Fear Of Red Tomatoes — Chapter 10

Human Lives, Re imagined — A Historical Novel

Read “Chapter 9” at

Chapter 10 — Revelations

1986 Lud, Israel

Part A — Emily (Dickinson) and Sylvia (Plath)

Challenger Explosion — January 28th, 1986

The year 1986 started with a bang. Unbeknownst to Joe, half a world away in Florida the space shuttle Challenger had exploded. On the next day, Wednesday January 29th, Joe was attending first period. It was a literature class. He was sitting in the back, busy deriving a mathematical expansion for the Fibonacci series. Essentially he was re-inventing the Pascal Triangle and dabbling in graph theory. He had no idea that this is what he was doing. He was just a kid assembling formulas and drawing geometric sequences on scraps of paper. Being totally fascinated with the whole thing he did not feel like going to his “office” until lunchtime at least. He had plans to meet Sylvia there in the late afternoon anyway.

The teacher was going over a particularly dramatic Chaim Nachman Bialik poem and he was half listening to her in the background. He liked Bialik in a naive sentimental way, although he would never be caught dead admitting that in public. Bialik was way too old fashioned for him. Joe’s taste in Hebrew poetry recently shifted from Yehuda Amichai to David Avidan, compared to whom Bialik was a well meaning amateur who merely played around, rhyming mechanically.

During the short recess that followed, he started a conversation with Jake about the coming weekend soccer league and the chances of Beitar Yerushalayim to take the championship. Then, a tall curly kid named Alon sat next to them.

“So? What do you guys think about the Challenger? Far out, isn’t it…?!” he asked.

“Well, what about her? Did they have failed launch countdowns just like the Columbia, earlier this month?” asked Joe. Alon shook his head and looked at him incredulously.

“Dude, are you serious?! Do you like — never watch TV or something? You must be religious if you don’t turn on your TV. Why else would you have it off for one of the biggest news stories of the year so far? The Challenger EXPLODED!!! Less than two minutes into the flight she went Kaboom!!! And then all her pieces fell into the ocean. This morning they were saying on the radio that Reagan declared national mourning in the US. And get this — there were two chicks on board! A woman astronaut who was Jewish, and some lady teacher. They are all dead, can you believe it? Even the chicks!”

It wasn’t clear to Joe why Alon thought that being a pretty woman gave someone immunity from fiery death in the sky. This deep logical line of thinking was not surprising. Alon was an idiot. He was talking with Jake now and Joe was silently ignoring both of them. A wave of sadness washed over him. He was remembering the first time he read “The Green Hills of Earth” by Heinlen; thinking of the reverence with which he hung up the big “Columbia” space shuttle poster that he brought back from his US trip last year; the sweet suspense of watching shuttle launches; the awe he felt the first time he saw the robotic arm deploy and grab a satellite from orbit. The shuttle was a piece of pure engineering magic! It was so much more sophisticated than those little Soyuz or even Apollo tin cans. It was a real spaceship. The kind of spaceship he wanted to design when he became an Aeronautical engineer that worked for NASA. The knowledge that one of those magical spaceships was no more was devastating.

In the background he heard Jake tell Alon that the latest 9 AM news announced suspension of all shuttle flights till further notice. Joe swallowed a lump in his throat. He got up, rushed back in, grabbed his backpack and left abruptly. Ms. Moskowitz, their fearsome math teacher was just entering the classroom to start the next period. Glaring at his disappearing back with undisguised malice, she laughed her little wicked laugh and said loudly to no one in particular:

“Joe thinks he can come and go as he pleases and disrespect all of us. You know why class? Because he thinks that he is better than any of us. Just think, if this is how he behaves in tenth grade, what kind of arrogant and irresponsible person is he going to grow up to be?”

As he walked, he thought to himself: “Well, I am better than any of them. Including her. That’s a fact. The jealous old witch is right about that. But right now I just want to be alone. I can’t bear to see anyone.” He headed towards his tree office. Then, as he was walking he realized that he did not really want to be alone. He wanted to be with Sylvia. He turned around abruptly and ran towards the building where her class was. They were having physics. She was sitting next to the window right behind Abbie. Joe took off his shirt, rolled it into a big ball and threw it at the window. Abbie noticed and waved to him. Then she touched Sylvia’s shoulder, who turned her head and looked at him. It’s been slightly over a year since they met and more than nine months since they’ve started dating.

Sylvia no longer thought of him as a poser. In fact, after they kissed for the first time she whispered in his ear that she never really thought that he was a poser and said it just to spite him. Joe finished his Yates inspired poem a week after their first encounter under his tree. When he read it to her she said that he was definitely the real deal, as real of a poet as they came. And now she was looking at him from behind the classroom window with those mysterious hazel eyes and big smile. Her smile always made him feel mischievous. He drummed on his belly like a Papuan canibal and blew a big air kiss towards her. Then he did his best to pantomime that he was going to his tree office, and that he needed her to come and meet him as soon as possible.

Fifteen minutes later she was there, jumping straight into his arms. After a few minutes, when they were finally able to breathe again she slapped him on the face gently.

“You are such an arrogant prick, you know that dear? Do you think I am some kind of yoyo to come and go at your will? I am not a genius extraordinaire. I have to study. I can’t just cut class and materialize here whenever you want me to. This is the last time!”

Joe laughed and she slapped him again playfully. Then, for a while their communication turned non verbal again. Finally she giggled and said:

“What is it? Seriously. We had a date planned this afternoon. Did I really have to drop everything and lie to my favorite teacher about going to the bathroom just to make you happy?”

He sighed: “Have you heard about the Challenger?”

Sylvia sighed as well, with a sarcastic grin: “I have to say, I am dating a weirdo! Do you see anybody in school broken up? Do you see Jim crying about it?”

He sighed deeper this time: “Hon, they are going to cancel the shuttle. Just watch and see. And then — how are people going to fly to space? How are we going to conquer the solar system? I want to go to Titan. I want to design the spaceship that goes to Titan.”

They launched into their favorite “future” conversation. Big words like — “computes”, “technology”, “robots” and “I want to live in America and I want you to come with me next time I go” flew around, mixed with — “my father is a big guy in the Army but he is a prick”, “next year I am getting my own car so I don’t have to sit at home with my crazy mother”, the always intimidating “I am still really fucked up by my older brother’s suicide” and finally “I hope I don’t wind up like Emily Dickinson or god forbid Sylvia Plath”. Then, at some point the wine coolers came into play and an hour later they were buzzed and happy.

Sylvia hugged Joe and asked: “They were fighting again, weren’t they? Your parents. That’s the real reason you wanted to see me. Not the Challenger.” He nodded. Words came very slowly:

“It was terrible babe. Really scary. One of the big ones. He came home drunk. Mother does not work on Tuesday nights, so she was there unfortunately. He was really stinking drunk. She started yelling at him to leave but that just made him more angry. When grandfather was alive he did not allow himself to behave quite so bad.”

Sylvia did not say anything but just hugged him closer, resting his head on her big chest. It felt nice and calming. He was sobbing quietly for a while. Then, gathering strength he continued:

“It was the usual fight. He was accusing her of being unfaithful with her former boyfriend. That idiot Jacob who dumped her when she was 19 and married his pregnant sidekick whom she did not know about. They left Riga a year before us, and they are living in Petah Tiqva. I don’t understand why we go to visit them from time to time. Whatever was between them is dead a long time ago. Obviously Misha has to be a moron to think that she is sleeping with Jacob.But he does.”

She laughed. “Men are idiots. Yourself included dear.” They both giggled and talked about a classmate who was making an ass out of himself because of Abbie. The Sylvia continued:

“My mom is in one of her moods. She is locked up in her room for two days now. My father hasn’t been home for a week. Don’t think for a moment that I am swimming in butter either.”

Joe did not understand why swimming in butter would be a particularly enjoyable experience, but he giggled. He really liked her. Perhaps he could call what he felt for her love. He did not know how love was supposed to feel really. It was not something quantifiable like one of his favorite physics experiments. She was cute. They kissed really well. What they did whenever they could find some privacy in her house or his apartment was mostly enjoyable. She loved really good and deep poetry (including his) and she wrote lousy imitations of Dahlia Ravikovitch which were pathetic. He told her that they were really good because he liked her. He guessed that doing that made him officially “in love” with her.

She was a real Israeli. Not an immigrant and not one of the crazy people that lived in Memshalti. He parents were second generation Romanians and her father was a “cheese” in the tank brigades. She liked him. No, she loved him. An immigrant kid from Memshalti who did not have a father and who walked to school for forty minutes every day. True, he was smart and he touched her in ways that an idiot like Alon could not touch her. But he was a freak. He listened to heavy metal, read science fiction obsessively and dreamt about being an astronaut. He did not invite her to come with him for his “big” trip to the US last summer, even though her mom was willing to pay for her ticket. Yet their relationship survived and flourished. She made him calm. The rage he felt inside melted with her smile. That was something. Maybe it was love. He just did not know.

“So what happened afterwards?” she asked. Joe nibbled her neck and laughed ironically.

“Afterwards? Well, he threw up the way he always does. It was disgusting like always. She managed to kick him out. Then he came back and started banging the front door. The way he does lately. Started screaming that he wants half of everything and that she cheated him. She cried and cried and kept saying that he is a pathetic loser and that she should have died with her father, instead of living like this. She finally let him in and he went to sleep on the couch in the living room.”

Sylvia got really serious and looked into his eyes: “Why doesn’t your mom just get rid of him?”

Joe laughed bitterly. “You think it is so easy? Did I tell you about the time in eighth grade when he was threatening her with the big kitchen knife? This was half a year after grandfather died. I freaked out and called the police. And of course nothing happened. She had no bruises. He never hits her, just threatens her. The police told him to play nice and left. And then the next day he is always the nicest man in the world. We all want to forget the bad times and just remember the good ones. He can be very charming. I guess she loves him despite everything.”

She was not amused. “Look, it will not end well. Your mom needs to do something. Do you want me to talk to my dad? He knows a big guy in the police who served together with him.”

But Joe changed the subject and they spent another hour talking about her brother who killed himself when he failed advanced officer training because he did not want his father to say that he was a loser. She cried. He held her. Then they washed up and went for afternoon classes.

Part B — The Orange Grove

Olives on a tree

One of Joe’s friends in Ramleh Lud was an Arab kid named Hamid Arafeh. Hamid always joked that he was one of the “token Arabs”, a total of four guys in their school. Three of them were Christian, he was the only Muslim. He preferred not to make many friends and mostly kept to himself. There was another high school nearby, called “The Regional Arab High School” and Arab kids from the area went there. But Hamid did not hang out with those kids either. He was an outsider who did not quite belong anywhere, just like Joe.

Joe liked him. He was smart, honest and worked hard for his grades. He enjoyed helping him with difficult homework and they did labs together from time to time. Joe suspected that his best friend Jake was a bit jealous of this friendship. In ninth grade Jake always asked him why he spent time with “that Arab?” Joe always said that it is because he wanted to learn some Arabic. When Jake reminded him that they studied French, he just laughed in response. Then, one day Joe invited Jake to visit him at his home in Memshalti. Jake was really distraught by what he saw on the way as they walked through the neighborhood. When Joe walked with him to the Ramleh bus afterwards, he looked at him and after a short pause said:

“Dude, you live in a normal world. Where I live scares you. Do you understand that where Hamid lives is two times more scummy and dangerous? And yet he has better grades than you. So what makes you think the sun shines out of your ass? Please, if you want to stay friends don’t call him that Arab anymore. He is a student of Ramleh Lud, just like you and me.”

One day in tenth grade Joe was sitting in his “office” reading Clifford Simak when Hamid dropped by. He threw his backpack on the ground and sat with him under the big olive tree. He sighed and then opened his backpack, pulling out a worn Bialik poetry volume.

“Ma’an. I am gonna fail the literature test. I don’t understand any of this Yahudi stuff. For example — that poem about the pogrom in Kishinev. A bunch of Russians kill a bunch of Jews 80 years ago in a faraway place I have never been to. Now I have to write an essay that shows my comprehension of what Bialik is trying to say about it. What the fuck?”

Joe laughed and quoted:

“Hangman! Here is the neck — Up! Slaughter!
Behead me like a dog, yours is the arm and the axe,
and the whole earth, my scaffold –
and we — we are the few!

My blood is permitted — hack off the head, and let the blood of murder stream out,
blood of suckling and greybeard upon your shirt,
and may it never, never be blotted out.

And if there is justice, let it shine forth now!
But if, after I am rubbed out from beneath the sky,
justice shines forth –
let its throne be cast down forever!

And let heaven rot in the evil of the ages;
and you go, arrogant, in this violence of yours,
and live by your blood, and be cleansed by it.

But cursed be the one who says; Avenge!
Revenge like this, revenge for the blood of a small child
Satan has not yet created –

and let the blood pierce the abyss!
Let the blood pierce through the deep-dark abysses,
and devour, in the darkness, and breach there
all the rotting foundations of the earth.”

He shook his head in mock disapproval:

“Good old Chaim Nachman! Always so melodramatic. This does read like Death Metal slasher song lyrics, I have to admit. Horrible! I guess even in 1903 the more blood and guts you put in your work, the better it sold.”

Hamid laughed. They sat together for half an hour while Joe told him about Tsarist Russia, the pogroms, the early days of Zionism and the biblical book of Job that Bialik was trying to imitate in his passionate lyric pathos.

Hamid still did not fully comprehend.

“I dunno man. I am a Muslim. For us things work differently. Everything depends on the will of Allah. We never argue with Allah and write disrespectful things about his justice or heaven, like Bialik. And if someone kills our children, you bet there will be revenge. Big revenge! Can’t say that I agree with any of this stuff. Why do I have to learn it?”

That led to a half an hour argument about the relationship between Jews and God. Joe said:

“It’s a shame that being a Muslim you do not attend Jewish bible classes. You think Bialik is bad, you should see how bitterly great guys like Abraham, Moses and King David complain to God about injustice. It’s a Jewish thing. We are a nation of complainers and self doubters.”

Hamid shook his head in resignation.

“Are you saying that Ibrahim, peace be upon him, disagreed with Allah? I am sorry, this is too much for me to digest! I have to talk about it with my grandfather. Maybe he can explain this better than you. Thank you ya sahbi!” and he left.

As he was walking away Joe thought to himself that Hamid was infinitely lucky to still have a grandfather whom he could talk to and ask questions. Then he returned to his Simak novel.

The next day Hamid came up to him after class.

“I spoke to my grandfather, he said that your explanations are wise. He also said that you should come over for coffee today. The Arafeh family would be honored to have you in our house.”

Thus Joe had his first chance to visit Pardes Snir. The two of them made their way through Memshalti and then continued, crossing the railway tracks. The roads were unpaved and full of holes. There were many garbage piles and sewage flowing freely. Everywhere Joe saw skeletons of unfinished or demolished buildings and stripped, burned cars. Here and there were walled compounds discreetly hidden within large orange groves. The walls had razor wire and glass shards on top and heavy entrance gates in the front.

After about fifteen minutes of wandering through this refugee camp (for that was what this place essentially was), they came to a nice looking two story house standing amongst olive trees. Hamid opened the gate and a large German Shepherd jumped on him and licked him in greeting. Then a door opened and an old man came to meet them. He wore the traditional Thobe garment with a Keffiyeh on his head and Libas pants. In his hand he held a richly decorated walking stick and a masbaha. He had a very dignified graying mustache and appeared to be in his mid seventies. He ushered them inside and said something in very formal and heavy sounding Arabic. Hamid translated:

“We want to welcome Hamid’s friend to our home! We have heard so many things about you from him. Please come inside and feel at ease. You are among friends. Welcome; welcome; welcome!”

They came inside and Joe was amazed to see a richly decorated living room with red Persian carpets, oil paintings of Jerusalem and Hebron, heavy old fashioned furniture and ornamental sabers and hunting rifles covering the walls. The little table was already set with a coffee pot and small porcelain cups. There were also dry apricots, knafeh and baklava. Joe knew that tradition demanded the women to stay away in another part of the house so he did not ask Hamid to introduce him to his mother or sisters. His grandfather, who’s name was Musa, was a very dignified old gentleman and a great host. With Hamid’s help they were soon engaged in a lively conversation about school and their plans for the future.

After a while all the courtesies were exchanged, the coffee pot was emptied and the sweets were consumed and respectfully praised. Then Musa looked very carefully into Joe’s eyes and asked him:

“My grandson says that you have a strange European name but you call yourself Joe Marjesua, which is a Yahudi Moroccan name. Why?”

Joe told him how they wound up in Lud, about the death of his grandfather and how he wanted to have a fresh start with a new name. Old Musa just shook his head and listened as Joe told him, a complete stranger, about the ruin of his family. When Joe finished Musa got up and said thoughtfully:

“A story like that requires something stronger than coffee. You boys are sixteen already.” He went to the pantry and pulled out a bottle. Hamid got the glasses and helped his grandfather pour the Arak.

“How we live and when we die is in the hands of Allah, the infinitely merciful. I am sorry about your grandfather. Allah yerhamo! I am sorry that you came to Lud as refugees. When I was your age Lud was one of the nicest cities in Palestine. Now Hamid and you are growing up in a sewer where people on both sides of the tracks sell poison and kill each other like rats.”

They drank the Arak. It burned Joe’s throat and set his head aflame. Hamid brought backgammon and they played while his grandfather watched and hummed a sad old Arab melody that resonated with Joe. When he lost the game they drank again. Then old Musa started talking again.

“You know Joe, our family used to own a lot of olive trees when I was young. We sold olives to the soap factory that the Yahud built nearby. Over a hundred years ago my grandfather built this house and we lived in it since then, surrounded by olives. We stayed here when my older brother was arrested by the British who called him a bandit and exiled him to Kuwait. We stayed when the Yahud killed five hundred civilians and turned everybody else in Lud into refugees in 1948. We stayed when the drug dealers, both Yahud and faithful turned our neighborhood to a refugee camp like Deir El Balah. I am glad that you live in Lud. You are a good boy. A lot of faithful at the Mosque are saying that we should kill all the new immigrants. But I say, Palestine has room for everybody. Ahlan Wa Sahlan — welcome!”

And Joe, who was drunk silly from the strong Arak, went to the old man, hugged and kissed him. Then he cried. He cried for a long time. The old man just held him and patted him on the head. Hamid discreetly sat in the corner. Joe cried for his mother who was getting herself deeper and deeper into something that he suspected would turn the rest of her life into hell. He cried for his grandfather who was not there for him anymore. And for himself and Sylvia, because of the recognition growing inside of him that despite their friendship and love of poetry and everything else, he did not love her.

Read “Chapter 11” at
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