Here’s something that just happened to me. I was walking with an American friend in the picturesque quarter of Neve-Tsedek in Tel-Aviv, looking for an ice cream place called “Savta” (Grandma). We asked someone where it was and he showed us the way, just two blocks from there. “But you know what,” he confided, “There’s an even better ice cream place in the other direction, also very near.” We still continued to Savta’s, either because of the attractive name or because we saw from a distance the beautiful setting in a shady, flourishing side alley. Ice cream is not only ice cream, it’s also the experience around it, right?
As we took our seats, my American friend said, “I can’t believe it. In the US they’d have told you exactly how to get there and that’s all. Here, they’ll tell you that there’s a better ice cream.”
“Of course,” I said, “and I’m surprised this guy didn’t recommend the flavors.”
It reminded me of an incident that Amos Oz shared when he spoke at my bookstore café, Tmol-Shilshom, a few months ago. According to Oz, a plane full of vacationing Israelis had landed in Cyprus. One of them spotted a distinguished fellow traveler walking into the terminal by him—the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fisher (who just terminated his term last month). “Aren’t you the Governor of our central bank?” he asked. “Yes I am,” said Fisher. Lo and behold, the man asked: “Out of the Change places here, where will I get the best rate for my money?”
Only with Israelis this could happen, concluded Oz.
He sure is right. Only Israelis would lead you to the best ice cream place even if you didn’t ask. For better or for worse, only on an Israeli street would total strangers tell you that your kid should be wearing another layer (when it’s cold) or one less layer (when it’s hot). “If I were to drop dead on the street,” said Oz, “it’d better be an Israeli street, where people would care.”
I agree, even though we pay a toll. People here think your business is their business. Only here you’d be asked very personal questions by people you hardly know. You could even be asked how much your salary is, believe it or not. But like Oz, I like living in a place where people care. Moreover, there’s a sense of an extended family. People care about you because it’s (still) a small place, and in a strange way, they kind-of-know-you even if they don’t. We Israelis share special culture and language and fate. We have been together through wars and more wars but also some exhilarating times. We’re still surrounded by borders that we can rarely cross, so we mix with each other (unless we buy a vacation deal in the nearby Cyprus, but even then we end up mixing with our own). We live under an existential threat. We fear we might be wiped out at some point. Some of us will never admit this anxiety, and others will talk about nothing else. In any case, to me, being an Israeli is a unique experience which a stranger will never understand.
The first story in my new book is called “To The Limit,” and it couldn’t take place anywhere else in the world. It’s about two drivers who experience road rage all the way from one end of this small country to the other. The last story in my book (which gave its name to the collection), “Who Will Die Last,” is more universal. I feel that my book exists in the tension between these two polls, and so do I.
You are working on what?” most of the people I met in Jerusalem asked while I was writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Jerusalem is not where scholars generally go to write a book on the Civil War, even if it involves Jews. The majority of Israelis, in fact, know nothing about Ulysses S. Grant (one of them asked me how he felt about Israel and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.) Still, my wife and I consider Jerusalem our second home; my wife’s research can best be done in Israel’s National Library; and the Mandel Foundation offered me a senior fellowship during my sabbatical. So it was that I found myself writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews in Jerusalem, even as my thoughts centered on such Civil War sites as Holly Springs, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky.
Anyone who writes about Ulysses S. Grant depends upon the magnificently edited 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by the pre-eminent Grant scholar, John Y. Simon. No complete set of those papers may be found in all of Israel. Anyone who writes about the Civil War also depends upon the 130 volumes of the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, published by the Government Printing Office. I could find no set of those records in Israel either. Once upon a time, that would have doomed my project as simply not doable in Israel. But no longer. For the Grant Papers, the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion and numerous other primary and secondary sources required for my study have in recent years all become available via the internet. A high speed connection brought them directly to my desk-top in Jerusalem. Once, when I needed unique materials from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, they kindly scanned them for me and sent them to my inbox the next day.
In time, all of the impediments to researching the Civil War while living in Jerusalem disappeared. To me, of course, this proved a great relief. I actually managed to submit my manuscript to the publisher a few months early. At a deeper level, the experience reinforced for me how the globalization of information is democratizing knowledge by making once inaccessible materials available to anyone with an internet connection. Where one physically resides and the quality of local libraries make far less difference today than they used to.
Nowadays, as my book demonstrates, one can research even the history of General Grant’s Civil War order expelling Jews from his warzone, while living in an Israeli apartment. My Jerusalem neighbors my not have appreciated what I was studying, or why, but I feel confident that American readers will.