One Woman's Journey to a Place Israelis Prefer to See as a Black Hole

A collection of strange tales about a woman, no longer young, who drives a rattling red car and speaks with and helps people in a place that some think may not even exist - beyond the Green Line.

The Eretz Crossing between Israel and Gaza.
Nir Kafri

“Isha Levada” (“A Woman on Her Own”), by Ilana Hammerman, Achuzat Bayit Books (Hebrew), 302 pages, 74 shekels.

Once there was (or maybe there wasn’t) a faraway place (or maybe it was very near). There’s no knowing whether it existed or not. Many swear by all they hold dear that the place never existed and doesn’t exist now, either, and they risk their lives to prove it with signs and wonders, not to mention an outstretched arm.

Others saw it once, when they were young or doing reserve duty in the army. Most of them keep their lips tightly sealed, but those who speak can either garner glory and honor, or condemnation and hatred. Both groups tell the exact same story, only in a different tone.

It’s very odd – what that place does to the Jews who hear about it. There are also a very few individuals, among them the author of “A Woman on Her Own,” who were actually there, physically, and who relate what they saw and whom and what they encountered. Many people, hearing about this, wonder, “What does she want to go there for?”

Can we believe the stories of Ilana Hammerman, an esteemed author, editor and translator, who has translated Kafka and Brecht, Céline and Camus into Hebrew – with the result being that something from the world of those writers has become intermingled with her stories about this place?

This is a collection of strange tales about a woman, no longer young, who drives a rattling red car and visits that place dressed in jeans and a sweater, or wearing a short-sleeved blouse, the way she always dresses. And she speaks with people who live in that place – men and women, boys and girls – and listens to their stories, the way she listens to stories told by neighbors and friends. She has tea with them and takes them in her car to the Nitzanim beach in the south, or to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, or visits them in detention facilities. Sometimes she meets them in her home, in Jerusalem, when they do painting or construction jobs, or fix leaks.

Ilana Hammerman.
Emil Salman

Strange stories, because some of them possess humor and generosity; sometimes they are positively heartwarming, amusing, almost surrealistic. And a pleasant spirit of grace and courage blows through them and from them to those who read them. But even when they’re like that – and they’re not always like that – they’re dark. The heart increasingly shrivels up as one reads the stories, and the body seems to crumple and stoop.

In that place, if it exists, bureaucracy reigns. There is bureaucracy everywhere, a system of human institutions that supervise people’s behavior and regularize their rights and obligations. But in that place, bureaucracy is the be-all and end-all – its sole aim being to maintain itself. It is the machine that passes judgment on the body of the condemned – just like in a story that Hammerman once translated from German.

The machine is gluttonous, arbitrary, it has no rhyme or reason, it lacks justification; it is all-purposeful and fashioned in such a way that human beings serve it – not vice versa. Why? That, too, is hard to figure out. To preserve safety, or security, but also in order to prevent safety or security. Anyway, it’s all a matter of guesswork, because there’s no way of knowing. For a long time there’s been no way of knowing.

Let’s say, for example, that someone needs glasses because he’s shortsighted but can’t obtain them by himself because he’s in administrative detention – that is, arrested without an indictment, without trial and without sentence being passed. He could be in detention there, in the place that might or might not have existed, for months or years without a reason – or without a reason that anyone is allowed to know. Only the machine knows, but not human beings. Even the human beings who operate the machine aren’t capable of knowing.

Anyhow, be that as it may, he needs glasses. But what sort of authorization, or procedure, exists for someone who needs glasses and for someone who has bought them for him and wants to give them to him so that he’ll be able to see? Does such a procedure exist? All kinds of procedures are quoted in Hammerman’s book. But it’s impossible to understand anything from them. And anyway, there are all kinds of bodies and people, each of which has its own procedures, and sometimes they too can cancel out the old procedures and invent new ones.

Anyway, there’s nothing to see, because most of us see only a black hole, not a place and not people, not landscapes and not stories. For that, there’s no need for glasses; in fact, it’s better without them.

For others, it’s good that the place, if it exists, is a black hole, beyond any common sense. Because when there is no sense, certain types of people can get rich. For example, there are people from that place who enter Israel in order to work in construction or other jobs that Israelis don’t like to do themselves; even if they do, their salary has to be paid according to the law. But the people from that place don’t have to be paid according to the law, because they’re hungry and will work for almost any price. And how do they get to work? With an entry permit.

The trade in entry permits is worth a fortune. Jewish employers and contractors acquire permits for workers from the Employment Service – more permits than they need – and sell them to contractors from that place, who in turn sell them to workers at exorbitant prices: 2,000 shekels (about $500) for a permit, and which allows you to stand in line at the checkpoint, or enter via a circuitous route and stay for a few days or weeks and work in construction so as to pay back your debts and maybe make a little money, too.

Their permit is signed by a contractor who will never personally meet or hire the workers, but who does take their money, and takes it happily: The Jewish brain is way ahead of the game! Everyone knows about this system, including the Civil Administration. It’s not legal, but there’s no real law, anyway.

But this isn’t the theme of the book, which was written by a woman who says of herself that she’s “a bit funny, and wanders and ponders a lot.” Nor is the book about torture and miscarriage of justice, or about the nullification of hope, the trampling of honor and the relentless preservation of despair and humiliation in that place – for security reasons, of course, because that, as we know, is the way security is created.

This is not the heart of the book, and I do it an injustice by dwelling on it.

At the heart of the book is a woman on her own, free, inquisitive, friendly, who drives children to the sea so that they can see it for the first time, and who meets families and friends and officials and speaks with them and observes them. A woman who is capable of “ridiculing fears and prejudices, of crossing barriers of walls and fences with her body, her spirit and her mind, and of defying limitations that reside in the soul – limitations of submission and obedience, and especially of fear – and vanquishing them.”

These are lines that are liable to bring her face to face with threats of murder, certainly with vilifications such as “traitor” and “collaborator” and “whore” and other words. Words that were undoubtedly uttered and that will be uttered by those who have not been there and don’t believe that such a place exists, but who also know that there is such a place, and that it will yet exist, as long as we are involved, until the end.

Omri Herzog is a regular contributor to the Haaretz Hebrew Books supplement.