by Keith Gessen
When Sam was younger, he wanted to
write the great Zionist
novel. It was a high calling, he’d been called, and everything else
was irrelevant. But first he had to check his email.
No one—neither Jew nor Gentile—had written, and it was back to work.
What would be in the Zionist novel? Zionists, for one. Brawny,
men with heavy forearms; tall, Moroccan Jews, with big teeth;
Russians. Citrus fruits would be in the novel, and wary, skeptical Arabs,
and sunsets like you would never see, if you were not so far from home.
Guilt: though this would not be in the novel, it would hang over its
writing like the broken shadow of the Temple Wall. And guilt not for
past sins, either: he had enough of those, certainly, but they failed to
gnaw at him. Instead he was repentant for, he felt an intolerable anticipatory
guilt in light of, the possibility of future sins. He was capable
of great evil, and though he had never actually committed this evil,
except with regard, occasionally, to women, the very likelihood of his
iniquity propelled him into an overbearing virtue. He was perpetually
making amends for things he might have considered doing: abandoning
Israel was one of those things.
Samuel Mitnick had to write the great Zionist novel—he had to
conjure an entire Zionist epic—to make up for his possible future
indifference to the fate of his people. Who knows how far in the future
this indifference would manifest itself? He would have to be quick
Then again, he would have to be not-quick about it, he would have
be agonizingly, tortuously extended about it, to purge himself of the
impulse, oft-expressed, to be quick about it.
But first, the quest. The quest for quotes. He had to see the
trick them into saying the right things. Or, from their point of
view, the wrong things. He considered pitching all this to Rolling Stone.
He began with Lomaski, the bad Jew, the race traitor, the author of
an extended anti-Zionist epic in which the crimes of Israel since 1948
were placed on an enormous chart, the chart running to 845 pages of
crimes, more crimes, crimes upon crimes, compounded by crimes. A
Chart for a Charter, it was called, referring to the UN Charter, which in
Article 80 rubber-stamped the British policy then barreling toward a
partition of Palestine into two deeply unviable states, one Arab, the
Lomaski during his office hours was sweaty, skinny, ill-preserved,
drinking tea upon tea so that his teeth seemed to yellow while Sam
watched. He was originally a seismologist who’d made a few groundbreaking
discoveries in his late twenties before moving on to the comparatively
glorious task of protesting American involvement in Vietnam,
and then the significantly less glorious task of protesting its involvement
everywhere else. Throughout the seventies he had slipped slowly from the
pages of prestigious magazines, like a thwarted slug sliding down the bathroom
wall in the Mitnicks’ Cape Cod home, until disappearing entirely
into the floorboards in the wake of Chart. Regarding this malodorous
coincidence one commentator remarked that attacking Israel was a poor
career move “for those seeking to pursue the contemplative life.” It was
already widely believed, when Sam came to visit, that Lomaski had gone
mad, observing the humans from underfoot, and indeed, like a madman,
he answered Sam’s questions with an air of great amusement, as if Sam too
would share a good laugh with him at the other side’s expense. Perhaps
Sam had not been sufficiently clear on the phone: he was the other side.
“Israel says: ‘We are making peace,’ ” Lomaski began, sotto voce. “ ‘Look at us, we are signing treaties, secret treaties, open treaties, and we are a textual people, the People of the Book, we do not sign lightly, these secret treaties, these open treaties.’
“Meanwhile, settlements are being built, contingency plans—also textual, but with pictures, you understand, of Apache helicopters—drawn up, settlements augmented whose express purpose is to render geographically unthinkable the possibility of a Palestinian state.
“Ergo,” up-summed Lomaski,“we have something of a logical puzzle:
on the one hand peace treaties, on the other hand settlements. Or
is it a puzzle? Is it strange and inexplicable that the prime minister of
a country will claim to want peace, will have been elected to want peace,
and even let’s say will actually want peace, but will nonetheless continue
this aggression? Maybe it is a contradiction that boggles the rational
mind, a bug in the eye of Mother Reason. On the other hand, what if
you think it’s your right to give peace, as well as to build? What if you
think, in a vaguely theological way, that whatever happens within the
auspices of your military dominion is part of your general plan? Then
there’s no logical contradiction. It makes perfect sense.
“The fact is,” Lomaski concluded,“there almost never is a logical contradiction,
given certain premises. You just have to find the premises.”
“I do?” Sam asked. “I have to find them?” He thought this man,
in his little lair, might be giving him life-advice. He smiled politely.
“No,” said Lomaski. “One has to find them. We all do. Of course,”
he added, reflectively, “I already have.”
He walked out into the Cambridge midday. The geniuses were at
or the genii, as Orwell called them. He walked for a while along the river
as the cars sped past him on Memorial Drive. Across the way, a few gold
cupolas sparkled on Beacon Hill. Perhaps if he wrote an epic, if he were
paid for his epic, he and Yasha could buy an apartment there. A one-state
solution, he sometimes thought, a Jewish-Arab democracy, was the only
way. Owning an apartment would also be nice.
He wanted to write the great Zionist epic, full of Jewish women,
with their breasts and hair, and their shoulders, and stomachs, their
His friends said to him:“You cannot write this, you are not the man.”
“Who is the man, then, if not me? Point him out.”
“Well,” they said,“Leon Uris has already written a Zionist epic.”
“He has already written a Zionist nothing!”
Uris is a hack, a propagandist, a cheap sentimentalist. A functionary
of literature, a bureaucrat of fiction. Uris is a symptom—he should be
studied by sociologists. He is a stain, a joke, a laughing stock, a cry for
help. He should be studied by social workers.
Sam pooh-poohed Uris. Pooh-poohed? Sam shat on Uris. He befouled
and besmirched. He spat into the air so that the spittle landed
back on his face, he played clever word games with the name. Leon
Uris. Sol Urine. Un Loser, I. No Ur Lies!
“Uris is a figment, a misunderstanding. A Zionist Fadeev. He
would have written copy for Coca-Cola if they’d asked him to. Coca-
Cola? IG Farben! A rear guard. A rear.” Sam coughed.
They told him the Zionist epic was already underway.
“Every day that Israel thrives, that it exists, this is another chapter,” his Israeli girlfriend,Yasha, told him. “There are over nineteen thousand chapters. It is a long book.”
“Yasha, darling, you don’t understand publishing,” Sam explained. “New York is not Haifa. Such a book will never attract readers.”
“It’s already found six million readers. They read it every day they live there. It is a very popular book.”
“You are giving me a headache, with your metaphors.”
Yasha stood up. She said:“Have you seen my green bracelet?”
“I need it.”
“Okay.” He found the bracelet, momentarily distended, behind the
water pitcher in the kitchen.
“You do not love the land enough,”Yasha said from the doorway,
her green bracelet sparkling on her wrist. “You are not enough of a
Zionist to write a Zionist epic.”
“Besides which, Sam,” she called from downstairs on
her cell phone, “you can’t even read Hebrew.”
“I know,” he said. “I feel terrible.”
His parents had been radical secularists, followers of Lomaski,
neglected his religious and spiritual training. When he finally got
around to Hebrew, the letters looked like Tetris pieces. They piled
against one another as if asking for someone to collect them into the
least possible space, to fit their protrusions into their cavities. He was
happy to do this, of course, but it was not reading.
His ex-girlfriend Arielle was more generous. “Really?”
she said when
he told her. “That’s ambitious.”
Sam was a patron of highly expressive, italicized women.
But then, Arielle was his ex-girlfriend. She inspired complicated
emotions in a way his current girlfriend did not. Yasha was perhaps better
classified as his fiancée. They practically lived together, though they
kept separate apartments, and they had merged their wardrobes if not
yet their libraries. They did not say to each other, in the course of a
day, fifty words. Yasha was a strategic, a territorial problem: where
would he be when she was at Spot A; did he need to withdraw cash, or
was Yasha’s current liquidity sufficient? Where was her silver hairclip?
Yasha had weaknesses, aspirations,well-mapped idiosyncrasies. He would,
perhaps, spend the rest of his life with her; that is, if he played his cards
correctly, and she also played correctly; there were complications, corrections,
concessions. Parents were involved.
But Arielle, his former girlfriend, was an existential question, an
event of the heart. What was that feeling he experienced, when he
heard her voice? And was it wrong to see her? She was a separate
woman being, whose fate and finances had diverged from his, whose
problems were her own to resolve. Yet she had called him, after months
of not-speaking, with accusations and recriminations.
“I cannot believe I ever loved anyone,” he listened to her say,“who
was so cruel.”
“Everything you ever told me,” she announced,“was a lie. It was a
She repeated some of them now. They were pretty good lines.
“Where are you?” Sam asked, for there was an echoing on the
He drove up the next afternoon. She had committed herself, she said, after experiencing panic, inexplicable and sudden, several times on the street. It took the form of a conviction that the sidewalks would tilt while she was walking and dump her into the rush of traffic, to be mangled. Her health insurance was paying in full.
During the drive he considered casting his epic in the form of a dialogue-interview with the State of Israel.
Q:When did you first think you would become independent?
STATE OF ISRAEL:There was the Balfour Declaration, of
course, and the Compromise on the Mandate. But I didn’t consider
myself a state—and what independence can there be, Sam,
if you’re not a state?—until we took back the Temple Mount in
’67. That was something.
The sanitarium itself was charming, a group of cabins in the woods, a place for overworked urbanites to feel pleasantly melancholic. A slackertarium. Its chief promise, its chief premise, was a regimen of well-regulated sleep.
Pulling in to the visitors’ lot, the sharp angle of his space a neat contrast to the imminent clumsiness of his self-introduction to the receptionist,
he wondered why he was still in the clutches, still within acceptable
phone range, of a girl, a woman now, with whom he’d broken up
five years before. Forgetting, according to Nietzsche, was strength, and
they lived in a country where amnesia was peddled like corn futures.
Even the Israelis were becoming forgetful. It was the Palestinians who
seemed to remember everything—the Palestinians and Sam. And now
Arielle. Perhaps she’d begun to do excavation work in her mind when
a big undigested clump had emerged, like a baby, looking just like him.
Thus are we called to other people’s sides. He wondered what he was
doing here. Then he wondered what he was doing anywhere, why the
mantra of his rebellious teen years, “next year in Jerusalem,” had
extended so far into his twenties, and that settled the matter. For from
a certain point of view, as Lomaski might have it, all places not Jerusalem
are exactly the same, and from that same certain point of view,
perhaps, nothing you do in them matters.
They had dinner at a small, upscale inn down the road. The place
was straight out of the West Village (the new West Village), it catered to the sanitarium’s clientele, and therefore Sam was confident that the beautiful young waitress would be able to distinguish the civilian Sam from his crazy ex-girlfriend; nonetheless, he couldn’t help producing a series of gestures throughout dinner to indicate his companion’s dubious state of mental health, with the unhappy result that the waitress avoided his side of the table entirely.
“They call it psychodrama?”Arielle was telling him about her therapy. “You beat on a pillow or like a padded tube and pretend that it’s your father or your sister or whoever fucked you up.”
“Or me?” Sam guessed.
“Yes! I’ve been beating you up in absentia for two weeks now. And
then I figured, why not get the man himself up here?” She smiled—a
little tired she was, but straight-toothed and beautiful. As promised,
over scallops, she maligned his past behavior. The time he left her in
the car was pretty bad, he admitted, and he had kissed Melissa Sonnenfeld
at that New Year’s party, and of course there were a number of
incidents she didn’t even know about, but for the most part, if Sam
were to give a general summary, he just hadn’t returned enough phone
calls. They grew bored of it, finally, and that’s when he told her about
the Zionist epic.
“Wow,” she said. “But what about all the other things you wanted
to do? Teaching? And organizing? Is this really what you want to be
To recap thus far:
• Current girlfriend: Where did you put the red umbrella?
• Former girlfriend: Who are you now? Whoever you are, are you
Was he a small-souled coward, not simply to have two girlfriends?
“It just seems,” she was saying, “so . . . endless. There would seem
to be so many more transient pleasures.”
Temptress! Her hair was back in a ponytail, and she wore faded
blue jeans and a long wool sweater, the official uniform of the mildly
insane. Even in her breakdown she was perfectly conventional, a lifetime
of television compressed into a few perfect gestures, and nothing
could have been more devastating for a man whose life was as strange
and unlikely as Sam’s, who had so badly lost his way among the many
desires he was supposed to desire. He loved conventional women, he
loved Arielle, he loved that she knew he hated the word pleasure and
used it to tease him and remind him that she knew. The waitress came
over to refresh their wine glasses, describing as she did so a careful arc
around Sam, and, amazingly, he did not care. Would this have been the
joy—what was the line?—he’d enjoy every day of his life?
“What pleasure?” he gasped. “The epic will be my martyrdom.”
She smiled again, as if she might just ruffle his hair. “That’s what
you’ve always wanted, right? A place to lay your head so it can be
And with this the nostalgic wheels began to turn again, old facts
remembered, a few perfunctory recriminations hurled. They laughed
and drank. Part of it was that Sam had a certain relation to time, perhaps
even a theory of history—he did not believe, theoretically or functionally,
in deadlines, or dates. For the author of a Zionist epic this was
not without its problems; for a man, an ex-boyfriend, it was disastrous.
His relationships and then his breakups were characterized by backsliding,
second thoughts. He kept in touch with old girlfriends, former
teachers, anyone whose email address he’d figured out. Perhaps he was
a creature of the dialectic, a left Hegelian—he’d have to find out what
that meant. As it was, he and Arielle drifted along parallel lines, in a
non-Euclidean space that allowed them, occasionally, to come close
enough that their lips grazed against one another, their hands intertwined,
and their tenderness settled on them with a pleasant buzz—to
depart shortly thereafter, their inner beings only slightly unsettled. This
was apparently such another time, for at the end of the evening they
went back to her cabin and slept together.
On the drive home, Sam wondered whether Hollywood would go for
Come on! he chided himself. That’s all Hollywood does anymore,
is epics. Scottish epic, ship-sinking epic, Roman gladiator epic, you got
an epic these people will give you tens of millions of dollars and a
special-effects guy with an iMac. Zionism might make the dog-walkers
of Riverside Drive a little nervous, but this ain’t them. The Right of
Return? Geffen and Katzenberg are liable to change the name to Roll
On into Jordan, Roll.
Now he imagined the smoky back rooms, the musty chess sets. Sam was not, he should admit, as skeptical of the as most. Instead, he was hopeful. For it was abundantly clear to Sam that such back rooms existed, that decisions were reached in them, that democracy was an amiable lie. If the back rooms were populated by Zionist elders rather than fat-faced Texas oilionaires, this would have been an immense relief.
So he pictured arriving there, after a series of confidential nods from
the enormous Karaite security guards, sitting down at the table and
producing, in three short words, the pitch the elders had been waiting
for, lo these many years: “It’ll be,” Sam imagined saying to them, “a
The elders smiled, they smiled and then they roared and coughed.
“I like this kid,” they said and cried, spitting. “This kid I like!”
Sam banged the heel of his hand against the steering wheel. He
flung back his head and whooped with joy into the empty car. The
empty car whooped back. He had a hole the size of a salad dish in his
Strangely—was he growing older?—the encounter with
misaligned his soul more than usual, and he slept at his bare home for
the next week, pleading tiredness and overwork to Yasha and generally
exercising caution in his physical movements. He wondered whether
he had done right. Was it a trial of some sort, and had he failed? Was
it part of the Zionist epic? Who knew? Not Sam. He knew so very
little. He had forebodings and predictions, to be sure, and these often
found, with an adjustment for spiritual inflation (conquests depreciating,
losses ceasing to register), factual confirmation in the future. He
knew what was going to happen with Arielle, for example, and he
knew that he would eventually tellYasha, and what would happen then.
He knew that the landlord would add 150 dollars to his rent in the fall
without fixing the drip that was ruining his bedroom floor, and he
knew that eventually one of the companies or schools for which he
now performed part-time work would offer him a permanent place,
and that eventually he would accept. And he knew as well that he was
a child compared to these various forces, and would not have the tenacity
to reckon with them—not because he lacked courage, really, but
because he hadn’t the certainty of his right. He did live near the border
with Cambridge—perhaps his studio, at 850 dollars, was underpriced?
He just wasn’t quite sure, Sam was never quite sure, that he was
doing as he ought.
And he lost arguments, lost them with regularity and consistency,
found ten thousand ways to lose them the way a streaking baseball
team will find, in the late-autumn crunch, ten thousand ways to win.
As the already much-rumored author of a Zionist epic, he was often
called upon to argue; and, guilt-ridden as he was, he felt it necessary
to oblige. More than that: at parties to which his Zionist reputation
had failed to precede him, he was like a man stumbling violently
about a bar just before closing time, looking for trouble. As soon as
conversation inched however imperceptibly toward the Middle East,
Sam would pounce.
And lose. Though skilled in debate, he reserved too much respect
for his antagonists’ moral fervor, for their loud-mouthed certainty. He
felt invariably like a journalist, making the precise, well-mannered
objections that would set his opponent off on tirades of great passion,
and then into insults, interjections, ejaculations. Also, despite numerous
prep sessions with Yasha, Sam was a little shaky on the facts.
“What about 1948?” he said to his friend Aron, like Yasha an Israeli
“There was some violence,”Aron admitted, small-voiced, a hesitant,
ancient Jew, a graduate student in his tenth year, a doubter of his own
doubts. “In some of the villages there was violence, and where the
Irgun was, there were massacres. In a few towns on the road between
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,Yitzhak Rabin himself evacuated people. But
the UN partition plan was completely ridiculous, and these people had
sworn to destroy Israel.
“In any case,”Aron went on,“now we are proposing to give it back.
Barak offered ninety-four percent of the West Bank and three percent
in other places. He offered to divide Jerusalem. They refused. They
demanded a right of ‘return’ for four million residents—not to their
future homeland, but to Israel. They began to fire Kalashnikovs and
detonate grenades. Why?”
“Because they’ve been under military occupation for thirty years?
“Okay, okay, I understand. Look. If we’re talking about Galilee,
even a bit of the Negev, I say, fine, have a slice here, have one there.
Arab population, Arab land, I think that’s fair. But not Jerusalem. You
cannot divide Jerusalem. You cannot give them the Temple Mount, you
cannot give them the Western Wall of the Second Temple after the
plundering and vandalism that took place under the Jordanians. Jews
were not allowed to pray there until we conquered it by force of arms!
We leave Joseph’s Tomb—twenty minutes later they start carrying the
stones out, they tear it to shreds. No more Joseph’s Tomb. If we’re talking
about the territories, please, you think we want them? But if it’s
Jerusalem they’re after, then I say we must meet force with force. If the
Palestinians have embarked upon this war to see what they can get, they
must emerge from it knowing that they will get nothing. If they want
Jerusalem, then I say fight.”
This with the suggestion, not altogether subtle, not altogether muffled,
that Aron himself would fight. The same Aron who, rather than
confront the student with whom he shared a library carrel for not arranging
his books neatly, had requested that Widener assign him a different
carrel—this Aron would hire a taxi to the airport, board a plane,
and emerge in Tel Aviv. What on earth could Sam say against that?
This was a week before he met Arielle for dinner at Souper Salad,
she having released herself from Calvary with a clean bill of health.
“Okay on the territories,” he said, when they also began to argue. “Let
the Syrians place their guns on the Golan, let the Egyptians supply
mortars to Gaza. But we can’t give up Jerusalem.”
“Not give up Jerusalem? To whom give it up? Not give it up to
the people who live there? What on earth are you talking about?”
“Well, the Old City. The Temple Mount.”
“Al-Aqsa? Is that what you mean? You think that’s just a cynical
slogan, the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada’? A brand name? Not as holy as our Wall
is holy? You think they’re not willing to die for their Al-Aqsa? You
better believe they are. And part of the reason for that, of course, is that
they’re desperate, that a brutal military occupation makes people fucking
She was furious with him, as if, here in Souper-Salad on Needham
Street, the cars overheating in traffic behind them, he had unmasked
himself—as if, having known him so long, having even, perhaps, loved
him so long, she had never suspected what a shallow, despicable creature
he would at last turn out to be. Before her eyes could adjust to
this new Sam, he called out:
“All right, East Jerusalem, they can have East Jerusalem! So long,”
he added, though not so quickly that his concession would lose its
force, “as the Temple Mount remains under an international mandate.
A shared zone.”
“Well, obviously. Of course.”
“Okay.” He smiled—a pained, humiliated smile, a grimace. He had
never even been to Israel; all his hypothetical concessions came from
him as easily as water sliding off a rock. It was the hundredth time in
the past month that he had given up East Jerusalem.
Arielle ate her salad. She looked good.
“Yasha,” he said when they were lying down to bed
before the prime ministerial election, “I think Sharon is dangerous.”
“Do you?” she hissed. “I also think he’s dangerous, actually. Dangerous
to those who would threaten the security of our people. That’s
right, our people. Or have you stopped being Jewish, the better to look
down from above for your epic?”
In the darkness, he winced.
“Because, you know, this is what I expect to hear from Arabs. It’s
not what I expect to hear, not what I ever expected to hear, from one
of my own people. Because they would kill you, you understand that?
They would kill you without thinking twice about it, they would dip
their hands in your Jewish blood and for them it would be a great
orgasmic pleasure. Do you understand that?”
“A Jew can kill a Jew.”
“But he won’t do it because the other is a Jew! Maybe you think
the Nazis were Jews! Yes? Look, we offered them the West Bank. We
offered them Jerusalem. Jerusalem! They refused. Now they’ll get
something else from us, you understand? They’ll get the fist. And they
will never have Jerusalem.”
She turned over on her side and squeezed herself into a tiny ball.
“Whoever said anything,” Sam grumbled as he put on his clothes,
He made a great deal of noise leaving her apartment, but no one
tried to stop him.
Frightened, angry, vengeful, the Israelis elected Sharon. Intifada
however, and for all of the Marx-quoting Sam liked to do, there
was nothing about it of farce. He soldiered on in the libraries and coffeehouses,
beating forth ceaselessly, here and there, against the tide.
After receiving, in the wake of many laudatory lunches, a small advance
from a publisher to work on his epic, he quit his many jobs and made
even less progress than before. One morning he spent two and a half
hours searching for Yasha’s sunglasses—they had been, it turned out, in
her purse. That day, sitting in cave-like Café Apostrophe, hunched with
the other patrons over his notebook, all of them in the darkness like a
poor-postured group of shtetl scholars, Sam gave up hope. Israel was
too complicated. If he had once believed he could bring his women
to the bargaining table, it was increasingly clear that nothing of the sort
would occur:Yasha was moving right and Arielle was moving left, and
they were all moving toward disaster. Al-naqba. Sam straightened his
back and looked around. Everyone seemed to be writing poetry and
having a lovely time. Even if, in fact, they worked on financial reports,
initial public offerings, quarterly earnings statements—they enjoyed
this, and what is more they had, unlike his medium black coffee, interesting
drinks. Mocha frappuccinos, caramel macchiatos, espresso con
pannas. In any case, before launching his Zionist epic he would have
to decide what he thought of the Holocaust.
What he thought? Well, it was a bad thing, naturally. A moral and
spiritual catastrophe like nothing that had ever preceded it? Yup. A
window into a realm so inhuman, with certain standard automated
functions—trains, vans, showers, ovens—gone so hideously wrong as to
have departed from the understandable? Check. An action so monstrous
that, if it cannot be called religious, is nonetheless such in the
precise degree to which the hand of God was absent? You bet your ass!
He looked around the café: no one was staring at him, he had not
uttered anything aloud.
But beyond that? Was it part of the post-Holocaust world? A mile
and a half away they had constructed, in the center of historical Boston,
a memorial to the millions dead. Of all the places, of all the history.
Was it not because they considered it justification? For a hack like Uris,
the events of the forties flowed together like a meal. That Uris was a
proven schlub helped little, for there were others like him, millions for
whom the Holocaust was cause, Israel effect, for whom a mortal danger
existed in the Diaspora, for whom six million Jews stood on a
scale—or was it, more physically plausible, just their ashes?—on which
scale’s other half were weighed the fact of Israel and All That Had to Be
“Fuck that!” Sam cried, and now people looked. He gave them all a
shrug and again bent over his notebook. So Sam was not with the
Urisites. To him the Holocaust was a hollow event, after which nothing
could be the same but which, in itself, touched nothing. It was not a
place to which any sort of rhetoric, or politics, or even anti-Semitism
inexorably led, nor was it an event from which anything could reasonably
be said to have emerged. It was like the year 0—it happened, people
were there, but there is no way of signifying it numerically, there is only
the leap from B.C. to A.D., the two 1s colluding irrefutably against sense.
He would have to formulate this, somehow, without pissing off the
ADL. While trying to sell a Zionist epic, the last thing on earth you
wanted was the ADL on your back.
Refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put
rest of his life in order. He felt the need to expand. Into Jordan,
Lebanon, the Sinai. This body, this Boston, could not hold all of him,
could not contain the bustling, bursting energies. He had two women,
he loved them both, and he could not,would not, imagine it otherwise.
He was just twenty-five years old; he had strength in him, and courage.
At twenty-five Israel was invaded on the holy day of atonement, on
Yom Kippur, from the east by Syria, from the west by Egypt. Caught
off guard, it nonetheless repulsed the invaders and had crossed the Nile
when the UN finally intervened. It was only at thirty-four that Israel
invaded Lebanon, watched gloatingly as its fascist friends the Phalangians
slaughtered the Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, and
ceased forever to be a light unto the nations, though hundreds of thousands
flooded the streets, Israelis the only people on the planet to
protest in such number the massacre of their enemies.
So he would set in motion processes, gradual processes, of reconciliation.
Tonight he would stay with Yasha, tomorrow he would stay at
home, and then the next night he would see Arielle. He called Arielle
from the café to tell her about this.
“Why are you calling?” she wanted to know.
“I’d like to see you.”
“Okay,” she said, as if it were a challenge. “Come over.”
“No, not now. Friday.”
“You said you wanted to see me.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
And he began to do the calculations, count the permutations. Her
italics! Her sarcasm! But he could not tell her what he meant. What
did he mean?
“Sam,” he heard her moaning on the other end. “We can’t go on
like this. We cannot! I will not play along anymore, I will not be the
other woman, I will not be your affair.”
“You make it sound so tawdry.”
“It is tawdry. It’s unbelievably tawdry and conventional.”
“No,” he said. “No.” And he knew, all at once,why arguments were
so important, why his parents spent so much of his childhood waving
their hands in the air. People argued because they were deciding—how
to act, how to explain themselves acting, what they believed. He was
arguing for his life. “Look,” he began. “What you’re saying is reasonable,
I see the logic, but it’s just not true. Look at Israel. I mean, we’re
supposed to be with one person, right, we’re supposed to sit at home
and believe in our tiny little life with that person,we’re supposed to just
stay within our boundaries. But look at Israel—it’s the only country
on earth whose borders are unrecognized by international law, whose
borders are always changing.”
“A lot of good it’s done them.”
“But at least they feel alive!”
There was a silence on the other end. The metaphor, like a ceasefire,
had collapsed more quickly than he’d hoped.
“I’m telling Yasha,” she said finally.
“No,” he laughed. “No, no. You can’t do that.”
“I’m going to do it. She’s a right-wing loony but she deserves to know.”
“No, see, you can’t do that.”
“I can’t?” And she began to upbraid him. While he dutifully fed
coins to the extortionary Massachusetts pay phone, Arielle read, Lomaski-
like, from the great chronological litany of his crimes. They must
have been hanging, in large block letters, somewhere near her phone.
What a woman! She wanted a final settlement, and if she did not have
it she would drive him into the sea. It was land for peace—he gave up
his moral land, his settlements on the territories of her conscience,
allowed her the last word on everything, and she, in theory, would
absolve and release and not tell Yasha. He could promise her this. That
was the thing to do; that was what men did. They promised and
promised and when it became clear they’d defaulted they promised
again. This was the thing to do, but somehow he wanted to negotiate
further, wanted not only to convince her to stay, convince her to be
quiet, but, absurdly, to convince her that he was good. The moment
demanded large, mendacious strokes but he had a bureaucratic mind.
He was an Oslo man through and through: a coward.
He picked up the thread of the list—he had failed to email congratulations
on her graduation; drunk, he had tried to kiss her at a party
though he knew she had a serious boyfriend. . . .They were only up to
1997! She was reducing him to rubble, and he was letting her.
“Sam,” she said, serious now in a way that boded ill,“I cannot have
this in my life. I can’t have this uncertainty. I mean, when will it end?
“Why,” Sam asked, knowing before he did so that it was the wrong
line, helpless Sam,“why does it have to end?”
And so it was over, again. He lay in bed for three days, tasting
residue of her voice in his throat as if, through some transference of
force, he had spoken with it himself. He was getting to be a certain
age, he thought. It was the age when his never-to-be-written masterpieces
had begun to outweigh the masterpieces he was still going to
write. The Zionist epic belonged in the latter category, certainly, but it
was creeping, dangerously creeping, toward the former. He had already
spent the advance a hundred times. And he could see the future. In
the future, Arielle got married. Yasha got married. Neither of them
married Sam, who was left alone, with slightly less hair on top than
when this story began, sitting in a small academic office, sweaty and teastained,
galloping his mare at The New York Times.
When Israel declared statehood in 1948, precipitating thereby
of five regional wars, Sam’s grandmother sent a telegram from Moscow
to the representative office of the Yishuv in Warsaw, where she’d been
born. Just months earlier the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels
had been murdered by the NKVD, which ran a truck over him several
times to make certain he was dead. “They killed him like a dog,”
Khrushchev would later write. The Mikhoels murder was Stalin’s
preface to a mass expulsion of the country’s Jews into the deep Asian
provinces (for their protection), and people were beginning to lose
their jobs for their names and noses. Nonetheless, Arielle Mitnik’s
telegram read:“Congratulations on your independence. L’shana Haba’a
b’Yerushalayim!” Next year in Jerusalem. She would later learn that
she’d been the only private citizen in the Soviet Union to wire greetings.
It took her forty years to reach Jerusalem.
When Israelis elected Ehud Barak on a platform of peace in 1999,
Sam sent an email from work to his friend Chari, who had moved to
Israel the year before. Despite the fact that all outgoing emails were
monitored by the company with the use of keyword surveillance technology,
Sam wrote: “Dear Chari! Hail to the peace! Congratulations
congratulations congratulations.” And added: “L’shana Haba’a b’Yerushalayim.”
On the day the World Trade Center was destroyed, Sam watched a
lot of television. When television went into a loop, he resorted to the
Internet. His cousin, a well-known journalist, filed four different articles
with four different journals of opinion, each of them describing his
walk down a different New York street. There was an unseemly outpouring
of poetry; the radio quoted a few lines about New York by the
fascist poet Ezra Pound—though not ones in which he called it, as he
often did, “Jew York.” Yasha, when she wasn’t crying, could hardly be
kept from gloating. “Now they’ll know what it’s like to live the way
we live,” she said. “They’ll know what the Arabs are about.”
And, sure enough, that evening at www.JerusalemPost.com came the
(17:55) Israel evacuates embassies, Palestinians celebrate
It is exactly a year after the breakdown of the Oslo Accords, just a little
under a year after the beginning of the new Intifada. It is immediately
assumed that some group with ties to the Palestinians—of blood,
or politics, or sympathy—is involved. And the Palestinians go out into
the streets, before the AP cameras, and cheer. Sam had to hand it to
them: Every time it appeared that the international community was
beginning to lose patience with the interminable occupation of the
West Bank, with the transparently mendacious Israeli attempts at creating
peace by waging war, with the tanks and the settlements and the
prevarication, these folks went out into the streets and cheered the
murder of people no less innocent than themselves. No, thought Sam,
you really had to hand it to the Palestinians. In their ability to fuck up
a late lead they were truly the equals of the Boston Red Sox.
Aron was on the phone. “How do you fight a country that isn’t
even a country?” he wondered of the Palestinians. “Maybe we should
make them a country. That’s what they want, right? Good, you’re a
country. Now we’re going to bomb the shit out of you.”
Things were looking up for Sam’s book. The Middle East had
come home to roost, and everyone would want to pick up an epic or
two to tide them over and educate. Amazingly, his agent called him the
day of the attacks, to read an editorial from the New Republic. “Are you
okay?” he began by asking. “Is it an okay time to call?”
“It’s fine,” said Sam. He could summon no enthusiasm for these
national days of grief; if the business of America was business, it may as
well be gotten on with.
“Then listen to this,” his agent said. “We Americans no longer need any
instructions in how it feels to be an Israeli. The murderers in the skies have
taught us all too well. We are all Israelis now. We are all Israelis now! He
might as well have said we are all Zionists now. This really ratchets up
the stakes here, man. We suddenly have three hundred million more
readers. Three hundred million!”
They hung up. The television trundled on. “America is changed
forever,” the newscasters kept saying, the experts interviewed repeating
it as if to please them. Sam did not want to laugh but, a little bit, he
laughed. Nothing ever changes. No one ever changes. People can die,
it’s true, and they can disappear from your life forever, so that a horrible
gaseous hole seems to have been burned in the place where they
once stood. It is even possible that an epic, a Zionist epic, might be
written, might be finished. But change? Change does not happen.
And next year in Jerusalem will always be an infinite distance away.
Is what Sam thought.
But at this point Arielle rang the doorbell. Glorious Arielle. And
with tears in her eyes, shining, hugged Sam, handsome Sam, and then
hugged Yasha, lithe lovely Yasha. And the three of them sat there,
watching the television repeat itself—“America Under Attack”was the
caption, and it was pierced by, for some reason, an eruption of bullets—
their arms around one another until they grew tired, and then the three
of them without speaking went into the bedroom, where, taken all in
all, Sam performed admirably. Not Nobel Peace Prize admirably, but
well enough. He woke up later in the night, alone in the bed, hearing
a familiar, sardonic voice on the television. “To pretend like we’re surprised
by this?” it said. “To pretend as if we haven’t done worse? It’s
laughable. Three years ago we sent cruise missiles to destroy a medicine
factory in the Sudan. The UN has been trying to investigate it,
but the U.S. is intent on keeping—”
“Professor Lomaski, I’m afraid we’re running out of time. Isn’t it
true that you once defended the murderous Khmer Rouge?”
“Are we really—”
“Thanks, Professor. That was Professor Lomaski, speaking to us
from MIT, though frankly it could have been Mars for all I understood
of what he said. You, Joe?”
“That’s a fact, Jack. Didn’t understand a word.”
The TV was violently silenced. Dozing off again, Sam heard Yasha
and Arielle begin to argue the Zionist project, their voices rising and
falling against his scattered bulk like the sirens out on Cambridge
Street. Their meeting, their inevitable meeting, failed to stir him to fear.
He sensed that their differences were superficial, ultimately, and that all
they needed was to talk, to find common points of understanding, to
rehearse the obvious—and while they talked Sam would sleep, tired
Sam, our friend Sam, Sam of the passions, who only wanted to kiss the
throats of women, and who only wanted peace.
But he could not fall asleep.
Keith Gessen was born in Moscow and educated at Harvard and Syracuse. Also by reading Dissent. He lives in New York.(4/2004)