Remembering Prime Minister Rabin
Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995
I was a student in Jerusalem during his last year as Prime Minister of Israel. He was succeeded by Menachem Begin in 1977. I am going to write this without looking these dates up, because — I was there.
It was my first year as a student. I had never been to Israel before. I was green, as they say. I arrived in Israel with a guitar and a bag. I have since given the guitar to my old pal in Detroit; it is in no doubt in his basement.
During that year, I made a good living with that guitar. I wasn’t supposed to be working but I worked, almost every night as a matter of fact. I was discovered by an Israeli guitar player in love with American guitar music. Almost from the moment of my arrival, I played out my plaintive loneliness on the steps of 13 King David Street, my school address. I was singing blues, rhythm and blues, at the time.
My soon to be handler heard about me and came looking: who’s the guitar player here? Thus began my so-called expatriate career. Through a convergence of forces we took over an old house from the Mandate period converted into an avant garde theater space and a nice performance stage where I held court five nights a week. My handler was an excellent manager, and there was a load of international talent in the country then to join me.
Years after it became a very chi-chi Italiano restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem. There is enough information here to figure out what the venue was, famous enough to have an entry in Wikipedia. Many of the details of this story I must disguise for a variety of reasons, some personal, some meta-personal.
I studied in the green room (they called it a green room it was the former kitchen of the house) until it was time for my set. When done, I returned to my studies. Many of the performers were Israelis so I had plenty of help with my homework. To my co-students, I was absent from social scenes as soon as school was over. I had to keep my secret life under the table so to speak, for a variety of (benign) reasons.
I rented a non-insulated corner room with inadequate heat down the hill in Rechavia toward the Valley of the Cross. In winter, it was almost uninhabitable. The stone house was built on stilts, the Jerusalem stone, I was as cold as I have ever been in my life for almost the entire mild (by American standards) Jerusalem winter. I felt I was living in a stone box. Of course the year I was there it snowed vociferously for several delightful days.
There were several mornings I prowled the city looking for a warm lobby of a hotel that would not kick me out if I sat there wrapped in sweaters and coat until the chill came off my bones. I was like an animal on the prowl for carrion. Heat. All this figures in the story in a much more romantic way that is silly to enter because of personal sensibilities and even after so many years the softness of the heart when speaking of old romances.
On my trek from my corner room of icy solitude to the school I had discovered a shortcut walk – a one block connecting street — undistinguished by the style of limestone apartments buildings that lined the street, every one with a mirpeset, a balcony, opening onto or over the street. Except for one.
The neighborhood is built in the European style, having been purchased from the Greek Orthodox Church during the Mandate period by the Palestine Land Development Company. The streets were purposely built narrow, preserving a quieter garden neighborhood feel. Jerusalem is a bustling driving city. If you know your way around on foot, the best way to get around Jerusalem, there are many fine short cuts through this neighborhood.
I knew the street because it was the same street where one of my teachers lived who held a Monday night salon, a story I have told in another place.
It was also the place of the prime minister’s residence. This I didn’t know at first. I did notice there was a kind of blockhouse above the street a floor or so up with dark thin windows gazing onto the street connected to a gate which led to the house. I couldn’t see into the block house but I blissfully walked past it every morning on my way to school. I was curious, always paused to look in but I saw nothing, could not see into the darkened skinny windows staring at me like a sinister watchman as I passed.
One day I was carrying my guitar with me to school, in its nice case built for international traveling, and as I passed the sinister blockhouse before I got to the gate there were several soldiers in uniform blocking my way and asking me who I was and what I had in the case. Guitar, I said in Hebrew: guitara. They realized I was American and switched to English. Open it please. I did. They asked me to take it out. I did and they peeked around and asked a few questions. Why I walked past there every day, etc., I explained I was a student at the school, what I was studying, I could see they were entertained by the baby Hebrew I was speaking and never once exited speaking English which they spoke of course much better than I spoke Hebrew. They had enough of me, ok, ok, they said. What’s this about? I asked. They didn’t answer and returned to their position inside the blockhouse.
This was the prime minister’s official residence. It wasn’t marked and it wasn’t fancy, and except for that little guardhouse, one might pay no attention to it. This was Israel, everything cautious but informal.
I began to pay attention to the little guardhouse on my daily stroll, would always pause and wave to whomever might be inside those eye-windows, and made my way.
I acquired an early-in-the-morning class and began to make the walk earlier. One day soon thereafter the gate opened as I passed and out came a car and then a man walking into the car waiting for him at the curb. The man was Yitzchak Rabin. He looked at me, I looked at him, I waved. He was not a waver. Even walking into a car Rabin had a dour kind of I’m-not-really-paying-attention to you look about him. He didn’t wave back but he looked at me.
This happened I would guess three or four times a week. We were on the same schedule. As often as not, I passed him on the street as we were both on our way to work, he to work me to school. I always waved and smiled, he always looked at me and got into the car.
About half way through our relationship, he began to wave back. The first wave was either a wave or a dismissal. That kind of hand motion. So for weeks I waved, smiled, he dismissed me.
Then one morning he waved back. I remember it because it was a wave from a person who was not accustomed to waving. Maybe it’s an American thing – waving – but one morning his wave was much like my wave, an acknowledgement of relation, light and reciprocal. It was not a completely American wave, there was still a little hook at the end that recalled the hand to the body with a suspicion of dismissal. Enough. I see you. Hello. Still it was plenty for me to anticipate every day on my way to school, wondering if I was going to see my new friend, the Prime Minister, with whom I had earned this unwritten relation, mutual acknowledgement, I see you I know you hello I greet you goodbye.
Years later, after I had returned to the States, he came to my town to give a lecture at a fancy event, between roles as Prime Minister. I sat two seats away from him on a dais (I wrangled an invitation). I eavesdropped on him speaking in Hebrew with others, he didn’t say much, he spoke economically and without much emotion, very deep basso profondo voice, and I considered asking him if he remembered me but how would I describe the curiosity of a relationship that had no words attached, of less than one year duration, consisting of a hand gesture on a street in the morning?
I asked him anyway, willing to be foolish. He paused and looked at me. You — of course I remember you, he said in Hebrew — how are you?