Thursday, June 23, 2005

Queen Jeneane

Queen Jeneane was sitting on the newly constructed deck to her beach house barking directions to her son who was puttering about down on the sand.

“Move it over there,” she called out. “A little to the right. No, bring it back a bit. Yes, there, that’s it”

Her son, a burly shipputznik-looking kind of guy, was lugging what looked at first to be a large red porta-potty, trying to find a suitable place to settle it into the blowing sand that stretches for miles on this mostly pristine beach.

When she saw us, Queen Jeneane immediately broke into an ear-to-ear welcoming grin. “Come, sit down please,” she beckoned.

As we approached, her appearance was incongruous to say the least. She was wearing a frumpy flowered house dress (or maybe it was a night gown). Her face was so tanned and cracked from age it looked as if chunks were doing to fall off at any moment. An aging beach bum, she was. Yet her hair was tightly bound up in the head covering of a very religious woman.

And her home...she had taken what started as an ugly stucco pre-fab, not much more than a mobile caravan plunked down within a stone’s throw of the water, and renovated it to hold its own with the best of beach houses around.

Two small bedrooms, a clean white kitchen and a living room that opened like a giant picture window onto the deck facing the beach. A lovely red pergola, the paint only recently dried, covered the comfortable lawn furniture where Queen Jeneane hastened to serve us ice tea and Mandelbrot punctuated with fruit and nuts.

As we soaked up the sun and hospitality, we could have been at any beach town in the world. But we weren’t. This was Shirat HaYam, literally “Song of the Sea” (taken from the book of Exodus), a tiny outpost in Gush Katif, the area in the Gaza Strip slated for disengagement in less than two months from now.

Shirat HaYam was established four and a half years ago following a terror attack on a school bus near Neve Dekalim in the Gush that had claimed the lives of two Israeli adults and left several children paraplegic. 16 families live in a row of converted quarters formerly used by the Egyptian army.

What was I doing in Gaza, let alone in one of the most controversial Jewish communities in the entire Strip?

It started earlier in the week when my new reporter friend from the San Francisco Chronicle invited me to join him on a day of interviews he’d arranged. We were going to meet “normal” people he said - just like me - who happened to be living in a location even more in the news these days than my humble Jerusalem. We’d be accompanied by a photographer and translator. All that sounded good to me.

There was more to it than that, though. It had long struck me as odd that for all the time I’ve spent thinking and talking about this summer’s disengagement from Gaza, trying to formulate an opinion...I had never actually been to the place.

I did a quick poll of friends in synagogue over the weekend. Not a single person I asked had ever set foot inside Gush Katif, the main settlement block of the Gaza Strip. My survey, though far from scientific, included both relatively new immigrants like myself and native born Israelis.

So when the opportunity arose for a quick apolitical visit not under the auspices of an organization with an overt agenda like, how could I say no?

The visit itself was filled with contradictory images.

We saw lovely near-palatial homes with large lawns which sat only a few blocks from dilapidated buildings that looked like they’d been abandoned long ago...or perhaps they’d never been lived in at all.

We met adamant ideologues who were clearly going nowhere, no matter what the government said, and pragmatists who were ready to leave but with a heavy heart.

One woman told us how the boys of her community would fight the disengagement by heading into the local synagogue, donning their tallitot, and taking the Torah out of the ark to read. How could soldiers forcibly remove Jews from a synagogue holding a Torah, she asked?

We saw the famed Gush Katif hothouses that grow much of Israel’s produce, clean well-tended playgrounds, and lots and lots of sand – yes, the communities here really are built in the dunes.

Back at Shirat HaYam, Queen Jeneane was holding court. She explained how she was here alone; her husband is still manning the farm they own in the Golan Heights.

“We came to show our support,” she said and motioned for a young girl in her late teens, maybe early twenties to join us. “She arrived just last week from the Old City of Jerusalem.” There were many others like her from around the country throughout the Gush, she said cheerfully.

What about the disengagement? Why was she investing money, now of all times, into fixing up a place she knew she’d just have to leave very shortly?

Queen Jeneane motioned to the heavens and held up her palms. I wasn’t sure whether to take that as a symbol of faith...or an expression saying “don’t bother me with the details, kid, I’m busy building.”

Nor could I say definitively that this was indicative of the opinions of the rest of the community...or just one woman’s approach. Ever animated, it was hard to imagine Queen Jeneane being described as one of the “normal” residents we had ostensibly set out to meet.

Eventually it was time to go. We still had another meeting before making the two-hour trip back to Jerusalem. And I wasn’t keen on being out in Gaza after nightfall.

My reporter friend had one last question. It was one he’d repeated over the course of our long day.

“How can you justify staying here?” he asked gesturing towards the sprawling Palestinian town on the other side of the chain link fence that was built to protect Shirat HaYam. The intonation in his voice made clear that he was referring less to the issue of security than that of democracy and demographics.

Queen Jeneane chuckled. “What we need here is a kingdom. Like in the old days. A Kingdom of Israel.”

We all looked at each other. Was she cooking up a plan to become Israel’s first Empress of the Sea, I wondered?

“Oh no,” Queen Jeneane said with a twinkle in her eye. “But I know a lot of nice boys who’d love to be king!”

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