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The Messiah

Below is the fourth segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing,’ in 2006. The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“And Ray was in Vietnam, right?”
Sid nodded, suspiciously. “Is that why you’re looking for him, some old army business?”
“No, not at all. I was hired to find him. Family business.”
“What are you, a private dick or something?”
“Kind of. My first case here in America, actually.”
“I see… an immigrant trying to make a buck.”
Gideon nodded.
“What’s in it for me then?”
Good question, as far as Gideon was concerned. And the first sign that Sid knew, maybe, something concrete.”
“Name your price, Mr. Landau.”
“Now he’s talking,” shouted Ben from his corner, where he was busy watching a portable TV set, resting on the kitchen counter. “Finally talking.”
“Shut up, Ben. What you watching?”
“Gilligan’s Island.”
“Then watch it and be quiet. I’m not going to take any money from an Israeli soldier.”
“Why not?”
“I’ve got principles, that’s why.”
His son answered that by filling his mouth with air, then punching his blown-up cheeks with both fists, producing a fart-like noise.
“Do you believe, Gideon, that I’m a man of principles?”
“I sure do.”
“Then you’re my man, son. Do you have anything from Israel that you can give me?”
“What: pictures, books, records?”
“No, I’ve got plenty of those. What else do you have?”
Gideon looked around, feeling caged – no escape in sight.
“An Ozi or two will do,” suggested Ben.
Gideon stared at him coldly and shook his head. But then he remembered something, and spoke before he had the chance to give it a second thought.
“I have some soil from Israel, actually, if–”
“Soil!” cried the old man.
“That’s right. From my father’s garden, in the kibbutz.”
“Then bring it over, son, on the double. I need it for my grave.”
“You’re crazy, Dad,” shouted the real son, “he’ll go out and dig some dirt outside. How can you–”
“Shut up, Ben, how many times I have to tell you,” said the annoyed father. “He’s not like you and me, got it? He’s an Israeli, born and bred. A kibbutznik, no less. A double-sabra. They don’t cheat over there. Right, Gideon?”
“Right,” confirmed Gideon, who was not about to dispute – not at that moment, anyhow – the old man’s idealized notion of his birthplace.
“So go home, young man, and bring me soil from the Holy Land. A place I will never see in my own dying eyes.”
Gideon felt the need to say an encouraging word here, but was afraid he would just aggravate the situation even more by doing so. So he retreated to the door and opened it, allowing a flood of bright sunlight to wash this dark cave. The rain was gone, it seemed, unforeseen as when it suddenly had arrived.
“You’ll get some valuable information about Ray in return,” promised Sid.
“Good. It will take me two hours or so. I live in the Valley.”
“In the Valley… what on earth for?”
“I’m a Valley Boy, Sid, I was born in the Jordan Valley. I guess I will die in a valley.”
“Suit yourself. I’m not going anywhere, as you can see,” said the old man and tapped lightly on his knees. “Bring with you a Supreme Combo pizza, too, with everything on it. If you don’t mind.”
“Sure thing.”
“And a six-pack of Miller Light,” shouted Ben from his corner, just before Gideon closed the door.

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The Messiah

Below is the third segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing,’ in 2006. The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“Please yourself,” said the old man. “So stubborn, you must be a sabra.”
“I’m a double-sabra, actually.”
“A double-sabra… never heard of that one before.”
“Not only I was born in Israel, but in a kibbutz. That’s why.”
“A kibbutznik, I see. What brought you to this meshuga land, then?”
“A woman, naturally. Some dreams, too.”
“Big mistake, Gideon, big mistake. On both accounts.”
“You’re telling me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Sid and hit a button in his remote control. The screen came alive with the sound and picture of war. From, Gideon identified right away, Stanley Kubrick’s film: Full Metal Jacket.
“If you’re not taking me to Israel, Gideon, to your kibbutz,” continued Sid, disregarding the film’s noisy soundtrack, “what the hell are you doing here in my digs, ha?”
“I’m looking for Mr. Raymond De Rosi. I thought–”
“Raymond who?”
“De Rosi. He worked with you in the Film Processing Department at Quality Labs.”
“Is that a fact?”
“I think so.”
“Forgot everything about that bloody place, Gideon. Still there, is it, on Lake Street?”
“Apparently so,” said Gideon, who was suffocating in this small, un-air-conditioned studio
apartment, with all the windows closed.
“I was a film producer once, Gideon, you know. I lived in Beverly Hills.”
“I have no doubt about that, Sid,” said Gideon, somewhat doubtful; giving the Oscar statuette another look, though.
“So don’t treat me like shit. Hear me?”
“I hear you well.”
“Good. What happened to Ray?”
“I don’t know. He disappeared.”
“Disappeared… don’t tell me that. No one disappears, Gideon. You either lucky enough to be dead, or unlucky to go on living. No two ways about it.”
“You disappeared once, Dad,” shouted Ben, who was sitting at a small table in an open kitchen area, very much a part of the room, still eating his potato chips. “Remember the IRS?”
“Shut up, Ben, adults are talking now,” the old man raised his voice. Then lowered it, addressing Gideon while putting the film on pause again.
“Couldn’t they help you over there, at the bloody labs?”
“They don’t know a thing,” Gideon replied, happy to get his investigation back on track. “He
quit his job one day, out of the blue. Left no address, no telephone number. Nothing.”
“Good for him. I knew he had it in him.”
“You knew?”
Sid nodded, then said: “Old soldiers are like old dogs, Gideon, they never die. Were you in the Israeli army?”
“Sure.”
“Sure what, where?”
“Paratroops. Here and there.”
“No kidding. I was in Korea, man. What a bloody war.”
Gideon was tempted to ask him about his legs, immobile under the blanket, but thought the better of it.

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The Messiah

Below is the second segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing,’ in 2006. The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“Good morning,” said Gideon, “I’m looking for Mr. Sid Landau.”
“Who are ya?”
“Ah… he doesn’t know me. I’d like a word with him.”
“Why?”
“I’d rather explain it to him myself, if he is around,” said Gideon, and felt an itch in his arm, urging him to punch this mutant right on his fat mouth. Instead, he just added: “I’m not from the IRS, I can assure you.”

“Who is it, Ben?” a shouting voice came from somewhere deep behind the dark doorway.
“Donno,” Ben shouted back. “Wants to talk to ya.”
“I can hear an accent,” the voice kept shouting.
“Yeah, a bit.”
“Ask him where from.”
“Israel,” Gideon shouted back, deciding to cut a corner here, or he’ll never meet the owner of the voice inside.
“Israel…” the voice cried, “let him in, Ben, what you waitin’ for. The Messiah has arrived!”

And with these words, toned firmly as an order, Ben didn’t have a choice but to clear the doorway. Allowing Gideon, who opened the screen door himself, to break through him and face the darkness inside.
“Come here, young Israeli,” Gideon heard a voice calling him and made his way toward it.

What helped him was a large television set showing a video film, on pause now. It threw its blue light on the old man, who was seated in a wheel¬chair opposite the screen, his legs covered with a blanket. He was completely bald, wore thick eyeglasses but his face – in spite of his advanced age and apparent discomfort – radiated vitality. He stretched his hand.

“I’m Sid Landau. Take me with you.”
Gideon shook the old man’s hand, finding it determinedly strong.
“I’m Gideon Gold. Where to?”
“To Israel, dammit. Where else can the Messiah take me?”
“I’m not the Messiah, Mr. Landau. I’m–”
“Drop the bloody mister, all right!” ordered Sid. “Told you my name, didn’t I?”

Gideon decided to play the situation cool here and go with the flow, instead of against it; which was, usually, his immediate inclination.
“You sure have,” he said.
“Good. Take a seat, then. Movie’s free.”

“I’d rather stand, if you don’t mind,” said Gideon, who by then got accustomed to the semi-darkness and could see no chair around him; just piles of cloths, old newspapers and magazines, books and empty pizza boxes. The TV set and the VCR looked rather new, though, with plenty of videotapes on both sides of the set and on the floor around Sid. And, to top it all – looking like the real deal, in spite of a heavy blanket of dust – an Oscar statuette standing on the TV set, supporting a few movie scripts.

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Meet Me in Baghdad at Sundown (Part 3)

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He now drinks the rest of the coffee in one quick gulp and, angrily, gets up at 5 minutes to midnight and crosses the room. He stands close by the window, in the shadow of the cold wall, and looks outside at the lights of the majestic city of Amman. The smooth desert breeze, which plays so gently with the curtains, takes the cigarette’s smoke away into the dark Arabian night. Maybe it will reach the old king, so safe and cozy in his big palace, and he too will smell it. He remembers the spacious rooms with the high ceilings; he remembers the comfort of soft chairs and large beds, and he remembers the servants. Thinking about it, he is boiling with rage all over again at the old desert hawk, who after a while had removed him and his family from the palace, away from the hills overlooking the old city, and moved them down here into this crummy apartment on the way to the airport. He will pay heavily for that one day, the king. When Akef – so isolated and poor now, deprived of rank and dignity, without any troops to command – would be the ruler of Baghdad, the ruler of the desert and the ruler of the whole Middle East.

He bitterly throws the butt of the cigarette out the window, doubtful of his own grandiose schemes and illusions. His eyes follow the tiny red sparkle as it parachutes down onto the street, wondering whether that is to be his fate as well. He prays for the telephone not to ring as of yet, and turns back quickly to find the green electronic digits of the clock signaling that, mercifully, 4 minutes still remain.

He retreats back into the room and, though he doesn’t feel any urgent need to use the bathroom, he steps inside anyway and turns on the light. He looks at the mirror, where he finds a stranger staring back at him. And then – so unexpectedly, and for no apparent reason – he smiles. Most probably, it is his first smile since his arrival here at Amman. He looks straight into his own tired eyes and wonders why this silly smile has appeared so suddenly on his face. And then, with the sharpness of a knife slicing clear water, he realizes what a fool he was, and still is: a fool to believe in false promises, a fool to trust the wolf to squat quietly beside the lamb. He knows now that he has lied to himself as of late. He knows, as well as he knows these dark brown eyes of his staring back at him, that the “Butcher of Baghdad” – as the papers in the west had labeled the Supreme Ruler – will eat him alive. How can he of all people, Akef Abd al-Aziz, believe in this fairy-tale of a deal? How can he, with all his experience and knowledge, even for a minute deceive himself that his fate, with absolute certainty, would be any different from the fate of the lamb: a quick and brutal death. The shark will close his jaws the moment he, his biggest fish yet, will enter his mouth. A shark is a shark, after all. It’s in his nature. His own wife would be ordered to spit on his head (he had seen that happened once to a close friend), when the favorite son will bring it to the table on a silver platter. And she will obey, of course she would. And will watch without protest how the crown prince will dig out her husband’s eyes (he had seen that happened, too), and how he will throw his tongue to the dogs.

He turns off the light and steps back into the living room, realizing that only 3 minutes remain before the dreaded telephone would start ringing. What should he do, then, if the picture is so bleak and so clear? And if the picture is indeed so, why is he still pacing the small room so nervously to and fro? Why is he so restless, so indecisive? Is it because he is afraid he would be left alone, without his wife and children? Or is it because he will soon run out of money?

He is unable to find satisfying answers to these troubling questions. Helplessly, he drops down heavily on the hard chair, while his mind is drifting towards the American option. He is certain, though, that he will end up in jail there, accused of “crimes against humanity.” And as for London, or any other major city in Europe, it will be more dangerous than even here. The gang of murderers will be after him day and night. They will get him in the end, he knows that for certain, just as they got to all the others. They will pee on him, then cut him to pieces. And if that is to be his fate, well then, he would rather die in his homeland.

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The Kibbutz is Burning (Part 10)

Kibbutz HeftzibahThe dreamlike saga of this new short story, magic-realism in the Holy Land, comes to an end after the battle on the big dining room was lost, but the one for the soul of the kibbutz was won.

Among the dancers was David as well, his left hand holding his son’s hand, his right arm hugging his grandson. Even the high school kids danced; and not because their discothèque—built where the old hen house used to stand—was burned down to the ground. There was a different reason to everything now. A reason that caused the people of the kibbutz to dance and rejoice again with enthusiasm and dedication they experienced only in those early, first days of Aliyah. All the pain and anger of that terrible day were pushed aside momentarily, as joy and yearning for a new beginning took over completely.

After a while, David resigned to his place on the old mountain rock. Only Libi, his neighbors’ dog, noticed him there and joined him. She squatted on the ground beside him, resting her head on his foot. He could still see in the dark below some remnants to the fire, flaring ablaze here and there.

His thoughts centered on Rafi, his adopted son, who was injured while defending the kibbutz. Maybe Roza was back home already from the hospital. He could swear he heard her voice calling him just now. It was the kind of voice she had used only when trying to wake him up from a bad dream.

But this was not a bad dream: it was a good dream. And David didn’t want to wake up from it. He continued to sit motionless on the rock, drenched with the most expensive bright light, courtesy of the rising moon, shinning down on him from above the mountain. He stayed there even after the last of the kibbutz members, exhausted from the events of the long day, had left. Just as his own family had done, too, believing that he had gone home already. But he had not. He remained, like the rock, quiet and still.

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The Kibbutz is Burning (Part 9)

Kibbutz HeftzibahThe dreamlike saga of this new short story, magic-realism in the Holy Land, continues after the battle on the big dining room has ended, and the one for the soul of the kibbutz begins.

No response was possible. And no attempt was made to give one. It was the most difficult hour of the kibbutz since the Chalutzim had arrived here sixty years ago in a small convoy of horses and mares. The first to come were all enlightened people, intelligentsia from Germany, professors of humanities and scientists of physic and chemistry; musicians and writers were among them too, as were industrial engineers. Later, in their footsteps, came the people from Eastern Europe, Holocaust refugees from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. They all arrived here to the slope of this biblical mountain, to kibbutz Hephzibah, their hearts beating with the hope of building a true commune; a utopian society; a paradisaical safe haven for the Jewish people.

And now, after fulfilling their dream, and after seeing it almost destroyed, here came a schoolboy and had shaken them all up with a simple question: “What do we do now?” A question they could find no answer to. Only silence and sadness they could offer, which had cast a terrifying shadow over them. At the same time, drops of sap began to slide slowly down the trunks of the pine trees in the Children Orchard, bringing with them moisture to David’s eyes and cheeks.

And it so happened just then that a sudden, divine sound was heard. It came as if from another place altogether: a fairytale kind of place. It was difficult to trace at first the source of that unearthly, sweet melody. It was a simple song about the joy of working the land, which the Chalutzim had used to sing in the early days. Other generations as well grew up singing that tune. As was Orr, a son of the kibbutz who had come home for the anniversary celebration, and was playing it now on his little silver harmonica. Just as he had done in the old days, with a bunch of friends on the lawn by the swimming pool, on Erev Shabbat, tired after dancing the Horah for hours on end, singing till dawn.

A low humming was now ascending hesitantly from this crowded group of people, as the tune got stronger, defying the heavy, painful silence. And then, as if Franz—his soul rising from the ashes of his burned piano—was conducting the choir again, a spontaneous, yet coherent singing by the kibbutz residents was heard, as they sang in one voice the old Chalutzim song.

David joined in the singing, raising his voice high. His grandson Asaf woke up startled, staring at him. But David continued to sing, even though he could remember clearly only the last stanza: “Shovel, pickax, hoe and pitchfork; unit together in a storm. And we will ignite again—again this earth—with a beautiful green flame!”

Gideon and Dina sang too, and so did Dalya, his daughter. They sang the songs of good old Eretz Israel being conquered and built anew. It was a natural progress then, when Sarah, the veteran teacher of generations of the kibbutz’s children, appeared as if out of nowhere, and in her arms an accordion. She took the gentle tune that Orr had started with his harmonica, and transformed it into a more powerful sound. The people of the kibbutz didn’t need any instructions in order to surround her, young and old, as they began to dance the Horah. Arm laced arm; hand held hand; and feet bounced off the ground with an effortless ease.

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The Kibbutz is Burning (Part 8)

Kibbutz HeftzibahThe dreamlike saga of this new short story, magic-realism in the Holy Land, continues after the battle on the big dining room has ended, and the one for the soul of the kibbutz begins.

 

A heavy, unbearable hush descended from the mountain at that time, and hugged this large group of people. The silence was interrupted once in a while by the sound of muffled cry, coming hesitantly, is if from the collective chest of this grief stricken, yet proud body of people. David noticed that Gideon had wrapped his arm around Dina’s hips, and that she, in turn, had leaned her head on his shoulder. He knew how rough the waters their boat was sailing on were. And yet, he couldn’t avoid thinking that maybe—just maybe—the terrible events of this day would bring a unity of hearts, and a renewed commitment and effort, to his son’s small family as well. And, who was wise enough to know, maybe it would bring them all back to the kibbutz one day soon.

Just as he was thinking that, the oppressive quiet was suddenly interrupted, when someone asked, “Where did we go wrong?” Asked, David was surprised to hear, the same question he himself had asked earlier in the dining room.

It was Zev: He of the Chalutzim who had built this place; he who had planted the first citrus grove in the Jesreel Valley. “We were arrogant,” he answered his own piercing question, “and instead of paving roads for brotherhood, we built fences!”

“We succeeded, that’s our only fault,” called back Yoav, a young man from the third generation to be born in the kibbutz. “Why should we feel sorry for building such a beautiful, successful place?”

David listened quietly to the heated argument that followed. And at the same time he heard again what Jacky Ben-Simon had told him in the dining hall: “Because you have everything, and we have nothing!”

Suddenly, Moshe stood up. He was a kibbutz veteran of the second generation, and a History Professor in the Collage of the Kibbutzim. Very emotionally he gave his own mea culpa, declaring: “From its birth, our movement aspired to lead the camp forward, toward prosperity and equality for all. But we lost our way…“ he went on and on, loosing David’s attention in the process.

But then Moshe paused and looked around, as if in the midst of lecturing his students, before concluding: “This is a crisis of values that we’re facing, because we worship the Golden Calf!”

At first, after Moshe had finished talking and had sat down on the ground, a shock of silence prevailed. But then came a torrent of different voices, protesting loudly, mainly from the young people. They were angry with Moshe for his attack, which in their view not only distorted the true reality, but was absolutely inappropriate for this most difficult of hours. Especially loud and sharp was Ziva the Economist, who stood up and firmly stated: “There is no need to talk about a ‘Crisis of Values.’ Those were different days, back then!”

Yes, those were different days, remembered David. He would give it all back, gladly, if given the chance—the large swimming pool, the new Community Center, his color television and porcelain bathtub—and return to the beginning. To the first days of Aliyah. To the labor-rejoicing of those days. Yes, they didn’t shy away from ideals back then. And the virtue of working the land was sacred, not cursed.

David kept these thoughts to himself. He was not a man of words: he was a man of deeds. Like today, like the forty years he had lived and worked here in this kibbutz, transforming a mosquito infested swamp into a blossoming garden. He had never dreamed, had never believed—there in the darkest of days, when the Nazis had killed his parents and his older brother—that it was possible to create such a beautiful, perfect place to live and work. And now–

“What now?” cried a young voice suddenly, breaking David’s train of thought. “What do we do now?”

Yair was just a schoolboy, who was yet to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. But he stood up, unabashed, interrupting the older members of the kibbutz who were still immersed in their bitter, acute argument. They finally stopped quarreling and quieted down, listening reluctantly to Yair’s cry: “What do we do now?”

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The Kibbutz is Burning (Part 7)

Kibbutz HeftzibahThe dreamlike saga of this new short story, magic-realism in the Holy Land continues after the battle on the big dining room has ended, and the one for the soul of the kibbutz begins.

Dusk was descending on the kibbutz, whose residents had gathered on the slope of the biblical mountain. The sun had set down already—just as it had done so many years ago, after kissing the dead bodies of King Saul and his son Jonathan a last farewell—far behind the red Edom Mountains, high above the Jordan River. But the Jesreel Valley below was still drenched with her majestic golden light. A thick blanket of smoke covered the kibbutz, hanging low and heavy, while every few minutes or so, in a last rebellious attempt, an orange flame would flare up through the dark gray screen, only to die down soon.

Under the Children Orchard, untouched by the fire, they all huddled and sat down. The elderly were there, the veterans who came to this place when it was nothing but a swamp; parents with their children where there, even babies; the guests, too, sons and daughters of the kibbutz who had returned home to celebrate the anniversary, and had stayed to fight the fire.

No one spoke. The atmosphere was thick with smoke and sorrow. Only the random burst of embers trying to reignite the fire, and the occasional wailing of sirens by the fire engines, ambulances and police cars, coming or leaving the kibbutz, occasionally broke off the dreadful, monotonous silence.

David was sitting high on a mountain rock, at the edge of this crowded group of people. His grandson Asaf was on his lap, secured by his tired arms. Close by on the ground his son Gideon was sitting, together with Dina his wife. David’s own wife, Roza, had been driven to the central valley hospital to be with Rafi, their adopted son, who was wounded in the battle. Their daughter Dalya was there as well, busy with other women in handing everybody sandwiches, fruits and cold lemonade. A donation from the nearby kibbutzim.

Amos, the Secretary of the kibbutz, was the only one to stand up. His grave looking face, with a bloodstained white bandage crowning his forehead, had told the story of the day before he even opened his mouth to speak. David heard his voice, but absorbed his words only partly. Some words registered in his mind immediately, and permanently, while others disappeared as if they were never uttered.

Yariv, the leader of the kibbutz’s resistance, was killed in the battle of the dining room. He—a veteran of the Six Days War, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War—had died defending his kibbutz. Ephraim, the veteran firefighter of the kibbutz and David’s old friend, was dead too. His heart had failed him. Because, David knew for certain in his own heart, he was unable to extinguish the fire and stop the destruction.

The people from Beit She’an had suffered heavier losses. Six were dead, among them the brothers Jacky and Sami Ben-Simon, who were fired last week from their work in the kibbutz’s plastic factory. The firing was the result of an ordinance issued by the Kibbutzim Movement, explained Amos apologetically, to employ only kibbutz members in the fields and factories whenever possible, and not “hired labor.” Maybe that was the reason, David now realized, why the brothers were so angry at him.

The list of damaged working places and burned down buildings was infinite to the ears of the kibbutz members, so they asked Amos to be brief. There was no need to pour more oil onto the fire, they said, it was still burning. So he switched gears, as he so laconically had put it, and told the somber crowd that they may find some comfort in the knowledge that their kibbutz was not alone in this predicament. The chief of police from the town of Afula had informed him, in full confidence, that two other kibbutzim from the Republic of the Kibbutzim—“His words, not mine,” stressed Amos—were attacked in a similar fashion: One in the Galilee Mountains, up north, the other in the Negev Desert, down south. They were also the victims of an attack from nearby development towns. The police, as was customary in such situations, had already assigned a name to the events of the day: The Red Shabbat.

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The Kibbutz is Burning (Part 6)

(The dreaKibbutz Heftzibahmlike saga of this new short story, magic-realism in the Holy Land, continues when the battle on the big dining room comes to an end, and the one for the soul of the kibbutz begins.)

When David saw that, he rushed down to the equipment-shed, which stood adjacent to the old Community Shower—now serving the women as a beauty salon—and got hold of the longest water hose there. He hooked it to a faucet and turned on the water, and began fighting the fire. Other kibbutz members joined him in this fight, using water hoses and buckets of water, which they moved quickly from hand to hand. Some resourceful women brought towels and blankest from their beauty salon, and began beating the bushes, which by now caught fire as well. Everybody was at it, as one body, in a supreme, desperate effort to save the trees and, by and large, the kibbutz.

When at last fire engines from Afula, the capital city of the Jesreel Valley had arrived, together with police and ambulances, there wasn’t much that could be saved. The fire had been contained, to a degree, but the dining room was consumed down to its concrete base. The adjoining large kitchen, the bakery and small warehouse, were also lost to the fire. The thick belt of trees and bushes enveloping the dining room had survived, however thin, due to the persistent, heroic effort of the kibbutz members.

There were casualties, of course, injured and dead. But at that hour of fatigue and grief, when David and Gideon were slowly walking up toward the mountain, dripping of sweat and water, it was unknown yet who and how many.

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