy ever, and wonder if this snarl could reach all the way to the Jerusalem. Cars on the opposite side are flying by downhill, perhaps looking at my side with pity and dismay. I could have taken the bus instead, resting in my seat the whole way. I rode busses all the time when I lived here, never realizing what owning a car meant. I gaze at the glare of tail lights in front of me, and wonder how many drivers here are nervous about their diminishing gas gages, hoping to make it to a gas station before their engines sputter to a halt. The Motza exit, the high point in the area is near. I hope the downhill drive from there will run faster.

In the autumn of third grade, my dad took me on an Israel Nature Society guided trek to this area. A passenger truck picked our group early Saturday morning from the central train station of Tel Aviv, and dropped us at a location I cannot pinpoint. We walked through dirt roads, wild fields and wooded areas for a few hours. Then, as we made our way through a quiet pine forest, a roar of speeding cars became gradually noticeable. In a few minutes, the road to Jerusalem appeared through the trees at the bottom of the hill. Our truck waited by the side of the road, right about where I am now. Following the setting sun on the way back to Tel Aviv, members of the group praised me for keeping up with the pace. I was the only kid on the trek that day. I woke up when we reached the train station. It was dark outside.

I pass the Bait Meir and Shoresh exit. The road is leveled, and traffic flows faster. I see no accidents or other issues that could explain the traffic back up. Must be the overwhelming number of pilgrims today. Heavy tractor trailers, busses, and countless passenger cars. The narrow lanes are tight with drivers competing to enter the city. It is the third night of Hanukkah. Hanukkiyot lights twinkle in the windows of homes in Neve Eliezer to the left. On the right, a dark canyon rests, like a giant pool of dark ink. I have passed the midpoint of my trip. I succumb to the probability that I may not reach my destination on time.

It is a few minutes past seven, and I enter the city. The traffic snake passes under the Chords Bridge, and by Binyanei Hauma – Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. I continue downhill through the festively lit neighborhoods. The Cinematheque is located a walking distance from the Old City walls and the Tower of David, across the city from where I am. I will need to find a parking spot in an area that sees tourist activity almost twenty-four hours a day. More red lights ahead and I decide to bypass the busy city center. I navigate by general direction and soon find myself in an unfamiliar area. I pull over and roll down my window. The first pedestrian apologizes for not being familiar with the area, but the next one is more helpful. He quickly suggests a route. I thank him and follow his advice, but after a few minutes a sinking feeling is growing inside me. I pull over again to ask for directions. A couple rolls their eyes politely at me and sends me back in the direction I came from. Their directions are solid, and in minutes I am near my destination. The Old City walls glow in the yellow night lights. A clear and cool December evening rests upon the beautiful city. People dressed in warm coats walk the scenic boardwalk. I find a parking spot almost immediately, and quickly descend the wide stairs toward the Cinematheque entrance. The theater is packed, and I sink myself into a seat in the middle of the auditorium just, as the director of the movie takes to the stage and taps the microphone. The movie is a documentary of a struggling dairy farm in the Negev, and can be interpreted as an analogy to life in the Israeli microcosms. I think of my afternoon, my three plus hour commute, and write down a few notes. I may write a story about it sometime.

 

December 22, 2011

Free Fall

Herod sat on the floor, hugging his legs tightly between his arms. Cold air seeped in through parts of his outfit, puncturing his skin with spills of tiny thorns. He surveyed his surroundings. All alone. The floor moved beneath him. It’s time he knew. Decisive, he rose, his body heavy. He covered the distance to the door in four quick steps, placed his hands against the opening, and jumped. His stomach refluxed as he fell. Cold air pressed his body, arching his limbs behind his back. The thoughts that plagued his mind seconds ago had vanished. Deep calm overcame him, flooding his psyche with near euphoric happiness. The ground rose toward him like a giant silent mammoth. He felt free, happy, and painless. A hundred miles per hour falling star.

One evening, when Herod was seven years old, he went to plug in the reading lamp in the living room of his boyhood home. Unbeknown to anyone, danger loomed inside the wall. Rainwater seeped through the ceiling, and soaked the aging electrical wires. When Herod came to insert the plug into the mustard-colored outlet, it happened. An unseen force shot through his hand, grabbed him like a million tiny needles, and threw him back. His little body sailed through the air and landed on the floor six feet away. The shock and surprise froze him. He rested there for a second. That brief state of surprise quickly changed to fear. His crying brought in his mother from the kitchen. The practical woman stopped at the door, touched her wet hands to her apron, and quickly evaluated her son. Herod held his left hand close to his chest, crying at a high pitch voice and looked at this mother with a blank stare. The young boy did not understand what had just happened to him, and could only offer a fearful cry as an explanation. After repeating her question twice to no avail, his mother surveyed the room for clues. Her eyes rested on the blackened outlet, and she understood. The quick conclusion relaxed her mind somewhat. She stepped forward, picked up her son, and checked his body for signs of injury. Herod was physically fine, but emotionally scared. The power outlet stared at him from the corner with darkened, squinted eyes, like a devilish creature ready to strike at him if he came near it again. His mother walked with him to the next room, and soon Herod found himself immersed in his Lego’s. The pain and sensation of the electrical shock quickly rescinded, but the memory remained with him for a long time after.

A week before his fourteenth birthday Herod jumped from the window of his bedroom, sixteen feet above the ground. He landed in his mother’s flower garden, and rolled on the ground a few times. His injuries included a broken ankle, two cracked ribs, and some minor bruises, mostly on his hands. The physical injuries did not alarm his parents so much. Their concern rested with Herod’s unwillingness to explain the reason for his leap. That reluctance, combined with his general gloomy mood in the days leading to his jump gave them reason to act. Over the next three months, Herod spent every Tuesday afternoon visiting with Dr. John Wayne, a local child psychologist who came highly recommended by their family doctor. Dr. Wayne had an impressive array of framed diplomas and professional certificates decorating his clinic wall. Unlike the real John Wayne, the doctor was a short, balding man, with a voice that better suited a young girl than a grown man. Following their twelfth meeting, Dr. Wayne invited Herod’s parents for a final consultation, and informed them that in his professional opinion, their son’s act was most likely experimental rather than suicidal. A type of behavior he described as “something that adolescent boys are sometimes prone to”. Herod was cleared to continue freely with his youth.

Herod’s eyes widened. The air pressure on his face pushed his skin up against his cheekbones, forcing his expression into an awkward smile. The earth below resembled colorful covers on a giant bed. The landscape seemed frozen in place, void of motion and life. A pillar of dark smoke arched in the distance, painting the horizon with a narrow line of disappearing black ink. The line reminded him of Helena’s hair. Dark, long, and wavy. Throughout their long romance, and even before they realized their feelings toward each other, they loved to explore physical challenges together. Helena’s room at her parents’ house was larger than Herod’s, and missed the suspended light fixtures that decorated his ceiling. One spring afternoon, they sat on her bed, working on their chemistry lab report. While Helena marked coordinates on graph paper, Herod walked to her large dresser, cleared aside some makeup paraphernalia, and climbed on top. He leaped into the air, and landed in the middle of the bed, sending Helena and their schoolwork into disarray. “You crazy dummy!” Helena screamed. “What are you doing!?” Herod grinned at her, exposing his teeth in a teasing smile, and without a saying word climbed again on the dresser. By his third jump she joined him, and together they spent the next hour challenging each other to which of them would make the highest jump, do the best air flip, or stay the longest in the air. The sound of a car door slam outside sent them rushing back to charting pH levels. By the time Helena’s mother peeked her head into the room, their breath rate returned to normal. The following summer this same bed would become a nest for their young love, but through it all their game remained. They became addicted to it, perfecting their mid-air acrobatics with each session. On the last Thursday of their senior year, they laid on the bed, resting in each other’s arms. Small drops of sweat rolled from Helena’s neck, down her breasts, and onto Herod’s chest. “I don’t think we’ll ever outgrow this game” she whispered. Her eyes narrowed in a thin smile, and she landed her lips on his. The memory of her taste flooded Herod’s body now, and he smiled, matching his expression to the forced smile the air pressure sculpted his face into. He turned and looked down. The ground was closer now. Only a few more seconds, and it will be over.

It has been years now since he and Helena parted ways. Their relationship continued on and off during college. In the years following that, they made a couple of attempts at making it work, only to realize it just was not meant to be. Helena moved on with her life with greater ease than Herod. It took him more than a year following their final breakup to try for a new relationship. He managed to lead a few successful affairs since, one of them even landing him close to the altar. Still, every once in a while he found himself traveling beck to his time with Helena. Remembering, missing, and wondering. Jumping, even alone, felt better than anything else he could think of. It was almost time. He was ready now.

Herod brought his hands together to his chest as if preparing to pull his heart out. He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He pulled the ring, as if ripping a bone out of his rib cage. A great force grabbed him, punching at his crouch and chest, and compressing his guts into his bladder. His lungs emptied at once. It was over.

He opened his eyes. Bright light blinded him. He squinted. He raised his hands over his shoulders, and followed them with his eyes. Dark green lines grew from his body, like perfect stems of a large flower bouquet. A white canopy bloomed above him, ferrying him down like a large wing. Life had returned to the landscape below. Small cars trailed on a road like busy ants out on a harvest. A train horn sounded from afar. The distant smoke pillar was still visible on the horizon, but Herod turned his attention to the green smoke signal near the landing marker below him. He pressed his ankles together and bent his knees slightly. It was time to land.

 

March 23, 2011

The Visit

The first message arrived by the way most personal messages travel these days, via email. It announced the passing of my friend Sylvia’s sister. I called Sylvia immediately. The phone barely rang twice before Sylva answered it with her usual happy greeting.

“I heard” I said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, sweetheart”. Her voice sounded calm and purposeful, in oppose to her normal direct and inquisitive. Her mood appeared somber, as you might expect of someone who had just lost her only sister, but her spirit was good. I listened as she described her sister’s illness, the hospitalization, the hospice care, and her recent decline in health. I never knew Sylvia’s sister personally, and the news of her death was not shocking to me. Besides, my real concern was with Sylvia.

Sylvia’s state of mind was solid and decisive. Her focus was on coordinating the funeral arrangements, and receiving the family members flying into town. We spoke for a few minutes, promising to talk again at the funeral the next day.

When the clock turned ten-thirty the next morning, I set aside my work, and prepared to leave. The cemetery was not far, and I arrived there in less than ten minutes. A small crowd had gathered at the designated grave site, talking quietly in small groups. About fifteen minutes were left until the funeral was to start. I walked downhill a few rows, and looked for a particular grave near the edge of the section.

I remembered the morning less than two years before, sitting in my bedroom. The phone rang. I looked at the display and answered with a happy Hello. My friend Susie was on the other end.

“How are you?” she asked in a tone I failed to notice.

“Great. Doing real well. How are things with you?” I answered happily.

“You don’t know” she whispered. Only now I detected the foreign tone in her voice.

“Know what?” A chill rose inside me.

“It’s Michael” she said, her voice awash with tears.

The horror unveiled itself word by word, like a movie scene projected in slow motion, frame after frame. The death of our friend Michael revealed to be violent and untimely, and more than anything, unexpected. Susie and I combed over the past few months, helping each other to construct the story using our different perspectives. We attempted to make sense of the painful facts, and console each other through the shock we both experienced. Every conclusion we arrived at felt heavier than the preceding one, mostly because they all illuminated a past we could do nothing about now.

Later that day, after Susie and I hung up, I stayed in the quiet bedroom, letting the air cool around me. Disbelief can act as an effective shock absorber, as it maintains an appropriate amount of emotion’s drip in a situation that is ripe for overdose, loss, and blindness. The incredulity trickle continued to affect me during the funeral that took place a couple of days later. Michael’s young children eulogized him in front the dense, emotional chapel. Later, after most of the mourners had left for the reception, I stood over the freshly covered grave, and whispered into the frozen air “What have you done Michael, what have you done?”

In the months since that day I drove by the cemetery a number of times each week on my way to and from home, but never stopped to go inside. Sometimes, when I waited in the red light in the intersection adjacent to the cemetery, my gaze would wonder over to the thick line of trees that keep shade over the flat gravestones. For a quick moment I would wander back to that winter day and the times that lead to it. I would sit there, thinking and wondering, fighting off disappointment and pity.

With time came perspective and wisdom, and it became clearer to understand how life unraveled for Michael. But you never really know. I still catch myself sometimes, wondering about what could have been done to change the course. How can you prevent something from happening if you are bound from seeing it? If you missed this one, what else are you not seeing? Where should you look? How much do you really know?

You can only hope you know enough.

Now, first time in almost two years later, I walked between the graves. The ground sank softly under my feet, evidence of the recent storms. I reached the area where Michael’s grave was located, and scanned the headstones for his name. It appeared near the edge of the section, and stood out from the other markers. Two flower vases flagged the headstone, which was covered with an assortment of stones. Small rough rocks, round river stones, color decorated stones, – made no doubt by a child – covered the face of the marker. Only the engraved name and date were left exposed. A silver toy car rested atop one of the flat river stones. One vase laid on its side, knocked down perhaps by weather, a high school commencement pamphlet tucked against it. I leaned down and placed it back to its upright position.

The place remained quiet, even at this late morning hour, and despite its proximity to the busy road. I stood silent, and looked down at the plush green. The air breezing from the shaded area refreshed me from the warm sun peering between the trees. I whispered a quiet hello. The wind carried the words away, leaving only the murmur of the leaves above. No words came back. The difficult questions and hard wonders were left unanswered the same way they stayed on that cold winter day. I looked up. The crowd at the top of the hill was bigger now. A man wearing a miss-matched suite and fedora called for the pallbearers to gather at the back of the hearse. I walked up the hill between the headstones and joined my friend Sylvia.

 

June 28, 2010