Flying on El Al is perfectly safe because they put people like me through the fucking ringer. I enjoy these interrogations because I have absolutely nothing to hide and because it’s so fun to watch these sexy young Israelis drill down rapid-fire trying to catch me in a lie or inconsistency. Sometimes they pursue details with such relish that they forget what they’d originally asked me; I oblige them with a gentle reminder. It’s like playing a high-stakes, highly caffeinated game of Chinese ping-pong knowing I’ll win despite any skill but frankness. Even after I’d passed this game of 20,000 questions, I was treated like a celebrity criminal, with a personal escort everywhere from security to the toilet to the front of the long line of passengers waiting to get on the plane.
I was seated directly behind a woman with two children and a screaming infant, and next to her father. I figured this would be like boot-camp preparation for my week with my sister and her five kids, but in fact it was mostly pleasant. Call me shallow but this little girl was so beautiful I couldn't resent her even when she was kicking and clawing at me. Pharmaceutical aides didn’t hurt.
The journey from shiny new Ben Gurion to Tsfat was a little confusing and didn't go according to plan and wound up costing me about $45 more than it should have, but I got here in one piece and found the place and as soon as I saw Tsofia's glorious smiling face greeting me in their courtyard all the irritation became a distant memory. We had a wonderful first day--they're all angels. Angels! Mamma arrived in a bit of a dark cloud, irritated that Chava and Yoseph hadn’t arranged a car for her at the airport, guilt-tripping me about wanting to go to the desert a week from now. In addition to being a harmonium pack-mule and a jungle gym for the kids that first day, I was a Merry Maid--I washed dishes and cleaned the stove for about 90 minutes, until sweat was dripping from my brow. I had to break every so often to apply Skintastic—I would say that without the slightest exaggeration there were about 25 million mosquitoes in my sister’s house. My first order of business when I arrived was putting up my mosquito nettinng and my first order of business when Mom arrived was putting up hers. Israeli mosquitoes are far too smart for such devices—they find their way right in. If I leave Israel without malaria and West Nile, I will praise G-d.
I love Tsfat, because it is one of the few places I know (San Francisco is another) that is equally charming and spectacular. The cobblestone streets and white stone archways and passageways through which stroll Black Hats and shawls here, and there, past the cemetery where important Kabbalists lie (and where, it occurred to me as I walked through it, my sister will one day lie) and across the valley, the imposing monument of the Meron mountains. Also, because it is so high, Tsfat is comparatively cool in the summer—you’d never know you were in a Middle East summer. What I love most about Tsfat are my five nieces and nephews, growing up without television or Internet, speaking accented English at home and Hebrew at school, wandering around their charming stone hilltop town in a state of rare innocence with that odd blot on it, that a year ago they all fled to Jerusalem as shells blew out their windows and demolished half of the house across the street.
Rockets landed some miles north of us on Sunday, causing some damage but seriously injuring nobody in Kiryat Shemona. Hezbollah disclaimed responsibility and Israel didn’t retaliate. I’ve dreamed of nuclear bombs going off on the other side of the mountain, of little boys throwing rockets that lodge in the dirt before me. Here at the resort on the other side of the lake from Tiberias, we heard explosions booming over the water and my sister spent a day in PTSD hell, but it turned out to be IDF exercises. A convoy of Jeeps pulled up in front of the resort and for a horrible moment my guts went cold as I imagined militiamen jumping out and massacring my family. But instead it was dozens of middle-aged Orthodox women with their suitcases and strollers and turbans. There are more turbans per square foot in this resort than a meeting of OPEC ministers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The last day in Tsfat was the weirdest. I woke up the previous day at 4 a.m. with mosquitoes in my netting and walked to the cemetery, following its paths all the way down the hill to the floor of the valley. I got back to the house in time to walk the girls to their bus stop for school, then spent the day with the boys and the baby and Mom and Chava. I did some shopping in the afternoon, then got lost in the artist quarter and found the utterly enchanted narrow pedestrian streets and archways and tunnels that I remembered from my first visit here. When I got back to the house, Tirtza had prepared an elaborate guilt trip for my having been away for so long, but the kids were soon too distracted by their presents for her to pursue it.
After the kids were in bed and night had fallen, my sister commenced the screening she'd long planned of my movie, in the courtyard. Two people came in addition to Mom and Yosef, which made it a fuller house than at the second Denmark screening, at least. The guests were Daniel, the other gay guy in Tsfat, and his pregnant sister. I absented myself from the screening after I had a reality check with myself about how little I cared to sit there monitoring how each clip played with this particular audience, and took someone else’s novel to a tiny square at the hairpin turn of my sister's street. I sat on a bench under a street lamp and tried to read, but was soon approached by a young religious guy making anodyne inquiries and then asking if I were Jewish. I was as polite as one can be in monosyllables and as dishonest, because he was only there to proselytize, and about three minutes after he left a nasty old man came over spitting incoherent English and--this was so abrupt and shocking I'm not exactly sure how to phrase it--laid both hands on me and basically scooped me up off the bench. He was so repulsive, Ancient Mariner as late-stage syphilitic, that I moved as quickly as I could away from him and walked down the street and sat on a step to read, but the incident lingered with me and I had a not insubstantial dispute with myself over what the confrontation meant and how I should have handled it. When I put the two encounters together and became convinced I'd been evicted from a town square for having claimed to be gentile--something I've never done in my life--I felt that I should have stood my ground, which probably would have meant shoving the old man into the street. How is it that I could be so pliant about being physically removed from a park bench? Then I reflected that what the region needs is probably not more violence, and further that the violence endemic to this place is somewhat less mysterious to me after the encounter just described.
When I got back to the house, the movie was just finishing. Q&A was brief and surprisingly technical--how did you light it?--and I found myself refreshingly disengaged from the question of whether or not people had liked the movie and was content to let the conversation die a quick and natural death. When I get to that point with the novel, I'll know I'm ready to send it out into the world.
- Paul Festa’s first film, Apparition of the Eternal Church (2006, 51 min), captures the responses of 31 artists to the apocalyptic music of Olivier Messiaen (with Justin Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Harold Bloom; screenings: Grace Cathedral, Barbican Centre, Library of Congress; “Remarkable”—The New Yorker; “Stunning”—Chicago Sun-Times; “Sublime”—Globe & Mail; numerous awards). Festa performs the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, opposite members of the San Francisco Ballet and The Cockettes, in his award-winning second film, The Glitter Emergency (2010, 20 min), a silent-film drag ballet comedy (“Enormous visual and musical inventiveness…full of pleasure and joy...Festa gives a bravura performance."—Film Threat). He produced, wrote and edited, with director Austin Forbord, and was chief archivist, for the Emmy-nominated documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco (2010, 80 min: with Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, Peter Coyote; screenings: Geary Theater, KQED; “Intriguing...entertaining...a valuable record”—Variety). Performances as violinist and actor: ODC Theater, Center for Performance Research, Kunst-Stoff, TheatreFIRST, North Bay Shakespeare, Albert Fuller's Helicon Ensemble (Merkin Hall, Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall). US, Boston, NYC, SF, LA and DC (Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on the “Betts” Stradivarius) premieres of Messiaen’s Fantaisie for violin and piano. He is the author of OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, based on Apparition of the Eternal Church, and several anthologized essays, and has written for The Daily Beast, Salon, Nerve, and The New York Times Book Review. Current projects include a novel and Tie It Into My Hand (2014, ca. 80 min), a documentary feature that has screened as a work in progress at the Cannes film market and at ODC Theater in San Francisco (with Alan Cumming, Gary Graffman, Peter Coyote, Mink Stole, Robert Pinsky; "A fascinating exploration of the artistic life, as rollickingly entertaining as it is insightful and stirring."—San Francisco Bay Guardian). Education: Yale (B.A.; prizes, honors, distinction), Juilliard (Cert., Adv. Cert., scholarships). Residencies: Yaddo, MacDowell, ODC Theater, Centre des Récollets.
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