Ode to Viceroy

A biased collection of semifictional events, interrupted by a meditation on bars

Human babies on a kibbutz, approx. 1950 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The wifi at the kibbutz guesthouse worked best close to the reception, so naturally that’s where the trekkers went in the evening. A few knocked on the reception door, unwittingly. A young lady in flip-flops, of unknown rank and title, popped her head through the door, screamed You scared the sh*t out of me! Don’t ever do that again! and smashed the door closed. Okay. The kibbutz seemed to have an order of things we clearly did not comprehend, in a place we were only beginning to discover. Frankly, I didn’t even know exactly where I was, and it felt too interesting to even try to find out. The buildings looked Eastern European, everybody spoke English, and the air of the night was distinctly Mediterranean. She showed up yet again: Oh were you guys looking for something? The kibbutz had decided in our favor. She led our silent procession through the night to the door of the pub — which had briefly turned into a beer-smelling lecture hall. At the pub, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War was talking to an audience about his time as a prisoner in Syria. I understood none of his Hebrew, but his perfectly in-tune syllables made me believe his speech was thoroughly rehearsed and frequently delivered.

By this point in my visit, I learnt not to be surprised by history popping up where least expected. Soon, the crowd dispersed and the pub returned to its designed state of business. The private lecture, its unknown attendees disappearing into the night, gave way to drinks and rock n’roll for a modest crowd of college kids.

A few days before, I must have arrived in Israel with some latent curiosity about religion. If not the allure of an extremely unlikely religious experience, then at least observing true believers respond to the religious charge of the place — as any traveler, I was ready to make other people’s reality my vacation experience. Therefore, I had great expectations of Jerusalem, a city with such strong a personality it even acquired its own syndrome.

I came to Jerusalem with just the right background. Years back, when the time had come for me to enter the Romanian public school system, they had kids attend religion classes — which mostly meant Eastern Orthodox dogma. You couldn’t miss the story about the holy light miracle in Jerusalem: every year on Orthodox Easter at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is a specific moment at which candles, tapers, torches and other religious objects meant for combustion will light up on their own. The patriarch going into the tomb essentially turns his pockets inside out in front of the crowd to prove he owns no means of ignition. He will then reappear with candles miraculously blazing with fire. The crowd sways; the fire gets passed. Some candle with the fire will get driven asap to Ben Gurion Airport that very night, from which a plane will fly it to my home country of Romania. With impeccable logistics, the holy light will get distributed to a series of lucky parishes across the country, much to the pride of their congregations.

While in Jerusalem, I got to finally admire this place where God makes miracles on command. Like Paul Dirac, I wondered whether God respects daylight saving time when coordinating the whole show. I seemed to have been spared by the so-called Jerusalem syndrome — allegedly a combination of psychosis-like symptoms and delusions with a religious theme, prompted by a visit to the city. Perhaps the Old City of Jerusalem was not the place for my religious experience; I’ll leave that to the Christian tourism industry back home. I tried to imagine a busful of Eastern European devout middle-aged Orthodox Christians visiting Bethlehem in the West Bank. I wondered if the continuous sight of shiny rifles and frowning men in uniforms would be conducive to religious contemplation. I now know not to assume I know the answer — just as I know not to doubt the immense, unjust power that symbols have over people.

But what if it actually was in this hidden, colorful, scruffy kibbutz pub that I came the closest to a religious experience? Perhaps in this case what we call spiritual hides in our briefly shared humanity, whatever that means. The fellow trekkers had all gone to bed. Aftab and I assumed the universal bar posture, elbows on deck, head slightly bowed. Loyal to the egalitarian principles I expected from a kibbutz, the beer and the stories poured in equal amounts on both sides of the bar. Mac DeMarco’s Ode to Viceroy played in the background.

After all, bars are not that different from churches. They both rely on a faithful client basis, which is more likely in both cases to show up on either moments of extreme joy or extreme distress. Bars and churches alike rely on trained staff which will, upon occasion, take confessions. They are both excellent locations for delivering sermons. The best bars, as well as the best churches, feature live music. Alcohol plays an important ceremonial role in both. And both are visited by people looking for relief, companionship, or even a life partner. I’ve stopped questioning the spiritual nature of bars a long time ago.

I seemed to be sharing some special bond with bartenders in Israel. Just like I would expect from true modern equivalents of priests, they all seem to have specific advice for me. In Jerusalem, a bartender pointed to my possibly Jewish-looking facial features and advised me not to go into the Old City past midnight. Now at the kibbutz, I was receiving somewhat suspicious advice about Tel Aviv underground nightlife. I politely chose to ignore both; this is often the fate of religious advice. Viceroy, don’t take me for a fool now.

At some point, I was playing an electric guitar on the little stage inside the pub. Politics, war, the conflict, they simply felt far. Having been on the political trail for days, meeting with people on all sides of ideology and on both sides of the fence, it’s easy to start believing that life in this corner of the world has been incurably permeated by political conflict. However, our pub and the whole kibbutz seemed a floating island, dragged by zeppelins, way above all that stuff. Perhaps there are still hideouts like this where private life is untouched by politics. I rejoined the conversation in time to hear a story that showed I might be mistaken:

An Israeli guy brings his ladyfriend back to his place in the middle of the night. As many guys before him, he feels the need for an optical backdrop as he proceeded to undress her. He turns on the TV on mute and there it was — the Egyptian Revolution live in all its glory. They continue with their love game as scenes of Tahrir Square on BBC flicker in the background. For some reason, it seemed frighteningly appropriate.

Soon afterwards, we helped our bartenders wipe the Goldstar puddles off the bar and the ceremony ended. That night I must have dreamed as follows. The trekkers were all surrounding this one gentle rabbi. They seemed quite hostile, slowly closing the circle — but our rabbi had this unshakable smile on his face. All very scriptural. As is often the case, I don’t really see people in my dreams, but I perceive them. In this case, I’m fairly sure my dream-rabbi must have been the Haredi we had met just a few days before in Jerusalem. Were the trekkers in my dream trying to avenge some form of justice, picking things up where we left off? Was this about gender equality, LGBT rights, or the good old conflict? At some point in this dance, someone pulled the rabbi by his gorgeous beard and his whole disguise fell to the floor. In his place, there was now Moshe Dayan with his unmistakable eye-patch. Moving in Matrix-style slow-motion, he pointed an Uzi straight up to the sky. All this time Moshe kept the same kind smile on his face. But when he started shooting, all the bullets that came out looked like this:

The mathematical symbol for the cardinality of the natural numbers, which set theorists affectionately pronounce “aleph-naught”.

These unexpected bullets moved through the air very slowly. I could hear no gunshots although my dreams often lack sound, so I can’t be sure. I was very impressed. The aleph-bullets apparently came with full metal jackets, which were falling emptied to the floor like crazy. There was a sudden, unmistakable air of sadness. I was very impressed.

The next morning I was late for the bus and missed breakfast. Nevermind, it was time for a new day on the road.

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