Pen Ultimate / Fitting Fodder for Satire

On the inspirational value of recent affairs involving old bones that seem to assume a life of their own

January 10, 49 B.C.E., was probably a cold day in northern Italy. On that day, Julius Caesar, who at the time was a general but not yet emperor, apparently declared "the die has been cast" (either in Latin or Greek, it is not clear ), and crossed the Rubicon, leading his army toward Rome. Thus started a civil war after which Rome became a powerful empire, thus shaping events in the world for hundreds of years to come, and leaving an impact even on Western civilization as we know it today.

Roman essayist and intellectual Plutarch, writing some 130 years after the fact, claimed that Julius Caesar had on that fateful winter's day quoted from the play "The Flute Girl" by comedy writer Menander, in the original Greek, and had actually said "anerriphtho kybos." According to Roman historian Suetonius, writing some 40 years later, however, the comment about the die was uttered by "The Deified Julius" (the title of Suetonius' book ) in Latin: "alea iacta est." In any case, the phrase came to symbolize a decisive moment in history, after which things would never be as before.

The Latin word alea and the Greek kybos ostensibly refer to a game that involves throwing dice and making a move accordingly, in the understanding that whatever happens to them while in the air and landing is left to chance - or the gods - depending on who you believe runs the world. As we all know, a die (from the Latin datum - "something given or played" ) is a small cube used for generating random numbers, frequently in gambling. In Caesar's day, dice were usually made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals. Even today in Slavic languages such as Russian and Polish, the word for dice is kostki (literally, "small bones" ), despite the fact that they are usually made from plastic, wood or ivory.

Following this historic-linguistic line of thought, it is relevant to mention two recent, indecisive events involving bones that have been put on our national agenda. On the one hand, we have been concerned with the skeletons found on the site of the proposed emergency room of Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. The assumption that they were the bones of Jews and the protests by ultra-Orthodox factions prompted the government to decide to move the site of the building, which involved delays and a hefty cost. Following public protest, our prime minister changed his mind and the government went back to Plan A at Barzilai. It turned out that the Byzantine-era bones apparently did not belong to Jews and they were summarily reburied elsewhere.

As described in a special Haaretz investigatory report last week, there is also the affair of an abandoned Muslim cemetery in downtown Jerusalem, on top of which the Museum of Tolerance was slated to be built. It has involved misleading reports about the site, petitions to the High Court, functionaries changing their minds, resignation of a world-famous architect and hasty excavation of graves whose contents were reinterred nearby.

Someone following these stories may well wonder why, in Israel of 2010, there is so much fuss over a bunch of anonymous, ancient bones. Indeed, it seems from these affairs that the bones have a life of their own - and politicians and entrepreneurs have no control over it. Moreover, it seems that for us the die is never cast, though maybe it is miscast. In any event, such a furor can be fodder for a satirical sketch that incorporates the same protagonists: bones that assume a life of their own, and a politician who is adept at changing his mind quite frequently.

Our sketch starts with a politician speaking at a cornerstone-laying ceremony for a library specially designed for the People of the Book - a nation that is, as he puts it, surrounded by enemies. The plans call for an edifice shaped like a huge cannon that, if need be, can shoot volumes of Plato, Shakespeare, Homer and Bialik at passing enemies.

But then by chance the keynote speaker notices the cornerstone is an unusual shape: It is oblong, covered with a black cloth and a wreath, and a weeping woman is standing next to it. A hasty consultation with his PR person leads to the revelation that this is not the 10 A.M. Wednesday appointment in Ra'anana, as thought, rather, it is 3 P.M. Tuesday, and the politician is in Ashkelon. And this is no cornerstone ceremony at all, but a funeral.

Unfazed, our politician launches into a eulogy, mumbling something about "broken hearts" and "a better world." Then the PR guy whispers that the deceased was not Jewish. The speaker goes on to say, with sardonic pathos, that he is sure the dear departed will be better off in the next world.

But then it emerges that this is the funeral of a Druze soldier who died in combat, and is dressed in an army uniform. The eulogy is adapted quickly as our speaker, of flexible mind and glib tongue, changes gear in mid-sentence, even mid-word, to mourn the soldier, whom he is then told was a pacifist and protested against the war. The tone of the speech is again altered. Except that all this is a misunderstanding: It is one of the gravediggers who is the pacifist, and the Druze had converted to Judaism, which the speaker praises enthusiastically - until he's informed that the conversion wasn't recognized by the rabbinate.

The speaker goes on, performing metaphorical acrobatics with lofty phrases, even when told that the bones in question belonged to one of Bar Kochba's rebels - and then that they really belonged to a camel. Finally, it turns out that the black box is actually empty. The only question remaining is: Who is the weeping woman?

The punch line proves that this skit was written - and could only have been written - in Hebrew and in Israel: The Hebrew term for coffin is aron metim, but aron also means cupboard. Thus we find out that the crying woman only wanted the cupboard commandeered for the ceremony returned to her kitchen, where it belonged.

There is one thing I didn't mention: This skit was written by none other than the late Hanoch Levin 28 years ago, a few months after the first Lebanon war began. And it just goes to show that years may come and years may go, but the bones of contention change very little, if at all. And they can live on forever, although not exactly as Ezekiel prophesized.