The Importance of Low Expectations — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I remember a high wind and driving rain. Night is darker here, I thought, as the bus’s engine expired in a series of knocks that sounded like the final beats of a broken heart. We pulled our duffle bags and backpacks from the luggage compartment and dragged them in the direction of the faintly-lit doorway of the Kiryat Shmonah Absorption Center, which was to be our home and our school for the next three months.

Yehuda Yaari

Yehuda Yaari

“Only once in his life can a person arrive in the Land of Israel for the first time,” wrote Yehuda Ya’ari, one of the literary lights of the idealistic, ideological Third Aliya, with regret and, probably, considerable remorse. Ya’ari, who abandoned his socialist kibbutz paradise early on, parting from his utopian comrades, was still alive, and living in Jerusalem, when I arrived in the Land of Israel that October night three decades ago—not that I knew of him then.

There were twenty-eight of us in the commons room of the absorption center, waiting to be assigned our rooms. Damp spots stained the corners of the ceiling, where the rain was seeping through, and the plaster was cracked. A telephone—one of the handful of telephones in the entire town—stood on the reception desk at one end of the room, firmly locked.

I’d made some initial acquaintances on the four-hour ride up from the airport in Lod. Most of us were Americans, but there were a handful of Brits and Canadians and one easygoing Australian. A girl from New York was religious; two, one guy and one woman, weren’t even Jewish. We were only seven men. At first glance, that seemed promising, but I had no great hopes. The women’s eyes gravitated mostly to the Australian, who was the tallest of us, and to the non-Jew, who was by far the best-looking. Furthermore, one of the women was a quick-witted but committed lesbian, and many of the others had announced on the ride up that they had serious boyfriends at home to whom they intended to remain loyal over the course of the year. When I expressed skepticism about their simple faith, they dismissed me.

Another interesting statistic had emerged on the bus. Seven of our group—the Australian among them—declared that they had come on aliya. They were Zionist idealists who intended to spend the rest of their lives in Israel. Fourteen others were open to the idea. Seven of us—I was one of these—were certain that we had come for a year and had no desire at all to make Israel our permanent home. All of us were enrolled in Sherut La’am, a program sponsored by the Jewish Agency in which we would spend three months learning Hebrew in Israel’s northernmost and most beleaguered urban center and then disperse to development towns across the country to do what we could as untrained volunteers to help these poor and neglected communities.

It was 1978 and I’d graduated from college the previous May; I was one of the youngest members of the group. When it came to Israel experience, I was at the far low end. Most of my fellow volunteers had been here several times, in many cases for extended periods living on kibbutzim or in one of the big cities. A large percentage had been active in Zionist youth groups during high school and college.

I’d made my first and only trip two winters previously, a quick two-week tour in the company of a group of extremely unpleasant Long Island college students to whom I’d been attached after the trip I originally signed up for fell through. Through the screen of their interminable bitching I’d managed to see the sights and get intrigued enough to want to come back. But certainly not to stay.

It was Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot when we arrived—a fact of which I was vaguely aware, even though Sukkot was not a holiday my family had ever paid much attention to. The country was on vacation, so we were told, as we dripped in the commons room, that we’d be set free the next day to go wherever we wished until our Hebrew studies commenced after Simhat Torah. We heaved our duffel bags up to our rooms and fell asleep.

“Had they shown us such a Galilee in a dream,” Ya’ari wrote in his 1937 novel Like Glittering Light, “our souls would have ached with yearning and longing for it; now that it revealed itself to us face to face, in reality, our souls were in awful anguish.” Perhaps Ya’ari was recalling his first dawn in Beit Alfa, then a lonely outpost at the eastern end of the Jezre’el Valley. But when I rose to look out over the Hula Valley the next morning, I’d had no dreams that could be shattered. A mist, coaxed out of the green fields before me by the morning sun, broke the early morning rays and made it seem as if I were seeing the Galilean landscape through a crystal ball. The Golan Heights looked like a mossy embankment close enough to touch and, just to the northeast, the Hermon rose into a bank of clouds that, I imagined, were grooming and dressing the mountain for the day before it. Behind me, the Menara cliff face provided a rich brown backdrop to the homes and housing projects of Kiryat Shmonah, which insisted on looking peaceful and pastoral, even if katyusha rockets and terrorists sometimes came over the mountain from Lebanon to wreak havoc in the town.

I threw a spare pair of jeans and a couple shirts into my backpack and headed with the others up the street to the Kiryat Shmonah bus terminal. Many of the volunteers were going to spend the long weekend before us with family; others were heading off, unannounced, to the kibbutzim where they’d formerly spent summers or semesters, knowing that they’d be welcomed warmly. I had a scrap of paper with the name and address of cousins of a friend of mine who, he had assured me, would be delighted to host me whenever I could get to Jerusalem.

The scrap of paper led me to a small street just off King George in the capital; three flights up a narrow and dusky staircase I knocked on a door. The tall, thin, unshaven, scholarly-looking man who opened it smiled when I introduced myself. “We were expecting you,” he said, even though I’d had no way of informing him that I was coming.

Yesterday’s refreshing rain had now turned into a fierce heat wave. The small apartment was stuffy. Even with my 22-year old male blindness to disarray, I could see that the rooms had not been cleaned any time recently. A small girl, perhaps three years old and clothed only from the waist up, was running and shouting among cast-off toys and discarded slices of bread. A voice called out a greeting from an inner room. “It’s my wife,” my host said. “She is nine months pregnant and can’t get up.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t stay, I suggested. We insist that you do, he replied, seconded loudly by his wife and his daughter.

He took me out to the Sukka on their tiny balcony and asked me if I would like to say the blessing on the lulav and etrog. I would and I did, for the first time in my life. That evening we attended Friday night services in a crowded Hasidic shteibelach and returned home to dine on boiled chicken and potatoes. My host made up the couch for me in the dark. I’d never before been a guest in Jerusalem and if this was the city’s customary hospitality, it seemed good enough to me. A bit strange, perhaps, but certainly different and interesting.

A commotion disturbed me briefly in the middle of the night; someone whispered something about keeping an eye on the little girl. I nodded and fell back into a deep sleep. The next morning my host woke me up. “I have a son,” he said happily.

“They were all young—of the generation of the war,” Ya’ari wrote in his story “What He Had Not Yet Told Her.” “A great terror was in their hearts, the terror of war, and in their souls an ambition for redemption, redemption of the nation and redemption of humanity. And I’ll tell you a secret: this ambition was much larger than they could contain or conceive. A huge need in a soul that is not so large can make a man lose his mind.”

Three days later, the morning after Simhat Torah, I took the 963 bus down to Jericho, up the Bik’a Valley, through Beit She’an, around Lake Kinneret, via Tiberias, up to Kiryat Shmonah. I stood most of the way; the bus was full of soldiers returning to their bases after the holiday. Despite the open windows, the air in the bus was dense with heat, damp with humidity, and smoky from the soldiers’ cigarettes.

I didn’t have much of a vocabulary, but in Hebrew school I’d been that peculiar and rare sort of student who loved grammar, so I knew my conjugations very well. As such, I was placed in the highest level Hebrew class, taught by Yitzhak, a multi-lingual elder who had come from Holland in the late thirties to help found a nearby kibbutz.

“It was very tough. Many grew disappointed and disillusioned,” he told us. “But I wasn’t like most of the others. I hadn’t dreamed of being a pioneer in Palestine and came almost by chance. So the experience far exceeded the very low expectations I’d arrived with. Perhaps that is the secret of a successful aliya.”

To the best of my knowledge, of the seven declared olim in our group, only one remains today. And I, who swore that I had come for a year and no more, am now celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of my aliya. Yehuda Ya’ari knew the anguish of broken dreams; my teacher Yitzhak knew the value of having no dreams at all. My heart was small then, I think. Looking back, I wonder whether it was not perhaps for the best that I did not try to cram either dreams or love into it. Life, and Israel, were far from paradise in the autumn of 1978. But they were good enough, and there was no disappointment.

This story originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report and here on South Jerusalem under the title “The Secret of Low Expectations.” It appears, in a slightly expanded version, as the opening story in the Necessary Stories book.


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