Is A Computerized Brain Far-fetched?

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Here’s my Letter to the Editor which was featured in the New York Times last year.

Kenneth D. Miller’s article (against the longterm efficacy of cryogenic freezing) is a cogent reminder of how little we still understand the nature of consciousness. But his assurance that the ability to upload a human mind is unimaginably beyond the potential of our civilization is misplaced.

The brain is a machine that runs on electricity, and consciousness is an emergent aspect of the workings of its physical parts. There’s no reason to think that a three-pound brain is so uniquely mysterious that it could never be truly comprehended, particularly given the likelihood of exponential growth in computing power in the future.

The first steps may not involve trying to model a working brain on a computer, but trying to integrate computers into working brains while still preserving autonomy, memories and sense perception.

When this is done, our understanding of the electrochemical foundations of consciousness will be transformed, and a great deal may become possible. For now, though, even a small chance of being “awakened” after cryogenic freezing is better than no chance at all.

DAVID VINCENT KIMEL

In Defense of Transhumanism

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My article appeared last year in the Washington Post.

When I first tried to start a club for the study of transhumanism at Yale, I was astounded by the university’s response. The chaplain intervened and vetoed the request. An email to me explained that there were already enough atheist groups on campus, assuming evidently that the words humanist and atheist were synonyms. I found myself awkwardly assuring a series of administrators that transhumanism had nothing to do with transgender students who didn’t believe in God. Broadly speaking, it involves the use of futuristic medical technology to lower the incidence of disease, enhance the capacity of the imagination and prolong the human lifespan. “We’re into things like cyborgs and genetic engineering,” I said.

It seems to me that while transhumanism resembles its progenitors, it is distinct from each of them, and lessons can be drawn from all of them.

First, there is the ugly specter of the eugenics movement, a disaster associated with decades of pseudoscientific research in an embarrassing array of discredited fields. People who see transhumanism as an extension of eugenics may be concerned that future policies could lead to rising inequality, intolerance for difference and the abuse of power.

In the future, with in vitro fertilization available to the rich, embryos will be screened for genetic profiles probabilistically likely to thrive according to various indicators. As we gain increasingly precise knowledge of the human genome and the probabilities of healthfulness associated with different genotypes, it will eventually be possible to select children likely not only to be healthy but also to excel. With popular inaction, this could lead to an unjust scenario in which fitness and intelligence might map onto the socioeconomic level of one’s parents. Legal restrictions on the selection of fetuses on the basis of genetic health, however, would be hugely regressive and counterproductive.

Transhumanists should demand the possibility of such prenatal care for all citizens rather than allowing the free market to restrict it to the few. In the long term, the development of increasingly efficient gene editing technology (both in vitro and, some day, in the womb itself) will likely significantly lower the associated costs. Although the horrors of eugenics should serve as a sobering reminder of the evil that can be perpetrated in the name of progress, they should not stifle discussion in the academy about the responsible implementation of genetic engineering in the future.

The second major source of transhumanist thought is science fiction, a genre that tends to favor dystopian narratives because they can be made so colorful from an artistic perspective. Despite all of the 19th-century novels bemoaning the effects of the Industrial Revolution, I suspect that if we could go back in time, we would still choose to industrialize. But perhaps the shape of the revolution would be different — we would hopefully pay attention to the kinds of things the novelists and poets complained about — for example, we might be less abusive toward the environment and more respectful of the rights of workers from the onset. [Eight questions to ask before human genetic engineering goes mainstream.

In our future, daily life will be transformed through the increasing automation of labor and the rise in sophistication of artificial intelligence. Life may be less about the 9-to-5 grind and more about education, community and the creation and enjoyment of art. Rather than imagining a future in which humans and machines are at odds — as many thinkers have predicted — transhumanists look forward to the advent of cyborgs, in which computers are incorporated into the brain itself, leading to radically enhanced processing power and the ability to preserve consciousness for lengths of time now deemed inconceivable. The ultimate lesson from transhumanism’s origins in science fiction is perhaps to seek those inventions that would radically enhance lifespans and empower the human imagination to control what it experiences in ways hitherto unimaginable, liberated from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune.

A third source of transhumanist ideas, and the one of greatest interest to me, is the tradition of humanism. When Cicero used the word “humanus” to symbolize the noblest aspects of our species’ character, he showed that he believed something fundamental separated human beings from all other types of beings — the inculcation of our rational faculties and our ability to apply those faculties over time to the development and preservation of our civilization.

Today, we often hear that truth is a construct and nothing but a reflection of power. Values are relative. But humanism and the idea of progress stand as rejoinders, and transhumanism falls squarely in line with this tradition. How can we best harness the power of progress? Not by seeking to control and exploit people different from us, a transhumanist might say, but by attempting to alleviate suffering and build bridges between imaginations. A willingness to empower more people than ever before to be born healthy, intelligent and able to devote long and meaningful lives to love, leisure and lifelong education is, to me, transhumanism at its best — an antidote to postmodern malaise.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/05/18/in-defense-of-transhumanism/?utm_term=.e4578111b4d0

On the Inauguration Day of Donald Trump

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The grandeur of his office is a perk
but now the Donald has to get to work.
He’ll require a great deal of endurance
if he hopes to kill our health insurance
and banish same sex couples from our sights
and criminalize reproductive rights
and see to it pollution laws all go
and build a wall to fence off Mexico
and toss every illegal in a cell
and spark a war in central Israel
and put the country’s Muslims on a list
and throw in prison all who would resist.
I will not soon forget this epic date.
So this is what it feels like to be great!
It’s harder to be President than rich
Yet we elected Putin’s rabid bitch.

Lauterbrunnen (On Love and Sunburn)

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How could I help but mine the shapeless hours

above pied valleys cloaked in pine and flowers,

dwarfed by wrinkled amaranthine mountains,

morphed by nourishment on milk of fountains?

Cascades of vapor splashed with such a sound

you would have thought it thundered underground.

I yearned to see the russet dusk begin.

But soon the sunlight burned my face’s skin.

Then I was forced to quit the lonely height

and banish nature’s temple from my sight.

Whenever too at dinner we should meet,

so ravenous however much I eat

and drunken on the wine of every view,

I find I cannot stop glancing at you.

If I am caught, is this game lost or won?

The mystery, God knows, is half the fun.

Each time I steal a look, I know I’ve won.

But take care staring too long at the sun.

Experience has made it understood

that Nature is more beautiful than good.

In the Presence of Strangers: An Unpleasant Surprise (Chapter V)

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“Engaged! Doda Sara, isn’t it exciting?”

It was nearly seven-thirty in the morning, but Miriam had long since lain awake in bed, eager to begin spreading the news about Shlomie Shachar’s proposal to friends and distant relatives alike. At 7:00, she considered it late enough in the day to begin the onslaught. Ariel, Orli, and cousin Tamuz had all been informed. Now it was Sara’s turn to learn the happy tidings.

“No, Sara, you can’t speak with her just now. She’s still asleep. She marched straight into the house last night without saying a word, but I knew by her smile that something was up. Well, when I followed her into the bathroom and told her to spill the beans, she said that Shlomie had proposed! We both started laughing, and after a good, long, chuckle, she asked to go to bed, and said that there were important arrangements to be worked out in the morning. Can you imagine it, Sara? My oldest daughter is marrying the son of Abraham Morgan!”

After a final little delighted yelp for good measure, Miriam composed herself and began to run her fingers through her hair. Weddings were costly affairs, and the Gutmans were not Rothschilds. The Shachars would undoubtedly try to dominate the arrangements, and Nachum and she could hardly be expected to finance their extravagant plans. Of course, it was only fair that Shlomie’s family should bear the brunt of the cost. But if the Gutmans refused to pay for the wedding, they would probably relinquish all say in the subsequent preparations, which seemed equally unjust.

By this time, Miriam was no longer listening to the chipper banter of Doda Sara. There were more important things on her mind. She wouldn’t allow her daughter’s wedding plans to be commandeered by strangers. She wished that they had the money to pay for everything themselves, with no thought to the meddling of Abraham and Tziporah. But it was not to be. The Gutmans were shamefully middle class. She looked regretfully in the direction of the master bedroom. Her husband was asleep. Even behind closed doors, she could hear his snoring. She felt a dull pain in her stomach, and wondered what disease this might have been a symptom of.

As she made her way to the medicine cabinet in search of Tums, Yonatan shuffled sleepily into the living room. He curled himself up into a little ball in front of the television. Nightmares had interrupted what little sleep he finally had, and he’d spent the final part of the night in Raz’s room, where his older brother always let him stay. There was little space for him in the bed, though, so he hadn’t gotten much rest.

When she saw Yonatan, Miriam excused herself from the telephone and handed him a slice of Nutella covered bread. She’d been expecting an unhappy welcome from him that morning and hoped that this special breakfast would placate him. Unfortunately, her attempt at reconciliation was rewarded by an ungrateful groan.

“Just eat your breakfast and be quiet,” said Miriam, returning to the kitchen. “It’s good for you. It’s made from real hazel nuts.”

“I don’t want it,” said Yonatan, searching for the Children’s Channel on television.

“What do you mean you don’t want it? It’s delicious.”

“Then why don’t you eat it?”

“Eat that pita bread, Yonatan.”

“No. Nutella covered pita bread is for babies. I hate it. It makes me want to puke.”

“You never complained about it before.”

“That just shows you never listen to me. I’ve been your son for nine years, and you still don’t know my tastes?”

Miriam flapped her lips. Her sons were impossible to manage. Thank God for Yael. Her obedience was a reminder that she continued to possess at least some modicum of authority in the house, however slight. Then, suddenly, it dawned on her that her daughter would leave Kefar Sava once she was married and then she would be left alone, condemned to serve a pack of thankless males forever with no reprieve in sight. Overwhelmed by this unhappy revelation, she complained loudly and suddenly of arthritic pains over the telephone, thoroughly startling Doda Sara.

Yonatan threw down his breakfast plate.

“Why couldn’t I have gone to Yael’s party, Ima? It isn’t fair! And why couldn’t I have had a piece of-”

“Eat your breakfast and shut the hell up!”

He trudged back into the living room without another word. His mother resumed her telephone conversation and he found a cartoon on television. The noise of gossip and anthropomorphic robots soon inundated the house and the battle was momentarily forgotten.

Awakened by these early morning screams, Nachum now entered the living room.

“Nachum, your son is out of control, and I don’t have the patience for his games today. Explain to him that it wasn’t easy for me to make him breakfast. I was awake all last night with the most horrible pains in my stomach.”

Ima has a disease called indigestion,” said Nachum from the couch.

Ima has a disease called everything,” said Yonatan.

Miriam swore under her breath and turned away from them. Nachum took the opportunity to wink at his son and seize the bread, gobbling it down before his wife could notice what he’d done. He cringed at the taste and pretended to retch. Yonatan pounced on his father’s back. Nachum cried out disapprovingly, but the sincerity of his smile was at odds with his pleas for mercy. Despite a fair amount of panting, the two seemed to be enjoying themselves until Miriam hung up the telephone and said,

“Two peas in a pod! And after you hurt your back so badly last month too. Get out of here, Yonatan. Go play in your room.”

Yonatan released himself from his father’s grasp and scurried away, sticking out his tongue as he left.

“I don’t know why you let him climb all over you, Nachum. You know what Doctor Shatz told you about lifting heavy things.”

“The boy has had a hard month, Miriam.”

“So everyone keeps telling me. But he has to get over it. It’s all very sad, but it’s not like a blood relative died. And anyway, a tragedy is no excuse for him to act like an ungrateful brat all the time. The psychiatrist agrees with me.”

Nachum said something unintelligible and returned to the couch, reaching for the newspaper. Miriam returned to the kitchen.

“Your coffee won’t be all that appetizing this morning because there was nothing but dirty old grinds of Nescafe left in the cupboard. You should have bought a new can when you went to the store yesterday. I can’t be expected to do everything around this house by myself, you know.”

Nachum nodded half-heartedly.

“I hope you’re not expecting an elaborate breakfast,” she said, preparing his scrambled eggs. “I have more important work to do this morning.”

“Oh.”

“I have seven more people to call about Yael’s engagement! Can you believe that our daughter is engaged?”

“No.”

“You don’t seem to be very enthusiastic.”

“I’m not the one getting married.”

“Well, I’m just in shock. I thought that she would never stop breast feeding, and now she’s… engaged! It’s one of the biggest steps in life. Birth, marriage-”

“And death. Two down, and one to go.”

Miriam presented him with his breakfast tray.

“I don’t understand why you can’t just be happy for Yael. She’s marrying a Morgan.”

“I hope this doesn’t mean that we have to dine with them every week.”

“Why are you being so cynical about all of this, Nachum?”

For a moment, he said nothing. Then, deciding on the effort of explication against his better judgment, he folded the newspaper and said,

“I’m not sure that it’s healthy for a girl to marry her first boyfriend. And I don’t think that Yael’s old enough to know what she wants. She’s only twenty-one.”

Miriam could barely hear him from the kitchen.

“Whatever she wants, the Shachars will have to pay for it! We certainly can’t afford the kind of ceremony that they probably have in mind.”

“I said that she’s too young to get married!” he yelled over the sound of running water.

“Actually, she’s exactly the age we were when we got married!”

Nachum wrinkled his brow and resumed his morning reading.

“Can you believe that Shas is in the news again, Miriam? It’s just disgusting. Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the Middle Ages.”

“I’m worried about the menu for the wedding. I wonder what kinds of delicacies the Shachars are expecting us to feed their rich friends.”

“Never mind the Shachars. The wedding will be paid for… Do you think that Israel has always been like this?”

Miriam reentered the living room, drying her hands on her sleeves.

“What do you mean?”

“Was this damned country always so… I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on the word.”

“Leave politics to the politicians. There’s no use dwelling on what you can’t change.”

“We didn’t think so when we were younger.”

“No, I guess we didn’t.”

“I thought that I would take this country by storm— be a great musician whose opinion mattered…”

“Oh, please!”

“Don’t laugh at me! I was so ambitious back then, so opinionated. I had confidence. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind.”

“Back then?”

“I meant it more back then, before I realized that no one was very interested in what I had to say… you know, I probably couldn’t find my old guitar in the attic even if I tried.”

“Never mind all that. Are you ready for work?”

Nachum smiled bitterly at Miriam’s response. With a wife, three children, a steady job in a factory, and a house in the suburbs, sometimes his only comforts in life were little confirmations of his jadedness. He spoke only to be contradicted, and by and by, even the novelty of shocking his audience was blunted by their unwillingness to hear him out. Caught up in such thoughts, he paid little attention to the activity of his right elbow, and inadvertently spilled his drink over the coffee table.

“Oh, Nachum… Never mind, don’t touch it! Look what you did to my mother’s table. Your head is in the clouds this morning.”

Nachum looked at her closely as she began to clean the mess. She was hunched over the table and wildly scrubbing it, crouched on all fours and heaving back and forth. He thought to himself that she looked less like a woman than some ungainly beast of burden.

Yael now entered into the living room dressed in a cotton pink bathrobe. Accustomed to being ignored, she walked to the kitchen table with a look of imperial contempt on her face, but was surprised by the unexpected image of her mother rushing forward to welcome her.

Boker tov, Yael!” said Miriam, putting away her coffee-soaked towel and presenting her daughter with a bowl of Turkish salad.

Boker tov yourself,” she answered, affecting nonchalance but taken off-guard.

“You’re up early today. I was hoping that you would be. I made you your favorite breakfast. Eat it quickly! There’s a lot to do today.”

“Is there?”

“From now on nothing will be the same. You won’t have a minute to yourself anymore. We have to start thinking about the arrangements. You said so yourself last night!”

Yael looked at her mother warily.

“I always thought that you were against my leaving home.”

“Don’t be so naïve, Yael. I’m thrilled for you.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Of course not! This is a wonderful opportunity for you. Now tell me, are you planning on doing anything special with Shlomie today?”

“Why? Has he called here already?”

“No, not yet.”

“Don’t worry,” laughed Yael between bites of her salad, “He’ll call soon enough. He can’t go a day without talking to me.”

“Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so excited for you, Yael!”

“What’s wrong with you, Ima?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re talking so strangely. You really don’t mind my leaving home?”

“Darling, you can’t stay home forever. Oh, I admit that I was a little bit sad about it this morning, but everything will turn out for the best. Your father and I are so proud of you. Aren’t we, Nachum?”

“Err,” he replied.

“Really, Ima?”

“Yes, really, Yael.”

“I didn’t expect you to be so supportive!”

“We are, honey. We are.”

“And you’ll be willing to help me pay for it?”

“Well,” said Miriam, her voice somewhat less enthusiastic, “your father and I will be happy to help in part, but I think it’s only right that the Shachars fit most of the bill. They’re much better off than we are, you know, and these sorts of things are expensive.”

Yael rose from the table.

“I knew that you were being facetious with me. Well, I don’t care what you say, Ima. I’m twenty-one years old now and can do whatever I want. It’s my life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If you don’t want to pay for my nursing school, I’ll find another way to enroll without your help. I’ll use what’s left of the money that Safta set aside for me.”

“Nursing school?”

“I’ll start training at Tel Ha Shomer whether you like it or not!”

“What are you talking about? There are more important things to think about right now than nursing school.”

“Like what, I wonder?”

“Like what? Like Shlomie Shachar’s proposal! Could you believe it when he asked you to marry him?”

“No.”

“It was a real birthday surprise, then.”

“I told him again and again that I didn’t want to marry him, but he just wouldn’t listen to me.”

“There’s persistence for you!”

“More like idiot stubbornness.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s like nothing gets through that thick head of his.”

“That’s no way to speak about your future husband, Yael. Trust me, wait until after you’re married to insult him.”

Yael shuddered.

Ima, did you think that I accepted Shlomie’s proposal?”

“Of course.”

“But I didn’t!”

“Very funny.”

“I’m not joking. I told him hundreds of times that I didn’t even want to consider getting married before I became a professional nurse, but he refused to listen to me. And it was such an awful proposal too. He did nothing but insult me after I said no to him.”

“What are you trying to tell me, Yael?”

“Oh Ima!”

For a moment, Miriam stood absolutely silent and motionless. That soon changed.

“This is terrible! I called everybody in the family to say you that were engaged!”

“Well, who told you to do that?”

“How could you be so stupid?”

“Stupid?”

“The Shachars are so rich!”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“You have no idea how the world works, do you? Money is the single most important thing on Earth!”

“That’s a wonderful thing to say, Ima. How profound.”

“Never mind about being profound. What are we, philosophers? Be real Yael. Do you know what it would have been like to live without worrying about bills and debts and… oh Yael, you’re an idiot!”

Ima!”

“Never, never, never, will have another chance like this! Never! How could you reject Abraham Morgan’s son? Who do you think you are? Oh, it feels like the world is ending.”

“Stop being ridiculous and overdramatic. I want to go to nursing school.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I wouldn’t have gone if I’d married him. I want to make my own way in the world without being dependent on a man. The marriage would have always felt unequal, and like I was secretly in his debt. And besides, I’m not in love with Shlomie.”

“What sort of fairy tale world are you living in? You can learn to love somebody if you live with him for long enough!”

“I want to live alone.”

“But you have all of your life to live alone! Now is the time to get married!”

“I don’t want to get married!”

“Do you want to die an old maid like your aunt Marianna? Is that it?”

“Come on, Ima!”

“Can I be blunt with you?”

“Go ahead.”

“You aren’t particularly pretty or particularly smart or particularly interesting as a human being, and that boy was about the only thing that you had going for you. His infatuation was like a blessing. You’ve just ruined your best chance at happiness in life. And after I called everyone to tell them that you were engaged…”

Yael closed her eyes, brought her hands to her temples, and howled.

“Be quiet! You’ll wake up your brothers.”

“Enough is enough, Ima! I don’t want to hear another word from you! I’m going to nursing school now! Not in September, but now. I’ll take summer courses at Ramat Aviv and live at Safta’s until then. I swear to God that I’ll never spend another night in this house of hell ever again.”

Yael raised her plate of salad and, after a moment of hesitation, dashed it to the floor. Then she ran out of the kitchen.

“You didn’t have to be so cruel to her,” said Nachum.

“I was telling her the truth.”

“No, Miriam. Not that way. Not like that. Poor girl.”

Awakened by the noise, Raz and Yonatan rushed out of their bedrooms and found their mother standing in a puddle of broken glass and vegetables. She began to quietly clear away the mess. Nachum shook his head and rose from the couch. He knocked on Yael’s door, but she wouldn’t answer. After a while, he gave up. He collected his car keys and drove to the factory.

In the Presence of Strangers: Party Embers (Chapter IV)

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It was eleven-thirty in Kefar Sava. Although not yet midnight, the town’s energies were depleted, and the place seemed little better than a maze of abandoned parks and alleyways. The portly blue and white balloons floating over the gate of 10 Anna Frank Street had begun to sag. But the party progressing inside wasn’t over just yet.

Much to his chagrin, Yonatan had been packed off to bed. He was busily eavesdropping with his ear to the door by the time that Miriam finished serving her guests Bavarian cream birthday cake. Tziporah, Abraham and Shlomie Shachar had all arrived fashionably late, considerably delaying the evening’s festivities. But by that hour, gifts had been unwrapped, dinners eaten, and tongues loosened by the sweetness of supermarket wine.

Tziporah held her breath for a moment in a show of refined indignation. She was relating a grievous story about how El Al had seated her apart from her husband on their recent trip to Thailand. What did she care if the plane was overbooked and they’d only arrived one hour before the flight instead of the customary three? Their tickets were for business class seats!

“I’m telling you, Miriam,” she said decisively, “that we will never, never fly El Al again. Their stewardesses are so unhelpful. I don’t know where they find them these days. They used to be so gracious and polite, but interacting with them now is like torture.”

“Where did they end up seating you?”

“Next to some Russians who got an upgrade. The whole plane was full of them. And the cow sitting next to me refused to switch seats with Abraham.”

“How do you tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Russian?” asked Shlomie excitedly.

“I don’t know, how?” said Yael after an uncomfortable pause, preemptively rolling her eyes.

“One has yellow skin, and the other has yellow teeth! Get it?”

Everyone forced themselves to laugh.

“In my day,” chimed Gisela from her seat beside the television, “when a Jew came to Israel he was an Israeli, and that was that. But times have changed. I think that the Russians are ruining this country.”

“Oh Ima, enough!”

“I mean what I say, Nachum. They aren’t conforming to the culture here. In fact, they’re actively changing it for the worse. Drunk driving, prostitution, the mafia… Did you know that I found a burglar in my apartment last month?”

“No!”

“It’s true, Tziporah. I found him in the kitchen when I came home from the theater. He darted straight out the door when I screamed for help. The rat stole every bit of jewelry in the house. He even took my wedding ring. Damned Cossack.”

“Russians have been in Israel since the foundation of the country, Safta,” said Yael.

“Yes, my dear. But they were a totally different breed of Russians,” said Tziporah.

“Trust me, most of these newcomers aren’t even Jewish,” said Gisela, “Leftists have ruined this country, letting the Goy invade us. My stomach turns every time I walk through Tel Aviv these days.”

“Please, Ima! You don’t know how hateful and close-minded you sound. It makes me sick.”

“Insult me all you want, but Israel is meant to be the homeland of the Jews, and not the unemployment office of East Asia and the Balkans. We don’t need diversity here. Leave that to America, where everyone is a mongrel.”

“Well, I’m sure that El Al’s rudeness just ruined your flight,” said Miriam. “Personally, I haven’t been overseas myself in years.”

“If you don’t count Tel Aviv,” interjected Shlomie. “Get it? Tel Aviv has so many Russians in it these days, it seems like a foreign country!”

“To be honest, I’ve never really enjoyed traveling very much,” continued Miriam after a courteous nod. “I have a pretty sensitive stomach, and I’m claustrophobic too. A crowded airplane cabin is hardly my ideal place to take a seat.”

“Why don’t you take motion-sickness pills?” said Tziporah. “You shouldn’t trap yourself in this house. You’ll regret it when you’re older. Right, Abraham?”

“Yes.”

Abraham Shachar spoke little and only with great difficulty. Any spark of liveliness or humor that he once possessed vanished long ago when he lost his entire family in the Second World War. Thanks to the shadow that Terezin cast upon his existence, he enjoyed nothing better than being left alone, and dreaded nothing more than polite conversation.

“I could never swallow pills,” protested Miriam, stroking her own head. “I was just telling my doctor the other day that the only way I can take medicine is in liquid form. If I took motion sickness pills, I would have to break up the tablets and mix them with water, and I’m sure that the taste would make me sick to my stomach.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Tziporah. “Motion sickness pills would not nauseate you! There are so many wonderful places to visit. Eastern Europe is all the rage these days. In fact, we’ll be visiting Prague this February. You should join us.”

“Well isn’t that a kind offer. Isn’t that a generous offer, Nachum?”

“Are they offering to pay for us?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Well, it’s a nice thought, Tziporah, but we will have to pass. I couldn’t stand the flight. I get so nervous in large crowds and closed spaces that I just want to crawl out of my skin. It horrifies me to give up control over my life to a captain I’ve never even met. I mean, how do I know that he’s not drunk or asleep at the wheel? Man wasn’t designed by evolution to be hurled through the sky in metal boxes. Granted, Nachum and I almost took a flight to Eilat a couple of years ago for a wedding, but we had to back out at the last minute. My doctor, Dr. Shatz… Dr. Shatz is a very sympathetic man, you know… he actually recommended that I take Valium to calm myself down. But I explained to him that just the idea of gagging on pills makes me-”

“Are you enjoying your birthday party, Yael?” asked Tziporah.

“Yes, thank you.”

“I see that my son didn’t bring you a present.”

“That will come later,” said Shlomie, slapping her back.

“You know, Yael,” said Tziporah, “the time has really come for you to visit our summer house in the Galilee by the Mount of Beatitudes. I can’t believe that you’ve been dating Shlomie for two years now and have never made the trip. We have a movie theater and a bowling alley and two swimming pools there and…well, everything that you could possibly dream of in a house! I personally prefer our comfortable little apartment in Savyon, but it’s nice to have a retreat from the real world once in a while. When Abraham retires I’m sure that we’ll be spending more time up north.”

“I’m not planning on retiring any time soon,” said Abraham.

“Oh no, not yet of course,” said Tziporah. “But the time will come when Shlomie will inherit the family business and the older generation will have to step aside.”

“So we’re the older generation now, are we?” laughed Nachum. He had found it expedient to ignore the bulk of the evening’s conversation, but couldn’t resist commenting on this latest revelation.

“Watch what you say,” said Gisela with mock indignation. “If you’re, old, then what am I? A fossil?”

Everyone smiled.

“You know, the younger generation of Israel faces new challenges every day,” began Yael hopefully. She had seen a special segment of the evening news focusing on the challenges of Israeli youth and was eager to repeat its observations as her own. But before she could continue, Abraham said,

“The younger generation of Israel doesn’t even know what challenges are,” and the room fell into an awkward silence again.

“Well, that was certainly true a year or two ago,” said Tziporah at last, “but this country isn’t such a naïve place anymore. I’m afraid that this next generation of Israelis has some very hard lessons to learn.”

“They should be grateful for those lessons,” said Gisela. “My generation didn’t create the Jewish state by surrendering to our enemies at every turn whenever they attacked us without provocation. Maybe an awakening to our neighbor’s hatred of us is exactly what this complacent generation needs. We Jews have nothing to preserve us but each other.”

“And American money,” added Nachum under his breath.

“Don’t even mention America to me,” said Gisela. “There is anti-Semitism everywhere. Everyone seems to be against us these days, though I don’t understand why. Does the world expect us to sit back and let the Palestinians massacre us? These suicide bombings are like a nightmare. How is it anyone’s business what we do to defend ourselves?”

“It’s terrible to hear you carry on that way,” said Nachum. “We were close to peace once, but the idiots in our government botched it up for everyone. And now we all talk as if-”

“It wasn’t the idiots in our government who botched it up,” said Shlomie. “It was that damned Arafat. It’s all his fault. He refused to make peace.”

“But what difference does it make whose fault it was? You don’t think that most of the Arabs want it to end as much as we do?”

“No,” said Abraham suddenly and with great conviction. “Most of them detest us with a kind of intensity that you’ll never understand. And there are fanatics among them who would kill every one of us without a thought. We must fight to survive. And so we will.”

“You can leave that to me!” interjected Shlomie happily. “As long as we have a strong army, Israel will be just fine.”

“But the Palestinians aren’t necessarily all against us,” said Yael. “It’s only the extremists who are causing all the trouble.”

“That’s not true,” said Gisela. “They are all against us. And I don’t just mean the Palestinians, but the Arabs who live in Israel too.”

“That kind of attitude is ridiculous, Ima, and will only alienate the Israeli Arabs.”

“It’s gotten so late!” said Miriam above the cacophony. “More coffee, anybody? I can’t touch it after seven o’clock myself, or I’ll lie tossing in bed until the sun comes up. And when I’ve gone without sleep, my head-”

“You are absolutely wrong, Nachum,” said Gisela. “And frankly, I’m ashamed of your unpatriotic attitude. Jerusalem belongs to us, us. It’s in the Bible, for God’s sake. The city isn’t even mentioned in the Koran! All this trouble began when Sharon visited the Temple Mount and the Arabs started blowing themselves up over it— and even after we offered them practically every speck of land that they demanded at Camp David, I might add. Men like you and that fool Barak tried to give them peace. Well, they showed us exactly what they thought about that alternative when they began to riot in the streets and contrive the murder of innocent civilians. And while our men were scrambling to defend the country, the Israeli Arabs proved their loyalty by protesting against us and giving the terrorists secret aid. They at least have national solidarity, and would destroy us with it.”

“Well, that may be going a bit too far,” said Tziporah, turning to her husband. “The rotten apples ruin it for all of them, but the Palestinians aren’t all bad. In fact, we once had a house maid from Qalqilya who was a very charming girl. Do you remember her, Abraham? She was so intelligent. Too young to be a maid!”

“You don’t still keep her, do you?” asked Gisela.

“Of course not. We let her go before Sharon was even elected. But she had a hard life. Her mother was dead and her father wanted her to marry her own cousin. At least, I think that’s how the story went. Anyway, the girl refused, so he slammed a door on her arm and broke it as punishment for disobeying him. She had no one in the world to help her, poor thing. God only knows what happened to her after we fired her. We gave her a lifetime’s worth of free coupons to eat at our restaurants the last time we saw her.”

“How generous,” muttered Nachum.

“At any rate,” continued Tziporah, “There’s no use complaining. You can’t help your birth. But we Jews are lucky enough to have good blood and should stick together in dangerous times.”

“How true that is,” said Gisela, eyeing her son accusingly. “But I tell you, until we build a wall separating us from the Arabs, and the Arabs from each other, these murders will never end and there will be no final solution to the troubles of this country.”

“The movement to build one is gaining steam,” said Tziporah.

“The sooner the better. Nothing else will put a stop to these suicide bombings, unless we do something like start executing the families of the terrorists. That’d fix the problem quickly enough.”

“That is a shameful thought, Gisela,” said Miriam. “But really, I don’t like to dwell on politics. Let’s talk about something else.”

“When I think about all of those children blown up earlier this month in cold blood at the Dolphinarium, it makes me want to cry.”

“Let’s not discuss it, Ima,” said Nachum. “It’s a very painful subject in this house.”

Everyone was silent.

“Well Abraham,” said Tziporah, “Yala! It’s getting late. It’s time to go home. You have work tomorrow.”

Ima, wait!” cried Shlomie, rising suddenly from the couch. “Don’t leave just yet. I wanted to talk to Yael outside for a minute, if I could. I won’t be very long. I’ll follow you home in the jeep.”

Miriam and Tziporah shared a knowing glance.

“Well,” said Tziporah, “I guess one more cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt. But hurry up, you two. It’s getting late. Your father is getting tired.”

“I won’t take too long!” said Shlomie, seizing Yael’s hand and practically dragging her onto the porch.

In the meanwhile, Raz was just returning from Netanya. His journey back to Kefar Sava had not been an easy one. He’d been forced to hitchhike with two different drivers and trek three kilometers before returning home. Nevertheless, although his T-shirt was damp and his feet were blistered, the night had turned out unexpectedly well. Yasmine had agreed to go with him on a date to Tel Aviv, and he could hardly wait. He promised himself that he wouldn’t make the same mistake with her as he had with Ilana. His plan was to discover and harp subconsciously on Yasmine’s imperfections before he was tied down to her. Then he would sleep with her and move on to another girl, and then to another one after that. He was determined to teach himself that women were expendable, and that it was possible to date casually without getting imprisoned in a relationship. The thought of it thrilled him. But his smile soon withered at the sight of Shlomie and his sister standing on the front porch. There was no way to avoid meeting them.

“Raz, habibi, how’s it going?” called Shlomie. “You missed your sister’s birthday party!” He slapped Raz’s back with such playful violence that he nearly pushed him over.

“Hello Shlomie,” said Raz quietly. “Still in the army?”

“Same old, same old. Where’d you go, to the beach?”

“Yes. To one of your father’s restaurants, actually.”

“Great. The girls down there have great taste in clothes, don’t they?”

“It’s hard to tell in the middle of the night, but I guess so.”

“There are two things that I look for in a woman and they’re easy to find at the beach. Know what they are?”

“Not really.”

“Her tits! Get it?”

“Very funny,” snapped Yael.

“I could have come with you in my jeep,” Shlomie continued enthusiastically. “There’s plenty of room in the back seat, if you know what I mean.”

Raz chuckled very awkwardly and then turned to his sister.

“Did you have a nice party?”

“You look like you swam here from Netanya.”

“It’s just sweat. I had some bad luck getting home. Nothing serious. Well, OK! Have a good night!”

He escaped.

Yael was sorry to see him go. She didn’t particularly enjoy her brother’s company, but preferred it to being left alone with Shlomie that night. Considering her sense of dread, she might have insisted that they return indoors. But it was a beautiful night, and the breeze was pregnant with the scent of honeysuckle. Not to be outdone by nature, Shlomie lit a cigarette and supplied the air with the perfume of tar. He snorted contentedly as he placed his right hand on Yael’s shoulder, nearly elbowing her nose every time he crossed her face to take a new puff.

“Well, Yael, happy birthday. Another year’s gone by! And by the way, in case you were wondering, I really didn’t forget about your present.”

“Really, Shlomie?”

“When should we tell your parents about the wedding?”

“Whose wedding?”

“Ours! Happy birthday!”

Yael looked to the ground.

“Just keep in mind that once our mothers know about this, we won’t hear the end of it until we set a date. Personally, I wouldn’t care if we said to hell with it and sailed off to Cyprus, but you know how old fashioned our parents can be.”

He laughed nervously. Yael lifted his arm from her shoulder.

“That’s very sweet of you, Shlomie, but you know that I can’t accept this proposal.”

The color drained from his face.

“I’m doing this all wrong. I’m sorry. Are you angry that I don’t have a ring? I figured it would be better for you to help me pick one out instead of buying one that you didn’t really want.”

“What possessed you to propose to me?”

“I… I figured that it was time to take the plunge. There’s only so long that you can wait to do this sort of thing, and besides, you’ve earned it.”

“Excuse me? What a moron you are, Shlomie.”

“Why are you being so mean to me?” He began to pant and lick his lips uncontrollably, as always when he felt threatened.

“What do you mean I’ve earned it?”

“Well, you’ve stuck by me for two years. That shows commitment. You can’t say that this surprised you. Don’t you want to marry me?”

“No, I don’t want to marry you. You know that I don’t want to marry anybody. We’ve talked about this before.”

“What are you, then? A lesbian?”

“For God’s sake, I’m only twenty-one years old! I told you that I want to go to nursing school. Marriage is the last thing that I need holding me back right now. I don’t want to be a sellout and a hypocrite like my friend Avital, who gave up on all her aspirations to become the slave of some chauvinist asshole. Besides, this isn’t even a proper proposal. Like you said, you don’t even have a ring.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying. You’ve never seen my house in the Galilee.”

“You mean your parents’ house in the Galilee. If memory serves, you live in a little army bunker.”

“That house will be mine soon enough. We could go there whenever we wanted. And my mother said she’d let us live in their extra apartment in Herzliya once we got married.”

“How romantic. Do you think that she might let us celebrate our honeymoon in the pantry?”

“Look who’s talking. You live with your parents now.”

“That’s only temporary. I’ll be on my own soon enough. Once I go to nursing school-”

“Nobody’s stopping you from going to nursing school! That has nothing to do with anything!”

“Leave me alone. If you only knew how to treat a woman properly-”

“I’ve treated you too well!” snarled Shlomie. “If I decided that I wanted to marry you, I should have left you. You’d have come crawling to me on your knees, begging and pleading for me to take you back again. But maybe I wouldn’t be available anymore.”

“Have you ever known me to be the jealous type? If you want to be with somebody else because I won’t marry you, be my guest.”

“You say those kinds of things now, but I know you better than you know yourself. Trust me, you’re just like any other woman.”

“It looks like you’re the only one who’s begging and pleading tonight, Shlomie. Shalom. I’m going inside.”

Conscious of the fact that he was about to break down in tears, Shlomie heaved his cigarette into the rose bushes and scrambled toward his car. Yael moved to follow him from force of habit, but stopped herself. Soon, except for the snaps of mosquitoes being electrocuted by the neighbor’s insect repeller and the distant chorus of crickets, the night was totally silent. Yael didn’t plan on being so hard on Shlomie, but his obstinacy had left her with little choice. Still, what did it matter what she said to him that night? He would recover from her rejection soon enough and come back to her, but would think twice in the future about proposing to her and taking it for granted that she would accept. She was twenty-one years old and at the prime of her life. She had the right to be selective.

In the Presence of Strangers: First Impressions (Chapter III)

acre-israel.jpg

No film or snapshot can capture the full effect of an Eastern Mediterranean sunset. The sun does not drift so much as plunge into the sea, hurdling like an overripe fruit into the arms of the wilting horizon. Daylight is harsh in the Middle East, and twilight is a voraciously awaited hour when travelers wary of the midday sun flock to the sea in droves and set up camp along the shoreline. Lifeguards bellow out warnings as they desert their posts for the night. Once they leave, little children leap into the waves with their parents looking on from distant seaside cafes, blissfully unaware that a sudden undercurrent might make their little ones a headline in the morning newspaper.

Off the coast of Netanya, there is a long section of the shoreline crowded with an assortment of green umbrellas, plastic seats, and picnic tables. The area belongs to the Good Morgan Restaurant, a popular beachside cafe famous for the quality of its greased falafel balls. On the evening of June 23rd, Raz was sitting at one of its tables rocking his seat back and forth in an effort to discover how far he could push the chair without falling over. He was paying little attention to Ofir Sasover, who was pontificating at the head of the table. Ilana sat next to Raz feigning interest in her friend’s conversation with an admirable number of sympathetic grunts. At the other end of the table, Nathan Sela was hunched over an ashtray with his mouth half open.

“I don’t understand why Gutman insisted on coming to this restaurant,” said Ofir. “The beach is pretty gross these days. And there are too many kids here. Honestly, this place is giving me a headache.”

“It’s all good,” mumbled Nathan before breaking off into peals of laughter.

“You’re right, Ofir,” said Ilana. “The summer is no time to come to the beach. It’s too hectic here this time of year.”

“That’s to say the least of it. This place is so noisy and unhygienic and sandy. Being here is like a punishment.”

“Of course it’s sandy— it’s the beach for God’s sake! I thought that it would be fun to eat here with Ilana. My sister is dating the owner’s son, and he promised that he’d fix the bill for us. I didn’t know that you’d be coming with us. But anyway, it’s a beautiful night and it doesn’t hurt to be outside for a little while, right?”

“I’m not surprised that you disagree with me, Gutman. It seems like you always disagree with everyone about everything. You’re a natural contrarian.”

“What can I say? I can’t help myself. I like being the center of attention. Maybe I have an inferiority complex.”

“You know,” said Ilana, “when you laugh at your own jokes, it probably means that they’re not very funny.”

“Actually, I’m only trying to stay awake, and it isn’t always so easy in this company.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir. I promise, Raz doesn’t mean anything that he says. Not really.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” said Ofir. “That’s why it’s impossible to get seriously offended by him. I only wish that you would be less touchy, Gutman. There’s a difference between being witty and being insulting.”

Raz opened his mouth to respond, but Ilana lurched forward and whispered into his ear.

“Please don’t embarrass me in front of Ofir tonight. You know how much I hate it when you get into arguments with him. Just let him talk.”

“But he’s done nothing but complain about the restaurant all night!”

“Leave him alone.”

Raz scowled. When he was alone with Ilana, she would at least provide him free rein to voice his opinions without unwelcome interruption. But in the presence of strangers, her silence would become oppressive, and every glance in his direction seemed quietly censorious. Above all things, he hated to be reproached, and even the most trivial criticism would have to come across as slightly qualified praise if it was to have any effect on him beyond inducing anger. Criticism implied condescension, and who was Ilana Fischer to look down on him? As for Ofir, he was so pompous that whenever he talked, Raz harbored a secret urge to heave the nearest available beverage into his face.

“Why don’t you tell us a joke, Raz?” suggested Ilana as Ofir paused speaking to cough into a napkin. “Didn’t you know a funny story about a little old woman who couldn’t cook?”

“Are you talking about your mother?”

“I told you, don’t try to be funny. Now, tell us that joke.”

“Isn’t that a contradiction?”

“You know what I mean. You’re not the best improviser. But you’re better when you’re rehearsed. Well?”

“I don’t remember how it goes.”

She stroked his chin with quasi-maternal affection.

“Don’t be such a grouch. Of course you remember it. One night, an old man was sitting with his wife in the kitchen, when-”

“That’s not right. You’re ruining the punch line. This is how it goes. One night, an old man was lying in bed with his wife. She told him, ‘You never bring me anywhere. Take me someplace that I’ve never been.’ So he said to her-”

“Excuse me,” said Ofir. “I can’t hear a word. My head is pounding. I don’t understand why there are kids in the water so late at night! It’s very annoying, and it’s dangerous too.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir,” said Ilana gravely. “Is there anything that I can do?”

“No. It’s not your fault. Their parents are to blame. This water isn’t even fit for swimming. I may not be a marine biologist, but I think that the number of jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea has tripled over the past three years.”

Raz inhaled and exhaled deeply as Ofir began to make lyrical assertions about the breeding patterns of cnidarians. He hadn’t always been so impatient with Ilana’s friends. But their passive aggressive tactics infuriated him to the point of madness, and Ilana seemed to relish playing the martyr whenever he worked up the energy to confront her about the problem.

“Of course,” continued Ofir obliviously, “jellyfish, children and polluted sea foam are only the least of the Mediterranean’s problems. I could go on and on about the impact of climate change and El Nino.

“As I have no doubt you will,” said Raz. Ilana twisted her face into a grimace, but Raz couldn’t care less. If she insisted on subjecting him to her friends’ company and insulting him in front of them, then he would insist on punishing her for the effort. He began to twiddle his thumbs in an effort to broadcast his boredom. He wanted to go home.

A woman who moved like a dancer presently emerged from the restaurant. She was dressed in faded but tasteful clothing and carried a Louis Vuitton handbag that had seen better days. Although it was dark, her features were clear enough in the moonlight. Her face was charismatic rather than beautiful. Her complexion was very dark. She was obviously Sephardic, Moroccan perhaps, and shorter than she might have been. Her eyes were enormous, round and lively as a newborn’s and crowned with a forest of jet lashes. Raz couldn’t stop himself from staring at her. Unfortunately, when she reached the table, he noticed that the bridge of her nose was a millimeter too wide, and the perfection of his first impression was shattered. Somehow, though, the effect only made him want to study her face more closely.

“You there!” called Ofir. “Hello? We’ve been waiting to order for over fifteen minutes now. Will you get on with it, please? What are you waiting for?”

The girl wrinkled her brow and, after a pause, said in a voice more reminiscent of song than speech,

“I apologize for my gross incompetence.”

Although Ofir had originally hoped to frighten her by threatening not to leave a tip, he decided to put aside his complaints for the moment.

“I’ll have a helping of Turkish salad,” he said, “but hold the onions. I’ll also order your bolognaise, but tell the chef not to use too much meat. And bring me a bottle of Golani, and some pita bread with hummus. Well, that’s all!”

Ofir would have dispatched her to the kitchen then and there had not an angry glance from Raz reminded him that there were others at the table waiting to eat. Once they had all ordered their meals, the girl accurately repeated their requests without even having written them down, then walked back toward the restaurant. She seemed to shoot Raz a wink as she left, or perhaps had gotten sand in her eye.

“What was I just saying before we ordered… I was talking about sea pollution, wasn’t I? But Israel has bigger problems than dirty beaches. And I’m not just talking about the intifada. I may not know much about economics, but I’m sure that I don’t agree with what’s going on now in this country at all. Politicians need to consider Marxism more seriously when they formulate national policy.”

“Check out the patterns on this tablecloth,” said Nathan suddenly. “They’re sort of trippy, aren’t they?”

Ofir nodded his head as if someone had agreed with him and began to speak with even greater conviction than before.

“Yes, crackpots have certainly ruined modern economics. The days of pioneers and kibbutzim are history. There’s no appreciation anymore for the importance of getting rid of private property in the long term. And private property is the source of all evil.”

“Are you sure about that, Ofir? I actually think that private property helps human progress. I mean, the hope of getting rich motivates inventors. I think that Marx-”

“Oh boy, another argument,” said Ofir. “Here we go! Redn is zilber, sfaigen is gold.”[1]

“What does that mean?”

“It’s an example of Jewish wit, and you should take it to heart.”

“Please, please,” whispered Ilana. “Why don’t you listen to Ofir instead of arguing with him? You might learn something. He was at the top of our class, you know. What kind of grades did you make senior year?”

“I don’t mean to argue just for the sake of arguing,” said Raz quietly. “Look, to be honest with you Ilana, maybe I’ve been a little bit unfriendly tonight. I have the maturity to understand that, and I’m sorry. It’s just that this constant criticism is overpowering me. Whenever I express an independent thought, it seems like all of you-”

“I really need an Acamol,” interrupted Ofir. “I mean, my head is killing me. Please don’t talk right now.”

“I’m sorry,” squeaked Ilana. “Is there anything that I can do for you?”

“I don’t think so. When is that waitress going to be back with our food?”

“Excuse me,” snapped Raz. “But I was in the middle of saying something.”

“Relax, habibi,” said Nathan. “You don’t need to shout.”

“Don’t be rude, Raz,” said Ilana, patting his chin.

“But you’re the ones being rude! And stop infantilizing me, for God’s sake! Stop touching my face!”

“You’re making a fool out of yourself, Raz.”

With that, Raz threw down his napkin and prepared to cause a scene. But the sight of tears in Ilana’s eyes induced him to stop himself. He crossed his arms, dripping with angst. Encountering no further opposition, Ofir launched into a speech about why it would be better to replace Arabic language classes with additional classes in biblical studies in all schools. Although he was an atheist, he explained, these kinds of courses would enhance Israeli nationalism. The monologue lasted for ten minutes, and he kept repeating the phrase “ardent nationalist” as a verbal crutch. Raz counted it six times.

They noticed the woman with the beautiful eyes coming toward their table again carrying a tray of food. To Ofir’s dismay, she walked right past him.

“You there, waitress! Excuse me! You forgot our food.”

She brought her hand to her hair without turning her head.

“Excuse me?”

“I said that you forgot our food. We’ve been waiting for over a half hour for it now. And from what I can see on your tray, you’ve gotten our orders all wrong. I didn’t even order falafel! Leave the pita bread here, but take the rest away.”

“Have you really been waiting all this time for your food? No wonder your friend has fallen asleep.”

“That’s right,” said Ofir, glancing at Nathan. “This place might not be the Ritz, but there’s a certain lowest common denominator of professionalism to be expected anywhere. I swear, when I see this sort of incompetence, it almost makes me regret being such an ardent socialist.”

“You’re an ardent socialist, huh?”

“Yes, I’m an ardent socialist,” he answered, still eyeing the food, “Just as much as I’m an ardent nationalist.”

“Then you’re the first Nazi I’ve ever met.”

“Very funny! Just give me my food.”

“But I’m not your waitress. In fact, I’m not a waitress at all. You’re supposed to order at the counter, fool. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think that my falafel balls are getting cold. Good night.”

She shook a ringlet of ebony hair from her brow and disappeared into the crowd. Raz roared with laugher.

“What do you think about that? We’ve all been waiting for nothing! All of Ofir’s commands were wasted on a stranger.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir,” said Ilana. “That girl was rude to lead us on the way she did about who she was. Raz, would you please stop rocking your chair back and forth like that? You’re like a child.”

By this time, Raz was through festering silently.

“You’re right, Ilana. That girl was very rude. But do you know what else is rude? Bitching at someone in public all the time. It’s a terrible thing to do. It’s almost as bad as talking on and on without end.”

“I can’t believe how immature you are,” said Ilana. “When are you going to grow up?”

“You can go to hell! God knows you’ve done nothing but critique me since we left Kefar Sava.”

“You’re causing a scene,” she said in a voice that wavered between being pleading and menacing. “Why are you always overreacting to everything?”

The lamp light again reflected tears on her cheeks. Raz did his best to ignore them, but his surge of self-confidence once more gave way to guilt. Arguments were usually secretly a little bit entertaining to him so long as they were going on, but tended to disgust him when they were concluded. After an awkward pause, he decided on one last attempt to heal the table’s wounds.

“Well, everyone seems to be very quiet all of a sudden! If the beach is so terrible, why don’t we all go to Tira instead? I know a nice little restaurant there. What do you say?”

“Under no circumstances,” said Ofir. “You of all people would think of eating in an Arab town these days. Let’s just go back to Kefar Sava. I’m exhausted.”

“What’s wrong, Ofir? Do you have a problem with Arabs?”

“Don’t play games with me. Some things aren’t worth debating about.”

“But the people in Tira are Israeli Arabs.”

“It makes no difference. We’re at war, Raz.”

“I think that I’m going to be sick,” moaned Nathan.

Raz rose from the table, and the others followed him. They reached the minivan. Ofir lurched into the driver’s seat, and Ilana climbed into the seat beside him and opened the back door for Raz and Nathan. It was then that Raz turned his back on the company.

“I’d rather walk home, if you don’t mind!”

“What’s wrong now? Kefar Sava is forty minutes away! Why are you being so unreasonable all the time lately?”

“Never mind, Ilana. Don’t worry about it. Sit next to Ofir and drive home. I have no desire to see any more of you tonight, or ever again in my life, really.”

Ilana began to protest, but suddenly and uncharacteristically stopped herself. She was covered with sand, hungry, and humiliated. Humoring Raz would only encourage him. Maybe leaving him alone at the beach would teach him a lesson for making a fool out of her in front of her friends. Ofir began to drive away, and she didn’t stop him. No one in the car said a word. Eventually, she turned the radio to the most beautiful song that she could find and settled on an American ballad she couldn’t understand, except for a single line about heaven being overrated.

Secretly, though, she was not overly concerned. It was hardly the first time she had fought with Raz, and things always seemed to iron themselves out in a day or two. He was always ready to start an argument, but he never held grudges. Besides, making up with him was her favorite part of their relationship. Comforted by these considerations, she drove back toward Kefar Sava, engrossed in her own thoughts as Ofir offered comforting platitudes and Nathan clutched his stomach.

In the meantime, Raz jogged back to the beach. Although he was furious with Ilana for actually leaving without him and told himself that he would never forgive her, her absence made him euphoric. After some thought, he found himself wandering back into the restaurant and pretending to look for a misplaced credit card until he found the woman with the beautiful eyes sitting alone at a far table. The night had taken on a dreamlike quality, and he was in the mood for an adventure.

“Do you have a cigarette?” he asked in the most suave voice that he could muster up.

She answered without turning her head.

“I don’t smoke. Not cigarettes, anyway.”

“Neither do I.”

“I remember you,” she said very rapidly. “You were the boy who was sitting next to the windbag and the opiate addict. What’s your name?”

“Raz.”

“And mine’s Yasmine. You’re not shy, are you, to come chasing after me with a ridiculous pickup line when I know you’re dating that girl with the whining voice?”

“What makes you think that it was a pickup line?”

“You asked me for a cigarette, but you said you’re not a smoker. It doesn’t take a Shylock to figure out what you want.”

“Excuse me?”

“Isn’t that the name of the English detective who smokes a pipe in all the old movies?”

Raz smiled and (having taken another look at the bridge of her nose and decided that its size was an annoyance to be endured) said,

“It’s Sherlock. And he’s not just a movie character. There are books about him too. Shylock is someone totally different. He’s the Jew from The Merchant of Venice.

“Well, I wouldn’t know. To be honest, I’ve never been very interested in books.”

“Really?”

“I have no patience for them, and I’m not embarrassed to say so. I haven’t read a book in years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever honestly read one from cover to cover in my whole life. Well, I take that back. There are two exceptions, both in English. I once read this old children’s book about a rabbit who says goodnight to everything in his bedroom before he falls asleep. I wore it out when I was a kid. I wonder where it is now.”

“I think Goodnight Moon doesn’t exactly count as real literature.”

“Was that the name of the book? Do you know it?”

“Everybody knows it.”

“I never knew the title—the cover was ripped off of my copy. Anyway, I thought that it was brilliant.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“What a snob you are! For your information, I thought that it perfectly captured the feeling of what it’s like to be a little kid trying to fall asleep, staring at everything in the room until consciousness… evaporates.”

“Interesting choice of words there. Very poetic.”

“Thanks! I do my best. Anyway, the book used simple language, but it was unforgettable. And there was something comforting about reading the simple sentence patterns again and again. It was like a lullaby.”

“What was the other book that you read?”

Moby Dick. It was alright too in its own way, I guess. But it was endless.”

“Wow. I was expecting you to say Goldilocks and the Three Bears or something like that.”

“I mean, Moby Dick wasn’t my choice. My father would read me a chapter a night when I was very young. He used it to teach me English. There wasn’t a single interesting female character in it, so it suited his tastes perfectly.”

“I also read long books to learn better English. My grandfather and I read Gone with the Wind together. A chapter a day, whenever I would visit him.”

“I didn’t even realize it was a book. It’s my favorite movie.”

“Mine too!”

“Really?”

“Yes! Leigh and Gable are incredible. But the book is even better.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“It’s a close race. Anyway, your father and my grandfather both sound like patient men. We probably owe them a lot. More than we realize, I bet.”

She laughed bitterly in response to that. Then she said, “Well anyway, like I said, I’m no great reader. I guess that I enjoy happiness and pleasure too much. I might as well watch television or shop in my free time.”

“To tell you the truth, some of the most incredible moments in my life were spent reading books. There’s no better way to escape from the world for a while, or from yourself. Would you mind if I sat down?”

“What about your friends?”

“They’re not really my friends. And anyway, they’re gone now. I’m alone.”

“You can sit here if you want to, but I was really just about to leave.”

She pushed back her chair, but he stopped her gently with his hand and spoke in a voice that he hardly recognized as his own.

“Maybe I can buy you a coffee or something?”

“You’re out of luck, because I don’t drink coffee.”

“And neither do I! God, Yasmine, who would have thought that two strangers would have so much in common?”

There was an awkward silence. Then, spontaneously, they both produced an identical sigh at exactly the same moment. They laughed, and Raz took this as an invitation to join her. Eventually, he would have to find a way back to Kefar Sava, but for the moment, he didn’t want to think about the details. Maybe the evening wouldn’t turn out so badly after all.

[1] Speech is silver, silence is gold.

In the Presence of Strangers: The Gutman Family (Chapter II)

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Nachum Gutman, his wife, and three children lived in a one story cement box in the town of Kefar Sava crowned with a small attic that served as a storage room. Mundane at best and Spartan at worst, these accommodations were in fact something of a unique blessing for the Gutman family. The Holy Land is small and its holy dirt is accordingly expensive. In the wake of exorbitant market prices, the majority of Israelis live atop one another in crowded apartment complexes. But the nearer the West Bank one ventures, the cheaper land becomes, and Kefar Sava is just inconveniently situated enough to render back yards affordable to a few lucky members of the middle class. The town is a teeming place, and in 2001 boasted the distinction of housing what was then the largest Kentucky Fried Chicken in the entire Middle East.

But the comforts of Kefar Sava weren’t always accessible to the Gutman family. When they first married, Nachum and his wife lived in an inexpensive apartment in Qiryat Ono. Although their flat was far from luxurious, it was quite comfortable for two people. After the birth of Yael, they called it cozy. After the birth of Raz, they called it crowded. After the birth of Yonatan, they called it quits. Although Nachum was only an under-manager at the ELCO Factory, twenty years of thrift and two mortgages allowed the Gutmans tenure of their own concrete and linoleum Xanadu. But even though their house was humble, it boasted some degree of local notoriety. Thanks to a managerial fluke, its back yard was a full two meters wider on either side than it should have been.

From the day that his family first moved to Kefar Sava, Nachum took pathetic pride in the slightly inflated size of his back yard. When he could no longer endure the critiques of his mother (who lived thankfully far away back in Qiryat Ono), the complaints of his wife, or the selfishness of his children, he would find an excuse to grow a new plant. Consequently, by the summer of 2001, not so much as a single window was visible behind a veritable jungle of laurel trees and rose bushes. But if one were to cast aside the foliage on the twenty-third day of June and peek inside the little bunker’s lavatory, the snoop would catch sight of an entertaining spectacle. An eighteen year old boy was primping in front of the bathroom mirror with all of the flamboyance of a peacock in heat.

Raz hummed unmelodically as he smeared his neck with lather and fumbled to retrieve a razor from his leather bag of toiletries. A pile of clothing soaked in a puddle of bathwater lay beside him. It hardly mattered. He was confident that his mother would clean up after him. He rubbed a circle of steam from the mirror and examined his reflection. He considered to himself that though he was lankier than he might have preferred, he had the face of the muse of a Renaissance artist. But despite the generous amounts of acne cream he had applied the night before, his forehead remained distressingly oily. He attempted to shave the elusive space between his chin and Adam’s apple. His efforts met with little success, but he told himself that he had done a fine job. He shaved his upper lip, creating a fleeting little Hitler moustache as he did so. He made a scary face at himself in the mirror. Then he shaved it off. He tried to whistle the national anthem. He examined his hairline apprehensively. He wondered if he would go bald like his father.

Raz was born with wisps of light blonde hair and iridescent blue eyes, but his head in general darkened after the age of three. For a time, his mother attempted to rub lemon juice into his scalp in an effort to bleach it back to its former splendor. Unfortunately, the resulting color was little better than a riot of brown streaks. Eventually, Miriam was compelled to resign herself to a swarthy son. But though Raz grew darker and coarser with age, a flicker of gold would occasionally shimmer in his hair, and he would seem to regain something of his former appearance. Now, however, was not one of those occasions. He was so tan that in bad lighting, he could almost pass for an Arab.

At eighteen, he was through with school and did not regret its passing. Although keenly intelligent, he was bored by the ambience of the classroom and had made no real friends there. He spent most of his time dreaming about America. He perfected his English by imitating the accents of the casts of Seinfeld and Friends. One of his greatest accomplishments in life was getting through every word of an old copy of Gone with the Wind with his grandfather and double checking that they understood each sentence with the help of a published translation. He’d had a lot of spare time on his hands once.

As for the army, it was still months away and, despite the shadow that it cast across the youths of all Israelis, still remained intangible to him. All that mattered was that he was finally old enough to open the bank account that Safta Gisela has started for him when he was born; for now, ten thousand dollars was more money than he could even dream of spending. Sandwiched between the inaccessibility of the past and the uncertainty of the future, he had made a conscious decision to dispense altogether with his yesterdays and tomorrows. He looked uncertainly at his reflection and began to gargle mouthwash. He hoped that he would be ready in time.

He’d been preparing for the past half hour for a date with Ilana, the girl that his mother called his chavera. If it were up to him, he would have preferred to call her his nothing. She’d been his acquaintance for years, and just another faceless face he encountered every day between a smile and a yawn. But one day his senior year, she smiled at him in the hallway. Then some insane impulse impelled him to ask her to the movies. That was the beginning of the end.

He’d never even been on a date before. Until that year, he had been disfigured by acne all over his face. The repugnance with which he was sure everyone encountered him had imprisoned him in an involuntary state of asexuality throughout his adolescence, stunting the development of his social graces. To justify the world’s lack of interest in him, he’d learned to delude himself into believing that he was similarly indifferent. He’d taught himself to fear both the intimacy of a relationship and the emotional horror of a breakup. And he had long since made it a habit to hunt for the imperfections of his classmates in search of excuses to disregard the effort of initiating a romance with any of them. Better to do that, he thought, than to risk the humiliation of his awkward advances being rejected, or the suffocation that would inevitably follow as the attendant consequences of their acceptance. And so he spent the majority of his high school years masturbating in the dark to the thought of rich and popular girls who were out of his league.

For some reason, though, he’d decided to take a chance with Ilana. Maybe he wanted to see what he’d been missing all those years. She enjoyed the particular recommendation of his mother, who was an old family friend of her parents. Miriam was always warning him that the over-critical die alone, morose advice though it might have been to give to a teenage son. To his surprise, Ilana accepted him, pustules and all. At first, the magic of a fumbling physical relationship blinded him to reason, and for a long time, he did his best to enjoy her company. But it wasn’t easy. She was always second guessing his intentions and pointing out his flaws. Worse yet, she persisted in forcing him to spend time with her friends, a group of people he found almost unbearably irritating. Eventually, he grew to dislike almost everything about Ilana. But somehow, without his even knowing it, she’d become his chavera.

Then, one day, as if by magic, his acne cleared up. Girls suddenly began to notice him. Of course, to leave the woman who’d chosen him before his metamorphosis in exchange for the superficial harpies who’d always spurned him would have been disgusting. Besides, he was too chivalrous to abandon Ilana after all they’d done together. But his patience was beginning to wear thin.

He chafed his head with a towel and gazed longingly at himself in the mirror. He was almost unusually handsome, he thought, although he often claimed to deny it. But Ilana’s face was the shape of a watermelon and her jaw jutted out like a witch’s chin. He was never really at ease with her. She seemed to see him as a piece of shapeless marble to be refined and transformed by her persistence. But Raz wanted to be his own sculptor.

He clawed at his face for a final time and, after burnishing the dry skin on his nose with a paper towel, decided to take a second shower. His first had been too short, and anyway, he found the feeling of the hot water to be calming. But when he approached the tub, he toppled over his ball of laundry, landing squarely on his stomach. For a moment, he lay paralyzed in a sea of soap and dirty clothes. But then, he laughed at his clumsiness, got up, and turned the shower handle, staring at the tiles of the bathroom wall as he waited for the water to grow warm again.

Their dark blue pattern reminded him of the beach. As a child, he’d fantasized about being a deep sea diver, although he’d long since learned that there was little more than filth and jelly fish to be discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean. But still, he remembered the ambition fondly. It reminded him that for as long as he could remember, he was always curious to discover what lay beneath the surface. For all of his faults, he told himself that he was a deep person, and as such enjoyed a certain diplomatic immunity in all his of dealings with other people. Whatever anyone thought of him, he would always have his profundity of character, and for the time being at least, that was more than enough to justify his self-absorption.

He congratulated himself on his powers of introspection and checked the water temperature. Finding it to his liking, he stepped into the tub. Just then, the bathroom door flung open and a little voice cried out at him from across the room.

“Get out of here, Yael! You don’t own the place, you know!”

Yonatan had pounded on the bathroom door so violently that he accidentally pushed it open. Raz moved the shower curtain aside and poked out his head.

“Get out of here yourself, Yonatan!”

“I’m sorry Raz,” he stammered, scrambling out of the bathroom. “I didn’t know that it was you.”

Yonatan closed the door and hunched miserably over the threshold. He hoped that Raz wasn’t angry with him. He loved his older brother blindly. Raz was never too busy to do things like tell him stories at night before he went to bed, or help him build Lego sets, or watch American cartoons together, or play Pokemon on Gameboy. This sort of kindness stood in marked opposition to the frigidity of their sister Yael, who was always ignoring him. Granted, she’d been friendly to him for about a week earlier that month when the news about Irina’s murder first broke, but she’d since reverted back to her usual callousness. Raz, though, was absolutely magnificent, swept up in some enigmatic sense of purpose that somehow lay beyond the comprehension of a nine year old mind. For all of his reverence, though, Yonatan could think of nothing at the moment but his need to use the bathroom. He prayed to God that his body would prove physically capable of waiting out a second shower.

After what seemed like an eternity, Raz opened the door clad in red, white, and blue striped boxers.

“You shouldn’t go barging into bathrooms without knocking,” said Raz all-knowingly. “Remember, we only have one shower, and there are five people in this house.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” answered Yonatan, shuffling in place. “I wouldn’t have pounded on the door so hard if I knew that it was you in there and not Yael.”

Raz smiled.

“Do you want to help me pick out clothes to wear tonight? I’ll let you into my room again. Your daytime exile will be officially called off.”

Yonatan forced himself to be still.

“Really, Raz?”

“Why not? I admire your fashion sense.”

Really, Raz?”

“Yeah, now hurry up.”

“I’ll be there in a minute!”

“My door will be locked in a minute,” called Raz, already making his way to the house’s bomb shelter that doubled as his bedroom. “If you want to come, you’ll have to come now.”

“Can’t you wait?” pleaded Yonatan, scrambling after him despite himself. “You haven’t let me into your room during the day since I spilled Fanta on your Gameboy last week. I’ll only be a minute!”

“Never mind, Yonatan. Forget about it. Maybe you can make a visit with Ima when she comes in here to vacuum someday.”

“But-”

“Just be quiet and help me find my socks.”

Raz ruffled Yonatan’s hair and then began to rummage through his dresser. Yonatan stared at his brother in mute awe.

“Do you really admire my fashion sense?”

“Sure. I bet that your plastic sandals are the hottest things on the playground.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“I’m impressed you know that word.”

“Are you kidding? Ima screams it at me all the time.”

“Anyway, what do you think I should wear tonight?”

“I think you should wear your zebra shirt, the one with the black and white stripes.”

“Wow. That’s a pajama top, Yonatan.”

“Really? It looks cool though. To go with it, why don’t you borrow Aba’s work boots, and-”

Before Yonatan could finish his sentence, Raz’s cell-phone rang in his back pocket. After a couple of rounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he discovered the telephone buried beneath a petrified ball of tissue paper and brought it to his ear, involuntarily cringing for fear of cranial cancer.

“Hello? Oh, shalom, Ilana. Speak up, I can’t hear you. I hate holding these things too close to my head. I’ll be ready in a few minutes…”

Yonatan began to pace around the room. At last, he considered making a break for it when the sudden sight of Raz’s flaring nostrils stopped him in his tracks.

“What do you mean Ofir and Nathan are coming with us to the beach? Why did you invite them? You know how much I hate it when you… yes, yes, yes, I still want to go out! It’s too late to change plans now… No, Ilana, I don’t think that I’m overreacting…Oh, I promise you that I won’t antagonize Ofir! Has it ever occurred to you that he might be the one who’s always insulting me?”

By now Yonatan was reduced to hopping miserably in place. Unable to bear the wait any longer, he finally rushed out of the room and into the hallway. The moment he reached the bathroom, though, Yael swept into his path and said,

“Get out of my way, kid.”

He prepared to protest, but his sister slammed the door in his face before he could say a word. Yael ignored her brother’s squeals and looked for her reflection in the bathroom mirror. There was nothing there. Raz had done a fine job of clouding up the room. She noticed his pile of dirty laundry on the floor. Her mother would expect her to pick up after him, no doubt, despite the fact that it was her birthday. She cursed under her breath and wiped away a circle of steam from the mirror. She examined her face. She was not beautiful and she knew it. Eyes, nose, mouth, all in their proper places, but all terribly unremarkable. Her nostrils were set too widely apart, and her forehead was too high. She was her mother’s daughter.

Since her best friend Avital had moved away to Haifa, Yael’s life was like a never-ending one act play with an eternity of the same monologues, the same scenery, and the same bad actors. One day, she thought, the curtain would rise unexpectedly on a new act, complete with fresh scenery and new players. But for the time being, she was confined to the longsuffering servant’s role in the most boring drawing room comedy in world history, imprisoned in the doldrums of polite domesticity with all of the inevitability of an Israeli Cinderella. She bit her lip at the thought of it and then began to brush her teeth.

In the meantime, Yonatan ran into the kitchen, his face scarlet. His mother was standing at the counter drying tears from her eyes. The entire house reeked of onion and garlic.

Ima, Yael won’t let me-”

“Oh Yonatan, don’t shout!” shouted Miriam.

“But Ima-

“I’m busy right now. Can’t you do anything on your own? You’re ten years old!”

“I’m nine.”

“That’s funny. When you wanted to stay up until midnight yesterday, you said that you were ten. It’s a talent to change your age at will like that.”

“You should know. You’ve turned thirty-nine for five years in a row now.”

“Don’t be so sarcastic! For God’s sake, where’s your father? He left to buy drinks like an hour ago. How long do we have to wait for him?”

Yonatan left the kitchen and hobbled toward a bean bag chair in the living room. He grimaced at his mother, but Miriam took no notice. She was busy running from microwave to oven and from pot to pan with more energy than her rudimentary recipes seemed to demand. Her hair clung to her forehead in thick black strands, but she would not take the time to rearrange it— her husband would see her unkempt state and realize how hard she’d been working preparing for the party without him.

She considered that she’d once been an attractive woman. But when she approached the sink and caught sight of her reflection in a metal pan, it seemed to her that her distorted image was more like a heap of crumples than a face. She felt a sharp pain in her right arm. Maybe she was coming down with arthritis. In fact, she knew that she was coming down with it. She felt it creeping into her joints day by day, and her great aunt Margot had had it besides. But she didn’t have time for personal concerns right now. There was work to be done, and her toil would probably never end until she was in the grave and at least granted the poetic justice of leaving her family helpless. She placed the lid on a pot of chicken broth and moved to slice a loaf of bread.

Yael now trudged into the kitchen. Yonatan leapt from the couch and ran into the newly vacant bathroom, knocking over an end-table as he did so.

“I wish that the psychiatrist would have listened to me and prescribed Ritalin for him,” said Miriam, whispering the word psychiatrist.

“It’s been a hard month for him.”

“It’s been a hard month for all of us. But it seems like Yonatan can’t focus on anything for more than ten minutes at a time anymore. It’s becoming a headache. Really, I don’t understand why summer vacations have to last the whole summer. Don’t schools have any pity on parents? He has nothing to do but sit around the house all day and think about things that he can’t help. No wonder the boy has nightmares. And all of his friends are away at camp. There’s nothing to help take his mind off things.”

She turned to Yael. “By the way, I want you to clean the bathroom floor before Safta gets here, but you can sit here for now, to rest. Just don’t look in the refrigerator. I’m making something special for your birthday and I want it to be a surprise. Is that a new dress?”

“You bought it for me three years ago for my graduation. It was on sale.”

“Well, it looks good as new and is really very flattering on you. It almost gives the impression you have a chest.”

Ima!”

“I was only saying that it was a smart choice to wear tonight! It’s very adult. You know, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that you’re turning twenty-one today. Can you believe that I was twenty-one when your father proposed to me?”

“Well times have changed,” said Yael, flipping to a documentary on the Learning Channel. “You’re not being very subtle with your hints. But I want you to know that there’s more to life than marriage, especially at my age. Now that I’ve finished with the army, I should be off seeing the world. I should be in India or Thailand or some exotic place like that. But instead, I’m trapped here in this kitchen with you.”

She scanned her mother’s face for a reaction. Miriam laughed.

“You can fly to any third world country you like when you have something in your pocket to send you there.”

Yael clicked her tongue against her teeth and focused her attention on the television. A woman in a white lab coat was speaking in an authoritative voice about genetics.

In light of groundbreaking research, genes have proven more than relevant to the field of modern biology. They may well hold significant clues to our understanding of life itself at the dawn of the new millennium.

“I’ll have something to send me there soon enough,” said Yael, looking raptly at the screen, “and I won’t need anyone’s favors after I go to nursing school… I still want to go to nursing school, you know.”

“You and Avital would talk about enrolling all the time when you were in high school.”

“But I was more sincere about it than she was, evidently.”

“I imagined that the dream died for both of you after she got engaged to that corporal she met in the army.”

“Dreams never die.”

“That’s what you think. Anyway, I’m sure that Shlomie’s going to love that new dress.”

“Stop repeating yourself. I told you that it wasn’t new. Besides, Shlomie wouldn’t notice it even if it was. He’s a pretty oblivious person.”

“You’re awfully cranky tonight. Has something changed between you two?”

“Of course not. That’s the problem. Our relationship is totally boring. Nothing ever changes between us.”

“Spontaneity is overrated, Yael. There’s something to be said for consistency.”

Miriam wiped her hands on her apron and returned to the oven. Whatever Yael’s many shortcomings, her taste in men at least was impeccable. Her boyfriend came from one of the wealthiest and most respected families in the country. When his parents first immigrated from Czechoslovakia, they were known as the Morgans, but after their beachside restaurant grew into a chain of popular cafes, they eventually adopted the name Shachar, setting aside memories of the Second World War and accentuating their Israeli heritage instead. Granted, Shlomie was not exactly a witty or personable or clever young man, and he had somehow doubled in weight since joining the army. But did these kinds of details really matter, considering that he was an aristocrat? Yael had met him two years ago at a distant cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, and they’d been dating ever since. They would undoubtedly marry someday. Miriam was sure of it. In fact, Shlomie’s mother Tziporah had confided that the engagement was coming any day now. She saw herself in her daughter’s eyes and beamed, pushing a plate of dry biscuits in the direction of her face.

“Eat those crackers.”

“I don’t want them.”

“Eat them.”

“I said no.”

“You look like a skeleton, Yael! Eat the crackers!”

Yael ate the crackers.

A car honked in the parking lot. Miriam hurried to the window hoping to find Nachum, but only saw Ilana Fischer opening the door of an unfamiliar minivan. She nodded her head in grudging approval. She was pleased that Ilana was Raz’s girlfriend despite the fact that her parents were a pair of stingy ingrates. She could not forget that they had arrived empty-handed at Rosh Ha Shana after she’d spent eighty shekels on a stainless steel frying pan for their anniversary party. Oddly enough, Ilana didn’t appear to be carrying anything with her, and Miriam wondered just where she was hiding her daughter’s birthday present. She wouldn’t have dared to show her face without a gift after the scandal of the frying pan. Still, Miriam realized that she shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, she might be bringing a check. She answered the door before the girl could find the time to knock on it.

“Hello, Miriam,” gasped Ilana. “You startled me! Is Raz ready to go?”

“I wasn’t expecting you tonight! How are you?”

“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”

“Under the weather, to be honest. As usual.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Do you have a bag or an envelope or something that I can help you with?”

“Excuse me?”

“Aren’t you here for my daughter’s party?”

Raz now appeared in the hallway. His head shimmered with mousse, and a single strand of hair lay carefully positioned on his forehead for a show of spontaneity. Ilana tried to embrace him, but he did not return the gesture. He began to follow her outside, but Miriam stopped him.

“What’s going on, Raz?”

“I’m going out.”

“But it’s your sister’s birthday party tonight.”

“Well, happy birthday to her. Did I shave the bottom of my neck right? I can never tell.”

“It’s your sister’s twenty-first birthday, and you’re going out?”

“Right.”

“But we’ve been getting ready for this party all day. Don’t you have any consideration for her feelings?”

“Only about as much as she has for mine.”

“You used to be so close.”

“That was a long time ago, Ima.”

Miriam began to protest, but just then, Nachum and Gisela entered the house bearing a cargo of assorted groceries.

“Where have you been?” growled Miriam. “I thought that something terrible happened to you and we’d have no drinks for the party!”

“Well, that would have been a heavy loss,” said Nachum, positioning his bag of groceries on the table and making his way into the living room.

“You said that you would only be gone for ten minutes! How could you leave me by myself to…look at me, Nachum! I feel like a slave in my own house sometimes.”

“Sorry,” he said, opening the newspaper.

Gisela stared coldly at her daughter-in-law.

“Hello, Miriam.”

“Oh, shalom, Gisela,” said Miriam hurriedly but in a deferential voice. “Yael is in the kitchen and Yonatan is upstairs. They’ll be happy to see you. Raz is going out.”

She kissed her mother-in-law’s cheek and rushed out of sight, mumbling objections to herself as she went. Gisela winked at her grandson.

“Wherever you’re going, you’d better leave now, before your mother gets back,” she said, slipping him a hundred shekel bill whose absence she would feel in her weekly budget, although not too acutely. “Have a good time.”

Raz embraced his grandmother and kissed her on both cheeks. Then he left the house, slamming the door behind him. Gisela watched him leave intently. He would be a soldier soon.

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)

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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.

 

On Simulism: a New Perspective

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Arguments in favor of simulism date to the dawn of philosophy, when thinkers like Parmenides of Elea insisted that the world of appearances was an illusion. Though the suggestion that you exist in a simulation may seem incredible, consider the arguments in this paper with an open mind.

Before I present my own thoughts on the subject, I first want to consider Nick Bostrom’s influential contentions in favor of simulism, which can be summarized as follows:

“A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one… If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3). Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.”[1]

While the argument is intriguing and even in line with recent suggestions that the universe seems to be a projected “hologram,” scholars might disagree with Bostrom for several reasons. The first two have been mentioned by others; the third is my own reflection.

  1. Information which we gather from within a simulation might not be an accurate reflection about the limits and possibilities in the world beyond the simulation, just as Mario’s knowledge of what happens when you eat a mushroom in his universe tells him nothing about what eating one in our world would do to him. In other words, even if our universe seems to hold the capacity of the creation of simulations containing conscious beings, why can we assume the same thing about the world beyond our universe which gave rise to us? This argument can be mitigated at least somewhat, however, by suggesting that given knowledge of our own existences and of the nature of our universe and the possibilities within it, we can make meaningful assumptions about what might have given rise to it.
  1. The mathematics in question is based on pure conjecture. Bostrom suggests: “While it is not possible to get a very exact estimate of the cost of a realistic simulation of human history, we can use ~1033 – 1036 operations as a rough estimate… We noted that a rough approximation of the computational power of a planetary-mass computer is 1042 operations per second, and that assumes only already known nanotechnological designs, which are probably far from optimal. A single such a computer could simulate the entire mental history of humankind (call this an ancestor-simulation) by using less than one millionth of its processing power for one second.”[2] The entire premise of his argument is predicated on this idea, though in reality, we know almost nothing about what it would take to create a simulation of the entire mental history of humankind. We must buy into his math, however, to believe that there are likely vastly more “posthuman computerized consciousnesses” than everyday, mundane consciousnesses derived from an original universe.
  1. Because Bostrom believes there are likelier to be more simulated consciousnesses than actual consciousnesses due to the enormous theoretical processing power of computers the size of the planets, he suggests we are already in such a simulation, or almost no beings in the universe will ever reach the level of being to create such simulations. However, from the perspective of our giant universe as a whole, it seems like there is evidence (if Earth is not atypical) of a great deal of animal consciousnesses, and life (if not consciousness) down to the bacterial level. The upshot of all this is that the chances of being born a live organism somewhere in the enormous universe might well be higher than the chances of being born a conscious being trapped in a consciously designed simulation created by sophisticated beings like postmodern humans.

At first glance, then, Bostrom’s formulation seems neither sound (because he makes assumptions about over-simulations on the basis of a random under-simulation) nor valid (because his justification for the high number of sims relative to base realities is unfounded). Yet despite some disagreement with Bostrom, I am ultimately a simulist, but partly for independent reasons. (Note that Bostrom himself is not a simulist—he says that we are either in a simulation or likely to never create them.)

I shall use the example of Mario throughout the discussion. Our world and Mario’s world aren’t as different as you might first imagine. To begin poetically, is life possible with no consciousness, so that something can be alive but not even realize it? The existence of plants proves that this is so. Is rationalism possible without sense perception, so that something can make accurate calculations but possess no conscious will of its own? The existence of robots and computers proves that this is so. Is experience possible without three dimensional consciousness? The existence of dreams proves that this is so. Is consciousness possible after total oblivion? Our own existences as human beings prove that this is so. After all, we were all effectively dead before we were born. We know that plants can be very much alive in our three dimensional world with no awareness of this fact—and so we, too, can potentially exist within a world of meaning that is all around us and yet beyond us.

  1. Mario might imagine that he is completely unique in the universe and randomly came into being by a process of pixels spontaneously assembling (that is, he imagines that he is the one and only Mario on the one and only television set on the one and only game device in the entire universe, and all these devices came into being by random chance). Or, he might guess that he is one of a large number of similar beings conveyed on a large number of things called game cartridges that are deliberately designed. The latter is likelier than the former. But why? Consider this scenario. If in the future, an archeologist discovers a single book from the lost civilization of 2015—and no other books survived—on what would you place a bet? That the book would be a popular one like the Bible or Harry Potter, or that the book would be someone’s single copy of a lost doctoral thesis? The former is likelier. For analogous reasons, Mario is right to begin to be suspicious that he is a unique thing and not a common one. That is, he is right to guess that he is likelier to be only a version of himself than the one and only version. And if he came into being by some process that worked over time, it is likely that the process would operate more than once and not only in his unique case, since something itself must have given birth to the process and organized it. And the same is true of you—if you won the chance to be yourself, you are likelier to be one of many such winners than the one and only winner, because in any game of chance, the existence of more winners implicitly means more chances to win. Remember, your possession of your conscious will in the form of an individuated consciousness is a separate and distinct fact from your mere existence. David Vincent Kimel might exist somewhere in time and space because a sperm and egg came together, but this fact is distinct from my actually being the one experiencing his consciousness as a singular rational entity and writing this blog post. The inevitable implication of “I think therefore I am” is that the very existence of the “I” requires a separate explanation from the existential implications of its thoughts. It could be that your consciousness’ possession of your specific body was random. But it would seem more rational to assume that you exist as you for a reason, which would give rise to and raise the probability of your existence. If chaos alone governed the universe, the odds would be highly stacked against life in general, let alone the evolution of your individual consciousness—I’ve read that even forming a protein would be (2) (10^-32) unlikely. We need to begin imagining some kind of a process that could give rise to the experience of individuated conscious wills.
  1. Now, think about Mario again. Even if he realizes he is more likely to be one of many Marios than the only version of himself, this would still not explain why he acts as he does–for example, why he leaps over a pit rather than into it. Of course, the answer why he jumps over the pit is that he is simulated to do it; someone is playing him. Simulism, or the seemingly ridiculous idea that Mario is basically a video game, doesn’t just explain why something called a “Mario” exists and that there are likely very many versions of him, but also shows why Mario is this particular Mario; why, for example, he grabs the coins that he does. The same is true of you. It could be the case that we are all born in a random and infinitely complex universe governed by no designer. But even if a sperm and egg came together to make you, this does not explain why you are experiencing your consciousness and not somebody else’s, or infinite other ones. Only simulism gives the answer. The only implausible alternative is that everything else in the world is something caused, with the sole exception of your possession of your own conscious will. The only answer to why you are yourself is either “this is the only thing in the universe that has no reason” or “I’m probably one of many versions of my consciousness, and I am being simulated to act in one way and not another, in the same way that Mario decides whether to grab a coin or not.”
  1. The question arises, even if we realize that our possession of our individuated consciousness is a fact that is distinct from the facticity of my being (that is, the fact that David Vincent Kimel exists somewhere in the universe is a distinct fact from “my” (the author’s) actually being the individuated consciousness writing this document), and even if we concede that it is likelier than not the case that this fact exists for a specific regulated reason which increased the odds of my coming into existence as a member of a non-unique class rather than the unique result of random chance,(for the same reason that Mario should suspect he is a non-unique thing and that a random book from the world of 2015 is likelier to be The Bible than a random thesis), why should we suspect an intelligently designed entity is behind it all and not merely some natural process we don’t understand (karma, etc.)? Now, imagine this possibility. What if in the whole history of the vast original universe, at least one original civilization existed that was so advanced, it started to deliberately construct simulations, even of its own past—what Bostrom calls ancestor simulations. Why would it do it? Perhaps to cure boredom. Perhaps to figure out all the secrets of the past. And perhaps even to download the conscious minds of all the unfortunate individuals who lived in history before simulations allowed people live out their dreams. Regardless of the reason, imagine it happened even once in the whole history of the universe. What would happen when the simulation of history reached the point when the simulation itself was created? The answer is, it would create a simulation of itself. Then, it in turn would create a simulation of itself, and there would be infinite simulated identical realities.  Bostrom is on the right track when he says: “It may be possible for simulated civilizations to become posthuman. They may then run their own ancestor-simulations on powerful computers they build in their simulated universe. Such computers would be “virtual machines”, a familiar concept in computer science. (Java script web-applets, for instance, run on a virtual machine – a simulated computer – inside your desktop.) Virtual machines can be stacked: it’s possible to simulate a machine simulating another machine, and so on, in arbitrarily many steps of iteration.”[3] What he misses is that an ancestor simulation that truly replicated its own history would create a situation where the “stacked simulations” were in fact exact replicas of each other. And even if the creation of an ancestor simulation may seem to face insurmountable odds, it may also be the case that a simulated civilization (a civilization simulated in the first place, of some kind) became sophisticated enough to understand its own programming enough to tap into its own coding and examine its underpinnings in fine enough grain to recreate the conscious life of the past. The end result would be the same.
  2. If Bostrom’s formulation of the Doomsday Hypothesis is apt, if we consider the present moment not “a year of human civilization” but rather “a year in the existence of the universe,” if the universe is finite and if we find ourselves in a random year of its existence, it is likelier to be nearer the end of the series of years than toward the beginning. This would only be true if the entire universe were in danger of being shut off altogether, which could only be true in the case of being in a simulation.

Now, what is likelier? That you are a single random combination of atoms that came together by chance and that you experience your specific life equally randomly, or that you are one of an infinite number of versions of yourself created when a single very unlikely simulation in an original universe (or within a simulation) simulated itself? The upshot of this is, that it is likelier we exist in a universe designed by a rational will than that we are alone in random space, and that life after death might really be possible, since it should be theoretically possible to upload consciousnesses once the simulation ends.

(Note that the argument that a perfect ancestor simulation might have been created, or that a simulation might have simulated its own coding, mitigates the problem mentioned in the opening critique of Bostrom that we cannot make assumptions about the nature of the environment beyond our universe on the basis of assumptions of the conditions within our universe; yet we can indeed make meaningful assumptions about the environment beyond our universe if we posit that it exists as a copy of itself. However, in this case, we should posit that Bostrom’s logic only applies if we are in an ancestor simulation specifically, and not in a simulation of some kind, despite however many simulations of various kinds might be produced by civilizations within our solar system.)

***

[1] http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.