In A Promised Land

by Geoffrey Clarfield (March 2012)

When I was twenty six years old I went to Jerusalem to learn Hebrew. I arrived at Ben Gurion airport on the humid coastal plain, where a taxi from the Jewish Agency had been designated to collect me and a number of other potential immigrants to the Jewish State. An elderly volunteer of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) greeted us. He checked the list of arrivals and then made sure we were all in the cab for the trip up to the capital city.

He was very excited and received us with the kind of enthusiasm that must have greeted pilgrims who in centuries past, had come to pray at the Wailing Wall. Later I realized that he was helping an idea, the return of the scattered remnants to their ancestral homeland. He was not particularly interested in us as individuals but welcomed us as a collective. Coming from a very individualistic society characterized by “possessive individualism” I found the emotion uplifting and unsettling.

Within a few minutes of his departure the taxi driver was already hustling additional passengers for twenty-five dollars a head until the car was filled to the gills. Despite our protests that this was unlawful and unfair he only took to the highway once his extra passengers had been collected, causing us a delay of an hour. We were young and we had no idea what hardships he had been through, how many wars he had fought, how many children he had to raise and how high were is taxes as in those days Israel was still a socialist state. We had not quite realized that Israel is a Mediterranean state and rules are flexible. I later learnt that the “old” middle east of constant, situational negotiation is never far below the surface of what is now called the “start up nation.”

Within an hour we had arrived in Jerusalem. The air was clear, the humidity low and the whole city seemed to be glowing, or even on fire, from the masses of Jerusalem stone that were in evidence in all buildings. We were ushered in to the entrance of the language school dormitory and shown to our rooms.

Four people to a room, men and women in separate rooms but not in separate parts of the building. It was a long rectangular building of two floors probably built during the British Mandate or even earlier during the Ottoman period. The corridors were long and wide and the rooves high as was the custom of the Turks who had been there just a few years before the British arrived with their Balfour declaration and a mandate for a Jewish state. We all ate in a cafeteria and studied in classes based on levels of fluency. I was at the second level since I knew the alphabet, could read and write but did not communicate easily or effectively.

Who were these Jewish youth who had decided to try to live in the land of Israel in the year of 1979, just six years after the Yom Kippur war?

A Turkish Jew who by way of New York preferred the Mediterranean to the snows of the Eastern Seaboard. A vivacious English girl who with an Austrian girl liked to climb on the roof, sunbathe braless, while inviting male students to sip tea with her. Another English girl who was going to Ramallah every weekend to make love with her Arab boyfriend. An Argentinean lawyer, guitarist and singer whose husband had disappeared under the regime of the dictators – taken from their flat in the middle of the night. Sami, a dentist from Peru who talked of visiting the whorehouses in Lima the way a suburban American speaks of romantic high school liasons. Sami shared a room with me and while the three of us were asleep, his girlfriend would hop into his bed in the middle of the night. We were often woken up by the noise of their lovemaking to our amusement and irritation.

Then there were the orthodox returnees, a born again lawyer from New York and an orthodox Cambridge graduate from the UK who regularly offered to come and kosher the kitchens of each of us who were to move into private apartments once the course was over.

Who could be surprised when after a few weeks it became clear that most of these Jewish youths were not really here for the same reasons that I was, that is, to learn the language of the Jews and to see what contribution they could make to the Jewish state. Most of them were individuals at a turning point in their life, young adults who had not found themselves or, who were looking for that significant other that they had not found in their home countries. I did not understand it at the time, but they had all come to Jerusalem to redeem themselves in some way, as if despite the secularism of their project and the age, some deep Biblical paradigm was invoked to give meaning to their search for permanent happiness. In retrospect I was not as different as I thought. I had come to explore the rebirth of the Jewish people in their own homeland in the unconscious hope that perhaps I too would be transformed.

Was I really in the same boat as this colorful, vibrant group of new immigrants to the Jewish State? Perhaps I was. But I am not sure when I look back at it many years later. Before I came to Jerusalem I had met an Israeli girl my age in Canada and we had begun a serious relationship. She wanted to visit L.A. before she came home to live with me. I knew that I would hate L.A. so I went off to study Hebrew. She was set to return in eight weeks. All around me panic-stricken youth were coupling and mating at lightning speed.

The Turk and the half-nude Austrian girl soon were a couple. The other English girl found someone too. The Argentinean woman was negotiating an affair with a married Israeli man. A Hungarian man and a Romanian woman fell deeply in love despite the fact that they communicated in rudimentary Hebrew, while an Algerian born francophone teamed up with a woman who had recently escaped from the mullahs in Teheran. He and I shared a fascination with early medieval European music and the music of North Africa.

It took about a month until people started asking questions about me. Why hadn’t I found a girlfriend? For these men and women who knew no one and had no family in Israel they found it hard to believe my story, that I was waiting for my Israeli girlfriend to return from her visit to Los Angeles and with whom I would soon share an apartment.

So, I passed more of my time among outsiders. There were two Catholic nuns from a monastery on the Mount of Olives who studied with me; one of them was named Christine. She had knowledge of history, literature and philosophy and made good company. I would often go and visit her in her convent in the old city. We could only converse through a window that opened between two rooms and that I believe was designed to ensure the near impossibility of carnal relations. We would talk about Sartre and classical music as we both ate from the grapes that were grown on that disputed mountainside and from the water that was drawn from the cistern of the convent – as good as any white wine that I have ever tasted.

Christine would talk to me about her conversion to the monastic vocation from her urban life in Paris during the sixties. She said that the monastic life was akin in spirit to mountain climbing, but she used the French word, which in its form has connotations of a political ideology – alpinisme. I was too polite to ask, but wondered whether Christine had herself revolted from the unrestrained carnality of the “movement” in France that led to the student revolt in 1968. I felt that her celibate reaction to the sixties was as Catholic and overdetermined as the monogamous Jewish passion that was spreading through my dormitory.

We often concluded our Friday afternoon visits when she would lead me to the guest’s partition in the chapel beyond which the women of the convent would carry out the Friday evening Vespers service, an all-female choir singing Gregorian Chant. I would occasionally lose myself amidst a chorus of singing women whose melodies seemed to float up to the light that played against the high placed windows above the Kidron valley.

I would then walk down the Mount of Olives, enter the old city through St. Stephen’s gate, meander through the spice bazaar, walk to the rebuilt Hurva Synagogue and then catch a bus back to the Ulpan (the Hebrew word for language school) from a stop within earshot of the Wailing Wall, watching the newly washed Yeshiva students walking twenty abreast to welcome the Sabbath on the site of Solomon’s Temple. Mazal, our Turkish Sephardic cook from Izmir would keep my food warm since she thought I had walked back from synagogue.

As a student of ethnomusicology I had some awareness that the origins of Gregorian chant that I heard at the convent lay in synagogue music from just after the destruction of the third temple. I had read the study by Eric Werner as an undergraduate but given the dramatic contact between monastery and yeshiva, synagogue and church in contemporary Jerusalem I could not quite digest the reality of it.

Most evenings, I would sit in the enclosed courtyard of our student residence, under lemon trees, chatting in French with the Algerian night watchman comparing the finer points of the singers featured on Radio Cairo, Damascus and Amman, while sipping Turkish coffee. I lived in this limbo like existence for eight weeks, on friendly terms with everyone, but a growing enigma in the eyes of my fellow students and roommates.

The English girl got pregnant and returned to England. Her boyfriend would come and visit her from Ramallah. No one had noticed her condition until it was too late. Sami and his girlfriend announced their engagement. One person broke her arm and walked around with a sling. Some started trying to get jobs and prepare for the move out into the wider society. Our teachers taught us simple grammar and vocabulary but nothing about Israeli daily life or culture or how to get a job.

The food was adequate, the administrators below average, the place was clean and in the middle of a slum. It was run by the Jewish Agency and staffed by poorly paid employees. Each day in the late afternoon, young women from the slums would walk by the school in revealing outfits, hoping to catch the eye of a new immigrant, hoping against hope that some dashing man from the Diaspora would whisk them out of poverty.

One evening I heard music coming from one of these slum dwellings. Not having much else to do I walked outside towards the noise. As I got closer I could clearly hear a man’s voice singing in the style of Fes, Morocco accompanied by an Arabic lute (called oud in Arabic) violins and the clapping of women’s hands. I found the flat, knocked on the door and introduced myself as a student from next door. I also mentioned that I had lived among the dwindling Jewish community of Fes, three years earlier.

Within a few minutes I had found cousins of my friends from Fes, relatives of Henri, Rafi, Rosette and Rachel. I stayed late eating stuffed chicken, gazelle’s horns and sipping mint tea in the crowded flat surrounded by the warmth of an extended family that had probably left Morocco together and had been living, working and arguing together since they got off the boat to Israel in the 1950s. I got back to my room at two in the morning. Everyone was asleep and Sami’s girlfriend had not yet arrived.

By the time my girlfriend returned from L.A. I had already rented an apartment. I had a job waiting for me at a high school in Jerusalem at the beginning of the school year and we were getting ready to move in together before I started my new job. The day she arrived to pick me up, my bag was packed and I was waiting at the front door. After she had gotten out of her car I asked her to walk around the place with me and as she did, I introduced her to some of the other “inmates.”

The nightwatchman stared at her in disbelief, as did my other classmates. It finally dawned on me that they really had not believed my story. To them I was just one more Jewish refugee in Zion, either a real refugee from the antisemitic juntas of Argentina or an emotional one, fleeing the emotional challenges and contradictions of suburban North American Jewish life at that time.

I assumed that they thought my story was the sublimated version of their anxious coupling. As far as I was concerned, I was just one more of a few boys from a nice Toronto suburb intrigued by the tragedy of Jewish homelessness and the possibility of contributing to the normalization of Jewish life in the national homeland.

My girlfriend, who the following year became my wife, toured the place with me and was emotionally quite shaken. She had been born in Israel and although she had known war, family and friends had always surrounded her. She had had schoolmates and friends who had escaped from Yemen, Morocco, Hungary in 56 but she had never been a refugee, never been separated from her family, without siblings, parents, aunts or uncles. She had always known the language and culture of daily life and had never had to leave everything behind.

During my eight weeks at the language school I had felt alone. It was the time before cell phones, before the internet, a time when a five minute long distance call cost an arm and a leg, and you only did it once or twice a year and when you did you would often yell on the phone out of excitement and fear that you may not be heard at the other end.

I had been without family, had felt disoriented and childish because I did not speak the language and lived without a network or a social support system to see me through. Like my fellow students, I was more or less cut off from the outside world and dependent on my teachers and the sullen administrators who ran the place. Moods being infective, I could easily identify with the anxiety of these immigrants who desperately needed someone to cling to, someone to hold in the middle of the night and with whom to fantasize a normal future.

These immigrants had come to Jerusalem to redeem themselves but they had yet to be redeemed. When I walked out into the sunny street, with my arm around my girlfriend, I felt as if I was being let out of prison, for in a sense that is what an immigrant absorption center is. In the words of the American Jewish sociologist Irving Goffmann it is a “total institution” and I shared its culture with my fellow students amidst the indifference of the underpaid staff, the poorly motivated teachers and amidst a growing loneliness that entered my soul during that hot Middle Eastern summer.

My career as an anthropologist began with this intense bit of fieldwork. I had somehow chosen to live the life of a homeless, Jewish immigrant in a foreign land. I am convinced that to some degree I relived the fears and hopes of my grandparents, when they stepped off the boat in Halifax in the late nineteenth century, hoping to enter the promised land that they had been told lay across the Ocean. I have never forgotten that feeling of loneliness and isolation.

Many years later a Polish Jewish immigrant friend of mine, a doctor who had moved to Canada told me that immigration is like a psychiatric disorder. In a new culture everything that was once familiar is wrong and everything that is unfamiliar is right. That is how I felt as I struggled to learn in a new language in a new country with no friends or family from my childhood to speak to or with whom to share the experience. It was a humbling and most worthwhile lesson. It changed me forever.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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