As the youngest child, the words “Don’t go there” seemed an invitation to peek in and investigate the mysterious forbidden place. This applied to me crawling into the fireplace in our living room, ascending the stairs at the synagogue to where I thought God lived (it was the choir loft), or breaking into the even holier sanctuary of my sister’s room to open the window seats, explore the closet and pull down the ladder to climb to the attic.
In 1980, I interned at Kodak-Pathé Paris teaching ESL to their employees. As part of the curriculum we took our students to Edinburgh to practice their English. I can’t remember how I befriended a Scottish family, but we talked about my upcoming trip to Israel. She had a Palestinian exchange student living with them a while ago and wanted to prepare a gift for the family for me to transport. It sounds so strange now that I would readily agree but times were different and the gift, I believe was a book. They gave me no address other to say their name was Khoury (I’m not sure this is correct 35 years later) and they owned a bakery in the Old City.
A couple months later, I traveled to Jerusalem and stayed with my childhood friend, Beth, and her husband, now new immigrants to Israel. As they went off to work and study, I thought it was a good day to complete my Edinburgh assigned mission. I crept into the old city with my package for the Khoury family and started off in the familiar neighborhoods of the Armenian quarter, the Jewish quarter and then reached the Arab quarter, where many Jews were still shopping. How could an area that is only .35 square miles feel like an endless labyrinth? As I wandered deeper and deeper, there were fewer Jews. I didn’t belong, I guess. At one point a merchant started to chase me thinking I had taken something and I ran even deeper into the old city still. I asked for the bakery and indeed it was fairly well known.
When I arrived there and explained to the family that I was bearing gifts from Scotland, they were extremely welcoming and warm. They invited me to lunch, which I thought would be in the back of the bakery and last 30 minutes. Who could refuse lunch from bakers? A few minutes later, a black sedan rolled up, a luxurious one for that time, and the two older brothers “invited” me into the back of the car seating me right in the middle. I was 24 and they were both older and bigger than me, and at this point it seemed safer to simply be polite. The car packed with five family members and me drove out of a gate I had never entered – the Lion’s Gate no doubt. The strangest feeling is we were leaving a city I knew fairly well, but I had never been on these roads or seen Jerusalem from this point of view. I remember how the family was stopped and checked. It was an annoying ritual that they had to experience four times a day. I could feel the brothers’ shoulders tensing up as their father answered the same questions. We drove up into the hills and ended up at their family enclave. As the family had expanded more rooms had been added, and this family seemed to be relatively wealthy. Stepping out of the car, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the panoramic view. Jerusalem was just a part of it and literally I was seeing it from the other side.
We entered the main house where I was warmly greeted by the grandmother and told to sit, I believe, on pillows on the floor. All of the extended family gathered for a meal which would be familiar and delicious to all of us who love Israeli cuisine (not so different from Palestinian food) and the chatter was not unlike at my grandmother’s table. Now I was in familiar territory where I was told to “eat, eat, eat.”
The family was very open with me and viewed me as an American Jew, not a Zionist, so I was considered a friend. I was experiencing the hospitality, a strong value of Palestinians and Jews. Being an ESL teacher, I sought out cross-cultural experiences and was usually very comfortable. In this home, my comfort would have been increased if only I knew my way out, had my own transportation, spoke Arabic, and wasn’t afraid of being kidnapped (or detained as I had been in Moscow, 1977).
My goal at this point was to absorb all the stories they were sharing with me in English and not to let my fear or heartbreak be too obvious. After the long meal, the brothers took me outside to show me the view and tell me their family history. I wished I had kept a journal at that time, but the essence was that once their family farmed the land all along the hillside. They gave me a personal account of the impact of the State of Israel on them. The loss that they most keenly mourned was autonomy and pride.
As they talked they referred to me as an American Jew, not a Zionist. I thought it best not to reveal that indeed I was a strong supporter of a Jewish homeland, had grown up with one narrative only and had to educate myself on the other perspective in college. The tragic part is that I can look back on this time before the first of the Lebanon wars, before the first intifada, and before Rabin’s assassination as a more innocent time when peace should have been possible. It was not easy to absorb every word and nuance of this family’s story since I was fearful and guilt-ridden. But they were entrusting me with an unexpected gift – their story, and I wanted to honor that.
We climbed back into the black sedan, with me again assuming the middle position in the back. This time , the soldiers at the checkpoint had more questions. The tone of the Israeli soldiers as they interrogated the father was so short, abrasive. This was so different than the the free and easy tone I heard from the soldiers, my agemates, off duty on the streets.
I was dropped off safe and sound. What I don’t remember is whether I was able to take back baked goods to my friends’ apartment. During dinner, Beth and Bruce asked me about my day; and, as I started to describe it to them, their mouths dropped open. They would have never let me go there. But then they missed the point of view, literally and figuratively. They were intrigued by the story. I was grateful.
How much things have changed. I certainly would not bear gifts to an unknown Palestinian bakery anymore. I would not walk alone through the Arab quarter. I would never have gotten into the car. I would have never experienced for just a couple of hours what it was like to be on the other side. For that, I feel very sad.