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The Handel Family Visits Jerusalem, or, The Mystery of Five-Sixths

by Ilana Sumka | Published on April 20, 2009

Running down the ramp with her arms open wide, Agnes Handel, youngest child of the Handel family, flings herself into my embrace, kisses each cheek, and waits impa­tiently for the rest of her family to follow.  Or, most of the rest of her family.  Her father, Adel, and her older siblings, Yousef, Miryam and Issa, soon follow, also bearing wide smiles and kisses.  Thrilled to see them, I was relieved that they all made it through the check­point. Except for one.

Where’s Sahar?”  I asked.  Sahar is Adel’s wife, the mother of the four children.

She didn’t get a permit,” replied Adel, with a twinge of regret? Sadness? Anger? “I applied three times for her and they still didn’t give it to her.”

Oh,” I replied.  That’s crazy, I thought.

I was at the Jerusalem-Bethlehem check­point, meeting them for the very rare oppor­tu­nity of a family excur­sion to Jerusalem.  I, a Jewish woman, have become an adopted member of their family –a Christian Palestinian family. During my trips to Bethlehem, I am frequently and graciously welcomed into their home.  During Easter time, some Christian Palestinians are granted seasonal permits to visit Jerusalem.  Some, although not, appar­ently, all.  Sahar, mid-40’s, a wife, a home­maker and mother of four, was denied a permit for reasons not given.

What does everyone want to do?” I queried the crowd of a 9 year old girl, an 11 year old boy, a 13 year old pre-teen and a 16 year old teenager.  I wondered how I could come up with some­thing fun for everyone.

After delib­er­ating between either going shop­ping at the Mall or wandering the streets of the Old City, we settled on bowling.

We piled onto the bus and navi­gated our way through Talpiot.  What do they see when they walk down these streets of Jewish Israeli West Jerusalem, I wondered.  Do they notice the signs of Arab villages that once were here that have now been replaced by Israeli car shops?  Are they speaking Arabic quietly, lest they be singled out for unwanted atten­tion?  Would they be more comfort­able in an Arab neigh­bor­hood in Jerusalem?  But I didn’t know of any bowling alleys in East Jerusalem.

At the bowling alley, while the girls looked for the lightest balls that they could throw, I couldn’t help but look around and notice our differ­ences from the rest of the customers.  Every single other lane had patrons with black hats and long skirts: Haredim, Orthodox of the Orthodox.  With Passover less than a week behind us, many reli­gious fami­lies were still on vacation.

I chided myself for not wearing one of my ankle-length skirts, wishing I could assert my Jewish iden­tity and compete with the uber-Jewishness of the other patrons.  Were they looking at us funny?  Did they hear the Arabic of the Handel family and raise their eyebrows? If they did, I didn’t detect it.  Nonetheless, I found myself using my super­powers to put up invis­ible shields around the family, wanting more than anything to protect them from the slightest possible harm or racial slur.  I wish I didn’t have to do that, but in my years in Israel I’ve heard one-too-many racist jokes about Arabs to feel confi­dent that my People, my fellow Jews, wouldn’t provide us with some unwanted attention.

The two youngest chil­dren had never bowled before.  Not exactly an expert in the sport, I didn’t have any words of wisdom to impart.   It turns out the Palestinian chil­dren and Jewish chil­dren bowl with striking simi­larity: clumsily!

We watched the Orthodox family in the lane next to us as they watched their youngest child drop the bowling bowl some­what askew in the lane, and we would all hold our breath hoping that the ball wouldn’t disap­point­ingly drop into the gutter.  Then we did the same in our lane.  My super­powers may have protected the family from unwanted racist atten­tion but there was nothing I could do to keep Agnes from throwing gutter ball after gutter ball.  She seemed delighted regard­less of her low score, and we whis­tled and cheered for every pin she managed to knock down.

After the bowling, Agnes still wanted to go to the mall.  I suggested we visit the Old City.  Adel, the father, had not been to Jerusalem in more than 10 years, and as a devout Christian, I thought he might like the oppor­tu­nity to visit the ancient churches and meander through the historic streets of Jerusalem stone.

Where do you live, Ilana?” Adel asked me.  “Is it far from here?”

Hm. That morning I had wondered if I should bring them to my place. I had already come up with many reasons not to invite them:

1. My place is a little small for that many people. (Weak, Ilana.  Very weak.  You have plenty of chairs.)

2. It’s not that clean. (Actually, I just scrubbed for Pesach, and it’s about as clean as it gets.)

3. I don’t have any food in the house to serve them. (That’s true.  I’m a working woman.  I’ve been known to exist on cereal and scram­bled eggs for many days.  When I visit the Handel’s house in Bethlehem, Sahar always has a freshly baked plate of cookies to serve.  But that’s what the neigh­bor­hood market is for. No excuse.)

4. Ok.  Here it is.  I live in an Arab house.  I rent an apart­ment in a beau­tiful, old, sacred stone building with curved arches and high ceil­ings.  This home belonged to an Arab family before 1948.  As I under­stand it from the Jewish owners, the orig­inal home­owners are now refugees in Hebron.  Bringing the Handel family to my home opens up a personal ques­tion I have strug­gled with but never satis­fac­to­rily resolved in my five years living in Jerusalem: Why do I get to live in a magical house with olive, pome­granate and fig trees planted well before Israel was a State by people who no longer have access to their home?

Did the orig­inal home­owners leave by choice or under duress?  Did they take only enough provi­sions for a short stay, expecting to come back a few weeks later?  Did they fight in the 1948 war?  What are their lives like now?  Are they still refugees in Hebron, or have they paved a new path?  What would I say if I met them?  What would they say to me?  Would I live in this house if I knew more details of the story?  Does my not-knowing allow me the comfort of ignorance-is-bliss, and if I knew more, would I do some­thing differently?

I know that the Jewish people won the war in 1948, but that is not a satis­fac­tory answer to the ques­tion under­neath my ques­tions: What would fair­ness and equity look like in this trou­bled region?

Can I really bring the Handel family into my home that has such charged history?

Adel, I’d love for you to come to my house,” I replied.

We picked up a pizza, cookies and ice cream.  As we approached my house, I braced myself for the comment: “Oh, you live in an Arab house…,” but none came.  Just a happy, tired family –or 5/6ths of it anyway– piled into my living room, munching on popsi­cles and slices of pizza pie.

I waited all after­noon for the comment.  Some acknowl­edg­ment of the unfair­ness of my living in this majestic house with full freedom of move­ment, access to bowling, shop­ping malls and the Old City when­ever I wanted.  But the comment remained unspoken.

Sitting in my living room, a little cramped, serving store-bought rather than home-cooked food, I felt pure joy.  Joy at watching the ice cream melt down the chins of the Handel chil­dren, joy in having the oppor­tu­nity to offer Adel a cup of coffee, after years of being served in his home.

Perhaps Sahar wasn’t given the permit just to make sure that the family would return to their own side at the end of the day?  Or was it a computer glitch?  Or is Sahar somehow suspi­cious to the Israeli mili­tary complex?  She sent Adel with an over­flowing basket of her famous tradi­tional Easter cookies of dates and almonds for me.  As I walked Adel and his chil­dren out, I made them promise to send her my love.

I don’t actu­ally believe that my rela­tion­ship with the Handel family is what will bring an end to this conflict.  But today I gave myself permis­sion to enjoy: to enjoy bowling with Adel, to enjoy Sahar’s cookies, and to enjoy opening my home to a family –5/6ths of a family– that has shown me nothing but compas­sion and warmth amidst a sea infected with hostility and fear.  I thank God for the glimpses of grace that provide an ever-so-small inkling of an idea as to what this Holy Land could truly look like.

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