NO SAFE PLACE?

JerusalemOldCitySepia-3It was an ordinary day in the suburb of Jerusalem where I managed a weekly English-language newspaper. I had fallen into the job when the previous editor quit — after his paycheck bounced. Twice. Me too, but I wanted the paper to succeed, and was willing to work for free if we might save it. Most of us kept working without pay. We were optimists in the midst of disaster.

The newspaper was broke. No money to pay anyone, but I loved running a newspaper. It was the most fun I ever had — professionally. I had an editor, a proofreader, and an art director … and a bankrupt publisher. Her money had kept us in business for a year. We hadn’t gotten the advertisers or investors. Not surprising. The Israeli economy was a disaster.

The lira was in free fall. 180% inflation is hard to imagine. The value of your paycheck disappears between breakfast and lunch, so your best bet is to spend every cent immediately, then spend more.

Israel was in turmoil, Years of bad blood between Arabs and Jews, an awful economy, soaring temperatures. The predominantly Arab areas were seething. The Jewish population was none too happy either. It was bad, but when has it been otherwise?

Jerusalem’s diversity is part of what gives it its unique character. The Jewish population is diverse — from secular and anti-religious, to ultra-Orthodox and everything in between. There are also Christians of every stripe, every flavor of Islam. Bahai, Samaritans … and sects I never heard of plus more than a few wannabe Messiahs. I sang along with the Muzein when he called the faithful to prayer. I loved the chanting, loved the traditions, the clothing, the markets, everything. Not everyone loved me.

French Hill, where I worked is a pleasant neighborhood at the northeastern edge of Jerusalem. Good schools. It’s atop a hill so you can catch a breeze, if there is one. In the summer, Jerusalem simmers as the khamsin, super-heated sandy air masses from the Sahara, turns the city into a sauna.

It was August, perhaps the 10th day of an extended khamsin. Almost nobody had air-conditioning in those days. Under normal weather condition in the desert, when you step into shade, the temperature drops 25 or more degrees. The air is so dry it doesn’t hold heat.

During khamsin, heat never eases. The air is thick, hot, sandy. Night is as bad as day. Airless. Fans make it worse. If you can’t get out-of-town, find a pool or get to a beach, your best bet is to close your windows and lie on the tile floor wearing as little as possible trying not to breathe. People get crazy when it’s that hot, even people who are normally friendly to one another.

Trying to keep the newspaper alive, there was no escape for me. Except for my car, which was air-conditioned. It was a Ford Escort with a tiny 1.3 liter engine, but the A/C worked pretty well. Which is why I volunteered to take the pages from the office to the typesetter in Givat Zeev.

Jerusalem sits atop a mountain. There’s a rumor the city has just one road, but it winds a lot. If you keep driving, you’ll get there eventually. Not quite accurate. You can get close — but close can be far.

I’ve no sense of direction at all. When I hear the words “You can’t miss it,” I know I will miss it. This is how I wound up in downtown Ramallah in the middle of a mini-uprising in late August 1983  I didn’t know what was going on, but I was pretty sure I shouldn’t be there. Fight? Uh, no, I don’t think so. Flight? I was lost. Go where? I stopped the car, pulled to the curb and sat there. No idea what to do next.

Baka, Jerusalem

A few moments later, two Arab gentlemen jumped into the car with me. That’s right, I didn’t lock the doors. If they wanted to break into my car, they might as well use the doors as break the windows. Was I about to be murdered? Abducted?

“You are lost,” the man in the front seat said.

“Oh, very much,” I agreed. The two men conferred in Arabic. I picked up a couple of words, one of them being “American.”

“Okay,” said the man in the front seat. “You need to leave. Now.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I responded. We swapped places. He took the wheel and drove me back to French Hill.

“You must be more careful,” he chided me. “You mustn’t go into dangerous places.” I thanked him with all my heart. He smiled, and the two of them headed back, on foot, to Ramallah. Offering them a lift didn’t seem quite the thing to do.

I never felt endangered, though probably I had been. It was the end of the times when Arabs and Jews could talk to each other, even be friends. I am sad when I think of friends I had in Bethlehem who asked me to stop visiting them because it put them in danger to have an Israeli in their house. There came a time when I could no longer go shopping in the Old City or Bethlehem, when Jewish children could no longer safely play with Arab children.

I lived there for nine years. There has been so much wrong on all sides for so many years it’s impossible to figure out a solution to which all would agree. I don’t see peace on the horizon. There are not just two sides to this conflict; there are an infinite number of sides. I chose to come home to the U.S. The longer I stayed in Israel, the less I understood.

I arrived in Israel in 1978 believing I had some answers. I was sure I knew something. By 1987, I knew there were no answers … and I knew nothing.

EX-PATRIOT: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A VACATION AND BUILDING A LIFE

The Herodian, hideaway of the King of Israel

There used to be a joke in Israel. It worked in English and Hebrew, so here it goes.

A tourist goes to visit Israel. He is astounded at what a beautiful country it is. He’s awed by the crops in the field, the amazing range of topography from mountains to deserts, from to to ocean. Haifa sits on the ledge overlooking the Mediterranean and little Safed (Svat) is a gem atop a mountain overlooking the sea of Galilee. He decides his future is there and he gets his family on board and they all move to a Merkaz Klita (Welcoming Dwelling) where they will first settle for free while everyone learns Hebrew and figures out what work they would like to do. But nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. The family is completely bogged down in bureaucracy. The kids learn Hebrew quickly, but mom and dad? By the time they’ve been there a year they have a couple of hundred simple words and an accent that makes Israeli’s cover their ears. Their skills don’t seem to fit in and their poor language skills make even an interview feel like climbing a mountain. Although they arrived with quite a lot of money, a year later, they are nearly broke, still don’t have a home of their own or something they could call a profession. The kids are happy, but the parents are sometimes too depressed to get out of bed in the morning.

“What happened?” says the man who first came there. “It was perfect. Beautiful. Everyone was happy. It was just like a tourist guide, full of fascinating archaeology, golden fields, exciting technology, hope, joy … with a future.”

“Aha,” said the Israeli to whom he was talking. “That was because you were here on a tourist visa.”

This particular bit of humor works for any place on Earth — or for that matter, Heaven and Hell. It’s an all-purpose joke. You just don’t “get” a country when you go there on vacation. I know a lot of people who moved to places they fell in love with as tourists, only to discover that the day-to-day lives of those who lived there was something too different for them, at least permanently. Nonetheless, I maintain that everyone should spend at least a year living in another country and not next door. It’s the only way you learn that how we do things here isn’t the only way they can or should be done. When you live abroad, there are no foreigners because you are one.

I had a dream about Israel last night. I often dream about Israel, and frequently, I dream in Hebrew. This is particularly interesting because apparently somewhere in my brain, I know a lot more Hebrew than I ever managed to to speak while I lived there. Owen spoke like he was born there within six month, but I spoke with such an awful American accent, often substituted words that sounded similar to the correct ones — which was hysterically funny to Israelis who are not, overall, big on politeness. They laughed until they cried. Each burst of laughter made me less willing to try to learn the language properly.

Mount Gilboa where the wild irises bloom

Nonetheless, I stay just under nine years and loved the country. I didn’t love the politics. I’m not sure anyone loves their country’s politics, but Israel and the Middle East are particularly incomprehensible. There is truth on every side, lies on every side, and a bizarre mixture of both on every side. It is not only possible to believe two completely opposing beliefs simultaneously, it’s almost a requirement. For example you can believe it is absolutely imperative that Israel have borders that can be protected against invasion because we have seen what happens when we don’t, but also believe that the Palestinians are getting a raw deal. Both things are true and both issues need to be somehow reconciled. If it were up to me, I would try to convince everyone involved on both sides to declare the past done. It’s too complicated to work out the differences. Start from today. Make something work now because the past is gone and living there is not doing anyone any good at all.

Wild poppies in the Galilee

In my dream, a friend (who I didn’t recognize and still don’t) was singing an Israeli folk song. She asked me if I knew the song. I said I didn’t. She asked me a lot of questions about the country and places I had visited. Eventually, I woke up talking to her explaining I had moved there and never been a tourist. I never did touristy things unless I had guests from the States. I loved having guests because it was the only time I had to do the tourist stuff.

Otherwise? I worked. I raised a family, or tried. I had a terrible marriage which was a “bounce back” from a recent divorce (always a very bad idea — overseas or not). I didn’t understand anything and he wasn’t much of a help. I worked long hours and commuted … something few Israelis did at that point though I understand these days, Israelis do commute between cities. It’s a very small country, after all. Today’s Israel is very different. Owen commented the other day that he had overheard some Israelis talking and could barely understand them. The language — especial the idioms — have changed enormously during the past 30 year. He was embarrassed that he understood so little.

The western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

But the thing is, I was involved almost from the first couple of weeks in work, relationships, and working at being a part of a society about which I understood only pieces. I never gave myself a chance to learn the language which remained a huge barrier for me. I was tied down to very young children and their care while they didn’t even understand my language nor I theirs.

Moving to a country is not at all the same as vacationing there. Maybe retiring might be similar. I wouldn’t know. I never had any significant time off while I lived in Israel. I was always working. Like many people who move to a new country, most of my friends were immigrants too. From England, Australia, South Africa, France, the Philippines, and of course, the U.S. In the years I lived in Jerusalem, almost all of them went back to where they came from.

They got tired of battling bureaucracy, dealing with terrorists and impending war, as well as Israel’s weird brand of socialism crossed with capitalism. With salaries too low to live on and what was then the most insane inflation you can imagine.Calculating various currencies and overdrafts while tryin to figure out what you were really earning. Mostly, I came to realize that Israel was not solving its problems. With each passing year, the idealists got older and the younger ones were a wholly different culture than the ones in my age group or older. The new crowd were born there. As far as they were concerned, the lay of the land was the way it had been since before they were born and they weren’t giving up anything to anybody. Much like this country. Is the U.S. giving back our Native Americans their land? Or even giving Black people a couple of acres and the equivalent of a mule? Of course not. After a certain point in time. the land belongs to whoever has possessed it, regardless of what happened before. I did not think there would ever be peace in my lifetime or maybe ever.

My home in Baka, Jerusalem

Yet I loved it. I love the Old City. I love walking the wall of the old Jerusalem. You could still do that back then. You could still go and dig around in archaeological areas and “find stuff.” You could walk through a corner in Jerusalem where David fought Goliath. Climb a mountain where an Israeli king made a last stand. See where the Romans broke through the walls into the city. Look at the reservoirs built by Herod the Great (his greatness is in considerable dispute, by the way). You could climb the Mount of Temptations, follow the Via Dolorosa and have Arab coffee along the way at the Misery of the Cross Coffee House and Souvenir Shop while shopping for sandals. You could fall in love with the open air spice shops and vacation along the Sea of Galilee. Drive to the top of the Banias and visit Eden where Adam and Eve had that especially delicious apple.

Old city wall in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

With all of that, it was never a vacation for me. It was beautiful, haunting, and rich with thousands of years of history … but in the end, it wasn’t “home.” Because when I thought of home, I knew I wasn’t there.

Maybe had I made a more sane marriage, learned the language, and felt the country was moving in a better direction, it could have been home, but I made too many bad choices too fast. I learned too little and most of that, too late. Ex-patriotism doesn’t work for everyone … at least not when it’s very far away, across an ocean in a culture that bears little resemblance to your own.

IT’S THREE O’CLOCK AND WHAT SHALL I DO WITH THE DEFROSTED MINCED MEAT?

This is the time of day when I have to ponder dinner. I think Owen’s going to make meatloaf. He does that well. Better than I do. I used to make pot roast to die for, but somewhere along the line, the cuts of meat have gone down hill. Back in The Day, pot roast was a cheap cut. Now, pot roasts and stew beef cost as much as sirloin … and sirloin, assuming it’s not laced with gristle, does NOT turn into a good stew.

The longer you cook it, the tougher it gets. About the only meat that still comes out more or less as expected is minced beef and chicken. In Israel, we ate chicken so often I thought we’d all begin to cluck. Beef came from Argentina where it was “grass fed.” In kitchen terms, it meant the cattle was out there on the range for most of its life. It had muscles.

It’s illegal to grow pork on Israeli land, so the kibbutzniks grow it on cement slabs. The pork chops and ham were great. You couldn’t buy it in a grocery store, so you had to go to the Arab butcher shop or Bethlehem. They had great meat in Bethlehem. What they lacked was proper refrigeration and I couldn’t buy it. All those flies. You can’t unsee that.

There were a lot of vegetarians in Israel because if you ate only vegetables (usually with dairy, and fish), you didn’t have to contend with separating dairy from meat dishes and associated cooking pots. A classically Kosher kitchen needed a LOT of storage space because you needed a set of dairy dishes, another set of meat dishes, with a separate set of pots and pans for each. Just to finish off the the storage conundrum, you needed a special set of everything for Passover.

If you weren’t really Kosher, but you had parents, friends, and family who WERE Kosher, you needed a secret stash for non-Kosher meals. My mother’s family were home-Kosher but were total heretics in the face of Oriental cuisine. That was before the arrival of Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and other amazing Asian dishes. You had to be ultra super orthodox to comply with the laws of Kashrut when the smell of Asian spices food wafted your way.

Ah, the memories.

The original reason for Kashrut (kash-root) laws is the line in the Torah which says “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” Translations vary, but that’s the gist of it. After a thousand years of arguing, the Rabbinical Courts decided you couldn’t eat meat and dairy together. During the 1400s, they added chicken to the meat category, even though chickens don’t make milk. They just decided chicken was meat-like and should therefore be considered meat. If it wasn’t meat-like, it would have had to be fish-like and lacking gills and scales …


You can’t make this stuff up.


Shellfish isn’t kosher. Kosherly-speaking, you are forbidden the joys of shrimp, lobster, clams, scallops, calamari, or octopus. You can only eat fish which has gills and scales. Depending on your family, they may be even more frenzied about shellfish than Oriental food. My mother ate non-Kosher food with gusto in restaurants and on vacation, But at home? Nope.

Owen doesn’t like fish except (sometimes) well-chilled shrimp with hot sauce. Garry is a shellfish guy, but is unenthusiastic about salmon — which I like a lot. Now that it’s a 2-to-1 negative vote on salmon, so I haven’t seen any in months. Both of them are okay with flat white fish. Haddock and cod — my two least favorite offerings from the sea — along with sole, scrod, and whatever else lies on the bottom. They are all tasteless. It’s fish without flavor except whatever spices or sauce you put on it. It’s easier to take fish oil capsules.

The most important thing to know about legally Kosher fish is that it’s a vegetable. You can eat it with dairy OR meat, though why you’d eat meat when you’re already eating fish, I have no idea. Overall, if you can grasp the concept of “fish as a vegetable,” you have conquered the most complicated part of Jewish law as practiced in the kitchen. There’s much more complicated stuff, but only men get to think about it. Equality of the sexes has not come to Orthodox Judaism. I doubt it ever will.

We’re having meatloaf and Owen’s special Brussel sprouts. At least someone around here likes vegetables.

SUMMER? FEH.

5 Things I Hate About Summer


I lived for 9 years in Jerusalem. It’s hot in Israel and temperatures, during a bad chamseen, could hit 110 or more. A chamseen is a sand-filled wind that blows up from the Sahara. It’s more humid than normal hot Israeli air and the air is full of sand, so the air is both superheated, humid, and gritty. The word means “fifty” because supposedly the chamseen comes and stays for 50 days.

My home in Baka, Jerusalem

A chamseen leaves a ton of dirt behind it. Piles of Sahara sand blew 5,000 miles to make a mess of my home. When it was “normal” summer and not chamseen, it was just plain hot. Very few places other than hotels and some businesses had air conditioning because when you came into the shade from the sun, the temperature would drop 30 or 40 degrees and there was almost always a breeze at night

There was no autumn. One day it was summer and you were sitting outside looking at the solid deep blue sky. Suddenly, you saw a line of clouds marching across the sky and every woman raced home to take in the dry laundry. I don’t think I ever saw a man run to take in laundry. After that, it would rain a lot and occasionally but rarely, snow.

I missed Autumn and winter. But spring was lovely. By February, the almond trees would bloom in the hills and by May you could feel summer settling in. But through June, there were still some days that were cool and comfortable.

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When I came back here in August 1987, I had completely forgotten what summer in New England is like. The heat and the humidity. The feeling when you open a door, that you are diving into hot soup. Even if you don’t have breathing problems, no one can breathe in that dense, wet, hot air. In the spring, that hot wet air is also full of pollen, so I feel like I need an oxygen cylinder.

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Even though i complain about winter, over all, it beats out summer. Especially THIS summer. Even with slippery sidewalks and wondering how we are going to manage to plow that driveway again. Even if we have to shovel the roof before it collapses. I would love Autumn all year round, though. The cool and nippy parts of autumn, maybe two weeks of serious winter and snow, then a long soft spring which goes directly into autumn

What do I like about summer? Not having to plow the driveway. No need for oil deliveries. Also, I can usually breathe.

WHAT A SHOCK! – Marilyn Armstrong

You think you know someone. You hang out with them, exchange emails, jokes, and anecdotes. Maybe you even work with them. Then, one day, out of the blue, you discover they are fundamentalist Christians who believe you are going to Hell or are a hard-core right-wing Trumpist, conspiracy theorist, or believer in the upcoming zombie apocalypse.

I lived in Jerusalem for almost 9 years. You meet a lot of people who are sure they are Jesus Christ come back to finish his work on Earth. One of them worked at the local pizza joint and seemed perfectly normal, until in the middle of a casual conversation, he would drop a bomb about his mission and there you were, transported to wacko central.

I had a casual friend who was a piano player. He sang and played at fancy hotel lounges, like the Hilton Hotel lounge. He was, like me, an American, so it was inevitable we would meet. We struck up a little chatty relationship. One night, he called and invited me over. He had something important to tell me.

Important? Our relationship consisted of reminiscing about life in the U.S. in the 1960s — and I’d done his horoscope. I was (coincidentally) the astrology columnist and managing editor of a short-lived English-language weekly. Please, let’s not discuss astrology or my psychic abilities (or lack thereof). You don’t want to know and I don’t want to tell you.

Having nothing better to do at the time, I walked over to his house (just around the corner) and we got to talking. Suddenly, I knew. He was going to tell me one of two things: he was an alien and came from on another planet or galaxy … or … he was Jesus Christ.

edward-gorey-donald-imagined-thingsIt was the latter. Another Jesus. He wanted me, because of my brilliant psychic abilities, to be Paul and spread the word. I worked very hard to tell him that his timing was off and I would be sure to advise him when the right moment arrived. Then I fled into the night and home. He was one of several people who convinced me there was no future for me in the psychically predictive arts.

Then there was the guy I worked with at one or another of the many high-tech companies at which I was employed who one day informed me of his intention to quit his job and move to an underground bunker in anticipation of the coming apocalypse. I hadn’t even done his horoscope.

Not surprisingly, a series of these unwelcome surprises has made more than slightly wary of prospective friends. I’m afraid of what will be revealed as we get to know each other better.

The thing about people who believe in cabals, believe they were dropped from an alien spacecraft (or will be leaving on one shortly), are certain that God has assigned them a mission … ? You can’t argue with them.

You can’t point out the incongruities and contradictions of their beliefs. They believe what they believe and that’s that. There’s no point in offering facts. They will ignore all evidence that goes against their world-view.

These folks make me nervous. What happens when they (inevitably) decide I am one of their (many) enemies?

TIME TRAVELING SLOWLY – Marilyn Armstrong

Without a machine or a wormhole, we travel through time every day of our lives. We don’t do it instantly, but every photo we take is a picture of us in the past. Recent past, long ago past. All our memories are from the past and with each breath, we move one lungful at a time into our future. It is time travel, but slow.

When I was ten, I read about Halley’s Comet. I learned it would be visible in the heavens on my 39th birthday.”Wow” I thought. “I’ll be so old and I will see the comet on my birthday Thirty-nine!” I couldn’t imagine being that old — or seeing Halley’s Comet.

96-Halleyscomet-1986

When my 39th birthday rolled around, I was living in Jerusalem. On my birthday, as I had planned when I was ten, our bridge club went out into the Judean desert to see the comet. It was Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. It has special significance for Orthodox Jews … and one of us was Orthodox, so he was up a long time because he had to get up before dawn to start praying. That’s Judaism for you. Lots of very long prayers.

The Jerusalem Post had published the exact times and position when Halley’s Comet would be visible as well as where on the horizon you should look. Sure enough, there it was, low on the horizon over Bethlehem. It turned out, when we got back to the house, we could see it perfectly from our balcony. When we knew where to look, it was easy to locate.

halleys-comet-1986

That was 43 years ago. I remember knowing the comet was coming and planning to see it on my 39th birthday. I didn’t know I’d be living in another part of the world by then. Now, as I approach my 73rd year, it’s a one-time memory. I have the perspective of a child, a woman, and a grandmother. I have traveled through time. Slowly. Without a machine, without a wormhole.

It is no less time traveling than in a science fiction story … just a lot slower. Life is a trip through time. Mine, yours, everyones. We won’t bump into our younger or older selves, but we carry each of these selves with us as a future, past or this moment in time.

KINDNESS OF STRANGERS – Marilyn Armstrong

Israel was in turmoil. Years of bad blood between Arabs and Jews, a disastrous economic situation, and an intense heatwave which had everyone cranky and ill-tempered. It’s no wonder that most riots take place in the heat of summer.

The predominantly Arab areas were seething with resentment while the Jewish population was none too happy either. It was a rough patch, but when had it been otherwise?

Jerusalem’s diversity is part of what makes the city unique. The Jewish population is highly diverse. From secular and downright anti-religious, to ultra-Orthodox and everything in between. There are Christians of every stripe and every flavor of Islam. Bahai, Samaritans — and sects I never heard of — and more than a few wannabe Messiahs.

French Hill

I sang along with the Muzein when he called the faithful to prayer. I loved the chanting, the traditions, the clothing, the open-air markets. I loved everything and everyone, but not everyone loved me back.

The newspaper I was running was broke. We’d been going on fumes for the last few issues and it was obvious we’d be out of business and out of work very soon. We kept hoping for an angel, someone to come along and invest enough to get us well and truly launched. In the meantime, it had been weeks since we’d gotten paid.

I was doing my share, trying to keep the newspaper alive, so when someone had to take the pages to the typesetter in Givat Zeev up by Ramallah, I volunteered. I had a car. I’d been there before. Why not?

There’s a myth that Jerusalem has just one road, but it winds a lot. The theory is, if you keep driving, sooner or later you’ll get there, wherever “there” is. That’s not quite accurate. You may get close — but when I’m the navigator close may not be close enough. I have no sense of direction. When I hear the words “You can’t miss it,” I know I will miss it.

Which is how I wound up in downtown Ramallah in the middle of a minor riot in late August 1983. I didn’t know what was happening or why (exactly), but I was sure I shouldn’t be there.

ramallah-2

I was lost. No idea how to retrace my steps and get back to French Hill. Going forward wasn’t an option. I pulled to the curb and sat there, wondering what to do next.

A few moments later, two Arab gentlemen jumped into the car with me. No, I hadn’t locked the doors. If they wanted to break into my car, they might as well use the doors as break the windows. Was I about to be murdered? Abducted?

“You are lost,” the man in the front seat said.

“Oh, very much,” I agreed. The two men conferred in Arabic. I picked out a couple of words, one of them being “American.” That’s easy. It’s the same in almost every language.

“Okay,” said the man in the front seat. “You need to leave. Now.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I responded. We swapped places. He took the wheel and drove me back to French Hill.

“You must be more careful,” he chided me. “You must not go to dangerous places.” I thanked him with all my heart. He smiled, and the two of them headed back, on foot, to Ramallah. Offering them a lift didn’t seem the thing to do.

As a final note, their act of kindness was a genuine act of bravery. They could have come to real harm for their generosity which some would have regarded as a lack of loyalty to whatever the current cause is or was. They were under no obligation to help me. Yet they did, at considerable risk to themselves.

An act of kindness by strangers and people who were, in theory, not on “my side.” People can be incredibly kind when you least expect it.

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

HALLEY’S COMET AND THE END OF HIPPYHOOD – Marilyn Armstrong

I did take a lot of drugs … but I never considered them a “religious” or otherwise “exalted” experience. They were fun. Music was magical and just being outside and watching the stars was a glorious experience. In all those years, I never had a bad trip. But I was always careful about where I used stuff and who I was with. I never did understand people who took those drugs and then did things like go grocery shopping.

Why bother? Just go grocery shopping. The drugs were a kind of mini-vacation for weekends with the people you loved to be around.

When Tom met Timothy Leary while he was working, he got to tell him that he had used his travel service many times. I wish I’d been there to say thanks, too.

I stopped using them when my body stopped reacting well. It was, in fact, my 39th birthday and I was in Jerusalem.

Halley’s Comet was in the sky and a group of us went into the Judaean desert. We theorized we’d get a better view of it the sky from the desert. What we hadn’t known was that Bethlehem kept its streetlights on all night and they were exactly where we needed to look for the comet.  Jerusalem’s turned off its streetlights at around 11pm, so finally, we gave up and went back to our house which was right on the edge of the desert (it no longer is — that area is full of hotels and restaurants and fancy clothing stores. Where we all discovered we could see the comet just fine from the sidewalk in front of the house.

I wrote about it and it was the only article I wrote that got published in the Jerusalem Post. I wish I had a copy.

I wasn’t a hippy. I was too busy to be involved in full-time hippyhood and I was too fond of living in a comfortable house and being clean. I had a child (and in Jerusalem, three children) as well as a full-time job, a house to care for, a husband (two, at different times)(and Garry makes three just so you don’t get confused), and a lot of friends.

My home in Baka, Jerusalem

I think I had so many friends because I was one of the only people (couples) who owned big enough houses and had enough food to provide a “base camp” to one and all. In New York, everyone else lived in the dorms at school or a rental apartment and in Jerusalem, we had a really big space compared to most people.

This made me an official weekend hippy. Regardless, my brain had to be clear and functional before the start of work on Monday. I had clear limits.

All of us — the whole gang — grew up to be hard-working and well-respected people who believed in the value of work and understood that drugs were fun, but not a lifestyle. I was one of the people who watched hippies on TV and wondered how they dealt with all that MUD and grunge.

It was a strange and fascinating decade and a wonderful time to be young. I had already recovered from having my spine “repaired,” so I was happy to be alive. I definitely needed a baby. I always remind Owen that he was definitely no kind of accident. I wanted him and it wasn’t easy to produce him, either. When one gets so close to death, making new life seems the way to go.

Those were great years. By then, I was out of that gigantic plaster cast and braces and could (mostly) do what everyone else did. Arthritis came years later and for the next 20 years, I was fine. That was when I also took riding lessons. I had sent my son to riding camp and I realized he was learning to ride, but I was still waiting.

Mount Gilboa when the wild iris bloom
From the other side of the mountain

So, I learned to ride and then to climb. I climbed Mount Gilboa to see the wild iris in bloom and climbed down Land’s End because my stupid ex-husband dared me to do it. I swam naked in the Mediterranean and played bridge all night. I never seemed to need sleep back then.

Other than the battles with the ex, the rest of my life was what I wanted. When I got upset, I got into my tiny little car and drove around the old city. It was amazing at night with the lights on the stone walls. I never imagined I would leave it and I still dream about it. In my sleep, I can still speak Hebrew.

People spent an awful lot of time categorizing people into “groups.” If you took drugs, you were a hippy. Never mind if you also worked a 50 hour week, hauled groceries and tended your garden and when the time came to not take drugs, you simply stopped taking them and life went on.

The Banias by Mount Hermon

There were some really great memories back then. I remember tripping high up on the Banias in the Golan and realizing — for the first and final time — that the problems in the Middle East were never going to be solved. Someday, the Arabs would get their act together and push little tiny Israel into the sea, just like they said they would. It wasn’t a bad trip, but it was a realization and a revelation that sometimes, what you most wish for isn’t going to happen. No amount of hoping, wishing, planning, and negotiating will make it work.

That was probably as close as I ever got to a druggy religious experience. We had been talking about The Country and all its problems. How we knew, even if the rest of the world didn’t seem to catch on, that the reason Israel had not been overrun was (1) American foreign aid, (2) American fighter planes. Nixon, in the middle of Watergate, stopped to make sure the fighters were shipped to Israel and that is why the Yom Kippur war wasn’t a national catastrophe. And why Israelis thought of Nixon as a hero — a thing I found hard to reconcile. And (3) that the Arab community was just as much at odds with itself as with Israel and that’s why they never managed a sustained military campaign.

That has changed since terrorists seem to have replaced armies, but they are still fighting each other. If they weren’t doing that, they would have enormous power to change their world. And everyone else’s.

GUILTY – BUT WAS I CHARGED? Marilyn Armstrong

BROUGHT UP GUILTY

To be brought up Jewish is to be brought up guilty. I think Catholics have a similar problem. We are guilty of different things, however. Catholics have the whole “sin” thing to deal with. Jews get to be guilty about all of Our People who were slaughtered in various parts of the world because they were Jews in the wrong country at the wrong political period.

Hofstra University 2014

Often, for us, there was no right period. Until relatively modern times — minus Nazi Germany, of course — Jews were anathema to most Christian monarchies.

And all the countries were monarchies. We did our best for the long years under Islāmic rule. They were fine with Jews as long as we didn’t tread on their religious sensibilities and tiptoeing through other religious ideologies is a very Jewish thing. We got lots of practice.

When I married my first husband, he had no religion. I mean literally none. They didn’t attend any church and I doubt anyone had ever been baptized. Jeff thought he might be a Druid and planned to return as an oak tree. I was a non-practicing Jew. So we got married by a minister that his mother remembered had buried some family member.

We didn’t have a real wedding. No church or synagogue. No wedding gown. Just a little get together with a minister (Methodist, I think) and a few friends. A couple of weeks later, my mother had a reception at their house, which was nice because it was casual. We didn’t need fancy invitations. After which, we got on with the business of being married.

Our house in Baka, in Jerusalem

So, when Owen was about to be born, we had to figure out what to do about religion. We didn’t have any and neither of us were believers in dogma. I had a friend who was also a rabbi and he said he was not a believer in pediatric Judaism.

Neither were we, so we just didn’t do anything … except we had Owen circumcised which gave him a whole set of Jewish godparents … then we had him Baptized and Garry became his godfather. And that is why Owen’s middle name is Garry.

The Dead Sea

When Jeff and I divorced and I took Owen to Israel, it seemed a good time for him to be Jewish, so he had a Bar Mitzvah there, at the only Reform synagogue in Jerusalem.

He got a 6-year dose of Jewish guilt, but then he went back to the U.S. and forgot all about religion.

I got to keep the guilt. He got to be American.

Summer afternoon on the Mumford

Guilt can be a mother’s best weapon to manage recalcitrant children, by the way. Owen may not remember much Judaism, but he sure does remember guilt. Not bad at using it himself, now that I think of it.

THE MIKVEH

In 1980, I got married. In Israel.

Israel is a funny country. A democracy and also, a theocracy. Family matters fall under religious courts, including marriage. To get married in Israel, you have to be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. If you want a non-religious wedding, you have to go somewhere else. Another country. People of mixed faiths who want a neutrally religious ceremony have to leave the country to get hitched. The good news? An out-of-country marriage is honored in Israel. If you’ve made the contract, it’s legal, but a lot of people would prefer not having to go overseas to get married.

Mikveh in a modern hotel in Israel

The guy I was marrying was a Jew. Not much of a Jew, but to be fair, I wasn’t much of a Jew either. Not religiously, anyway. I had done a lot of reading, so I understood what it was about. I was good with it. It was medieval, but as medieval stuff goes, it was a good kind of 14th century.

Since the destruction of the Temple (by the Romans, in case you were wondering), the Mikveh’s use is almost entirely for the purification of Jewish women and men, and as part of the tradition for converting to Judaism. And before you ask, yes, people convert to Judaism. Not only because they are marrying a Jew. Some people do it because they find Judaism a religiously logical structure. As I do, even though I don’t practice it.

The Mikveh is used to purify people and sometimes, things. Like a body for burial, utensils for use in a Kosher home. But mostly, it’s for people.

An ancient Mikveh

Most forms of impurity can be fixed by immersion in any natural collection of water, but some things require “living water.” That is to say, moving water, such as springs or groundwater wells. The Mikveh is designed to simplify the whole process by offering a bathing facility that is permanently ritually pure and in contact with a natural source of water.

Back in the old days — like a couple of thousand years ago older — rivers and lakes were the place to go. But that water was cold. There were no hair dryers. You couldn’t get your fingernails done after your ritual bath. What about those lovely warm towels? The modern Mikveh doesn’t merely purify. The water is skin temperature and very comfortable — and clean. You exit to heated towels. Hair dressers. Manicures. And, of course, there is food and you can bet it’s Kosher.

“I have to do what?” I asked.

La-mickve-de-besalc, Spain

My friend, who was religious and regularly went to a Mikveh, was patient. She told me she’d make sure I went to a good one, where they would treat me properly. By which she meant they wouldn’t question me very hard about my level of religiosity. Which was fortunate. I didn’t have much to say except that I quite liked the way Judaism believed winning God to your side was more about doing the right thing and a lot less about repentance. You could repent your ass off as a Jew, but if you weren’t kind to the poor, diligent in your prayers and all that stuff, God was not going to be impressed. You might not get to be part of the rising of the dead to …

Well, maybe heaven. Maybe … something else. Judaism doesn’t have anything at all to say about the afterlife. Believe whatever you choose. It’s not in The Book. I like that. It was sensible. Although I didn’t practice, I appreciated it. Also, she told me to not tell them I was getting married because they were a lot stricter when you were getting married.

Stricter? About what? I’d been married before, after all.

“No,” she explained. “It doesn’t count. You didn’t marry a Jew.”

It was dizzying. She also explained that you had to walk into the water and take a complete dip. Every single inch of you had to be under the water. Including the top of your head and if you missed, they’d make you do it again until you did it right. You had to do it right so they would stamp your official purity ticket. The one you had to show to the Rabbi to prove you were pure enough to get married.

Say what?

In my lifetime, purity was not an issue. I’m pretty sure we abandoned purity sometime during the 1960s, right around the time when we smoked pot, but didn’t inhale. Oh, don’t be silly. Of course we inhaled.

Purity is not something you can ignore in Judaism. It’s a very big deal. Before I could get married, I had to be purified. Whether or not I’d ever do it again, I was going to do it at least this once. I was supposed to be peeved about this reversion to medievalism, but actually, I was intrigued. I’m a history buff. I like ancient rituals and this was an honest-to-God ancient ritual of which I would be a part.

Did I mention that you also have to be incredibly clean to be purified? Your fingernails and toenails have to be as clean as the day you were born.

A modern Mikveh — much like the one I used in Jerusalem

I did it. I was confused, especially because they spoke only Hebrew and mine wasn’t good, which is an understatement. But I cleansed, dipped, and got my stamp of purity approval. I liked it. It felt good. I felt cleansed. I thought if I’d been in a different place …

I left the Mikveh wishing life was offering me other choices. But I was missing the point.

Life always offers you other choices. The hard part is seeing them and doing something about them. Recognizing options can be extremely complicated, but the choices are always there. Grab those choices before they get away.

But I didn’t see them. Time passed and life moved on.

LIVING ABROAD IN JERUSALEM – Marilyn Armstrong

Once upon a time, in another life, I had a home in Jerusalem, just down the road from Jaffa Gate.

When I remember Jerusalem, the edges are soft. “My” Jerusalem is gone, replaced by housing projects, shopping malls, and office parks.

When you move to Jerusalem, it is called “going up” to Jerusalem. Indeed, it is on top of a small mountain, but there’s more to it than the simple physical act of climbing. It’s an emotional event of rising into another place and a different world.

I didn’t know I was arriving at the end of an era. Those would be the last years the Bedouins would cross their sheep through the middle of town, stopping traffic on King George Street on their way to the greener grass on the other side of the mountain. Those would be the final years during which you could stand on the edge of the wadi by an ancient olive grove to see the great golden Dome of the Rock glowing in the first light of dawn. Now, the wadi is filled with condos. A promenade has been built where ancient olives trees grew.

At the end of January 1978, my son and I arrived at Lod airport. Neither of us had ever been to Israel. Owen knew absolutely nothing of the place. I had read a great deal about it … history, legends, guidebooks, and novels. We had no friends or family in the country, nor were we familiar with the language or customs. Despite this, we would make it our home and both of us would grow to love it.

My mother said she thought me very brave to leap into the unknown. I enjoyed the role of intrepid heroine. But I was not brave, just hungry for adventure and yearning for culture shock.

When we arrived, exhausted and anxious at the airport, I scanned the faces in the crowd, wondering who would be there to take charge of us and get us to our destination. Remarkably, someone was there. Somehow, we recognized each other. We were collected, processed and given official identity papers. A small amount of money. I had no idea how little it was worth. It was a while before I learned to do exchange rates in my head.

I remember that the taxi driver played the radio loud and sang along. The music was 1960s American rock and roll. The driver spoke no English. I spoke no Hebrew. Images tumbling one on top of another.

Israel-jerusalem-westernwall

The apartment in which we were to live had a living room, a hallway with a kitchenette, a small bedroom, and a tiny bath with a half-tub. No closets. You buy closets and install them. Israeli closets combine closets and dressers. Lacking any place to put our things, we used our trunks as dressers.

We had nothing to eat. The refrigerator was empty. Hunger was gnawing at us, but we had no car nor a clue where to shop. No other choice, so we ventured out. Found a grocery store. All the labels were in Hebrew. Bread was sold in whole, un-sliced loaves. Cheese was sold by metric weight. Mostly, I recognized the fruits and vegetables, but even some of those were unfamiliar.

Culture shock really struck when I tried to buy milk. Finding milk required asking everyone until I found someone who spoke English. He then led me to the dairy case. This was unsettling since I’d thought that a dairy case is a dairy case and would be easy enough to recognize. Milk was sold in plastic bags.

Not cartons. Not bottles. Bags. What in the world was I going to do with a bag of milk? Finally, I bought a pitcher. After tearing the bag open with my teeth – not having thought to bring scissors – I poured the milk into it.

It turned out that there are special containers to hold milk bags and you just snip off a corner and pour the milk directly from the bag. Who knew?

We finally slept. The next morning dawned into brilliant sunshine.

“Let’s go see our city,” I said and we found the bus to Jerusalem, rode down Hebron Road, and got off at Jaffa Gate.

The walls rose up around us. I shivered with excitement. I suspect that Owen, lacking my expectations, was merely stunned into silence. This was what had brought me to Jerusalem. Thousands of years of ghosts floated through those narrow streets. You never walked alone in Jerusalem. Generations of ghosts walked with you wherever you went.

Donkeys, so heavily laden that they looked as if they would collapse under their loads, plied the stone streets, cruelly prodded by small brown boys armed with sticks and shrill voices. Vendors called from their stalls. Dresses blew gently in the soft wind, brightly ornamented with intricate needlework.

Everything rustled in a light breeze. Stall owners stood in the lanes accosting passersby.

“Come in, come in,” they called. “I make you a special deal.”

Small open spaces housed spice markets that filled the air with the most exotic smells, the scent of ginger mixed with cinnamon, cumin, and saffron. Breathing in all the scents was a joy.

As the day moved on, more and more people arrived, filling the shuk until it seethed with activity and noise. Everywhere, people were haggling over prices, making deals, grabbing up bargains, filling their bags. It was vital and alive.

Everyone was buying or selling. Voices echoed off the stone. Jerusalem of gold, Jerusalem of stone, and in the springtime and summer, Jerusalem of flowers. All around you, embedded in the walls, is the architectural history of the city.

Yerushalmis change their minds a lot,” I was told. The walls told stories. You could see the outlines where arches and windows had been but were now closed and see how the ground level had risen.

My home in Baka, Jerusalem

That first day, we wandered. The city led us into herself. She twisted us around until we found ourselves atop a hill, looking down at the Temple Mount, the golden Dome of the Rock shining in the sun. The walls, the golden dome, the stones made my bones resonate.

I fell in love with Jerusalem. No matter how difficult my personal life became, the city lifted me up.

Jerusalem sang to me, called to me, made love to me, and now, so many years later, in my dreams, I am still in love with her.

UP TO JERUSALEM

Once upon a time, in another life, I had a home in Jerusalem, just down the road from Jaffa Gate. When I remember Jerusalem, the edges are soft. “My” Jerusalem is gone, replaced by housing projects, shopping malls, and office parks.

I didn’t know I was arriving at the end of an era. Those would be the last years the Bedouins would cross their sheep through the middle of town, stopping traffic on King George Street on their way to the greener grass on the other side of the mountain. Those would be the final years during which you could stand on the edge of the wadi by an ancient olive grove to see the great golden Dome of the Rock glowing in the first light of dawn. Now, the wadi is filled with condos. A promenade has been built where ancient olives trees grew.

At the end of January 1979, my son and I arrived at Lod airport. Neither of us had ever been to Israel. Owen knew absolutely nothing of the place. I had read a great deal about it … history, legends, guidebooks and novels. We had no friends or family in the country, nor were we familiar with the language or customs. Despite this, we would make it our home and both of us would grow to love it.

My mother said she thought me very brave to leap into the unknown. I enjoyed the role of intrepid heroine. But I was not brave, just hungry for adventure and yearning for culture shock.

When we arrived, exhausted and anxious at the airport, I scanned the faces in the crowd, wondering who would be there to take charge of us and get us to our destination. Remarkably, someone was there. Somehow, we recognized each other. We were collected, processed and given official identity papers. A small amount of money. I had no idea how little it was worth. It was a while before I learned to do exchange rates in my head. I remember that the taxi driver played the radio loud and sang along. The music was 1960s American rock and roll. The driver spoke no English. I spoke no Hebrew. It was images tumbling one on top of another.

Israel-jerusalem-westernwall

The apartment  in which we were to live had a living room, a hallway with a kitchenette, a small bedroom, and a tiny bath with a half-tub. No closets. You buy closets and install them. Israeli closets combine closets and dressers. Lacking any place to put our things, we used our trunks as dressers.

We had nothing to eat. The refrigerator was empty. Hunger was gnawing at us, but we had no car nor a clue where to shop. No other choice, so we ventured out. Found a grocery store. All the labels were in Hebrew. Bread was sold in whole, un-sliced loaves. Cheese was sold by metric weight. Mostly, I recognized the fruits and vegetables, but even some of those were unfamiliar.

Culture shock really struck when I tried to buy milk. Finding milk required asking everyone until I found someone who spoke English. He then led me to the dairy case. This was unsettling since I’d thought that a dairy case is a dairy case and would be easy enough to recognize. Milk was sold in plastic bags. Not cartons. Not bottles. Bags. What in the world was I going to do with a bag of milk? Finally, I bought a pitcher. After tearing the bag open with my teeth – not having thought to bring a pair of scissors – I poured the milk into it. It turned out that there are special containers to hold milk bags and you just snip off a corner and pour the milk directly from the bag. Who knew?

We finally slept. The next morning dawned into brilliant sunshine.

“Let’s go see our city,” I said and we found the bus to Jerusalem, rode down Hebron Road, and got off at Jaffa Gate.

The walls rose up tall around us and I shivered with excitement (I suspect that Owen, lacking my expectations, was merely stunned into silence). This was what had brought me to Jerusalem. Thousands of years of ghosts floated through those narrow streets. You never walked alone in Jerusalem. Generations of ghosts walked with you wherever you went.

Donkeys, so heavily laden that they looked as if they would collapse under their loads, plied the stone streets, cruelly prodded by small brown boys armed with sticks and shrill voices. Vendors called from their stalls, garments brightly ornamented with intricate needlework. Everything rustled in a light breeze. Stall owners stood in the lanes accosting passersby.

“Come in, come in,” they called. “I make you a special deal.”

Small open spaces housed spice markets that filled the air with the most exotic smells, the scent of ginger mixed with cinnamon, cumin and saffron. Just breathing was a joy. As the day moved on, more and more people arrived, filling the shuk until it seethed with activity and noise. Everywhere, people were haggling over prices, making deals, grabbing up bargains, filling their bags. The shuk was vital and alive.

Everyone was buying or selling. Voices echoed off the stone. Jerusalem of gold, Jerusalem of stone, and in the springtime and summer, Jerusalem of flowers. All around you, embedded in the walls, is the architectural history of the city. “Yerushalmis change their minds a lot,” I was told. The walls tell stories. You could see the outlines where arches and windows had been but were now closed and see how the ground level had risen.

That first day, we wandered. The city led us into herself. She twisted us around until we found ourselves atop a hill, looking down at the Temple Mount, the golden Dome of the Rock shining in the sun. The walls, the golden dome, the stones made my bones resonate. I fell in love. No matter how difficult my life became, the city would lift me up. Jerusalem sang to me, called to me, made love to me, and now, so many years later, in my dreams, I am still in love with her.