On the fourteenth of Tammuz, Yochanan decimated a half-wall that separated our living room from the kitchen. It had served as a barrier between the tidy living room and the havoc in the kitchen, grease spattered on the stove and a skillet soaking on the counter, bits of fish floating among the soapsuds. Our children had grown; tidiness ruled. We were ready for a change. The jackhammer sent concrete blocks tumbling to the floor, where they split into jagged fragments. The entire house trembled.
The seventeenth of Tammuz is a Jewish fast day, commemorating the Roman breach of the wall surrounding and protecting Jerusalem. The fast marks the beginning of three weeks of mourning, culminating in a second fast on the ninth of Av. The ninth of Av, the most tragic day in the Jewish calendar, marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Jewish law forbids celebrations during this time. The Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth-century compendium of Jewish law, expressly forbids building or renovating.
Yochanan ignored the date when he brought down the half wall. The tool rental company called him on the thirteenth of Tammuz to inform him that the jackhammer was available. That was enough for him. Yochanan’s enthusiasm for building, for the manly business of handling power tools, led him to ignore the demands of the Jewish calendar. A neighbor asked me why my husband began the renovations just two days before the beginning of the Three Weeks. “Yochanan is a learned, observant Jew. What was he thinking?” I shrugged. In my experience, human behavior rarely rests on logic.
After tearing down the wall and returning the jackhammer, Yochanan appealed to his rabbi. Perhaps he could find a Talmudic loophole that would allow Yochanan to continue with the renovations during the Three Weeks.
“There are two circumstances that would permit you to do work on your house during this time,” the rabbi answered. “First, if there was damage to the house that makes it dangerous to live there, or threatens the integrity of the structure, like a broken water pipe or faulty electric wiring.”
“And the second?” asked Yochanan, sitting on the edge of his chair, hoping for a reprieve.
“If you have already paid the workmen and they already began working.”
Our intended renovations did not meet either of these criteria, and Yochanan was forced to wait for three weeks before continuing his project. The spot where the former barrier had joined the living room wall remained unplastered and unpainted. Many observant Jewish families leave a section of an interior wall in their homes unpainted, in memory of the destruction of the Holy Temple. We had not done so when we moved into this house, eighteen years earlier. Now we had created a memorial to the Temple, almost by accident.
On the ninth of Av, we ate a mourner’s meal of hard-boiled eggs and lentils, removed our leather shoes, and sat on the floor, lamenting the destruction of the Temples and all the tragedies that had ever befallen our people.
On the tenth of Av, Yochanan called a friend who is a general contractor. “Who are the best tile workers you know?” he asked. The friend recommended Abdallah and Tariq, from the nearby Palestinian town of Surif.
Yochanan often hired Arab workers for his building projects in our home. He grew up in Jerusalem, where he heard Arabic spoken. Later, as an Israeli soldier serving in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, he learned to speak Arabic, and could even identify the speaker’s dialect.
“He’s a Bedouin. I can tell from his accent,” Yochanan told me as a young man pumped gas into our car.
“They’re Lebanese,” he whispered, as a young couple, lugging suitcase, chattered their way down the aisle of a train travelling between Acco and Tel Aviv.
Yochanan’s readiness to hire Arab workers was more than an opportunity to practice Arabic, however. For Yochanan, it offered the opportunity for contact with people who lived on the other side of the barriers, not in the artificial atmosphere of organized dialogue, but in the real world of men creating something with tools.
The Three Weeks ended, but Muslims were in the midst of Ramadan. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, commemorates the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad. During this month, healthy adults fast from sunrise to sunset, and enjoy bountiful banquets at nighttime. The Muslim calendar, unlike the Hebrew one, does not contain a mechanism to anchor the lunar months to a particular season. Some years Ramadan falls in the winter, when days are short and cool and nights long, making the fast a relatively easy endeavor. During the summer of 2013, Ramadan ran parallel to the Hebrew month of Av, at the zenith of the hot Middle Eastern summer.
Hospitality in our home extends to workmen. Usually Yochanan fusses over them, plying them with cigarettes, cups of strong Turkish coffee served in small glasses and plates of cookies, or cold drinks offered with trays of fruit. If they labor in our house for a full day, workmen sit down to a hot meal.
Once Yochanan came home with two Chinese workers who had gone AWOL from a major construction project. Between the two of them, they knew a handful of words in Arabic, fewer in Hebrew, and none in English. Yochanan managed to describe the patio he hired them to build in the backyard. They set to work, industrious and exacting. Shortly before lunchtime, Yochanan put together a meal of stir-fried chicken, vegetables and rice. He even found two sets of chopsticks. The two Chinese men sat down at our table, and wordlessly finished their meal.
Now, during Ramadan, Yochanan could offer nothing to Tariq and Abdallah, our Palestinian workers. Despite the sweltering heat, which reached forty degrees Celsius, they were forbidden the relief of food and drink and the pleasure of a cigarette. They could not even wet their lips with a sip of water until nightfall.
Abdallah and Tariq worked on their knees, their foreheads almost touching the floor, as if in prayer. They cut the large grey tiles with a sharp disc, working with care, fitting the tiles around kitchen cabinets and attaching panels to the base of the walls. In the bathroom, they cut the tiles to fit around the base of the toilet and the drain. “You should watch them,” Yochanan said to me, “It’s a real art. Look how all the pieces fit exactly in place.” Tariq nodded his head. He had heard Yochanan’s words over the noise of the disc.
The house filled with dust. Grit clogged my nose and throat. Plastic sheeting covered everything: the tables, bookshelves and sofas. Chaos reigned, but the new floor shone through it all.
Yochanan and I chose these tiles because they would be easy to clean and not show dirt, yet still reflect the light. Now, as Abdallah and Tariq advanced from the kitchen into the living room, the floor took on the blue-gray hues of the Dead Sea.
Once they had completed the interior of the house, the men moved outdoors, to the paved courtyard that connects our house to the street. Here, no roof protected them from the burning sun. Yochanan dragged out the tarp that we used as a wall in our sukkah, and threw it over the pergola. This jerry-rigged sukkah provided a little shade for the fasting men. They sweated in the sweltering Middle East summer and continued working, cutting tiles and laying them in the courtyard of our house.
The men could not accept food or drink from Yochanan, but they could accept a ride home at the end of a workday. Surif lies about halfway between our home in Beit Shemesh and the Etzion bloc of settlements in the West Bank. Our married daughter lives with her family in the Etzion bloc. Yochanan and I decided we would drop Abdallah and Tariq at the entrance of Surif and then visit our daughter. The brief journey took us up through the Judean Hills until we reached the barrier that separates Israel from the Palestinian Authority. Fifty cars were parked on the Palestinian side of the crossing.
“I have a car,” the usually taciturn Abdallah told us, “but I don’t have a permit to bring it into Israel. Sometimes I park it over there.” He glanced at the double row of cars parked next to the roadblock. He continued, telling us that he had built his own house and a second one for his son. As we drew closer to Surif, Abdallah told us a story. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008, a Kassam rocket fired by Palestinians in Gaza landed in Surif. Fortunately, it fell in an open field and there was no damage to life or property. He wondered if the Hamas in Gaza knew that their missiles landed in Palestinian villages and laughed. Yochanan laughed also, an awkward laugh. His conversations with Tariq and Abdallah, or other Arab workmen, centered around building. Sometimes they bragged to one another about their children’s accomplishments, or discussed the best method of curing olives. What good could from talking about politics, about the wars? Why talk about Surif? Why reinforce the barriers?
On the mornings that Abdallah and Tariq came to work for us in Beit Shemesh, they passed through this roadblock. Soldiers examined their papers, perhaps patted them down. Their cars remained on the Palestinian side of the barrier because it was too difficult to ensure that cars did not contain explosives or weapons. Once on the Israeli side, vans driven by Israeli Arabs picked up the workers and ferried them to Beit Shemesh. They arrived at our house, and with diligence and expertise, built a new floor.
Yochanan and I could not enter Surif. Red signs in Hebrew and English warned Israelis that they faced the danger of death by entering a Palestinian settlement. Yochanan stopped the car and let Tariq and Abdallah out at the entrance of the town. They thanked us for the ride and walked down a dirt path towards Surif. We continued to Etzion bloc.
Tariq and Abdallah returned the next day and finished paving the courtyard. It was the third week of Ramadan and they had finished their work. Yochanan paid them and they said goodbye.
A few days later, we scrubbed down the courtyard, which was full of dust and tiny pieces of discarded tile. When we finished cleaning, we discovered a nasty little puddle in one corner. Tariq and Abdallah and laid the tiles improperly, and the water drained into this corner instead of draining towards the street.
“Damn it,” Yochanan fumed, “I should have held back some of their pay until I checked everything out. If this is what happens when we wash the courtyard, what will it look like after a rain?” Then he muttered, “I should never have hired people from Surif.”
Surif, once a village, and now a city of some twenty thousand, has an ugly history with the people of Israel. The most infamous of these stories took place in 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence.
The Etzion bloc of settlements was first built in the nineteen forties, before the establishment of the State of Israel. During the War of Independence, the Arab League blockaded these settlements, leaving them without food, water or ammunition. A group of thirty-five Haganah soldiers set out from Beit Shemesh, carrying supplies for the residents of the bloc. They made their way up the Judean Hills, just as we had done a few days earlier in our car. When they reached Surif, the villagers fell upon the Haganah soldiers and murdered all thirty-five. Then they desecrated their bodies so badly they could not be identified. On May 13, 1948, the day before Israel declared independence, the Etzion bloc fell. Many of the residents were murdered and others taken prisoner to Jordan.
In 1996, forty-eight years after the massacre at Surif, an Israeli soldier named Sharon Edri stood outside the Tzrifin Hospital, hoping to hitch a ride back to his home Moshav Zanoach, adjacent to Beit Shemesh. He never arrived. Seven months later, his corpse was found near Surif, the victim of a kidnapping and murder by Hamad terrorists from Surif.
Kay Wilson, an Israeli tour guide, went hiking in the Judean Hills with her friend Kristine Luken on December 18, 2010. Not far from Beit Shemesh, two men attacked the women, tied them up and stabbed them. Kristine was murdered, and Kay left for dead. Despite numerous serious wounds, she managed to make her way to a car park and call for help. The murderers came from the infamous Surif.
Yochanan called Tariq several times, but he did not answer. One afternoon, about two weeks later, Abdallah and Tariq showed up unannounced.
Ramadan and Av had ended with the sighting of the new moon. Jews entered the month of Elul. During Elul, Yochanan wakes at four-thirty every morning to attend Slichot services in his synagogue. Elul is a month of forgiveness.
“I had a few calls from you,” Tariq said to Yochanan. “Is there a problem?”
Yochanan poured a bucket of water in the courtyard and showed him where the puddle formed.
“That’s no problem to fix,” said Abdallah.
Tariq and Abdallah removed four tiles, made minute measures with the level, and then replaced the tiles. It took them about an hour and a half.
“Ramadan’s over, right?” Yochanan asked the two men, knowing perfectly well that it was over and that Muslims had entered the month of Shawwal. He carried a tray with plates of nuts, fruits and cookies and three tiny cups of Turkish coffee out to the courtyard and sat with Abdallah and Tariq. The three men each took a sip of coffee. Then Abdallah removed a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, tapped the bottom, and withdrew three cigarettes. He gave one to Tariq, took a second for himself and after lighting the third, extended his hand and offered a cigarette to Yochanan. Yochanan had given up smoking decades ago. He accepted.
Janet Gool grew up in Maryland but has lived her entire adult life in Israel. She and her husband Yochanan live in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh, where they brought up their three children and now entertain grandchildren. For more than three decades, she worked as a psychiatric nurse, caring for Israelis from every possible ethnic and religious background, as well as the occasional tourist with Jerusalem Syndrome. She writes, “I've written since I was a little girl. About eight years ago I began studying creative writing with Judy Labenshon, primarily as a means of combating the burnout from my work. I have nothing to contribute to the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After forty years of living in the midst of it, I understand it less and less. But I wrote “Floors of Foundation” because it's important that people realize how nuanced this business is, how intertwined the lives of Jews and Arabs are, and how all of us go about living our lives here.”