I Have Finally Understood What It Means to Be a Jew in Israel

With friends like these, give me the Jews.

This is the first time I have truly understood what it means to be a Jew in this country. It’s the first time I have identified fully and completely with that nation. What an idiot I was for attacking Israeli policy in the newspaper; for hurling accusations of racism, discrimination, patronizing and hatred of Arabs. I was wrong. I sinned against the truth, and the time has come to make amends.

“I don’t want to hear a word,” I scolded the children when they complained when I switched the Fairuz CD for one of Meir Ariel’s. “And forget about what I told you until now. You can speak Hebrew between you − only Hebrew. Do you understand?”

Sayed - Amos Biderman - March 9, 2012
Illustration by Amos Biderman.

“Will you please calm down,” my wife said when I started the car for the drive home to our neighborhood. To the western city, where I feel at home among people who respect me as I am. I had to take a deep breath before replying to my Arab wife. She is just like them. They’re all the same, contrary to what I had forced myself to believe. But that’s it: this Arab story is over and done with.

“No,” I told her in no uncertain terms. “I will not please calm down.”

“Don’t you think you are going overboard?” she said, trying to control herself and not to laugh. She doesn’t realize that I can hear her laugh, that her posing doesn’t work on me. After all, she laughed earlier, everyone laughed and mocked me to my face. And for what? Because I tried to be nice. I have it coming, when all is said and done. This mockery that the Arabs do not deserve − what do they know about culture or about manners?

“And I want you to know,” I said, trying to wipe away her smile, “that this is the end. I will never go back to those Arab friends of yours in my life. Do you understand?”
“They’re your friends,” she said. I decided not to answer back. Yet just the previous evening I had risked my life by driving through the storm from Jerusalem to the library in Zichron Yaakov, in order to set forth her agenda to an audience of readers: an agenda that says we can live together, Arabs and Jews, an agenda according to which we are equal and there is no place for fears, anxieties, denials and separation. But the very next morning my wife’s Arab friends − even if they are my friends − showed me how wrong I was.

A breakfast to which we were invited in the home of friends woke me from a slumber of many years. If it had only been friends, okay, but they also invited another family of Arabs, whom I had never met. Thinking about it now, I am convinced that was the plan. They had sat and figured out how to humiliate me in front of strangers at a Friday-morning breakfast. A breakfast of Arab dishes and pastries, of the sort I hadn’t tasted for a long time and which I now know I had never liked.

If only I had the opportunity to reenact the breakfast. Because then, instead of being civilized and complimenting the hosts for all kinds of pastries saturated with olive oil and za’atar, I would have told them the truth. I would have told them that I prefer a slice of white bread with butter and orange marmalade. I would have told them, no, I don’t find all this ajin, or whatever you call it, tasty, with the ground za’atar and the sesame sticking between my teeth and their olive oil giving me heartburn. Not to mention the tabbouleh salad, which would make good fodder for shee
It all started because of the accursed labaneh (yogurt cheese). We were sitting around the table and having a polite conversation with the family we were meeting for the first time. I was struggling with a pita covered in some Arab spread. Wishing to be complimentary and polite and to thank the hosts, I praised their pastries and the other dishes, which evoked life in the village and my pleasurable childhood. “Yo,” I found myself saying, “it’s been so long since I had such tasty green onion.” And then, “This radish is exactly like the ones my grandmother, of blessed memory, used to grow in the backyard” ‏(even though I never liked green onion and would gladly exchange it for baby lettuce‏). “You must try these eggs,” I said to my children with a smile, “they’re a real delicacy.”

“Did you try the labaneh?” the father of the host family − whom I had naively considered a longtime friend − asked me.

“The labaneh?” I asked as he offered me a plate of labaneh in the form of waves, and colored a light green by olive oil.

“You have to try this labaneh,” the so-called pal went on. “It’s goat’s labaneh like you have never tasted before.”

I took a little on the edge of my fork and discovered labaneh with an airy texture and a divine flavor, labaneh such as I really had never tasted before.

“It’s wonderful,” I almost shouted, thrilled by the labaneh, “it’s absolutely amazing.” I took some more of the extraordinary goat’s labaneh and urged my wife to do the same. “You’ve never tasted anything like this,” I said, dipping the za’atar pita into the labaneh again.

“No,” she said, “I’m full.”

“You must,” I insisted, trying to get across to her that labaneh like this was a rare work of art. “Where did you buy it?” I asked my host and friend.

“I get two kilos every year. Two kilos and that’s it for the season,” he replied. “What do you say? Where from?”

“From Jiftlik,” he said. “Do you know where Jiftlik is?”

“No,” I said.

“It’s a very small, special village north of Jericho. I have a friend there who brings me two kilos in the right season.”

“Can you talk to him for me?” I asked, giving my friend an imploring look, which generated universal smiles around the accursed breakfast table. “You know what,” my friend said, smiling at me, “you’re such a good buddy that I will talk to the guy from Jiftlik and we’ll see what we can do. And if he can’t, because it’s a rare product, I promise you that next year I will share my portion with you, one kilo each.”

“Thank you so much,” I replied with tears in my eyes.

“Would you like some more?” he asked, holding out the dish with the labaneh treasure.

“Thank you,” I said, a bit sorry that I was leaving no more labaneh for the others.

“Don’t worry,” said the friend of the friend, the one I had just met for the first time in my life, and who until then had taken only a little of the goat’s labaneh. “Enjoy.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” I said to my wife, who had finished eating and was drinking mint tea.

“She didn’t miss anything,” the host’s wife said, starting to laugh. At this point the others also burst out laughing. “It’s labaneh from the supermarket,” she said, barely able to speak amid convulsions of laughter. “Jews’ labaneh.”

I felt like I wanted to vaporize, to drop dead. I looked at my wife to get a bit of empathy, a little support in the face of their stinking folkloristic act. They kept on guffawing, and every so often someone coughed as he uttered the word “Jiftlik,” or “goat’s labaneh,” but my wife’s response hurt me more than the rolling laughter of the Arabs around the table. With a half smile in the corner of her mouth she said, “You deserve it, you great fool.”