Personal Essays


Meir Comes Clean

Sixty years after the founding of Israel, the pomp-and-circumstance of the anniversary—celebrated last week on the Jewish calendar and today on the secular one—prompts a different sort of recollection.

In 1988, the state of Israel turned 40 years old.

Forty is a weary-sounding number. It’s not a milestone like 50. It’s not a gray eminence like 60 or 70. Forty years is just a too-long stretch. It seemed the perfect age for Israel, as if Israel had been 40 from the day of its creation.

Maybe Israel’s particular 40 years of trial and blood and paranoia had aged the nation prematurely, or maybe at age 10 I couldn’t separate the state of Israel from the Land of Israel, already ancient in ways a few decades couldn’t affect. At the Temple Anshe Shalom Hebrew School in Hamilton, Ontario, we were not encouraged to make the distinction. That’s where I was headed on the day Israel turned 40.

Israel’s birthday meant a party, and a party at Hebrew school was a gift indeed. Having to go to school after school is like doing time for an additional count, and twice a week I did the perp walk from George R. Allen Public School to the Temple, which happened to be next door. The windowless side wall abutted the playground, always looming behind the slides and monkey bars, reminding me of Hebrew school even when I didn’t have to go. My father told me I was lucky I didn’t have Hebrew school four days a week like he did at my age.

Entering through the side door, I’d slap on a thin yarmulke and trudge down the long, basement-level hallway to the library. This was the “release valve” room, where we could run and yell for half an hour. I never felt like doing either. If you wanted a cup of powdered juice drink or a cookie, you had to ask in Hebrew. Oogiah is Hebrew for cookie. The Cookie Monster from Israeli Sesame Street was a big hit, because oogiah, spoken in a Cookie Monster voice, sounds just brilliant.

The school’s two teachers, Esther and Rachel, would sit at the juice and cookie table, chain-smoking and emoting in lightning-quick Hebrew. I never knew what they were talking about, so agitated and engrossed, as if they were deciding who got the last parachute. They were unlovely and over 40, and like all Israelis, they had served in the army. They had driven tanks. They knew our Hebrew names. We obeyed them. They could shake something loose inside us in a way day-school teachers never could, Esther with her temper and piercing eyes, Rachel with her unnerving coldness and bear-like frame. When they called me “Meir,” I jumped.

We had each wrapped our siddurs, our prayer books, in gift paper or newspaper to prevent damage. Mine was wrapped in the Saturday comics.We were Hamilton’s Reform Jews, in miniature. Boys outnumbered girls about five to one. Some kids went to private school. They wore spinach-green cardigans with white stripes on the sleeves over white turtlenecks. Hardly any came from my school. The older kids were worldly and brutish; I could laugh with them, but not partake, except in one area. The day Israel turned 40, we were all trading two-inch tall rubber wrestlers.

Think back through the annals of toy fads to a footnote called M.U.S.C.L.E.s. They were tiny, glowering men with detailed bodies ranging from the mundane to the supernatural. Two heads, six heads, six arms, luchadores, aliens, demons, rock monsters, one with saw-blades all over him, one with Grecian columns for a torso. Each model had blue, red, pink, green, or orange versions. You were meant to place the figures in a plastic wrestling ring and mash them together until one fell down, which was about as appealing as it sounds. The real fun was in trading.

Once class started, we sang the Israeli national anthem, Ha’tikvah, and recited the closing prayer of worship, the aleinu, in unison. Every sentence came out like a judgment. We had each wrapped our siddurs, our prayer books, in gift paper or newspaper to prevent damage. Mine was wrapped in the Saturday comics. If I dropped the book, which was not permitted to touch the floor, I had to kiss Marmaduke. Esther, who taught my class, favored recitation; the school was constantly running out of paper so she taught Hebrew grammar sparingly but assigned a lot of homework. I always did it. I didn’t want to be branded a “lazy bazy”—the slacker equivalent to “silly billy.” Esther was also a great believer in songs. We learned a loosely translated Hokey-Pokey (the dance remained intact), a mnemonic about Hebrew days of the week, even a ditty about the Passover plate. All of us had our eyes on a bar or bat mitzvah, which, to be fair, chiefly requires singing.

On Israel’s birthday, Esther decided we would forgo the day’s normal work. A ragged wall map was produced and we touched on the Middle East situation. Esther had to wing it politically, since the map was made before 1967. We asked about the tank she’d driven, and she shrugged as if it were no more special than driving a Toyota. Ariel Sharon charging across the Suez Canal with his head split open—that was something.

“I am not a violent person. But that’s how you survive for 40 years.”

As the class discussed terrorism, I was thinking about the M.U.S.C.L.E. trade. I had recently made friends with a boy in my fifth-grade class named Shabir. We had discovered that a person deep in negotiations, surrounded by, say, 80 little rubber men, can’t keep an eye on every one. We had a few tricks. One was to set our coats down over a few scattered M.U.S.C.L.E.s, wait a few minutes, then roll up the coat as we left. A simpler one was to pick them up and examine them, as everyone did, and hold them long enough that the owner would forget and then surreptitiously slip them down a sleeve.

The collections at Hebrew school were vast and varied. The perfect hunting ground. I examined the wrestler I had pinched in the library: a man with a dog’s head. The owner pegged another kid for the theft: Joel, who was smarmy enough that it just seemed right to blame him. I wondered if Joel’s parents ever believed him about anything.

I also wondered how Joel had gotten The Hand.

The Hand was the rarest and most coveted of all M.U.S.C.L.E.s, a man-sized claw covered in warts with a needle-toothed face on the middle finger. A colored Hand was the Mickey Mantle of M.U.S.C.L.E.s, and Joel had a neon orange one.

Someone was shouting, “The Arabs had their land for 2,000 years. Why can’t we have it for 40?” Malcolm, the blowhard. Everybody cheered. Esther tried to moderate, raising her hands in a calming gesture as we competed to spout overheard facts and opinions flattering her homeland. Soon, she fell silent in the face of our vitriol. Seeing the chance to drop a profound word, I actually wondered aloud if the Palestinians knew that Israel was our birthright. Malcolm pointed at me and said “Exactly!”

The Hand was the rarest and most coveted of all M.U.S.C.L.E.s, a man-sized claw covered in warts with a needle-toothed face on the middle finger.All Esther said was, “You should go there one day, Meir.” I was hoping she’d be more impressed with “birthright.”

Finally, the school’s three classes were led to the Mandel Auditorium, where the real party was to start. There was a cake, not in the shape of Israel, but large. Ice cream was available as well. Esther and Rachel smoked and smiled and left us to our wills.

In the middle of this hubbub I excused myself in Hebrew to go to the washroom. I walked through the lobby, past the Tree of Life and down two flights of stairs. I took a left at the washroom and walked into the older kids’ classroom. I looked at each desk until I found a non-descript plastic bag. It was Joel’s. My chest was tight, ears tuned for the slightest noise. I helped myself to a few colored ones, a wrestler with a trash-can for a head, one that looked like an Apple computer, even a cute baby M.U.S.C.L.E., and then, blazing through the pack, the orange Hand. I stashed them safely in my own schoolbag and ran back upstairs to the party.

After the treats, we divided into two teams, Bar Kochba and Hadrian. I didn’t want to be on Hadrian, the Roman oppressor. I wanted to be on Bar Kochba, the freedom fighter who took back Judea.

“Too bad,” Esther said. “You have to have bad guys.”

In a keen parallel with history, Bar Kochba and Hadrian competed in a three-legged race, a water-and-spoon relay, even an anthem contest. My team lost. During the bean-collecting scramble, we kept picking up beans after time had been called and were disqualified. It cost us the competition. I had to watch Malcolm lead his team in a stomping rendition of “Bar Kochba’s the best, the best of all the rest, Bar Kochba’s gonna getcha.”

I was never caught.

In 1998, Israel turned 50, an age that warrants fluff articles in serious magazines, special segments on political shows, a new file-footage edit, and experts’ opinions on The Future. And then came another decade, largely horrid. Forty didn’t seem so old anymore.

Shabir eventually betrayed me when I stole M.U.S.C.L.E.s from my best friend. Being a known thief, even by one victim, proved less enjoyable than a secret one, and my life of crime ended. Somewhere in the depths of my mother’s basement, my hoard sits in a large Ziploc bag, untouched for years.

These are the images that hit me when Israel has a birthday. Not the intifadas, the burning flags, the walls (old and new), the men (mostly old) and their solemn handshakes. My stupid greed is the transgression that sticks. What that says about me is probably worse than the crime.

Maybe this is a confession more suited to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, than to Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the anniversary of the state of Israel, but I don’t celebrate Yom Kippur or any other holiday at the Anshe Shalom. I haven’t been there since I was 12. My parents re-married and I had to switch to a congregation that held no history for me, good or bad.

No, this is the time of year I think of Esther and Malcolm and the blinking fluorescent lights and songs about days of the week and the library where all the books seemed 40 years old and looked like hell. I never thought I would miss the place. But then, I never thought I’d forget how to ask for juice and cookies in Hebrew.


TMN Contributing Writer Michael Rottman lives like a lord in Toronto. His miscellany has appeared in print in The Fiddlehead, Grain, and Opium, and online at Yankee Pot Roast, Cracked, News Groper, and McSweeney’s. More by Michael Rottman