Somewhere in south-central Israel, Amatzia lies hidden from view amid the hills and caves, which were once sanctuary to Bar Kochba and his minions. Amatzia is a moshav whose location can best be described as a place that lies closer to the boundaries of the imagination than to any city, town, or village. And it was there that I met a man whose past unknowingly had crossed paths with mine over half a century ago.
I met Ben, better known as “big Ben,” at the suggestion of his son Yair, who thought that his parents would enjoy meeting and chatting with visitors from Yair’s hometown of Cherry Hill. So my wife Bobbie and I set out to meet Ben and his wife Aliza who are longtime residents of Amatzia. The moshav is located in a district that stood fallow for millennia; its barren hills housed scorpions and snakes and not much else. Today those once desolate and wretched mounds have been cultivated into dunams upon dunams of lush vineyards. Amatzia is rustic and rural and just about as far from Brooklyn, where Ben was born and raised, as time and space will allow.
Ben is the first and only Jewish cowboy I have ever known. Before Ben’s retirement he worked from dawn to dusk mounted on horseback leading some 1600 head of cattle to pasture, mending fences, and guarding his herds from neighboring Arab rustlers. Today only 600 head of cattle remain; a green carpet of trellised grapevines replaced the others. As we snacked on nuts and dried fruit in his living room, Ben slowly served up the bits and pieces of the events that comprised his life’s story. While Ben shared slices of his past, Aliza set out a lavish spread of cold cuts and salads. I had a feeling she had heard his stories more than once. But not I, which explains why I often interrupted his flow of tales; I could not contain my zeal and curiosity. I was determined to learn as much as possible about the experiences of a man whose past I shared in part and whose chosen pathway through life could very well have been mine.
In 1959 Ben spent some time in the then nascent city of Eilat living on the beach. In those early years of Israel’s rebirth, Eilat, which is Israel’s southernmost city and situated on the shores of the Red Sea, had only one hotel, named Malon Eilat (Hotel Eilat), one watering hole, appropriately called Café Sof Olam (The End of the World Café), and a single air landing strip used solely by Arkia Air – unless you count a stray camel or two. Over the last fifty or so years the only things that have remained unchanged about Eilat are its never ending desert wind, parched bone aridity, oppressive one-hundred-plus degree heat, and the stunningly beautiful waters of its blue Red Sea.
The year was 1959 when I too took up residence on the shores of the same beach as Ben. We may have unwittingly passed by each other as we strolled along Eilat’s sands, just a stone’s throw from its famous coral reefs, flying fish, and the occasional shiver of sharks prowling its shores. While living there I worked a short time for a local fisherman named Jacob. My job consisted of snorkel diving for salt water fish which we packaged in airtight plastic bags, boxed in wooden crates, and air lifted to pet stores in Germany for purchase by home aquarium enthusiasts.
Today, snorkeling buffs and European sun worshippers stream onto those once pristine beaches. Where once only a single hotel stood, now there are a host of hotels, motels, and hostels strewn along its boardwalks. It seems that fifty years ago both Ben and I were searching for something we could not find in either of our places of birth, Brooklyn or Philadelphia. Ben found it and stayed; I left and then found it. Fast-forward half a century and here we sat, not on the shores of the Red Sea, but amid the hills of south-central Israel, reminiscing and sharing stories.
Ben tells of a time when he was close friends with a man named Hakeem who lived in the neighboring Arab village of Idhna, just a few meters on the other side of the Green Line. Ben would visit him on occasion and share stories over an espresso sized cup of Cardamom flavored coffee poured from a metal dallah (domed coffee pot) and served with an accompaniment of dates. Sadly, Ben’s friendship with Hakeem is no more because the gentle breezes of amity have been supplanted with squalls of suspicion and animus. I was left with the disquieting realization that in the case of Ben and Hakeem, like so many other good neighbors in the region, the distance between close friends is measured not in meters, but by which side of the Green Line you live.
We continued swapping stories until the dusk’s lengthening shadows covered Amatzia. They stretched eastwardly across the Green Line as they began their daily trek across the grassland, allowing a smattering of flickering lights from Idhna. It was time for Ben and Aliza to escort us down the dusty path toward our car, but not before one final story. As we approached the perimeter gate of the moshav, Ben pointed to a field to our left and told us that several years ago some of the neighboring Arab villagers began leading their cattle onto the lush pastures of Amatzia to graze. The intruders were asked to stop that practice because the moshav barely had enough grass to feed its own herds. The request was ignored and the encroachment continued for several more days. In response Ben said, “It’s time to stop talking.”
The next morning Ben shouldered his rifle and with his six-year-old son Yair in tow, trudged into the fields to greet the morning sun and the invaders from the east. Little Yair straggled along behind his dad toting extra bullet clips in case they would be needed.
The first few shots fired from Ben’s rifle were not enough to convince the invaders that he was serious. But once the bullets began kicking up dust while carving a path that inched closer and closer to the restless herd, the message was duly noted. The interlopers prodded their cattle back across the Green Line.
About the same time Ben finished recounting his story, we arrived at the moshav’s electric powered iron gate as it silently slid open. An evening breeze tugged gently at my sleeve reminding me it was time to leave. The four of us exchanged kisses, hugs and pleasantries, reluctant to part but happy that we had met. The gathering darkness made driving home difficult, as did the knowledge that time and distance would conspire against us and make it improbable that we would ever meet again. But one never knows, because in Israel, even the improbable is an everyday occurrence.
Steve Wenick is a frequent contributor to the following publications: Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey, Attitudes Magazine, Varied Voices Blog, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He also has had articles and poetry published in The Jewish Exponent. His subject matters deal primarily with Jewish subjects and Israel.