Last night, I was cutting cucumbers for a salad and overcame my usual sous-chef laziness, peeling them, making them into tiny fairy-size cubes. We all have certain voices which emerge when we prepare certain dishes, the digestive tract linked to the deepest psychological tracts, which may be why Zen practitioners emphasize meal preparation as one of the more useful mind-sharpening devices.
Most often, when it comes to dealing with cucumbers or tomatos, my inner voice takes the form of only one person: the husband of my Israeli cousin, DK, who, like most Israelis, is disgusted by the sloppy leaf-ridden salads of America and perhaps Europe. There is no backbone to such salads, they flop all over the place. A salad to DK and to many other Israelis is only this: cucumbers cut metrical and tiny, tomatos managed in similar suit, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. If one is adventurous, one adds parsley, but already that begins to overstep certain frontiers. Walls must be built. I have seen DK get a bit hysterical at an American barbecue when the tomatos in a particular salad bowl began to appear too generously sliced. Life itself can hang on the angle of the slice.
What fascinates me about DK, who may be a former air force fellow, if I remember correctly, is the extent of the control which he must exercise over the small territories in his life. Existing in such a state of contestation and siege, he cleaves to the known. There must be no deviation, otherwise hysteria ensues. "Ma, hishtagat?" he will say to the errant tomato-slicer. (What, have you gone crazy? which is actually a standard Hebrew locution.)
Counterphobia: this is the same man, I've heard, who against his family's protests, will drive visitors through disputed lands, calmly carrying a gun, riding shotgun.
If I could, right here I'd insert a beautiful painting by the artist Adelie Landis Bischoff, called Men and Guns. Areas of the canvas are left abstract, a site for one's worst metaphysical imaginings. A pair of legs, a profile of a gun.
A few years back, I had a very distant relative whose case made the headlines as a metaphor for the situation among Arabs and Israelis. He was a teenager, one of those crazed ultra-Orthodox who does not see carrying a gun as being antithetical to the teachings of the Torah and Talmud. He took his schoolchildren on a wildflower tour of the West Bank (!) and along the way, he was stoned by some Arab village kids. He went crazy, began to shoot, ended up killing one of the young Israeli girls on his tour. One of the Arab villagers took him in, protected him from the others. But to no great end; my relative wound up losing all his proto-adult memory. His yeshiva bochers were the ones who retaught him everything he could be said to know, giving him a different history regarding the origins of his disability. Whitewashed clean of guilt, he became a small child again, answering his mother obediently, while also having lost all the defining coloration of hatred.
My long-term fantasy has been to learn Arabic and then go to Israel/Palestinian territories and work in one of those Seeds of Peace projects, wherein Palestinian and Israeli kids could develop friendships which would withstand the hatred, mistrust and acculturated fear which are laid in so young -- but is this a foolish, Fulbright-like, Enlightenment-based dream of bridging gaps, akin to the dreams writ into the universal rights of man and ambassadorship? Or is such foolishness necessary?
The tomato sliced a bit too large.
At the cafe near New College, where I teach, there is a picture of a young Lebanese boy who cannot be much older than two, wearing a full army uniform. To admit that I have Israeli heritage becomes an admission of vulnerability, a site of political incorrectness in the radical environment of New College. To say the word Israel already marks me as incorrect.
Origin myths are odd. I saw this firsthand in Sri Lanka among the Sinhalese and Tamils, with their competing myths about Hanuman, kings mating with the wrong wives, monkey gods, and the crazed devils who inhabited the historical Lanka/Illangai. Perhaps in a similar vein, my family traces its ancestry back through the diaspora's Maharal of Prague to second-century Palestine, to a man named Yohanan the sandal-maker in Jerusalem. Had my father's family not left Poland when he was three for Israel, escaping pogroms, I would not be here writing: all my extended family was exterminated.
What happens on both sides is that complexity and nuance and ambivalence themselves become the enemy. Amos Oz is wonderful at articulating this, as would be Joan Didion, archdeacon of complexity. Could the New York Review of Books send Didion abroad?
Another bit to the salad: some years ago, a wonderful documentary about Palestinian and Israeli children came out called, I believe, PROMISES. What was insidious in this documentary was watching the friendships between Muslim and Jewish kids disappear under a pile of adultlike sanctities. (For fun and oddity, contrast this movie with the great Belgian movie about destitute children, LA PROMESSE).
To bring this full circle: last month I had Belgian friends visit who insisted on making the dressing in the bottom of a bowl and then piling salad leaves on top. We won't even begin to enter the psychology of Belgium. If only xenophobia could be as simple a subject as sequencing a salad, or a tail-biting blog.