My government name is Noa Christina Ben-Yehuda and I was
once a Dutch Romeo's sidekick.
Fresh out of high school and at a loss for a plan, I purchased a one way ticket to Israel, the land of my conception. Bard College, RISD, Bennington, and SUNY Purchase had all rejected me but Ami, the Israeli guy at the Colorado Hillel outpost, assured me that Israel accepts all its people. I told him I wasn't really Jewish.
I wasn’t the only quasi-Jew at Matsuva, the kibbutz to which I was sent. A whole contingent of British volunteers, conspicuous for their thirst for the intoxicating licorice flavored arak, were goyim. Lin, the pancake-faced free spirit from China was no Jew. There were others. Argentines, Japanese, South Africans.
My father is Jewish. He is also an Iraqi. His first language was Arabic. As a boy in Baghdad, he had several family names—Yerushalmi, Cuzizada, and Abu Juarib—the latter meaning "father sock," because my grandfather was the sole manufacturer of socks for the Iraqi army.
Had it not been for the Iraqi government's enthusiasm for genocide, my father would probably have stayed there, perhaps making socks for Saddam Hussein. Instead, he was packed up with the rest of the family and shipped to Palestine in a convoy of dusty busses. My grandparents Yusef and Farha set themselves up in the promised land some twenty years before the Jewish state was established. They left a couple of things behind. The family business, the corpse of their youngest child who had drowned in a sea of socks, and the family names. No longer would they want to be known as an Arab. Once in Tel Aviv the family assumed their new identities as Ben-Yehudas, a Rockefeller of a name in those parts.
Yehuda Ben-Yehuda is my father's name and he became an abstract painter in SoHo instead of a sock maker. He met my mother at the cafeteria at Barnard where she was studying comparative literature. He invited her to his show at the Leo Castelli gallery and soon thereafter she was pregnant. This is a very distant past and I don’t feel a part of these movements. I was never taught any traditions, Christian or Jewish. I was brought up taught to worship Robert Wilson, Alberto Giacometti and Sylvia Plath. It is a fact that no one should brag about but the truth is, I didn’t know the difference between the a Christian and a Jew when I left the states. Didn’t know the Christians didn’t believe in Jesus.
I’ve since adopted my mother's family name, Jones. It's neat, unremarkable and easy to spell. And ever so goyish.
Romeo the Dutch sheep farmer was a goy.
Romeo is pronounced with emphasis on the "e" and rhymes with mayo. Romayo. He had smooth skin and the sort of straight hair that went blond with a dose of sun, the kind of creased features that make Clint Eastwood and Don Johnson seem at once dangerous and charming. Romeo was obliged to convert to Judaism in 1980, about seven years prior to my arrival at Matsuva, in order to marry a dark and beautiful Yemenite woman with mean black eyes. Her distant uncle worked at the kibbutz, which is the only reason the couple was allowed to settle there and raise their two girls. They had a cosmopolitan, mysterious air about them that other kibbutzniks had not.
My mother, Cristina, never made that conversion when she married my father, much to the dismay of Violet and Hanna, my Iraqi aunties. Born in Buenos Aires but of Basque and Welsh descent, she never tried to assimilate. It was a short marriage. She chose to name me Noa, a word found in the titles of Gauguin’s paintings. It means fragrant in Tahitian. Noa is not an uncommon name for a woman in Israel, but I like to attribute it to the French painter and a hippie mom.
Only one Welsh person lived at Matsuva in 1987 and her name was Dawn. She was pretty, almost handsome, with sharp features and straight-edged hair. Her aspect could have been classically feminine—Helena Bonham Carter in Room with a View—were it not for her constant use of profanity and a hint of mustache over her lip. She claimed to have dated royalty but on a kibbutz one learns to take stories with a handful of salt.
Dawn always reeked because she worked in the sheep house with Romeo. Though we lived in the same row of stone bungalows, I rarely smelled her in person. The sheep helper's graveyard hours were the reverse of most other volunteers so as we were in the fields, Dawn was asleep in her room with the curtains drawn. But I smelled her nonetheless. Her stinking boots haunted the hallway between our rooms as she slept. Remnants of hay and sheep feces collected in the drain of our shower on the days she chose to bathe. In the afternoon most of us would get into bathing suits and trek to the kibbutz pool and sometimes Dawn would join us. She fit into a bikini better than any of us which made me self-conscious at first but after several days at the pool I realized that the men didn't pay her much notice. Maybe they had all tried her before I ever got to the kibbutz or maybe they believed the rumors about her being a lesbian.
The Hebrew word for gossip is rehilute (guttural "h"). In the brochures for the kibbutz volunteer programs, gossip should be listed as one of the ways people can expect to spend their time. "Eight hour work days, organized tours of the countryside, gossip with reckless abandon." The volunteer system helped fuel tales of love and indiscretion, both imagined and real, by providing a pool of young unattached foreign women from which the kibbutz men, bored with their shapeless wives, could pick and choose. They could pick and choose knowing that a fresh batch would replace the used ones every three or six months. They could pick and choose secure that the mandatory AIDS and venereal disease testing would weed out any bad apples. They could pick and choose because three years in the Israeli army plus a lifetime on the farm had kept their bodies firm, healthy and attractive while their besmocked wives became dumpy and often chopped off their hair sometime after birthing their third child.
One day Dawn packed up her smelly boots and moved to another kibbutz leaving behind a trail of rehilute, residue in the drain and an empty position in the sheep. She transferred to a commune with better sheep, sheep with beautiful long hair used for wool. Our sheep were mangy and were raised for consumption.
When Dawn first hinted that she was leaving, I decided to be the next sheep girl. Job placement is a tricky game on the kibbutz. I had won the first round early in my stay by avoiding any and all kitchen duty beyond the required week of washing dishes. I had also developed a good rapport with the duty assignment director, Avigdal. I made Avigdal blush and laugh and he let me work in the fields.
The field work was invigorating at first—waking up, gathering at the mini-van with the regular crew and picking my first bushel of pomellos or avocados before daybreak. The healthy indigo of kibbutz work clothes next to the bright fruits in the trees would inspire me to hum. Picking through the fruits I would often come across deformed or irregular pieces— persimmons shaped like cats, apples shaped like snowmen—which I would collect in my pockets and display at break. At about ten, we would congregate under a tree with a thermos of sweetened coffee and a basket of fruit or crackers. The kibbutzniks took advantage of this free time to flirt with us, asking us personal questions and teasing us in Hebrew.
The novelty of getting to know my fellow volunteers wore away as the summers began to cool. The work became more tiresome and painful. By the time Dawn left, I think it must have been mid-November, I knew everyone inside and out. I knew their fabricated histories, their sexual preferences and abilities. Thousands of bushels of fruit had passed through my hands by then and I was ready for new material.
To get the sheep job I had to drop a few hints and make my face known in the area. Before she left, Dawn took me down to the main barn. It lay behind the dining hall and was huge like an aircraft hangar. A milky smell crept up the path as we walked. Not a dairy smell, really, that sounds too fresh. It was the smell of sheep and their hooves, their milk on their matted hair, and their placenta. Under the glowing buzz of bare bulbs she introduced me to an evil dog who watched over the cavernous space and to the skinny kibbutznik boy with yard long hair who dropped out of school to work in the sheep. On the night Dawn finally left she told me I had been transferred.
Perversity reigned from my first day on the job. An unsettling gauze of tension wove thick around me and Romeo and the long haired boy like the smoke winding from their cheap Israeli cigarettes. Our only exchange had consisted of "good morning" and Romeo stretching his pectorals, reaching his arms above his head while pinning me with those dark eyes. In his office, Avigdal had briefed me on my new responsibilities and it seemed those were to be all the instructions I would be getting.
Four sheep, males, were partitioned into a corner of the barn, penned up with the two females left to be impregnated. Occasionally, with big marble eyes rolling and frantic breathing, two would unite, kicking up hay and running into the walls. I could see Romeo watching my embarrassment from under his halo of smoke with removed amusement.
I knew him indirectly through my South African roommate, Leila, who was dating his brother in-law. Romeo was one of the few kibbutzniks who attended the seedy Friday night discos (sans the wife) which were held in a centrally located bomb shelter. Though I knew him and a few things about him, I had nothing to say as we sat on a fence post inside the barn at 5 in the morning listening to fornication. I seem to remember that we were chewing on something, maybe it was hay, or maybe the chewing was from all of those pregnant sheep who were being herded into the barn for our testing. Sheep chew incessantly, on hay, on cud, wood, themselves, and that chewing became a familiar background sound for me.
We were waiting on that first day for a German man from another kibbutz who had some very special equipment. Our job was to determine how far along each ewe was in her gestation and then separate them into subgroups -- those delivering in one week from those delivering in about a month. The German finally came with his ultrasound machine, the same kind used on women, and set himself on a tiny stool in the middle of the stall. Romeo and the lanky Israeli boy jumped off the fence and approached the nearest animal.
Sheep are dumb. With more aggression than necessary the men tackled the ewe and dragged her to the pink faced German. One held her and the other lifted her leg, exposing the womb area so that the sonar could be jammed against it. A little screen sat propped in the hay with images of lamb fetuses, grey and blobby, shifting across it.
I received no instruction but after watching the process a few times I began to tackle the sheep myself. The German took his eyes off the screen and watched me. Romeo and the boy watched too but then went back to work only glancing now and again. By eight in the morning my adrenalin had me pumped up enough to liberally pick up one of the mamas and carry her to the doctor on the other side of the stall. It was amazing, really, that I could lift such a weight, especially when it was wrestling against me. The men were pleased with my work and they liked to look down my shirt when I put down my victim for inspection.
At noon we broke for lunch and a hosing down. Our stench was too horrible to inflict on the other diners so we had to sit at a deserted end of the heder ochel (dining room). My fellow volunteers were all at the usual tables together. I waved to them with my pinky from under my tray of stewed vegetables and salad. I felt superior. Now I was part of a select group of real workers. Here I was with "the men."
But as I sat down to eat, a slow, sickening feeling came over me. The men were hunched over their plates scooping food into their mouths and not speaking. For hours I had been working with them in fast cooperation...on one level. I had also been watched by them, more than watched, really, I was like a diversion, an excursion, a sweaty girl with a big chest wrestling in the hay. I peeked down the collar of my shirt which had stretched in the dampness of my sweat so that it now revealed more than was intended. I had known it was stretching and that I was revealing back in the barn but had done nothing about it. I was as much guilty of playing into the perversity as the men. Realizing that over my plate of steaming plate made me feel ill and excited and detached from my self. After lunch and coffee we went back to the job.
Within days I found new strength in my arms. In the coffee house one night, a group of us female volunteers had an arm wrestling match and I beat everyone except a sturdy Scandinavian woman. It was a deadlock for so long that we became bright red in the face and had to break out laughing. That was a rare moment because with my new job I had inherited the sheep helper's hours and had very little time to spend with the rest of the group, though they knew I was around by the stench of my boots in the hall.
As the gestation period grew closer, Romeo and I worked from supper until morning. We were the only ones in the blue fatigues at that late hour. There wasn't much for us to do after general feeding but wait and watch over the three hundred or so sheep who were full of babies. I looked forward to those hours when we sat, smoking cigarettes, feet dangling. I began to learn about Romeo. He first opened up to me when we began talking about travel. I told him I wanted to visit my friend living in Nepal. He had been there and to all points between—Sikkim, Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, and then down to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and finally Yemen where he met his wife. It seemed strange to me that this worldly man let himself be confined to the four miles of Matsuva and to the bonds of marriage. But one night he let me know that he and Dawn had gotten to know each other inside and out and I realized that he had his ways of stepping out of the bounds. As he talked I watched pregnant sheep.
One began to butt around, stepping backwards over the straw with a pained look in her eye. Maybe she knew that the body she had boiling inside her belly would soon begin its short journey to the slaughter house. Maybe she just wanted it out of her system. Romeo was there to assist. He roughly pushed her into one of the birthing stalls and climbed back up to the raised landing from which I watched. Most could handle the birth on their own, he told me, like this one.
During the next several nights I held newborns like I held the first one. I squeezed slime and blood and blew first breath into their noses. After injecting them with antibiotics I tied bands around their still-developing tails so that they would fall off, becoming part of the carpet of hay and hair and feces beneath my boots. And then I would go back to the shed with Romeo for his company and conversation. Sometimes we would drink Maccabees but everything tasted like baby slime to me. My appetite was not healthy.
All the deliveries had been smooth until the fourth night. The sheep Romeo had rounded into the birthing pen was still pushing after fifteen minutes and it was obvious that we had to intervene. Her energy was draining. One tiny stick of a leg was poking out from under her bobbed tail indicating that the lamb was backwards. I was kneeling to the side while Romeo sat directly behind the mother rubbing his hands together. One of those hands went pushing into the sheep's uterus. Her head was drooping and her eyes watery. Romeo's whole arm was inside her body. I was swallowing a gag in my throat and breathing in short gasps. A sound like kneading hamburger was all I heard as Romeo slowly extracted his arm, pulling one of three dead lambs out.
"You get the rest," he said, all matter of fact, and got up to wash.
I thought he must be joking but he wasn’t. I wailed for him to come back but he kept walking to the water shed.
I would have gone right after him were it not for the voice of this wretched sheep and the look in her big, protruding eyes which were just like a child's. This was the moment of her kid's death, a moment of intense pain, probably not emotional but certainly physical, and her life was in the hands of an amateur. I looked at my fists and tried to imagine the insides of the sheep. The two images did not fit in the same frame. A little imploring baaa came from the mother. She arched her neck back and looked at me sitting behind her. The gag grew in my throat and pushed tears to my eyes. These tears blurred the picture before me—my hand entering the behind of this animal. I thought of gynecologists. I thought of bestiality. It was hot inside there, like a mouth. Or for a desperate farmer it could pass as a woman. I thought of Romeo. Could this be one of the perks of his job? But in this mouth was a head and a leg and little ears. I grabbed what I could and slowly tugged. The ewe looked like she was fainting. By the time I had the black lamb in my lap, flat, dead, Romeo was at my side finishing the job.
I stood quickly, dumping the carcass into the hay and ran to the shed. At the big tin basin lined with bottles of formula, I washed my hands but that wasn't enough. I rubbed soap into my arms and elbows and then my face. When Romeo finally came to apologize, water was dripping down my hair.
He called me "Miss Noa" and congratulated me. And he called me "little Noa" and he invited me for a celebratory beer in the village. What was he celebrating? Still damp, I climbed into a jeep parked behind the water shed and we drove to the main gate of the kibbutz via the peripheral road that enclosed the whole commune. Avri, a man I knew from the avocados, was gatekeeper for the night. He shined his flashlight suspiciously into our eyes and without a word lifted the gate freeing us to the unsettled land of the Upper Galilee. A ten minute drive west, towards the ocean brought us to Naharia, a small town famous for World War II boat landings. We were both tired and agreed to have one Maccabee before returning to Matsuva.
I imagined that we were pioneers, passionate lovers setting out for a new land. I imagined that there were snipers along the dark road and that the peril existing outside of the jeep was far greater than that resting in this stony man next to me. He drove fast and unswerving until we reached a shanty pub, still dressed in our blues.
My pioneer fantasy dissolved in the beer. Romeo began to lay on me the next task we would be tackling—artificial insemination.
# # #