THE THREE OF US got on bus 20 and rode from Ir Ganim to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. The other two, a lieutenant-general from the air force and an Australian reporter who hated Jews, sat facing me, knees touching knees. I reminded them who I was, the man who when young swore to be a proud Jew in body and soul.
The two didn’t know one another. I visited the military airbase commander right after I immigrated to Israel and became a shepherd in a nearby kibbutz. I met Thomas Brown when I invited myself to his house in Melbourne after World War II, following an anti-Semitic essay he wrote in The Age, the Victoria State newspaper.
In those days everyone in the small Jewish community of Melbourne thought it was their duty to be proud Jews. I knew how to be proud in body. I walked with my head held high. But how would I know when the soul was lifting up its head? I was hoping it would happen at Thomas Brown’s house. I’d mention in our conversation a few impressive names: Moses. King David. Prophet Isaiah. Albert Einstein. And he’d change his mind.
I did it. He promised to change direction in his next essay. But he didn’t, and my soul didn’t lift its head.
Thomas Brown wasn’t comfortable on the bus. He couldn’t remember when he last used public transportation. He arrived in Israel toward the end of the millennium in order to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. He tracked me down in Jerusalem, and we arranged to take a short trip in the city. His opinion of the Jewish people still hadn’t changed. In Australia, he said, time didn’t do much. Even at our first and only meeting at his house he found me ridiculous. A sort of spiritual plumber on a mission to repair broken pipes in the darkness of his soul.
Here on the bus Thomas Brown took an interest in the densely packed apartment buildings along the streets of Ir Ganim, of Kiryat Yovel. In the laundry hanging on the balconies. At the Mahaneh Yehuda stop, when the bus filled up with basket-carrying travelers, he got up and gave his seat to a heavyset woman with heavy baskets. He himself got pushed toward the back of the long bus, gesturing to me that when we got to Jaffa Gate, he’d walk alone on the Via Dolorosa. He’d measure every step of the way and would ponder the message the son of God bestowed upon humanity: Love for humankind.
The lieutenant-general also didn’t feel comfortable on the bus. He was annoyed by the heavy basket the woman next to him placed on his knees. Nowadays he was a neighbor of mine in Jerusalem, and joined the ride at the last moment. He asked me not to mention his name in this story, and told me that whenever he happened to get to Jaffa Gate, he too felt a need to go alone to the Wailing Wall. A beard and moustache, both of the same thickness, were still decorating his face, joining around the mouth into a zero. Now, facing me, it was a graying zero. Back then when I visited him at the airport, it was a pure orange zero.
The zero didn’t prevent me back then from laying out to him, at great length, the issue of grazing pastures. To him too I mentioned some impressive names: Moses, King David, Prophet Amos. All of them shepherds. I requested permission to enter the field next to the airport runway. I’d lead the herd with my head held high, and perhaps my soul too would finally lift its head up.
The commander also found me ridiculous. He waited patiently for me to finish my speech, and when I didn’t stop, he gave a long silent yawn. Seeing before me two zeros, one inside the other, I took a breath and fell silent for a moment. The commander took advantage of this moment to tell me he’d let me lead the herd around the airport’s pastures only if instead of dropping impressive names I should come equipped with a broom. He himself was once a shepherd, and knew what happened when a herd of sheep crossed the runway in panic. The runway must stay clean, he added. I shouldn’t leave behind even one black bean.
The next morning before sunrise, I set out with the herd toward the airport, my head held high, holding the biggest broom I could get my hands on in a nearby town. With the key he gave me I unlocked a side gate. When the sheep finished crossing over to the pasture, the runway was covered with a broad carpet of excrement, and my body was covered with sweat.
Bus 20 reached its final stop by the Old City, and I saw the commander and the reporter walking each on his own separate way. One toward the Via Dolorosa, the other toward the Wailing Wall.
I stayed behind and walked around in the alleys, recalling that sweaty morning on the runway. Against the background of a rising sun and noise of combat jets, with a broom in my hands, a body bent down and a head facing the ground, the soul lifted its head up.
Translated from the Hebrew by Hana Inbar, Robert Manaster, and Margaret Birstein