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The Mysterious Texture Of Memory

Below is the sixth segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’

Dani, usually the most ardent tormentor of stray cats among us, was scared out of his wits when that cat suddenly appeared in front of his eyes, blocking his view of the screen.

He cursed loudly first, then reflexively smacked the cat. Who in turn—as if repaying him not only for this time, but also for all those other times—scratched Dani hard on the nose, generating a cry of pain, then gave a terrifying warning cry to his gang of hungry cats. Together, they flew away upon the tin roof like a flock of bats, leaving behind a scene worthy of the one playing on the big screen down below.

“Children go home!” was the dominant shout coming from the arena on the lawn, directed at those on the balcony roof. We could even see someone getting up, his silhouette passing through the screen, obscuring the film momentarily.

This was enough of a threat for Dani and Yair, who knew not what kind of punishment awaited us, but knew very well how severe it would be. Like the cats, they reacted quickly and noisily. They jumped down from the roof, forgetting in an instant The Three Musketeers’ motto—“All for one, one for all”—which the three of us boys had adopted as our own before setting forth on our dangerous mission.

As for me, I was so consumed by the imaginary world playing up on the big screen that I paid no attention to the real world playing down on the ground, oblivious to its dangers and regulations. I understood nothing of the film so far, yet I was completely captivated by its rapidly changing images, the beautiful scenery it depicted, and by the people living in it.   

Furthermore, the meaning of the words “La Dolce Vita” was still haunting me, and the mystery of their melodic resonance was yet to be solved. In fact, my curiosity had run so deep that during the planning stages I’d forgotten not only that there were cats on the roof, equally curious, but sprinklers as well.

During the hot summer days in the Jezreel Valley, where there were no air conditioning systems yet in the kibbutz as I was growing up, water was the main cooling source: on the floors and on the roofs, in dirt valley pools and in clear mountain streams, at the fields and orchards and fishing ponds. And it was especially needed on the roof of the sewing-room, where it could get real hot real fast.

I was aware of the sprinklers’ existence, of course I was, but had forgotten about them altogether. Just as I’d forgotten about the man who’d got up from the lawn, and apparently had turned them on exactly when my eyes, about to pop out of their sockets, were glued to the curves of the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. This fairytale blonde, who was dressed in a revealing black evening gown, went straight under this spectacular fountain, showering herself under its waterfall, laughing and having fun, calling on the man who’d brought her there to join her.

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The Mysterious Texture Of Memory

Below is the fifth segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’

All the films that came to the kibbutz, crisscrossing the Jezreel Valley from place to place, were in 16mm, usually black and white. As was the film that night. They came spooled in tin reels, usually three or four, which required regular breaks in the action for the projectionist—by far the most important person in the kibbutz, in my opinion—to replace them and start again. In addition, the film itself would break occasionally during each screening, evident by strange noises and pictures running at high speed on the screen. These unexpected breaks in the action would always occur, at least the way I saw it, at the most critical, suspenseful moments.

The adults, however, didn’t seem to mind one way or the other and used these breaks for a variety of activities. First among them was the lighting of cigarettes, as almost everybody in the kibbutz smoked back then, especially the men. Small flames flickered here and there, dotting the canvas of the dark lawn with color, before dying out into oblivion. Another favorite pastime activity was watching the stars, searching for the various constellations, and in later years pointing at the Sputniks and Satellites floating by slowly across the nightly skies. Some men used these breaks as an opportunity to take a leak in the nearby bushes. Shouts of all kinds, mainly announcements of urgent meetings or changes in the work schedule, could be heard as well. A new mother would often be called to the babies-house since her baby was crying for milk. There were hugs, kisses, and feel ups on the lawn. And under the blankets, rumors circulated through the grapevine, a baby or two were actually conceived.

Not me. I was conceived either on the boat of refugees bringing my parents, Holocaust survivors from Hungary to Israel from Europe, or in the internment camp the British had brought them to after capturing their boat. It was probably a vacation for them there, compared with what they’d gone through in the German concentration camps, since it was set up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Somehow, they’d both survived the horrors of that war. But they’d left behind in the burning gas chambers, among other relatives, my grandparents on both sides. Come to think of it now, there were no grandparents to be found in my kibbutz at all as I was growing up.

Nevertheless, it was a paradisiacal childhood. Children had fun galore there, especially the three musketeers on the roof on that clear, starry night. It went on for a while, the fun part, but not for long. We were so contented with the success of our endeavor, and so absorbed by Rome’s stunning sights and beautiful people, speaking this exotic, strange language that we’d failed to notice that we had company on the roof. Cats. It was their territory, after all, which we had invaded. One cat in particular, a big black one, was brave enough to check out on us. And with good reason, since by force of habit Yair had brought along some dry, yet smelly biscuits for us to nosh on.

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The Mysterious Texture Of Memory

Below is the fourth segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’

Our opening move was brilliant, but it brought with it some complications as well. We sneaked quietly through the hardly used, narrow dirt paths, known only to us kibbutz’s boys we believed, and arrived at dark behind the big lawn some ten minutes after the film had already started. But no matter: we reached our destination safely, since the attention of the enemy was distracted by the sights and sounds of the film. At the same time, the consequences were that we’d missed the titles and credits at the beginning, and therefore the chances of learning the meaning, in Hebrew, of the three magical words in the film’s title—important especially for me—were reduced dramatically.

Still, I was undeterred. And fortunate enough, as my friends and I knew very well the layout of the big lawn, stretching like a giraffe’s neck between two rows of shacks. On the one side, farther away from us, the shacks were used mainly by young people during their army service, and by new Olim in the Ulpan, here in the kibbutz to study Hebrew. They could, had they wanted to, watch the film from their windows. On the other side, from where our young and small commando unit was launching its attack, the shacks were used as the clothes’ warehouse of the kibbutz, and also as its sewing-room. It was there that some of the clothes we uniformly wore were fixed and sometimes made. Twice a year, before Rosh Hashanah and Passover, we were fitted there with our holiday best.

Behind one of these shacks, our hearts beating madly, our threesome unit came to a stop. We used the carrots’ box as a stepladder and tied the rope to a post supporting the shack’s roof. We climbed up one after the other, and used the thick winter blanket I’d brought along as a silencer to muffle the sound of our crawling on the tin roof. Once our daring operation was accomplished, we lied down quietly on the blanket at the edge of the roof.

The scenery in front of our eyes was magnificent. Down on the lawn there was a large pile of people huddled together, as if hugged from both sides by the bushes, the trees, and the shacks. Two-hundred fifty people or so, about the entire adult population of the kibbutz, were spread beneath us on the big lawn. Most of them were couples in each other’s arms, but some—like my father—were alone with their film-recliners. At the back there were two rows of chairs for the elderly and the infirmed, and in their midst stood the film projector, sending beams of bright lights to plow the field of darkness ahead, and hit the big white screen in front. It stood tall and wide there, that screen, supported by two wooden posts. Behind it, the main dirt road traversing the kibbutz was winding, where the occasional tractor or car would pass by even during the showing of the film.

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The Mysterious Texture Of Memory

Below is the third segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’

My father was a kind-hearted man but mostly sad. He made us hot tea in the winter and cold lemonade in the summer, always with toasted bread, then left us alone. He listened to the news constantly on the radio—television was yet to arrive in the kibbutz in the early nineteen-sixties, or in Israel for that matter—and read his left-leaning newspaper, On Guard, from top to bottom. When I asked him about the film, and what was the meaning of the title, he was surprised to hear about it since it was the first film to be screened outside on the lawn that year. In fact, he busied himself thereafter with getting ready for it. Out of his junk-filled little shade outside by his garden he salvaged his old film-recliner, a special device kibbutz members had invented and built, meant to support their backs and heads while lying down on the grass watching films. “I will let you know tomorrow,” my father said nonchalantly.

I heard that before, I said to myself, my curiosity far from satisfied. As a result, I skipped dinner with my small family that evening in the kibbutz’s dining room and returned promptly to my class-house. My roommates, Dani and Yair, were already waiting for me there, as we’d agreed ahead of time they would do, since eating was not as important that evening as watching the film. For that reason, we spent the next two hours—designed and meant to be spent doing homework—on devising and finalizing our plan of attack. Dani and Yair, unlike me, were not so interested in finding out the meaning of the film’s title, as in discovering the secrets behind the “Adults only” part of it. That was enough of an enticement for them and good enough for me, since all I needed was their cooperation in the planning and preparation stages, and participation thereafter in the daring operation itself. I got plenty of both, as it were.

But first, following a long secretive discussion—other boys, even girls, were not allowed into the room—we managed to come up with a plan. According to that plan Dani, the engineer among us (who later, after his army service, would work in the first factory to be built in the kibbutz), had to find and bring a sturdy rope; Yair, the enforcer (who later would fight and die, barely twenty, on the dunes of the Sinai Desert during the Six-Day War), had to find and bring an empty wooden carrots’ box; and me, the dreamer (who later would leave the kibbutz in search of his pipe dreams) had to find and bring a thick blanket. Which was an easy task for me, readily available. The difficult task was to summon the necessary determination needed to encourage my co-conspirators to stick with the plan, and not to give up on our quest no matter what, during the long night ahead.

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The Mysterious Texture of Memory

Below is the second segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’

Later that evening, there would be a meeting of the minds with the intention of solving these same crucial questions. But before that, the people I’d met and had asked about the film had no clue about it, or any interest in knowing anything about it. Upstairs at the crowded dining room—a large hall busy with members of the kibbutz not only eating lunch hungrily but discussing also, and with some urgency, matters related to work, family, war and peace—I was easily dismissed: “We will see the film, then we will know.”

Easy for them to say. For me: a question of life and death. A state of mind which even Nechama, my elementary school teacher (with whom I was secretly in love), had failed to notice. She usually had all the right answers to my prematurely inquiring mind, but not this time. “I’ll let you know tomorrow, bubeleh,” she said and continued on her way.

 Oh, how I wished she’d stop talking to me like a child, call me by my real name—Hillel, the old, wise sage of Jerusalem—and treat me more like an adult. Which was, of course, the crux of the matter. Understood by none.

Case in point: Uri, the man in charge of the kibbutz’s vegetable fields. “Don’t be such a nudnik,” was his reply to my twice-repeated question about the film, “and jump on the wagon.” He then put the tractor in gear and drove some twenty of us school-kids down to the valley, where the fields outside the kibbutz stretched as far as the eye could see. And it was there, as we were leaning over rows upon rows of green-leafed carrots, pulling them out of the ground with our bare hands and putting them side-by-side in wooden boxes, that I caught a glimpse of Tirzah’s breasts as well. She was two years older than me, thin and tall, but when she leaned over the fruits of the earth she partly, unintentionally, exposed also the fruits of her own naked beauty.

 Naked beauty that, I suspected then and there, had something to do with the fact that the film that night was for “Adults only.” I kept thinking about it, and about Tirzah’s partly hidden treasures while taking a shower after work, feeling new sensations coming alive inside me. I could hear the girls of my class talking, singing, and giggling in the adjacent shower, which didn’t help one bit in soothing my sexual excitement. I was used to it by then, or so I thought, because as kibbutz’s children of the same age we grew up together since our mothers had brought us back from the hospital shortly after giving birth to us, directly to the babies-house.

      We did everything together as equals, going our separate ways only when visiting our parents’ homes in the early evening for an hour or two of “quality family time.” As I did that Wednesday when I visited my father. My young sister was there too, but not my mother. She was living and working in Tel Aviv by then since my parents were already divorced. Only on holidays, and occasionally on Fridays, she would come back for a visit, bringing us candies aplenty and entertainment magazines from the big city.

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The Mysterious Texture of Memory

Below is the first segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’

The other day, an old picture of Anita Ekberg popped up on my Twitter feed. It was a grainy, black and white photo—back when I was growing up, photos were mostly black and white  —of the Swedish actress I’d never seen before, posing on a sailboat at sea, wearing an old-fashioned white bathing suit, with dark, ominous clouds gathering in the background.

For a long moment I couldn’t take my eyes away from her—so beautiful she looked, so young and unspoiled—as she brought with her a gushing wave of irresistible memories about the place I left behind. One memory in particular, though, of the day and night that had changed, so dramatically so, the trajectory of my life.

It was a summer day, which on that year had arrived early. It brought with it a suffocating heatwave, as well as—though little did I know at the time—the seeds of change that would reshape the course of my life. I was just a teenager then, still trying to catch my breath after crossing half the length of the kibbutz, running like the meshuga boy I truly was. Our class had ended just a short while ago, up where I and my classmates lived and studied together on the slope of that Biblical mountain, Mount Gilboa. And as was my habit every Wednesday, I ran as fast as I could all the way down to the big communal dining room, where the heart of the kibbutz was beating.

The place was always a beehive of activity at noontime: people were coming and going, arriving from work in the fields and orchards, clothes dirty and smelly, while others were leaving already after taking an early lunch, in a hurry to reach their homes for the mandatory two-hour afternoon naptime. The work coordinator’s room was busy with people, checking their work schedule and arguing about it, while around the ‘Parliament Tree’ grownup men were loudly discussing politics or the latest scrimmages on the border with our Arab neighbors. Young women with toddlers strolled by, sneaking some private pleasure-time before returning their offspring to the common kindergarten.

No pleasure-time for me, though, not yet. That would come later at night. For now, I was stuck opposite the large bulletin board; the youngest one there but by no means alone, since that board had functioned as the main artery of the kibbutz, where the most vital flow of information regarding its rhythm of life was posted. I had no interest in reading general announcements from the Kibbutz Secretary, or the extra duties members were assigned to carry out aside from their regular work schedule, or who was on guard-duty at nights during that week, or who was about to get married soon. No, my attention was focused solely on a little piece of torn lined-paper, tacked down at the bottom of the board as if it were just an afterthought. It read: “Film on the lawn tonight at nine. La Dolce Vita. Adults only.”     

It was penciled in longhand, without the translation of the film’s title into Hebrew, and without explanation as to why it was for “Adults only.” Plain and simple as it was, it complicated the rest of the day for me, and—though I was unaware of it at the time—my whole life. I was consumed thereafter by three crucial questions: What was the meaning of the film’s title, why for adults only and, since I was only fourteen at the time, how to nonetheless see the film?

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An Unexpected Treasure

G.G. as Anna Karenina

Watching the latest version of Anna Karenina on the big screen lately took me back to – of all places – the kibbutz where I was born. How could it be, you may ask. Well, here’s how: At the end of summer a couple of years ago, while a last heat wave was sweeping the Sacramento Valley, my yearlong love affair with Anna Karenina had come to a sudden end as well. I had spent almost a year huddled with her on my lap, and when she jumped down to her tragic end, she had left me behind sad and lonely, yet so much richer and complete. I knew her ending from the beginning, of course, but I had no way of knowing that my journey with her would lead me back to my birthplace, a kibbutz in northern Israel, and to the discovery of a completely unexpected treasure.

It took a while, though, because that’s how I love to read: slow and easy. And because I could never understand why book-reviewers, especially here in America, always gave the biggest compliment to a new novel by saying it was a real “page-turner.” Not my cup of tea. With that in mind, I grabbed a copy of a newly translated edition of Leo Tolstoy’s novel from my bookshelf, determined to finally give the eight-hundred-plus-page classic its due. I hesitated to take this plunge, among other reasons, because I’m a Dostoyevsky fanatic. It was his novels, with their gripping plots and possessed characters, that had accompanied and guided me when I left my kibbutz and moved to the city of Tel Aviv. I tried Tolstoy once or twice, but it never affected me the same way.

But with Anna Karenina so many years later, slow reading became the name of the game. I would read just a few pages sometimes, but most often a chapter or two. On occasions, I would go back to a previous scene and reread it, just as I did with the one where Anna is being torn apart from her beloved son, knowing very well that she would never see him again; the horrible shadow of her tragic end hovering above her, waiting patiently to carry her to her last station.

And talking about last stations, halfway through the book I took a break from reading one rainy Sunday and went to see the movie by that same name: The Last Station, about Tolstoy and his wife Sophia in their later years. I was struck by Sophia’s words when, on a most beautiful horse-drawn carriage ride, she tells Tolstoy’s young secretary that the most ardent followers of her husband don’t understand his writing: “He writes about love and family, not about the Russian People and their social and political system.”

Humbly, I beg to differ. And by doing so, I return also to the hidden treasure I alluded to at the beginning. Sophia was only partly right: the horses in front of her were, indeed, Anna and her lover Count Vronsky. But the carriage she was riding in was carrying the story of her husband and herself, Levin and Kitty, and by and large the more important story: that of the Russian people. Kostya Levin (Leo Tolstoy himself, no doubt) was writing about changing the Russian class system, the injustice treatment of the peasants, his agricultural experiments, and last but not least, his wish to give all his wealth and land away to a working-class commune.

How amazing it was for me to discover the origin of the place where I was born and grew up in, hidden in the pages of Anna Karenina. It was Tolstoy then, who had first put the foundation to the idea that years later would create the Israeli kibbutz. That small place, which the scent of the sweet peas blooming in my balcony at spring reminded me of so much, was founded as a commune of people working the land—poets, writers and musicians among them; great dreamers all of them—where there wasn’t even money to be found as I was growing up.

Looking back, it was a place only a Russian Novel can accurately depict. And so I praise slow reading, it enables one to discover certain truths; a fit no page-turner, no Kindle device would ever be able to accomplish. It is entirely possible that because of my slow reading, because I read carefully and didn’t rush to reach the end, that I was able to discover this great secret: It was not Karl Marx, not Lenin or Trotsky who gave birth to the paradise that was the place of my childhood and youth. It was Tolstoy.

* Appeared first on The Times of Israel

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