Friday, August 19, 2005

My Gaza Memories

NOTE: I started writing this on Monday, and its taken me a week to finish it. It isn't in my usual writing style, and I am not sure if I make a point, so please forgive me if I don't. I also want to say that twelve years is a long time, and some of the memories and/or names might have been a bit fuzzy, therefore if I mispelled or misnamed somebody, please forgive me.

On Sunday, Israeli Police and Miltary units began serving eviction notices to the residents of Gaza, and tomorrow, those that remain will be forceibly removed from their homes. Their are many opinions on the matter - is it right, is it wrong, will it make it easier or harder to secure Israel? I personally am not going to take a stand on those issues. This article isn't about how correct or incorrect either side is, but rather a reflection on Gaza by someone who lived through a very small portion of its history, and wants to share his insights with you. The few short days I spent on Moshav Gan Or in March of 1993 left an indelible impression on the 18-year old boy that I was. In that week I observed and took part in several things that I have never since seen again, and, unless a miracle ocurrs, probably never will again. I learned how to weld, I learned how to weed tomatoes, how amazing the Jewish mind is, and how indifeatible the human spirit can be. I learned that Gaza was a lesson in contrasts from the cesspool that was, still is, and probably will remain Gaza City to the beautiful arrays of glass and steel and mediterrean villot that were so characteristic of Gush Katif. Yes, dear reader, Gush Katif is a lot more than sand, a lot more than a group of politically inspired neighborhoods to shore up Israeli hold on the area - but Gush Katif is truly a lesson in how many amazing things that the state of Israel has, can, and will accomplish - with or without the cities and villages in Gaza as part of its future.

First and foremost, to get to Gush Katif, one had to pass through the Palestininan inhabited areas of Gaza. Not a pleasant site to say the least. By contrast, when I drive through a neighborhood deemed unsafe here in New York, I roll-up my windows and lock my doors. In Gaza, they bulletproof the windows and lock and load their rifles. Incidentally, of the 50 or people on the bus that morning, there was only one other people aside from me who didn't seem to have guns - we some young kids seated a few rows up. I was so scared when they all locked and loaded that I ducked under my seat, thinking they were doing so was a sign of an impending attack - not realizing that this was simply par for the course. During the journey, passing by the outskirts of Gaza City and Deir-el-balah - I kept wondering why did I come here. Why didn't I just stay in Jerusalem? But in a few short minutes, that all changed, as we started passing through the arrays of Terra-cotta roofed buildings and glass and steel greenhouses that were so characteristic of Gush Katif and the cities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza in general. I immediately found the home of my hosts - Itzik and Yudit Amitai. Probably one of the most beautiful homes I have ever seen. A home that could have easily looked perfectly in place in Boca Raton, Los Angeles or some Greek Isle. But it was here, in Moshav Gan-Or. More so than the house itself was the home that they made it. At the time they had 5 children - ranging in age from 12 on downward. As an 'Americaii Mifunak' - a spoiled american, I had imagined that each of the kids would have claimed one of the 7 bedrooms as their own - yet all of the older ones slept together in the same room - either as a sign of their closeness, or as a sign of a fear borne of living in such a dangerous climate - either way, they enjoyed one anothers' company. I was shown a room and went to wash-up, but my washing up session didn't last too long. I was immediately whisked to the Greenhouses to Help Itzik, and another volunteer, Yuval, widen the Amitai's truck so that it could accomodate more bushels of tomatoes on their trips to market them. Yuval was an interesting character. An orange farmer from Binyamina who was, ironically, allergic to the orange trees, and spent much of his springs in the south. The best way to describe Yuval would be to say that he could have easily been the double for the character 'Hagrid' in the Harry Potter films - without any makeup or camera effects. My first day was Yuval's last - as he had spent the previous week or so there. But we spent the better part of a couple of hours working on the Truck together. He taught me a bit about welding, and a bit about economics. The reason that the bed of the truck was being widened was because when the Moshav's scarcity of workers required fewer trips to the market with tomatoes (the reason why the needed volunteers like me was because they had expelled all of their palestinian workers on the moshav after one of their moshavniks was killed by a trusted employee in broad daylight -more on this later).

After finishing up our welding job, we headed back to the Amitai house - for my first taste of Yudit's awesome cooking. We spoke of politics and what was becoming, at the time, the bloodiest month in Israel's history - which started with the kidnapping and murder of Nissim Toledano - a young Magavnik (border police officer). I spent the next few days working in the greenhouse alongside other volunteers - religious and secular, zionistic and not. There were some guys from the Mercaz Harav Kook yeshiva, a teenager my own age who was about to start a one-year mechina program before enlisting in the army, and a couple of young girls who were helping out with the Amitai's pesach preparations that were dormitory students in the Neve Dekalim girls' high school. There were also other volunteers - friends of mine on a B'nei akiva program, others on program from the Nitzotz/The Israel Center (an organization that I am forever grateful to for having enabled me to experience teaching Judaism to ethiopian immigrants)- the list goes on. At night, I hung out with my fellow volunteers. Each with a different story, but each with the same reason for being there - helping out their brothers and sisters in need.

One day during that week - I can't remember exactly which, but I am thinking it was either Tuesday or Wednesday - as I was sitting eating lunch leaning against the greenhouse, two men in pulled up to the greenhouse in a car. One looked like he belonged on the moshav - he wore a big knit blue kipah on his head, the other was so Wasp-y he could have easily been someone I bumped into on the New Haven Green rather than a Gaza greenhouse. The kippa-wearing gentlemen approached me asked me where Itzik was (in Hebrew of course) and I responded that he had gone to Neve Dekalim to deliver vegetables. He then turned to his companion and began to explain what I had just said in English. I jumped in and offered that they could check with Yudit in the house. Surprised and impressed with my English (the fact that they thought I was a sabra still gets me to this day, sigh, where did my Hebrew go?), they asked how I knew English so well. I explained that I had lived in the states for 17 years. The guy with the Kipah introduced himself as David Bedein - an Israeli PR/Media consultant, the other guy was introduced as Jeff or Jim (honestly, I can't remember - and yes, he was from connecticut), and he was a reporter for newsweek. Intrigued to find an American student visiting Gaza, he asked me a few short questions. Although I am proud of my interview with Newsweek, it unfortunately never made it into the magazine.

Over the next few days as I weeded tomato plants and picked cauliflower and flowers for the upcoming holiday of Pesach, I learned and saw more than I ever wanted to know about agriculture. I was in with every Greenhouse control room that I walked into - each of these seemed more like the deck of the Enterprise that on a small farm in Gaza - fertilization, irrigation - they were all computer controlled. 30 years ago we would have all laughed if someone suggested we grow vegetables in the desert, yet today we have 'Best Practices' and can provide those practices to other nations that could use these techniques to feed their hungry. Never in my life did I ever dream that argiculture could be enhanced so much by technology. More than greenhouses as far as the eye can see, the Hammamot of Gush Katif we among the most technologically advanced Greenhouses in the world. But the technology was only half of it - halacha was the other half. Gush Katif gave rise to 'bug-free' produce. And then there was shmita. The year I was there was a shmita - sabbatical - year were the land needed to lie fallow. So the plants that year were not grown in the ground but on top of it - in buckets. Yes, Gush Katif was comprised of acres upon acres of Greenhouses that were designed to fuse technology and halacha and embrace them in nature, and at the same time, tried bucking nature by banning bugs and growing potted tomatoes in the desert.

I also attended minyan in Gush Katif. One day one of the moshavniks asked me to lead the services. I politely declined, embarassed that my Brooklyn Yeshiva boy accent would cause people to laugh at me. His reply -' son, I'm Yemenite, and I lead them here too, just do me a favor and head up to the front.' Yes, there were Ashkenazi, Sefardi, and Yemenites in Gush Katif, and it was not discriminatory. The secular and the religious lived together and there was harmony. In Neve Dekalim I learned that although there were enough Jews of each of the three denominations to warrant their own synagouge, they all shared one social hall - recognizing that although their liturgies differed, their sense of community was still single-minded. Another minyan I attended was the Shloshim minyan for Uri Meggidish. Uri was the aforementioned man, murdered by one of his most trusted palestinian workers. I sat there with the others trying to make sense of it all. I looked at the sullen face of his daughter Meital, unlike the joy of her older brother's recent Bar-Mitzvah, her Bat Mitzvah would now be a bittersweet affair (In fact-checking for this article, I discovered that Mohammed Abu-Sita, the terrorist who killed Megiddish, was killed a little more than a year ago - on the same day the brit milah of Uri's first grandon took place, I wonder what this child will learn about his grandfather, and how it will hurt his parents, grandmother, aunts and uncles to leave the place where their father died to live). It was walking home from this minyan that I had an exchange with a four year old that changed my life forever.

Little 4-year-old Eyal Amitai, my hosts' son, was playing 'Soliders and Arabs' with his friends. I, as a child, played cops and robbers. I guess the antagonists and protagonists take on different forms in different places. I asked Eyal who he was shooting at. "The arabs!" he replied. When I asked him why he wanted to shoot Arabs, he said, simply, "because they killed Uri." I was blown away. A four year old understanding the senseless violence had taken away his favorite neighbor. I often wished after that to make a difference, to take the next generation of Eyals and teach them that we don't have to hate, that we can try to bridge the gap, that peace is achievable, before events push them to think to the contrary. Eyal is proably about 16 or so right now, and after this all settles down, he will probably join the same Army that evicted him and his family from their home. I wonder, with the way things are going, if he will be forced to do the same to the residents of Judea and Samaria - Efrat, Ma'ale Adumim, Hebron. It pains me to even think that 'disengagement' goes beyond the Gaza Strip, but if Gaza goes, what might be next? It pains me to think that in the 12 years past, hope is bleaker than ever that we will fulfill the prophecy of Isiah -' ...Lo yilmadu od' milchamah' -' ... we will not teach war anymore' .

On Monday night that week, my second night there, I was helping to pick flowers in a greenhouse on the moshav, when gunshots went off in the distance. There weren't many, but even one was enough for us to be evacuated to the safety of the moshav. It turned out that the shot was fired by Shaya Deutsch after he had been stabbed by a Palestinian. It was never clear if the shot was intedend to hit his fleeing attacker, or to warn others and get help. As we arrived at the Amitai household, Yudit passed out Tehilim - Psalm books - and we all began to pray for Shaya. In the distance, we saw a helicopter leaving neve dekalim evacuating him to the Hospital in Beer Sheva. But alas Shaya died. Within a few minutes, I decided to call my aunt in Jerusalem, knowing that I needed to 'ping' her before the news hit the hourly newscasts. Long before everyone in Israel had a cell phone, the 'I'm alive and well' call was still a fixture of daily life there. I found out a few weeks later that one of my friends and others in the B'Nei Akiva group were actually there when the Helicopter took Shaya away. They were staying at the dormitory of the Girls' High School in Neve Dekalim, and being that their parking lot was the only place to land a helicopter, they witnessed his last moments firsthand.

On a much lighter note, one of the Russian workers had a boombox with him, and presumeably only had two tapes - A Russian comedy album which I couldn't understand (even the limited 'kitchen Russian' I've accquired from my wife and in-laws in the last 6 years of marriage wouldn't help) and Abba's greatest hits. Abba might be fine to listen to, but after hearing the same songs repeatedly for 8 hours a day for 5 days straight, it got old quickly. The one song that stuck in my head was 'By the rivers of Babylon,' Abba's take on the Psalm. 12 years later, immediately following Tisha B'Av I now feel a chill, for our Gazanian brothers and sisters are now sitting at their own proverbial river, and wail. (I too wept this morning after reading some of the stories in the paper). In retrospect, it was seemingly prophetic - for little did I know it would all come to an end.

On Friday, I headed back to Jerusalem for Shabbat. I was dead tired, but packed with Memories. Sadly, that was the last time I was ever going to be in Gaza, and even more sadly, I never really kept up with the Amitai family. I wonder what happens to them. I wonder what they will do and where they will go? I wonder if they too are sitting by their proverbial river crying for the destruction of the home that they have have for 12 or 13 years.

In that same Psalm we say - 'If I forget thee O'Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand.' To that I say we should apply this notion to Gaza. From my anecdotes and experiences, it is clear to me that what I experienced there and from the news reports, that Gush Katif is a Special place where one was able to learn so many positive things from the natural, physical, and spiritual worlds. Although we need to move out of there, we will never forget the lessons we learned their and the residents of Gush Katif will take that spirit with them wherever they go.

My oldest son is 3.5 years old. I can't help but think of what kind of world will he grow up in, and who or what his enemies will be. One day, I will teach him about Gaza, and my short but meaningful time there, show him pictures, and tell him these stories. And explain to him that even in the worst of surroudings, Jews can make the most difference.

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