"Israel 2008" story # 10

Tzfat, Israel           September 17, 2008

For the first week of my stay in Tzfat, I experienced something new every day.
     The religious, mountain town was surrounded by a hot haze that broomed across the valleys, and by mountains frosted with puffy pine trees that made them cool places to meditate. On one of those mountains, a modest one three kilometers from Tzfat, a tent waited during the daytime and let me sleep in it at night. A puffy pine tree kept it hidden.
     In the middle of my third night in the tent, I awoke to howling.
     The howls sounded like they came from a being whose soul was being ripped out of him and damned to walk forever as a lonely ghost. Jackals. The chorus of howls seemed to be calling for an attack. The nearest voice was ten feet from my tent. In addition to howling, the animals sniveled and whimpered.
     I sprang into self-preserving action. I sat up in my tent and instinctively said, "Hey!" What an ingenious thing for my instincts to tell me to say! I unzipped the tent and threw a rock in the direction of the nearest dog. Not wanting to waste more rocks, I thumped a heavy rock on the ground near my tent, to make myself sound big. The animals quickly shut up and seemingly left.
     Ha! I thought. Those whimpering fraidy-cats could've had me for a late dinner, or an early breakfast, but the didn't call my bluff! And how ironic that I should insult them, calling them fraidy-CATS, adding insult upon their injury. Ha! They're just yet still another animal I'm smarter than.
     Many nights, the man-hungry howlers returned. But, I had a healthy supply of rocks. I was unworried.
     Then, one day, an Israeli surprised me by describing the jackal killers as "small dogs". And finally, I saw one. It certainly wasn't a man-eater. It was smaller than a fox, sandy-colored and not so pretty.
     The cactusfruit were more dangerous.
     One day, I spotted a cactus bearing plump fruit. Yes! The barrel-shaped fruits wore rough skin and spikes, like the rest of the cactus. I was excited. This was before Violinist Daniel had left Tzfat, and we worked together to cut the fruit off the plant and the skin off the fruit. Daniel ate a bit then gave up. He'd accumulated tiny spikes in his hand, and he scraped them off with my knife.
     I ate as much of the fruit as I could. It was red. It melted like sugar in my mouth. It was a spongy papaya. Afterwards, my hands and inside lip wore furry coats of spikes. Ouch. They disappeared before morning.
     The next time I passed the plant, I had to have its delicious fruit. As carefully as I knew how, I cut a fruit off and skinned it. I ate it, acquiring only one spike in my mouth in the process. Ha!
     In the next ten minutes, however, I gradually felt the tingle of solitary spikes in all corners of my mouth. Darn! I couldn't add the cactusfruit to my list of Plants I'm Smarter Than. Ow. Ooh!
     But, if I was smart, I had to forget about outsmarting plants and start looking for a job. I also had to learn Hebrew.
     I found a job in my third week in Israel. One of the many religious, American Jews who'd immigrated to Tzfat was restoring a stone, Crusaders' building. My main job was filling a subterranean tunnel/room with dirt. My grandpa, in Michigan, commented: "That seems like a useless thing to do." Yeah, but it paid well.
     Again, I became unemployed. During my fourth week in Israel, I was eating lunch on a park bench, looking out at a wild valley that's supposedly full of giant boars. Moshe sat down beside me.
     I had been writing from left to right, in the rigid alphabet of King David's bible, for weeks now. But, I still wanted people to say "Ken" (Yes), when I asked if they spoke English. But, Moshe said, "Lo."
     "Lomed b yeshiva," he said. (I study in the religious school.)
     Young Moshe could only grow a long, fringe beard that framed his round face. He had a hungry smile and playful eyes that wanted to wrestle. He looked like an adolescent lion. We had a ten-minute, meaningful conversation. Moshe had to act out some questions, though, for example when he wanted to know if I was a boxer and could teach him to be one.
     Moshe eventually left to study. But, he left me with confidence. I began speaking Hebrew at anybody who had ears.
     My second Hebrew-only friend, a Lebanese Christian security guard who lets me enter the Tzfat College Library, invited me to meet his family. I asked his ten-year-old daughter, Rima, if she had any Hebrew kids' books I could borrow. Soon, she had one in her hands and was reading aloud to me.
     I instantly love anyone who'll read aloud with me. This girl adorably explained and acted out each line to make sure I understood. She'd look at me for understanding. I'd nod. And she'd continue. Unfortunately, I actually only understood a few of the words she said during the whole two-page poem. But, man, I loved her!
     ... And I loved that guy, Moshe.
     I found myself in his Yeshiva for Friday-Night Dinner to welcome the "Shabbat" (Sabbath).
     Ten dozen boys and young men ate hummous, eggplant, fish sticks, minced fish, meat and rice, and ingredient-less soup. I was the only one not wearing black pants and a white shirt, and the only one who shaved. But, I was embraced heartily. I was given a kippur hat, which occasionally fell off.
     After dinner, most of the boys put their arms around one another and sang. It's common in Jewish culture for men and women to worship separate from one another.
     The students' spirits were lightened by some wine. As they celebrated the Shabbat, they did one festive action that was hillarious. They sat on benches, two or three to a bench, each facing the same way. Then, they began moving across the room as if paddling boats. As they straddled the benches, they could only move forward by making pelvic pushes. Moshe wore a smile, as he did this directly behind a fat boy. He looked so innocent. But, he and his fellow boys' actions could've been in a music video for the Village People.

"Shabbat, shalom!" Modern Oddyseus.

Thanks to Hrazeh & Maya; Tomel & Lohem; Borak; and Svala & his wife for driving me to the Sea of Galilee and back!

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