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  • Netanel Schwartz

Yamit

I swear it to you: if that fool Yoav hadn’t burst into the Hotel Dan like he did, it would have been a normal Saturday night shift. I’d have gone on serving my tables and smiling at the Americans for tips, and at midnight I’d have finished up, clocked out, and taken the bus back to my apartment near the university. It would have been one more in a string of normal Saturday nights, just over a year’s worth. I liked it that way, and I was in my third semester already. Let me work, let me study, let me live – that is all I ever asked for. I wasn’t stupid enough to ask for more.


But he did burst in, and I noticed him right away, shoving through the double doors at the entrance to the dining room. I knew he was looking for me, the way his eyes were darting around. I thought of running to the kitchen. I didn’t. Instead I stood there frozen, watching my coworker Dana ask Yoav if he was alright. You could see by the look of him that he was not. He was still tall and muscular, but his boots were worn out and caked with mud, and his beard was as patchy as ever, only longer in the patches. God, I thought. How was I ever attracted to this? He had managed to pass it off as nonchalance in the army. But now he could not pass it off.


Yoav nodded at Dana: yes, he was alright. Could he get a table, please?

“How many will you be?” Dana asked.


Yoav thought about it for a second, looking around the room again. He saw me then, standing near the kitchen doors. Dana looked back at me too. I shook my head at both of them, just once, and then I looked away. No.


“Just one,” Yoav said to Dana. “Please.”


She seated him by the large windows, overlooking the beach. It was a table for two; she cleared the second place setting.


“Would you like a menu?” she asked him.


“No, thank you,” he said.


“Anything to drink?”



“Just a Goldstar, please.”


She went to get the beer. Someone tapped my arm. It was an older man at the table behind me. “Could you bring us two cokes, please?” he asked, in English. “Thank you, sweetheart.” He laid his hand on my arm. “Diet,” his wife said. The tablecloth was long, but I could feel her kicking his shins under the table.


I moved my arm from under the man’s hand. He winked at me. All these American couples were the same: the husbands liked to wink and the wives liked to kick.


When I came back with the cokes, Yoav was still at his table, sipping his beer.


“Who is this guy?” Dana whispered to me when I passed by her.


“I don’t really know him,” I said. “I met him in the army.”


“Looks like he was living in the desert,” she snorted. “But the desert was too dry for him, so he jumped in a fucking swamp.”


I laughed. “That’s close enough, actually.”


“You should talk to him,” Dana said. “He’s obviously here to talk to you.”


“I don’t want to,” I said.


“Well, too bad,” she said. “Do it anyway. I don’t want him to give us problems.”


She was right. The Dan was the fanciest restaurant in Haifa, and here Yoav was, sticking out like a sore thumb even without that big ugly crocheted kippah on his head. People were starting to look.


“Ya Allah,” I said, exasperated. “I’ll do it.”


“Keep it short,” Dana said. “I’ll cover your tables.”

*

Yoav looked even worse up close. He had tufts of hair sticking out above his ears on either side, unevenly.


“Denise,” he said, staring up at me. “Denise.” Either his eyes were glazed over or he was looking through me.


“Yoav,” I answered, leaning against the chair across from him. “What are you doing here? You know this place isn't kosher.”


“I don’t want to eat anything,” he said. “I can’t afford it anyway.”


I wanted to tell him to get to the point and get out, but I didn’t. Instead I stood there watching him play with the cap of his Goldstar.


“Sit, Denise,” he said. “Please sit.” It sounded more like begging the second time. I sat and felt nauseous right away. The smell on him! Like rank tuna and burnt sausage.


Yoav took a big swig of the beer. He smiled. I smiled back out of politeness.


“It’s good to see you,” he said.


“You, too,” I told him. I didn’t mean it.


“I got your letter,” he said.


I had nothing to say to that. It was my first and only letter to him in a year and a half. I’d sent it on Monday, just a few days ago.


“Where’s your braid?” he asked.


“I cut it. It was getting too long. Starting to hurt.”


“It’s too bad. It was beautiful.”


“Where’s your kippah?” I countered. “Wind blow it off?”


“That’s one way to put it,” he chuckled. “I’m not that religious anymore.”


He laid his hand on my hand. I pulled mine back right away.


“I have a boyfriend now,” I told him.


He was silent for a while after that.


“Why didn’t you answer my letters?” he asked.


“I don’t know,” I said. “I went to college.”


“College?” he said.


“University of Haifa.”


Yoav leaned his chair back onto its two back legs.


“So, is that where you met the boyfriend?”


I nodded.


“What’s his name?”


“Sam.”


“Sam. Very nice. An American, huh? Good for you. Good for you.”


“Listen, Yoav,” I said. “I care about you. I want you to be well. But I don’t understand what you want from me.”


“I don’t want anything from you,” Yoav said. “Why does it have to be that way?”


“What way?”


“That I have to want something from you. What if I just want to see you? My old friend from Yamit?”


“Yoav,” I said. “We’re not in Yamit anymore. We’re not soldiers anymore. We’re not – ”


“I know that!” he yelled. “Don’t you think I know that?” He pounded his bottle up and down on the table. The beer sloshed around and foamed inside. “Do you know what I did in Yamit? Do you know what I had to do?”


I didn’t know. I let him talk.


“They sent me to the rooftop where all the yeshiva kids were sitting. The idea was, show ‘em one of their own. Maybe they’d see it wasn’t about religious versus not religious, it was just about getting peace for our country. It didn’t work. It made them even more angry to see my kippah. I begged them. But then one came up and hit me, and I had to hit him back. I had to hit him back, hard. The rest of them backed down after that.”


“That’s it?” I said. I knew it was not the right response. I knew it was unkind.


“What do you mean, ‘that’s it?’ I’ve barely had one good night’s sleep since that day. They discharged me early. The psychologist recommended it. Said I wasn’t stable enough to be an officer anymore. My parents told me it was okay, I did the right thing. But I knew. I knew, Denise. I knew! I knew I did the wrong thing. I knew we did the wrong thing.”


I didn’t say anything.


“How can you feel okay with what you’ve done? Haven’t you seen the photos of that place, after we destroyed it? And for what? Just to make the Arabs happy? Don’t you feel like –”


“I don’t feel like anything,” I cut him off. “We went to do a job for our country and we did it. We both did it. The only difference is I don’t have time to cry about it.”

He didn’t respond. “I have to get back to work now,” I added.


His cheeks started burning red then.


“Fucking freha,” he said, too loud, laughing under his breath. He picked up the bottle again and slammed it back down on the table. I covered my face with my hands as it shattered.


We both stood up out of our chairs.


“I think you should go, Yoav. I think you need to leave.”


“Fucking Moroccan bitch. And you’re the worst type too, a mountain Berber, village bitch. You don’t know the first fucking thing about living in a real country, believing – ”


“Get out,” I said, quietly. “You religious people. You don’t believe in anything but yourself. Get out and don’t ever come back here.”


“Or what, Staff Sergeant Bitton?” he laughed. “You won’t do shit.”


I picked up one of the shards of his beer bottle and held it in the air.


“I’ll kill you,” I said. “I could kill you and if I ever see you again I will.”

He spat on the table and turned, shoved his way through the double doors, leaving tracks of mud on the tile. Dana came over and put a hand on my shoulder.


“Looks like he crawled out of his swamp and pulled you back into it,” she said. I could feel the tears coming. “Just don’t cry,” she said. “Don’t let him make you cry.” The rest of the glass and beer laid in a puddle under my chair. I went to the kitchen for a broom and towels to clean with.

*

I met Yoav in April 1982, when I was still wearing my hair in a long braid that went nearly down to my waist. I was nineteen then, and that braid was the best thing I owned. It was our first night in the Sinai Peninsula, just outside of Yamit, even before I knew who he was, I heard Yoav playing guitar and singing around the fire.

I’m sitting on the water in San Francisco

flooding my eyes with green and gold

it’s so pretty on the water in San Francisco

so how can I be feeling so far from home?


They sent three hundred of us to Yamit. The plan was to clear the last Jews out of the Sinai Peninsula so we could trade it back to the Egyptians for peace. Prime Minister Begin and Anwar Sadat shook on it in ‘78 and won the Nobel Prize, and four years later we got the order:


SINAI DISENGAGED: YAMIT TO BE VACATED BY END OF APRIL.


The problem was that people don’t like to be vacated. Especially not religious people. As soon as they saw our jeeps approaching, they started blasting kinnot, elegies mourning the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, as if we had come to destroy their temple in the Sinai. It was no temple, of course; just rows and rows of plain white houses in the sand.


We did our best to ignore their music, even when a group of students climbed up on the roof of the yeshiva and started singing along. When it got dark the company commander ordered us to try and sleep, but after fifteen minutes of listening to the kinnot he jumped out of his tent and screamed at us to get back around the fires and sing something.


“Real music!” he yelled. “Play some real Israeli music.” And then Yoav and a few others found their guitars and started singing.


Yoav had a good voice, familiar and polished. But he didn’t belong here. He was obviously religious. He wore a big white knitted kippah on his head, for one thing; it was the first thing you saw about him. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what we had come to Yamit to do. He must have known. But he was singing as if he didn’t:

I’m looking at the ducks, cruising by the boats,

and the Golden Gate’s pretty like in the movies

too bad you’re not here with me to see them go

if you were here you’d never leave this breeze.


Eventually they stopped playing. I laid on my back, looking up at the sky, and I was nearly asleep when Yoav plopped down next to me in the sand. I sat up. He was holding a wooden skewer with a small sausage on the end of it. It stank strangely, more like tuna than beef, and it nauseated me. I hadn’t eaten meat since I was twelve.


“What’s your name?” he asked me, still chewing.


“Denise,” I said. “You’re pretty good,” I told him.


“Denise,” he repeated back to me. He wouldn’t shake my hand, a woman’s hand. He shifted his kippah on his head instead. But he smiled and tried to compensate for it: “Denise…that’s French, no? What a pretty name. You must be French.”


“No,” I told Yoav. “I’m not French.”


“Oh,” he said. “Then where are you from?”


I looked at the fire. There were sparks dancing off of it and landing in the sand and going out. I would have told Yoav I was from Atlit, and that would have been the truth. But only Moroccans lived in Atlit, and towns like ours were called development towns. First they developed us into tents, and then into shacks, and then into plain concrete apartments. And the same for towns full of Iraqis, and Egyptians, and Tunisians, and Yemenites, and the rest of the development material.


“I’m from Haifa,” I told him.


It wasn’t even a real lie. Atlit is the first town south of Haifa. When we were younger, my father used to take my sisters and I on the bus there every few months and buy us falafel, if he got a bonus from the army factory. Why they didn’t give him a bonus every month, I have no idea. He deserved every last one. From the day he kissed the dust of the Land of Israel my father did not miss a day of work. He did not take sick days. If he ever was ill, the neighborhood heard nothing of it. He used to take the first bus after morning prayers, before my sisters and I woke up for school. And once a year before the High Holidays he would take us to the Grand Mall downtown and buy us new dresses for the year. Likhvod Shabbatot ve-hagim, he used to say. In honor of Shabbat and the holidays.


“Haifa,” Yoav sighed. “Such a beautiful city, right on the water. So much more beautiful than Jerusalem. I’m thinking of moving there when I get out.” He held out his sausage. “You don’t want any, do you?”


“How can you say that?” I blurted out.


He pulled the skewer back defensively. I saw a hint of red in his cheeks.


“Sorry, are you a vegetarian? I didn’t mean to offend you.”


“No, I mean, how can you say Haifa is so much more beautiful than Jerusalem?”


“What do you mean? It is more beautiful. Just about anywhere is more beautiful than Jerusalem these days. It’s a shitshow. All Jerusalem has is Arabs and fake rabbis and poor people. And terrorism.”


“But how can you say that? About Jerusalem? You’re religious.”


Yoav laughed. “Religious? Who’s religious anymore? Religious…I guess you’re right. I guess I’m religious.” And he laughed a little bit, to himself.


I could have gotten up then, told Yoav nice to meet you. But I didn’t.

Instead I said, “I am a vegetarian, actually.”


“Why?” he asked.


I told him that, first of all, that was a strange thing to say, and then I decided to tell him why anyway.


“When I was growing up my parents had two chickens they raised in the yard. Mrs. Jessica and Mrs. Nicole, we called them. My sisters and I used to play with them after school. I was around twelve. We fed them and brought their eggs to my mom in the kitchen every morning.


“One Shabbat afternoon in the spring my dad came home from the synagogue and I asked him why we had chickens. We didn’t usually have chickens or any other pets. He told me we were going to slaughter them and eat them or sell them for Passover.


“I was horrified. I ran and told my sisters and we locked ourselves in our room and cried for the rest of Shabbat, and through to Sunday morning when we had to go to school. My parents tried to console us but they couldn’t. When they came back from work on Sunday night they promised my sisters and I we could keep the chickens as pets. My father wouldn’t do anything with them. We were delighted. We ran out and gave Mrs. Jessica and Mrs. Nicole big hugs and played with them until my mom called us back inside to go to bed.


“Two weeks later we came back from school and there were no chickens in the yard, only streaks of blood on the ground. My sisters screamed like I’d never heard anybody scream in my life. We ran back to our room and sobbed for hours. When my dad came home he sat on the edge of our bed and patted our heads. I yelled at him, ‘What did you do? What did you do?’


“My father told us he slaughtered the chickens. He didn’t have a choice.We needed food for Passover and he hadn’t gotten any bonuses that month. He did it while we were at school to get it over with without protest. ‘You’re strong girls,’ he said, ‘you know we have to eat.’


“When my mother brought out the chicken on the seder night, I burst out crying and asked whether it was Mrs. Jessica or Mrs. Nicole she’d cooked. She put a few pieces on my plate anyway. When she wasn’t looking I picked them up with my napkin and dropped them on my father’s plate. ‘Don’t tell her,’ I whispered in his ear. That was his punishment.”


Yoav leaned back in the sand, digging his hands deeper in where it was cold.


“You’re not from Haifa,” he said.


“What do you mean?” I mumbled. “Why do you say that?”


“Nobody in Haifa has chickens in their yard, and if they do, they don’t need to kill them for food. And you said you shared a room with your sisters but you said ‘our bed,’ as if you only had one for the three of you. You must have even more siblings on top of them, too.”


Our bed. I’d never realized how strange that sounded. But it was true: one bed for the three of us. I thought of my grandmother then, Savta Zehra. How she’d sit with us on that bed before we went to sleep, braiding our hair and telling us stories. You girls have such beautiful hair, she used to tell us. Bli ‘ayin ha’ra, she’d add, warding off the evil eye. Mine used to be just like yours, when I was a girl. Only the Ben-David girls have hair like this. We would protest: no, Savta, you still have it! You still have it! And we meant it – Savta Zehra was beautiful. But my grandmother didn’t like pretending. She would touch her hair at the root, where it was graying, and say, la, la. No, no. I’m old.


“You’re right,” I admitted to Yoav. “I have seven siblings. And I’m not from Haifa. I’m from Atlit.”


“And you’re Moroccan, too. Your name is Denise, but you’re not French. Who else has French names but isn’t French? What’s your last name, Bitton?”


“Yes, actually,” I said, surprised. “It is.”


“Wow,” Yoav said. “Staff Sergeant Bitton.”


“I’m sorry I lied. I didn’t –”


“That’s okay. I understand why you lied. You must be the only Bitton in the whole company. Where in Morocco are you from?”


“Agouim.”


“I’ve never heard of it.”


“It’s a small village, in the Atlas Mountains. I was born there, but I don’t remember it. I left when I was a baby.”


“Do you speak Arabic?” he asked.


“Arabic!” I scoffed. “I don’t speak Arabic.”


“Your parents, I mean.”


“They speak Hebrew too.”


“Well, what did they speak in Morocco?”


Marokayit,” I told him. Moroccan.


“It’s like a special Arabic? Moroccan Arabic? Jewish Arabic?”


“It’s not Arabic,” I told him.


“Whatever it is, do you speak it?”


I didn’t understand why he was insisting.


“I used to, with my grandmother. But she passed away.”


“I’m sorry,” Yoav said. “Personally, I can’t understand the racism we have in this country. We’re all part of the Jewish people, and we all come from this land anyway, don’t we? Who cares if my parents speak Yiddish and yours speak Arabic? All of them speak Hebrew now. Besides, I love the Sephardic culture. I pray at Ades sometimes, in Jerusalem.”


“Ades?” I asked him.


“The Syrian synagogue. In the wintertime they sing baqashot in the middle of the night on Shabbat. It’s my favorite thing in the world.” He saw the confusion in my face. “You don’t know what baqashot are, do you?”

I shook my head.


“The point is, it’s beautiful. Is your family not religious?”


“Very religious,” I snapped at him. “More than you.”


“How do they feel about this?” he said, pointing at the M16 at my feet.


“My dad doesn’t like it. When I come home on the weekends he wraps it in one of his rugs and hides it in the closet.”


“You know,” Yoav said, “sometimes I wish I wasn’t a soldier. Maybe those kids in the town are right,” Yoav said. “Maybe this is an army of traitors and all we know how to do is destroy our own people.”


“What are you talking about?” I chided him. “You know they won a Nobel Prize for signing this peace agreement. This is the price we have to pay.”


“Isn’t it funny how all our prime ministers and presidents get medals for ending wars they started? And what do we soldiers get? We don’t get medals unless we die.”


“Nobody’s going to die here, Yoav.”


“Exactly.”


I sighed and buried my hands in the sand too. It was a pleasant feeling.


‘It’s not San Francisco here, is it?” Yoav said after a while.


“No, it isn’t,” I said.


He pulled out a small notebook.


“Here, give me your phone number.”


“I don’t have a phone.”


“Not even at home?”


I laughed, a deep and loud laugh.


“I’ll give you my address, if you want to write to me,” I offered, which turned out to be a mistake.

*

We entered Yamit on the third day. I was given a squad of three soldiers, all women. The four of us were assigned a block of houses, eight in a row, all identical in appearance. We were armed with M16s.


The first three houses went smoothly. We knocked on the door, they let us in, and we listened to the women and children cry and even hugged some of them when they let us. Eventually we helped them pack their things and carry them out to the town center where the buses were waiting to take them back to Tel Aviv.


After the third house I noticed one of my soldiers was crying quietly.


“What the hell are you thinking?” I yelled at her, shaking her by the shoulders.


“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know.”


“Tamar, right?” I asked. “Your name is Tamar?”


She nodded.


“Listen, Tamar. We have a job to do and we need to do it. Do you understand?”


It was past noon when we got to the door of the fourth house. I knocked. No answer.


On the third knock we heard a woman scream back from the other side.


“Soldiers, go home! Go home!”


“Open the door,” I called out, my voice firm but calm.


On the sixth knock the door swung open violently. An angry woman stood in the doorway. She wore an extravagant headscarf that towered high above her head, bright blue and yellow with gold trim. I was taken aback.


“I suppose you’ll want to come in,” she said, and walked back into the house, leaving the door open.


We followed her into the kitchen. I introduced myself. Staff Sergeant Bitton. She sat us down at the small kitchen table and offered us tea, coffee. We said no, thank you. I noticed her husband was not home, which meant he was probably protesting on some other rooftop.


The woman smiled too much. She said her name was Hadassah. The rest of it was the same as the others. She was religious; she believed God had given us this Land and we should build it up; she thought if the Arabs wanted to kill us they would keep killing us even if we gave them every inch of our country but the Western Wall; she was a teacher in the school up the street; she had built this house herself with her husband in 1970 and all her children had been born here. Her oldest son’s bar mitzvah was in two weeks. Where did we want her to go? What other place did we think she knew?

They hadn’t trained us to debate. I told her we had orders: she had two hours to pack her things or they would be packed for her.


“Don’t talk to me that way,” she said. “Don’t talk that way to a fellow Jew. Where is your sense of responsibility to the Jewish People? Bitton, ah? You’re Moroccan? Well, I don’t care who you are or where you’re from. We’re all one people. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh. All of Israel is responsible for one another.”


“I have orders,” I said.


“Get out of my house.”


We didn’t move.


“Get out of my house!”


We all stood up then. Tamar turned toward the door. I grabbed her arm and squeezed it, hard. She stopped. I checked my watch.


“Two hours,” I said. “You have two hours.”


Hadassah went down the hall with a sigh.


“What are we doing here?” Tamar said.


“Our job,” I said. The other two soldiers nodded.


We stood in the hallway and chatted a bit. We talked about where we were from. The other soldiers were from Tel Aviv, all three of them. They didn’t ask me where I was from.


I heard the footsteps behind me in the hallway first. I caught a glimpse of Hadassah’s bright blue-yellow-gold headscarf before she yanked on my braid so hard I fell to the floor, yelping in pain. She’d pulled it at the root. I looked up and saw her smiling down at me, the same smile she’d put on when she’d offered us tea.


My soldiers were holding her already with her arms behind her back. Tamar stood apart, helpless.


“Fucking freha,” the woman spat. “Bitton. Shame, your parents were probably too busy cleaning houses to show you good manners, Staff Sergeant. A real shame.”


I jumped back to my feet and said nothing. I lingered that way for a minute, letting her stew. And then I punched her square in the jaw and kicked her in the ribs where she fell. Just twice, until she groaned. You were allowed to do that if they hit you first.


Her children appeared at the top of the staircase. The youngest one started screaming. “Take her outside,” I ordered my soldiers. “Now.”

We each took a limb and carried her out the door. It took a while to do it, the way she struggled, but we made it to the doorway.


“Let go,” I said, and we dumped her in the dust outside. By then Tamar was sobbing on the ground by Hadassah. I spat in the dust by the both of them and ordered Tamar to call the medics and wait with the woman. I took my other two soldiers with me in the meantime. We finished the rest of the block by dark.

*

Yoav wasn’t around the fire that night, and I didn’t see him again until he showed up at the Hotel Dan a year and a half later. He wrote me letters all the while, though, asking if he could come see me, if I would have him. I left those letters like I found them, tucked neatly in their envelopes. I did not write back until my third semester, and even then I didn’t tell him about the medal I won at the end of my service, or my scholarship, or even that I’d gone to the university. I only wrote that I was working at the Hotel Dan and that I was considering cutting my hair short, getting rid of the braid.


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