Reflections on Israel’s Independence Day

It’s almost thirteen years now since my student visa to the United States expired and I left my publishing job in New York, packed a suitcase, and moved across the world. I didn’t know then that I was moving across the world, or that my little adventure would turn into eight vivid years in a country that would smash through the defences of my heart and settle deep into by bones. It has been almost five years since I left Israel, but the experience of it remains etched into me – its passionate people, dramatic physical and political landscapes, and haunting histories, all tangled into individual and collective moments that hum with perpetually off-balanced measures of fear and love and despair and hope. It is a place where I grew up in so many ways, a place of mourning and celebration, intractable conflict and impossibly heroic efforts to overcome, hopeful futures and ancient memories. Most of all, it is vivid and it is alive.

Last night, on Israel’s Independence Day, feeling the pull of a different place and time in my life, I went through some writing I did during my first weeks in Israel and came across this piece, some tentative initial sentences of that chapter of my life. It is about language and newness and ants, and the terrible job I had as a legal editor.
July 2, 2007

Words march their way into my dreams, the pages of a dictionary, baffling. Hebrew and English don’t match up in any way I know. These words challenge, ask me to supply information I cannot, know something I don’t. But I chase them nonetheless, marching columns, colonies of ants, across the intersection this way and that, criss-crossing with the fast click, clicks of the traffic light, letting me know it’s time to cross the street – quick, quick, quick, pedestrian.

Sitting at the Shabbat table, the lone English speaker, I am stripped of my language, and anonymous. My speech has to come from a choice deep within to say what I mean, and I am reminded of a time when it seemed possible to achieve a state where all my speech and every movement would be meaningful, reflective of my intent. But here, I am speaking with words that are dug up from a deep thought but come out backwards, a ludicrous parody of speech, a parade of letters that neither reveals my intent nor completely obscures it – except, but not exactly, when I produce a word that is precisely the opposite of what I mean. But how wonderful that I live so rachok, so far…. Though of course I mean to say karov. And once this backwards word has been given life, it is compelled to bring forth a string of wayward progeny, and I slosh feet first into this room, this night, among these people, foreign and defaced of my former self.

Back at the house I am staying at, I leave a piece of bread on the counter accidentally, and when I return, I see that the ants have claimed it. Removing the swarming slice, a small pile of fine bread dust remains, and I imagine the tiny mandibles at work in quick, collaborative action. I think of my words, ground down and spat out, the fine-powdered product of my original intent.

And my English is no less mangled. As I attempt to translate a discourse of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the weekly Torah portion, I find that, having spent hours labouring over word usage in a document dealing with competition law in Bulgaria, I am clogged with legalese. Every simple word attempts to overreach itself and loses all meaning along the way. My new job puts into effect an obfuscation of previously comprehensible speech, and creates, where applicable, the so-called “Law of Obfuscation,” as is evidenced in Case No. 1 of discourse translation, outlined in Statute 37 of Devora’s Word Competition Law. Now, should that last bit be capitalized?

Walking away from the jumble, into the clear Jerusalem night air (the heat wave has finally broken), there are no words but the purest unspoken, pre-birth ones that, carried on the fresh breeze, cool my mind and create space for something new.

I am waiting for the sheirut (communal taxi) to collect enough passengers to depart, the driver sitting on a stoop hollering at passers-by in the hope they need to get to Beit Shemesh tonight. The moon is large and white now, only a day after the middle of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, and just one bit of its pale face is smudged out, making it slightly less than a perfect circle.

Maybe the ants got to it.