We all lose things in transit, almost involuntarily, as if Kleenex, keys and library cards were feathers to be molted. I've shed diaries and disks, contact lenses, entire bicycles; my mind holds the image of each and every lunch box left behind.
I knew I would rack up significant losses when I went to Israel, and I did -- especially considering how little I had with me. I lost my laptop computer, the only thing I owned worth more than fifty dollars. And I lost my story, which I didn't know you could lose.
My story had never been told to me in a systematic fashion, but from an early age I gathered it went something like this: I was a white American, solidly middle-class; the important remnants of my grandparents' foreignness -- language, gait, custom -- had been purged, and the rest could be gotten out of. I was Jewish, but not in the way that Jewish people had been. I wasn't hated, chased, taunted, had never been and would never be. I wasn't fastidious about food, cleanness, kitchens, books. I moved easily through the world with tremendous freedom, without fear, without a passport announcing I was Jewish, and returned to an apartment building that wasn't in a ghetto, that didn't smell from cooking but from brand new carpets.
This is the same story that the grandchildren of the taxi driver with the turban or the Mexican housekeeper will have. It is the one correct story in America, and although the beginnings are wildly diverse, the story is not , about the beginning. It is about how we became free of the beginning: how the squalor, song, bloodshed, and blood ties of the other land dissolve. They don't dissolve into the enormous ocean dividing America from everywhere else, they don't dissolve from pure contact with the untouched continent, they don't dissolve just from a failure of memory; as I understood the story they dissolve because they aren't real, or at least because they aren't as real as America's own particular violence, beauty and rhythm. They were lost to prove they hadn't meant that much in the first place. They were lost to make way for a better, more universal beginning.
I'm not sure which went first, the computer or the story, but I can tell you exactly where I lost the computer. I left it on a bus, an unimpressive move anywhere, but especially bad in Israel, where any package that appears to be unattended is a "hefetz hashuv," a suspicious object, and assumed to be a bomb. If it can't be claimed -- and quick -- police take it away and detonate it.
The noise is terrifyingly loud for a procedure that is a standard part of civic life, and for months every time I heard it I would become inconsolable, find myself sobbing behind a tree on a busy street, blowing snot into my T-shirt. The first time it happened I had just arrived and was in a big hurry to get back to my hostel before it locked for the night at midnight. The hostel was a religious place for the great unwashed American Jewish population and you could stay for free as long as you attended their religious classes once in a while and made it back by midnight (no sexy disco dancing).
When I got to the entrance of the old city at five minutes before midnight, it was surrounded by police cars and army officers. Whatever -- I was late! I barreled through them single-mindedly and was stopped by several furious police officers. One shoved me back behind the army vans where assorted police officers, army officers, people standing on the street and taxi drivers waiting to get into the old city began screaming at me in highly agitated Hebrew. When one of the officers realized I spoke no Hebrew, he softened and explained that someone had just found a kerosene container left by one of the Arab guys who sells corn. This army officer, who was probably younger than me, said gently and earnestly, "It could be a bomb and it could go off and you can't just run into it. This is serious."
Everyone shifted around by the gate, pacing, waiting for an explosion. The old city, the walled container of Jerusalem's boundaries circa 1100, is a deep hot blister in the valley between the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion and Mount Scopus. The rock where Mohammed ascended to heaven, the patch of ground where Jesus was resurrected, and the remaining stone wall of the first Jewish temple where God dwelt stand within meters of each other, indifferent to each other and to the thundering throngs whose sweaty hands, chaste, needy kisses, and tears coat them in a briny grime. Everyone wants a little piece of the old city -- within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, ten different Christian groups battle for turf, none willing to relinquish any space for an emergency exit. At night the old city is dead, dark, dangerous, and the energy that during the day often transforms tourists into believers or patients in the local mental hospital lays still over everything like a hot blanket.
When the explosion came from behind the darkened walls, it jarred me completely. It was so much louder than anything I had ever heard; it rocked through the concrete, through the soles of my feet, and I could feel it reverberating in my jaw and chest. Everyone dispersed immediately -- it had been just a canister of kerosene after all -- cars were restarted, radios blasting, and people moved through the reopened entrance. I just stood there at the gate, as though at attention after some ceremonial shot had been fired.
My great-grandparents moved through Russia, Lithuania and Poland before they came to America. They were running from pogroms. They got out before the holocaust and the town they were from became the second largest ghetto in Poland after they left. In my family no one mentions or mourns this. It is over. It ended in Europe before it ever happened to us. It is buried there safely with all the other Jewish graves and memorials.
But the story in which being Jewish is deadly serious and of daily importance isn't over in Israel. Here people's passports still say they are Jewish, and with their Jewish passports there are lots of places they can't go. Everyone serves in the army. People in their early twenties, like me, lose their whole social group. They lose fingers. I went on a date with a man who had spent the last year as an assassin. Who knows what he lost. In Israel being Jewish (or for that matter being Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, or Arab) still matters in a way that we are told in America it shouldn't matter; it still binds in a way America refuses -- often admirably -- to let it bind. The elderly Jewish people here, who move their stocky barrel frames and speak in ways that are so much like my grandparents; who stop me in the street and tell me to tie my shoelaces, have hand-written numbers sloppily tattooed on their forearms. How to tell them or their children that nationalism is not trendy, that identity is fluid, that ethnicity is mutable and irrelevant in a postmodern era? Or looking at them, still hoarding food in their hotel rooms on vacation, how to tell oneself? How to explain the deep visceral sense of home I found navigating through cities and texts I had never seen before? How to explain the nearly electric connection to waterfalls, to ancient chants, plots of land, strangers? What if the prayerbook's claim that something was "sealed in my flesh" -- the claim that America undermines relentlessly, nobly -- rings true?
Anyway, as soon as I realized I was missing my computer I knew it was a prime target for exploding, and I ran back to the bus station.