Next Summer’s War — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The Jerusalem winter that kept coming back had finally come to an end, or perhaps it was just taking another break. Whatever the case, the clouds had gone from dark and low to scattered and high, the wind had slowed from gale force to tickle, and the temperature had risen from ski gear to light jacket. It was the first Shabbat in weeks that you could go out without an umbrella. Ori and Dudi had gone to play with friends, so Ronen and Gali grabbed the opportunity.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“Let’s go to the Tayelet,” Ronen suggested.

“It’s too cold,” Gali objected. She was half-reclining on their couch, being kicked from inside.

“But it’s warm today!”

“It’s still cold.”

“We haven’t been there for months.”

“No one goes there anymore. It’s like a ghost town. It gives me the creeps.”

“Well, then,” Ronen asked, “where should we go?”

“You know I hate making decisions.” She took Ronen’s extended hand and allowed herself to be pulled up slowly, so that she could keep her balance. “Why can’t you make up your mind?”

Since they had been married for nearly eight years, nothing in the previous exchange really meant anything.

Once downstairs, Ronen hesitated to see which way Gali would to go, Gali gave him a look, Ronen took two steps to the west, and Gali one to the east. Ronen hesitated. Gali adjusted her hair band and the PAE Ergotelis Heraklion team scarf Ronen had bought for himself last year in Crete and said: “I thought you wanted to go to the Tayelet!” Ronen took Gali’s hand and that’s where they headed.

“I was thinking,” Ronen said as he led her across the bus lane on Hebron Road.

“If you’d stop thinking you might look to see if a car is coming,” Gali said.

“There’s no car coming.”

“One always does,” she said, as a large and noisy dump truck that had appeared out of nowhere, or so it seemed to Ronen, whizzed past and turbled the air as if winter had returned. Ronen grabbed his kipah. Gali pulled the zipper on her coat from chest to neck.

“Can we go now?”

Gali peered to the right, to the left, and to the right again.

“Are we going to wait here all day?” she asked. Squinting up at the sun, she put her arm around his waist and they crossed.

Gali took the ascent slowly because of her extra weight. But after heading a bit up the hill they could pretend they were outside the city. They stopped to watch a pair of courting hoopoes.

“Aren’t they amazing?” Gali asked.

“We saw two just like them in Barcelona two summers ago,” Ronen smiled.

“Oh, you have no poetry in you,” Gali exasperated.

“So it’s Umbria this year?”

Gali didn’t answer right away. Then she shrugged. “I don’t know. It depends when the war will be.”

“What war?”

“This summer’s war.”

Ronen raised his eyebrows as Gali looked past him and said a loud hello. He turned around and there were Avi and Semadar, parents of Ben from Ori’s class, except that Ori was the oldest and Ben the youngest in the family so that Avi and Semadar were already graying and a good dozen years older than Ronen and Gali.

After the usual pleasantries and inquiries about the children, those that were and the one that would arrive during the holidays, Gali told Avi and Semadar about the hoopoes, including Ronen’s inane comment about seeing an identical pair in Barcelona. Avi said that he thought that hoopoes weren’t native to Catalonia but then he was hardly an expert. In fact, he was obviously wrong. Coincidentally, however, he had just read to his surprise that hoopoes, who as every Israeli schoolchild knows care only about themselves, live as far off as China. He knew from Bialik’s poem that a golden hoopoe lives between the Tigris and Euphrates but he had no idea that they got any farther east than that.

“And why,” Ronen grinned, “would a man in the scrap metal business be taking an interest in the birds of China?”

“Because we’re going there at the end of May,” Semadar said brightly.

“We were thinking of going to Umbria this summer,” Gali said, “but it depends on the war.”

“I said to Semadar, why China?” Avi spread his arms wide and turned to take in the leaving trees and the hazy view of the Kidron ravine. “God hasn’t given us enough to see here? We need to go to a place that has floods every other day and earthquakes on the days in between?”

“Avi, stop it,” Semadar commanded. “Israel is just as much an earthquake zone as Shanghai.”

Avi clapped his hands. “Exactly my point. We can have a disaster here. Why go to the Far East? Walk with us on the Tayelet? On the edge of one of the world’s largest transverse faults?”

“Sure, we were just on our way,” Ronen said. As they descended the long flight of steps that lead from the lookout above to the promenade halfway down the slope, he added: “I don’t think there will be a war this summer.”

“Why not?” Gali asked. “Because our region is an oasis of stability in a troubled world?” A flash of green and yellow flew by. “Look, there’s a bee-eater. Maybe spring is really here.”

“Because it’s not our turn,” Ronen said lamely, having missed the bird.

“And look there, quick, hovering up the hill!” Gali stage-whispered. “A kestrel.”

“Where?” Semadar stage-whispered back. “Oh!”

“That bee-eater’s not long for this world,” Avi said mournfully.

“Kestrels eat bee-eaters?” Ronen looked around for the victim.

“We live in a tough part of the world,” Avi said. “If there’s an earthquake it’ll be like Nepal, minus the snow but with an international condemnation blaming Zionism for the disaster. Did you see in the paper how eighty percent of the buildings in this country will collapse in a major tremor?”

“I’d rather do an earthquake in China.” Semadar shook her head and smiled at Gali. “It would be more exotic.”

“Let’s go here.” Ronen pointed down to a lawn overlooking the valley. They went down and seated themselves on a terrace, taking in the Old City, the Mount of Olives, Abu Dis, Silwan. As clouds passed, sunrays intermittently lit the contorted separation wall. Ronen pointed out the line of the ruined Roman aqueduct.

“The thing is, I know Ronen,” Gali said, returning Semadar’s smile. “If we’re on a sailboat in the middle of Lake Trasimene and his unit gets called up, he’ll water ski back to shore and hop on a plane before I have a chance to ask who’s fighting whom.”

“Hey, Gali, your parents have already promised to take care of Ori and Dudi. We’re not going to pass that up.”

“If there’s a war I want the boys with me,” Gali objected.

“China hasn’t been involved in a major war in decades,” Semadar observed. “That’s one reason I chose it.”

“They had a Cultural Revolution,” Avi reminded her. “And a Great Leap Forward.”

“Not a war,” Semadar insisted.

“Fifty million died,” Avi said morosely. “I read up about it on Wikipedia.”

“That was years ago.”

“Exactly. They’re overdue.”

Gali looked at her watch. Ronen nodded. “We need to pick up the boys,” he said. The four of them got up and continued their walk.

“We sailed on Lake Como,” Semadar said. “When was that, Avi? Seven-eight years ago? It was like floating through history, with the mountains all around and little villages on the shore.”

“People say Lake Trasimene is even more beautiful,” Ronen said.

“You must know,” Avi told him, “that it’s the site of the largest ambush in military history.”

“No, I didn’t know that,” Ronen said, looking nervously at Gali, who was tapping her wrist.

“Hannibal defeated the Romans there,” Avi said. “Half the Roman force was killed. Thousands of Roman soldiers drowned in the lake trying to escape the Carthaginian onslaught. Their bones must still be on the bottom.”

Just then, at the end of the steep ascent from the Tayelet to the edge of Abu Tor and Hebron Road, Avi motioned for them to stop by the pigeon-soiled sign describing the battle fought in that neighborhood in 1948. He wanted to tell a story, but Gali had no patience.

“I’m sorry, we really have to go,” she said.

“We really have to go to Umbria,” Ronen joshed.

“We’re not planning any vacation until I know when this summer’s war is.” Gali’s tone was uncompromising and final. Ronen sighed.

“See you,” he said.

“After China,” Semadar promised.

“If we survive,” Avi caveated.

Gali quickened her pace and Ronen had trouble keeping up. He followed her across the main road and down into Baka. Sparrows scattered in the face of Gali’s onslaught.

“It’s like a ghost town. It gives me the creeps.”

“What?” Ronen asked.

She looked at him in annoyance. “The Tayelet. I told you.”

“Then we won’t go there next week,” he promised amiably, grabbing her shoulder from behind and pulling her toward him. “We’ll go where you want to go.”

She walked in silence for several rapid paces along Bethlehem Road. The sun came out and Ronen, shading his eyes and looking through the treetops, saw that the clouds were fewer and farther between.

“Hey, hoopoes in that tree.” Ronen pointed at a crested pair on a low-hanging branch of a mastic tree. He felt her shoulder loosen under his embrace, and her chase slowed to an amble.

“Where should we go?” he asked.

“You said we’re going to Umbria, didn’t you?”

“But what about the war?”

“They’ll just have to wait with the war.” She stopped and kissed him. “They’ll just have to wait.”


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