Can you believe it, there are Jews here living among us on this sliver of desert hugged on the one side by the Mediterranean and on the other by enemies too numerous to count, who do not recognize the State of Israel, or plain old “Israel,” or even “ha-aretz,” like the name of the newspaper, which also means “the land,” as in “the land which I will show you,” the “I” in this case being the Almighty Himself—referring to the place that would take them in after the scourge of Europe and the millions reduced to ashes as “the Land of Israel,” as if our liberation, our great moment of self-definition, our casting-off of the shackles of second-class citizenship had never come? And this because they are religious fanatics who don’t believe in the legitimacy of the secular, democratic(ish), freely(ish) elected state, because they are still waiting for the Messiah to come and wave his Magic Wand and establish the dominion of His people, as stipulated in the Book of I think it’s Isaiah, and encompassing that vast stretch of dry yellow wasteland now claimed by the Palestinians, who, having no better place to go to and rejected by their Muslim so-called brothers across the Jordan so-called River and, for that matter, every other Arab country too, moan and howl over their rights to it as if it were Gan Eden.
Let them have it, I say. Let them have the whole over-baked, filthy, barren place—and good riddance and also, heaven forbid I should forget to say, live in peace. Make babies. Bake bread. Watch your favorite programs on TV. Just leave us alone already, and we’ll leave you alone, and all will be well. In this fantasy land, that is. Because our fundamentalist Jews—those shtreimel-wearing long-beaded God fearing Talmud-drenched lunatics? Never will they let this happen. Salaam salaam.
And did you know furthermore that the rabbis taught that we were sent into exile and ruin not because the Roman legions with their weapons of mass destruction and crucifixion-compulsion burned our cities to the ground and slaughtered those who weren’t already dead but because we ourselves—we Jews, who were then divided and sub-divided not into Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, etc. etc. but rather into Pharisees and Sadducees and Levites and zealots and so forth—turned on ourselves. “Jew-on-Jew hatred is what caused the great calamity” is more or less what the later rabbis, who of course weren’t there but rather nestled in their cozy nests in places like Pinsk and Minsk and Sura, terrible places, places where they hated and slaughtered Jews, but go figure, they said that it was baseless hatred that brought catastrophe down on our heads, not the Roman Legion.
So, nu, hatred: we, by which I mean myself and my siblings and all the other kids on our kibbutz (Bet Zion) were taught to hate such people, by which I mean religious fanatics dressed in their weird and hot costumes, clothes so oppressive and out-of-time that you’d die of a heat stroke, wearing those long sleeves and long beards and long heavy black dresses in our Middle Eastern heat—or rather, not to hate the people, not the religious per se, but their ideas, those radical, fanatical, rigid and doctrinaire set of doctrines and strictures and rules that kept them—and by association, us—stuck in a netherworld of neither-nor. With their taking over great swaths of central Jerusalem and then spreading like a wave of black crows as far as Bnei Brak and Bet Shemesh and up and down and east and west (which, in Israel, is only a matter of 50 miles, Israel being more the size of a large ant hill than an actual country). Anyway: what could we do?
I was from a different class and time and place and history and philosophy and even skin tone entirely: meaning, if they were the descendants of crazed Eastern European tzaddiks and hasids, I and my siblings were the progeny of what in Israel passes as royalty, or, if not royalty, then the upper class: namely, the Halutzim—the pioneer generation, themselves the product of the Jewish Enlightenment who, educated in Freud, Einstein, Marx, Buber, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Bach, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Schiller, Mahler, Lincoln and Liszt, American movie stars and American jazz, all of them, and they came to this place—leaving their homes in Europe for the rigors of the desert and the company of impoverished Arabs—and built the first kibbutzim, drained the swamps, cleared the land, irrigated, dug, learned to shoot a gun, shot and got shot at.
I, Yoni Benavi, am of the third generation of the Halutzim class, and on our kibbutz, founded by my grandparents before Israel was even Israel, we hated every idea, every notion, every prayer, and every intention that originated among the fanatics, in all their varying costumes and degrees of fantasy and fanaticism of the 18th century Polish ghetto: i.e., our own religious Jews.
Religious, you say? What’s religious? And when there are so many shades, so many tones and semi-tones of religious, who really qualifies as merely religious and who, as a nut job? Especially here in the Holy Land, God help us, where you could argue—and you’d be right!—that pretty much everyone is a nut job. But I digress. Or rather, I stray, I stray, when in fact I need to get down to brass tacks, which is to say the story itself, what you’ve come to these pages to read, the what-happened, the when, the why, the who. Speaking of the who—which is to say, our own homegrown nutcase Jews—most of them, they don’t even speak Hebrew. Or rather, though they can speak it, they use Hebrew for the holy books only. For the everyday, for the here and now, they use Yiddish. They even write in Yiddish. You speak to them in Hebrew, most of them will reply: “I am sorry but I do not understand.”
Only they don’t say “I’m sorry.” Instead, they look at you like they’re going to spit in your face. Most American tourists speak Hebrew more readily than they do, and trust me that isn’t saying much. So why, given that I’ve lived in Israel with my co-religionists all my days, am I ranting? I’ll tell you why. It’s because of Itai. Who is Itai? I’ll tell you. He is my son, my own and my wife Devorah’s second child, the first wasn’t a son, she was a daughter, a lovely girl, an accountant, she’s engaged to be married to another accountant, they met in school. We live in Tel Aviv. Yes, I left the kibbutz. After I got my degree, I didn’t go back. I studied biology at Hebrew University and continued with my advanced degree at Be’er Sheva, but Devorah, my wife, who also I met when we were both doing our first degree, me in biology and Devorah in psychology, she is from Tel Aviv and didn’t want to live on a farm with the chickens and the citrus trees. We bought a two-bedroom apartment 2 miles from the sea, it’s beautiful, the sea, not so far if you ride on a bike.
Itai loved the sea; he and his friends would spend whole days there. Even in the winter, off they’d go on their bicycles, to the beach, or to sit on a park bench eating peanuts, listening to the birds caw above them; talking; looking at girls. The usual things. There was nothing unusual about him; nothing that hinted that his soul was hindered, that things were amiss, that Devorah and I hadn’t managed to provide for him some essential something that his inner self required. And what was essential something? Did we not coo over his cradle, change his diapers, attend his school performances and so on and so forth until the day he was drafted into the army like every other able-bodied Israeli boy and girl and, at the age of 18, put on his uniform, his boots, his gun, his cap, and did service? This is not in Israel such a hardship as it is in America; everyone does it; it’s even a point of pride, something to look forward to, a necessary stop in one’s development as a full-fledged citizen. Not that it’s such a joy, either, let me tell you—not with your commanders screaming at you as you crawl on your belly through the desert at night with nothing but your wits to guide you, and that’s only in training, but you get the idea; not with the terrible food, the endless tuna sandwiches, you eat so many tuna sandwiches the sight of it later in life makes you sick; not with a bullet aimed at your head if, God forbid, a war should come.
I myself was in Lebanon in ’82, and let me tell you it wasn’t nice. Even so, Itai: off to the IDF he went, he was a medic with the infantry, in Golani, a top brigade, the best he was in, we were so proud, and when his three years were up, he and his girlfriend went to Turkey, saw the Blue Mosque and the fairy chimneys and sand towers of Cappadocia—our Israeli youth, how they love to travel—I myself went to India, for 10 months I was there, in India, what a place I could barely tear myself away but I had to, I had a place waiting for me at the Hebrew University, and God forbid I didn’t take it, then what would my future look like? (Because even on the kibbutz—or perhaps I should say especially on the kibbutz—we prize education. Thus we have our poets on the kibbutz, our physicists and mathematicians and cellists as well as our agronomists and fruit-pickers and dairymen.)
His own three years weren’t the worst three years Israel has ever seen but not the best either, trouble in the territories but no outright war, a couple of busses blown up, a handful of Jews stabbed, but, nu, what else is new? He came out of it without a scratch, and also, in those three years he grew; he grew from a scrawny lad of no more than one hundred and 60 centimeters to nearly 2 meters tall, and broad and strong, with a thick tangled black mop on top of his face like some exotic obsidian animal had taken up residence there—and true, he’s not so much to look at, or rather, his looks don’t make him any kind of movie star, but he’s solid, a solid, healthy, strapping Israeli type, he could almost be Italian, an Italian Mafiosi in New Jersey or Staten Island, America—but his girlfriend, they met on the base, what a beauty!
A rare find, this girl, this girlfriend of his, Tamar, a jewel, blonde no less, with long blond hair and her dirty feet in sandals, straight from the countryside this one, her family thinks ours is sophisticated and worldly, this is how simple was her upbringing in a small town in the north, just under the belly of Lebanon, where her family made olive oil and soap from their own olive grove for export. And she was crazy about him too; you could see it, the way she looked at him; and how agreeable she was, always saying yes, never no, never “I don’t feel like it,” never “I’m tired.” Yes, of course, we gave them our blessing—or if not our blessing, not technically, our consent, our support, we are more secular, we don’t go in for giving a blessing per se—when they went off together to explore the wonders of Turkey, and, later, when they were both in school, they decided to live together. Because this is Israel, and if you’re not a religious fanatic, we are very accepting here, very relaxed about matters of sex and love, of boy-and-girl: we figure that if they’re old enough to serve in the armed forces, they’re old enough to navigate their own personal lives. This girl—I’m telling you, she’s a gem, an angel from heaven, she helps Devorah in the kitchen, she and Ruti huddle together on the sofa, the two of them chatting like old friends and so lovely to look at, and what happens? It doesn’t work out, is what happens.
The old story: she’s living with him, they share their lives, she wants some kind of commitment, she isn’t asking for a wedding ring or even a date or even a year, but just some sort of commitment, that he will be there, for her, by her side, in some kind of official capacity: she’ll want children. Not now, but later. She’ll want what most women want: her own home, her own little ones, laundry hanging out on the line. This is Israel: we are in and out of each other’s homes constantly. No one has a lot of space, no three-and four-bedroom mansions or two-car garages or bright green backyards with a swing set and a swimming pool, and no matter what, you can never be far from home, even if you settle in the far south, on the border, you are only spitting distance, so what do we do? We pile into each other’s houses, every day, every week we do this, and then we eat. Which is all to say that their romance wasn’t conducted entirely behind closed doors, because in Israel, as I just said, closed doors aren’t so easy to come by.
It got so bad that toward the end she even confided in my wife, in Devorah, that she loved him, she loved our son, she wanted a life with him—but Itai, he wouldn’t say anything, he’d only shrug and say “maybe” or “we’ll see,” or “who knows?” So she moved out, and Itai left the university entirely and went to work on the kibbutz, which is to say my kibbutz, where I’d grown up. For a year, he picked lemons. Then he began to study Talmud, at first just once a week, at a nearby town where recently the haredim, religious wackos, had been coming to live, because of course they breed like rabbits, our religiously endowed, they’re spilling out of their cramped neighborhoods in Jerusalem, out of their cramped apartments hovering above cramped alleyways stuffed to the brim with all matter of things that people throw out when they no longer have any use for them—barrels of rotting vegetables, tallow, chicken bones, candy wrappers, plastic bags, net bags, sneakers, aerosol bottles, and the ever-present baby buggy, the buggies and push-strollers parked end to end on every sidewalk and every doorway from Mea Shaarim to Ezrat Torah and in between in every direction: pregnant women pushing babies and more babies, so many babies you’d think they were farming them.
The town, like so many towns of the same type, was new; it sprang up out of the desert like the gourd in the Book of Jonah. One day, no town; the next, a metastasis of concreteblock apartments, a blight on the landscape, a cold sore on the lips of a virgin. This one they called Kiryat Yisroel, and like all such towns, it was filled with anger, self-righteousness, dirty diapers, squabbles, envy, venom, and notenough: not enough money, not enough food, not enough space, not enough quiet, not enough peace. Prayers, yes; peace, not so much—because how do you attain peace when you and your wife who you married after meeting once, for a single hour, live in a two-bedroom flat with seven children and one-on-the-way? For this, my friend, you have to go to the study house; you have to study Talmud while your wife works at whatever work she can get in between birthing babies and washing their nappies. A disaster, is what it is. And, plus— and here I’m getting to the main point—they don’t serve in the army. This is the law in Israel, that the Orthodox, busy serving the Am in their own way, i.e., studying Holy Writ, are exempt from the army. Why this is so is a whole long story, a historical fact dating from our earliest and first government, and the rest, as they say, is misery….
So yes, as I was saying, he’d go and study: first once a week, just dipping his toes in, he said, like many secular Israelis he’d never studied the ancient books, he was curious to know where he had come from, he said, where his people had come from. To which I said: your people? Your people come from insanely terrible little towns in what is now Ukraine and what is now Poland, where they were tanners, and starved to death, except when instead of starving to death, they froze to death, or were murdered by peasants.
No, he said, and you know what I mean, Abba: my people, our people, the Jews. Going all the way back: like, what’s our story? And I’d repeat the story or rather cycle of stories I’d told him (and his sister, Ruti) since childhood: our story, our story—we came out of the desert, a little tribe infused or infected, whichever way you want to put it, by God, by some notion of God, by some notion of right-and-wrong and of being apart and selected and elected by None Other than God Himself. What followed was—who knows for sure, because the Bible isn’t exactly an accurate historic record, though archeology is?—but what followed was we landed in Jerusalem, had a bunch of kings and endless inter-tribal warfare and skirmishes, and a bunch more of this faction saying that this is the way to worship God while that faction said, no, you’re wrong, it’s this way, and all this was punctuated by various empires rising up in the east or the north and deciding that little old Israel (which wasn’t called Israel then, it was called other things, but wasn’t even a country, because countries as we know them today hadn’t yet been invented) was in the way, or rather, that they didn’t like its inhabitants—those Hebrews with their own God and their own language and own tongue and, depending on the century, their own Temple—and either killed us or enslaved us or exiled us or burnt us to death but in the meantime people kept talking and arguing and writing, and then the Romans came, and we spread to Europe in the north and the desert to the south and east and eventually came to live either under the Muslims or the Christians, and for a long time, things were OK, living in Muslim lands, but not so good in Christian lands, and finally after another dozen disasters involving the wholesale slaughter of Jews, culminating, naturally enough, with the Shoah—with the murder of the 6 million by that butcher—we came here.
Your great-grandparents, I’d say, they came from Poland and from Lithuania, young and on fire, they came to a backwater, a desert, an impoverished nothing of a place nominally governed by the Ottoman empire, and they built a kibbutz. But no, that’s not what Itai meant. He meant: why and how did we Jews come to be? What is the essence of the Jew? Why is there consciousness? What is consciousness? Is there any way to address the cosmos from within our puny framework?
Thus his weekly and then twice-weekly and finally nightly retreat to a chevra, a holy circle, to study the holy books, and all this under the auspices of someone whom my son called Rav Eli, who later became his father-in-law, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In America, when this happens—when an otherwise reasonably well-rounded and well-grounded young person goes religious—they call them baal teshuva, “master of return,” or “master of repentance.” Here we just say he or she is lost—lost! So too with our son, with our strapping, black-eyed and black-haired Itai. He becomes strange to us; he grows a beard; he covers his head; he wears a black coat and then a black suit and then a black gabardine and then a black hat. He will not eat in our house; we aren’t sufficiently kosher (though, unlike most secular Jews, we do keep kosher—a remnant of my wife’s upbringing, and trust me, it’s not so easy to keep kosher in Tel Aviv.) He won’t shake the hand of my wife’s friend Elena even though he’s known her since he was in diapers. He won’t even kiss his own mother, not without his rebbe’s permission.
By now of course he’s moved off the kibbutz and into a kind of men’s dormitory attached to the rinky-dink ramshackle yeshiva that Rav Eli runs out of a former petrol station, or maybe it was a warehouse, something left over from when Kiyrat Yisroel was no more than an intersection on the road from Gedera to Tel Aviv, a truck stop, a place where you could get the bus. In any event, nu, you get the picture. Our son had become one of them: infused with blinding certainty, committed to Talmud, convinced that the only way to be a Jew and to do a Jew’s work in the world was by studying the Holy Books, six, seven, eight, nine hours a day, except on the Shabbat, a day given over to prayer and rest. And what is the work of a Jew? The real work that the Jew was put on earth to do? Only to invite the Messiah to come visit already, we’ve been so patient—to perfect the world as much as he can, which isn’t saying much, but a little is better than nothing at all, and thus to bring unending peace, the world-to-come on earth. We await the Messiah, may he come soon and in our day, etc.
Of course all of this caused endless amounts of angst and hand-wringing in our own home, amongst us, the us now including Ruti’s fiancé, a fine young man, Ori, he’s an accountant, I’ve already mentioned this, but forgive me, I mention it again: because accountancy, unlike lunacy, is a sure, certain, calm and practical occupation. People need accountants; businesses couldn’t run without them. The very government couldn’t! Numbers are certain, they are facts unto themselves. And the job goes with a decent salary, too, more than decent if you have your own firm or the right connections or both. So yes, I am pleased that Ruti will always be able to work at something solid, which she’s good at and which gives her satisfaction, and that her future husband also has this profession. Versus needless to say the God business, which even during the best of times is iffy.
Long story short: we lost him. We lost him to that tribe of pale, impoverished, underfed, poorly-dressed, God-maniacs. He cut off all ties to his former friends at the kibbutz. He cut off all ties to his former mates—his brothers-in-arms—from the IDF. And if we hadn’t agreed to come to him, on his terms, he would have cut off all ties to us, his family, as well, only where in the holy books it says it’s kosher to turn your back on your mother and father, your sister and brother-in-law, your aunts and uncles and cousins, I don’t know. And what were those terms? Endless, is what they were, starting with dress code: my wife, his mother, had to cover her hair, and not with a simple headscarf: no, not a wisp of hair could escape. She had to wear long sleeves, a long skirt, and nothing that would show that she is a woman and not a man. Ditto for his sister. For me, it wasn’t so onerous. I merely had to wear long sleeves and long trousers, didn’t matter what time of year it was, no short sleeves, no sandals…..nothing that would make sense in a desert country under a broiling sun such as ours is. If we came to visit on the Holy Shabbat, God forbid we should drive, use electricity, cook, check the mobile device, until Shabbat was over, meaning by the official God-calendar, meaning not until three stars appeared in the night sky. It’s a plague, this kind of thinking, this way of life. Life? What kind of life, may I ask you, when not only your every minute but your very imagination, your very intelligence, is forced into strictures too numerous to count?
And yet, he swore by it, saying he was more at peace, happier, more content than he’d ever been. And we, his family, could see that it was so: his voice had taken on a calm, resonant tone; his eyes, which once flashed fire, now flashed sunlight; even his bearing changed. Whereas once he’d walked with a ferocious step, his arms swinging athletically by his side, his strides hurried, now he slowed, took in the scenery (not that there was much to see in that drab little town), breathed as if the air felt good in his lungs.
Then he announced his marriage, to, as you already know, his rebbe’s daughter; actually, there were four daughters. He married the second. She was 18, he was 28. How it was arranged I don’t know, though we could only assume it was via the usual channels of matchmaking and negotiation, but it was clear that though Itai didn’t love his wife, or at least not at first, he was pleased by the arrangement. What can I tell you about Hannah that you don’t already know? That she was young; that she lacked education; that she’d never read a novel or even a real newspaper; that she could cook and sew; that she wore a full veil and a white satin long-sleeved wedding gown; that on this same occasion she didn’t dance with Itai at all, but only with the other women; that she was pregnant within a few months of their marriage; that she was pale and delicate, with huge terrified dark eyes; that she awoke on the first day of her life as a married woman to don a wig.
The baby—our first grandchild—would be named Dafna. Both mother and father were slightly disappointed that Dafna was a girl and not a boy, but what can I say? Another would come along soon enough, and this one, this Dafna, they loved her. Of course they did. And meantime, he immersed himself in the Talmud, and she nursed the baby, took her on walks, baked challah, did the laundry, and worked along with her mother and sisters in the family business, which in this case was internet retail. I’ve failed to mention it, but the women of the family were nothing if not entrepreneurial. They saw a hole in the fashion market and filled it, contracting with makers of Orthodox women’s apparel to sell outfits online, and a nice little business they had going, too, especially when you consider that the women of the family not only brought home the bacon, as it were, but also managed all the domestic details. Anyway, it was enough to keep the little family of three (plus the many others who were sure to come) in circumstances above the usual poverty and misery and crowdedness. In short, they had a two-bedroom flat, with a modern kitchen and a washing machine in a nook by the bathroom.
We adjusted. What else could we do? Itai was—well, there was no going back was there? Not with a wife and a baby and whatever future babies there would be, which was as sure as sunrise itself. And then the next war happened. Which war, you ask? It was 2014. Rockets were being fired from Gaza into Israel. Some came as far as Tel Aviv. There were words, then escalation, and then our prime minister, excuse me but I cannot say his name without spitting, he ordered troops to the border and then ordered them to go in. And then our Itai, he was in the reserves, of course he was, everyone is. For decades—until you’re 40 if you’re a man. There are exceptions, of course. For example, for the Haredim, who are so busy with their holy books, etc., that they can’t be bothered. This didn’t apply to Itai, though: he’d become a religious fanatic too late. His service had been with Golani brigade. Golani was sent into Gaza first, and then the losses began: the explosions in the tunnels, the blood. They lost them. They couldn’t keep up with the blood. That’s when Itai was called up. He was a medic. They needed him.
Two days later, Itai was dead. Dead in a tunnel where he’d rushed in, after an explosion, a big boom explosion, and the sound of gunfire, and he knew they were in there—the soldiers, that is, the eighteen-and-nineteen-andtwenty-year-old soldiers, and he ran in after them to help, but there was a second explosion. And that was that. He was given a hero’s burial, at Mount Herzl. It’s beautiful there. The smell of pines.
So now, yes, we too, we mourn. We mourn and wait for the coming of the Messiah, soon and in our day.
And I’m very sorry to have to tell you such a sad story, a sad story with an even sadder ending, but this is how it is for us Jews, here in the Holy Land, the Land which God promised to Abraham and his descendants, promising that one day, “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” I am of course quoting from the verses in Genesis, or as we call that book, Bereshit: “In the beginning.” And what I’m thinking is: what if none of these stories had been written down? What if there was no Bible? What if there had been no Temple? No Second Temple? No Mishna, no Gemara. Where would I be living? Would I even be a Jew? Would Hitler have risen among us? Would there be a city where Tel Aviv now stands? Would my son still be living or would I and my son and all the rest of us be merely an idea, never to have been realized, in the Mind of God?
‘The Holy Messiah’ is included in Jennifer Anne Moses’ collection ‘The Man Who Loved His Wife,’ published in 2021 by Mayapple Press. It was previously excerpted in ACM.