Sunday, May 3, 2009

Channeling Maggie...

“I woke up this morning with a headache – but neither the up-front sinus kind nor the wallop of a migraine – and a feeling that if I wasn’t exactly sick, I sure as hell was ailing.

“Did I leave the kerosene heater on? No.

“High blood pressure, then? That was supposed to give you headaches, I’d heard. But ‘high’ anything didn’t seem to fit, for when I first tried getting out of bed I discovered that someone had sneaked in during the night and untied all my muscle-strings.

"However, I decided as I stumbled around my room, my head didn’t really pound, and as headaches go, this one ranked well below a good-sized hangover.

“I finally declared myself formally not-sick. What I felt was ‘funny’ and that vague description was as close as I could get. Defeated on all fronts, I dragged my oddly heavy body off to ulpan (Hebrew school).

“But in school, I seemed to be an even duller Hebrew scholar than usual. I wasn’t walking through water, I was immobilized in thick air while new words, however conscientiously chanted, dropped soundlessly out of my mind the next second, and even words I knew failed to come when I rang for them.

“What was this all about? I finally learned that it was the hamsin, which is the Arabic word. In Hebrew, it’s called a sharav. It’s a strong hot wind that blows – more or less – in certain seasons, and does something odd with the ions in the air. The hamsin gives you a headache, tightens your nerves, sours your temper, and makes everyone seem at least a little hateful.

"It gives a lot of people that pinch-faced, drawn look. All in all, it’s a good day to stay at home if you can.”

That’s Maggie Rennert speaking, from her marvelous book, ‘Shelanu: An Israel Journal” published in 1979 and just as timely today as it was then.

Maggie left her native Boston and moved to Israel in 1973 – moved to Beersheba, actually – and then wrote this book about her first year here. It’s largely because of Maggie -- who tragically passed away in the early 1980’s – that I came to Beersheba myself.

Her book 'Shelanu’ although now seriously out of print, is delightful, funny, profound and deadly accurate in telling what it’s like for a woman of a certain age – she was in her late 50’s when she came – to move to a very foreign country and learn to survive. The tales she told about the Beersheba community – as it was in 1973 – sounded so interesting, so diverse, so wacky (truth be told) that I had to see for myself.

She was pretty much right on – even though I came to the city some 30 years after she did. Ever since I got here, though, I’ve been tracking Maggie. I’ve even found a few people who remember her, but they remember her by a different name, because as it turns out, she was married multiple times, and the name she used when she lived here wasn’t the name she published under.

Maggie was a successful writer – in fact, she was living off royalties earned for her book about the Kennedy administration, “A Moment in Camelot”, she being the first to dub those years “Camelot”. While living here, she wrote three thrillers – set in Boston, not here. I’ve tracked down two of them, but never finished either one – they may or may not have been good books back then, but they’re too dated to be very enjoyable now.

But her “Shelanu” is a masterpiece – the word “Shelanu” is Hebrew for ‘ours’.

“’Shelanu’ is more of a concept than a word,” she writes. “It’s the essence of Israel’s life and people, embodying in exact balance all the idiocy and all the glory that came of the original absurd, marvelous, wholly romantic notion that we could start a country of our own. A country that would be ‘ours’.

“There is a family feeling here, not because it’s so small everyone knows everyone else, but because it’s in a family that you see people loving each other the way Israelis love their country –ruefully, impatiently, davka, in despite. Wondering why they don’t take off for somewhere greener or safer or softer. Asking themselves why they put up with these bastards. And all the time, they know why: it’s because they may be bastards, but they’re ‘shelanu’. They’re our bastards.”

You can probably find Maggie’s book on eBay – what’s surprising is how many people have actually read it, although it’s been out of print for decades. Enjoy it. As for me, I’m taking a break – the wind is awesome and I’m feeling cranky.

(Thanks to Bob in Seattle for the idea to blog about the hamsin – I bit his head off this morning, and now I know why.)


  1. Shalom!
    A very inspirational tail. I am sorry the sharav. I hope that the effects lessen as you become more used to the wind.

  2. I'm not sure if you ever really get used to the sharav, TJJ. I've been here for seven years, going on eight, and I still tend to bite people's heads off whenever that hot wind blows. It is the most amazing thing -- when people talk about "a force of nature", the sharav is what comes to my mind.