A Story Set in Israel in the 1980s, Between the Lebanese War and the Outbreak of the First Intifada

    June 2011          
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Excerpt from The Other Shore

By Fred Skolnik

At a little after two o’clock in the afternoon, on a cold, dark day in the middle of the second winter of Israel’s war in Lebanon, six uniformed pallbearers lifted the flag-draped coffin of Captain Uri Shachar from the small platform that had been set up in the Kibbutz Ma'ayan Oz recreation room and placed it in the back of the command car waiting outside. Immediately the command car began to move. Behind it, the hundreds of mourners fell into place in a long, straggling procession. It had rained during the night. The path to the cemetery was muddy and a hard wind bent back the big eucalyptus trees along the way. People walked in small, silent groups―kibbutz families and city friends, the men of Uri’s unit and his own family, his parents, his grandfather, his brother, Yoav, with a girl in uniform on his arm, the widow, Ariela, with her parents and her sisters and her sisters’ husbands, though withdrawn from them and in effect alone. Men were still coming in from the fields. Women in work clothes came out of the kibbutz factory and the big kibbutz kitchen. The procession swelled and lengthened and followed the slow-moving vehicle to the gates of the cemetery and then the mourners spread out between the graves and the overhanging trees and waited for the ceremony of burial to begin.

Amnon Goldstein stood with the other men who had come down from Lebanon. They had been patrolling the Shiite villages all through the night and had their guns slung over their shoulders and mud spattered on their paratroopers’ boots. They looked worn out. Amnon, however, stood at ease, self-contained as always, a receptacle of impressions, alert and unthinking as he fixed his eyes on the families beside the grave. The families stood together, but still Ariela remained apart, as though surrounded by an invisible wall, a perceptible distance separating her from the others, her fists clenched at her sides, her face expressionless now like some epitome of Fortitude carved out of stone. Yoav too showed no emotion. The girl at his side had buried her face in his chest. He kept his arm around her and stared at the ground. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. He had the blank, open face that one kibbutz generation seemed to pass on to the next where nothing was concealed and nothing revealed. He wore the two bars of a first lieutenant and the insignia of the Givati Brigade. Like his brother’s widow, he was unapproachable.

Now the divisional chaplain stepped forward and read from the Book of Psalms; then, in a strong, clear voice, Itzik Shachar said Kaddish. Amnon knew Uri’s family, the father a Palmach hero with three terms in the Knesset, his grandfather the famous "Abrasha" of the Third Aliyah, one of the giants of the earth who at the age of eighty-four still rode out to the fields each day in the chill of dawn. One saw faces here such as one did not see anywhere else, faces of remarkable character held firm in age as though by an act of will. These faces too showed no emotion, but one could sense in their grim impassivity a certain bitterness which seemed to say that this was precisely what one might expect from the world and its Creator.

Uri’s commanding officer had begun his eulogy. He was of a type, solid, seemingly invincible, above the elements even. Coatless, he had his shirt open at the throat and the sleeves rolled up above the elbows, revealing the silvery hair of his powerful chest and forearms. He dwelt now on the theme of sacrifice. To live as a nation one must be prepared to pay the price. This was his message, pronounced in a deep, measured voice that carried each sentence inexorably forward to its logical conclusion. The eulogy was a speech he had made, in one shape or another, many times before. It addressed itself to the mourners, to the nation, to the world. Unlike other peoples, if we did not defend ourselves we would cease to exist. Such was the nature of our enemy. Such were our special circumstances. But only here, in this place, could Jewish life be preserved, only here was our destiny in our own hands. And it was the duty of each of us to take his place in the front line, as Uri had. Some would fall; others would endure. The life of the nation took precedence over all.

The mourners were neither inspired nor made impatient by these words. These things were understood. On such assumptions the nation had been reborn. On such assumptions the nation had lived and prospered, wrought miracles, realized ancient dreams. No one was unaware of the historical meaning of Uri’s death, or of the special place of the kibbutz in the country’s struggle to survive.

Now the general spoke of Uri’s character. And this too was understood. It was understood that the character of officers like Uri who led men into battle would be exemplary. Uri’s character had been extraordinary. Everyone knew this. Men like Uri, the general said, helped bring the country up to a certain standard, and it was this standard that we must not betray. In the purity of his heart, in his dedication, in his selflessness, Uri reminded us of what we had been, what we had lost, what we might become again. "Let us be worthy of him," the general said in conclusion, and then he said it again, in nearly a whisper, "Let us be worthy of him," and it was clear that he was moved by his own words.

Then a cantor recited the Prayer for the Dead and the wreaths were laid and the honor guard fired its salute and the mourners began to file past the grave. It was barely three o’clock. A few drops of rain fell from the rapidly darkening sky. Finally Ariela turned to go and the others followed, beginning to talk again, resuming their former animation, all tension dissipated in the aftermath of burial like a winter chill in the heat of life. They all walked back toward the Shachars’ house, across the broad lawns of the kibbutz and up its narrow lanes. The kibbutz was changing. Amnon hadn’t been here in years, not since Uri’s wedding in fact. Houses had been enlarged to allow the kibbutz children to sleep at home, a new communal dining hall had been built and a gray, barnlike factory building blocked the once open view to the fields and the distant hills. The Shachars’ house was in the oldest section of the kibbutz, the last in a row of four, made picturesque by a profusion of winter flowers and a giant willow tree bordered by a little brook. All the kibbutz lay under the heavy mist now like a great garden watered from a bountiful sky. Amnon went inside with the other men. Someone had laid out trays of sandwiches and soft drinks. Dozens of people were crowded into the living room, which was quite large and comfortable for a kibbutz house. Amnon immediately went over to Ariela. She had removed her coat and lighted a cigarette. She was tall and graceful with red-brown hair and pale skin. She wore a black skirt and a plain white blouse. Amnon held her hand for a moment, surprised by its warmth. "Will you be all right?" he said.

"I think so." And as though she understood more than he thought she could, a gentle, consoling look came into her eyes. Then she said, "I wish we could talk. I won’t ask you how it happened. It doesn’t matter, does it? It’s finished now."

He couldn’t say whether it was out of bitterness or the strain of things or her usual matter-of-factness that she spoke so plainly. It shocked him in a way to hear this note of finality, but he was relieved by it too, for he had feared he would have to explain himself, tell her where he had been, what he had been doing, when Uri was killed. "We’ll talk another time," he said. "If you need anything, just tell me. Whatever it is."

"I know," Ariela said, and again he felt himself awash in that commiserating look of hers. She inhaled the smoke of her cigarette deeply, then breathed it out in a long sigh, signaling to him with a slight raising of her eyebrows that the moment was one she would have to endure. Of all the beautiful women he knew, none had a face so expressive. It was the perfect counterpoise to her stately bearing. With this light play of feeling in her eyes, she too seemed to have returned to her former self.

"Will you be staying at your parents?"

"I don’t know yet," she said.

"But not here."

"No, not here." She permitted herself a small smile, which almost got the better of her, so she suppressed it. "I remember the first time Uri brought me here. I wore high heels and lipstick. Maybe eye shadow too. People looked at me as if I came from another planet. They still do, I think."

Amnon smiled too. Her voice had a musical quality, rich with hidden laughter. She was silent for a moment, appearing to think or remember, and seemed on the verge of saying something more, but suppressed that too. Amnon lit a cigarette. The silence between them was not awkward. In its perpetual calm, her presence cast a kind of tranquilizing spell. There was a line behind him now. Some of the other men had come over. Amnon took her hand again. "I’ll be out in a few days. We’ll be in touch."

He kissed her cheek and left her. Uri’s parents were sitting on the sofa. He shook hands with Uri’s father and nodded to his mother, whose pinched, scowling face showed anger as much as grief. He remembered her as a difficult woman. Ariela’s parents he knew only by sight. They looked disoriented, having shrunk into the protective circle of their daughters and their daughters’ husbands. There was little he could say to them. He went over to the hot-water dispenser to make a cup of coffee and then stood at the side of the room where the wall was covered with books―all the standard Zionist histories and not a few volumes in Russian. The room was very warm. He recognized a few politicians. Occasionally in Tel Aviv he would run into one of these public figures in the street and find himself being acknowledged as though he too carried a certain weight. This never failed to amuse him, but it set him to thinking as well, for people were always urging him to get into politics himself. He was not ready for that quite yet but he could see it on the horizon along with many other things in a life that had suddenly come to seem full of new possibilities.

When he saw that the other men were ready to leave, he caught their eye and they all went outside. A light rain was falling. They stood in the rain for a moment trying to decide what to do next. The men who lived in the north wanted to go home for a few hours. Amnon wanted to go down to Tiberias to get something to eat. In the end, having come down in two command cars and a jeep, they decided to split up and meet at the Metulla checkpost at midnight. Then, in the slow, laborious way that men in uniform have of getting organized, they sorted themselves out and prepared to leave. Amnon waited patiently. His philosophy of life was always to await things patiently, for life was a process that encompassed many events and only occasionally reached an unequivocal resolution. He admired patient, unemotional men. Most of all he admired men with presence of mind who were never overwhelmed by events. In ’73, when he had been under fire for the first time and their line seemed about to collapse, a young colonel had appeared out of nowhere and rallied the men in a calm, casual voice as the shells exploded all around them. Even today the romance of valor colored his daydreams.

Amnon had slipped the hood of his coat over his head and lighted another cigarette. The cold air was bracing. It made him think of the Lebanese Shuf, where you went higher and higher into the cedars crowning the chill, dark, otherworldly heights. These were the true Elysian Fields, forever beckoning to him. But the world beckoned too, this fragrant air, this lush, wet grass, his own quickening flesh. He watched the men climb into the command cars and then climbed in too. He thought of the meal he was going to eat. He thought of sleeping in his own bed in another few days. And as they sped down the winding road to the Sea of Galilee, he thought of how good it was to be alive.

From Chapter 1, Part 1, with permission of the author and publisher. For more information about this book, contact the publisher, Aqueous Books


from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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