Commentary Magazine


Post-Mortem

I’D just came back from seeing the Bernheims off at Ben-Gurion airport, which was an unnecessary gesture. If I hadn’t taken them, I might have worked on my book, or taken the children swimming, or sorted the bills in the study desk. Not paid them, but put them in order. And I wouldn’t have had the argument with my wife.

When I came in, she was taking a cake out of the oven. She had used the opportunity to show me just how much activity could be compressed into one morning: children taken to swimming pool, translation completed, cake baked. The Israeli female’s rite of the Sabbath cake needs investigation; Hanna seems to think her sexuality is in doubt if that hot, sweet-smelling mound doesn’t appear on the table by sundown. And all I’d done with the day was to see off the Bernheims.

“Couldn’t they have hired an Avis car, and seen themselves off?” she asked. They could. “And did they have to leave on a Friday morning, the hardest day of the week for us, when I need you around?” They did. “And why did you lend them that suitcase when you know you’ll never get it back?” “I’ll get it back,” I said, “because they’ll be here in a couple of years, and we won’t be going anywhere before then.”

“You know quite well they won’t be back,” she said, “because Gail just couldn’t wait to leave. I saw her throw out the Hebrew grammar she’s been pretending to use all year, when she was packing. And she gave all her ordinary Israeli clothes to the maid and just kept the blouse with the Yemenite embroidery, and she’ll probably pretend she bought that in Morocco.”

“They travel light,” I said, “sending books airmail. That was a terrible grammar, and if I remember right, you lent it to her.”

“And you insisted on lending them our subscription ticket to the Philharmonic, and they used it for the best concerts and left us the duds.”

“They’d do the same for us in the States,” I said.

“Yes, if we ever get there, which we won’t,” said Hanna.

We sat and glowered at each other over the still steaming cake.

As Gail and Art had just left, I was feeling warmer toward them than I had for some time. “Look,” I said, “you know that Art really loved Israel. He was stimulated, and contented, and—do you know what I thought at the airport?—I thought he looked healthy, really healthy. I’ve never seen Art look healthy.”

“He can get the same tan in California,” said Hanna. “All right, he had his students, and everyone made a fuss over him, but Gail complained non-stop: male chauvinism, no civil-rights movement, and why is all the bread unwrapped?”

“We weren’t trying to sell Israel to them,” I said.

“And look what you did for him: intriguing, scheming, things you never do for yourself,” said Hanna.

We had now reached the point. Once more, without malice, Hanna was saying that I’m too unambitious, unaggressive, and un-Israeli too, though that she will never actually say.

So I got up and left the table and went into the study and slammed the door, or tried to, but since what we call the study is really an extension of the living room, and since we have the kind of sliding doors which don’t quite fit—adapted from an American model, but probably with one page of instructions missing, like so many Israeli versions of American living—you can’t slam the study door. So I turned my back on the crack in the door, and pretended to work in the hour or so left before the Sabbath, and actually spent it thinking about Art and Gail Bernheim, who had taken up enough of my day already.

The evening before, they’d given us a present, a beautifully carved Italian wall cabinet which now stood in a corner of the study. Hanna had already put a plant on top to domesticate it, but that looked wrong, so I put the plant on the floor. They’d found the cabinet in the Tel Aviv flea market, and probably paid some crazy sum for it. Art had always been generous, whatever Hanna said.

Hanna would tell everyone who had given us the bookcase, and it would be much admired, whereas if she were consistent, she would chop it up and make a bonfire.

However, Art had left me with a problem.

I’d volunteered to be Art’s man, when he wrote me that he and his wife were coming to Israel for a trial year, on sabbatical. Ah, that Israeli sabbatical, balm of hurt minds. The problem with living here is that I can’t take an Israeli sabbatical myself. Actually I’m not sure that he said “ trial year,” but it was understood, because we’d been corresponding for years ever since we left college. I’d kept all his letters, too, as if he were Oliver Wendell Holmes, though I am quite sure he hasn’t kept mine.

In the beginning, I was the free spirit, and Art was in a rut, or that was the game we played. I taught night school in Paris and Rome, wrote poetry, investigated life. He was working on extradition treaties for some government agency and had labeled himself a junior lecturer in a university law department. Then he went briefly to Vietnam on an intelligence mission, and joined the anti-war brigade. I came to Israel just in time for the Six-Day War, married Hanna, and remained.

By the time Art was ready to visit Israel, he was married too, the tone of his letters was less apologetic, and the tone of mine was, I suppose, more harassed. But I still had the authentic edge on him. He wrote that he envied me Israel, where I was coping with the realities that he had only glimpsed in Vietnam. Art was very good at defining moral and legal problems, but had difficulty in making personal decisions, such as which university appointment to choose, and where to send his parents, now senior citizens. He implied in his letters that I was lucky that both my parents were dead, as they no longer needed to worry about me, nor I about them.

Shortly after he married, I was surprised to read that Art, now a junior professor at Harvard, was taking an interest in the moral and legal aspects of birth-control campaigns sponsored by the U.S. in the developing countries, an interest which had earned him a column or two in the weekly magazines. Both he and his wife, who had been in the Peace Corps, appeared on television and before congressional subcommittees. It was unlike Art to expose himself in this way, and it wasn’t until I met Gail that I understood what had happened.

When Art wrote hinting that he would enjoy an Israeli sabbatical, and the department approved, I was slogging away at the draft of a book, long delayed. I was writing on a minor aspect of constitutional law, which I had chosen because it had philosophical ramifications, and yet seemed directly related to Israel’s problems with politics and religion. I thought of myself as making some quiet, fundamental contribution to Israel’s future constitution. And I confided to Art in my letters what I would not have told Hanna: that the pressures of family life meant that I had to improve my position in the department. Total professional freedom, I implied, was something for the young and unattached (i.e., Art had missed it).

Hanna was very interested in my book at first, but now she wanted to know what people were going to do with it. She was comparing my work with Art’s birth-control campaign, and as that is ever the interesting subject to women, Art was ahead of me.

I enjoyed being quizzed about Art. My colleagues, journalists, and anxious foreign-ministry men were continuously on the telephone; was he pro, anti, New Left, Orthodox, agnostic? Where did he stand on the Israel-Diaspora issue, the social gap, the Palestinians? “Art doesn’t believe in committing himself from a distance,” I said, “Wait till he gets here.”

_____________

 

Hanna recognized Art at the airport, from a newspaper shot, before I did. He had become much fatter, with a library complexion, but he had the same deprecating, grin. Gail made a good impression. Perhaps she was a little too determined to ask questions all the way to Jerusalem: was that a kibbutz or a moshav, what system of irrigation were they using in those fields, how near were we to the old border? And so on. But, as Art commented, she’d been a reporter, and had the habit of asking questions—without necessarily listening to the answers, he added.

Art and I scarcely made contact at first. He was, I thought, absurdly interested in college and old friends. I am entirely without nostalgia for the old days, and Art is the only relic of that time for me. At first I thought he had no awareness of Israel at all.

He was touchingly shy in the department. He gave his lectures diffidently, as though he expected to be criticized. He was not even aroused when old Professor Altenhammer, for whom it was a point of honor to attack visitors, tried to find holes in Art’s theories at a seminar, and was roundly defeated by his ambitious second-in-command, Ben Ishai, with Art himself looking mildly on. He learned one all-purpose phrase in Hebrew: an elegant, beautifully worded “I am not perfectly conversant with the language,” with which he fended off all telephone callers.

But while he refused to be interviewed or lionized, Art made himself very popular in the department. He didn’t mind the interminable committee meetings that he really was not obliged to attend;, he never complained that the university had rented him a room in a noisy building; he didn’t mind the way his schedules were suddenly changed, and he didn’t lose his temper when someone else was using his classroom. He seemed to enjoy everyone he met at work, from the janitor who never got his name right to the fussy German secretary they had given him and for whom he put on his Herr Professor act: “Yes, Mrs. Crechzner, I know that three of my five students for the six o’clock seminar are doing reserve duty and the fourth is working late in the office today, but I think I ought to come for that one righteous man, don’t you?”

The Bernheims dutifully attended the department’s social evenings. On these occasions, however, Art irritated everyone. They would come in, Gail leading like an energetic tug guiding a sluggish liner through choppy waters, and Art would deposit himself in the most comfortable chair (Gail always sat on the floor) and make no effort to join in the conversation, which was held in English for the Bernheims’ sake. Gail did all the talking, and after a while, as no one was interested in Art’s wife, the conversation would revert to Hebrew, Gail would be relegated to the women’s corner, which she obviously resented, and I would have to talk to Art. After several such evenings, I began to notice that Art managed to chat with me (college reminiscences) and listen to the conversation around him at the same time. I also suspected that he knew more Hebrew than he let on; when I charged him with it, he grinned.

_____________

 

After a few weeks we invited the Bernheims to a picnic in a forest near Jerusalem. It was mild autumn weather, like a European summer, Gail remarked. (She was always comparing Israel with Europe, perhaps because for her the world was divided into three parts: the United States, Europe, and the East.) We drove up a winding road to a hilltop from which we could see the Mediterranean, a hazy blue line to the west, and the outline of Jerusalem on the eastern hills. It was one of our favorite places, but it did not have the effect on the Bernheims which we had expected. Gail began talking about Connecticut, and how beautiful it was at this season, and Art, who never noticed where he was, was more affected by the magnificent spread Hanna had prepared. When we had eaten, Art lay on his back and closed his eyes. Gail was now on to civil rights: she wanted to know why Hanna and I had no Arab friends.

“I had some Arab students who came around occasionally,” I said, “but they weren’t our age. Most students go to Haifa these days, it’s nearer Galilee, where they live.”

“When those students of yours were in Jerusalem, where did they live?” asked Gail.

“I suppose in the university hostel,” I said. “I didn’t ask.”

“I hear they can’t find rooms in any private home here,” said Gail, bright-eyed, ferreting.

“I don’t know,” I said lamely. “No one complained to me.”

“You haven’t investigated the situation.”

“Oh, there was a seminar in Haifa last year,” I said. “Not just about accommodations. Job prospects, and so on.”

“I see,” said Gail. “I guess not enough is being done on the integration issue. It’s politically dangerous, isn’t it?”

Hanna glared at me. “It isn’t so simple,” she said. “On the one hand, they want to be apart, in different schools and neighborhoods; they don’t want to pay the same taxes, either. To my opinion” (Hanna’s English sagged when she was angry), “you can’t make comparisons with the American Negroes.”

“Blacks,” Gail corrected.

“Blacks.” Hanna was sidetracked.

Art spoke with his eyes still shut. “Let them be Negroes here, Gail, no one’s listening.”

Gail tried to smile, but it didn’t work. She stood up, brushing pine needles from her skirt. She wasn’t relaxed, and she seemed angry with Art’s listless position. His shirt was half out of his trousers, and he hadn’t shaved. I suddenly remembered that he never shaved on Saturdays; it was an echo from life in his Orthodox parents’ home, like not eating ham or oysters. Art ate both, but he never shaved on Saturday.

We had this kind of discussion many times afterward with Art and Gail, or rather with Gail, because Art merely modified what Gail said. Gail was annoyed at the slapdash way Israelis ran birth control: Hanna pointed out that official policy was to increase the birthrate, and Israel needed more children. Gail couldn’t understand why nuclear disarmament wasn’t a live issue in Israel; I pointed out that the fear of nuclear holocaust was outclassed in Israel by more urgent concerns. Hanna had more trouble with Gail than I did, for Gail was attending a language course at the university and had time on her hands. She would drop in on Hanna for coffee, and Hanna, who had a part-time teaching job and also did translations at home, was furious at morning interruptions. “The worst of it is,” she said one lunchtime when I dropped in and found her angrily stacking hamburgers for the children who were due in soon from their (according to Gail) “ridiculously short” school day, “She makes me say things I don’t really mean, like the Israeli Arabs are better off economically than Arabs elsewhere, and abortions here are cheaper than in the U.S., and kids are readier for study after army service; but she makes me so mad I turn into someone else.” Her eyes filled with tears and she laughed angrily.

“Just try and remember it’s all personal,” I advised. “Gail versus Art, and since she can’t rouse him, she scores with you.”

Meanwhile, Art and I were having different meetings. Over soggy meals in the cafeteria or on the long strolls that Art loved—he wouldn’t walk but moved along crabwise, talking—Art kept telling me how good, how very good he felt in Israel. He loved Tel Aviv, which Gail abhorred (“just like the Bronx”), the Orthodox quarter in Jerusalem, bargaining in street markets, talking to shopkeepers in the dingiest, ugliest little shops he could find. He was blind to the landscape, indifferent to Jerusalem monuments, the Wall. He preferred to stand shyly in the doorway of some little crowded synagogue. It was Gail who was always exclaiming about the quality of the light on Jerusalem stone in the evening (“The only other place I know with that wonderful tone is Rome”) or the way the hill terraces merged with the open desert, though she complained that the twilight was too short.

“We’ll get it lengthened for you,” said Art.

Art also loved Hanna and her cooking. He used to come in and peer into the oven or the refrigerator, the way other guests look at books and pictures. He didn’t need to eat her burekas or her potato salad. I told him he was a gastronomic voyeur.

“She makes all this stuff and she reads books,” Art would say. “What a woman.”

It was difficult for me to stay silent about Gail, but I discovered the perfect technique. I simply asked questions about her, which showed interest without actually involving me in lies.

_____________

 

One evening we were leaving the university together and were brought up short by a breathtaking downpour which suddenly hit Jerusalem after a cloudless winter day, and neither of us had an umbrella. We stood near the glass doors as hardier men pulled their sweaters over their heads and made a run for it. “Has Gail joined that planned-parenthood committee yet?” I asked. Art looked at me quizzically. “They started on the wrong foot,” he said. “Apparently they asked her if she had kids of her own, and she felt it was irrelevant.”

“Of course it was,” I said, pleased to be on Gail’s side. “And personal.”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I like that about Israel. Everything’s personal.”

“Isn’t that claustrophobic?”

“No,” said Art, “I like it. Hell,” he said suddenly, “why shouldn’t Israel be intrusive and personal and demanding, reactionary, militaristic, male-chauvinist, you name it. Why not?”

“That’s disingenuous, Art, and you know it.”

“No, I don’t,” said Art. “Everybody told me I’d be asked whether I was going to stay, everybody warned me you’d try and recruit me. Why the hell are you all so delicate about it?”

I was taken aback. “Does Gail? . . .” I began.

“Gail’s a good kid, but she doesn’t understand anything. You know she wanted to adopt a Vietnamese war orphan.”

He hadn’t written about that.

“I wasn’t against the idea at first,” said Art.

“Then I thought: why not a Jewish kid? So you know what she said? She said I was a racist.”

“Um,” I said.

“So I’m a racist, fine. I wouldn’t give way, so instead of adopting a kid, we went into the birth-control campaign.” This sounded bitter, and so unlike Art that I gave him a nervous look, and he laughed, relaxing.

“My guess is that she’ll have a kid in the end,” he said. “There’s no reason why she shouldn’t.” We stared at the rain. “Anyway, I want to stay; are you going to help me or not?”

That was how it started. Art had wanted a permanent job in the department, and no one had even guessed it. He was a distinguished visitor, disliked by Altenhammer, the department head, much admired by his deputy, Ben Ishai, popular with the students, whose opinion did not count. It is one thing to like a man on sabbatical, especially the Israeli sabbatical, that intellectual equivalent of buying Israel Bonds, and another thing to want him with you on an everyday basis, disturbing the pecking order, complicating department intrigue.

Almost immediately, I was in trouble. I have never been particularly popular with my colleagues; I hate committee work and prefer to spend my free time with non-jurists, but the students liked me and I’d believed I was an acceptable, if eccentric, member of the department. But one day, when the reshuffling process was at its most intense, one of my colleagues did not return my smile in the library. Instead, he hissed, “It’s all very well for you, with that manuscript in that old briefcase of yours, but some of us are aiming for mobility, you understand?” Then, perhaps horrified by what he had said, he shook my shoulder, smiled, and left.

In that unpleasant moment, I saw myself afresh in my colleagues’ eyes: not as a man quietly constructing his masterwork, but as an employee, clocking in and out till pension day. And pushing old school friends ahead of colleagues.

“Should I get rid of this briefcase?” I asked Hanna. It was an old friend, dated back to college days, had been through Europe with me.

“I’ve been telling you to do that for years; now I suppose someone else has said it.”

Ben Ishai was a diplomat. He decided to bring Art in as deputy head of the department, thus avoiding a difficult choice between two potential successors to this, his own post. The following year he was to succeed Altenhammer in the chair. The crisis seemed over.

But Altenhammer had other ideas. He disliked Ben Ishai marginally more than Art. He had seen Ben Ishai hovering near him for years; it was Ben Ishai who would profit the most from his retirement. He pursuaded the university fathers to offer the chair to Art.

On the night the news broke, Hanna and the children remained shut in the kitchen till nearly midnight, because the living room lies inconveniently between the kitchen and the bedrooms, and Hanna dared not open the kitchen door until Ben Ishai had left. It was useless for me to say that I had nothing to do with old Altenhammer’s decision. It was hopeless to deny that powerful Baltimore donors had pressed Art on him, alerted by me. It was well known that Altenhammer liked me, but who was to know or believe that this was chiefly because of our discussions of walking tours in the Dordognes?

The next day, Hanna and I had our worst argument in years. She said that she didn’t want her home used as a department battleground. I said that she had always instructed me to get more involved in department affairs; now that I had done so, she was turning on me. She said involved, yes, but not to the point of endangering my career for someone else. I said that since I had tenure, I wasn’t endangering anything. “Yes, but what about promotion?” I shrugged my shoulders. She said I lacked the fighting instinct, and had passed this on to our oldest son. At this point Art phoned. Could we meet right away? Could he come over to my place, because Gail was resting? Hanna threw the dishes into the sink and marched out.

_____________

 

It is difficult to get angry with Art. He absorbs anger the way a tennis net takes a fast ball. But when he put his head around the door that morning, looking so pleased with himself, and puffing from the stairs—how can he get so overweight on Gail’s cooking?—I said, “Sit down, there isn’t any coffee left, and let’s get it over with.”

He didn’t even notice that I was annoyed. He just stood in the doorway, beaming, and I had to go around him to shut the door. “Gail’s pregnant,” he said.

He had told her about the offer of the chair the previous night, and she had responded with her own good news. You can’t fault Gail’s timing.

So I lost that first chance to be angry with Art. I brought out a bottle of Israeli champagne, sparkling wine it’s called, and we made all sorts of stupid jokes, like giving the child the name My Lai, and everything we said was in that vein. Show me the man who doesn’t offend good taste when he is really affected. As far as I remember, we didn’t even mention the department, or Art’s future; it didn’t seem relevant. We talked about our lives during the period we’d been out of contact—a time we’d scarcely touched on before—and for some reason Art filled me in about the other women in his life, and I told him about mine. We hadn’t got to Gail and Hanna by the time Hanna came back and, to give her credit, joined in the celebration with a will. She even said to me later that a child would make a lot of difference to Gail.

The four of us had never been more at ease than during the weeks that followed. Gail and Hanna suddenly found a subject they could discuss without friction, for Gail wanted to know all about pregnancy, and Hanna said that Gail was so anxious to make up for lost time, talking about a large family, that you felt it was a mitzvah to explain things to her.

Art and I played chess; I usually won. We had discussions about religion and Israeli law. He usually won. One day I told him I thought marriage and divorce should be taken out of the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts, and the Jewish laws which governed them modernized.

“Don’t try to tidy up Jewish law,” he answered. “Leave it as it is. You’ll take the guts out of it. Either discard it altogether, or accept the anomalies too.”

I accused Art of sophistry. Would he advocate similar laws in the States?

He chuckled. “That’s what I’m coming to Israel for, to become a liberated reactionary.”

I couldn’t shake Art on this or other issues. He was a political hardliner, too. I told him he’d change his tune when he clashed with the real reactionaries, the nationalists and the clerics, when he found his freedoms menaced. He accused me of having come to Israel to escape my own Jewishness. We both enjoyed the fighting.

In the department it was less easy. Art was holding an invisible umbrella over my head to protect me from the fallout of his appointment. I didn’t like being Art’s protégé. I looked forward to the time when he would become an Israeli and cease enjoying the privileges of an outsider.

Art and Gail went off to Galilee to see the spring before she turned green herself, as she put it. Art said that they’d have to go back to the States to have the baby. Gail wanted it to have American nationality, and they wanted to be near both sets of grandparents. The following summer they’d come back, in time to get settled before the academic year.

On their return, Hanna asked Gail how she’d liked Galilee. Quite lovely, she said; in some places, with the spring flowers, it was almost like being in the Alps. Hanna and I exchanged a tolerant smile.

_____________

 

Art developed hay fever when the first dry hot weather began, but bore it as stoically as he had the damp cold of winter. Department tempers had cooled over the Passover vacation, and Ben Ishai had been offered a visiting lectureship at Chicago for the following year, so even he was polite when we met.

And then Art and I went for one of our Sabbath walks, like two old-age pensioners, I thought, given the pace. I reminded Art of something I’d just remembered, that at college I had been the provocative isolationist, Art the committed liberal.

I thought this was funny, but Art wasn’t listening. He stopped under an overhanging tree in one of the placid avenues near our building, and with no preamble announced, “I’m sorry, but I can’t take the chair, after all.”

I was surprised that I was not more surprised.

Art said, “I don’t know how to explain it to you, but maybe you’ve guessed.”

I said maybe I had.

“I want the post,” said Art. “You know that. I wanted to stay. But in Galilee I saw how things were. I know what’s going to happen when we get back to the States. And there’s been an offer from Berkeley. She always wanted California. The money means nothing to me.”

“I believe you,” I said.

“You see,” he added, “she’ll need peace and quiet for a time, after the birth.” He talked as if Gail were a frail consumptive and Jerusalem were

Las Vegas. “Later on,” he said, “we’ll be freer to decide.”

I disagreed, but said nothing. We strolled on, a couple of wise elders, with debris from the tree, dislodged by the hot hamsin wind, in our hair.

“I really like it here,” said Art. It was valedictory.

He was getting very bald, I noticed.

Hanna thought I was making things too easy for Art. “At least tell him the way you feel. Why is that so complicated?” Hanna likes to spell things out, mental spring cleaning. I’m not like that. I can even see Art’s point of view. Gail hasn’t worn him down to the point where he resents it; not yet. Ought I to feel used and discarded? I don’t think so. It has nothing to do with me. I feel sorry for Art.

However, I have bought a new briefcase.

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