In the Presence of Strangers: Sabbath Shopping (Chapter I)

I will post a new chapter from my novel about Israel and the intifada every Friday. This book is dedicated to Safta, Saba, Bubby, and Poppy. 

That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” (Hillel)


The rose of Sharon wilts precisely six kilometers south of Kochav Yair, just beyond a fork in the road notorious for traffic accidents. To the west, civilization sprawls irresistibly onward, approaching the Pizza Huts and McDonalds’ beyond which the classic waters of the Mediterranean lap the shoreline. To the north, on the other side of a security post manned by guards bearing semiautomatic weaponry and acne scars, the roads of Palestine ramble alongside the wadis of the West Bank, progressing through a long parade of graveyards until they reach the Jordan River, or what is left of it, anyway.

It is a wild place, but not without some sense of dilapidated grandeur. Hills strewn with boulders diffract the sunshine into webs of color and crown the surrounding countryside with their moving shadows. Whitewashed minarets preside over Arab villages. Satellite dishes punctuate the Judaic skyline. The cries of Palestinian children hawking cactus fruit mingle with the blare of Toyota horns at rush hour. Light and shadow, stone and air, past and present—schisms define the place. But encompassing every coming and going are light winds descending from the nearby hills of Samaria, that biblical wilderness proverbial around the world for its neighborliness.

On the twenty-third day of June in the first year of the new millennium, Nachum Gutman’s sea green Ford approached these crossroads from the direction of Kochav Yair and turned toward the West Bank. In the front seat of the car sat all seventy-five kilograms of Gisela Gutman, seatbelt securely fastened. Her son wasn’t wearing one.

“For God’s sake, Nachum, would you please slow down? Is getting to this place five minutes sooner worth killing the two of us?”

“The store closes at five. Try to relax. Enjoy the scenery.”

“I’m telling you, I want to go home!”

“Give me a break, Ima. Just think about the deals you’ll find when we get to the store. The thought of saving money is like Prozac when it comes to you.”

“What’s Prozac?”

“Don’t worry about it. What’s important is that if you pay the shopkeeper in cash at this place, he’s always willing to give you a discount. And Coca Cola is Coca Cola whether you buy it from an Arab or a Jew, right?”

“Bravo, Nachum. How profound. You know, when your father— may he rest in peace— when your father was in the army, he would give the Bedouin laborers his regiment’s leftover food. You know what a generous man he was. And do you know how they repaid him? With rock throwing. Rock throwing! When his jeep drove by, they threw rocks at him.”

“How do you know that those rock throwers were the same Bedouins who enjoyed the generosity of Aba’s table scraps?”

Gisela narrowed her eyes. For a moment, she was silent. But only for a moment.

“I don’t understand what’s happened to this country,” she said loudly. “Israel is going to pieces. It’s as if everything my generation fought for is going to pieces.”

“Remind me again exactly what you crusaded for as a housewife in the suburbs.”

“Your aren’t impressing anybody with your sarcasm, you know. You have no pride in anything that matters. No pride, and no common sense. My son, the hippy!” She pronounced the word “hippy” through her nose, shaking her index finger menacingly before resuming her diatribe. “There is only one Israel, but there are so many Arab countries. I don’t understand why the Palestinians can’t all move to Jordan. Why else was it created by the British?”

“I have a better idea. Why don’t we just drive them into the sea?”

“Are you trying to be funny? Because as usual, you’re failing pretty miserably at it.”

“It’s just that I’d forgotten what a progressive political thinker you were.”

“Why don’t you stop trying to educate me and turn this car around? I keep telling you that I don’t feel safe here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re almost there. We need to pick up drinks for Yael’s party.”

Gisela turned away from Nachum, grinding her teeth. He’d tricked her into coming with him to the borders of the West Bank, and now it was too late to turn back. But she wouldn’t allow his obstinacy get the best of her. If he wouldn’t listen to plain common sense, perhaps he would at least heed the call of history.

“Nachum darling,” she began in her most somber tones, “listen carefully to me. We Jews have always been an oppressed people. You don’t understand the kind of prejudice and hatred that we used to face in the days before we had a country to call our own.”

Oivaivoi, here it comes.”

“I’m only saying that the world could be a better place with a little understanding and some human compassion. We must learn to accept each other, and until these Palestinians do so, there will never be peace.”

“Never mind war and peace. We’ve arrived.”

The car halted. Gisela unfastened her seat belt and fumbled to find a package of Kleenex in her handbag. The store, if one could call it that, was little better than a hovel beside a gas station. She was embarrassed to be so profoundly terrified by such a contemptible place. As Nachum lumbered to open her door, she was at least comforted to glance a second car with an Israeli license plate in the parking lot. Maybe the place wasn’t so God-forsaken after all.

She was relieved. A moment ago, she’d almost felt like a traitor to her people. Was she, Gisela Gutman, daughter of the most accomplished dentist in Warsaw, sullying a cause rooted in millennia of dispersal and persecution by purchasing soft drinks from the enemy? It was a gnawing suspicion plaguing her ever since her son had informed her just where their shopping errand would be taking them. She had never trusted in the possibility of peace. The current storm of violence was perfectly logical to a woman of her penetrating sensibilities. Judgment Day seemed to linger on the horizon, and yet here she was, wandering like Daniel into the lion’s den for the sake of discounts on sugar water. But the presence of an Israeli car promised at least a rudimentary degree of security and national solidarity. So, after a final sigh for good measure, she resigned herself to the task at hand. Terror would not distract her from pursuing the necessities of everyday life. Perhaps a journey to the front lines might even prove to be patriotic.

But her resolve weakened the moment she stepped over the threshold. The Arab cashier nodded menacingly in her direction. His teeth were just as repulsive as she could have imagined. In the far corner of the room, a little boy was napping on a crate. The skin of his neck was raw and flaking. Gisela wondered if his condition was contagious. She cast the cashier a defiant glance and shuffled toward the center aisle, grasping at bottles of Cola and hastily packing them into a basket as she sought out the owners of the Israeli car from the corner of her eye.

To her dismay, they were nowhere to be found, and she came to the immediate conclusion that foul play was somehow involved in their disappearance; a cliché perhaps, but these kinds of things were clichés for a reason. All at once, the dour headlines of the morning newspaper became horrifyingly less anonymous. Foul play would certainly explain the cashier’s smile. Was he trying to throw her off guard? Far-fetched, perhaps, but then again, these were strange times, and it was better to be safe than sorry.

She began to rush from aisle to aisle, seeking out her son within the labyrinth of olive oil and potato chips that separated them. She finally discovered him in the far corner of the store loading plastic bags with cucumbers. Cucumbers? They had come for Coca Cola. What was next, ketchup, salad dressing, vinaigrette? She would not have it. She waddled to his side with surprising speed for a woman of sixty-three years.

“We have to get out of here, Nachum. Pay the cashier and leave. I told you that it wasn’t safe here.”

“I might as well buy some groceries while I’m here.”

“Do you really think that this food is sanitary?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll disinfect all of the vegetables in industrial strength bleach when we get home.”

“Enough fooling around. I want to go home now. I can’t stand it here.”

“If you’re so eager to leave, pay the cashier for the drinks and wait for me by the car. I won’t be much longer.”

Pay the cashier? She prepared to sweep out of the place once and for all when she came to a terrible realization. If she did not pay for the Cola herself, her son would be left alone in the shop weighed down with too many groceries, which would leave ample opportunity for the Arabs to rob him. This was no time to be self-righteous. So she bit her lip, approached the cash register, thrust her crate onto the counter, and averted her eyes, praying to God that the shopkeeper wouldn’t try to banter with her. Her prayers went unanswered.

“How are you today?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Sorry to hear that. Well, that will be six shekels, ma’am. Ma’am? I said that will be six shekels.”

“Six…six shekels? That can’t be right.”

“You can see the price tag for yourself.”

“But that’s only a guideline in a place like this. I won’t pay more than four and a half.”

“This isn’t a market, lady! The price is six shekels.”

“But I said that I won’t pay more than four and a half. Don’t worry, I’ll give it to you all in cash. Take it or leave it.”

Gisela proceeded to cross her arms with such pathetic grandeur that the clerk couldn’t help but smile at her.

“It’s too late in the day to argue. Do you need a bag for these?”

“You certainly seem to speak Hebrew very well.”

“I should hope so. I’m a Jew, after all.”

“You’re a Jew?”

“Of course I am. I live in Zur Yigal.”

“And this is where you work?”

“I run the franchise, though granted, it’s not the best location for a store these days. That’s my car parked out front.”

“And the boy asleep in the corner?”

“My son, Dov.”

“I don’t believe it. My son thought that this was an Arab store.”

“Far from it, ma’am.”

“But your Cola has Arabic labels.”

“It’s bottled in Ramallah. I can pick it up on the quiet and avoid paying the VAT.”

They both smiled. Then Gisela collected her groceries and left the shop. She thought to herself how charming the little store seemed to be, how neatly it was stocked and with what tender care the cans of stringed beans had been stacked atop each other beside the entrance. Dingy as the place might have been and though it had a slightly unpleasant odor, it was a symbol of something altogether greater than itself. She closed her eyes and fanned herself with her pocket book, waiting for her son to return. The ruins of daylight fused with moonlight, and shadows began to devour the surrounding landscape. It was an indescribably beautiful time of day.

At last, Nachum approached the car and began to load the trunk with groceries. Unable to contain the desire to prove him wrong for even a moment, she pronounced the news in resounding tones as soon as she saw him.

“Nachum, you won’t believe it! It wasn’t an Arab store at all. It was a Jewish store. A Jewish store.”

“A Jewish store, eh? I’d like to have seen the face of the mohel who was hired for the bris.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have guessed… It doesn’t really make any difference, though. Does it?”

For the first time that day, Nachum made her laugh. She imagined that despite his apathetic veneer, he must have been just as relieved as she was to hear about the store. He was just too stubborn to admit it. Either that, or the news actually disappointed him, because their visit to the ends of the earth had made him feel subversive in a petty way, and he derived pleasure from tormenting her. Nachum was worse than a fool. He was an idealist. But he was young, he would learn in time. As would his children, and their children, and their children, and generations after them, on into eternity. They would all learn.



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