Self-portrait in Haifa, watercolor & ink, 19" x 26," $500
From the Journals, Israel, 1971-72
The other day I was standing near the bus stop in Ein Kerem outside Jerusalem when a man picked me up in his car. Arieh Agnon is a commentator on the radio and has now had me over to his house. He speaks perfect English since he spent three years in the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Yesterday he introduced me to Goldstein, an artist who also lives in Ein Kerem, a man of about forty with four kids all housed in an old Arab olive factory. Goldstein is a fairly good artist, and the size of his studio makes my mouth water. But what was most interesting about the visit was his latest purchase. Goldstein collects antiques and objets d'art and last week acquired in the Mea Shearim a large 15th-century Italian wooden chest with a painting that looks quite genuine. We spent the afternoon speculating about the treasure which is notable also for two stars of David carved on its exterior. I told them about my trip two weeks ago to Safed where I stumbled across my own little find, the Gluckenstein Museum. It was closed but the curator's wife invited me to see the work of her husband who was a friend of Modigliani and Soutine in Paris. As I was examining her husband's work I spied what I thought was a Rembrandt. Apparently an old French Jew, a Professor Shapiro from the Sorbonne, settled in Israel and upon his demise left the city of Safed his collection that was stored in old boxes in his apartment. This collection included four Cezannes, six Rembrandts, five Goyas and several hundred other Old Masters-- all considered fakes by the experts. Shapiro's relatives contested the will, but the city of Safed got the collection with the agreement that it build a pavilion for the fakes.
About two weeks ago there was a knock at the door. It was Goldstein. "How would you like to do me a favor? I am going away for ten days with my family. Would you house-sit?" So for ten days I lived in Goldstein's olive factory, enjoyed his books and record collection, watered his garden, played with his twelve cats, answered telephone calls, guided visitors through the gallery, sunbathed on the roof, took evening walks with Mr. Agnon. And now I am back in my two rooms and feel like a pauper. I have begun to have second thoughts about staying in Israel. I am bored to distraction. There is nothing to do in Jerusalem but study the Talmud, and Haifa is even more provincial. The entire country is culturally backwater and I feel claustrophobic. I find it difficult to meet Israelis and those I do are usually rude and arrogant. For example, they never respond to letters. After three months I am still waiting to receive a letter from the University about my salary. I have begun to yawn. I can't paint. I have no one to talk to. I may be a Jew but I have no desire to become an Israeli.
In Israel one gets wrapped up in a labyrinth of red tape. Nothing works. One constantly stands in line for insignificant things. Letters are not answered. For five months now I have been waiting for my identity card from the Ministry of the Interior. Now I find that it is lost. For six weeks I have been waiting for my money for rent from the Jewish Agency. It still has not arrived. For three months I have been waiting for a letter containing a contract from Haifa University. Now I find that I may not have a job because the University may not have the funds to pay me. When I applied for the job the dean said to the department chairman, "Grab him!" But the University did not have sufficient funds and anticipated receiving the money from the Jewish Agency. So the University has been stalling by not responding to my letters. Obviously I have been hired on the assumption that my salary will be paid by the Jewish Agency, but the Jewish Agency may not cough up the money. And even if it does, according to my confidant, Mr. Agnon, it may take months before I am paid. Thus when he began his job at the radio station he had to wait four months for any pay. I will be lucky, he says, if I get paid before February. February! And if I am lucky! If I even have a job! But savlanut, says Mr. Agnon. Savlanut means patience. I must have patience. I must wait. I must not antagonize the University lest it get rid of me altogether. Already I have sent one sarcastic letter. The Academic Secretary answered that she did not reply because she had been in the hospital for several months whereas I know it as a fact that she has been at the University all the time. So I must wait. The reading lists I sent the University for my courses so that my books might be ordered from England have been lost. So there may be no books. Savlanut. I must have patience.
Haifa is built on three levels. First there is the port, then the Hadar which is the main shopping center, and then the Carmel. I live on the Carmel. I rented my apartment from the parents of a foreign correspondent. There is a bedroom, a dining room, a sitting room with a view of the harbor and adjacent factories-- beautiful at night but hideous during the day with the smoke belching out of the oil refineries--, a studio for my painting, and a tiny kitchen with dishes and pots. I need only a couple of lamps and some sheets. The rent is exorbitant and I had to sign a year's lease. So I am here but Haifa is all too dull for my tastes. The lecturers in my department resemble a high school teachers' group. Furthermore I am the only bachelor in the department which is a bore, to say the least.
With Mr. Ravon, Nazareth, 1972
Today one of my students, Mr. Ravon, formerly from Alexandria, fiftyish, announced ebulliently after class, "I have four daughters. I want you to meet them." At six o'clock Mr. Ravon arrived at my apartment and after I showed him my paintings we sped off to the Hadar to be wined and dined. From his description of himself as an official of the Israeli oil industry I had expected his flat to be much more elegant. Nor were the daughters any more chic. One squinted. Another was covered with acne. The youngest had one eye larger than the other. The fourth limped. If the fancy fondue things were atrocious, the rest of the evening was a triumph. After the last sip of Chablis Mr. Ravon revealed that we were driving to a Christian-Arab wedding feast for one of his employees in Nazareth. At the eleventh hour we arrived and entered an auditorium where several hundred Arabs sat at long tables while on the stage a troupe of musicians masqueraded as an orchestra. Because of Mr. Ravon's social position he immediately became the center of attention. Born in Egypt Mr. Ravon speaks perfect Arabic. When the bridegroom or his brothers approached the table every few minutes to fill our glasses with more and more brandy Mr. Ravon prima-donnaed the most elaborate of toasts in Arabic. But afterwards when his hosts had drifted off he would whisper in English, "The Arabs-- they are so primitive. They are so stupid. There are so many of them. A nightmare!" This ritual continued for two hours while I got more and more tipsy so that at midnight I could barely stand up to see the ritual shaving of the groom. The groom, his R.A.F.-style mustache hidden by lather, sat quietly on the stage and observed the insect-swarm of dancers who held up a brass platter with his coat. "Come, let's go!" suddenly cried Mr. Ravon and we all piled into his car to return to Haifa.
Yesterday I dropped over Gloria's. Gloria is one of my students whose house is a gathering place for a wide circle she calls the Family. People come to Gloria's to listen to music, to talk, to tell their problems. Gloria is an American and like most of the Family is supported by the Jewish Agency whose tentacles reach into all things. In fact, one of the reasons the Israeli students dislike the "foreigners" so much is that whereas the sabras have to pay for their education the "foreigners" receive support from the Agency. There are about 500 foreign students at the University and most of them are milking the Agency because they don't intend to remain in Israel but are here only for a free education. The Agency thinks of them as potential immigrants, but they-- well, they are a strange lot, indeed. About 400 of them live in one huge dormitory, an extended family, so to speak. Half the students have escaped to Israel from one thing or another. Thus there is a generous sampling of South American revolutionaries who jumped the gun in time. As John, a South African, said to me last night as we made a tour of the bars in the port-- in Haifa not even the bars are exciting-- half the students are émigrés from the police of one country or another. He himself escaped from the South African draft. Peter, a Canadian, fled Montreal from a drug rap. One of my students fled the FBI and now ironically is a lieutenant in the Israeli Army. Gloria, fed up with the Family because they had become parasites, last night threw the group out. Out went Allen, a half-Jew with long hair whom the bus drivers address in the feminine tense (In Hebrew there are masculine and feminine tenses in verbs). Out went Harry who last week when he didn't receive his Agency check rather than starve tried shoplifting salami in the local supermarket. He was caught and thrown into a jail cell with hard-core thieves. So everyone left Gloria's but I'm sure the Family will be back together again soon.
About a mile from my house perched on a cliff overlooking the sea stands the Carmelite Monastery. With perhaps a hundred rooms and dating from the time of the Crusades the monastery is colossal. Occasionally on Saturdays when the Israeli Bach Society gives concerts in a stately Italian baroque church I walk afterwards along the Via Dolorosa which edges the cliff. Most times the Via Dolorosa is deserted, but one day a few weeks ago a monk chased after me as I passed one of the Stations of the Cross (All the fourteen six-foot high mosaics on the Via Dolorosa have been mutilated) and shouted, "You're not supposed to be here! Can't you read the signs in Hebrew and Arabic?" This is how I struck up my acquaintance with Brother William. There are only twenty-one monks in the monastery, and Brother William who is about sixty has been there the longest, twenty-five years. But in all this time he has left the monastery only on three occasions, the last four years ago to Jerusalem. "Oh, that was a disaster," he confided (Once I got Brother William's ear it was impossible to keep him quiet), "I like my comforts and I had to put up at a Franciscan monastery where the bed was like a board and I was tormented by bugs. So I rushed back here after three days. No, I have no desire to travel. Been all over the world. Was a coal miner in England for seven years and then spent another eight years in the British Army before I saw the Light." Brother William insists that no one likes him in the monastery. Perhaps this is why he enjoys so much speaking to me. Through him I have been given a guided tour of the building. "See that room," said Brother William, "That's where the King of Belgium greeted us a few years back. Fine architecture. No? The columns are from Constantinople and once graced the Hippodrome. Yup, no one talks to me. No one listens to me. No one takes me seriously-- I who have been here twenty-five years, I who have walked with the Bishop of Rome. Can't leave the monastery even if I wanted to. Don't read books anymore. Spinal problems. Can't read for more than fifteen minutes." One Saturday I was promenading along the Via Dolorosa-- I now have a special dispensation to walk there-- when I spied Brother William peering through a pair of binoculars at a soccer match down below in the stadium. "Yup, it's one of my few forms of pleasure here. Wouldn't miss it for the world." Is Brother William a voyeur? Perhaps. But now Brother William wants me to meet Brother Daniel and Father Elias, two Jews who became monks and made the monastery notorious. "Oh, yes, you'll enjoy Father Elias, a true intellectual. Publishes poetry. All you have to do is press button number three near the entrance any afternoon and Father Elias will come running. Of course he speaks English. He's from South Africa. Well, see you soon, Professor."
Pearl Heifitz, one of my students, just called. Pearl is about fifty, claims to be a poet, wears a wig, works as a model for art students, and is schizoid: i.e., her unstable ego is divided into any number of centers. When Pearl talks she doesn't carry on a dialogue with you but with her many different egos. So there are several Pearls. Today on the telephone she began conventionally as my student and ended by proposing marriage.
"Professor, is it really true you are leaving Israel?"
"My dear Pearl, if someone could find me ten thousand dollars I might stay."
Five minutes later the phone rang again. It was Pearl.
"Professor, would you really stay for ten thousand dollars?"
"Would you be willing to sell yourself?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I do not think you are the type of person who would sell himself but if you marry me I'll give you ten thousand dollars."
From anyone else I would have greeted such a proposition with incredulity. But from Pearl anything is possible. Last week she invited me for supper to meet her two nieces who live on a kibbutz. While the two nineteen-year-old twins giggled, Pearl pranced about in a translucent negligee pouring Manzanilla into glass goblets. As a case study Pearl belongs in some Institut fur Sexual Wissenschaft. She keeps a Beretta 327 under her pillow because she is afraid of the Fatah and yet rumor has it in Haifa that Pearl is really in the pay of the Shin Bet, the secret police. In confidence Pearl reminisces about lovers in the CIA. But with Pearl fantasies are indistinguishable from fact. Did she really apply merchurochrone to Winston Churchill's knee? Does she have a daughter in Singapore? Pearl lives in a shikun, a housing project for new immigrants mostly from Georgia, USSR. Most Israelis consider the Georgians to be barbarians. At the Jewish Agency headquarters in the port the office for the Georgians is next door to the one for Anglo-Saxons. (Anyone coming to Israel from an English-speaking country is automatically classified as an Anglo-Saxon.) Here armed guards with machine guns prowl the corridors to keep the Georgians in line. They are all reputed to be thieves. In Israel where everyone speaks four languages the Georgians only speak Georgian. Pearl is surrounded by them. At dinner a dozen little Georgians suddenly appeared outside the window shouting obscenities at Pearl. But she ate it up. She pranced about in her negligee in front of the window while they called her God-knows-what. As long as this Last Rose of Summer gets attention she is happy.
Last week at the University I gave a colloquium about Borges. Instead of its being dull, as I had expected, the session ended with a fierce argument between myself and Flinker, a fifty-five-year-old who is still searching for God and laments his inability to believe with the candor of his mother. "Flinker," I said to him in front of the tittering audience, "You are like a child who has had his lollipop taken away from him." The grandson of one of the founders of the Zionist Movement, Flinker has grand plans of starting a liberal arts college in Netanya. Unknown to all at the University, he constantly rushes about in the attempt to raise money. Next week he is flying to Paris to try to extort ten million dollars from the Rothschilds. Even now Flinker licks his chops at the thought of his one-upmanship over all his enemies at the University who dismiss him as a low-down politician. Last night he invited me to his girlfriend's house where he holds a bi-weekly discussion group on the short story. Like all things in Haifa, it was very low-key. To me Haifa is a dead end. I am drying up. My students are terrible. The Americans at least talk in class but the sabras are zombies. The Israeli education system is a shoddy Polish imitation of German pedagogy. By the time the sabras get to the university they are machines incapable of thinking for themselves. When I assigned a paper in my courses asking the students to make up their own subjects, one of the sabras, a woman who had spent two years in the army, broke out into tears, wailing that she couldn't think of a topic. When I gave a quiz yesterday four of these zombies wrote, "We understand nothing, neither the reading nor you." I have had enough of teaching. What I shall do after I leave Israel I do not know, but anything-- ANYTHING-- is preferable to teaching.
I was sitting in the Carmel Cafe in the Mercaz when Mr. Ravon sat down at my table. He was accompanied by Adi, a sabra cut out of ice. Seldom have I ever met a stranger woman. Later when I took her to my place to show her my paintings she commented that they show that I am a bastard. Adi is sui generis. "I have nothing to do with men," she announced afterwards while leading me into her bedroom to see her own paintings. There is about Adi, as there is about her paintings, a cold chill of death. A student at the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, she paints like Dali in the '30s, a surrealism of grotesque limbs and fragments of hands growing out of gushes of blood. In looks resembling Greta Garbo, Adi is hard as nails. In fact, I expected to see her nails grow six inches longer right in front of me. A Medusa. We then went dancing at the 120, a discotheque of which I am a member and where I get free drinks because the bartender is my student. The 120 is an old Turkish mansion honeycombed by caves and dark chambers painted in psychedelic colors. Haifa's most hip nightclub: call it that. "What do you do during the day?" I asked Adi. Adi's family is rich and she speaks an exotic sabra dialect of English. "Nothing. I get up at eleven. I have a drink. I do my toilet. Then I sew till one when the family comes home for lunch. Then I sleep till five. I go to see my girlfriends. I paint a little. I read. I think about my problems." While we were conversing Finker suddenly made an unexpected appearance. Finker was all agog. The deal with the Rothschilds had fallen through, but Finker has come up with an Ultimate Scheme to worm his way out of the University. "You have to think big," he confided, "What's ten million from the Rothschilds? Nothing. I'm now raising two hundred million dollars." Finker sat down. He then outlined his plan to build in Jerusalem what he calls the Jewish Hall of Fame, a palladium of statues of the greatest Jews in history. "We'll have statues of Moses and Spinoza and Einstein. We'll commission the world's greatest sculptors."
Yesterday on the 28th of Iyar, the anniversary of the liberation of the Old City, I journeyed to Jerusalem to join the festivities at the Wailing Wall. I remember the first time I saw the Wall soon after my arrival in Israel. I was then in a state of fervor. My mind filled with memories of the dozens of synagogues I had visited on my travels, I raced past sullen Arabs down the Street of the Chain, almost jumping from stone to stone until my eyes feasted upon the Wall which in the bright afternoon light was serenaded by flocks of pigeons. Since then I have visited the Wall many times but familiarity has never dulled its mystery. I have grown to love the Wall. In its vicinity I meet the oddest types-- pseudo-messiahs and flipped-out prophets, disciples of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and repentant millionaires. Last year on the second eve of Tish Be'Ab I danced with the Chassidim before the Wall until the early hours of the morning. Yesterday as I approached the Wall from the heights of the Jewish Quarter a bizarre sight greeted me. An eighteen-foot-high menorah was being carried through the thousands dancing before the Wall. Present in the crowd were not only its usual habitués but the President and Speaker of the Knesset as well. The gold and silver domes on the Temple Mount glistened beneath the stars. Through hundreds of bearded rabbis I made my way slowly and pensively to the Wall. And that Wall which has seen so much (In a Midrash it is written that the Wall exists because when the Romans destroyed the Temple three angels descended from heaven and wept on the spot, thus quenching the flames, but Josephus reports that the Romans saved the Wall because the tenth legion needed shade from the sun.)-- suddenly the Wall seemed to move and it whispered to me, "Fool, Fool of the First Order, why are you leaving Israel? Why are you saying good-bye to Zion?"