canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Ben Kalman

Yossi met Nathaniel at the Jaffa Gate. Nathaniel was a friend of Yossi’s from the States who had moved to Beersheba to teach English to the Bedouins. Yossi himself had made aliyah a few years before, moving from Brooklyn to Jerusalem, where he worked as a guide through Yad Vashem.

Yossi had spent that particular morning wandering Jerusalem’s old city while waiting for Nathaniel to arrive, remembering his first visit to Jerusalem as a teenager; taking a tour of the underground tunnels where they’d excavated parts of the original temple wall, and walking the Via Dolorosa, hiring a shopkeeper as a tour guide. It had been ironic, a Jew being guided through the Stations of the Cross by an Arab Moslem, and guided well – the guide had known more about the Stations than most Catholics Yossi had met over the years.

The Jaffa Gate was one of seven gates into the old city. It only got you into the city complex itself; to get to the Western Wall, or the area that surrounds it, you had to go through a security checkpoint much like in an airport, with conveyor belt metal detectors and stern-looking guards. Nathaniel and Yossi roamed around the Armenian Quarter first, past the Armenian Orthodox church and seminary complex, where much of the free wall space was plastered with posters containing information on the Armenian genocide. There was apparently a small museum dedicated to the history of the genocide, sister to a museum of Armenian history and culture – but it didn’t garner anywhere near a fraction of the space or attention of Yad Vashem. Yossi wondered whether the Armenians would ever be able to take their proper place in the annals of history, whether they would ever have their own tragedies recognized.

They reached and passed through the security checkpoint, finishing schnitzel burgers they had bought before entering the old city, stepping out onto a ledge above the staircase that led down into the square facing the Western Wall. Beyond the Wall stood the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the golden blaze that was the Dome of the Rock. Yossi suppressed a sigh at the site, longing to visit the majesty that was kept inside the Dome, forbidden to non-Moslems. Yossi wasn’t sure he’d have the courage to visit even if he could; he was nervous enough around the entrance to the Arab Quarter of the old market – two Jews had been stabbed there just the week before, and he felt exposed enough to keep his beard freshly trimmed and his kepah hidden beneath a baseball cap whenever he went down into the market area. So when Nathaniel suggested that they go into the market for dessert, Yossi responded ‘Just so long as it’s not in the Arab Quarter.’ He wasn’t all that hungry anyhow; the schnitzel had been fantastic, layered with slices of fresh eggplant, tomato and pickled turnip and topped with a lathering of hummus. He wasn’t sure he had room for dessert, but wanted to be hospitable – Nathaniel was only able to visit once every few weeks, when both friends had an open schedule.

Nathaniel, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer. "You need to try some kunafah. I just tried some for the first time a few days ago, and believe me, it’s worth it!"

"It’s too dangerous – I’m sure we can find some in the city…"

"We can’t and we won’t. Come on, it’s no more dangerous than anywhere else."

"They kill you for being Jewish!"

"Whoever ‘they’ are, ‘they’ won’t be the ones selling us their food."

Nathaniel set off in search of his plateful of kunafah, with Yossi trailing nervously behind him. Nathaniel looked Arabic and spoke the language fluently, which eased Yossi’s mind a little bit - though he double-checked to make sure his cap was tightly wedged to his forehead.

"You look like an American, Yossi," Nathaniel exclaimed, "And with your accent people’ll think you’re from the States."

Yossi was unconvinced, "To them, we’re all just Jews, American or otherwise…"

It took them quite a while, and two sets of directions, before they found the one place in the market that seemingly sold kunafah. Kunafah is a true Arabic treat; shoelace pastry filled with melted goat cheese and topped with fresh nuts and thick, syrup honey. Nothing else tasted like it, and it was very difficult to make, so when one found it, one jumped at the opportunity to get it. They passed through stalls selling everything from keffiyehs to shawerma and kabsa, fresh dates and nuts to Jerusalem stone and Armenian porcelain. Yossi nervously glanced from stall to stall, shopkeeper to shopkeeper, imagining knives under counters and eyes staring at the back of his head, piercing through his cap to the kepah underneath. Another bomb had gone off in Netanyeh the night before, killing six people. And, his cousin Joseph from Toronto had told him a story about an attack by a Moslem boy in that same market just a few months before. They had been eating a light dinner at Café Rimon in the downtown area, when Joseph had announced, "I was attacked today!"

"What??" Yossi had replied, caught off-guard.

"Attacked. By a Moslem kid in the market."

"Which market? The Shuk?" Yossi had asked.

"No, no. In the Arab Quarter."

Yossi clucked his tongue. "Well, Joe, you should know better than to go there!"

"Don’t be silly, Yossi – it’s not dangerous!"

"You just said you were attacked! How much more dangerous should it be? You should be blown up?"

Joseph had chuckled, "Well, ‘attacked’ is a strong word. The kid threw a shoe at my head."

"That’s bad enough! It’s how they train them – first a shoe, and then a stone…or a gun! And the next thing you know they’re searching the gutter for pieces of your body to make sure you’re buried properly!"

Joseph laughed, "Don’t exaggerate! If everyone would throw shoes at one another when they got angry, this country would be a healthier place!"

Yossi couldn’t understand how Joseph could make light of it, nor how calm he was considering, shoe or no shoe, he had been the target of prejudice – and by a young boy! Nathaniel was the same way; it seemed as though Yossi was the only one who realized that this was no joke or crazy adventure – that it was real life, and in real life one had to be cautious, especially in Jerusalem. Since moving there he had seen more than enough violence, sometimes firsthand.

When Nathaniel and Yossi finally arrived at the Jaffa Café, they were shown to a table by a teenager wearing one of the most popular t-shirts amongst youth in East Jerusalem – ‘FBI-ATU’, which featured the logo of the FBI’s anti-terrorism unit. The café was half-full, including a family of eight or nine people gathered somewhat raucously two tables behind them. Yossi sat down, waiting for Nathaniel to get a meal ticket and then stand in line for their kunafah. He tried to forget that he had just eaten meat and shouldn’t be eating a dairy dessert. After all, he was the one who always told Nathaniel, ‘It’s cheating to say you follow the rules, only to break them when it’s convenient, or to find loopholes around them.’ He remembered a discussion they’d recently had on whether or not one should be able to record a TV show on Saturday if you set the VCR before the Sabbath began. Nathaniel had argued that it was okay, as you’re not breaking the Sabbath.

"But you are breaking the Sabbath, because you’re not supposed to be thinking about entertainment or television on Shabbat," Yossi had rebutted.

"No I’m not," Nathaniel countered, waving his index finger. "In fact, by setting up the VCR, I can put the TV out of my mind, because I won’t worry about missing my shows!"

"It’s the principle of the laws of Shabbat. You’re supposed to be disciplined. The rules aren’t there for us to find a way around them – if you’re not going to be one-hundred percent shomer-Shabbat, why go halfway?"

"Says the man who has a timer to turn the lights in his apartment on after dark!" Nathaniel laughed.

"That’s different. It’s not for entertainment. It’s not for comfort or convenience. It’s just so I don’t kill myself trying to get ready for bed and whatnot. You could always light the lamps before Shabbat came in."

"In other words, as long as it fits what you view as acceptable then it’s okay, but if it’s for what others view as acceptable but it doesn’t fit your view then it’s for ‘comfort’ or ‘convenience’?"

Yossi felt as though all of the order in his life, all of the logic, was slowly seeping out of him. Everyone seemed to misunderstand how life worked. They had no common sense.

When Nathaniel returned with the plates, Yossi’s uneasiness at eating dairy, potentially un-Kosher, and in the Arab Quarter, meant that he couldn’t eat more than half of his.

After dinner, Yossi brought Nathaniel to Mike’s Place – a Western-style bar just outside of the downtown core. They immediately headed downstairs where some random band was just arriving to set up on the stage. The stereo system was playing A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Excursions’, and there were several vacant tables. It was a Thursday evening, maybe nine-thirty. And the place would be packed when the weekend crowd started to arrive in droves. Nathaniel was staying overnight in Yossi’s apartment, planning on heading up to Tel Aviv the next morning to visit some family over Shabbat.

"This afternoon was difficult," Yossi began, trying to break the tension that seemed to be building between them. "I felt so claustrophobic. I felt like the racks of lamb hanging from the butcher-shop – on display and with my skin cleaved off."

Nathaniel nodded, taking a pull from his Heineken. "It’s funny. We take the buses all of the time, and we never think twice about it. I mean, you take the bus every day to work, right? And you get more nervous over the crazy bus drivers than the possibility of a bomb going off…"

"Sure, but that’s different."

"How so?

Yossi paused. "Because I’m not alone on a bus. I’m surrounded by my own people."

"That’s the problem. Those people on the bus aren’t ‘your people’. They’re just people. We’re all just people."

They took a shortcut through the Russian Quarter of downtown Jerusalem while walking back to Yossi’s apartment. While passing the ‘stronghold’ that served as a police station, the heavy bars of the station’s gate opened and a cruiser drove out, lights ablaze. Three years and Yossi was still unused to the fact that police cars cruised with the lights flashing, that Tzahal soldiers roamed the streets with their brand-new Tavor assault rifles, the muzzles of which would sometimes brush against your shoulder when passing them by on a crowded street. He remembered reading that the Tzahal originally used Mauser rifles, just about identical to those used by Nazi Germany save for the Hebrew IDF markings on them where the German Nazi insignias used to be. Knowing this produced the same chuckle that forced its way through his lips the first time he had walked through the airport in Tel Aviv – the first thing to greet his eyes when he got off of the plane was a slew of Hebrew Volkswagon ads – Volkswagon being the most popular car in Israel. Go figure.

"It’s so hard sometimes," Yossi found himself saying to Nathaniel, breaking several minutes of silence. "Knowing that there is so much hate in this world. When we were walking through the old city it was like we were walking through history itself. Old is so different here than back home – at home, something that’s two or three hundred years old is considered ancient. Here, if it’s less than a thousand years old, nobody talks about it. But even with all of this history beneath our feet, we don’t do anything but walk all over it."

"You work in Yad Vashem," Nathaniel interjected, "You know what hate can do."

"Yeah, but you know what the most difficult part of it is for me? It’s near the end of the museum, the whole part on the ‘liberation’. I always ask myself, ‘liberation how?’ What kind of freedom did these people have?" Yossi paused, sat down on the curb, took a deep breath. "They weren’t even people any more – they were skeletal shells, stripped of their culture, stripped of everything but the basest instincts of survival. And then what? No home to go to, no homeland any more – just a bunch of walking corpses sent from German concentration camps to British ones. Either the DP camps in Western Europe or the detention camps in Cyprus. What good is it to survive hell if you’re rescued into a burning building?"

"In order to be free from hate, we have to get rid of the fear. You live your life in fear, Yossi."

"I have good reason to be afraid! They—"

"I don’t understand you," Nathaniel interrupted. "Who are ‘they’? You always refer to ‘them’ in this conspiratorial tone – these unknown people who are going to get you. Stop being so damn paranoid!"

"Easy for you to say – you’re becoming one of them! Down there, teaching them to be Western…"

Nathaniel took a step towards Yossi, looking down towards him, his eyes angry. Yossi’s face paled, contrasting against the dark pallor of Nathaniel’s. Nathaniel squeezed his fingers into his palms, his knuckles turning white.

"I-I’m sorry," Yossi stammered, shying backwards against a post, "I don’t know what…" The unspoken words hung in the air.

Nathaniel took a deep breath, unclenched his fists and jaw. He slowly took a seat next to Yossi, pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts and some calm. Then, staring down at the stone beneath his feet, said in a hushed voice, "There was this guy in Colombia. His nephew had a really vicious case of the hiccups – he just couldn’t stop, and he was starting to wheeze a bit, had trouble breathing. So the guy figured he could help him stop by scaring him – you know…if someone has the hiccups, one of the ways to ‘cure’ it is to scare them, right? So he pulls a gun on the kid, yells ‘BANG!’ Only he was rushing and he pulled the trigger accidentally, shot his nephew right in the face, killed him instantly."

"Come on!"

"And when he saw what he had done, he was in so much shock, that he shot himself."

"I don’t believe it!" Yossi muttered, "I mean, how do you do that?"

Nathaniel turned to him, all anger quenched by sadness, "It happens here every day. You live in fear, and then fear becomes reality. And then what? If I’m going to die anyhow, I don’t want to be afraid every day I have left."

Friday morning, the beginning of the weekend, and most people were getting ready to go to the Shuk to do their weekly shopping. Nathaniel had left for Tel Aviv already, and Yossi sat with his morning coffee by the window. One of the best things about Jerusalem was that if you had an apartment a few floors above ground you were pretty much guaranteed a view of half of the city. He thought about Yad Vashem, and how when you left it there is a sort of balcony purposely built on a hill overlooking the city. It was significant, especially as the final piece of the museum was about the establishment of the Jewish homeland that you would sortie to look over. It was a potent sign commemorating the end of the museum visit, but also a transition between being a tourist or visitor to someone who was seeing perhaps not their own homeland, but one that was here for them even if they should only exist in it vicariously. Yossi was beginning to realize that he had spent three years in that homeland living just as vicariously. The structure of his life, his system, was crumbling.

The sun was half-covered by clouds as he looked across the city, with a pinkish haze blanketing the city like a grandmother’s quilt. As he felt the warmth growing on his face, he came to the realization that maybe Nathaniel was right – these were not his people. And as he deposited his mug into the sink and prepared to leave for Yad Vashem, he realized that he had as much to learn about fear and hate as he taught every day.

Ben Kalman is the founder and editor of Mercutio Press. He has published three chapbooks, In The City (Mercutio Press, 2002), Scattered Thoughts (Pooka Press, 2003) and Writing In Violence (Mercutio Press, 2003). His work has appeared in various venues, including the true fiction: art anthology (jesusbunnypress, 2002), SAM (jesusbunnypress, 2003), The Antigonish Review, Muse Apprentice Guild, and Carve.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.