For the past three weeks I’ve been writing this column from the road, in trains, airports and planes. Then, when I arrived home after a two-week tour of book readings in the United States, I entered straight into the frenzy of Passover eve, and into a home on the verge of a nervous breakdown following a few good days of school holiday.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” my wife told me when I got home, “but I had a serious case of pneumonia, and only the third doctor I saw diagnosed it, after a lung x-ray, and two of your children have been on antibiotics for a week already. It was a nightmare,” she said even before I gave her the present I had brought from America. The look she gave me made it plain that I could forget about all those messages of “I miss you,” “As long as you’re managing to rest sometimes,” and “I love you, too” – messages she sent me occasionally all the way across the ocean. “I didn’t want to stress you,” she said, “you’re not stable to begin with.”
Five minutes after I entered the house, I realized that I had no choice but to leave the house together with my family, and the sooner the better. “Did you organize something for the Passover holiday?” I asked innocently. “You said the kids want to go to Eilat, no?”
“I didn’t organize anything,” she said. “When did I have time to think about a holiday?”
“Fine, I’ll find something,” I declared, and instead of showering and getting some shuteye, I went into the study with the remainder of the duty-free cigarettes and googled “Hotels in Eilat.”
After three phone calls in which the receptionists said they were sorry but had no vacancies, I started itching again and took another dose of antihistamines. It’s because of that Indian restaurant in Washington. At first I thought it was just a rash and it would pass, but the next day, ahead of a scheduled talk in Milwaukee, I felt like I was at death’s door.
My hosts at the Jewish center in the city came to my aid. “Is there a doctor in the house?” the organizers asked before I started my talk. Four hands shot up, and in the end it was an affable, smiling skin doctor who saved me from suffocation as my tongue became bloated and blocked my throat. “Was it at least a good restaurant?” he asked as he treated me.
“We have a family room for tomorrow in Eilat,” a receptionist at the national reservation center of a chain of luxury hotels said, taking me aback. “Three adults and two children?” she said, repeating the details in an interrogative tone of voice. “Two nights with breakfast, that will be 11,340 shekels [$3,260].”
“But,” I tried, “it’s a couple, and the little one is just a baby, and after all, it’s one room.”
“You know what?” the receptionist said. “Let me see if I can give you a discount, all right? Just a sec… Okay, instead of 11,340 I can give it to you for 9,860 [$2,835].”
“Excellent,” I said. “Thank you.”
“How much?” my wife asked, as the children exulted because we were going to Eilat. “How much?” she shouted when I told her the price. She put a hand on her chest and emitted shortness-of-breath sounds, even though I’d rounded the price down. I told her it would be 9,000 shekels.
“Tell me, are you a numbskull?” she literally screamed. “Two weeks in the United States and you think you actually have a career. Do you know what we could have done with 9,000 shekels?”
Well, I said things like “money comes and money goes, the important thing is health,” and “what’s money compared to the happiness of the children, the important thing is that we’ll be together for two days.” It didn’t help. My wife kept on throwing out all kinds of ideas about what we could have done with 9,000 shekels. “A house-cleaner for a year,” she said, and half an hour later, “We could have replaced the dishwasher – it’s 10 years old and doesn’t do the job anymore. We could have had a dishwasher and a washing machine for less than 9,000.”
I managed to get a few hours of sleep, and on the morning of the holiday eve we drove to Eilat. It took five hours from Jerusalem, including two stops for popsicles and coffee. I tried to concentrate on the driving, because I don’t like the Arava road. I drove slowly and occasionally felt the jetlag threatening to kick in. When Israel Radio stated that a curfew was being imposed in the territories ahead of the Festival of Freedom, I switched to Jordan and heard a marriage counselor who spoke in a quiet voice, trying to encourage listeners who phoned in about the problems they were having with their partner. Life can be truly beautiful, she said, only if we start listening to one another.
“We could have bought a complete bedroom set for your younger son, including a mattress from the best store in the city,” my wife said as the children emerged from the hotel pool and announced that they were hungry, “but you never listen.” A young Israeli waitress took the children’s order. “Can we have a popsicle, too?” my son asked.
“After you eat,” I replied. “No,” his mother said, “we’ll buy it from the kiosk outside. It costs a fortune here.”
Dripping wet, the children ate sausages in kosher-for-Passover rolls. The pool was packed; a lot of French Jews were wishing one another a happy holiday in a Flatto-Sharon accent. There were also many English families with heavy accents, or maybe they were from Australia or South Africa – who knows, the main thing is they had an accent. There were also some Israeli families by the pool, but not many. The Israelis aren’t freiers, and somehow I had the feeling that even the few who were here had managed to organize a deal.
Israeli waiters in blue uniforms served the food in the pool-side restaurant, and they were allowed to smile and chat with the clients. Arab workers in gray uniforms cleared the tables – I knew by both their color and their name tags, though I noticed that sometimes the hotel tried to fudge the fact: there were lots of Hamudis and Mudis.The Arabs didn’t speak with the clients, just pointed to the dirty dishes and asked “All right?” when it was absolutely necessary.
African workers in black uniforms milled incessantly among the vacationers, collecting disposable cups and popsicle sticks tossed on the ground by children. They collected the garbage from the pails mutely, not saying a word, even to each other.
There’s a Seder in the hotel this evening. We passed on it, and not only because we are not free people – they wanted 380 shekels [$110] per person, alcohol not included.
“A refrigerator,” my wife said, “for 9,000 shekels we could have bought one of those refrigerators with two doors that open sideways.”