EVERYBODY NEEDS TO BE IN A PLAY
When considering a topic for my column this month, it seemed fatuous to think I could avoid the Middle East situation. The ubiquitous, horrifying news stories drove me to my atlas to look at the region’s maps, and my mind went back to the time I lived in Israel, fifty-some years ago. I tried to retrace our tracks—how we drove in our blue VW Bug from Portugal all the way to Brindisi, in the “heel” of the Italian boot, got on a ferry to Piraeus, then sailed on to Haifa somehow, and from there, hitchhiked to Kibbutz Barqai, where our friend’s brother Yosi was a shepherd of ancient fat-tail sheep in that so-very-foreign place.
On the “volunteer hill,” we put our backpacks in the funky room that used to house the first kibbutzniks who’d established the commune in 1949, before they upgraded the members’ housing. We were assigned our jobs, “cotton stomper,” “giver of cholera vaccines to chickens,” and met other young travelers who had come from all over the globe—Scandinavia, Japan, Turkey, you name it—to work and study the system, (and not have to spend any money—many broke hippie travelers, like us, landed there). The memories clattered like a slide show in my head as I studied the maps’ familiar contours—those days, young, traveling all over the place—and between the slides, I hardly remember anything…We’d wake up at five, eat a tremendous breakfast together, then get on tractors to go out to our jobs in the fields till noon. We traveled one time on a bus to the Sea of Galilee where we saw BB King play the blues at a kibbutz that was a resort. Instead of picking bananas or apples, the members made beds and served in the fancy restaurant. What did I know about the Sea of Galilee? It was a place from Biblical parables…and then…BB.
We’d go to Tel Aviv now and then, where right after the Lod Airport massacre, tanks patrolled the streets. On the bus seat in front of us, young soldiers’ rifles jutted above our heads. Or we’d go to Jerusalem, where we walked the covered streets of the old city, so dim under there. The streets full of ancient buildings…churches, synagogues, holy mosques, the Via Dolorosa…and the mad outfits. French nuns treaded like marvelous birds, the great wings of their wimples flapping grandly; the Hasidim, in the stifling heat, walked together talking seriously in their black overcoats, black hats, and “payot” (side curls); Greek Orthodox priests with chest-length beards; Palestinian vendors in kufiyyas calling, “Hey! American! I have a cousin in Chicago!” Later, I likened the variety of costume there to the bar scene in the first Star Wars movie. People and cultures are so stunningly various, and Israel was a hub of cultural pluralism.
Driving in a cab out of Jerusalem into the desert on the way to visit the famous ruin of Masada, the driver gestured out the window to a guy galloping along in the sand on a camel, his kufiyya flying out behind him. I figured galloping on a camel in the desert was just something you did there. I put my finger in the water of the Dead Sea and touched it to my tongue; it was so salty, it burned. I didn’t know water could be saltier than salt. What else did I never know? I woke up in the early dark in the hostel near Ein Gedi and went out to sit on a sandy hill looking over the Dead Sea, and as I watched the sun rise, I can only think that I was mystified. I didn’t know what I was looking at. I didn’t have the half-century of experience that I now have under my belt. And today, after the murderous, atrocious attack on Israel and the chaos and death in Gaza, I mourn, along with the rest of the world, for all the people who don’t have fifty years of life to look forward to, for all the children who will have PTSD for the rest of their lives, for the families torn to shreds in grief, and I feel helpless and bereft for all of them.
I don’t have any lesson to give here. Just observing that I was there and am now here…and to think that here, we have the privilege of watching people play-act on a stage while people elsewhere are dodging bombs. I’m a Libra, I want some balance here, some fairness. I want to see people doing “just” things, in the sense of “right” things, and in the sense of “only”…justly just going to a play, just shopping in a market, just taking a stroll, just sending their children to school without worrying that some crazed person will shoot them. Just everybody living in their marvelous variety. Why not?
In doing this month’s MTC story, Sandra Hawthorne and I got to range around our mutual Mendocino personal histories. She said something like, “If you’ve ever been in a play, you know there’s no getting around having to learn about collaboration and cooperation.” I said, “Every person in Congress, and in the Middle East, needs to be in a play. It should be a requirement. That’s where you learn in your muscles how to get around conflict without killing each other. And not just in Congress and war zones.
“Everybody needs to be in a play.” Really.